florida recap

in the spirit of peter king, one of my favorite sports writers, i submit to you…ten things that i think i think:

10. i can’t understand why, but for reasons known only to them, the orlando airport does not sell chewing gum at any of its concessions.  i know, cuz i looked.  then, after i looked, i asked…and was told that no, not only did the concession i was patronizing not have any gum, but neither did anyone else, either.  she said it was “for sanitary reasons”.

i’m not often at a loss for words…BUT…

sheesh…that’s like the barkeep at the saloon saying, “we don’t sell bullets here, so there won’t be no shooting at the bar.”

yep.  that doesn’t sound silly in the least.

9. november through february is probably the only time of year that i could potentially harbor the idea of being in florida.  even the week before halloween, it was still a trifle warmer than i personally care for.  i was so happy to get off the plane and feel a little snap in the air when i walked outside for the first time…i can’t begin to tell you.

8. people who use those rolling suitcases in airports should have to pass a physical exam that includes maneuvering their cargo through an airport terminal at a consistent speed over a substantial distance.  if you are unable to maintain your portable-airstream-trailer-with-handles at a speed consistent with collective foot traffic, then you get a “T” (for “turtle”) branded on the back of your hand, and you’re not allowed to wheel your slow-assed suitcase through the airport with a conga line of impatient foot traffic behind you.

7. dan mays’ nephew drew has an absolutely smokin’ hot girlfriend.  and she’s not just hot because she’s hot…she’s hot because she’s nice AND beautiful.  anyone who gets through the weekend she just had with a perpetual smile on her face while feeling like she felt the whole time and never once taking it out on anyone…well, drew – that’s marriage material.  you’d better get off the pot, my new friend. 🙂

6. in the age of modern aviation, there’s literally no benefit to a window seat.  they’re aligned window-to-seat by blind tribal elders with no ability or talent for depth peception, and – law of averages being what it is – approximately one out of every eight seats actually seems to line up with the window.

5. getting old and aging are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  this weekend, dan may’s in-laws gathered from all over the globe to celebrate their matriarchs’ eightieth year on the planet…and they don’t come with much more pep in their step than her.  as i watched her work the room with a smile on her face, i felt relatively certain that she probably wakes up in the morning feeling better than i do.  plus, she was still at the party long after some of the younger folk had already bolted for home.   she was quite the hottie in her day, too, lemme tell ya.  (i pointed this out when the pictures were flying around early on, only to be rebuked with an utterance of “…gross.”  i just smiled and said, “someday, you’ll be her age and you’ll be hearing the same thing…you might not think it so gross when that day comes.”)  🙂

4. if i ever want to offer up proof that evolution has ceased and that the human race is indeed sprinting backward in the direction of the apes, i will need look no further than the employees of the transportation safety administration who work in airport passenger screening.  if i had just the amount of money that the federal government spends on bandages for all the employee knuckles that drag the ground on that job, i’d be too rich to speak to you peons right now.

3. spanish moss is my new favorite lawn accessory.

2. a mans’ family – and how that family functions – is a truer measure of him as an individual than you might think.  as i played alongside dan on saturday night and looked around the room at the faces of the people we were playing for, it was pretty obvious that they not only appreciated his talent, but they respected him as a person as well.  in a lot of similar instances, there’d be a perceptible drone of chatter, no small amount of rude talking-over the music, that sort of thing…but they sat there like a paying audience while we played and sang for nearly 45 minutes.  they laughed, they cried…the whole nine yards.  this was a great group of people that i got to spend my weekend with, and i’m thankful for their kindness and generosity.  they took me in as one of their own under no obligation to do so, and it spoke to the kind of people that they are.  it was a memorable show, and a memorable weekend.

1. no matter how flat your clothes are when you lovingly fold them and place them into your bag before you leave for the airport, the gremlins who live in the overhead compartments of airplanes will manage to have them looking as rumpled as if you slept in them before your plane lands.  go ahead and try to force a different outcome, your efforts will end in vain.

and hey, it’s good to be back home again..you know it is
sometimes this old farm feels like a long lost friend…
and hey, it’s good to be back home again….

john denver

idlewheel tour diary – fall 2008

tour itinerary:

thursday, october 16th:       the turning point, piermont NY
friday, october 17th:            puck, doylestown PA (with john lilley of the hooters)
saturday, october 18th:       burlap and bean, newtown square PA (with JD malone)
sunday, october 19th:         house concert, union NJ


jack sundrud:         guitar, bass, vocals
craig bickhardt:      guitar, vocals
tom hampton:        guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, lap steel, vocals
tommy geddes:      drums


so…i’ve gotta admit – thirty minutes into our only rehearsal for these shows, i was worried.

there were some new songs in the setlist that i hadn’t really shedded, and even the stuff that we had done on the tour before just wasn’t “gelling”.  there was a pretty thick layer of rust over everything, and that wasn’t helped by the fact that craig (bless the poor grumpy bastards’ heart) was literally on the floor – last tour, i got to be sick…and this time around it was apparently his turn.  he was a trooper, though – he showed up, got through the rehearsal (which took a decided turn for the better over time), and didn’t miss a gig.

in fact, on the way into piermont, NY – there was road construction…at the point we were all getting into town, they had plowed loose all the asphalt on the main stretch going towards piermont off the NY thruway.  it was just after they’d dug up the asphalt and the road was extremely rough, and the manholes – sunk so that the covers are typically flush with the asphalt – were protruding from the street.  thus, there were signs along the road that simply said, “raised manholes”.

so jack turns to craig and says, “is that what you have?”

craig’s stomach ailment became fuel for quite a bit of onstage banter during the course of the week…for instance, “howl like a lonesome wind” became “howl like a broken wind”, although i don’t know that there was necessarily an issue with “broken wind” during the course of his illness…also bearing the brunt of a healthy dose of jokes was the presence of one of my new additions to my arsenal – a banjo.

after this weekend, i almost feel dirty just typing the word.

i didn’t bring it to the turning point show, as i wasn’t using it…but for the puck show on friday night, there was one song (which was an up-in-the-air proposition) that i was considering using it for in the opening set, with john lilleys’ band…but when i brought it out of the case and set it up, we decided to see if there was anything that it would work on in the idlewheel set, and i suggested “little red reminders”.  we played through a bit of it at soundcheck and it was voted in – although i think it might’ve been more for the comic angle than the song (not that i had a problem with this…i laughed just as hard as anyone did).

we’re a few songs into the set at puck on friday night and jack says to the crowd, “so…tom lives in a pretty rough section of reading, and not long after he got his shiny new banjo, he came home from a gig late one night and was too tired to unload the stuff from his car, and he left his banjo in the back seat, in plain view of anybody who walked past the car.

sooo…you probably see this coming…the next morning, tom goes outside to his car, and sure enough, there’s broken glass all over the place, and the window of tom’s car is completely gone – and there, in the back seat, where he’d left his banjo…there were five extra banjos.”


thursday – the turning point, piermont NY

stage clothes in the turning point dressing room
stage clothes in the turning point dressing room

i LOVE playing this room.  john mcavoy, the talent buyer, also runs the sound and is about as hands-on as you can get.  he knows the room, he’s intimately familiar with what works and what doesn’t, and he genuinely loves music…you can read it on his face when he talks about something that moves or inspires him, and he’s a joy to be around.  furthermore, they have great food..the atmosphere of the room itself lends itself to great performances, and you just get a good feeling about the place when you’re driving into town.

cool factoid about this show:  i got to add another instance of snagging the parking space literally right in front of the venue.

jon pousette-dart opened the show…i had heard of him, but i had never heard him.  he was kinda the michael stanley of upstate new york, back in the day – very popular in his own area, with records released nationally…but more of a phenomenon closer to home than anywhere else.  i’ve gotta say, though – dude can play.  great voice, great guitar player…and one hell of a nice guy.  his manager, dawn, was a sweetheart, too – she gave me one of jons’ discs and made me promise to mail her one of mine when we got back.

now why would she do that, you might ask?

well, that’d be because jack and craig held a gun to my head and made me sing one of my songs during the acoustic set.

seriously.  threats of violence and the whole nine yards.  they showed me a picture of my family and told me that they had people who knew exactly where they were and that if i wanted them to be there when i got home, i’d damn well better get up to the microphone and bring home the bacon.

ok..so maybe it wasn’t quite that.  actually, it wasn’t like that at all.  and i did have a fair degree of warning…both from jack and from jon rosenbaum, via phone, before the tour started.   and i didn’t want to be a baby about it, so i sang.  they asked, i sang.  i wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, but i did it.  and folks seemed to like what i did, too – no accounting for taste. 🙂

at the turning point, i did “back again”, and then we got back to the business of being idlewheel.

many of the poconuts were present – jon and georgina rosenbaum, claudia upton, keith and linda leavy, mark and sharon smith, and several others whom i’ve known not as long.


friday – puck live, doylestown PA

this show was one of two that tommy and i flexed our muscles for both the opener and the headliner, as this show was not only the second show in the idlewheel tour, but the debut of the john lilley band – of which both tommy and i are members.

john lilley, as some of you know, is the guitarist for the hooters – and i don’t have to explain to anyone in the philadelphia area (or in germany or sweden) who the hooters are.

i met john during my very brief tenure as the talent buyer for chaplin’s in spring city – we had a couple of great conversations over the phone, and talked then about possibly doing something together down the road, but it never came to pass.  then i saw him at robert hazards’ memorial service and we struck up a fresh conversation about working together, and this time we built a band around it and started rehearsals…john and myself, tommy geddes, freddie ditomasso, and a keyboard player named jack marshall – who has since moved on, but he was in for the puck show.

because there was a private party at puck prior to our show on friday night, we had to get to the venue, set up, and soundcheck before 5pm.  the folks at puck were kind enough to offer us all a buyout for dinner at chambers’ restaurant, just behind the venue, as compensation for the extra investment of time on our part.  soundcheck went very well, thanks to the presence of mike lightkep, one of my very favorite soundmen in this part of the country…in fact, i’d dare say that mike, barron chandler from steel city and danny faga from sellersville theatre are my three faves.

during soundcheck, i put up the banjo for “little red reminders” and also (since it was there for john lilleys’ set) opted to use the pedal steel for jacks’ “hard country”, instead of the lap steel – and jack must’ve liked it, since he asked me to use it during the set.  then, during the set, they actually doubled the length of the solo…that’s a good sign, in light of how high the bar must be for that guy – i mean, he’s a bandmate of one of the best pedal steel players on the planet, after all.

after soundcheck, we all went to dinner..wendy and i sat in the center of the table against the wall, with jack to my right, craig across the table, tommy across from me, john lilley next to tommy, john’s partner bob next to him, freddie on wendys’ left, and freds’ friend art at the end of the table.  i don’t recall whether jack was even there or not…he wasn’t there for soundcheck, so i’m thinking he hadn’t gotten there yet.

craig was still reeling from his bout with the intestinal virus that had, by this point, christened this run of shows as “the raised manholes tour”, so his choices were pretty limited, but he was a trooper and came along with the gang.

i remember sitting there and looking around me for a moment, taking in this group of people that consisted of friends and bandmates, and consciously realizing how lucky i’ve been…these are people i’d be stoked just to be hanging out with, just to be in their company.  craig wrote songs that i played on the radio when i was in high school, john played those infectious guitar licks on an album that was part of the soundtrack of the year i turned 21…jack is the bass player in one of my all time favorite bands and one of the most genuine people i’ve ever met.  and i wasn’t a bystander, i was part of it.  these were people who i might’ve called inspirations…influences…heroes, even – at some point prior to this.  but this particular moment found us as collaborators – colleagues…friends.

i’ve had occasion to think about this before, in fits and starts…but for a moment there, during dinner, it got right up in my face.

after dinner, some of us walked around the corner to siren records – which became yet another peek into surreality.  we were walking around, perusing the vast amount of vinyl that they stock (doing “the record flip”, as tommy called it), and finding stuff that we had personal stakes in – a copy of the A&M release by tommys’ old band, the reds, was marked up to $13.00…the most expensive single copy i saw all night.  of course, there was a copy of “nervous night”, and i found vinyl from david bromberg (whose birthday party i attended this year) and eric andersen (who i’ll be playing with at steel city on halloween night), and a K-Tel album called “new faces of country” that had “no easy horses” by craigs’ band SKB on it…and the track that followed it on the album was one of craig’s number ones – “you’re the power” by kathy mattea, a song that he wrote with the legendary fritter collins.

wendy in front of siren records in doylestown
wendy in front of siren records in doylestown

this was a pretty intense twist on what used to be a pretty pedestrian activity for me…i’ve spent countless hours in record stores, flipping through vinyl – but not like this.  not finding albums by friends, or people i’ve worked with…or finding copies of old pure prairie league albums and marvelling at what mike reilly used to look like, compared to what he looks like now.  it put a personal spin on the experience, and it totally changed the whole thing for me.

i immediately thought of penny lane, and her assertion that when she felt lonely, she would go to the record store and visit her friends…

lap steel with john lilley at puck
lap steel with john lilley at puck

the show went well…john brought a shirt for me that i’d tried on at the last rehearsal that i’m relatively certain was made from burlap and kevlar, but i’m a trooper so i wore it for the show.  john’s set was very enthusiastically received by the audience (which included pierre robert, the elder statesman of philadelphia rock radio – who was profusely complimentary when i met him after the show was over…incredibly nice, and introduced himself as “pierre”.  he was raving about the band, and about john’s solo stuff, and was thrilled that we were working together.)

between shows, i changed into something a little more stylistically appropriate (a neutral t-shirt and a flannel-patterned shirt that i bought for a ben arnold gig a while back…it’s become a favorite).  it’s amazing what a difference it makes – being comfortable on stage.  but john is something of a clothes horse, and it’s something that i’m going to have to address, moving forward…i can’t imagine that it’ll be that hard to put together a few outfits that serve both gods.

idlewheel at puck
idlewheel at puck

the idlewheel set this night felt really good…it was actually somewhat startling to hear our vocals in that light (properly mixed and in perspective) – in fact, one of the things that dawned on me during this tour was how the vocals came across.  i was having a really hard time singing back in february when we did this before, but on these dates the vocals really shone…it was pretty apparent to all of us, too.  craig again turned in a great performance under less than ideal physical circumstances, and by the end of the night, when we were all loading out, there was almost a sense of giddiness in the air for some of us – john lilley was absolutely thrilled with the outcome, tommy and i were jazzed…for me, it was a combination of elation and relief that i’d gotten through half the dates and i could sleep in the next day.

naomi elkins, a poconut whos’ currently undergoing treatment for a tumor, was there – as was the winner of the “who travelled the farthest” prize, carolyn from california.

and then there was lois and greg.

lois and greg hosted idlewheel at their house concert series in february, and also hosted a special show with craig and jim photoglo when jim came north to do the dan fogelberg memorial show that we did back in august.  tommy geddes and i were present for both shows, and it could honestly be said that they were part of the genesis of the myth-slash-legend that has evolved into “the tommies”.  in fact, we had mentioned when we were there in august that tommy and i were talking about getting t-shirts made that said “the tommies” on one side with the word “rehearsals” with a red circle and a slash through it on the other.

lois and greg with "the league of extraordinary sidemen"...
lois and greg with "the tommies"

so lois and greg show up at our idlewheel show at puck on this particular evening, and guess what they brought with them?

see, it’s people like these who make it worthwhile to forego sleep and work our asses off to make the rounds and do these shows.  what they give to us is a palpable thing, and it’s absolutely divine to witness.


saturday – burlap and bean, newtown square PA

saturday i got out of bed predictably late, had lunch with jayda and dylan, and got ready to head to our 6pm soundcheck at burlap and bean – another double dipper for tommy and i, since jd malone was opening the show.

burlap and bean is a great room…it’s the closest thing i’ve seen to the central perk scene in “friends”, in terms of feel and decor.  obviously, it’s quite smallish – especially for a band – but we’re a pretty sensitive group to things like volume and dynamics, and while my personal original intent was for this show to be a lot more acoustic in nature, we actually pulled off the band dynamic pretty well.  i came in just carrying my mandolin and banjo, but when i got there and saw that tommy was in his full-kit regalia, i went out and got the rest of my gear, and we made it work quite well.  i didn’t bring in the pedal steel or the dobro for this show, since i only use the dobro on “dust of this town” and nothing else (I subbed the mandolin for that one).  jd was good enough to bring in some extra sound reinforcement for us, in the way of a monitor and some microphones, and we got through soundcheck relatively easily and were all set to go.

so jd begins his set, and i reached for the banjo for “got a gun”…

and jd says to the audience, “so, y’know, tom lives in a pretty crappy part of town out in reading…and the other day, he parked his car and left his banjo in the back seat where you could see it from the sidewalk….”

i looked over at him, and i knew he was gonna roll with this.  i looked to the back of the room where jack and craig were sitting, and they were both laughing already…i didn’t dare look back at TG.

sure enough, jd used the exact same banjo joke that jack had used at puck the night before.

jd’s set went well, though…i’m still not crazy about using “still love you” as an opener, and we’ve done it several times before, so it’s had time to grow on me, and it just hasn’t.  it takes a long time to build, and while that can be good in a band situation, i don’t know that it works for the duo/trio shows so much.  just me thinkin’ out loud, ya know.

we closed with “emerald lake” and when jack came up to get ready to play, he actually looked around for the pedal steel – he thought i was playing the pedal steel on the last song (it was actually lap steel, since i didn’t have room for the pedal steel..and i was bending the b string behind the bar).

i’ll take that as a compliment.

jd’s set was well accepted, and the idlewheel set was damn near divine…it was the hometown show, craigs’ parents were there as well as fritter collins’ wife and son (whos’ become a good friend…he’s a gearhead, just like me) – there were a couple of other friendly faces…folks i’d met before but whose names escape me.  all good people, though.

after the show, we decided to go find a bite to eat to celebrate craigs’ return to the class of people who actually ingest solid foods – we ended up at the country squire diner afterwards: myself, jack, craig, tommy, jd and larry ahearn.  we talked about who would be the best producer for a jd malone album…jack nominated t-bone burnett, i nominated buddy miller.  in retrospect, buddy might not have been the best choice if i wanted to play on the record at all…since buddy does everything i do, and a lot better at that.  so maybe i’d have to relent and go with t-bone as well.  larry was his usual funny self, making jokes with the waitress and telling stories, and spirits were high all around.  it was definitely good to see craig slipping back into his skin, so to speak.  we talked a little about the possibility of a second idlewheel record, which was good to hear…although there are distance and schedule hurdles to overcome, if that’s to actually happen.

afterward, i stopped at the gas station next door and filled up for $2.79 a gallon and headed home.  superbad was on tv, so i stayed up and watched what was left of it and went to sleep at 3am.


sunday – house concert, union NJ

there was a bit of trepidation about this show, in terms of the setting…we did a house concert during the last run (lois and gregs’), but it was totally acoustic – no amplification at all.  this one was the full band with a small PA in the basement of charlie wades’ house.  now, jack had been there before – on the occasion of charlies’ 50th birthday party – the one that poco played, with guest drummer yours truly.  he had mentioned the size of the room in conversation before the show, and it was – after all – a basement.  but we were pleasantly surprised when we got there to find that, yes – we were going to be able to do this one in the traditional fashion as well.  in fact, we were able to do every show as a hybrid of electric and acoustic sets…this particular show, in the basement of the wades’ house, being the best of the lot in my opinion.

idlewheel at charlie and dorothys' very first house concert
idlewheel at charlie and dorothys

there’s something about that last show…the fact that you don’t really know for sure when, if ever, you’ll get to do this again.  and while we all want to fool ourselves and give lip service to the adage that we do our best every time we take the stage, i don’t know if it’s completely honest to say that any of us play as well as we do that last night.  that night that you stand up and strap in and try everything that you might’ve played it safe on before…when you get just a little extra air before you belt out a harmony, or put just a little extra somethin’ that you can’t define into a guitar part.

believe me when i tell you that, at least for me, that shit was ALL goin’ down that night.  even though the only thing miked were the vocals, the instrumental blend was perfect, the harmonies were spot on…it was just one of those magical moments that you want to hold onto, because you know while you’re creating it that you’re gonna want to remember this one.

i didn’t have that going on so much last time, because the last show was at the cutting room in NYC, and the soundman was a douche, and we had to rush off so that the next act could get on…there was no time to relish anything.

this time, it was a combination of the perfect host, the perfect crowd, the perfect environment – i would’ve loved to have had jeff finowitz and ginger and jon delong and some of the other MIA poconuts there, but a lot of my faves made the show – keith and linda leavy (again), jon rosenbaum and his mom, lois and greg (again), ken slater and his wife, new york paul (who did a GREAT job putting together the PA for the show), dennis and esther whelan, corey bearak and his wife, claudia upton (again), dar and her family…anyone whos’ experienced a pool of friendly faces for a performance knows what i mean.

the folks who were there witnessed what was, far and away, the best of the four idlewheel shows on the run.  after going through the other three in as many days, we’d finally gotten to that place where you just lock in and play off each other without thinking a great deal about what to execute…you reach a point where it’s almost as if the instruments are playing themselves, and you’re almost relegated to being a spectator yourself.  this show felt that good.

we took a break for desert, played another set, took pictures…signed CD’s and t-shirts for a good long time, and finally piled into the car to head home and back to reality…and when i say back to reality – well, let’s just say that going back to listening to people whine about their printers not working after riding that train for four days was a bit of a letdown.  actually, not a bit, really…it was almost postpartumlike the first day back to work.

emails have been flying around, people have been posting reviews of the shows on bulletin boards, and the response to these shows has been really gratifying.  it makes me proud to be a part of this thing…and again, gives me reason to reflect on just how lucky i’ve been to be able to do this, and to be able to do it with some of the people i’ve crossed paths with.

to my partners: jack sundrud, craig bickhardt, and tommy geddes – it’s truly an honor to take the stage with you guys.  your talents make me work harder at my own to be worthy of you.

larry ahearn – the passion and energy you put into these shows inspires me.  i’m proud to know you.

those of you who came to the shows – you may not ever fully realize how important a part of all this you are.  to say that a performance is an exchange of energy sounds like trippy new age hogwash, but it’s true…your presence and support is vitally important to us.  it’s appreciated more than you know.

see you next time…

the ultimate compliment

some days I phone it in, but others I find that I’m on top of my game whether I make an effort to be or not.

there’s a contractor who’s in the office one day a week…and today, after listening to me handle a couple of phone calls, he said, “I want to get a tom hampton action figure with the string in the back…and every time I pull the string, it spits out a tom-ism so I can laugh at it.”

I should probably amplify this statement by adding that, while not that long ago I was safely cordoned off from the general population, I’m now in a larger room with several people…which has it’s ups and downs, but I haven’t really had to adapt a whole lot. It’s actually nice to have an audience for some of the lunacy that takes place from time to time.

the action figure, though…I think it’s best if that never comes to fruition, though. just thinking out loud here.

by the way…you’ll notice the occasional cursed capital letter creeping in here and there from time to time – this is a pretty good clue that the entry came from my phone and I was too lazy to override the spellcheck. 🙂

Idlewheel in 48 hours…stay tuned.


people often ask me why it is that i don’t teach.

well…maybe not often, but enough that the question recurs on a somewhat perpetual basis.

truth is, i’ve tried it, in isolated instances, in the past…but a couple of things have always derailed me.  one, and probably foremost, is my inability to be consistent with students – in terms of committing to a weekly regimen.  there’s just too much other stuff going on in my life, and i honestly can’t remember a time when that hasn’t been the case.  if you’re going to take on something like learning an instrument, you deserve a teacher whos’ going to be available to you…and that just ain’t me.  sorry.

the second thing, though…and for me, probably the thing that far outweighs the first thing…is that – for whatever skills or talents i might posess – i have acquired far too many bad habits and personal shortcuts and quirks and anomalies over the years to be able to guide someone down the “proper” path.

now, before you start, i fully realize that there often isn’t a generally accepted “right way” or “wrong way” to play an instrument…especially in this day and age when you’ve got guys playing guitars with bows or laying them on their laps, a la jeff healey – in fact, it’s probably truer now than ever that there really isn’t an accepted “correct” way to play the guitar.

but, still…

my mental block, here, is my nearly complete self-taught status, and the means by which i went about learning to play.  nowadays, kids have tools available to them that i couldn’t have possibly imagined when i was my sons’ age.  kids can download tablature over the internet, or they can download a program like PowerTab that will load the tablature into a midi file and play it back for them so they can hear it, in the proper tempo and rhythm, played back for them on their PC so they can learn it off the page and by ear at the same time.  there are devices like the line6 guitar port that turns your computer into an arsenal of vintage amps and effects…but, hey – let’s not stop there…let’s add a component called guitarport online that, for the measely price of less than ten bucks a month, allows you to download lessons and tablature from top players…and – get this – you can download the actual backing tracks from some of the anthems of the classic rock era and play along with them!

seriously.  no shit.

you can buy a guitarport, plug it into the USB port on your computer, and download noel redding and mitch mitchell’s original backing tracks from “the wind cries mary” and close your eyes and pretend to be hendrix.

if you’d told me that you’d someday be able to do that when i was thirteen years old…well, i’d have thought that you bought your weed from the wrong kids at school.

i’m realizing, as i spout all this off, that there’s probably not much need for a guitar teacher if you’re even marginally motivated…and, chances are, if you’re motivated enough to dive into that world without your water wings on, then you’re probably going to outgrow me pretty damn quickly.

as i’m sure you’ve pieced together by now, i’m almost completely self-taught.  when i tell you i grew up with nothing, i’m not really exaggerating.  i had no real source of knowledge around me, save for the television and a few other folks who played very rudimentarily at best.  it wasn’t until i was well into my teens and starting to find my way into bands by virtue of having taught myself drums that i was exposed to other players who had anything resembling a clue about how to play guitar…and that that point, i wasn’t that enamoured with it.  i was a drummer, and happily so.   but, at some point, having heard the music i had heard growing up, my curiosity crept up on it and i started paying attention.

i watch my son, who picks it up for a few minutes at a time and puts it down, and the difference between the two of us is as plain as the nose on your face.  if i’d been surrounded by half the things he takes for granted at his age, i’d have walked around all day long giggling uncontrollably to myself.

but, my path was different..is different.  essentially, all the knowledge that i’ve accumulated over time has been the result of my aptitude for sponging information, either via observation, asking casual questions, or digging through books, magazine articles, or the internet.  i took my first ever actual music lesson less than a year ago from my buddy bruce “wally” heffner, who sold me a gaggle of books, DVDs, and instructional material – and i haven’t been back since.  i’ve barely scratched the surface of what he’d given me in that first lesson, and i wonder how it is that anyone ever goes back for number two if he provides so much material up front.

wally was to be my sensei, my guide down what i felt was the final frontier for me…pedal steel guitar.  and yet, i’ve been playing this thing in front of people since last november, somehow.

which probably best illustrates the trait that has been both my curse and my savior.

i dive into things and figure out how to establish a voice on them and work out the mechanics and such…and sometimes the results are passable, and sometimes the habits that i establish in search of the results forge a ceiling that keep me from going past a certain point.

in the case of pedal steel (and to a parallel extent, dobro and lap steel), i have a near-fatal aversion to the use of fingerpicks.

this goes all the way back to the beginning…to my initial forays into guitar when i was a teenager.  i won’t go down the whole “we were so poor we couldn’t afford picks” road, but when i was learning guitar, there often weren’t any laying around.  plus – and probably, more importantly – most of the stuff i wanted to learn was played fingerstyle, anyway.  so i completely avoided picks for the bulk of my formative years.  it wasn’t until much, much later, when i started playing guitar in bands and doing solos, that i eventually relented and started using picks – just here and there at first, and then with more regularity as it became more comfortable.

but, generally speaking, if i pick up a guitar at home, i seldom reach for a pick.

now, though, this has created a situation where i feel like i’m wearing a kryptonite condom on my right hand if i put fingerpicks on, because there’s this huge disconnect between my fingers and the strings, and it’s taking a lot…no, a LOT – of effort to try to get accustomed to using them.  i’ve played lap steel for fifteen years without them, dobro for nearly as long…but with pedal steel, there are techniques that are simply impossible to do without them.  playing harmonics with the right hand, specifically, just won’t happen without that thumbpick to accentuate the note.  your thumb, by itself, ain’t gonna cut it.

and, frankly, i’ve gone about as far as i’m gonna go with this family of instruments without biting the bullet and slipping those bad boys on and starting to get used to having them between my fingers and the strings.  if i’m going to get past the point that i’m at now – which is to say, if i’m going to learn anything that’s outside my current realm of knowledge and take this to the next level – i’m gonna have to strap those puppies on and get busy, here.

or, i can continue to do what i’ve done…which is to try and be a trooper and get through a song or two and then whip ’em off in frustration and get back to work.

i’ll let you know how that works out.

in order, from start to finish…

so this afternoon, i call dylan from work to check in…i had a couple of errands i wanted to run afterwards, and i wanted to see how dinner was going to factor in to it all.

i got him on the phone and told him that i needed to pick up a new USB cable for my iPhone (i had given mine to jayda over the weekend because hers went south on her)…and dylan tagged my sentence, “…and pick up the new gnarls barkley album.”

(for those of you who don’t know dylan personally…this is his way of indicating interest.)

so i filed that away, finished up, and headed home from work.

he came down the stairs not long after i walked in the front door, and i said to him, “dude…i can pick up that record for you on iTunes if you want…” – i thought he’d prefer that, since he’s not one to smile on the prospect of actually having to leave the confines of the car, where shopping or even going out to eat is concerned. his answer kinda blindsided me.

“no way. it’s not the same. they’re not in the right order or anything.”

they’re not in the right order.

now, most parents might actually write this off as a bullshit argument, but i felt like i was given the honor of bearing witness to an epiphany. he actually demonstrated that he understood that there was a degree of significance to the running sequence of what us old farts call an “album”.

i still call them albums, or records. as far as i’m concerned, both terms – when applied in the proper context – are still relevant. maybe not to someone like kanye or 50 cent…but to an artist who still creates music to be enjoyed as a body of work, it’s absolutely relevant.

i wrote a long essayish post on the velvet rope a while back about this very subject – about how huge the difference was between how we consume music now, and how we consumed it a few decades ago, and how that difference in and of itself was a huge part of why music simply isn’t as important to people now as it once was.


“…see, when we were kids, just the process alone of buying music was totally and completely different.  we would make a special, conscious trip to a specialty store that sold these prepackaged, circular pieces of vinyl called “albums” or “records”.  those terms, to me, came to mean “collections of music”.  jackson browne said in an interview that he still called them “records”, no matter what the format…and he cited a leonard cohen song, with in line in it – “I hope you’re keeping a record” – to illustrate his point about how songs are snapshots of moments in time, taken for the purpose of sharing them with someone.

so we’d go to this “record store” – this place that sold only records – where there were literally hundreds of albums by every kind of artist…country, jazz, folk, blues…but mostly rock and roll.  we’d look around the store at the posters and the “flats” of the new releases on the wall, listen to whatever was playing over the stereo while we flipped through the large, twelve inch by twelve inch album covers.  there was cover art, there were liner notes, there were lyrics often printed inside the fold.  we’d peruse the stuff we weren’t familiar with, perhaps take a chance on something that might have triggered a gut instinct, an intuition that we should be taking it home – and sometimes we were wrong, but when we were right, and we discovered something exceptional, it was like finding a chunk of gold in the bottom of the pan after spending hours standing in the creek, sifting through mud and silt.

usually, though, when we went to the store, it was because the new album by our favorite band had just come out, and we’d managed to save enough cash to buy it and we couldn’t wait to pick it up to hear the songs that we hadn’t heard on the radio yet.

we’d take it home, tear the cellophane off the cover, pull the record out, slip our headphones on, and lift the needle and set it on the vinyl at the edge of the album.  then we’d sit back and listen to the songs pour off the needle and into our consciousness while we read the liner notes, stared at the picture of the band and thought about how much they’d changed since the last album, sang along with the lyrics, wondered about people like bill symczyk and glen johns and roy thomas baker and val garay and so on and so forth…and wondered how they got those sounds, how they got the drums to sound so monstrous and the guitars to rage like animals and the harmonies so angelic…

…and then, when it was over, we’d flip the album over and start again.  sequestered in our rooms, we became intimately familiar with this new collection of music from this artist, this band…whether new to us or old favorites, and it managed to weave its way into our brains.”


now don’t get me wrong….i LOVE iTunes. i love the instant gratification of being able to buy something with a few clicks and carry it around with me on my phone. where i believe the disconnect to be is that i grew up with a certain kind of humble respect for music, for the power of music…and i’ve come to believe that my particular reverence for music is bred over time. and…AND, if you’ve come of age in an era where music has always been a few clicks away, then the ease with which you’re able to acquire it doesn’t necessarily make it precious to you in a lot of instances.

hopefully, you’re one of those people for whom music provides spiritual nourishment…you’re someone for whom it gives you something that you simply can’t get anywhere else. it touches you, it communicates, it gives you tools for expression and words to explain things that you feel that aren’t going to come from anything else. if that’s you, you’re a truly blessed individual.

if that’s you, then it probably doesn’t matter how you acquire music.

but there’s a growing demographic for whom music is wallpaper. it’s something that runs in the background, a silence eliminator that accompanies their reading, their meals, their drive to work. they notice it, but in much the same way as one of us might notice a different slipcover on the sofa, or new drapes or a different floral pattern on the tablecloth.

and now that i think of it, it probably doesn’t matter how they acquire their music, either.

here’s what i’ve noticed about myself…and my hunch is that it applies to a lot of other folks, as well.

when i was younger, and listened to most of my music either on vinyl, or on cassette recordings of vinyl, i was a much more patient listener. just as the case can be made that we were probably less inclined to change the channel on the television when we were limited to the networks and a TV with no remote, we were certainly much more patient with music when it wasn’t so easy to hit the “skip” button and move on to the next track after giving our crippled attention spans thirty seconds or so of a song and demanding that it turn our heads within that amount of time or else.

can you imagine how many classic songs would have been banished to obscurity by the “skip” button?

subterranean homesick blues….skip.

iron man….skip.

rocky mountain way…skip.

dazed and confused…skip.

anything by pink floyd….outta here.

riders on the storm…g’bye.

black magic woman….later.

don’t even try to talk to me about freebird.

each and every one, candidates for the skip button within the first 30 seconds.

these are songs that, for a few more years anyway, are part of our musical consciousness. when you say “freebird”, you don’t even have to say “skynyrd”, anymore than you need mention led zeppelin when you say “dazed and confused”. but, it has to be said, none of these are cut from the catchy-little-ditty cloth that most popular music springs from nowadays, and there’s an awareness on the part of people who churn out music for mass consumption now that you’ve got a very narrow window in which to reach someones’ gut. i don’t know that there’s any data to back this up, but i’ve come to believe that a big part of why you hear the proliferation of crappy, reactionary, and/or offensive lyrics nowadays is because people have given up on trying to grab their listeners from a melodic standpoint, and they resort to lyrical masterpieces like kanye’s “gold digger” or gretchen wilson’s “redneck woman” to try to reel people in – which is not to label either of those songs offensive…but it’s hard not to feel that there’s a conscious effort being made to say something right out of the gate that gets your attention on a level that neither of those songs would be capable of on their melodic merits alone.

(this is not to say that there weren’t some lyrical turds in the classic rock era, by any stretch. just sayin’.)

in my own case, i listen now and then to music that i’ve managed to unearth from whatever source from the years when i was dylan’s age…and sometimes find that i’m underwhelmed by it. sometimes, i can write that off to my accumulated knowledge and experience and the fact that i listen to music differently now than i did then. sometimes, i’ll find something that rings a similar bell and be amazed that i’ve managed to go this long without reconnecting with it. the one constant between then and now is the degree of importance that it maintains in my own life…and i’ve always lamented, to a certain extent, the lack of importance that it’s seemed to hold for dylan.

not tonight, though. after we stopped by the AT&T store, we walked up the mall to FYE and i watched him march up and down the aisles until he located his prey…we took it to the counter, then out to the car…i watched as he ripped the cellophane from around the jewel case and put the CD into the stereo as we took off for a drive out to morgantown to hit the sonic for dinner.

he opened up the tray insert and folded it out, marvelling at the artwork…we actually had a conversation about the order of the songs, and whether or not they were tied together in a storyline, what the sequence meant…

the sun was just starting to go down…which, totally coincidentally, is my favorite time to be on that stretch of road. we hit it just a little past its prime, but the sky was still brilliant as we made our way out the expressway.

some of the songs he’d heard already, some were brand new to him – thirteen in all, and we drove out past elverson to take in the whole record before we went to eat. i didn’t say a word the whole way out, except to remark on specific instances in specific songs (“man…the sounds on this song come right out of superfly-era curtis mayfield..” or “someone was paying attention when ‘what’s going on’ came out”. that kinda stuff.).

it has to be said…the new gnarls barkley record is pretty doggone good, you betcha. i was expecting to tolerate it, but i have a lot more respect for those two today than i did yesterday. they embrace melody instead of sidestep it, like so many in their genre do. they respect the concept of a song (as opposed to the concept of a beat) in a way that’s been overlooked for so long that it becomes refreshing all over again. i don’t know how many more times i’d pop it in myself, because it’s not my thing…but “whos’ gonna save my soul” is a fuckin’ classic. check back in 20 years and tell me that i’m wrong.

it was an early christmas present for me…cost me less than $20, and worth every penny. i got to watch him seesaw back and forth from excited to contemplative to pumped up to subdued…and for about forty minutes as the sun was going down, i was driving myself around in my passenger seat.

so, to recap:

CD – $17.00.

two number twos with huge slushies at sonic: $14.80.

bearing witness to the seeds of inspiration….