with JD Malone and the Experts: Steel City Coffeehouse, Phoenixville PA

there’s something about knowing beforehand that you’re sold out that makes your blood pump just a little more rapidly than normal.

it had been quite some time since we’d played a full band show, and we were all chomping at the bit a little…although, if the truth be told, by the time the day of the show had rolled around, i just wasn’t feelin’ it. i don’t know why – i just couldn’t get pumped for this show. it happens sometimes…now and then, i have to really talk myself into just getting in the car and showing up – and it seldom has anything to do with the prestige of the gig, or who it is i’m playing with, or any of that…it’s just that sometimes i’d rather be doing anything else but play. it doesn’t happen terribly often, but it does happen, and it was happening this day…but as my buddy skip denenberg said to me once – “i didn’t feel like going, so i knew i had to be there.”

there’s a powerful sentiment, right there – and i’ve gotta say, i’ve found it to be true enough times that i believe it without question. if i have a strong enough sense of dread about going somewhere, then it usually means that it’s important that i show up.

plus, there’s that whole respect-for-your-bandmates, adult-responsibility thing that kinda dictates that you keep your commitments and do the right thing and all that jazz.

at any rate – i knew it would end up being a temporary mindset…that once i got there and settled in, that i’d be myself again and it’d all be good. i just had no idea how good good would end up being.

i was actually travelling pretty lightly for an experts show…i only brought the mandolin, the lap steel, and the baritone guitar. no banjo, no electric 12 string – and i set up on the opposite side of the stage from where i had normally set up. in the time since we’d played there last, there had been some overhauls with regard to the stage and the sound system, and they’d moved the mixing nest away from the side of the stage to a location just next to the bar itself, against the back wall – it made a world of difference, both in terms of the layout of the stage and the sound in the room as well. i wouldn’t say it was night and day, but it was a noticeable, substantial difference – in terms of the sound of the room that night and what i’d been accustomed to. so we got in a great soundcheck and went downstairs to relax before the show.

as the night went on, and the usual shenanigans were underway downstairs in the green room (avery being avery and the like), i began to notice that the sound of shuffling feet was a lot louder than normal above our heads…the room was full. when we went up the stairs to take the stage, it was literally shoulder to shoulder – and immensely energizing.

when we hit the stage and JD counted off silver from and the band slammed in behind him, it was obvious from that precise moment that this show was gonna be a notch higher than what we’ve become accustomed to…the energy in the room was pretty intense. i know how that probably sounds, but it was palpable. if you happened to be there, you know.

a lot of people believe passionately in the exchange of energy that goes on between the performer and the audience – i’ve certainly experienced it myself in the past, to varying degrees…but when it’s that obvious, it actually elevates my playing. i mean, the solo i did that night on emerald lake was easily the best one i’ve ever done…and the band actually shifted where i did, dynamically – built up when i did, dropped out when i did – it was pretty unbelieveable.

jayda was there, she came up and sang the harmony on black yodel…dean sciarra was there, and came down for a while before the show…john woolley was there, who drove in from point pleasant, NJ for the show and sat right in front of me with a buddy of his who’d come to the show with him.

when we did an encore, i leaned over and asked john if the bottle on his table was empty, to which he replied that it was…so when we went into my solo section, i dropped my lap steel on johns’ table, grabbed the bottle and played my solo with the bottle that was on his table…from my seat on stage. (it was that packed that night. seriously.)

JD was totally in his element that night, fronting the band and connecting with the audience – he was clearly feeling the energy in the room as well, and it showed.

IDLEWHEEL tour diary – Winter 2011


thursday, february 3, 2011 – shanachie pub, ambler PA

friday, february 4, 2011studios of long valley, long valley NJ

saturday, february 5, 20113rd annual casbah house concert, union NJ


i probably should have been at least a little apprehensive about the first gig, at the very least, when i had to miss our only scheduled rehearsal to deal with a work situation…but oddly, it never induced much stress on my behalf. i practically never worry about this band. they’re an absolute pleasure to play with, and the cobwebs usually shake loose almost instantly. you guys have heard my by-now-painfully-redundant lament regarding how infrequent our opportunities to go out and play have been, so i won’t restate it this time around…especially since the warmup period has shrunk to the point where we seem to hit our stride almost instantly nowadays.

thursday night…

one of my personal challenges with this band (as with a couple others i play with) is gear-centric…in terms of what i have to bring and how much space i take up onstage. i’ve gotten it to the point where i can fit quite a bit of stuff into a pretty small tract of real estate, and thursday night put me to the test. the stage at shanachie is set up for acoustic music, usually of an irish nature, and is sized perfectly for a few guys with mandolins and accordions – but when you add a full drumkit and my toolbox to the equation, it gets a little crowded. what i ended up doing was to set up my amp and pedalboard on the stage (along with my usual tiny folding stool) and set up the guitar boat along the edge of the stage where i was set up. that way, i didn’t really take up much more real estate on stage that i would’ve if i were playing just one instrument. the aggravation potential came from the fact that i was set up on the side of the stage next to the mixer, so any adjustments had to come through me – i’m sure craig wearied of stepping over my crap every time he had to adjust something on the board. 🙂

this night, we were playing the most of any of the three nights – in terms of set length and the sheer number of songs we were doing. we sprinkled in some of craig’s solo material and a few other things that we didn’t really touch for the rest of the weekend. there was also this underpinning of caution-to-the-wind adventurousness that usually doesn’t show up to our gigs. now, that’s not to say that we’re rigid or chained to arrangements or anything like that…if they want a solo to go a little longer, for instance, i get the message via their not approaching the mic and i keep playing. we’re not constipated in that regard at all. but at this show, it went a little further. for “it must be love”, we changed the whole feel of the verses to something approaching an amazing-rhythm-aces/ry cooder kinda vibe, and it was a whole new song…and we did it on the fly. on “hard country”, craig played my goldtop les paul and i played bass…which has never happened. loose is really the only word for it, but it was more of a carefree, let’s try this and just see what the hell happens kinda vibe…with little thought given to failure.

and yeah, i did say “goldtop les paul” a minute ago. not an idlewheel guitar, typically – but i’d had the goldtop out of storage since the scot sax show at milkboy a month ago, and it had made the trip to illinois with the youngers just a couple of weeks prior…so, it was already in the car, and it saved me a trip to storage before work that day (which would’ve been challenging, since it was still dark outside), so i went with the les paul for this show. besides, it has P-90 pickups in it, which are certainly beefier than a tele or a strat, but they weren’t humbuckers…and in retrospect, the guitar performed pretty admirably – although i don’t see it ever becoming my first choice for an idlewheel gig.

tomorrow night, though…some changes will most likely be made.

friday night…

well, for starters, i had never been to this venue before…and wasn’t sure how much room i’d have there, either – but i was gonna rectify a couple of questionable choices on my part. for one thing, i made the stop at the storage locker and retrieved “the toaster” – my gibson GA-20T amp that makes most of my gigs…and i also dropped off the goldtop and picked up my blond parts telecaster and also brought along my sunburst epiphone casino. i figured i’d suss out the space situation when i got there, and i’d bring in what i could.

this venue was quite the pleasant surprise.

george moran of the valley music center put this room together, and says he’s settled in for the long haul…his optimism and love for live music is pretty infectious, and the performance space that he’s put together rivals some rooms three times its size. absolutely top notch sound and lights run by people who appear to genuinely love what they do…it’s going to be pretty hard not to succeed with those ingredients.

so…since there was an abundance of room on the stage, i brought in both the gibson and my princeton reverb, and snaked the two of them together out of the voodoo labs amp selector in my pedalboard – i also ran the acoustic instrument channels into the gibson (which lacks the honky midrange of the princeton, and seems more accepting of mandolin, dobro, and banjo). the telecaster was an obvious upgrade from the moment i raised up the volume pedal after tuning it up – it really sings through those two amps in tandem. it’s been a good investment (bought it from an indie builder on eBay a few years ago, and it eats guitars for breakfast that cost five times what it did), and it was the perfect choice for this gig, alongside the casino for the thicker stuff.

i would hesitate to call this a loud show, but by comparison on our parts, i guess you could call it that. the stage volume was certainly at a controllable level, and it wasn’t over the top at all, but it was loud enough to feel good. tommy was playing full tilt and didn’t have to exercise the restraint that’s sometimes required of him – i was able to turn the amps up a little more than i might ordinarily be able to, and we had a really nice, strong monitor mix onstage with a minimum of problem frequencies. everything was just about perfect, from our perspective on stage…and when that happens, that’s when you can turn off the part of your brain that has to monitor those situations and let the really great stuff happen that usually comes to pass when you can relax onstage and just let it rip.

it was a shorter set (lengthwise) than the previous night, so some of the shenanigans that took place the previous night were absent from this set…we discussed the notion of playing crazy love during our acoustic set the night before, and we actually ran it during soundcheck this night, but it didn’t show up. we did do stand my ground and a couple of other songs that i don’t think we included in the set during the last run of shows, and soul searching showed up on the setlist, as well…another lap steel song for me. yay. 🙂

at the end of the night, george’s sons were around during the load out, and they were a joy to talk to…they’re both in their teens, and they’re both pretty solid players…from the impression i got. very level-headed kids, with great foundations to build from…i was far and away the last one out the door at the end of the night (due to equal doses of having the most gear to deal with and my inability to just shut up and pack up my stuff), and i ended up taking them both on a short tour of my rig, and letting them play a couple of the guitars (the baritone jaguar in particular seemed to fetch quite a bit of interest) and just generally spouting off all my old-fart cautionary music business soundbites.

i wish i could somehow convey the nervous anxiety that washed over me for the first 25 minutes of my drive home, as dictated by google maps – i was having some pretty serious swamps-of-jersey flashbacks until i saw the ramp for I-78….

saturday night…

well, this was the cornerstone show – the one we’ve done every year since we started doing these little northeast runs – the casbah show.

it almost seems redundant to write about the show, as it’s so consistent – it’s not unlike playing your own family reunion.

for those who may be newcomers to these missives of mine, i’ll recap a bit for you…

idlewheel’s kickass bassist and vocalist is jack sundrud, whose “other band” just happens to be the fathers of country-rock as we know it…poco. jack and our other charismatic frontman, craig bickhardt, have been songwriting partners for a couple of decades and the band was borne out of that relationship…but a good many of our fans jumped onboard the idlewheel bandwagon as a result of their love for poco, and the casbah house concert is a direct result of that association. and it’s certainly grown every time we’ve done it. we had people at this show from as far away as rhode island and new hampshire, coming all this way to meet their fellow “poconuts” and revel in a night of music played for them in the comfort of the home of charlie and dorothy wade in union, new jersey.

there’s something innately special about this show that never diminishes, no matter how many times we do it – the house gets a little more full every year, with new folks coming into the fray, and it gets a little tougher to navigate the quarters and get up and down the stairs due to the sheer volume of folks in attendence – but it never gets old. if it were to grow too much…if it were to have to find another venue, or anything of that nature, then the very thing that makes it special would probably wither a bit.

the other thing about this particular show is that it’s almost always the last show of the run…and as such, i usually start to do my little internal waxing nostalgic thing that i do in my head, and generally try to wring out a little something extra. there was a fleetwood mac documentary that was made around the time of the recording of tusk that i think i still own on VHS somewhere…in this program, stevie nicks talks about how she tries to find something special in every tour that they do, because with that band being as volatile as it is, any tour could very well be the last one, and if that becomes the case, she wants it to be memorable even if in her own mind.

i think there’s always an element of that in my head with this band…not because i think we’re anywhere near as turbulent on a personal level as fleetwood mac were back in the day (although i think it’s common knowledge that each of us has, in fact, slept with every other member of the band…we just deal with that sort of thing better than they did)…i think my motivation to think of each run of shows in that manner is mostly derived from the pleasure i experience in playing with these guys, and my own personal need (especially as i get older) to try and feel and experience things in real time, as opposed to looking back on things fondly that i didn’t necessarily take the time to enjoy as they were happening.

as such, i usually find a couple of notes in my suitcase that i might’ve overlooked at the other shows…i’ll stretch a moderate solo into something a little more intense, sing with a little more heart – just generally try to soak it all in. and that crowd deserves every little bit of something extra that i can muster. they’ve been in our corners since the beginning, and i’ve seen firsthand how their allegiances have gone from being an obligatory, “it’s a poco thing” casual observer role to becoming full-fledged believers in what we’re doing.

to that end, here’s exhibit A…a post by Alex Agronick on the Poco Message Board at poconut.org:

Even if the music had sucked it was an epic gathering of people that I know and those that I knew from this forum but had never met in person. That in itself made the night complete for me. Throw in Dorothy and Charlie’s amazing hospitality and you’d have to be in a coma not to have a great time.

But oh the music was fantastic. I confess I was an Idlewheel ignoramus but I now know what I’ve been missing. Craig and Jack are great songwriters and the informal atmosphere made it feel like you were hanging out in someone’s home with a great group of friends. Hey, that’s exactly what it was.

The real wild card here though was the incomparable Tom Hampton. The man is a killer musician, the kind you might see when you go to a big show, like Bob Dylan or some other pop icon and you notice the young guy with all the guitars who is burning up the stage. He adds the third voice to the three part harmony too which was stellar. Haven’t heard singing like that in a long long time. Jack/Craig/Tom three part harmony recalls the old Poco back when Richie and George were still in the band. Just about every song included three part and they were spot on. Great blend to those voices too.

But getting back to Tom, the man plays guitar/lap steel/dobro/6 string banjo, which he explained after the show he strings differently to make it sound more like a traditional banjo. His tone is so off the charts cool and he plays behind the arrangements, never overshadowing the songs but coloring them just right and so incredibly perfect. I’ve listened to Tom on Youtube but seeing him in person made me realize how great he is. I will travel great distances to see him perform with this band or any other. He’s that good. And a really nice guy too.

To those who have never been to The Casbah, let me tell you that Charlie has created the most incredible music room I’ve ever seen. Elvis would be envious. From the ceiling which is covered with LPs to the amazing stacks of CDs that line the walls, if I could imagine heaven it would be Charlie’s Casbah. Leave me down there for a week and I wouldn’t even need to eat or sleep there is so much music down there. The only way I would miss a Casbah show would be if I were in a coma. Thank you Wade family, it was a night well spent.

i really can’t add a single word to that.