Posted in from one town to the next - live shows

2nd annual “evening of thanksgiving” show, milkboy in ardmore, PA

eot1i was at the first one, ya know.  i remember it well.

it was at the arts scene in west chester.  aislinn bickhardt was there, before she was a mommy…sang “easy fires” with dad and melted me where i stood.  and of course, craig and tommy.  and craig, tommy and joe sherwood.

but then, there was wire and wood.

now, i had heard about this “wire and wood” thing.  from dean sciarra, who might have been one of their biggest fans back in the day…he gave me the minimalist cautionary briefing:  they were badass, and nobody could touch them back in the day.

and that night, i saw for myself what the fuss was about.

smiling for the camera at milkboy...
smiling for the camera at milkboy...

when rick bell and freddy ditomasso took the stage with craig and tommy and they began to play those songs, it all made sense to me.  and i could understand why craig didn’t really tackle this material in his solo shows, too…there was a form of alchemy here that, even with his considerable talent, really only made sense when this combination of personalities were all present and accounted for.

i never forgot it.

then, when this year rolled around and the subject of having me participate in the second “evening of thanksgiving” show and be part of the W&W set, i was beside myself…and i’d been looking forward to it ever since the subject came up.

i mean, i woulda been there anyway…but to be able to play, too…

so while tommy and i were in toledo with the dan may band, the three principles got together and ran through the songs they’d be doing for the show, and they recorded some acoustic demos of them for tommy and i to absorb before we got together to run them the following week.  rick sent them out on monday (our travel day from toledo) and i had them waiting for me when i got home.

the first thing i thought after hearing them all, back to back, for the first time was…it’s just a damn shame that these guys didn’t get a shot at recording these songs when they were still a cohesive unit, complete with their now-departed compadre, f.c. “fritter” collins.

“fritter” is still something of an enigma to me.  ever since i started travelling in certain circles, his name comes up with a frequency with which you might expect to hear aunt bea mentioned in sheriff taylors’ household back in mayberry – he’s still that much a presence, these years after having passed on.  if his name is mentioned in certain company, the din of conversation dips perceptibly.   those who were lucky enough to have known him revere his memory, and i find myself in awe of that.  his talents as a songwriter are unimpeachable, and there’s plenty of evidence of this in the work he left behind…not only the wire and wood catalog, but songs that he co-wrote with craig as well (including kathy mattea’s top ten hit, “you’re the power”, among others).

fritter was a founding member of wire and wood, so his ghost was very much present for this undertaking.

eot3craig decided, after the success of the first EoT show at the now-defunct arts scene in west chester, to make the show an annual event, and to make it a benefit as well…i don’t know whether or not the benefactor will continue to be the make-a-wish foundation, but they got the nod for this years’ show.  since the venue obviously wasn’t going to be a repeat, craig and larry arranged to move the show to milkboy in ardmore…and originally, the show was supposed to carry the entire night.  at some point, though, someone decided to add a late show for another artists’ cd release party..which meant that our 7pm show had to be completely evacuated by 8:45 for the 9pm show.

if you’d been at the show last year, you’d understand why this was a bit of a kick in the ass…it meant that everyone who contributed something to the bill had their sets shortened considerably.  last year, craig and joe sherwood did a set, craig did a solo set with tommy and his daughter aislinn, and then there was a wire and wood set after all that, and the show was a good length.  this year, everyone was off and on very quickly, and i think that it had the potential to feel rushed if you were in the audience…but then again, what the hell do i know?  maybe they appreciated the quicker pace and i’m just talking out my ass.

eot8after my recent passionate vow to stand up for myself and make sure that i was accurately represented to the audience, it took me less than a month to drop back into my old habits…they were out of inputs on the snake, so i ended up running everything through the princeton again.  obviously, i’m going to have to start bringing out the acoustic amp to safeguard against this…that way, they can take a direct box and split it out if the opportunity exists, but i can still have a faithful stage sound if they don’t.  still, the result wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  i took a minute to dial in a different model on the aura pedal for the resonator that worked a little better with the guitar amp.  oh, note to fishman:  the knobs you use on the aura pedals SUCK.  totally unreadable in a stage setting.  those chicken-head knobs that have made such a resurgence of late are popular with players for a reason – you can SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING.

just something to think about, larry…

eot9for the six song set, i had two dobros (one tuned to G for “yonder man” and “willin” and one tuned to E for “southern wine”), mandolin for “painted pony”, lap steel for “changing of the guard”, banjo for “finally found a reason” and baritone guitar for “memory like a river rolls”.

in other words, just another day at the office. 🙂

the thing that is intriguing for me, though – now a full four days after the gig – is that those songs are almost viral in their tenacity.  i woke up this morning with the chorus from “memory like a river rolls” cycling through my head, and likewise i find that churning banjo-driven hook from “finally found a reason” dropping in to visit pretty often as well.

let me tell ya something.

the inside of my head is a pretty friggin’ crowded place, and it’s not easy to get attention in there.

these songs are pullin’ it off without even trying.

that’s saying something.

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Posted in from one town to the next - live shows

the hooters at electric factory, philadelphia pa

confession time…

i’ve lived in the philly area for almost twenty years now, and this past wednesday night was the first time i’d ever seen the hooters.

granted, they took a long, long hiatus and all that…blah, blah, blah.  still, you’d think an opportunity would’ve come up by now.

anyway, in my still new capacity as the utility guy in hooter john lilley’s new solo project, i managed to snag a pair of tickets and VIP passes for the show, so we headed downtown the night before thanksgiving to check the guys out.

next confession:  i’d never been inside the electric factory before, either.

what a sheltered life i’ve led. 🙂

anyway, the guys were phenomenal, and it was kinda surreal seeing my new boss up there, struttin’ his stuff as a hooter.  i mean, i remember being in the navy in wales when “nervous night” came out, and my ex-sister in law going out and buying the album and emphasizing to me that these guys were from philly…and me not giving a shit about whether they were from philly or albequerque at the time.

kinda funny in retrospect.

anyway, here are a few shots of the guys from front of house.  enjoy.

john and eric sharing a road case to rest a while..
john and eric sharing a road case to rest a while..
i play this mandolin at rehearsal all the time...
i play this mandolin at rehearsal all the time...
shoulda seen the look i got from wendy when eric brought this out..
shoulda seen the look i got from wendy when eric brought this out..
)
aaaah, yes...the halo effect. 🙂
Posted in from one town to the next - live shows

dan may at the maumee theater, 11.23.08

maumee-2008-048i had been looking forward to going back to maumee ever since we left after the last gig we did there, a year and a half ago.  that show was my second gig ever with dan (the first having been a warmup show of sorts at chaplins’ in spring city a couple of weeks beforehand), and in looking at video of the show taken at that first maumee gig, it was obvious that there was a lot of potential there that we weren’t living up to.  the band has grown by leaps and bounds in the time since, though, and i’ve had a notion to go back there and really rub in how good the band has become.

alan, heather and i are the only holdouts from the band that went to maumee two aprils ago…anthony newett was along on second guitar, along with our resident bassist, mike kurman and tommy geddes on drums.  david henry joined us on percussion, as he did before.

anthony and i are joined at the brain.  seriously.  he and i have a chemistry that i can’t say that i’ve enjoyed with many other guitar players.  it’s there with john (lilley, of the hooters) when we play together, and to a lesser degree with dennis rambo and avery coffee…but anthony and i are on a separate plane.  i like to think that it’s because he’s a far better player than i am, but instead of using that fact to lord his superiority over me, he uses his ability to elbow me up the road and force me to take bigger steps and stretch out as a player…which makes me better in the end, and has the net result of making us both look good.

he’s that kinda guy.

we got to maumee relatively early in the evening the night before the show and checked everyone into their hotel rooms…then we all went out and piled onto the bus to grab a bite to eat and a post-dinner beverage recon mission.  it’s always funny to me, going to places that handle liquor distribution in a somewhat sane manner with folks who don’t really get outside the state much…if just to behold the wonder in their faces when they realize that in other states, you can walk into a convienence store and actually purchase beer.  in the particular store we stopped at in sandusky, they had a walk-in cooler that they nicknamed “the beer cave” – and we bought more than we drank over the course of the weekend, but…well, you just never know.  better safe than sorry. 🙂

maumee-2008-817so we went back to the hotel and everyone convened in our room to officially run through a couple of things with the percussionist, david henry – david is our local pickup guy, and we hadn’t played with him since our last maumee gig, so dan wanted to make sure he was clear on his cues…so i brought in an acoustic and a mandolin, in addition to the strat that i wanted to put a fresh set of strings on for the next day, and a couple of other instruments as well.  tommy materialized with a snare drum and brushes, so mike and anthony then went out to the bus to retrieve a bass and another acoustic, as well…and after we finished up with official business, the real fun ensued.

maumee-2008-001we started off doing eagles songs, and then mike and anthony started reading off their repertoire of beatles songs…then anthony veered off into TV theme songs in a totally unpretentious showcase of his own personal musical genius.  the guy can play anything he’s ever heard.  period.  he sat there and started with “mary tyler moore”, worked his way up through “dick van dyke” and took a couple of odd detours that ended up with his spirited rendition of the theme song from…no shit…

…chico and the man.

just plain un-fucking-believeable.

anyway, this libation-fueled jam session went on until well after 1am, which was long after my voice had started to peter out to the extent that i was starting to wonder if i’d be able to sing the next day…i wasn’t in any real pain or anything, but i was pretty hoarse by the end of the night.  it was as much fun as i’ve had in a long time, though…sitting around in a hotel room with great musicians who also happen to be good friends, enjoying each others’ company – and singing and playing for the sheer joy of just singing and playing.  no audience, no pressure, no agenda…just pick a key, count off and go.

wendy and i got up the next day and went to cracker barrell for breakfast, then to the sandusky mall…i had a mission, to pick up some contact cleaner for anthony and AAA batteries for kurman, which we managed to do in one sweep through the mall, then back to the hotel to pack up for the gig.

maumee-2008-064we arrived at the hall a little before 2pm – the sound company was there already, and had gotten a healthy start on setting up.  we started assembling risers and arranging them on the stage – drums in the middle, keys stage left and percussion stage right.  kurman and anthony were situated between the risers somewhat, with heather and i flanking dan up front.

i got a lot of ribbing, both upfront and during setup and soundcheck, about my rig.  i went all out for this show, and i was pretty meticulous about my rig and how i would be situated on stage…but i felt it was an important show, and i treated it as such.

kurman said as we were loading the bus before we left eastern PA, “this is why you have all this gear…for gigs like these.  if it weren’t for these kinds of shows, there wouldn’t be any point to having it.”  (to clarify, when he said “you”, he meant it in the broad sense, as to include himself as well…he also came loaded for bear, with his kickass hartke rig.)

pic-081now, most people would look at this picture and shake their heads and wonder why the hell you would bring this much gear to a two hour, 25 song show…but there was a reason for every single piece of it.  honest.

as far as standard guitars go, there was my martin acoustic, a firebird, and a strat.  then i had a gretsch 6120 tuned down half a step, a rickenbacker 12 string, a jaguar baritone, my “fatdawg strat” (with lipstick pickups, set up for slide for two songs), the doubleneck ES-1275 (for “thousand angels”), the lap steel, the mandolin….

…yeah.  that’s about it.

if anthony hadn’t been along, i would’ve had to bring a banjo, too.  and a nylon-string classical guitar for “enjoy”.

hey – at least i didn’t have to bring out the pedal steel.

for amplification, i brought a pair of princeton reverbs and my rack system, which allows for the use of my switching system…which, contrary to the way most people use such things, is there to help me manage routing of instruments more so than effects.  i have a single cable, going into a couple of utilitarian pedals on the floor and an ernie ball volume pedal, which feeds a voodoo labs amp selector that has four outs…i use that with a custom snake that allows me to feed four separate signal paths from the same source.  that way, i can unplug, drop the cable into my pocket, and switch to whatever instrument i choose and send it to the proper routing with the click of a switch on the floor.

i think we’ve talked about this system before, though…at some point on here, i’m pretty sure i’ve summed it up.

‘course, you get old and find yourself repeating things.  shame.

anyway, everything worked like a charm, tuned up nicely, sounded great, and ran smoothly…until the side lights came on just prior to showtime and unleashed their wrath on my ES-1275 doubleneck.

it was in tune perfectly just prior to the show, but when the fourth song in the set came up, it was…noticeably flat here and there, to my ears.  and i wanted to be convinced that it was the lights that rendered it such, but i didn’t assume anything or lose my cool about it.  we got through the song, i sat it back down, and it was over.  no big deal.  if i’ve learned anything over time, it’s how to adjust your technique to a somewhat adversarial or less-than-optimal set of circumstances.

maumee-2008-437this i did, and we seem to have gotten out of the song without much trouble…and that was the only one that really had a solid shot at knocking me off my horse for the night.  afterward, when i mentioned it to dan, he hadn’t even noticed.  the only other gaffe on my part that really stuck in my craw was during the quiet section of “castaway”, where there’s a short solo section…and i have no idea what the hell happened there.  my brain just went blank, or my hands failed to respond to whatever commands might’ve been sent in their direction.  it wasn’t an “ohmygod” moment, or anything severe…but it bothered the hell out of me, nonetheless.

other than those two glaring issues, the rest of the show went off without a hitch – which is especially remarkable considering the volume of material we were doing (25 songs covering all three albums), the care that went into putting the setlist together, and the choir.

oh, did i forget to mention that there was a choir?

maumee-2008-587dan had done a songwriting seminar at a school in toledo earlier this year, and the choir director who sponsored it arranged to have the choir back up the band on four songs – “castaway”, “train going home”, “nightbird”, and “tied to your mast”.   and they did it up, too…robes and all.   from the stage, it was hard to tell whether or not they were cutting through the mix with the rest of the band, and i haven’t seen any footage or heard the recording we did of the show yet, so i’m not sure how it came out.  judging from the pictures that were taken, it looks like a typical high school choir scenario – some are singing their asses off, some are kinda phoning it in.  you can see some heads up and mouths open, right next to the deer in the headlights, lips barely parted kids…plus, there’s no way of knowing whether they could hear themselves well enough to sing on pitch over the band, either…but they put their hearts into it.  several of the girls stuck around for load-out and the whole nine yards…it was humbling to see how much of an event this was for them.

loaded up, another trip to steak and shake, and then back to the hotel to catch up on the days’ NFL happenings, drink what we could of the rest of the beer, and get ready to head home…wendy took over 800 pictures of the show, the soundcheck, and the hotel room jam the night before, so there was plenty to remember the trip by.  and there’s a live recording in the can that anthony and i are going to start examining as soon as we get the tracks imported into protools so that we can see what’s good and what’s best kept in the vault.

maumee-2008-283i’m not sure what to expect when i hear the recording of the show…it’s multitracked, so there’s a degree of control over how it’s presented – more so than a soundboard recording would, to be certain.  unfortunately, the outputs to the multitrack unit were from aux sends, so we only had a small number of tracks separated, as opposed to hitting the multitrack machine first and then going to the console, which is the norm for full-blown live recordings…but i’m still eager to see how we did.

Posted in from one town to the next - live shows

the john lilley project at the auction house

ah-jl4
the counter...and "the vault"...

you won’t find many other venues like the auction house in audubon, new jersey.

it’s literally minutes over the walt whitman bridge, nestled in a small community that belies the typecasting that people far from being in-the-know like to bestow upon “jersey”…which is probably just fine with them.  the building looks like it’d be right at home in any number of new england towns – it appears to have been a bank at one point in time, and now serves double duty as a bona-fide auction house AND a performing arts venue.  the building has a grandeur that you don’t see in modern-day banks, to be certain – high ceilings and…yes, a vault.

🙂

the stage is all the way back against the wall to your right as you walk in the door, backdropped by floor-to-ceiling red curtains…and seating is provided by sixty or so antique chairs, complete with armrests.  around the perimeter of the room you’ll see everything from antique furniture to a stuffed (as in “by a taxidermist”, not as in “i just carried this home from the carnival”) bear – no shortage of vibe here.

the snack bar, complete with wooden indian
the snack bar, complete with wooden indian

when i got to the gig, john was standing outside with rick bell – i was the third person to arrive.  i managed to snag a spot directly across the street from the venue and wheeled everything in and waited for instructions regarding where to set up.  john had me set up to his left, just as we did at the puck show.  i tried to stay out of rick’s way until he’d staked out his territory, and i set up in front of him, just as before…it was tommy and rick in back, then freddie, john and myself across the front.  george pierson (longtime tin angel soundman) was on hand to ring out the system and run the house and the monitors for us…it took a while to get everything set, but george is a pro and he did well by us.  i know there were particular things regarding the sound and lights that john wasn’t one hundred percent happy with, but considering the venues’ status on the food chain, i don’t think we could’ve asked for much more than what we got – they’re a new room, starting out in a very small market, and i was personally really iimpressed with the place.

john lilley during soundcheck at the auction house
john lilley during soundcheck at the auction house

we set up and ran through a bunch of things as soundcheck was happening around us – it was a bit chaotic, but it was productive nonetheless.  the only major change involved moving the time signature of “diggin’ deeper down” back to its original tempo and feel…john tried to psyche me out by telling me that he’d moved a bunch of songs to a-flat since the last rehearsal, but he relented when i didn’t flinch.

🙂

after we’d gotten through everything to everyones’ general satisfaction, john took the band out to dinner at a diner around the corner from the venue, where i had the absolute worst stroghanoff i think i’ve ever had in my life (note to self: learn from those around you and order a friggin’ sandwich…to everything, there is a season, and so it goes with pre-gig food…) and we all went back to catch patty blee’s set.

i hope that i can someday convince patty and ernie to record a live album – the chemistry that those two have when they play is unbelievable.  ernie is so tasteful and talented, and he’s a great compliment to pattys’ songs – they rise and fall at the appropriate times, their dynamic is impeccable, and they’re just damn good.  in front of that crowd, respectful and appreciative, they really shone…it’d be a real treat if they ever captured that somehow.

i was standing there, watching them play, and kenny barnard walked in with his wife.  it was the first time i’d seen kenny since robert hazard’s memorial service.  he had come from a birthday party to see the show.  i gave him a big hug and shook hands with his wife and we caught up for a couple of minutes…i try to be as quiet as i can during other peoples’ sets, and i figured we’d have more of a chance to talk after the show, but he slipped out before i got to see him.

so after the openers’ set, i went out to the car to fetch my “robert hazard boots” and came back in to the dressing room, where john and the band were already prepping for the show, changed clothes, and got ready to hit it.  john went out first, as per the plan, to do ” a couple of acoustic songs”.  the first song he did, though, was robert’s “out of the blue”, just himself and the guitar.

that was a moment, man.  we were standing back in the dressing room, and it fell silent for a while.  keep in mind that four out of five of the members of this band are robert hazard alumnus…robert’s shadow never fully recedes from the ground underneath this band.

gods' own rhythm section..tommy and freddie
gods own rhythm section - tommy and freddie

the band walked out for the third number and…well, for the first six or seven songs, it seemed as if we weren’t going to get our footing for this show at all.  it wasn’t so much that there were glaring mistakes or anything like that as…well, it’s hard to put my finger on.  it just felt perpetually awkward, somehow.  like something was wrong, something was either too loud or too soft, or too fast or too slow…all at once.  somehow, though, about seven songs into the set, something clicked.  all of a sudden, we were formidable again…and that carried through most of the rest of the night.  my biggest faux pas of the night was actually committed long before showtime – apparently, i took my 12 string electric out of the car at some point, and had to use the baritone guitar for the intro to one of the songs…to say it was a different sound would be something of an understatement, and it threw the song off considerably.  on the other side of that coin, though, it was my first gig with my new blue fulltone fulldrive2 pedal, and the difference in the overdrive sound for the rickenbacker lap steel was erection-inducing…i’m surprised i was able to play the damn thing sitting down.  WOW.

actually, i’m not sure how much of that night can be attributed to the pedal alone, and how much might actually be attributable to the fact that i had my princeton reverb up to about 4.5, as opposed to its customary 2 or so.  it’s not something that i get to do often, and i have to say – i definitely like playing in the bigger rooms with a little extra volume.   my dormant inner adult tells me that this shouldn’t matter much, but when you’re feeling it bounce off the walls in the room, it does.  plus, it’s generally accepted within the boundaries of conventional wisdom that tube amps sound better when the tubes are “pushed” a bit, and that the sound opens up considerably…especially when overdriven.

this is a duality that i try to straddle as much as possible – i do my best to use one amp for everything electric…guitar, baritone guitar, pedal steel, lap steel…all of it.  the problem with that is that while i love having the dirt for some of the electric guitar and lap steel stuff, i really need a solid, throaty clean sound for the pedal steel, the baritone stuff, and some of the regular guitar stuff.  for every time i think about getting a vibro-champ or something like that for the smaller gigs, i think about getting a super reverb to handle the baritone and the pedal steel.  the reality, though, is that i’m probably right where i need to be, between the princeton reverbs and the deluxe and the vibrolux.  one of those amps is probably always going to be the right one…as much as it’s possible for any one amp to be the right one.

so we got up there and slammed through two hours worth of material…which is kinda hard to believe in retrospect.  it certainly didn’t feel like it, but the clock doesn’t lie.  most of my personal highlights were in the second half of the show – “say yo“, “ordinary lives“, and my favorite song to play live, “second chance” – which, when you hear us do it, will be my obvious favorite…what with it being a lindley-esque lap steel orgy. 🙂

playing with this band is a real rush – and it’s only going to get better as everyone starts to get their feet underneath them and we all learn the songs well enough that we’re not “thinking” when we’re playing, and it’s just flying up from underneath our feet.  once we get to that place, it’s gonna be pretty ridiculous.

Posted in the session log

double duty at cambridge sound studios

we got a solid start to the kelly talley project the last time i was in, and this trip i had two missions – finish up her material, and add mandolin to several songs for a band who had come in from ireland to cut tracks for their new album with jim at the helm – a band called karma parking.

the mandolin family in the lounge at cambridge
the mandolin family in the lounge at cambridge

i’ve learned that, with jim, sometimes he asks for exactly what he wants..and sometimes he has a vague idea and i have some degree of flexibility with regard to what the track might need.  for the karma parking material, i decided to take the extended mandolin family with me as well…so i packed my mandolin, my mandola, and my ocatve mandolin.  i didn’t bring my bouzouki, although in retrospect i can’t remember why.

i had to bring my acoustic and my dobro in as well, to finish up the kelly talley songs…which we were doing before the karma parking guys arrived.  so i had roughly a two-hour window to cut two passes of acoustic guitar, two passes of mandolin (one with the standard whole-note “chops” and one with some single-note solo style stuff interspersed), and a dobro track.  i was originally going to play banjo on this track as well, but i didn’t think that we’d be able to get it finished in the amount of time we had available, so i didn’t bother bringing it in for the session…i left it in the car.

listening to the mandola playback in the control room
listening to the mandola playback in the control room

we finished kellys’ stuff around noon or so…about the time the KP guys came in.  it was evident that they’d been there the night before, due to the telltale pile of jameson whiskey bottles in the studio kitchen…these guys take both their work AND their play pretty seriously.

originally, i was going to cut mandolin on one track, but they had just finished basics for a new song the night before, called “cambodia”, and jim thought that it might have a space in it for something as well, so he put it up for me to listen to – so i cut mandola on that track after dropping the high string down a step for a drone effect, and we did several passes of it just to make sure that they has something that they liked.

with jim salamone, karma parking, and an oversized octave mandolin
with jim salamone, karma parking, and an oversized octave mandolin

then we moved on to the other song, the one that jim had sent me because he thought it would be a mandolin tune.  i played a pass of it on mandolin for him, and then went out into the hallway and got the octave mandolin and ran that by him, and he liked the ocatve mandolin more than the standard one – which was the reaction i figured i’d get…it just sat in the track better than the standard one, and i was also thinking that there was a possibility that theese guys were thinking, on some level, that they didn’t come all the way to america to make a record only to have it dressed up with irish ornaments after they got here.

we finished up in the space of a couple of hours, which meant that i spent a total of roughly five hours in house, and got two paychecks for the day from two different projects.

if only every day were like that. 🙂

Posted in music and the music business, rants - political and otherwise

what will become of us all?

there have been many, many missives written over the course of the past few years about the shift – or shifts – in the music business, and how the old model is dying, how the internet and file sharing is killing the commerce component of the business, how it ain’t what it used to be, how cable or video games or satellite radio or (insert villian here) is to blame for the declining interest in music…beginning with janis ian’s excellent article the internet debacle and the excellent follow up (posted here in PDF form), and culminating with literally tens of thousands of articles, posts on industry forums like the velvet rope, and blogs all over the internet.  my two cents’ are, doubtlessly, nothing groundbreaking…and i’m relatively sure that i’m not saying anything that no one else has said before.

the one thing that i have in common with everyone whos’ pontificated on this subject, going all the way back to the original janis ian articles, is that i can see the future no more clearly than they can, and to try and do so is simply to hypothesize based on our own experiences.  and i’m not really here to do that.  i don’t have any grand solutions, no superior methodology for remaining solvent as an artist…all i know is what i see.

and what i see is both disturbing and encouraging at the same time.

right now, we seem to be at the apex of the ebb of this whole thing.  i’m sure that’s been said a few times leading up to this…but with the economy collapsing in the manner that it has, i can’t imagine things getting much worse.

i could say that every artist i work with is struggling, but i don’t know any of their individual business well enough to make that statement.  i can say, though, based on attendance at shows and the frequency of bookings, that it’s probably a safe assumption that none of us are doing as well as we were even a year ago.  personally, i’m as busy as i ever was, but i’m working with more artists, doing more session work, and still working during the day as well.  i’m lucky in the regard that i have a skill that i’m able to find a market for – but the amount that the market will bear as payment for that skill isn’t going up…in fact, it’s been flatlined for a very, very long time.

in 1982, when i was in high school, the cover band i was in made anywhere from $300 to $500 a night.  this was in the west tennessee area, twenty six years ago.  i was seventeen years old, and minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour.  in 2005, when i played my last stone road gig, the minimum wage had gone up to $5.15 an hour, and for playing our final notes together and going gently into that good night, we got…$300.00.   and, it must be said, the room sizes, the crowds, and the rural demographics were all virtually identical in the two scenarios.

and there are rooms out there who refuse, under any circumstances to pay any band more than $200.00.  there are places who will only let musicians play if they put out a tip jar, and they leave with what fortune sends their way.  then there are places where you won’t hear any music of the live variety at all.  a lot of them have been driven out of the business by PRO’s (performing rights organizations) like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC – who collect licensing fees from clubs who feature live music so that they can pay their members.  but all of this is a subject for another discussion at another time – my point is that the median rate of pay, even for cover bands, has barely moved at all in well over 25 years.  what else can you still get today that you pay the same price for as you paid 25 years ago?  can you name anything?

what that tells me – when i chew on that information for a while – is that over the period of time in question, the general perception of worth has eroded.  those footing the bill simply aren’t willing to pay any more for it than they historically have had to.

the laws of supply and demand are in play, as well…let’s say you’re a club owner or talent buyer, and you’re paying a solo acoustic act $150.00 to come play covers at your restaurant for two or three hours on a friday night and he either asks for a pay raise or becomes a problem in some other area, you can say to yourself with total confidence that you’ll find someone else willing to work for that amount – or less.  how can you be so sure?  because it’s been repeatedly proven.  when you, as a venue owner or talent buyer, are constantly faced with the fact that there are four other guys out there willing to work for less money than you’re paying someone in your current rotation, that’s a hard call to continue to make in favor of the incumbent.

so what do you, as an artist, have to bring to the table to slant the odds in your favor?

people.  a following.  loyal fans.

this is a universal truth, no matter if you’re playing covers or your own material.  if you’re not bringing people out and putting asses in the seats, your career is in trouble.  trust me, i know.  it’s the single biggest reason that you’re reading the grumblings of tom hampton, sideman and session musician and not tom hampton, singer/songwriter.  whatever talents i may or may not posess as a songwriter and vocalist were overshadowed by the talents i lacked in galvanizing the few folks who took something good away from what i did…and, as time went by, i found myself spending more time on trying to build an audience than i did actually creating something for that audience to consume.

to say that my musical life in the present day is both more rewarding and less stressful is a gross understatement…but yet again, i digress.

the question on everyones’ collective mind in this business right now seems to be centered on this one single galvanizing objective – how do you monetize your art?  for independent artists and those at the top of the food chain alike, there’s a real effort underway to strengthen the existing channels and identify new ones between artists and fans as we collectively watch many of the old ones sink beneath the waterline.

artists’ goals used to be simple – align yourself with a record company, and let them do all the work.  once you were signed, you had their muscle behind you and you’d be unstoppable.   the clout that came with signing a record deal was once worth rolling the dice and taking the chance that you’d be one of the folks who would beat the law of averages and wouldn’t get screwed out of the rights to your own work while working for pennies on the dollar and footing the entire bill for the groundwork out of your meager share of the gross earnings of your work…that is, if your work ever saw the light of day.

and yet, when those giants walked the earth, they were the gatekeepers.  if you found favor in their eyes, they could make things happen for you – you just had to be willing to sell your soul in return.

nowadays…well, nowadays, things are different.  and…interestingly, some people are having a hard time making up their minds how to feel about that.

i wouldn’t be one of them.

our landscape is no longer the same terrain once ruled by the dinosaurs – instead, it’s evolved into an ecosystem populated with thousands of smaller carnivores that all compete for the same food supply once dominated by the larger animals.  while the food supply was sufficient for a handful of the larger animals, it hasn’t been enough to satisfy the horde of smaller ones, who have had to make do with feeding on much less of the collective food supply than they would prefer…and some are definitely hungrier than others.

this is all a fancy way of saying that there are a lot of artists out there competing for a share of a dwindling audience, and that they don’t have the collective force of a major label marketing assault at their disposal to lure you in, so they have to do it on a much smaller scale – and that scale isn’t always enough to allow them to be self-sufficient, so the notion of art as a career has become secondary for many of us, out of necessity.

for me, it’s meant the choice of playing music full-time and doing without a lot of things, and forcing that same fate onto my family…or taking a day job and busting my hump, taking time off for gigs but not for vacation, staying awake a lot longer than i think my species is supposed to, and spending a lot of time in the car.  but i have people to provide for, and an addiction to feed – so i accept my fate and play the hand i’ve been dealt.  and – while i complain as much as anyone i know – i’m generally pretty happy with my life.  in fact, i’d have to say that 2008 has turned out to be a pretty phenomenal year…one of my best.

but i’m not the only person whos’ had to make these kinds of choices…and what i’m seeing, among those who travel in the same circles i do, anyway – is that there’s been a gradual thinning of the herd.  it seems as though a lot of the starry-eyed types who were in this game for a paycheck are starting to die off by attrition, and the ones who are left are the artists – the people who do this because they love it…because they can’t imagine not doing it.  the rest of the “rich and famous” crowd have discovered reality television, and they’re plying their wares there…and leaving the rest of us alone, by and large.

and those of us still here, still playing, still gigging…are seeing the new model unfold before us.

earlier in november, bob lefsetz said:

You’ve got to start making these records for yourself. Forget satisfying the system. The system is decrepit and falling apart. IF you homogenized your sound to fit radio…you’d find out that the radio in your mind has already evaporated and what is left is highly formulaic, doesn’t include many genres and is listened to fewer people than before. The story of the summer isn’t that Kid Rock had a hit without iTunes, but that after a year in the marketplace, “Rock N Roll Jesus” has sold a mere two million copies. That’s with the biggest hit of the summer! A multi-format smash!

You’re better off buying Seth Godin’s “Tribes” than reading “Billboard”. The question is, not how can you get on the radio, but how can you build your own coterie, your dedicated tribe, that will keep you alive. And how they remunerate you might not resemble any of the twentieth century business models.

Make music that satisfies you. Forget the media outlets, go directly to the consumer. Can you get people excited? If you can, they will tell other people. It is very important that you abandon old wave marketing techniques. Street teams, carpet bombing, unsolicited e-mail and MP3s… You can try these, but they don’t work, they just serve to alienate people.

Your community must drive your career. Not your label, not radio and not “Rolling Stone”. Sure, the old outlets still have some power, but it is rapidly fading. And unless you want to have a one year career, NEXT YEAR, you’re better off abandoning the old game and going your own way.

You don’t want to hear this. You want it to be easier. You want to be rescued. But there’s no government bailout for artists. You’re lucky if people steal your music. Then maybe they’ll become fans, and buy tickets to see you live.

A fan will send you e-mail, which you must answer. A fan will sign up for your tweets. A fan will befriend you on Facebook. A fan will buy your merch. T-shirts as a badge of honor. Special edition packages, books. Instead of lamenting your inability to sell CDs, construct other products that fans can buy. Even at the micro level, 100 copies of a $100 package is TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS!! In the old days, you sold a person a CD and then they were done. Your fan will buy the special package AND additional merchandise.

A fan will pick you up at the airport. A fan will let you stay at his house. A fan will bring all his friends to the show. A fan wants access. If you provide this, you’ll be stunned at what you get in return.

But you’ve got to give something in return. You can’t be aloof. You’ve got to get down into the pit with your fans. And not worry whatsoever what the mainstream media has to say about your success. Not worry if the A&R man comes to your show. Not worry about hiring a promo man to get your song on the radio.

Your goal is no longer to get paid by the label, but to get paid by your audience.

Figure it out.

everyone i know whos’ managing to stay alive in MB2.0 has figured this out, to some extent.

in a couple of weeks, i’ll accompany dan may to his second show at the maumee theatre just outside toledo, ohio – which is where i played my second show ever with the band.  it’s a historic theatre with a capacity just around 400 seats or so.  as with the last time, dan has acted as his own promoter.  he booked the room, hired the production team, struck his own ticket deal, took care of all the publicity with local press…all by himself.

the first time we played there, a little more than a year ago, we were just under two dozen seats shy of selling the room out – hundreds of miles from home, without a deal with live nation or jack utsick presents or the support of a local sponsor or radio station…dan did it all with word of mouth.

we’re doing it the same way this time, and we’ve managed to learn a lesson or two from the first run and have saved some up-front money and cut a corner or two as well…since there are concerns about whether or not we might have the same success with attendance, considering the state of the economy and the weather situation at this time of year.  dan is one of the people who were heeding lefsetz’s notions of a new music business long before the words were committed to public thought, and he’s making it work for him.

some of us have to work a little harder at it…not that it comes easily to dan, but this whole trip has a double-edged dichotomy to it.  i’ve seen acts that deserve a huge, nationwide audience playing to half a dozen people, and i’ve seen talentless hacks headlining rooms without an empty seat to be found anywhere – and the only rhyme or reason to any of it hinges on that one factor…are there people there or not?

the short period of time that i spent as a talent buyer, answering both to artists and the owner of the room, drove that lesson home once and for all.  while the owner was a genuinely passionate music lover, he had a responsibility to the venue itself to maximize the number of paying customers, otherwise it was truly difficult to make payroll, to invest back into the club, and to promote the acts on the bill.  it’s gotten harder and harder over time, as well, to separate people from their TV remotes and game consoles and get them out and into the seats for shows.

so what’s the solution?  well, in some cases, we can take the music to the homes – like we did for the final show of the idlewheel tour in october, as documented in this excerpt from craig bickhardt‘s subsequent newsletter:

Charlie and Dorothy Wade have a modest home in the blue collar neighborhoods of aptly named Union, New Jersey.  Charlie drives a rig and Dorothy plays the domestic goddess, staying home to raise their boys and cook the best Italian food north of Philly.  A couple of weekends ago Idlewheel “christened” the Wade’s basement, nicknamed the Casbah after Pete Best’s mom’s club where the Beatles debuted.  If it sounds like a cheesey gig, well, you haven’t been to this Casbah.

The Wade’s Casbah is sort of a museum.  Charlie collects records and CDs, so the basement walls are lined with shelves that hold a copy of every record you ever thought about owning back when you couldn’t download the tracks to your ipod. Many of the LP jackets and CD booklets are signed.  Then there’s the Poco memorablilia, dozens of trophies from concerts and music festivals, guitar picks, photos, and a few other rarities such as a signed copy of the Longbranch Pennywhistle LP (Google it, folks).

In the midst of all this, feeling like a bunch of teenagers preparing for that basement concert dad never let us do because the music was always too loud, Idlewheel set up to rock the joint.  There were a few comfortable sofas in the rear, and about 40 folding chairs up front for everybody else.  New York Paul brought in a small PA, and somebody set up some spotlights aimed at the “stage” end of the room.  The acoustics were perfect; a concrete floor, wooden subflooring beams in the ceiling and lots of well fed bodies to soak up the noise.

For two hours we shook the rafters and told funny stories.  The audience wasn’t shy about participation, often prompting the punch lines or going us one better with their own one-liners until the humor took up as much time as the songs.  The funniest by far was the “pirate story”, which you’ll have to drag out of Jack Sundrud some day.

We did two sets, broken up by desert– so many varieties of sweets and pies we were almost in a sugar stupor for the second set.  We gave them every song we knew and a few we didn’t, and it ended all too soon.  Miraculously, none of the neighbors called the cops on us.  There was no spilled beer on the floor, no fights broke out, nobody was shitfaced and beligerent, and not one of Charlie’s records went missing in spite of my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that everybody just take a few on their way out the door.  In short, it was a great gig.

If this is the “new music industry”, it sure beats the old one.  What’s wrong with the people reclaiming their right to a grassroots relationship with the artists they support if both artist and fan benefit tremendously?  And in a time when concert promoters, booking agents, record labels, Internet distributors, Paypal, even the guy collecting tickets at the door seem to have their hands deep in the artist’s pocket, it’s also refreshing to note that our night down in the Casbah was Idlewheel’s biggest grossing concert event of 2008 (all 8 shows)— all donations.  Just us ‘n the folks forgetting about life for a while…

-CB, November 2008

i think that, ultimately, the music business will survive…thrive, even.   i can’t tell you how or why, specifically, but the death knells have sounded before, and they’ll be sounded again.  i can say with a degree of certainty that the age of the superstar is over.  we won’t see another dylan or springsteen in our lifetimes, because the industry infrastructure that created them no longer exists.

what’s taking their place?

ask charlie and dorothy wade.

Posted in from one town to the next - live shows

lessons learned

i find it mildly amusing (and not-so-mildly troubling) that someone whos’ been in this business as long as i have can still have a major epiphany over something so elementary as what i’m about to pass along…

i deal with sound engineers (both live and in the studio) on a perpetual basis, and i’ve always made an effort to be the easy guy – the “plug and play” guy who requires the least amount of effort to get up and running.

that was especially true of me during my singer/songwriter days, when all i had was a guitar and my voice…i mean, how easy could that be?  i had a preamp and a direct box that comprised my whole rig (which i still use for acoustic guitar to this day, and i still get rave reviews for my acoustic guitar sound), and my vocal was as easy as putting a mic in front of my face.

as such, i used to watch other acts who’d put up these diva-esque fusses about getting-this-just-right and turn-that-down and turn-this-up and more-of-me-in-the-monitorsjust shut the hell up and play, i’d think.  if you’re that friggin’ good, all your whining will be irrelevant.

i would pride myself at turning in my performance in spite of whatever conditions might have existed to its detriment…and i think that i managed to kid myself into thinking that this stuff didn’t matter for a long time.  i would go out and i’d play, whether the factors that might affect my performance were within the realm of my control or not, and if the monitors sucked, i’d try a little harder and pay a little extra attention to what was going on around me – as if i were butting heads in some kind of invented adversarial relationship.  no little slacker bitch part-time soundman is gonna throw me off my game.  screw that, dude. i’ll just play a little harder and get through this and get outta here with as few scratches as possible.

i don’t know that i ever consciously gave any thought to the possibility that i’ve been deluding myself all these years.  i mean, i’ve definitely noticed that there’s a difference in the way i play and sing when everything’s right – when the monitors are good and the amp is up and i can hear all the vocals (not just mine…ALL the vocals)…when everything is right and good, i play beyond my actual ability.  when the conditions are favorable (as your meteorologist might say), i’m a lot more willing (outwardly or otherwise) to take chances, and conversesly a lot more likely to hit on something great.

when everything is right, you create the scenario that allows for those moments that raise the hair on the back of your neck to full-on attention and send tingles down your spine….and after all, isn’t that what we do this for?

pic-1320saturday night, i had a triple-duty gig – i played with all three of the acts on the bill at the barnstormers theatre singer-songwriter festival…jeff twardzik, skip denenberg, and craig bickhardt.  i got there early, hauled all my stuff inside, and started setting up my rig – it was lap steel, dobro, mandolin, and baritone guitar through one of my princeton reverb amps, a couple of pedals…not terribly elaborate by any stretch.

my usual deal is to come out of my ernie ball volume pedal into one of two scenarios – one would be into my voodoo labs amp selector, which has four outputs and allows for a lot of flexibility in routing and the like…it’s what i use for larger shows.  or, i go into a morley A/B/Y box, which i split two ways – one is the acoustic signal path, which goes through a fishman aura for the dobro (switchable) and on to the house..the other is into a fulldrive2, a voodoo labs tremolo and on to the amp.  either way, i get the ability to split up the signal path that my acoustic instruments take and segregate it from the path that the electric instruments use.

what i’ve allowed myself to get into the habit of doing, though, in some instances where circumstances seem to demand it, is to just run everything into the guitar amp and hope for the best.  it would be kind to call it a compromise…perhaps a lot more accurate to call it a lazy mans’ means to an end.  i’ve never gotten a good result from this.  a couple of times, i’ve gotten a passable result from it, but most of the time i get honky low mids, feedback, and a generally crappy representation of what the instruments are supposed to sound like.

but hey…i can make it work, because i’m a professional, and i can rise above crappy sound and turn in an outstanding performance, no matter what!

or….not.

when did this come to me?  saturday night.

that’s right.  saturday night, some 28 years after my first gig, a basic, fundamental rule of live performance actually managed to sink in.

in my own words, it would be this:


if, for any reason, you are unable to properly perceive your work and value it in context, your confidence will dwindle..and with it, the quality of whatever else you may contribute subsequent to that perception.  your confidence informs your ability, and as such it is just as important to maintain it as it is to maintain your skills and talents.

in other words, if i can’t hear myself or my partners properly, the “i suck” synapses start firing and they pummel my “ability” or “talent” synapses until they’re not up to their usual standards…perhaps a harsh way to put it, but that’s how it feels, ultimately.  if conditions aren’t optimal, then i can solider through and turn in a good show.  there’s a lot of wiggle room for me between optimal and adequate.  but once that “adequate” line is crossed, then it gets radically worse as i slide down the totem pole.

saturday night, i was in the position of having to run everything through my guitar amp, yet again.  now, i’m not entirely certain why saturday night was that much worse than other nights when i’ve done the same thing.  i personally think it was a combination of a few things….

1.  the better the artist i’m playing for, the better i feel i have to be.

the bill on saturday night was first rate, and it culminated with craig bickhardt, who i love playing and singing with, and yet i always feel as though craig gets shortchanged when we play together.  the only rehearsals we’ve ever had have been idlewheel rehearsals, and there’ve only been two of them – so everything i’ve learned with and for craig has been on-the-fly, in live situations.  for one thing, he deserves better than that…and for another thing, i need to be working harder to give it to him.

2.  amp proximity is of the utmost importance.

i’m much happier playing with my amp facing in a direction other than pointed at my head.  when i have to do so, it changes my delivery radically, because i hear all of the high midrange and none of the lows.  saturday night, my amp was in the worst of all positions – over my shoulder, pointed right at the back of my head.  when playing without a monitor of any sort, this is bad enough.  but when you’re relying on your ears to create some sort of balance between the house sound and your (unmiked) guitar amp, there’s just no way you can make that call.  as such, i end up playing much more quietly than i should, and predictably enough, was told at the end of the night that “it was kinda hard to hear what you were doing up there…”.

3.  the tuning gremlins

this happens every now and then, but it’s always at its worst in these situations…no matter how dead-on the needle on your tuner might be, there’s still something – something – that’s just not right.  was it the high mando string?  nope…maybe the A string in the middle?  well, it rings out on the tuner, but – man, that just can’t be right…

when you’re playing through an amp right behind your head and the only feedback you’re getting from the house is from a wedge at the front of the stage 14 feet away from you, perception is the enemy.  and yet, if you rely on the needle, then your ears play tricks on you and you’re back to fighting off the “i suck” synapses.

4.  feedback.

acoustic instruments are the natural enemy of tube guitar amps.  those wonderful old amplifiers personify the sound of the golden age of rock and roll, but they’re a tough choice for amplifying mandolin and/or – heaven forbid – dobro.  dobro amplification is something of a science in and of itself, although i have to say that the addition of the fishman aura and the new pickup has gone a long way towards alleviating many of the old headaches.  still, a fender deluxe reverb is a long way from the top of the list of first choices for amplifying a resonator instrument.

as such, that ghost hovers over your head and informs every move you make.  you have your foot tentatively on the volume pedal, your palm is ready to fall on the strings every second of every song, and you never, ever relax and just play the damn song…you’re always waiting for the howling barrage from the mains when you pick up the instrument.

does this all sound like a lot of long-winded whining?  damn straight it does.  and that’s one of the reasons why i’ve frowned on it for so long.  and yet, last night, as i sat there trying to get my dobro up to a proper volume level to be heard past the edge of the stage, i realized that if i’d only stood up for myself during soundcheck and insisted on having some form of reinforcement – whether it be mic’ing the amp (which jd malone does religiously) or giving up another input on the board for the acoustic instruments (which shouldn’t have been much of a problem, either), it would’ve been a night and day difference in my performance – i would’ve responded better to what i heard, and i would’ve played better as a result.  and isn’t that why i’m there in the first place?

as anyone that i work with would tell you, i’ve been very passive about all this in the past…i travel very heavy, and there’s a lot of work involved in getting me set up on stage to accompany someone, and if i have to browbeat a soundman…well, that’s just that much more that i have to turn my attention to.  but – at this point, the stakes are higher, and i simply must pay more attentione to all this.

the first thing i said to craig after we finished the show was that “i have to start being more assertive about my soundchecks.”  if i’m not able to relax and play my best, then i’m not at the top of my game, and if i’m not able to do my best for the person i’m supporting, then what’s the benefit of having me there at all?

so…there might be a bit more nitpicking on my part at soundchecks from here on out.  it’s not as if i don’t have enough to do prior to showtime.  likewise, it won’t be that often, because i have great relationships with almost every soundman in every venue that i work with on a regular basis.  so it won’t be every gig.

but just remember – if it comes to the whining, it’s not all about me.