Session Log: JD Malone and the Experts – the making of AVALON

almost immediately after our sold out show at steel city back in february, dean sciarra from ItsAboutMusic came up to me in full rave mode, talking about how much he loved the show, and the band…well, dean is a man who believes in putting his money where his mouth is, and within weeks, he’d hatched plans with jd malone to start work on a new full-length album, and had booked time at one of (in my opinion) one of the top two or three studios in the philadelphia area, phil nicolo’s studio four. dean’s philosophy was to record the band live in the studio – to have us set up in something of a semi-circle and play as if we were onstage, essentially.

now, this is not a novel idea by any stretch…in fact, it’s been an objective of producers and engineers since the dawn of the medium – to try and capture that raw energy and electricity of a live performance. the failure to do so has been an impediment to some pretty amazing bands – a lot of folks still believe to this day that the inability to capture the electricity of a Buffalo Springfield show on vinyl was a major contributor to their early demise (me, i tend to subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” ethos – which is to say that had they not burned out when they did, there’d have been no CSNY or Poco, so i’m somewhat ok with it all…)

while i didn’t want to piss in dean’s cornflakes by telling him that it was highly unlikely that he’d be the one to succeed where so many have failed, i did see an opportunity to possibly get a great live-sounding product from his approach…and remembering that one of my all-time favorite albums was recorded in the same manner – and in roughly the same timeframe (john hiatt‘s bring the family) – i certainly wasn’t going to rail against the methodology, because i was pretty sure that we could end up with something pretty amazing if we were all on the same page.

(for those not in the know, the “bring the family” album was recorded and mixed in four or five days…it featured hiatt’s songs recorded by the quartet of john hiatt, ry cooder, nick lowe and jim keltner – and it’s been hailed in the years since its’ recording as the crown jewel of hiatt’s recorded output. it really is that good…especially for a weeks’ work.)

now, factored into our three-day musical orgy was a video shoot and a photo shoot, both spread over two of the three days we were scheduled to be in the studio…so we really had our work cut out for us to get all this music committed to tape in the time alloted.

day one – video killed the studio star

studio four....
my world for the few days of tracking "Avalon" at studio 4

i had arranged to load in some of my gear the night before, during dean’s walkthrough, and i brought the lions’ share of the toys i’d be using on the record in that night…lap steels, a dobro and a weissenborn, 12 string electric, my jaguar baritone custom, a danelectro 3-pickup model, the banjo, my road mandolin…and a few other things as well. for amps, i brought the princeton as an alternative sound, but we set up the ’57 gibson GA-20T in the iso booth – and it was the right choice. 🙂

i had thought about bringing my own pedal steel in, but phil had a carter that was already there, so i used his – mine has been nothing but a black cloud in the sessions i’ve used it for, and i was thankful to have an option other than that one for this project. i really have to make replacing that thing a priority.

so, initially, we were setting up to record live versions of several of the songs for the camera crew that were onsite. everyone made it in early enough to set up in the prerequisite semi-circle (where we’d remain for the rest of the week, as it turned out) and we started dialing in our headphone mixes on phil’s semi-custom headphone mix-stations. as the camera crew got their bearings, we flew through a handful of songs just to loosen up – one of them being the cover of tom petty‘s i should’ve known it that we’ve been doing live for a little while now. as it turns out, both tape and video were rolling for that one, and they ended up not only taping it for video, but including the accompanying audio track on the album…along with several of the other live versions that we recorded that afternoon.

at that point, the rest of the video shoot went by pretty quickly – we also did i think it was a monday (which didn’t make the cut for the album, but ended up on the video and crept in as a live cut), as well as several of the other songs that we did end up cutting in the traditional sense for the record.

one of the things that i found interesting about phil’s approach to recording the band in the live setting was that he chose to place avery’s amp alongside mine in the ISO booth – mine was in the corner behind the door, and averys’ was on the other side of the room, facing in toward mine. at first, it didn’t make sense…but when i thought about it, and considered the SPL (sound pressure levels) involved between the two, it made sense that you wouldn’t have one leaking into the other, because you’d have to pad the inputs to the point that leakage would be almost a non-factor once you had both channels’ levels optimized.

this phil guy…he knows a thing or two.

we rounded out the video shoot in the early afternoon and started recording in earnest after we all came back from dinner – ready and rarin’ to go. there was a tangible energy around these sessions on all three days, but the excitement was particularly tangible on day one…dean’s choice of studio for this project was damn near perfect. phil’s enthusiasm was contagious, and like most really good producers, he knows how to get the best performance out of his subjects.

day two – say cheeeessseee…or, the birth of the cape may shuffle

avery coffee – there’s just something wrong with that guy.

look – it’s about time i publicly admitted it – avery is one of my favorite onstage foils. he and i compliment one another in a way that’s pretty much perfect for this particular band. our playing styles are dissimilar enough that we couldn’t step on one another if we actually made an effort to do so, and he’s so tasteful and conscious of what’s going on in the arrangements that he’s almost as dangerous for what he doesn’t play as he is when he opens up the volume and starts peeling the paint off the walls. strictly as a guitarist, avery would blow me through a brick wall like a giant pitcher of kool-aid…but the way we both approach this thing, it’s never been about the headcutting aspect – because we both know and respect our contribution to the band as a whole. i genuinely love playing with the guy.

but…and yeah, you knew there was a but coming…

it’s at times like day two of this endeavor that i don’t know if my not-so-secret mancrush on avery is because of our musical bond…or because of the shit that he pulls during gigs and sessions and the like.

we came in relatively early and started recording while photographer joe tutlo took candids during the sessions…and at some point during recording, avery launched into a pseudo-drunken firehall dance step that we almost immediately christened “the cape may shuffle”…since avery attributed the step to his mom, it seemed only fitting. the whole thing started to snowball during the course of the sessions, until everyone in the live room had done it at some point or another. it was just one of a perpetual parade of Averyisms that lasted the whole week.

day two was the longest of the lot…for me, anyway. i understand that day three went long as well, but i left early for a gig, so i missed out on the overdubs and vocal tracks that were cut in the afternoon into the evening on friday…but i think the work on thursday probably made finishing on friday possible for the lot of us.

some of the highlights of thursday included the remake of emmitt meets a demon…a song JD had not only already recorded, but had been the first of his songs to have a video done for it (although, it has to be said – from a conceptual standpoint, it couldn’t be a further leap from the subject matter of the song if it tried…).

we’d played emmitt live only a handful of times…it never seemed to grow legs live, and ultimately we retired it at some point. dean wanted us to record it again, though, and we were all game to give it another shot.

the challenge of the song is that it never really moves from the E form that it starts on…the whole song essentially sits on top of a riff that lives in E, and it doesn’t really veer off that pattern for the whole song. so the challenge lies in making the song interesting for the seven minutes or so that it lasts, in spite of the repetitive nature of the tune.

what we ended up doing was running the song once, with the entire band playing…and then taking it back to the top and having AC and i overdub our respective instruments over the track that we’d just done. another stroke of nicolo genius, as it was exactly what the song needed to add the elements to it that we’d left out on the first pass….for me, i’d been married to the riff that the whole song rides on from the top all the way out – so i got to add some fills alongside the riff, as well as some rotary-speaker swells and the like underneath what he’d already done.

avery…well, avery just lost his mind on the second pass. some pretty unreal sounds comin’ from that dude.

day three – the half-day.

it was a known factor that i wasn’t available for the full day, this last day of tracking – i was going to carlisle, PA to sit in with pure prairie league for their show at the carlisle theater with firefall, so i needed to get whatever work done that i could as early as possible. and, since wendy and danny were coming along, they came along to the studio for a quick morning visit and then headed off to ikea to do some shopping while we wrapped up.

one of my favorite songs, man with a worry, hadn’t made the original list of songs to cut, and since we’d all convened early enough, i put it on the table that we at least give it a shot – so we ran it once, and then took the second pass (i think it was)…and once we’d cut it, it was an easy sell. i played mandolin on the first pass, but left the break open for a potential overdub.


dan may stopped in for a short visit during the sessions on friday, as well – as we were cutting a cover version of “fortunate son”. avery and i played a harmony duet pattern on the solo section, and then traded bars on the tag, joining up for a line at the very end of the song.

then we moved on to overdubs – the dobro solo on black yodel, the lap steel solo on emerald lake that will probably become my favorite contribution to the whole record, and some vocal harmonies as well. wendy got there with the little man before dan left, and everybody got a chance to visit a bit before we had to jump in the car and tear down the turnpike towards carlisle. i took what i needed for the gig with me – an acoustic guitar and a mandolin – and planned on stopping back in to retrieve what i’d need from the studio stash for my gig with craig bickhardt the night after.

it’s hard to believe that we got as much done in two and a half days as we’d managed to do…avery and jd stayed for overdubs after we left, and jd worked well into the night with phil to fine-tune and/or recut whatever vocals needed attention. there’ll be overdubs afterward during mixing, i’m sure, but we didn’t leave much on the to-do list.

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