jd malone and craig bickhardt – doylestown and phoenixville, PA

me, jd, and tommy geddes at puck
me, jd, and tommy geddes at puck

first of all, these shows are too few and far between – i feel like i see less and less of craig of late, and although i understand why, it doesn’t mean that i don’t miss playing with him.  and…this is the first JD band show since our puck gig that we did without jim miades on bass, which feels like ages ago.  before that, i guess you’d have to go back to the spring and the wilmington flower market show.

that’s too long between band shows.

j.d. apparently feels the same way, because we’re starting to pick up a few more of them…we actually had back to back shows this weekend, starting with puck (opening, as a trio) on friday night and headlining steel city on saturday night, with craig bickhardt doing a special set as well.  (and, of course, yours truly on double duty…and i wouldn’t have it any other way.)

i got to puck a little later than i wanted to, and that was even after having left work early to make sure that i got a healthy head start.  i was early enough, under the circumstances, though…not so late as to freak anyone out, anyway.  when i walked in, though, jd and tommy were just starting to get situated on stage, and there was nothing else up there…not a single instrument.   i put my stuff down and kinda looked around, confused…tommy must’ve read my thoughts and said, “yeah…jd made the headliner strike all their stuff so we could set up.”

(the reason that’s funny is that – one, that never happens, and two – it’s usually the other way around…the opener has to strike their stuff and hustle up when it’s time to play and then get their crap out of sight as quickly as possible.)

the reality, though, was that it was a four piece acoustic band…a single guitarist, two fiddlers, and a nyckelharpa player, and they’d stashed all their instruments backstage.

now, i don’t know about you, but i’d never heard of a nyckelharpa…and i don’t seem to know anyone else who knows what it is, either – judging from the confused looks i’ve gotten when i’ve brought it up in the time since.  in a nutshell, it’s a bowed instrument, with two string sets – four noted strings that are played with the bow, and twelve strings tuned to the chromatic scale that are sympathetic (which is to say, they vibrate in unison with whatever note of the scale is played, at the point in time when the note is played…so you have two strings vibrating at the same time based on whatever note is actually being bowed at the time…i think).  instead of fretting the instrument, though, the actual notes are fretted by keys that run alongside the neck of the instrument that actually serves as frets when pressed, as they make contact with the string at graduated junctures up and down the neck.  all i can really say about it with any authority is what i was told by her father about the instrument, and what i’ve managed to dig up about it on the internet…well, that and how it sounds.

its body is much deeper than that of an ordinary violin, and that (combined with the sympathetic strings) give it a significantly different sound than a standard violin, and the fact that you don’t fret the instrument the way you would a violin/viola/etc made it immediately attractive to me.  now, where i end up going with that is anyone’s guess, but for the time, i’m still very much inspired by what bronwyn bird was able to do with this instrument during their set on friday night.

(interestingly, when we looked this thing up on wikipedia, bronwyn’s picture was on the wiki page for the nyckleharpa.  props. 🙂 )

mandolin with jd at puck in doylestown
mandolin with jd at puck in doylestown

yet, when we showed up to soundcheck, all this stuff was totally out of sight…so i plopped my newly returned princeton reverb on the stage, plugged in the few pedals i needed, and was almost entirely ready to roll right then, but i guess some degree of tuning was necessary, so i got that out of the way, too.  i then proceeded to the bar, where i downed not one, not two, bur THREE samuel adams cherry wheat drafts.

they were sooooo good i couldn’t help myself.  and this is coming from a guy who typically doesn’t drink before a show, too.  good stuff.  GOOD stuff.

now, the other highlight of the night that had nothing to do with me or the band i was playing with was this scrappy bartender kid at puck named mike wilkins.

JD yells out for him during soundcheck, so he comes up to the stage and takes JD’s guitar and proceeds to play this song…the title of which i won’t reveal here, because if i do, then every pun-hungry nashville wannabe is gonna spill their coffee bolting for their legal pads.  he absolutely knocked me out, though.  then, the show starts…he comes up and does TWO songs and they’re BOTH phenomenal.

i hope good things happen for him, and that he’s smart enough to stay out of his own way…if so, this page will be turning up in search results for his name in pretty short order.

for us, the set itself seemed somewhat anticlimactic, knowing that we’d be playing with the full band the following night, and for a full set as well.  still, we got up there and gave it what we had, and (if i might say so myself) had a pretty solid set.  JD got the board mix afterward, and he was thrilled…so if he’s happy, then i’m happy. 🙂

oh, and did i mention that they have samuel adams cherry wheat on draft?

oh. ok.

so, the next night was the one we were really looking forward to…the one with craig on the bill and with the full band in tow.  so of course, i show up loaded for bear – lap steel, pedal steel, banjo, mandolin, baritone guitar, mandoguitar – the whole nine yards.  i was ready to friggin’ ROCK.

a rare banjo shot, steel city in phoenixville
a rare banjo shot, steel city in phoenixville

but then i get there and SOMEbody (cough*tommy*cough) had made the decision before i got there that we’d forego setting me up over on the little island where i usually set up, and that i’d be at stage right, next to the soundguy.  i wanted to be irritated, but as it turns out, i had enough room for everything but the pedal steel, and i would’ve only used that on a couple of songs anyway…so it was all good.  i had more than enough room for everything else, and i probably could’ve forced the issue with the pedal steel if i’d really wanted to, but i just left it in the car.  it wasn’t as important as i would’ve liked for it to be.

where i have to give props to my boy is that, whether he had intended it or not, having everyone up on that same level made quite a difference when it came to hearing everyone and being able to interact as a band – avery, specifically, said several times how nice it was to actually be able to hear what i was doing.  during craig’s set, too, it was much easier to blend myself into what i was hearing onstage – craig actually came up to me after the show and asked if i’d been working through the songs lately.  i wanted to say, “no, it’s just that the last couple of times we’ve played together, i played so badly that i could only go up from there.”

i discussed this a bit in a previous blog entry, though…how the mental aspect of being able to hear everything in perspective is such a huge factor in the performance that you’re able to turn in.  if i needed any proof, i got it on saturday night.  i felt like i was totally locked in with everyone else, and i’m sure it reflected in what i chose to play, and how i executed it.

something has to be said about the crowd as well.  SOLD OUT.

folks were starting to file in as i was finishing my setup and tuning everything, and i thought to myself, “wow…this is kinda nice.  there’ll be a solid crowd tonight.”

then, as i was finishing up, wendy came in with jayda in tow, and i got them a seat right up front, and i was sitting there talking to them, and it really started to fill up.  my buddy rob nagy came in and i had them bring a table up from downstairs and sit it down right behind wendy and jayda so they’d be close enough to take everything in…i went downstairs to put bags away and decompress for a few minutes before going back upstairs for the show, and the place was mobbed – packed to the gills.  fern told me that they actually went one over capacity (how does that happen?  how do you just go one over?  hmmmmm….).

craig bickhardt at steel city
craig bickhardt at steel city

craig came up to a wellspring of applause, and we opened with “you’re the power”, which i played baritone guitar on (although, in fairness, this night was the first time we’d ever done it together), and i could feel the amp under my feet, the bottom end was so tight.  i’d just gotten the amp back from tim warneck, my service tech, the afternoon before the vonda sheppard show at sellersville, and these two shows this particular weekend were the first time i’d gotten to play through it myself…james preferred it to the deluxe for the show, so i used the deluxe for that gig.

the one thing that still sticks in my craw, somewhat, where craigs’ sets are concerned, is that i have to start sticking with dobro for the songs in his set that require the slide element.  the lap steel just isn’t cutting it, and i should have figured this out by now.  perhaps for some of the ballads it might work, as a lindleyesque ornament, but for the stuff that’s the staple of the live show right now, dobro is where i should be going.  for “real game” and the like, it’s the better voice.  that’s all there is to it.

other than that, though, i felt really good about my performance with craig on saturday, and i needed that.  i’ve felt anything but good about other recent shows with him, and i felt like i needed to turn in a solid outing for this one to make amends for some of the others…and obviously, he noticed.

the bottom end - baritone and bass guitar.
the bottom end - baritone and bass guitar.

the break between the two sets was pretty short, and we went right into JD’s set…we’re still using “still love you” as an opener.  i can see that, from a certain perspective, but just once i’d like to open with “silver from” or something equally – potent?  maybe for the flower market show this spring or something. 🙂

as i had mentioned before, i do think that the fact that we set up so close together had something to do with it on one level, but the band was a steamroller that night – after the first couple of songs, it was almost as if the songs were playing themselves at some point.

it’s funny – the other day, i was talking with john lilley, and he asked me how i was able to remember all the stuff i had to remember between his band and the other bands that i work with.  he said it with a chuckle, but i could tell that he really wanted an answer to the question…i think partly because he was genuinely curious, and partly to lay his own worries to rest about my preparedness to play in his band.  it was actually a somewhat tough question to answer…but, in essence, i told him about how i was a student of what i call “the lindley method” – learning the academic angle of what it is you’re tackling, and then just turning off your brain and letting your subconscious take over.

i’ll let david explain:

(from an interview in acoustic guitar magazine)

Your solos tend to be very melodic. Do you work out your parts in advance, or are you improvising as you go?
LINDLEY: It’s a combination of [finding] what works and stretching.   I’ll try a few different things and try to remember the licks that seem to be good.   A lot of times on the road I’ll fall into playing the same things.   If the sound is bad, I’ll find myself playing the same old thing.   If the balance is good, if the sound is right, then I’m more willing to take chances–the subconscious stuff comes out.   What I’ve tried to do, especially playing with Jackson, is to get into a place where it’s automatic.   It just comes on, and you are watching yourself, like you’re looking over your shoulder.   That’s the best of all, when you are watching yourself play.   You actually get to sit back and say, “Where did that come from? Don’t ever do that again!”   So it’s a combination of those things: finding what works, and then “let’s mess with it.”   And then some things just seem to come out without even trying.   Gifts.   Evidence of something beyond.

(and on the same subject, in vintage guitar magazine)

You always seem to be coming from some fresh angle and direction that’s not necessarily what you did before, not what anybody would expect.

LINDLEY: Yeah, yeah.   You can’t form that thought in your brain when you play.   It’s a subconscious thing.   When you play a solo, you don’t really play it; you kind of watch what’s going on.   It’s a split second – it makes itself known.   Like peripheral vision.   You kind of see it or smell it or whatever it is when you’re playing.   It’s kind of the same thing in archery.   You can’t think about all the mechanical things and compound bows and the aim – you can’t think about it.   You don’t think; the bow goes off, and the arrow goes in the X-ring – if you’ve done it right.

So you play until it’s second-nature.   You practice your form until the form is automatic.   Like the Korean Olympic team: a thousand arrows a day.   It’s proven that any kind of thing, if you do it a lot, and you do it the right way, then you get really good.   Thousand arrows a day.   It goes right in there, at 90 meters, the size of a grapefruit.   Pretty amazing.   Practice it until it’s second-nature to you – and then you play.

But it has to be an automatic thing, because you really screw up if you think, “Now I’ll do this, now I’ll do that.”   You can’t think that hard.   The automatic part of it you have first – the technique and all – and then you put the emotion and other stuff in there.

Not everybody can do that kind of thing and pull if off. I fail a lot.   When that happens, that’s when you have to fall back on all the mechanical stuff and technique.

now i’m not going to sit here and tell you that i have this particular technique mastered or anything so absurd as that, but it’s what i try to do when it comes to stepping onstage with someone, or working on someones’ project in the studio…i try to turn off my brain and let the things that i’ve learned over the years ebb to the surface.  i’ve found that on the occasions when i’m successful at doing that, i’ve had my best nights.

saturday night with JD was one of those nights.

no fun aloud, boys....
no fun aloud, boys....

everyone seemed to bring their A game…we could hear each other, the crowd was superb, and everybody played their asses off.  what started for me with craigs’ set continued on through JD’s set…everything i asked my fingers for, i seemed to get.  everything seemed to go right…every chance i took paid off, every weird idea i got somehow landed on its feet.

jayda (who had seen JD once before, in a duo show that he and i did) was so impressed that she wants to bring her mom to a show.

that’s a statement in and of itself.

One thought on “jd malone and craig bickhardt – doylestown and phoenixville, PA

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