Tag Archives: Live show

Paul Shaffer – We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.

schafferPaul Shaffer is a fascinating guy. At once both nerdy and cool, he has lived a musician’s dream, playing continually and successfully, backing up everyone who is anyone, and spending what seems like every waking moment immersed in music.

His autobiography, We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives, is a fabulous romp through thirty or more years of his life, from his time as a young man growing up in Thunder Bay, where his lawyer father looked past his obvious talent on the family piano at Bar Mitzvahs and expected him to pursue a career in law, up to his long-time gig as musical director of David Letterman’s show, and beyond.

The audiobook is even better than the book itself, because Paul himself narrates it. His tone of voice carries with it a certain tone of disbelief, as if he can’t actually believe all of this is happening to him.

He describes coming to Toronto for the first time, as a student at U of T, finding work as a piano player for a local strip club, before hooking up with the cast of GodSpell that gave birth to the cast of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and many other comedy legends.

He is the living embodiment of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” since every job he got seemed to lead to another bigger, better one.

He was the musical director for SNL; he was in Spinal Tap; he was almost an original Blues Brother (Belushi dropped him in a jealous snit for his collaborations with Gilda Radner), he busked with Miles Davis and David Foster in Scrooged, and of course, he penned “It’s Raining Men.”

His biography is a great adventure story in rock music history, a definite good read. Another great Canadian delivering great entertainment.

The Shaffer Move

Paul Shaffer leading the band.

As a performing musician myself, I always admired the way Paul pulled the Letterman Show band together for nice tight endings. Even though every member of the band was already a hotter-than-hot session player, it’s still a challenge to prepare and play tunes for each individual show. A half day’s rehearsal is not much to go on.

Watching them cruise effortlessly through tunes that could jam on much longer than the commercial breaks allowed, Paul would always pull the band towards a conclusion by raising his arm.

Now I know he is not the only band leader in history to ever do this, in fact I’m sure they all do. But the way he did it, night after night with such cool authority made it easy for me to refer to it as the Shaffer Move, when explaining it to the bands I work with.

Shaffer at Sea

Paul and the KTBA band. Such a fabulous jam!

I am always happy and proud to see Paul appearing with other music legends. He’s the go-to guy who never tries to put the spotlight on himself, but puts it on the music instead. Case in point: here’s a great video of a Paul Shaffer Super Jam – a 2019 cruise ship gig called Keep the Blues Alive, featuring Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Samantha Fish, Jimmy Hall, Walter Trout, Anton Fig and many more. It’s a fabulous jam, and Paul pulls it all together.

Another great Canadian music success story. Paul Shaffer, ladies and gentlemen!

 

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The Curious World of In-Ear Monitors

Stevie Wonder was one of the very first developers/users of IEMs. Photo Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

My band is taking the plunge into using in-ear monitors (IEMs) and without a doubt, the plunge metaphor is apt. It’s like teaching kids to swim. IEMs are both loved and less-than-loved by performing musicians. On the plus side, they can deliver a perfectly balanced sound mix, tailored to each player, while removing floor wedges and the ever-present threat of feedback. They also provide excellent hearing protection. On the minus side, they remove the three-dimensional feel that you get from walking around the amps on stage. Some performers say they lose the direct connection to the audience. Hence the swimming metaphor. For many musicians, the experience is like trying to hear underwater. It’s alien and isolating.

I Can’t Hear You

This is one of the most common complaints I hear from musicians not wearing IEMs in a rehearsal or live situation. It can be extremely difficult to focus in on different soundstreams from different amps and speakers, since sound tends to travel in straight lines. It can be doubly difficult when rehearsing or playing in a small space with hard walls, since sound also tends to reflect off those walls creating intersecting straight lines.

It’s a wonder anything gets done at all. And the reason why it does, more often than not, is everyone inches their volume outputs up, progressively over time, resulting in a huge wash of sound leading to temporary or even permanent hearing loss.

IEMs put an end to this by delivering a mix directly into your ears. With a decent mixer/soundboard, and all  instruments mic’d or DI’d, there is no longer a need to play amps loud. Singers do not have to strain to make themselves heard. Lead guitarists do not have to boost their volume for the solo and then…er….forget to turn back down again.

Don’t Forget the Ambience

To remove that feeling of isolation from the physical space around you, simply include a couple of ambient mics in the mix. These will pick up some of the room sound, including audience comments, and will add that sense of three dimensional space. This is just like adding reverb to a guitar signal. The human ear is accustomed to processing secondary audio signals such as room echo. It’s the normal way of hearing. So of course it’s vital to mix that in.

Make Sure They’re Comfortable and Correct

Me rehearsing with IEMs in.

IEMs are specially shaped to fit in the average person’s ear, and should also include a soft rubber cap that seals off the ear canal from external noise. You cannot – or should not – use earbud style headphones, because they do not seal out the external sound.

They should also be physically easy to wear and should stay in place. The wires should go around the back of your head and down the back of your shirt to avoid getting snagged on guitar straps or clothing. If you generally stand still to play, then the wire should basically run all the way back to the mixing board. If you like to move like Jagger, then you’ll definitely need a wireless pack. These can be expensive ($600-$1000), but if you’re not gigging every second night, consider renting one from your local music store.

The App: The Magic Touch

Another complaint musicians have about IEMs is the time it takes to get a personal mix from the sound tech. The tech has lots to do, and setting up individual balances for every musician, along with the house sound, recording and everything else can be time consuming and frustrating for everyone involved. Double so each time you want to tweak your personal mix because it’s not quite right.

This is the QSC Touchmix app. This stock photo does not show it, but each can can be labeled.

But hey, there’s an app for that. Many newer boards now come with a phone/iPad app that allows each musician the freedom to adjust her/his IEM balance as much and as often as needed. This to me is the magic sauce that makes it all so worth it. All the faders are labeled, and the settings will stay in place even when you turn off, pack up, and then set up for the next gig.

If You’re Pushing Back an Ear, Your Mix is Off

IEMs still take some getting used to. They are a different experience. But you can say the same thing about a lot of things. Multi-effects pedals in place of stompboxes, voice sweeteners and harmonizers, loopers, MIDI, shooting your performance with Periscope. These are all new things that once didn’t exist, and now they do. Once upon a time Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric. The Beatles got weirdy-beardy. Lady Gaga stopped showing up in an egg. Things change and most often for the better.

When I see someone who is new to the IEM experience playing with one earpiece hanging out so they can hear their own amp or voice better, I have to tell them, “Your mix isn’t right. You shouldn’t need to do that.” That’s like getting a car, putting it in gear, and then getting out and walking alongside it, because it’s the only way you can really feel the road. If you can’t hear yourself in your mix, then fix your mix. Don’t forget also that using IEMs in only one ear risks hearing damage as your brain starts sending its own confused signals as it tries to balance out a very uneven sound pattern.

The Proof is in Who Uses Them

My band is still getting used to them. Half the band (myself included) love them and want to stick with them. The other half still needs convincing. Ultimately I will ask any hesitant musician to take a look at their musical heroes. The odds are they are using them. Why? They have access to anything they need, yet they still choose to perform with IEMs. Though most of us don’t travel with a 6-person sound crew, the wireless, digital sophistication of soundboards and apps make IEMs accessible to all of us, which, I believe, benefits performers and audiences alike.

P.S. If you want to read a more detailed summary about IEMs, check out this article from Sound On Sound.

 

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The Physical Aspect of Rehearsal: Recognition versus Recall

This is my pedalboard. It’s not that complicated, but it’s complicated enough for me.

Fellow band members often ask me why I lug my pedal board and guitars to each band rehearsal. After all we’re just going through the tunes – we’re not playing a show. My answer is that rehearsal is not just about knowing a tune. It is also about knowing how to play it, and playing it demands full body muscle memory. More than once when playing live I have hit the wrong pedal and ended up with a fuzz tone when I meant for clean. Or I have mistimed my return to the mic for that next harmony.

Musicians of any age and stage must remember there are levels to the practice regimen. First, there’s practicing at home. Next, there’s rehearsing with a band. Then there’s actually playing a show. Then there’s playing a bigger show. Then there’s playing a big show with many other acts.

Every one of these demands something more and teaches you as much as it pulls from you. Here are just a few examples:

The Difference Between Recognition and Recall

If you have ever studied a second language, have you noticed it is easier to understand someone speak it than it is to speak it yourself, even if you’ve taken years of language classes? That’s because when you hear someone, your brain recognizes the sounds it has heard before and can deduce meaning from them. But when you try to speak it, you have to reach back into the vaults and pull words out manually. That’s an act of recall and it’s much harder.

The same thing applies when learning a tune. You play along with a song on Spotify no problem. It seems easy to learn because your mind is being cued along, even in microseconds. “Here’s where verse 2 starts.” “Here are the words to verse 3.” “Here’s the bridge.” It’s all there. Even a tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, you will likely be able to sing along with because the playback cues your memory and you recognize the pattern of words and notes in something just approaching real time.

You take that song to your rehearsal space and start practicing it with your people, and it’s easy to forget everything. I call it bandnesia. The total lostness of the song. “Wait,” you say, “is the solo after the second verse or the third one?” “How many times do we repeat that line?” You get frustrated, knowing you’ve practiced this tunes dozens of times with your headphones on. But the problem is, you’ve practiced recognizing it all those times. Now, with your bandmates, you now have to recall that tune, and so do your fellow musicians. And you must all recall it the same way. That’s what rehearsal is.

Then you get onstage. This is a different world. There’s the excitement of the crowd. There’s adrenalin rushing through your system. There are the distractions of lights, bigger sound, and the sheer awareness of being looked at. That’s a wonderful sensation, but it can really mess with your memory. I have seen musicians completely forget what note or fret to start a tune on when they’re up there under the lights. Total blank. It happens, and it’s nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be aware of. Maybe write out the starting chord on your floor sheet, for example.

Each of these levels – practicing at home, practicing with the band, playing on stage, is 10 or even a 100 times more challenging than its predecessor. There are things that rehearsals just cannot prepare you for.

Muscle Memory is Different Than Mental Memory

That’s why I bring my full gear to rehearsal. Every single action, like hitting the right pedal, tuning up between songs, knowing that mysterious place in the universe that picks vanish into and most importantly, being fully aware of your physical self – how you move, how you smile, how you connect with your bandmates and your audience, how to smoothly switch guitars or change up settings – how to look up at the audience even during the difficult solos – all of these need to be memorized just as much as the words and the notes.

It’s a hassle bringing all that gear to rehearsal and spending valuable time setting it up and taking it down. But you watch a great live show and you can see just how well planned and practices every move, every line of banter, every spontaneous huddle and chat between the guitarist and the bass player in the middle of a song. And most importantly, the sharp start and impressive end to each tune.

If You Want to Be Spontaneous in Life, Plan to Be Spontaneous

Keith spits out his cig under a perfect keylight in Scorcese’s shine a light. He always knows what he looks like. See it on YouTube here.

Yes it’s a joke, but it’s not. Even Keith Richards, the loosest, shaggiest guitarist of all time, knows exactly where the best camera angles are, he knows how to coordinate his layered clothing style and how to sling that guitar really low. Spontaneous does not mean unrehearsed. It means it appears spontaneous to the audience, and that requires practice. It’s theater. Even Kurt Cobain did it. It just didn’t look like he did. Which is the whole point.

One can never over-rehearse, in my opinion, because the wild unpredictability of live performance will always deliver new challenges. But I have worked with many musicians who say, “We got this tune, let’s move on,” to which I always reply, “No you don’t.” Let’s do it again.

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Forming a Band? – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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Using the BOSS Katana 50 in a Live Setting

The BOSS Katana-50

I picked up a BOSS Katana 50 back in the spring of 2018 and I’m pretty impressed. I have always enjoyed using BOSS pedals, even though I use a variety of other brands, there has always been something really reliable and tough about BOSS products.

There are dozens of YouTube videos out there that will show you what the Katana 50 looks like, so I’ll talk here about a couple of things I have not seen mentioned much: that’s using multiple effects in a live setting. In other words, the power of the LiveSet.

When I first started using the Katana I was pleased to see that the amp came loaded with something like 55 BOSS effects, including a whole range of analog and digital delay effects, distortions, flangers, everything. I have always loved the sound of the Blues Driver, and just having that on board made the experience worth it. I used to play a blues driver through a Fender amp until it all got stolen, so it was a double bonus to realize I would not have to buy all my favorite pedals again.

The Panel Buttons Are Too Much Work

Before getting into what I love about the Katana, I will say that the function buttons and the little flashing LEDs are rather annoying. I find it hard enough to figure out the banks and channels from the comfort of my studio – I could not possibly picture leaning over the back of the amp in a live setting trying to remember which bank had the phaser and which one was clean.

I say this not as a complaint aimed at BOSS, but to offer some relief to anyone else who might feel frustrated, and who worried they’re probably not getting everything that the amp can deliver. There’s not a lot of space on the top of an amp, so it wouldn’t be practical to have an LED display there….or would it? Regardless, I am never going to be able to remember that a flashing button means Bank 2 or whatever.

So I figured just twiddling the knob between amp styles (acoustic, clean, crunch, lead, and brown) was going to be my solution. But that, too, would get a little style-cramping up on stage.

Tone Studio Sets You Free

The BOSS Tone Studio onscreen interface.

Then I discovered the BOSS Tone Studio app. It’s a control panel that lives on your PC and talks in real time to the amp via a USB cable. I found it much easier to experiment with effects, including tweaking their parameters in myriad ways, by using the PC interface. So after reading the instructions and understanding that I would have four active sound settings to work with, I started to set up my four sounds. To clarify, I use the term “sounds” to represent a combination of effects. For example, the Blues Driver pedal with some reverb and a little digital delay represents one sound. BOSS calls it channels or banks or something. I have always been more interested in playing music than twiddling knobs, so this venture into gearheaddery tests the limits of my patience. So I was happy living with four sounds:

  1. The Blues Driver
  2. Clean
  3. A terrific slapback analog echo sound for my Gretsch/Stray Cats stuff
  4. A chorus/flanged sound for the 80’s stuff.

I know nobody cares what sounds I prefer. The point is, I thought I had to settle for four, until I discovered the Liveset.

Playing Live With Livesets

Me playing an outdoor gig, June, 2018. The Katana-50 is hiding behind my guitars. The PC is hiding behind the amp.

Livesets are collections of saved sounds. For example, I could (and did) save the four sounds mentioned above as a liveset. This means if I have other sounds that I want to use, like an acoustic guitar simulation, or a wah effect, I can save them as other sounds in another liveset and load that liveset up when I need

So here’s the cool thing. At first I figured the liveset thing was something you did at home, loading up the amp before rehearsal. But then it dawned on me that that’s what the liveset were for: saved banks of sound files that could be loaded up between sets. I know that’s obvious in retrospect, but sometimes people have to discover these things in their own time.

For me, the conceptual gap was bringing a PC up on stage. I was never big on MIDI, so it never occurred to me to have the PC sitting quietly behind the amp, where I could go and apply a new liveset during a break.

This is where you can say, “Well duh!” that’s what livesets are: “live sets!” But the point is, every YouTube video I consulted about the Katana 50 shows someone wailing away in their bedroom or studio, showing off all the cool sounds a Katana can make, or even just unboxing it. I have yet to find a YouTube video that discusses how to really make use of it onstage.

You’re still restricted to four sounds, so if your set contains a lot of different-sounding guitars, you might find you’ll need to switch livesets between tunes. But really it’s just a matter of going back to the PC and dragging and dropping. It just takes a few seconds.

The BOSS FS-6 footswitch

I use a BOSS FS-6 pedal to switch between the four sounds. To help me remember, I mark the pedal options (A, B, A+B and OFF) on my set list, and I always keep OFF as the clean sound and A as the Blues Driver sound. B and A+B are reserved for whatever special guitar sounds I would need for that set.

So that’s it really.

As I said, there are a lots of videos that talk about the the Katana-50 amp, and it really is a nice amplifier with a lot of guts and heart, but it’s like videos that talk about cars from inside a showroom. If you’re a gigging musician, all these extra devices, including a PC have to stand up to the rigors and the space and timing restrictions of the live stage.

Gotta say though, it was a delight to find out my PC and Katana are up to the task. They’re joined at the hip now (well, a USB actually), but they work so well together I might actually name them R2 and 3PO.

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Discovering the Amazing Portable Universe of the iRig and Amplitube

This image belongs to the Men In Black people. I’m just borrowing it to make a point.

There is a scene at the very end of Men In Black II where J and K open an exit door to reveal an entire universe that earthlings know nothing about. It’s more than just a door. It’s a portal. And I know it’s just a movie and this might sound like a stretch, but that’s kind of how I felt when I brought home an iRig and its Amplitube iPhone app.

When my last teeny tiny mini practice amp (a VOX headphone amp) got broken, I wandered down to the local music store to get a new one. Before shelling out the required $60 Canadian for a replacement, I had a quick look around to see what else was there, and that’s how I came across the iRig. It was on sale for $49.95 so it became immediately more attractive. I assumed it was an Apple product because of its name, but it isn’t. I also assumed it would be just another pocket amplifier, handy for practicing and playing along to my Spotify playlist. But it wasn’t that either. I soon discovered it was a lot more than that.

The iRig is part of a family of products made by IK Multimedia in Modena, Italy. The company is staffed by sound engineering geniuses who accurately and faithfully replicate the sounds of world famous amps, cabinets, microphones and pedals. They make it all available as a virtual studio that lives on your phone, computer or tablet. (They make more than just the iRig and Amplitube, but I’m just going to focus on them for the moment.)

Part of the Amplitube pedalboard.

Discovering the Amplitube app was an eye-opening moment. As a teaser it provides you with a couple of amps and a few free pedals. The amps are brand name – Fender, Marshall, Mesa Boogie. The pedals are thinly disguised and very identifiable replicas of famous brands like MXR.

The people at IKMultimedia are obviously passionate about detail. Nothing escapes their notice. On the sound side they seem to be able to bend heaven and earth to replicate the sound of, say, an 1967 Fender Twin with a slight nick on the speaker cone and some wear and tear on the casing. If you don’t like how that sounds, you can move your virtual Sennheiser mic a few inches back, or maybe swap out one of the speakers for another brand. They are that focused. The detail can also be seen in the casings of the products. Whether it’s the virtual pedals or the virtual rack mounted effects, they have captured the brushed aluminum, the yellow bulbs inside the VU meter windows, the sheen of light on the plastic knobs, even the texture of masking tape hastily placed across a scuffed and beaten Fuzz.

It’s truly amazing to experience the sheer variety of the products, not to mention the quality of the sounds they produce. This is why the Men In Black II scene comes to mind. My purchase of this simple iRig was like opening a dor onto the world’s largest music store.

I am nowhere famous enough to be paid to write this, by the way. This is not some sort of thinly disguised ad. I am writing it because as a musician grew up with stomp boxes (mainly BOSS), and analog tape recorders, to be let loose in the freemium world of Amplitube, especially with its painstakingly produced vintage retro packaging, is quite mind-boggling.

How Does it Fare in a Live Setting?

Naturally, because my personal passion is live performance, as compared to studio recording or composing, I want to know how all this cool stuff would stand up to the stage. First, I had to get my head around the idea of going direct through the board. There’s no need for an amp or pedals when you have it all on your iPad. Second I had to get used to the idea of playing through an iPad. This, too, seems crazy at first glance, but when you think that most pedals and amps now have circuit boards and software inside them, it’s kind of a fait accompli.

But is it cool to have an iPad or PC sitting onstage with you? Keyboard players get to do it after all.

So maybe an all-virtual backline is the way to go.

I learned that I wouldn’t need to have to whip out my phone between songs to change settings. Not when there’s one of these available!  This is the iRig StompIO, a floor mounted control panel for your Amplitube presets. As you can see it comfortably cradles your iPad and even recharges it while you play.

Does it work? Is it safe to go onstage with the same iPad that has my TurboTax files and my family photos on it? I expect so. Truth is, I haven’t tried it in a live setting yet, because I am still discovering the parallel world of onboard amp modelling software on my BOSS Katana. But hey! Who’s to say I can’t do both?

So for now I use the iRig and a selection of pedals for practicing when I am on the road on business without my music gear. Maybe within the year I will be able to post a follow-up blog with my experiences playing a gig through the StompIO.

In the meantime, if anyone actually reads this and has had some experience with it, I would love to read your comments.

 

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The Passionate Black-and-White World of July Talk

Leah and Peter from July Talk. Photo credit: Jaime Espinoza / Aesthetic Magazine

Updated April 29, 2019

Once in a while you come across a band that has something really special: a passion that goes beyond the music itself and that shapes the entire live performance. I find this in the band called July Talk. To be honest, I had not heard of them until my 17-year-old daughter asked me to go and watch them at the CBC Music Festival, held on May 26, 2018 at Echo Beach in Toronto. Lots has been written about them elsewhere including their successful and demanding tour schedule and their taking of LA by storm, but what captivated me was the passion of the delivery. Lead singers Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis carry a sensuality in their choreography and singing that is both gentle and furious. Combined with their vastly different but oddly complementary vocal styles, it speaks to the entire bizarre energy of human attraction, lust and love – something that hopefully everyone, at some point gets to feel in their own lives.

The dusk performance was the headliner of the festival. Leah got quickly to the point of acknowledging that the land upon which the festival (and the host city of Toronto) sits is land belonging to the people of the Indigenous First Nations including Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa. This is something that I am personally very happy to see and hear.

The show itself was a tight and road-hardened delivery of all their best tunes. It didn’t matter that I had not heard any of them before. Although many people go to a concert to hear their favourite songs played by their musical heroes, the quality and texture of the material made them all immediately compelling and enjoyable even upon first hearing.

My perspective of the July Talk show.

Leah and Peter dominate the stage with their seductive delivery, singing as much to each other as they do to the capacity crowd. Of course the rest of the band members, including some very lithe back-up singers, deliver powerhouse support with flawless playing and visual appeal to make the entire stage something wondrous to look at without the need for overpowering light shows and pyrotechnics. The colour palette is black and white, which I have since learned, is also part of their film/video production brand and style.

The moon added to the magic of the evening. It was not-quite full but was very prominent in the early summer sky, and Leah took time to point it out.

Sometimes, with a band you’ve never heard before, things can get a little tedious. Listening to one unfamiliar tune after another, with nothing recognizable such as a cover tune from a more famous act thrown in as a foothold, can become distracting. Not so with July Talk. They held my interest throughout. They not only performed happily to their hometown audience, they got involved with them, with Leah climbing down across the security barriers to sit on the sand of Echo Beach surrounded by fans. That takes guts. And heart.

– – – – – –

Update. This year my daughter once again invited me to go with her to see July Talk on their joint tour with Metric and Murray Lightburn at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, on April 26.

July Talk

Up close and personal with July Talk. Photo credit: @AngelMarchini for @SoundCheckBlg. Click the photo to visit Angel’s website.

Again, the atmosphere was intimate while remaining musically tight. They even brought the moon with them this time, in the form of an inflatable replica that Leah guided around the stage on a long leash.

From our perspective across the cavernous space, it was still possible to take in Leah’s exquisite and masterful dancing, and Peter’s dramatic lurching over the keyboards. Also perceptible from our vantage point was the love and the passion that July Talk fans have for their band, which seems to go beyond traditional rock star worship and instead reflects the shared concerns and love for the issues that the band stand so solidly behind, including acknowledging the First Nations whose land the City of Toronto is built on, and the rights of all people to coexist in an accepting and supportive culture.

To me, as an old(er) guy, July Talk reminds me of David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Talking Heads, combining artistry and sensuality with sophisticated musical writing that stands apart from the contemporary norm.

Looking forward to the next show.

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Celebrating The Contemporary Youth Orchestra

YES frontman Jon Anderson and drummer Alan White, and in the background, some of the kids from CYO.

The first time I encountered the Contemporary Youth Orchestra was watching a YouTube video of Yes performing I’ve Seen All Good People [see it here]. Yes is a formidable live band unto themselves, but the performance was made simply magical by the kids from the CYO.

Everyone looked like they were having such fun, in fact everyone, even the ever-focused Steve Howe. But is was the kids that made it all so wonderful. Whether they were hard at work playing their brass, woodwinds or strings, or hand-jiving together in the background, they epitomized the joy of live music.

I had to search around to find out who they were, but once I found their website I discovered an amazing collection of young musicians, learning the business from teaching and conducting legend Liza Grossman.

Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the CYO has worked with an impressive group of artists and performers, who obviously recognize the members’ talent and energy. It is evident in the way they work together that everyone benefits, and that these kids have great futures in the entertainment business. Some of the big names who have rehearsed and performed with the CYO include Graham Nash, Ben Folds, Styx, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Jason Mraz, Jon Anderson, and Yes.

Styx, backed up by CYO – I Am the Walrus

For me, one of the most memorable of their many notable performances, is The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus, with Styx. That’s not an easy tune! It’s like taking on Bohemian Rhapsody. It has time signature changes and chords you just don’t see every day.

Themed Performances

When you visit the Explore page of the CYO website, you find out that there is much more to the orchestra than doing live concerts with rock stars. Some of their recent performances have featured Disney/Pixar movie tunes, West African concertos, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, and many others.

The orchestra its members are truly inspirational. I am not affiliated with them in any way. I simply have a passion for live performance and seeing people become completely in the magic of the music, whether they are musicians or audience members. The CYO delivers on both counts.

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Billy Joel: A nod and a wink to 19,000 friends

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice. (That’s why it’s so far away)

I had the privilege of seeing Billy Joel play Toronto’s Air Canada Center this past Sunday, and it was a treat. Having seen many pro bands deliver tight, well rehearsed 3-hour shows as part of a multi-city concert tour, it is easy to get used to cool professionalism washed in the magic purple of stage lighting. But with Billy Joel, you get all of that along with a remarkable intimacy that turns the cavernous concert arena into a merely oversized cocktail bar, with the seasoned piano man himself tinkling the ivories.

His opening joke – “Billy Joel couldn’t make it tonight – I’m his father”  actually works, especially when he pauses, mid monologue, to look up at himself on the scoreboard jumbotron thing, and say, “I look so much like my old man…” before turning back to the crowd with that twinkle in his eye that seems to say that he genuinely enjoys sharing these anecdotes and stories with an appreciative crowd.

It makes you wonder whether the spontaneous rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” was truly spontaneous – I mean did the band rehearse, or are they, as I would like to believe – just that good that they can play any tune that the master summons up?

The show moved through a number of his lesser-known pieces, such as Vienna, before ending up with his most successful upbeat rock tunes. Even the train wreck that occurred during “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he tripped over the words after straying too far from the teleprompter and forced the band to restart did nothing to calm the energy of the full house crowd that stayed standing through the entire  second half of the show.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit - someone who posted on Twitter.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit – someone who posted on Twitter.

He is a giant in the business, but he talks to his audience like he is everyone’s grandpa now, the way Bill Cosby does. Responding to a song request shouted out from one of the front rows, he said, “No! I’m 65. I’ll get to it when I’m ready!” But again, the wink and the smile in his voice showed a good-natured comfort that can only come from decades of live performance.

Technical virtuosity aside, what struck me the most about Billy Joel was the way he connected with the audience. He knew he was actually in Toronto (not every act seems to know or care where they are), and his stories of playing Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens, and his recognition that his absence from the city during the 2003 SARS outbreak meant that “we sucked here for a while” added a connection that everyone felt. It was also appreciated by many that his drummer wore a Maple Leafs jersey.

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God Made Me Funky: A Mighty, Singularly Excellent Sound

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Walking through the crowded closed-off stretch of Toronto’s Queen Street East during the middle of the Beaches Jazz Festival tonight (July 26 2013), a few questions came to mind.

  1. Why do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when Toronto’s fine citizens voted just a couple of years ago to name this area of town “The Beach” and not “The Beaches,” even though the latter sounds better to me?
  2. Why also do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when so little jazz is actually played? Maybe I arrived on “Funk and Disco” night, because most of the dozen or more bands I saw were playing material that was definitely not jazz. It was good, it was energetic and the crowds were loving it, but it was not jazz.
  3. Who decided to post a band every half-a-block? Obviously someone not familiar with outdoor acoustics. Every street corner had a band pumping out high-energy music, not only to stir the relaxed crowd into movement – (even nodding heads in time with the music would do, people!), but also to drown  each other out, or risk being drowned out themselves.
  4. Who brings small dogs to a crowded street festival? They are way too small to be seen by people who are looking through the crowd for their next source of entertainment or food, and the poor little things must be frightened to death by the din of the music and so many legs.

Regardless, the festival was great, and the weather was perfect. The bands themselves were tight. As per usual, many of the musicians were busy reading their charts rather than making eye contact with their audience, so I must assume they were having fun, inside their cones of concentration.

As we headed back through the throng after having traversed the length of the festival’s six (or more?) blocks, we stopped at a crowded Starbucks for a coffee, and that’s when the magic happened. Because that’s where God Made Me Funky was playing.  GMMF is a Toronto-area band that does funk right, because they actually look like they are having fun. Here’s what amazed me about them:

  1. Their act was tight: the tunes they played were flawless. Like, Prince-level flawless. Pauses, time changes, call-and-answers, every note, every beat, every hand gesture and eye contact was spot on. These guys were not introspectively grooving to the tunes inside their heads; they were painting the audience with big fat brushes full of music. Just lathering it on.
  2. Their act was fun. Like Barenaked Ladies fun; Like Black Eyed Peas fun. They enjoyed playing and they enjoyed charging the audience with their power. Although they have probably played this show a thousand times, they looked like it was a thrill to be playing with each other, and that there was a real party going on.
  3. The whole band was in on it. Like Frank Zappa. Like Louis Prima’s band. Like Great Big Sea. It wasn’t just the front line singers making the moves. The rhythm section didn’t just stand back and drive the bus. They all worked the line. The musicians played wireless. They hopped to the foreground and rolled back again. They wove in and out. They played!
  4. Their sound was singular. Like Beatles singular. Most bands I hear, including my own, tend to sound like four or five musicians playing along to the same tune. But GMMF does what the Beatles and Prince do: they do not sound like “so many performers;” they play so tightly that it becomes one big, clearly beautiful sound. Perfectly balled up as a solid chunk of funk, everything clear – the vocals, the drums, everything where it should be, but all part of a bigger sound rather than just a band. Like the vocals of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison never sounded like three guys – they sounded like one really big unique thing.

Am I gushing? Well. just a little. I have been trying to get performers to understand this concept for years. A live band plays for its audience. It must deliver a package. Rehearsals are where the tightness comes from. It sucks in all the energy, so that it can be blown back into the crowd come performance time. People need to see a band having fun, and performers need to know how to perform, not just play.

I can understand now why GMMF plays so many dates. They are a live act that just keeps giving to its audience through well-honed professionalism combined with true Canadian charm. Check them out wherever you can. This is a link to their website. They might even make you funky.

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