the youngers at mauch chunk opera house, jim thorpe PA

so i had been trying to crack the armor around the mauch chunk opera house for some time, but had never managed to do so – i had corresponded with, and spoken to, both vince and christi on multiple occasions, but we’d never actually closed a deal. imagine my surprise, then, when my buddy todd managed to secure not an opening slot, but a headlining gig for the youngers on a friday night at the opera house. i mighta been jealous of anyone else, but i was proud of my man for having pulled it off. 🙂

the opera house is roughly 400 seats, but thanks to the balcony, it appears more intimate than sellersville from the stage. it’s not a deep room like sellersville is, and the balcony sightlines are awesome – so there isn’t really a bad seat in the place. it’s being maintained on a shoestring by the managers and the mauch chunk historical society, and they’re doing a fantastic job with not much in the way of resources – i’ve seen rooms run with more money in much worse shape than this place is in. there are a couple of things that need some attention in the way of paint and TLC, but it’s miles away from anything resembling run-down or dilapidated – new seats, nice bathrooms, a nine foot 19th century chickering grand piano…and absolutely amazing acoustics.

todd invited his friends tin bird choir to open the show, and i’d never heard them before…an interesting cross of TimBuk3 and Cowboy Junkies, if you can imagine that.

for me, this was a “combo” gig…i was both the second guitarist and the utility guy. i had to bring the pedal steel, so i brought out the peavey session 500 that i bought from a guy who lived just down the street from the theater the year before, and set up the steel with its own signal flow – steel to volume pedal straight into the peavey. i also used the peavey for the banjo, as well…and would’ve used it for the dobro too, had the need arose, but the only song i played the dobro on was during an acoustic set in the middle of the show where we all stood around a single mic and played into it, bill monroe-style.

so, in addition to the steel, i brought two lap steels – a national in G tuning and my number one rickenbacker in E – along with the 12 string, the jaguar baritone, and a tele, a firebird, and a les paul goldtop with p-90’s in it. i ran all that into the gibson GA-20T and one of the princeton reverbs, in parallel.

if i could play this rig at every show i did, i’d be a happy camper. the only thing i might’ve done differently would have been to separate the acoustic stuff from this rig and run it through my submix rack and out to the PA, possibly into the SWR for onstage volume…there really isn’t much to improve upon if you factor that in.

the band had done a total of two rehearsals with the lineup for this show – todd and randy, the mainstays…plus daniel “skrappy” bower on drums and myself on all of the above. in fact, i’d never played anything but drums in this band, and had to actually learn all the songs…as in chords and arrangements. certainly it’s easier when you’re familiar with the material, though, and by showtime it was just a matter of what instruments to play on which songs and who took solos or breaks in the appropriate spots…and most of that was notated on the setlist.

todd put a lot of thought into the setlist, and we discussed it at length at the final rehearsal…it was well paced, the acoustic set was the right length, and the show ended at the right spot with the right songs. everybody played their asses off, and the sound was phenomenal. we knew going into the show that there would be, at the most, half a house, and our expectations were about right. but it was a known factor to everyone up front that the initial show probably wouldn’t be a huge draw, and no one was bitter about it…so it didn’t suck any of the air out of the room. the folks who were there made plenty of noise, so there wasn’t any lack of enthusiasm in the house.

for me, it was a nice moment to be able to stand up there, next to todd – this guy that i mentored years and years ago – and play behind him and watch him do his thing. from behind the drums, it’s different. i can’t say why, but it is. it’s a different role, and there’s a certain amount of distance that comes with that. actually playing guitar with him, it feels like we’re more connected, that we’re actually playing off one another and complementing each other moreso than it does when i’m on the kit. he was generous in alloting solos, and i got plenty of time to step out a bit…and for the final song, we ended up going back and forth quite a bit, and that was a blast.

for the encore, todd came out by himself and played the first verse of heritage, the title track to their latest record, and the band walloped into the song behind him after the second verse – it was a great ending to a really memorable show.

afterward, as everyone else scattered after load-out, i hung out for a while with vince and christi and we played a few songs on the piano and talked until around 4am…about different artists who’d played there, about the problems they face trying to run the place, about ideas for making shows more attractive to people…this, that and the other thing…and it was awfully hard to stay awake for the drive home, but it was the perfect way to end a night like that one.

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session log: dani mchenry

studio: turtle studios

staff: ross bellenoit, producer – jeff hiatt, engineer

instruments: pedal steel, dobro

i had started a conversation with jay levin, a partner at turtle, over facebook some time back about possible session work, and jay put me through a pretty heavy-duty screening process – asking for sound samples and the like. it was timely, as i had been editing audio clips together for the resume page of my website, so i had plenty of stuff to send to him. his initial inquiry had been about dobro, so i sent him stuff from craig bancoff‘s album, from blake allen‘s record, and from a couple of projects i had done at cambridge…then, roughly a week or so later, he asked for some pedal steel stuff, but he wanted full songs, so i threw together a static HTML page with some links to downloadable songs for him to check out.

a couple of weeks went by before i finally got a call to come in and work on something, but i was excited to find out that i’d be working with ross bellenoit – i’d been seeing and hearing ross’ name around, and he and i had exchanged notes on facebook, but somehow we’d never met…never been on the same bill at a club, never ended up in the same room somewhere, never bumped into one another. so this was a good opportunity to finally dig into something with ross, and to check out a new room.

ross and i exchanged notes about what to bring – pedal steel and dobro, obviously, but i also brought the weissenborn and the resolectric, just in case…and i left my baritone in the car, because i never go to a session without it. turned out that was unnecessary, as ross had a danelectro DC-3 style baritone there at the studio (apparently, he’s a fan of them as well…big surprise).

the night before, i restrung the pedal steel with a new GHS set that i hadn’t used before – a set of semi-flats, which (on paper, anyway) should have been a better, more stable set. i put them on, tuned the steel to pitch, and put it away until i left for the session monday morning. when i got to the studio, though, and set up to start running through the song, i could not get the damn thing to stay in tune. now, i should mention, this instrument has never given me a moments’ trouble in the time that i’ve had it…i know that some of the purists on the forum aren’t fond of this particular brand, and i’m as aware as anyone that it’s not the best instrument money can buy, but i’ve been completely happy with it in the time that i’ve owned it…i’ve never had tuning issues, the pedals have always been solid, have travelled well – but we spent almost twenty minutes just trying to get the tuning issue settled down, and in retrospect, i’m not sure we ever did. the next time i took it out of the case after the session, it was just fine (of course), but it certainly made an ass outta me during my first impression window at this session. we finally got a couple of passes that the guys said were ok, but i was never really satisfied with what i did.

thankfully, we had the dobro to do yet, and i was able to redeem myself somewhat before i left. the second song had this great, swampy, buddy miller-esque guitar track already on it, but ross wasn’t sure if that was staying or not, so we threw down both a hook part and a solo part, and that’s where we left things for the day…the client was there, and they had other work to get through before they pulled the plug for the session.

there are a few sessions i’ve done over the years that i’d like to take back, and this definitely qualifies as one of them.