session log: craig bickhardt, “ancient lullabies” and “england or me”

so, craig called me to come in specifically for a song that he recorded for a philabundance compilation that our friend kyle is spearheading, called ancient lullabies – but we added another song to the docket that craig wrote about his in-laws, called england or me – it’s the story of eileen’s parents and their courtship during world war two.

the plan was for pedal steel on the first song and dobro on the second – which is what we ended up going with. i had thought that possibly mandolin or baritone guitar might work on the first song, but once the steel was cut, it was pretty clear that it didn’t really need anything else. michael ronstadt had put great cello parts on both of the songs, and there wasn’t really any need for any additional bottom end that the baritone would’ve covered, and the mandolin just seemed unnecessary.

i did maybe five or six passes of pedal steel (would’ve probably been less, had i clarified the change in the bridge before starting…i just couldn’t hear it. it happens, ya know) and we had enough that craig felt comfortable with moving on.

the second song, the one that i thought would be a cakewalk, gave me the most trouble.

it was a natural fit for the dobro – the song was in E, and i’d brought my dobro with the custom gauge strings for the D tuning along for the session, and i cranked ’em up to E – it took it a little longer than i would’ve thought it would for it to settle into the additional tension, and there were some tuning-slash-intonation issues with the first couple of takes, along with my learning curve.

once the instrument acclimated to the tuning, we did another four or five passes and, most likely, have enough to comp a solid dobro track from…but i have to say, i never really got comfortable with the second song.

i think that the biggest part of it was the whole tuning issue coming out of the gate – i’ve been doing this long enough that i should be beyond letting something like that throw me off my game, but i do feel like it reflects on my professionalism to show up for a session with an instrument that isn’t worthy of the session. and, it’s not really that the instrument was unworthy, it just didn’t acclimate as quickly as it probably should have, and it made me a little uptight, because then my playing became a lot more tentative than it should have been, and that cost me a couple of quality passes.

the silver lining is that i know craig well enough to know that if he doesn’t have what he needs, he’ll adjust – we’ll either do it again, or he’ll only use the good parts. he’s got a great ear, and he won’t use anything embarrasing that i’ll have to be ashamed of later. 🙂

with Craig Bickhardt “..on a winter’s night”.

we had such a great show last year that we decided to make it an annual thing, and this was the second in the run – “on a winter’s night” being the theme of the show. last year, we actually did gordon lightfoot’s song for a winters’ night to open the show. hey, man…when we pick a theme, we drive that baby home. 🙂

again, it was craig, backed by tommy geddes and myself, with our brother of the road larry ahearn doing a short set to open the show. we had a great crowd last year, but this year, we still had a bit of the aftermath of the largest cumulative snowfall to ever fall in the area since they began recording such things…plenty of time had passed, certainly enough for the roads to be clear, but you never really know how long people will consider such things as this to be off limits. as it was, we had a solid house, and ed and donna land actually had family visiting from out of town as well.

the first couple of times we played landhaven, ed and donna had an outside guy coming in to provide sound, but in the time since i was last there, they’ve invested in a house system that sounds pretty phenomenal – the only issue we had was with a stray note around 650Hz that was driving the monitors a bit to hard, and caused a bit of a hump in craigs’ acoustic, but that was an easy fix and the rest of the night went by without a hitch in that regard.

i know i’ve talked about landhaven before in prior years, so i don’t really know what to tell you about this room that i haven’t said before – its charm, its time-travel decor, the enthusiastic audience, donna’s incredible cooking – all still very much intact. this is a great room for artists like craig – songwriters whose material really shines without a great deal of adornment. tommy and i go in with craig as a three piece unit, and it’s perfect for that room. i play minimal electric instruments – lap steel and baritone guitar, but mostly dobro and mandolin – and any more than that would be overkill. yet, if he wanted to, craig could play this room by himself and it’d still be…right.

if you’re in the area, stop by their website, pick out a show, and treat yourself. you won’t soon forget it, that’s for sure.

2010 annual Idlewheel Tour Diary


thursday, february 11th – house concert, landsdowne, PA (cancelled)

friday, february 12th – court at the king of prussia mall, king of prussia PA (…amended)

saturday, february 13th – puck live in doylestown PA with wissahickon chicken shack

sunday, february 14th – casbah house concerts in union, NJ

if we’d made t-shirts for this tour, we’d have had to call it “murphy’s tour 2010″…i mean, who else puts together a string of dates immediately following the largest recorded snowfall in philadelphia area history?

well, idlewheel, of course. 🙂

in all seriousness, there was no way to have predicted the pair of snowstorms that dumped a collective thirty-plus inches of snow on us within the space of a few days, the last of them being on the tuesday just prior to our run of shows. our initial plan was for wednesday to be our rehearsal day, with thursday being the first show – but when jacks’ flight was postponed, then cancelled, it first became obvious that there wouldn’t be any rehearsal…then that the thursday show wouldn’t be happening at all. then, after all that, jack wasn’t able to get a flight in time for the friday show, so we had to realign the show to a somewhat typical writers in the round style show, with a trio show featuring craig, tommy and myself in place of the idlewheel segment.

so, when saturday came around, we all knew that it’d essentially be jack climbing off a plane, into a car, and onto the stage. and yet, none of us really got too uptight about it.

saturday was a co-bill at puck in doylestown with the mighty wissahickon chicken shack, who i’d never heard before this show, and i have to say – i was mightily impressed. i’d made the acquaintance of phil d’agostino before, but didn’t know any of the other players. standouts were kiley ryan on fiddle and brad hinton on lap steel. they truly are a great band.

we had a pretty solid show, as well – there were some things that have changed a bit over time, in terms of how we execute some of the songs, and it’s all been for the better…but i have to make a point of reviewing some of the stuff before the first show and making sure i have some idea of what i intend to do for some of these songs. i’ve been playing 12 string electric on “it must be love” and i’m only just beginning to figure out what kind of solo to incorporate into that song. i actually nailed it on saturday, then screwed it up on sunday (which is unfortunate, since the sunday version made it onto YouTube)…i’ve gotten into a pretty solid groove on “howl like a lonesome wind”, though. that song has serious legs now. 🙂

sunday was the Casbah show…the house concert at charlie and dorothy wade’s house in union, NJ. we do this show every time we put together a string of idlewheel dates, and the folks who come to this show make it worth it every time. it’s an interesting load-in, down a scary set of stairs (scary if you’re carrying gear, anyway) and around a tight corner, but once we’re set up and we start playing, life is good no matter what came before.

we did a couple of songs for this show that we’d never done before, and some of my faves – including “little red reminders” and “twisted, tied and tangled”, among others…including the aforementioned “it must be love”, documented here. gaffes and all, though…this video is a pretty accurate representation of how much fun we extract out of one another’s company, if nothing more. please forgive me for the drunken walkdown on the guitar solo, though…it’ll be over before you know it.

it seems weird to keep bringing this up every time we play there, but the sound in their modest little basement is incredible – we go in there with a full rhythm section, and it sounds phenomenal every time.

always happy to go back. 🙂

benefit weekend?

well….yeah, ok. so not every show i played these past three days were benefits…my net financial gain might indicate they were, but only two of the three were – saturday for cystic fibrosis, and sunday for the red cross haiti relief fund.

friday night was a very rare band show for my buddy kyle swartzwelder, opening for chris bruni at the kennett flash. it was kyle and myself, tommy geddes on drums, phil d’agostino on bass, nate gonzalez on keys and accordian, and lanie hughes on fiddle. (why, yes, it was quite a list for an opener. but it was all good, believe me.)

it was big, in the sense that outside the rhythm section and the frontman, there were three melodic instruments onboard – myself, the fiddle, and the keys/accordian – so i think that infused the set with just a hint of trepidation on our collective parts, because we were all taking a lot of care to avoid stepping on each other. i don’t know if that’s something that the audience sensed, but it felt tangible to me – i don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and considering kyle’s songwriting style, i think a little trepidation on our collective parts actually works to the materials’ advantage. when i hear kyles’ music, i hear this casserole of a laundry list of artists that i admire – varying parts of lyle lovett, a little jeffrey focault, a smattering of the intimacy of the best of b.w. stevensons’ music, and maybe even a little bit of jimmie spheeris at times. he’s one of the folks that i work with who i endeavor to try and make sure that the pedal steel makes the trip – because it suits his songs so well – but so often, space is an issue, and for this show it was just too many folks on stage, too little space to get it up there with everyone. it was ok, though, as the lap steel can make some of that stuff happen, but it’s not the same. there’s a new song that he sent me the week prior to the show that’s going to be phenomenal when he fleshes it out, but i couldn’t talk him into taking a swing at it for the show.

were the shoe on the other foot, i wouldn’ta done it either. who am i kidding? 🙂

we had a really good set, though – songs felt good, i felt good about what i played, and – are you sitting down? – blake allen even came out. on a WEEKEND, no less!


the following day was a full band date with jd malone and the venerable “experts” at the auction house in audobon, NJ, for a private cystic fibrosis benefit that jd was booked for by a couple who’d seen him at the bethlehem musikfest the year prior.

we got together the sunday prior at east side studios in manayunk to run through some new material, and to look at some covers that we’d never played together before – and i told jd afterward that if we ever had to get together to run anything important or serious, that we’d have to leave avery coffee at home, because i spend the entire rehearsal laughing at the guy.

i’ve said this to other folks about avery in the past, and i may have said it here before as well, although i can’t remember – avery and i are the perfect foils in jd’s band..if, for no other reason that we couldn’t step on each other if we TRIED. our styles are so different, and the things we end up playing on specific songs are so far afield of each other, that it ends up sitting in totally different places in the mix – to awesome effect.

one of the new songs we added for this show, avalon, is going to be one of JD’s best. ever. it’s got a kathleen edwards-meets-REM thing going on that makes the hair on my neck stand up. we ended up playing it twice at the show, in fact, when we needed another encore at the end of the night.

getting there was a bear – there was a fender bender in the vicinity of the roosevelt boulevard exit off the expressway, a single car accident, and it had traffic backed up all the way back to before the 422 merger. the accident had long been cleared by the time i passed it, and yet traffic was still crawling along at 18 mph or so the whole way up to that point. to be fair, it had started to snow by that point, and that was probably a factor too, but it was plenty frustrating either way. and yet, i managed to make it in just enough time to get set up and ready for the show with a few minutes to spare. if i’d had more time, i’d have certainly stopped for gas before going to the show, but it was pretty clear that i wasn’t going to have time to do that once i got caught up in the traffic on the way to the gig.

anyway, the folks who put this show together were salt of the earth – really sweet people. they had a respectable turnout, too, all things considered with the weather and all. the food was great, and the band played a great set – oddly, i was able to hear avery really well, even from the other side of the stage – which isn’t always the case, but we had a nice, workable stage volume, and i could hear everyone really well. that kind of balance isn’t always easy to come by.

so we played our asses off, they asked us to do several encores, which we were only too happy to oblige, and we packed up and got ready to roll out. it was just after midnight when i left – i walked out with tommy geddes, said goodnight and got in the car and took off. i have a new app on my iPhone called ‘cheap gas’ – which calculates the cheapest available gas by proximity to your location at the point you open up the app. once you select the one you want to patronize, you click a link and it opens up a map from your location to the gas station you’ve chosen.

now, most of you reading this are already aware of this, but in new jersey, all gasoline points of sale are full service – if not all, then damn near every one of them. it never occurred to me when i postponed my gas purchase until after the show that the whole full service thing might preclude many of them being open for 24 hours – that just didn’t cross my mind. so, i left the gig with enough gas in my tank to fill a condom, in search of an open gas station, without so much as a thought of the possibility that the station that popped up on my screen might be closed.

but it was.

so, i kept driving…

now, in retrospect, i couldn’t tell you where the hell i was or where i’d gone…but i stayed on what appeared to me to be a main thoroughfare, and happened upon a Lukoil station about another mile down the road, on the left hand side that was open.

it was 12:40.

i pulled in, told the guy to fill ‘er up, popped the tank, and let a huge sigh of relief wash over me.

as i was paying the guy at the pump, he told me that i was lucky. “i know”, i said. “i was almost empty.”

he said, “yes…and twenty minutes from being stranded.”

as it turns out, he was the only open gas station within miles and miles and miles of that spot…even on weekends, most of them close before midnight. all of them but him.



sunday was the haiti benefit show at sellersville theater – featuring bigger thomas, scot sax and sharon little, dan may, lizanne knott, slo-mo, john conahan, and dan faga’s band, I & I. now, i’m sure you could find somebody who might have a problem finding something to like in that lineup, but you’d have to look hard.

there were two sets, each featuring a little of this and a little of that, with a break in between…and one of the most elaborate stage plots ever put together in this humble little room, i’d be willing to bet. their plan, from the outset it appears, was to have everyones’ gear onstage, plugged in and ready to go, with everything ready for whatever might happen..since there would likely be interplay between the folks on the bill. and sure enough, slo-mo and hoagy sat in with I & I during their set, john conahan sat in with us during dan mays’ set, and i played lap steel on the last song of scot sax and sharon little’s set. then, at the end of the night, everyone who was still in the room got up at the end of bigger thomas’ set and did a reworded version of the specials’ song “a message for you, rudy”, which was changed to “a message for you, haiti”. since slo-mo was up for that one, i elected to play mandolin on the finale – C isn’t my favorite key for mandolin, but there were an assload of soloists on the stage, and i was more than happy to just chop through it, which i did.

for dan’s set, kurm wasn’t available, so my buddy ronnie cremer boldly offered to learn the two songs we were doing on bass, so we wouldn’t have to move anthony over to bass for the show – the songs we were doing really needed both of us to be on our usual posts (“a thousand angels” and “lights out in tupelo”), and ronnie came in and friggin’ nailed it. ronnie has perfect pitch, as does anthony, which made for some laughs in the dressing room, when carlos sang a note and they both said, in unison, “c sharp”.

i heard a snippet of the final song from scot and sharons’ set during soundcheck, and it kinda stopped me in my tracks – so i asked scot after soundcheck if he’d mind if i sat in on that one (which, most of you know, i practically never do…i’d rather be asked than to foist myself on anyone), and scot gave me the thumbs up, which was awfully brave of him, since he’d never heard me play (to my knowledge, anyway) – they had to brave some strange technical issues early in their set, but they’d gotten through that by the time the last song came up, and it turned out nicely, if i do say so myself…

bigger thomas tore the roof off the place – i had initially thought that perhaps the reason they went on last might have more to do with the fact that the organizer of the show, roger appollon, was in the band. and that might’ve been a factor, the truth is i don’t know. but i sure as hell would’ve hated to have to go on after those guys. i’ve never seen the audience in that room react to a band the way they reacted to these guys…people were up and dancing who, frankly, probably shouldn’t have been up and dancing. it was a great thing to watch.

it was easily the longest day i’ve ever put in at sellersville…since i was bringing some of the backline, i had to be there early for setup, and i was still there coiling cords and helping to clean up at almost midnight that night…but it was a really rewarding day. when the dust had settled, we raised twelve thousand dollars for the american red cross and their haiti relief fund. dan came onstage with jack quigley, the owner of the theater, before the final song to present the check to the red cross representative who came to the show. it was a triumphant moment, let me tell you. it felt great to have a tangible moment like that at the end of this show – something you could point to as an instant gratification of sorts, an actual reward for the day we’d put in. it certainly made a nice punctuation mark to an entire weekend of shows that were either gratis shows or benefits…and reinforced that there are a lot of reasons to do what we do that are bigger than ourselves.