session log: dan may at morningstar studios, part three

so, for tonight’s session, we had the unflappable tommy geddes in the house on drums – there were a couple of things that dan felt might be a more solid fit for tommy, and he wanted tommy represented on the record, so he singled out down the road and i got a gun to work on with tommy, and those were the ones we wanted to concentrate on first and foremost while tommy was in and available.

down the road is an interesting story, i think…dan and i were sitting in his basement, going through all the tracks that he’d accumulated on his digital recorder in his studio, and he was playing snippets of all the stuff that he’d halfway finished, or had assembled as ideas but that hadn’t made it to the final stages of completion. this particular song came up, and he let maybe 20 to 30 seconds of it pass before skipping to the next clip…”go back to that last song,” i said.

he skipped backward to the track and started it over…it was this moody, 6-5-4-5 progression, but it had promise. i started fumbling around with the guitar, trying to figure out where the chords landed and, once i’d figured it out, started playing this lindsey buckingham, big-love-ish pattern over the top of it…and a song was born. 🙂

the other song, i got a gun, grew out of a soundcheck jam at a gig at rose tree park in media some years back, when i started riffing on fat man in the bathtub by little feat, and the band fell into it. it ultimately morphed into something else entirely, but you can certainly hear the influence from that song in the opening riff if you’re familiar with it.

so we set tommy up in the main room and i set up shop in an ISO right off the floor, and we started working on down the road – tommy actually overdubbed a couple of elements to get the percussion track that lives on the record, and i set up and played the acoustic guitar part in one pass while dan cut a guide vocal into a microphone from the control room, so that i could hear him in the headphones.

here’s the video from the ISO booth:

you can imagine why i was happy to have gotten that in a single pass…i dunno if the fingers on my right hand would’ve been up for multiple takes on that one.

after we finished that one, we moved on to i got a gun and i laid down a reference rhythm track…once we’d gotten the drums cut to tape, i set up The Trusty Gibson and one of my silverface princetons in the big room to cut the lap steel track – we were also going to overdub a lap steel part for lucy, another song that we’d cut during one of the other sessions, once we got this track down.

to say that the combination of those amps in glenns’ tracking room sounded huge would be something of an understatement. it doesn’t come across so much on the record, because you couldn’t have really had those mustered into the mix that way without them taking over the whole track – they had to be layered somewhat to blend in with the rest of the ensemble of instruments. but – i was there. i got to hear it. i know what they sounded like, and maybe that’s all that matters. 🙂

next session, we’ve got some solo acoustic guitar to work on, and some dobro overdubs as well…plus, i think dan and i have finished that song that grew out of the riff that i recorded for him, based on the whole tom jones experience. keith giosa has some hammond organ overdubs to do as well, so there’s still plenty of work to be done.

session log: dan may at morningstar studios, part two

so i brought a few extra toys this time.

one of the songs we worked on for this session is a moody, quarter-note heavy song called gabriel…and just based on some of the run-throughs that dan and i had done prior to bringing the songs into the studio, i had an idea of the treatment it should get…so i brought in the baritone and an old single-pickup batwing kay electric, in addition to the acoustic that i’d be using to anchor it. i did the basic guide track on the acoustic, then doubled it with the kay, and then moved on to the baritone, which i just used for color here and there.

after we’d finished the baritone pass, there was one lick that i’d done on the outro that i wanted to re-cut, because i was pretty certain that i’d botched it. but when we went back to listen, glenn and dan flipped out…as it turned out, my “mistake” landed on the tape a little differently than i thought it might’ve when i heard it through the phones…and they loved it! in fact, they ended up cutting and pasting it into a couple of other spots in the mix.

i don’t get many of those happy little accidents, and i was glad one of them landed on this record.

the other song we planned on getting through this night was crossover…i’d heard this as something of a levon helm/ryan adams hybrid in my head, but i wasn’t pushing any agenda when we settled in to run it through…which, as it turned out, didn’t really matter – because kurm and rob must’ve been reading my mind. they really nailed the vibe i was hoping for from the outset, and we only did a couple of passes before we felt like we had one that we liked.

in between takes, we went into the control room and glenn played us some of the tracks from the new tom jones record that had just come out, praise and blame (that had been produced by ethan johns). there was one song in particular that had this stephen stills-like riff running through it, although i don’t remember which song it was now…but someone – either dan or glenn – made a remark akin to “we need something similar to this groove for the record”…

so i went in the other room & grabbed my acoustic and came back into the control room – sat down, dropped my low E string down to D and started playing a riff…dan looked up at me over the top of his glasses with that look that i’ve come to recognize as the “are you noodling, or is that already a song?” look – and i got out my iPhone and recorded a snippet of the riff and emailed it to him. knowing him, he’ll have a finished song before i fall asleep tonight.

the recording itself seems to be going pretty well, but there is some weird tension floating around the studio, and i’m not sure what the actual source of it is. hopefully that’ll dissipate before we get too much farther along in this process.

session log: dan may at morningstar studios, part one

so after three records and an EP, i was finally gonna get to be a principle player on a dan may record. his last full length, the long road home, had been (in my opinion and my opinion only) a pretty scattered record, from a stylistic viewpoint…which, for dan, isn’t much of a leap because i honestly believe that when he sits down to write that even he doesn’t know what’s going to come out. there’s a strong underlying pop sensibility that informs most of dans’ material, whether it comes out as a folk ditty or a torch song. for him, it’s both a blessing and a curse in some senses…but it’s worked for him.

for that record, i went in initially and cut acoustic guitars with the rhythm section and then went back in later for a couple of overdubs, again on acoustic guitar…and that was it. that was the sum total of my participation in that record. while it was a bit of a bone of contention at the time, i get what dan was trying to do…i think that, on some level, he had an elevated sense of expectations where that album was concerned, and he went fishing for the best he could get on every level. that meant, for him, using studio musicians to cut the record. he had essentially put himself in the hands of his producer and was, possibly, a little more prone to suggestion than i think he’s been in the time since. if anything came out of that record, i think it’s been a stronger sense of confidence in dan’s own vision of who he is and who he wants to be. and he definitely made it known to me that he’d expected me to be a lot more involved in this record than the last one. we had co-written a handful of the songs for the record, including some of the ones that i felt were the strongest (down the road and crossover among them), and i certainly feel up to the task. i’ve been looking forward to this for a while now.

for this record, dan elected to use the same studio and producer/engineer (glenn barrat of morningstar studios), but was a little more adamant about a lot of the decisions surrounding the project – starting with the choice of players for the record. i think he was a lot more vocal about the choice of material for the record, too, based on the songs that ultimately ended up floating to the surface.

the first session was the core players from the band – myself, anthony newett, keith giosa, mike kurman and rob schnell. dan brought in two songs…”the bough will break” and “paradise”…to work on for this particular session. they were both somewhat similar, in terms of lyrical content – but the first was a little more somber than the second from an aural perspective. from the moment we started running the song in the studio, it just didn’t seem like it was getting its legs underneath it.

we ended up getting a basic put down for it, but it never saw the light of day after that night.

the next song, “paradise”, fared better…it’s a minor-key mid-tempo song reminiscent of chris issak at times, and everyone seemed to latch onto it with a little more veracity than the prior song (although, i have to say, i still think the other tune will see the light of day at some point).

here’s a clip of rob schnell tightening up the drum track:

after we’d laid down the initial basics, anthony plugged his strat into the house fender twin and put a vibrato-laden solo down that, to me, really made the song. when he’s on, he’s such a great player…i do love working with him.

there were a couple other songs that we’d laid out for the next session, including gabriel and crossover…those will be next weeks’ work, though.

with skip denenberg at sellersville theater, opening for don mclean

i love my boy skip denenberg. and i love playing with him.

i don’t, however, love having to tune a handful of instruments down to E Flat. 🙂

seriously, skip’s songs are a pleasure to play, and while it’s a bit of extra work – it’s usually worth it. skip doesn’t play live a great deal, so it’s not the burdensome PITA that i like to make him think it is…he takes my grumbling with a grain of salt, anyway.

this was one of the sellersville backline shows – one that required that we bring certain items needed by the headliner (in this case, singer-songwriter don mclean, for two shows…at 3 and 8pm). since we were – originally, anyway – doing the show as a trio with skip, myself, and percussionist tommy geddes – the venue was supplying the stuff we didn’t have available to us, which included a bass rig for don’s bassist.

as we were setting up, skip made mention of the fact that it was too bad we didn’t have a bass player, and i half-jokingly asked (well within earshot of ST94 technical director daniel faga) – “well, do you want a bass player?”

skip said, “sure…do you have one?”

i pointed up at dan on the ladder and said, “i sure do…right there on the ladder.”

i don’t think skip had any idea that i had that immediate a response…but he was a trooper about it. we actually had dan come down and run through a couple of skips’ tunes during soundcheck to see how it would flesh out, and dan passed with flying colors (of course). in fact, skip was enthralled with him almost from the outset.

(it should be mentioned that this isn’t the first time that dan has been snagged as an impromptu bassist at sellersville…he’s done so a number of times before, most recently with michelle shocked as of that particular performance…so it wasn’t as if dan was being caught off guard when i singled him out from up there on the ladder.)

we ran through the five or so songs skip was doing in bits and pieces during soundcheck, and we all went upstairs to refine some of the changes and such before going on…and – props to dan – he did a great job during the first set. after we turned the stage over following the first set, we listened to a bit of the headliners’ set before we went over to grab a bite to eat. the second set, once dan had the run-through of the first set behind him…was even better than the first. tommy and dan were a natural fit for one another, and they locked in from the outset – but i think that having the first show behind him let dan settle into the tunes a little bit, and he really knocked it outta the park for the second show.

skip doesn’t actively seek out gigs, for the most part, and it was a pleasure to get him into a big room like this and play his music for an unsuspecting audience and hear their reaction. i could tell that it energized him quite a bit. plus, since the headliner had requested use of my gretsch 6120 chet atkins as part of the backline rider, i got to play my chet onstage…it’s not a guitar i normally take out for gigs, but since it was there… 🙂

iron horse music hall, northampton MA – craig bickhardt and pure prairie league

ok, so – to start with, i’d never played the iron horse music hall, for one thing. yeah, it was a haul for one show, but it was craig bickhardt opening for pure prairie league, for pete’s sake! you don’t really think i’m gonna let a long drive keep me from doing that gig, do you?

i did a little clicking around and found a bed and breakfast in northampton called the autumn inn and made a reservation for wendy, the baby and myself, and we made a roadtrip of it – it was early october and i thought it might be a nice, scenic romp up the interstate. as it turned out, the leaves hadn’t really bothered with much in the way of changing colors just yet, but it was still a beautiful drive. i try to find a way to bring wendy and the baby along for anything i do in the new england area, for a number of reasons – not the least among them being that this is where she’s from and all. so we put the pack and play and some extra bags in the back of the old Trooper, along with my instruments and gear and started up the road. we went straight to the venue to check in before we went to the hotel and met up with everyone – it hadn’t been that long since i crossed paths with the PPL guys.

tonight was an acoustic show for them – which didn’t really mean anything in terms of the lineup, only that craig and donnie stuck to acoustic guitars and that rick schell played a stripped down cocktail-style kit. john david call, whom i’d met for the first time just a few months prior, was along and playing pedal steel, and mike reilly played his usual electric bass. craig bickhardt and i were doing our typical duo show – i brought along the essential trio…baritone guitar, mandolin, and lap steel, along with my trusty old gibson ga-20T amp.

at least john david isn't takin' danny's mood personally. 🙂

wendy and danny came into the iron horse during soundcheck and got to hang out for a bit – john david, in particular, took a shine to danny, but danny has grown into a habit of staying really close to either his mommy or to myself when he goes into a new space with a lot of people in it for the first time. i tried to get him to pose for a picture with john david, but he wasn’t hearing anything of it. 🙂

i got my first chance to geek out with JD at this gig, and ask him questions for a bit…turns out that he’s a lifelong Jimmy Day copedant guy as well (as is rusty young of poco), and he showed off his carter a bit, demonstrating his knee levers and how he’d set them up a little differently than the standard four lever lowers and raises. and still, as before, an absolute sweetheart.

wendy and i went for a walk with danny and to grab a bite to eat before showtime, once soundcheck was over…he was having a blast watching all the traffic in town, but he was a bit of a handful when it came time to eat – so wendy and i ate in shifts, one of us occupying danny while the other wolfed down pizza a block or so away from the hall. then, when it was time to go back over and hit the stage, wendy and the little man went back to the hotel (jon and georgina rosenbaum had volunteered beforehand to take me back after the show, so there wouldn’t be any transportation issues).

craig and i had a great set – craig was clearly enjoying playing to that particular room, and the sound onstage was in a really good pocket from where i sat. i could turn up a little, and that always seems to make the amp happy – and me, too, for that matter. i did one of the best passes of the real game i think i’ve ever done.

when we finished and the boys took over, i went upstairs to sit with jon and georgina to watch the show, and they were videotaping from the balcony. just two tables over from us, though, were the folks who should’ve been at the jimmy buffett show…obnoxious, boisterous assholes who never once shut up during the whole set – despite the best efforts of the folks sitting around them who were significantly more considerate in their attempts to push them towards the STFU area than they themselves would’ve ever been if the shoe had been on the other foot.

i finally took the server aside who was working that area and asked him if he noticed anything in the time since the show started, with regard to his tables. “no,” he said. “should i have?”

“well, i’d be curious how much that table of douchebags over by the rail against the wall was costing me, if i were you,” i said. “at least three couples, probably more than that, have gotten up and moved in the time since this show started. that’s tips that you’re not collecting, all because they can’t seem to shut the hell up. the people sitting around them paid good money to see this show, and they’re going out of their way to make sure they couldn’t enjoy it if they tried. and i’d bet that they’re not coming back to the iron horse anytime soon. and i wouldn’t be willing to take the chance as to whether or not my tips would suffer because i couldn’t be bothered to calm them down.”

(that’s not a verbatim quote, as i can’t remember exactly what i said…but it’s pretty close.)

but, no – they cackled and yakked through the entire set, until they played amie, and then they sang along and ordered more booze and cackled and yakked some more.

i thought that, by now, most of those assholes had moved on to kenny chesney and probably couldn’t care less about a good old country rock band playin’ the iron horse on a weeknight…but i’d be wrong about that.

anyway, the guys were very complimentary at the end of the night…good conversation and vibes abounded. i also talked a bit with craig fuller that night about the possibility of doing some acoustic duo gigs down the road…that’d be mighty fine. mighty fine. 🙂

“on the road and in the round” – craig bickhardt, jim photoglo, and jd malone

i hadn’t seen jim photoglo since the fogelberg memorial dedication in peoria, and the three of us – craig bickhardt, photoglo and myself – hadn’t played together since the tribute concert we’d done prior to that – so i was looking forward to this show for a while. i particularly love singing with both of them when we do these shows. i don’t know how jim feels about it, but i think our voices blend really nicely. 🙂

personally, i was really impressed with the number of people who came out to chaplins’ for this show – it’s been a real challenge putting people into that room in the time since the lee zagorski era…not that it was a foregone conclusion then, but the room has been suffering from a bit of a multiple personality crisis. they can’t seem to make up their mind as to whether they’re a folk club, an all-ages indie rock room, a NYC-style one-band-per-hour music room…if you peruse the schedule, you’ll see a little bit of all of that on there.

like i said..challenging.

but the fact remains, it’s a really charming room. it deserves to be patronized, and it’s a wonderful place to play. the sightlines are perfect, the sound is great, and the room has a vibe that’s perfect for more intimate performances.

jim photoglo and craig bickhardt onstage at chaplins'....

craig is a wonderful host for these shows…without really making any overt effort, he seems to bring great performances out of the folks who do the on the road and in the round shows…in this case, photoglo and one of my other road buddies, jd malone. jd and craig have done a number of shows together, and there’s a palpable sense of respect between the two of them…part mentor and part peer. it’s really a great thing to bear witness to.

as usual, my hetero life partner tommy geddes and i were along to provide support, and we set up along the back of the row of chairs and settled in for the show.

as gigs go, these shows present their own challenges – with regards to how the artists’ individual styles mesh with one another and their individual rappore with the audience. sometimes the pairings can be disastrous, but we’ve been really lucky so far, in terms of the folks who’ve been involved with the shows i’ve been a part of – all great people. that’s not to say that some shows don’t end up feeling better than others after all is said and done, but there hasn’t been a bad one yet.

i’ve been a fan of jim photoglo’s since i was a teenager…jim had a solo album deal (as “photoglo”) in the late seventies/early eighties with the label that also brought you robbie dupree and christopher cross – and had a couple of radio hits with we were meant to be lovers and when love is gone, among others…and i had copies of his albums from that timeframe, before he was playing in fogelbergs’ band…and his three solo albums are all excellent.

as when we’d done the prior show, i played sparingly on jim’s songs, just throwing in what i was totally confident that i could execute, and singing harmonies on the songs i knew…but by now, i’d been playing for quite some time with both jd and craig, and i was a lot more familiar with their songs – and hoping it wasn’t too obvious to the audience that this was the case. then again, though, these shows are so intimately put together that i’m not exactly shredding on anyone’s stuff – so maybe it wasn’t as obvious to them as it was to me. we did all three of my favorite photoglo songs – silence is king, a job well done, and cry to me…and the staples from craig’s catalog, including my favorite mandolin song (sugarcane street) and the one song that we can’t not play at this point in time (this old house)…jd did black yodel and man with a worry…it was just a really solid night for our little unit. hope we can do it again soon.