Tag Archives: performance

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 Successful 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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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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Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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Why I Admire Performers Like Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

To be honest, I have never given Mariah Carey much thought. As an aging rocker raised on Elton John, Paul McCartney and U2, I have certainly experienced my share of glamorous musicians and diva antics, but I have never had much time for warbling femme-fatales, and so she, along with Celine Dion and Beyoncé have always been kept in a soundproof box in the back of my mind. To be fair, I admire any entertainer who can stand up in front of a crowd and wow them, regardless of the type of music they perform, so I never went so far as to say mean things about them. Its just that the specific tone of their singing never appealed to me. OK, maybe Cher once in a while, but I have always preferred female performers with a little more of a gruff edge, like Melissa Etheridge and Susan Tedeschi, and a little less time spent in the makeup chair. This (photo upper-right) is how I have always understood Mariah Carey to look. I figured this was probably actually her passport photo, given how glamorous she is.

So it amazed me when I saw her in one of the best movies I have ever seen, Precious, by Lee Daniels. This is a tough movie to watch. It is gritty, brutal and extremely memorable. The performance by Gabourey Sidibe was stellar, but in my opinion the show was completely stolen by Mo’Nique, who is better known as a comedienne.

Mo’Nique played a real SOB of a mom. A TV-addicted welfare case who treated her daughter worse than dirt. And it is only (SPOILER ALERT) during her tour-de-fource scene at the end of the film do you truly find out why. Her character was not a pretty character, but Mo’Nique played it well.

Mariah Carey was in this movie too. She played the social worker who sought to understand and fix the problems in Precious’s life. And she looked like this.

Also Mariah Carey

Also Mariah Carey

No makeup. No big hair. No radiant skin. She looked like every other 9-to-5 schmoe out there who has a job to do, but who doesn’t really like it very much.

I find it extremely admirable when beautiful celebrities shed their skin and reveal to the world that beneath it all, they are still one of us. They weren’t born looking like Halle Berry (OK, maybe Halle Berry was). They were lucky enough to make it big in a vicious industry where most fall away, and their product is big, wonderful excessive enormousness.

So I salute both Mariah Carey and Mo’Nique for taking what some might consider a big risk in appearing on the big screen in all their plain normality. To me this only makes them more beautiful.

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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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Yes! You Can!

Yes at Massey Hall, April 11, 2013.

Yes at Massey Hall, April 11, 2013.

We went to see Yes play at Toronto’s Massey Hall yesterday (April 11). That’s my back-of-the hall iPhone photo. They delivered a flawless performance, playing three albums in their entirety, and ending with “Roundabout.” Just like the Rolling Stones and so many others, they dispel the myth that live performers have an expiry date, and though most of the Yes line-up are now in their sixties, they powered through the tunes with a crisp accuracy that very few bands can attain. Massey Hall has excellent acoustics, and the signature sounds of Yes – Chris Squire’s custom-wired Rickenbacker 4001, and Steve Howe’s crystal-clear guitars reached all the way up to the nosebleed seats.

So, indeed most of the band members are in their sixties, but not so the lead vocalist, Jon Davison. Jon is amazing. He sings with pronounced passion and soul in the demanding alto range established by his predecessor, Jon Anderson. Even their names are strikingly similar. He blends so well with the music and looks so happy up on stage, it was hard to believe he is such a new addition to this giant of a band.

Yes frontman Jon Davison. Photo from Wikipedia.

Yes frontman Jon Davison. Photo from Wikipedia.

His story, too, is an amazing one, mostly because he has lived the dream of many hundreds-of thousands of musicians: he went from fronting a tribute band to fronting the band itself. How unbelievably cool is that?

According to Wikipedia, Jon was a musician friend of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and long story short, Hawkins was also a friend of Chris Squire. So the connection was made.

An ironic twist here – Davison actually replaced another tribute band frontman, Benoit David of Montreal, who was the first to take the heat from Yes purists for replacing Jon Anderson, and who was sidelined, just like Anderson, with respiratory issues.

So along comes Jon Davison, and his voice peals beautifully through the complex verses of 1970’s Yes, and captures the spacey, lyrical Roger Dean-ish mindscapes that most members of last night’s audience grew up on.

For someone such as myself, who relishes virtuoso musical performance, and who strives to play as accurately and as soulfully as his own minor talent will allow, to watch truly gifted artists at work is an absolute pleasure, and to see artists such as Davison literally fill the space between legends such as Squire, Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes, adds an additional vicarious thrill.

Yes has a gruelling tour schedule ahead of them. I wish them many, many standing ovations along the way. They deserve them all.

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