solo acoustic at steel city coffeehouse, phoenixville PA

fern brodkin asked me, just before we started, when and where my last solo acoustic show was – it was in medway, mass., and it was before robert died, last summer.

therefore, it really has been almost a year since my last one. i was excited for it, though. jayda and i had gone over a few songs and she was going to be singing with me, and i got a text from tommy on the way to the show asking if i wanted any percussion support, and (of course) i told him to bring it on.

so, i guess that in a strictly academic sense, it wasn’t a solo show at was a “tommys” show. 🙂

it was a double bill with an old, old friend of mine – ray naylor, who i’ve known since the early, early days of the grape street open mike, back during the nik everett administration. ray and i had gotten the same email from fern, asking if we were available to do the show, and we both gave it the nod…so there we were.

jayda has been coming with me to steel city since she was little, and i asked her if she wanted to do a couple of songs with me – we picked the acoustic, american-idolized version of love is a battlefield, a paramore song called decode, the carole king/gerry goffin classic save the last dance for me, and the across the universe version of i wanna hold your hand…i love hearing her sing that song. when she sings it, you can hear the smile in her voice and you automatically feel better, no matter what your circumstances might be. she gave save the last dance an amy winehouse twist, and blew newspapers back on the counter with the other two…and this was 24 hours after a final run-through that she barely got through because of her allergies, which showed up right on time this year. truth be told, mine had set in pretty solidly, but it was just the typical itchy eyes and runny nose stuff, and hadn’t really impacted my voice the way hers had.

on the way to the gig, i got a text message from tommy geddes, saying that he was coming out, and asked if he should bring anything. “bring it!”, says me.

so what was going to be a low key, solo acoustic thing turned into The Tommies with special guest Jayda Hampton…and then dan may walks in. and i had brought my dobro, the one tuned to E, because i was thinking about doing it ain’t you myself as part of the show…but when dan walked in, that cemented the song’s spot in the setlist.

the only things i really knew i was going to do for this show were it ain’t you, i was going to play robert hazard’s i still believe in you on mandolin, i was going to do larry burnett‘s only time will tell, and i was going to do dan fogelberg‘s forefathers for jayda and her mother and grandmother, who were both there for the show. other than that, i had no concrete plans whatsoever.

when dean sciarra came in, though, that automatically put a child’s claim to fame on the list, being the huge poco fan that he is. also, nik had requested savannah rain via twitter earlier in the day, even though he wasn’t able to make it…but i couldn’t not play it for him. in fact, i opened up with it.

the single biggest difference for me, in doing these kinds of gigs and doing covers in the corner of a restaurant for a couple of hours for walkaround cash is the rappore with the audience. last night, i was able to look around the room and see a large majority of folks who’d come out to see me. the reason they were there was because i was. when you walk onstage knowing that, it’s hard to overstate the difference between that dynamic and a cover gig, or even an original gig when you’re opening for another artist in front of their audience. you’ve already won them over…they showed up. now you just have to give them something to sink their teeth into, and that’s strong motivation to go the extra mile and put on a show, as opposed to standing there singing and strumming.

today, the day after, i made a point of either calling or emailing a bunch of the folks who came out, and jayda was – without a doubt – the hit of the show. they all knew what i was capable of, but jayda was something of a revelation…and it was nice to hear.

because (to channel eddie vedders’ citizen dick character from singles)….”a compliment for her is a compliment for me.”

my brush with death in the swamps of jersey

a good story deserves to be told, and this is a good story. so grab a snack and settle in.

i was originally to have done two gigs on the 18th – one at 6pm and one at 10pm. the 6pm show was in lambertville, nj…it’s called the heartlands hayride, and it’s a two hour radio broadcast, performed live in front of an audience and sent out over the air, grand ole opry style.

now, my logic was that – since i’d be leaving at a little after 8pm – i’d have plenty of time to make the 1 hour and 27 minute trek across the state to long branch, nj and would be able to set up and make a go of it with these guys that we all met at the cape may singer/songwriter’s conference the month before, at the 10pm gig in long branch – because, as we all know, i’m incapable of saying no. 🙂 (actually, i was looking forward to the evening gig…i like playing with new people and they seem like good folks, and had picked some cool stuff for the show. call me nuts if you must.)

we were to arrive for the hayride show at 4:30, so we’d have time to acquaint ourselves with the house band and run through the songs JD was to do on the show that night. i dutifully loaded the car with the necessary gear for both shows and headed out into a beautiful day with my iPhone and my earbuds. i was driving with the windows down, with the music bouncing around inside my head, and feeling incredibly good about life in general…which is usually a pretty good indicator that something is gonna go off the tracks somewhere.

so i got to the venue at a decent hour, unloaded a handful of gear into the staging area, and returned to the truck to move it into a parking space…but when i turned the key in the ignition, i heard nothing but a clicking sound.

“well…i don’t have time to deal with this right now…”, i thought, as i braced my shoulder against the door frame and pushed the trooper into a parking spot…i figured i’d do one of two things – i’d either try to find someone inside who had jumper cables after the show, or i’d get on the AAA website and try to renew my two-months’-expired membership so i could call them for help afterward, if need be. i wasn’t really able to give it a lot of thought out of the gate, as i had a show to play…and a certain amount of faith that everything would work out afterward – somehow.

the show itself was something else – it’s apparently a long-running affair…some of the folks in the house band gave me a bit of background on the show, and some of them have been doing this gig for almost a decade. there were over a hundred people there the night jd and i did the show, and a woman who was working concessions told me that it was a really light crowd – i replied that some venues would kill to get a hundred people through the doors on a regular basis, but i don’t think it was anything she didn’t know.

anyway, jd and i did two songs in each of the two hours of the show…and while it was certainly different from a typical JD gig, it was fun nonetheless. afterward, we packed up and made our way out to the parking lot with the husband of the woman i mentioned earlier (and father of the two kids that i turned into mandolin junkies in the space of a very short period of time during the show) with jumper cables in tow, ready to breathe life back into the trooper (which, i should point out, is now a member of the 200K club…on its way to 205K, actually).

we put the cables on and, sure enough, it roared to life again, ready to carry me across the state to long branch to my next gig, beginning in just under two hours.

jd and i stood there, listening to the engine run while i punched the coordinates into my iPhone and prepared for the drive.

“you sure you wanna do this, man? you should just head home, don’t you think?”

“well…i mean…the guy left his cables with me, so the worst case scenario would be that if i needed another jump, i’d just have to find someone else to jump me, right?”

“ok, man…but if anything happens, call me.”

boy, would he regret making that statement.

now, according to the directions that google maps had pulled down from cyberspace, i was supposed to cross over the road that i’d taken to get to the first gig and follow hunter road for three miles or so, and take a left onto an intersecting road and then on to the garden state parkway and to long branch. i said goodnight to JD, plugged my dying cellphone into the car charger, and took a look across the street…there was hunter road, all right, but it was emblazoned with a “no outlet” sign.

well, that can’t be…can it? i mean, google maps tells me that there’s a road that intersects with it just a few miles down the road, here….and why would they lie about something like that?

well, just to be safe, i used the little thumb-scrolling iPhone trick to follow the purple line that was my route on the map…and – yeah. there it was. sure enough, on the map, the road intersects right there on the map.

“what the hell”, i thought. “it’s only a few miles. and if there’s something goofy about this, i can always turn around and come back.”

so…off i go. right past the “no outlet” sign and off into the unknown.

let’s just say that, first of all, the absolute absence of mailboxes from almost the first one hundred yards should have been cause for concern. then, a mile down the road, i come upon a sign that says “pavement ends”…and then, well…the pavement ended. it went to gravel from asphalt.

i had my map on the screen, in my hand, and was following myself along on the map, and according to the map, i was on the right track – right on the purple line. so, yeah. i kept going.

as i went further and further down this road, i encountered a proliferation of sleepy-hollowesque trees, with bare branches hanging out over the road like a canopy over this gravel road, riddled with puddles and standing water…and i followed this road for about two miles or so…

…until i came upon a barricade placarded with a huge sign, proclaiming “bridge out”.

so i applied the brakes and reveled in my “a-ha” moment…for about seven seconds, at which time the engine shut off and the car went dark.



clutch. turn. click. turn. click. turn. click. click….click.

ok, let’s review.

20 percent charge on cell phone. dead battery. abandoned gravel road with no mailboxes on it. swamps of jersey. jd on his way home. 10pm gig imminent.

i fished in the blackness for the cable leading from my car charger to my phone, opened up the display so i could see around myself, and got out of the car to have a look around. pitch black, dead quiet…i could faintly hear the water that was rushing underneath the empty space where, once many years ago, a bridge stood. i turned around to look behind me and, over my shoulder on the side of a hill on the right side of the road, i could see the outline of a house…without a single light on inside the place. that is, until i cast my eyes on it, and a light magically came on in an upstairs room facing the road.

“so. this is how it ends”, i thought. “this is my payback for all those years of making fun of horror movies, laughing at these idiots who willfully wander down hallways where certain death awaits them…people who squat in abandoned cabins in the woods without letting anyone know where they are, all that…”

alright, so honestly…i wasn’t so much scared as pissed at myself, and bummed that – at this point – the second gig of the night was all but assured of being out of reach.

so i made the call…i pulled up jd’s number and called him and said that, yes, you were right…i should have just headed for home, but as we both know, i didn’t…and if he hadn’t gotten too far away, would it be possible to come back towards the gig, except when you get to the left, turn right instead and just keep driving until you see my car?

sure, he said…so that was half the battle.

since jd was on his way to try and locate me in my current predicament, i couldn’t very well turn my phone off to conserve battery power, as he might have to call me to clarify where he was supposed to be looking for me…so i left it on for the time being. i knew, though, that i’d have to get this thing plugged in at some point to get it back into the green…but i’d worry about that after jd got there.

realistically, it probably only took jd about fifteen minutes or so to get to me. i saw his headlights in my rear view mirror and was relatively confident that it was him, lest there was some kind of vast google-maps-conspiracy to lure foolish travellers to this point in order to “disappear” them for whatever sinister motives they might’ve had. far fetched? sure…but these are the kinds of things that occur to stranded motorists who find themselves unexpectedly stranded in jason’s woods for no logical reason.

anyway, jd pulls up, the window comes down, and he’s past the point of trying to conceal his obvious amusement…and hell, who can blame him? he circles the car around and backs into a vantage point where the front of the two vehicles are close enough for the jumper cables to reach their respective batteries. we get everything connected, and i go around and get in the car to start the engine so i can get back on the road and put this whole embarrasing episode behind me.

clutch. turn. click. turn. click. click…..turn…click.

this isn’t really happening. this ISN’T really HAPPENING.

well….yeah. it is.

we let it sit for a few more minutes, thinking that maybe it just needs a few extra minutes of juice or something, but – you guessed it. no dice. it simply wasn’t gonna start, jump or no jump.

in our combined expert opinions, we decided that it had to be the battery itself that was the problem, since it started right up the previous time…and obviously, it wasn’t holding a charge. so – the solution, as best as we could figure, was to find a 24 hour wal-mart and go buy a battery. i plugged my car charger into jd’s outlet and pulled up the web browser on my iPhone and went to the wal-mart website and did a search for the closest wal-mart to the lambertville, nj zip code that was open 24 hours. our match turned out to be willow grove…a half hour away.

any pipe dream of making the long branch gig died on the spot when that search result popped up on my screen.

so i grabbed my car charger, we locked down the trooper, and i left a brief note underneath the windshield wiper for whatever unfortunate soul might happen upon its carcass while we were seeking a battery in parts unknown. while we were navigating our way back out to the main road, i googled the lambertville police number and called them to let them know that, if anyone called about an apparently abandoned izusu trooper, that it wasn’t really abandoned and that we were on our way to get a battery for it and we’d have it outta there by no later than 11pm, tops…the dispatcher seemed a little befuddled about why i’d call her if we had the situation under control, and i had to explain to her that, yes – we have the situation under control, but if someone calls about it, i didn’t want it to end up impounded somewhere where i couldn’t get at it until monday or anything goofy like that, and that basically i was calling to convey to her that there was a rescue action underway and please don’t make my car vanish.

when jd and i came out into lambertville just before crossing the bridge, there was a service station on the right hand side of the road with garage bays open, and on a lark, we pulled in to ask the guy working there if there might actually be an auto zone or something like that in the area where we could get a battery.

“we got batteries…” he says.

oh, yeah? how much?

“i dunno. nobody ever asks me for anything like that.”

deep breaths. deep breaths.

“is there anyone you can call to find out?”

“well…my boss is coming in to close up in a few minutes. you can ask him.”

why is this man smiling?  seriously, why?
why is this man smiling? seriously, why?

so jd and i waited there for another ten minutes or so for the owner to come in, and i availed myself of the idle time to make the dreaded call to the guys who, by now, were getting ready to start their first set without the dude they’d booked to back them up for the evening. i got him on the phone and told him what was going on, readers’ digest condensed version style…he was disappointed, but there wasn’t much any of us could do about it at this point…but before too many more words were exchanged, the owner pulled up in a pickup truck with the name of the service station emblazoned on the door.

we re-explained our predicament to him…he looked me up in his book, picked out the right battery for me, and i gave him NINETY FIVE BUCKS for it. he also loaned us a couple of tools to use for dislodging the terminals and installing it, since…after all…we’d have to come through that way on the way home, anyway, we could just drop them through the slot in the door when we came through.

he also brought up the unpleasant notion that there was a very real outside chance that it could be the alternator that was draining the battery, but after describing the situation to him in a little more detail, we figured that was a remote possibility at best. still, if it were, the battery would probably be drained by the time we got it from where it was back to the service station…and if we got it there, shut it off and it wouldn’t turn back on, he’d track an alternator down for me and install it on monday. if the voltage meter wasn’t fluctuating in any radical fashion, though, it would probably be fine.

so on the way back to the trooper, we decided that we’d take just that course of action – we’ll get the battery in, get it started and drive it back to the service station, park it, shut it off…and if it starts again, we’ll keep going.

we got back to the spot where the trooper was parked, after laughing most of the way back down that spooky-assed road that someone in the cybersphere decided would be my best route to long branch from lambertville…jd did a three point turn and backed around the trooper so that the headlights would be facing the hood that we’d be installing the battery under (i had also stopped at CVS to buy a flashlight and batteries, to help with the visibility issue.).

we got the battery out, set it on the ground in front of the car, and proceeded to remove the bracket holding the dead battery in place. we promptly decided that it’d make for a better story if we managed to drop (and lose) one of the screws that held the battery bracket in place, so that’s exactly what we did. we twisted it until it was loose, and then heard it drop down into the pitch black nether regions of the bowels of the engine cavity, never to be seen again.

wow. just….wow.

well, while i worked on the transplant, jd went rummaging through his car, looking for something that might bear some resemblance to the missing screw…and, amazingly, came up with one by stealing it from one of his speaker stands.

so…after all this, at around 10:30, we secured the battery in place, and i got my keys out of my pocket to make that fateful walk around the corner of the fender and into the drivers’ seat to find out, once and for all, whether i was truly screwed, or whether i was standing at the point in the tunnel where the light became visible.

thankfully, when i opened the door, the cabin light came on…and when i put the key in the ignition and turned it, the engine started.

i really don’t know if the thin thread that suspended my sanity above the murky lunacy below would have held up if it hadn’t. i might have just wandered off into the woods and waited for the Dude With The Hockey Mask to come for me.

thankfully, though, we were back on our way. i grabbed the tools, the old battery, and threw them into the back of the trooper and jd got in his truck and we got ready to head back out of jasons’ woods and back to the service station for part one of our test…would it start once we got it there and shut it off?

i kept an eye on the voltage meter the whole way back out to the main road, and it was dead in the middle the whole way, which was certainly encouraging…and sure enough, when we got to the service station, i pulled it into the spot in front of the end bay, shut it off, returned the tools to the specified slot, and got back in to start it…and it fired right up.

so jd and i decided on a route back, and figured we’d stay together up until the point that jd would be getting off 422 to go home…and we took off again. i called him on his cell when we got into doylestown to let him know that i was going to stop for gas, and he picked a wawa right on 611 and i pulled in to the pump and shut her off…started the gas flowing and went inside to wash up a bit and grabbed something to drink. when i came out, the tank was full and again, it started right up.

we parted ways at the valley forge exit off the turnpike, and i got home without incident…it’s started just fine every day since. i watched what would have been a $300 weekend turn into a break-even situation, but – i have to concede – it could have been worse. i can point to other situations in my automotive history where, in fact, it has been worse. MUCH worse.

as i said to wendy when i called her on the way home….”i’m not dead. no one else is dead. and there are no police involved.”

considering my history with cars, anytime you can say that, you’ve come out of it smelling like a rose.

session log: amanda penecale at cambridge, newtown square PA

amanda and adam arguing with jim about lunch
amanda and adam arguing with jim about lunch

jim salamone had sent me three mp3’s of the tracks we’d be cutting for amanda penecale‘s new album, and had mentioned that he might want lap steel, pedal steel and weissenborn in varying degrees on each of the three of the songs he’d sent…although jim has historically had a tendency to refer to lap steel as “electric dobro” – which i’ve come to consider charming, in its own way. 🙂

jim and i are new friends, even though we’ve been working together on projects for almost a year…jim is still figuring me out, in a lot of ways. i introduced jim to the weissenborn when we first started working together, brought in the mandola and octave mandolin for a subsequent session…and this time, based on what i heard in the rough mixes, i figured that maybe it was time to introduce jim to the baritone guitar. there was also a song that sounded like it could use some good old fashioned lowell george-style bottleneck on it as well. and, since i had left my “lowell” strat in the car from the session the day before, i just threw my MXR phase 90 in my bag and brought it with me…just in case.

so it would be lap steel on one track, “lowell” on another, and pedal steel and baritone on the third.

with amanda in the control room at cambridge
with amanda in the control room at cambridge

amanda is a sweetheart, and she’s got a promising future…the songs that she’s doing for this project will definitely get her some attention. eric, her partner, is a solid player, too….they’re putting together a solid EP of stuff here.

with both the baritone guitar and the bottleneck on the strat, i had to sell them both on what i was going for. to their credit, they were willing to hear me out, and i think that they both liked what we ended up doing. we got the lap steel song out of the way first…i think jim was hoping for something more aggressive than what we ended up going with, but to my ear it wasn’t a song that was really screaming for an aggressive part…and if i had put something aggressive on it, it would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb. we came up with a part that (i think) was a nice compromise…a less aggressive part, but with a more aggressive tone.

this is jim's "you better ask me again, and nice this time" look.
this is jim's "you better ask me again, and nice this time" look.

the second song didn’t really require a lot, i didn’t think…all i really did for that one was to add the stratocaster slide stuff in a couple of nooks and crannies – just like lowell woulda done it, with the long fades from point a to the destination fret. that was one of my favorite things about the way lowell played…he could stretch a phrase out and milk it for all it was worth.

there’s an album that former seldom scene leader john starling did many years ago, called long time gone, that had two tracks on it that lowell played on – the title track and another song called turn you to stone…lowells’ playing on that song is just sublime. it’s everything a player should strive to achieve for that style of guitar. hunt it down if you can find it.

so, with those two down, we had only “autumn arrives” left…which got the baritone guitar and pedal steel treatment.

it’s one of those songs with a pseudo-three-four time that works really well with the arpeggiated baritone guitar parts, and the pedal steel would have been done in one pass, but – well, you know how these people are. they always want choices.

friggin’ artists. and producers. nobody’s happy with a single pass anymore. 🙂

the session was originally supposed to be 11 to 3pm, but we ended up going until around 5:30 or so..which was fine, but it had me cutting my nighttime activities a little close – i was to meet my buddy mark shultz back in reading to go see marshall tucker…which was quite a night in and of itself.

session log: starting overdubs for craig bancoffs’ “eden” album

craig bancoff found me through a friend of a friend, and called me out of the blue to ask if i’d be interested in doing some session work for a record he’s working on with adam winokur and matt muir at kawari sound in philadelphia.

as it turned out, we have a lot of people in common…but i didn’t know it until we got a chance to sit down and talk a bit. i had a meeting with craig on a sunday night after doing overdubs on jd malone‘s record…i met up with wendy and we drove in to sit down and listen to what he’d done so far.

craig bancoff at kawari
craig bancoff at kawari

we went into his study and he put in a disc that had what he’d done thus far on it…which was acoustic guitar, bass, drums and vocals…and i was blown away by what i heard. craig’s songs have an intimate, vulnerable quality to them…they remind me of something that would come from the ethan johns discography – minimalistic, haunting stuff defined as much by the spaces between the notes as the notes themselves.

adding pedal steel to craig bancoff's latest...
adding pedal steel to craig bancoff's latest...

i was sitting there listening to the rough mixes wondering if i was actually drooling or not. when you’re brought into a project like this at the point that craig had chosen to bring me in, you listen to mixes like this and you can hear every possibility of what you could potentially bring to the table in the holes. the challenge is to pick the right things and enhance the song without burying it.

so craig and i got out a pad and went song by song through the demos, discussing ideas and possibilities for what instruments might go with which songs…and we convened at the studio around 2:30 or so on friday. craig had adam and matty in at noon to put down bass and drums for one last song, and i was going to get started after they’d finished what they had to do for the track they were working on.

the API console at kawari...sweetness.
the API console at kawari...sweetness.

for this one, i brought lap steel, pedal steel, the baritone guitar…as well as the dobro and the weissenborn, and my 1967 gretsch rally and my custom strat with the lipstick pickups that i use for bottleneck work. as it turned out, i didn’t really get to use much other than the lap and pedal steel, save for putting some baritone on one track. not to give the wrong impression, though – we got a lot of work done. craig wanted to concentrate on pedal steel for this session, it seemed…we did quite a bit of it, spreading it over at least half the tracks, and adding baritone guitar to a song called be your ghost. we saved my favorite moment of this session for last, though.

when i first heard what is tentatively planned as the title cut, a song called eden, i knew exactly what i wanted to do on the ending passage…i could hear david lindley‘s lap steel from the end of jackson browne‘s song the fuse from the pretender…we took the rickenbacker lap steel, into my fulldrive pedal (but with most of the dirt rolled almost all the way down) and then into a combo preamp downstairs and into a leslie 147 rotating speaker cabinet, on the slow speed.

i don’t have a word to tell you how that sounded. you’ll have to buy the record.

seriously – it was one of the most awe-inspiring things that’s ever come from my hands on a session. it was thick, sinister, swirly, and badass. i could’ve played through that rig all night.


as a tribute to The Master Himself, i even reprised david’s ascending lick from the fuse at the very end of craigs’ song. that moment definitely makes my highlight reel.

with jim stanson in the control room at kawari
with jim stanson in the control room at kawari

all in all, it was a productive day…we didn’t really get a chance to dig into any of the acoustic instruments at all. we concentrated on the clean electric instruments, mostly – the pedal steel and baritone guitar stuff. it was a great session, though…my first time at this particular studio, first time with this particular artist, and first time working with adam and matty.

did i mention how awesome the lap steel sounded through the leslie?

session log: mixing dan may’s “thunder road”

dan may passes better songs in his stool than a lot of writers’ best work…but, for the last few tuesday night meetings, we were working on someone else’s masterpiece.

some time back, i talked a little about beginning work on dan’s cover of “thunder road” with anthony newett at newett studios for the WXPN springsteen birthday salute. at this point, we’d recorded a violin track plus baritone guitar and mandola in addition to the original night’s work, and we were ready to mix it.

the great thing about working with anthony, for me anyway, is that we cover so much instrumental ground between the two of us. the night we started, it was myself on acoustic guitar and anthony on piano for the first pass, to dan’s scratch vocal – then i doubled my acoustic track and anthony threw in the bass right away. between that night and this visit, they’d had another guy come in and put down a violin part, and anthony had put in an organ track, and i came back in and put down the baritone guitar and the mandola prior to starting the mix.

the first thing anthony and dan did before officially starting the mix was to go through the vocals and double-check the harmony vocals to make sure they were sufficiently locked in…once we were all happy with that, we tweaked some of the drum sounds a bit, and at that point, the actual laborious part of the mix was finished. for a track that sounds as huge as this one does, there are surprisingly few components to it. drums, bass, piano, organ, acoustic guitar, violin, baritone guitar, mandola, vocals…that’s it, really. it took us less than three hours to do everything we needed to do to mix the song and get it ready for mass consumption.

i’ve sent copies of the roughs from this song to a handful of folks during the time we’ve been working on it, and i have to say – it’s been a while since i worked on something that caused quite this much of a stir. i think we really struck a nerve with this song, and i’m eager to see what happens when it starts to get some airplay and we can gauge how people are going to react to it who don’t have any ties to any of us…who are just reacting based on the song itself and nothing else.

session log: overdubs for the new jd malone album

jd malone‘s philosophy towards recording is a session guy’s dream. jd considers every performance of a song to be a snapshot of that song as it came out that day, and is about as flexible as anyone i’ve ever worked with when it comes to letting players bring their own thing to the table. i sometimes think that jd thinks of musicians as ingredients, and chooses them as such…which, you gotta admit, is pretty clever.

jd and liam working on setup
jd and liam working on setup

thus far, i’ve been part of two sessions for jd’s new project – the basic tracks that we cut on an icy day last winter, and this particular date, where we did overdubs for the initial tracks – largely pedal steel, lap steel, and baritone guitar.

i’ve gotten to the point now where i take the baritone guitar to every session i do, whether i’m asked to bring it or not. it’s one of those instruments, like the nashville high string acoustic, that people don’t realize that they want or need it until they hear it on something, and you can see their facial expressions change the minute they hear it.

jd totally gets the baritone guitar thing…we do a lot of live shows together, and even if we’re playing as a duo – hell, especially if we’re playing as a duo – i make a point of bringing the baritone guitar out. for his material, it’s a great adhesive – it holds everything else together perfectly.

gear set up in the main room
gear set up in the main room

the main things we’d hoped to get out of the way for this session were the pedal steel on no matter what you’ve heard, the overdriven, billy gibbons-esque lap steel/slide guitar parts for she like, and baritone guitar parts for sweet evil things – specifically, the descending, cascading part that i incorporated into the fade some time back. we also recut the baritone parts for lucky 44, as well. i had brought the banjo for the new version of got a gun, but i think he liked the original track so much that he decided to keep the banjo from the day we cut the basic tracks.

we set the amp up in the bathroom (which i highly recommend, if you have that option) and started with pedal steel. for the song in question, it really only required some basic chordal movements – there weren’t any moments that really cried out for single note stuff, so i essentially just played transitional stuff, passing chords, bends from one change into the next…that sort of thing.

it was also the only song that hadn’t been thoroughly road tested at this point – so getting it out of the way early was a good idea. the next two songs – the two baritone guitar songs – were both songs that we’d done live quite a bit, so they were just a matter of executing what i’d been playing live. we did a couple of passes of each of them and moved on to the lap steel for she like.

i tried hard not to get too far into the zz top/foghat zone with this song, and i’m not sure i succeeded. it’s one of those songs that makes it really easy to fall into that heavy-handed rock and roll slide guitar rut. now, that rut exists for a reason, and maybe after this is all mixed and ready for public consumption, it’ll be all good, i don’t know…but i didn’t really leave the session happy with what i’d laid down for this one. i just couldn’t think of any other way to play it…and usually, when that happens, it means that i’m probably playing it the way it’s supposed to be played. i just have a hard time getting out of the way of that sometimes…i don’t often overanalyze this kinda thing, but sometimes it can’t be helped, i guess.

but – other than my idea drought for the last song, i think we all left happy. jd and i went to the sly fox and had dinner outside before splitting up – jd had the open mike at chaplin’s that night, and i had to drive to philly to meet with a prospective client, a guy named craig bancoff.

john lilley with joan osborne – sellersville theater, sellersville PA

there were several times that i thought this gig might not actually happen.

joan osborne seemed like a natural match for john lilley, and bruce ranes at sellersville thought so, too. originally, we had tried to book the show with the band opening, but the issue of backline came up – often, i’ll arrange to provide the backline for the headliner, if they’re touring without their own equipment, in order to get an opener the opportunity to play as a full band…but joan’s tour manager was adamant about having exactly what was on the rider. i can’t really complain – after all, it wasn’t the first time that i’d had an act refuse to use shared backline…but it was only the second time in almost a dozen shows that it had happened.

joan and band onstage during soundcheck
joan and band onstage during soundcheck

the tough thing about this particular gig was that there were two shows, and they were both evening showtimes – 6 and 9ish, so off and on was a Big Deal. what it essentially meant was that, since the headliner wasn’t sharing backline, we had to bring our own gear, and that it had to be on and off the stage when we were…so we had to streamline and compromise quite a bit, in order to be quick on our feet.

still, after many phone calls and emails, we managed to work it all out and make everyone happy with the gear, the transitions, et cetera…so it was a go. 🙂

the last time i’d played sellersville was with blake allen, opening for john waite, and as i mentioned when i wrote about that show, it was my first meeting with tim hogan (john’s bassist who did a stint with robert hazard and plays with ronny crawford in anna nalicks’ band). at this show, i got to know andrew carrillo, who – it turns out – is a john eddie alumnus…he was in john’s band some years back, before p.k. lavengood signed on – so we had something in common to talk about. 🙂 everyone in joan’s band was a good hang, though – aaron comess, joan’s drummer, was the drummer in the spin doctors back in the day, and a super nice guy. joan herself was very gracious to everyone, as hot as ever, and sang her ass off.

chatting outside with joan, john and bob lohrmann
chatting outside with joan, john and bob lohrmann

john was a little nervous about how we’d translate the energy of the full band in what was essentially a “trio with percussion” format…and i could understand why he’d have some degree of apprehension, but i don’t think any of the rest of us were as worried about it as john was. after the first show, though, i think most of that evaporated…the songs held up just fine, and once we were up there and slamming through them, i think most of john’s misgivings about playing in that format melted away. and john was, of course, his usual engaging, entertaining self…and he made a lot of new friends that night, at both shows.

tommy geddes arguing about the setlist with john
tommy geddes arguing about the setlist with john

tommy geddes and i spent a long stint of the second half of the night chatting with john’s partner, bob – about a whole range of things that seemed to center around (from my perspective, anyway) being conscious of how lucky we are to be able to do what we do, and being thankful for our good fortune while we’re in the midst of experiencing it, as opposed to looking back on it years from now and only then realizing how blessed we were. it really is a blessing to be able to do what i do, with the people i do it with. i’m surrounded by really good and talented people, and it was certainly true of that particular night.

it was one of those deals where it took a lot of phenagling to make everyone happy, to arrange for everyones’ backline situation in a way that didn’t run anyone off the rails, what have you…joans’ tour manager is a tough cookie, but frankly, if i were her, i’d want someone like him looking out for my best interests, too. in the end, everyone was happy and everything came off well, and i think everyone went home happy.

well, almost everyone…i managed to leave my laptop bag that has all my cables, capos, slides, picks, pedals…all that stuff – at the venue. i had to go back for it later. 🙂

craig bickhardt at burlap and bean, newtown square PA

it’s one thing when you walk into a gig and see recording equipment set up and realize, for the first time, that tonight’s performance is being archived for the ages…

with craig bickhardt and tommy geddes "at the bean".
with craig bickhardt and tommy geddes "at the bean".

…and another thing when you add this realization to the prior knowledge that you’ll be doing a half dozen tunes that you’ve never done before and have had no real opportunity to rehearse.

such was the case at burlap and bean on saturday night with craig bickhardt. it’s a room that we’ve played several times before, and craig wanted to incorporate some new material into the set, to keep it fresh for the folks who come out to faithfully support us. as it turns out, the guy opening for us, kyle swartzwelder, was taking advantage of his opening set to record his trio’s performance, and offered to do the same for us.

on dobro with craig bickhardt
on dobro with craig bickhardt

so…yeah. a little unnerving, i guess. but…ok. it’s all good. we’ll be fine.

and frankly, we were – there were only a couple of the new songs that i wasn’t already familiar with…among them were untasted honey, previously recorded by kathy mattea, and givers and takers, a song that i’d heard many times before, on the SKB album and on craig’s own no road back collection. he had also included giant steps among the “new” material, but i was intimately familiar with that one, from many, many repeated listenings in the time since i’d first heard it. among the other songs were young hearts, wild horses and the wind and it takes a winding road, as well as a song he co-wrote with irish legend jimmy mccarthy, there is no night.

yeah...about that facial expression....
yeah...about that facial expression....

we didn’t do all of them, but we did most of them, along with the songs that we can’t seem to leave a room without playing, lest it be in fear for our lives…but the truth is, i never really get tired of playing any of the stuff in craig’s sets. his taste in covers is impeccable (my favorite being galway to graceland by richard thompson) and i genuinely enjoy singing with him – our voices blend together really well, and when we’re both on, it’s really good. vocally, we were pretty locked in for this one. and, as always, it’s a joy to look over and see my man tommy geddes on the other side of the stage.


kyle swartzwelder and company
kyle swartzwelder and company

kyle swartzwelder, the opener, really impressed me as a songwriter. i’d met kyle before in other situations where he wasn’t performing, but this was the first time i’d gotten to hear him and his trio actually play some songs. he reminds me of the bastard son of lyle lovett and jeffrey focault – if that were genetically possible. his songs are sparse and melodic, and they fit him well. 🙂   after the show, wendy and i went with kyle and tommy to the official after-show diner of the burlap and bean, the name of which escapes me at the moment…but i remember it from the post-idlewheel get-together last year. i can say that the place definitely has a charm about it, and it seems to inspire great conversation. definitely worth considering for a post-show hang.

remembering robert hazard in cape may, nj

i was probably the very last person involved with this thing to sign on for it.

i finally heard from a couple of folks who pushed the “it wouldn’t be the same without you” button and caved in…and, truth be told, i’m glad i did – for the most part.

in the end, it was the spirit of what we’d hoped to do that won out over all my personal prophecies with regard to what kind of event it would turn out to be…the fact that i was dead-on with damn near every one of them was, after it was over, not as big a deal as i’d made it in my head.

playing with robert one last time....
playing with robert one last time....

some time back, kathy falcey (who’d done some booking for robert hazard at the end of his career) had decided to organize a tribute to robert at this years’ cape may singer songwriter conference, where robert had given the keynote speech last year. now i have nothing against kathy (quite the opposite – she’s one of my favorite people), and my feelings about robert are well documented on these pages.

it’s just that i know how these conferences typically come off, and i guess i just wasn’t that eager to commit to something that was happening at 5pm on a friday in cape may, NJ – a full three hours from home. the time slot virtually guaranteed that no one who wasn’t already there and registered for the conference would be there, and that those who were would be occupied elsewhere. but this is the nature of these things…they’re essentially networking opportunities for folks who are trying to get ahead in some form or fashion in this business of ours. years ago, there was a degree of merit in attending them – because there was a chance that you might actually encounter someone who’d at least have some sage advice, or would be willing to pass along some acquired knowledge via a panel or a random encounter in a hallway or at a bar.

on mandolin at cape may
on mandolin at cape may

now, though…everyone who might actually bring a degree of merit to something like this is too cool to show up at a lowly music conference – and frankly, i guess i get it. most of the folks who go to these things are just trying to find their way, and as such, there’s a lot of new songwriters…and people who just haven’t honed their craft yet. as such, a lot of it can be hard to listen to…still, if someone with the experience and knowledge to point them in the right direction isn’t there to do so, who will?

anyway, i digress…

to paraphrase the blues brothers, “we got the band back together”. freddie ditomasso was on bass, tommy geddes on drums – and myself, nik everett, and jd malone filling out the band. kathy had some of the females who were playing at the conference join us for “girls just wanna have fun” (i played the riff on mandolin…which was much more effective than i thought it would be). i had also suggested to the guys that we do “i still believe in you” with everyone taking a verse…which worked out really well, too (i did the bridge, and managed to get through it)…

it was yet another one of those moments when it struck me that this could very well be the last time that i play these songs…and that i won’t ever play them again with the one guy who did them best – the guy who wrote them.

playing pedal steel behind nik everett on "bound"
playing pedal steel behind nik everett on "bound"

if i had to look within my own life for some good that might have come from roberts’ passing, it would be simply that there are things that i take the time to appreciate now that i don’t think i really gave much thought to a year ago. it’s something that i’ve heard other musicians talk about before – most notably, i’ve heard stevie nicks say on several occasions that she’s thankful for every show, for every opportunity to play, because she knows that any tour could very well be the last tour…for any number of reasons, up to and including the singular reason that none of us will ever get to play those songs with robert again.

due to the nature of my role in most of the bands i play with, i’m constantly juggling instruments, throwing in harmony parts – and sometimes it’s easy to become preoccupied with the logistics of what i’m doing…to the extent that i forget sometimes to look around me and take into account what’s going on. i’ve been very fortunate to play with some phenomenal musicians and artists, and every now and then someone will do something that floors me – to the extent that you can’t not take notice. those are the moments that make all this worthwhile.

the void created by roberts’ absence makes that hard to ignore these days.

session log: blake allen, “the leaning tree”

the news that my longtime buddy blake allen was writing and recording again is always welcome to me…even if he and i don’t always (or ever) see eye to eye about the process itself, i love his music and i always have. he and i had a couple of conversations about getting together and working on some of the new material, but for whatever reason – either his or mine – it kept getting pushed off for another time.

as they say, though…nothing motivates like a deadline.

blake must’ve decided to push the issue a bit by setting a mix date with marc moss at target, and correctly figured that this would be motivation enough for us to set a date and actually set about doing what we needed to do to finish up the songs he planned to mix.

my particular assignment was for a song called “the leaning tree” that he wanted pedal steel on. we had played it live at a show he did at sellersville, opening for hal ketchum, so i was familiar with the song, and i’d played it already – both plusses.

since i had last been to blakes’ home studio, he’s done some work – he and mollie redid the basement at some point, and blake has a great little workspace now. he’s still lovin’ his 16-bit ADAT machines, though. 🙂

we tried using an amp for the steel, but we ended up going direct – which i’m all about these days. pedal steel sounds pretty phenomenal if you put the right stuff between it and the signal input. the best result i’ve gotten thus far was with a sansAMP, actually…but a radial DI works pretty damn well, too.

i’ve taken blake to task in the past for his recording technique, which involves taking multiple passes of the same thing over and over and then meticulously searching through them for the best of the lot…now, blake isn’t the only person who does this by any stretch. protools users do this on a regular basis, but protools (especially version eight) makes this a lot easier to do, where “comping” is concerned. when you’re working on tape or ADAT, then you either have to comp beforehand or import dozens of tracks into the computer and then manually sift through them for your keepers.

blake prefers working this way…but that’s just proof that one persons’ exasperation is anothers’ bread and butter.

at any rate, we actually only did a couple of passes on this one…one set of standard pedal steel stuff, and another of the high pitched, whiny, birdlike noises that blake likes so much. 🙂