amy winehouse and bill morrissey

there appears to be something of a new, intangible cottage industry springing up around the notion of being cynical about death.

when the news of amy winehouse’s passing hit yesterday, twitter lit up with any number of arrogant, snarky missives about her, and i was scrolling through all this on my phone and wondering to myself, what’s the point of all this?  what did she do to bring this down upon her in the hours after shuffling off?

i’ll certainly admit that there have been people whose deaths have not exactly triggered a sense of loss for me, and there will most certainly be more.  i highly doubt that i’ll shed a tear when dick cheney finally, for the last time,  clutches the spot in his chest where a heart would normally be found and drops to the floor.   but dick bought and paid for that lack of empathy with no visible outward sign of regret for the life he’s lived, and i doubt i’m the only one who will feel that way.

but all amy winehouse did was to publicly live the life that many people live in total obscurity – addiction, i don’t think, can ever be fully understood by those of us with largely non-addictive character.  saddest about amy’s passing, as with so many others in her situation, is the spectre of what she would’ve accomplished had she not fallen victim to her vices – and fame, notoriety, celebrity…and the trappings that accompany all that…only fan the flames for someone who’s an addict and doesn’t have to worry about where their next fix is coming from.

i’m not necessarily interested in defending her actions, and i wasn’t a huge fan of her music – i didn’t have any contempt for her, and her talent was undeniable…but i’m at a loss as to why marking her death with public derision benefits anyone.

i think there’s an underlying belief that it’s somehow easier for prosperous addicts than it is for the guy who stands in front of the dunkin’ donuts on walnut street, talking to himself all day – and certainly, someone with a bank balance and a support system might stand a better chance of getting certain kinds of help, but their addictions are no less severe than the addictions of someone who isn’t affluent…and their chances of relapse might actually be worse, when you consider the surroundings and temptations that accompany celebrity – and the fact that addicts tend to surround themselves with enablers, who would never think of denying them the things they want.

another ridiculously talented soul left us yesterday, although he’ll get much less ink over having done so.

bill morrissey (1951-2011)

bill morrissey first came to my attention as the guy on the cover of the now-legendary (in some circles) legacy compilation…the guy holding the sign that said, “i wrote all of gorka’s songs”.  some of the other folks who appeared on the album (gorka, cliff eberhart, sara hickman) all went on to have successful careers, and bill’s trajectory never quite reached as high as it should’ve…the song that represented him on the album, handsome molly (featuring harmonies from suzanne vega) wasn’t his best work, and i’m sure that there were folks who found his weary, weathered voice a little hard to digest.  but on his best work, his voice is the perfect companion for his lyrics…and he used that voice and his insightful writing style to forge a career that spanned three decades over the course of a dozen albums, novels and short stories.   and – when you heard him sing, if you were at all familiar with his work, you knew instantly that it was him…for a musician, there’s really no higher compliment than that.

the two songs that best represent his talent as a songwriter, to me, are inside and birches.

inside paints a picture of quiet desperation that, to my ears, has no equal elsewhere:

this ain’t hollywood
it never really gets that good
call it love if you think you should
no need to explain…

…and you won’t leave soon, because i know
you’re just like me, with no place to go
there’s a love still here, nothings’ died
it just got buried somewhere deep inside…

…you’re home later each night, i see
i fix dinner while you talk to me
then we’ll wait for the late movie
to take us away again…

and you won’t leave soon, because i know
you’re just like me with no place to go
no place to go, it’s just a matter of time
you’ll find someone, it’s just a matter of time…

i totally and completely understand the notion that reading lyrics without hearing the song is something akin to listening to sports play-by-play without watching the game…you get the general idea, but there’s no comparison to the total picture.  this is as true with these two pieces of music as any other you could pose as an example.  but since i can’t play them for you, the only means by which to convey a snippet of morrissey’s genius is to cite his lyrics.

the song birches is acknowledged by most as his masterpiece…and probably rightfully so.  i still vividly remember the first time i heard it – when the last line came about, i was just speechless.  and it’s a hard song to stop thinking about after you’ve heard it.

i’m going to strongly recommend that you go find it and (legally) download it, but if you need to be convinced…

 

 

 

They sat at each end of the couch, watched as the fire burned down,
So quiet on this winter’s night, not a house light on for miles around.
Then he said, “I think I’ll fill the stove. it’s getting time for bed.”
She looked up, “I think I’ll have some wine. how ’bout you?” She asked, and he declined…

“Warren,” she said, “maybe just for tonight,
Let’s fill the stove with birches and watch as the fire burns bright.
How long has it been? I know it’s quite a while.
Pour yourself half a glass. Stay with me a little while.”

And Warren, he shook his head, as if she’d made some kind of joke.
“Birches on a winter night? no – we’ll fill the stove with oak.
Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,
And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon.

“And you hate a cold house, same as me. Am I right or not?”
“All right, all right, that’s true,” she said. “It was just a thought,
then she said, “Warren, you do look tired. Maybe you should go up to bed.
I’ll take care of the wood tonight.” “Oak,” he told her. “Oak,” she said.

She listened to his footsteps as he climbed up the stairs,
And she pulled a sweater on her, set her wineglass on a chair.
She walked down cellar to the wood box — it was as cold as an ice chest —
And climbed back up with four logs, each as white as a wedding dress.

And she filled the stove and poured the wine and then she sat down on the floor.
She curled her legs beneath her as the fire sprang to life once more.
And it filled the room with its hungry light and it cracked as it drew air,
And the shadows danced a jittery waltz like no one else was there.

And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.
And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.
And she knew the time it would be short; soon the fire would start to fade.
She thought of heat.
She thought of time.
She called it an even trade.

goodbye, bill…and goodbye, amy. i think that the best thing that can be said about someone in light of their passing is that they left something behind that made the world a better place – and they both can lay claim to having done so.

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with JD Malone and the Experts – AVALON CD Release Party

one thing you gotta hand to dean sciarra – when he gets behind something, his energy is pretty much boundless.

most of the time, the label might interject with regard to the big bullet points around the CD release party – the venue, date, stuff of that nature…but dean came to rehearsals, we had meetings around the set list, song transitions – i tried to stress the importance of lighting cues and the like, but i had a hard time getting anyones’ attention, and dean insisted that his guy was a pro and would have matters well in hand.

this turned out to be one of a number of matters that we didn’t really manage to compromise on…and while it left a bit of a taste in my mouth, i deferred to majority rule and let it slide.

the party was in phoenixville…not at the colonial theater (which would’ve been my choice), but in the auditorium at erin riley’s phoenixville school of rock facility. rather off the beaten path, but not impossible to find. we set the party for july 12th, with a full dress rehearsal the prior afternoon with all hands on deck.

we enlisted some help for the show – we invited jay davidson along as a utility keyboard player, and since dean wanted me to be more visible, we brought along john farrell to play pedal steel so that i could focus on the other stuff – especially since i didn’t normally bring the pedal steel out as a rule.  michael ronstadt, who’d played with us live a number of times before was also joining on cello.

and – of course – we were joined by the lovely and talented jayda hampton on vocals.

dean wanted to record the show – both in multitrack audio for possible future release, and a full, multi-camera video shoot for DVD release as well. so this show was going to be preserved for posterity in every possible way. so, with that being the case, dean was pretty adamant about rehearsal – of course, dean hasn’t really gotten the pulse of this outfit yet, where the whole rehearsal thing is concerned. we’ve actually made a conscious effort to limit our rehearsals, for a number of reasons – the biggest of which is we really don’t need to rehearse much.  once or twice a year has really been the norm.  usually, we’ll work out kinks at soundchecks when necessary, and everyone in this band is intuitive enough to essentially get on the train, grab a seat, and ride.

this isn’t a concept that puts dean at ease.  at all.  🙂

now, under this particular set of circumstances, i think we all understood this – and we were willing to spot him a little extra work, as we all understood that this wasn’t just another gig.  so, with the show scheduled for tuesday the 12th, we all convened the day before for load-in, a looong soundcheck, and a full run-through of the set.

JDME
my gear onstage during the dress rehearsal for the Avalon CD release party...

now, dean had seen the space before – i hadn’t.  so i reserved judgement until i got there, but i was scratching my head a bit when i walked in and saw the place, initially.  to my eye, it didn’t look terribly photogenic, by any stretch of the imagination.  dean assured me, though, that the backdrop would look phenomenal under the lights…and this was his party as much as it was ours in some respects, so i didn’t bust his chops about it at that point.  besides, what were we gonna do?  move it in 24 hours?  sometimes, it pays to choose your battles, and this one was not only unwinnable, but a total waste of energy at this point.  i decided that if he thought the stage looked great under lights and on camera, he obviously had more information to make that decision than i did…so i wasn’t gonna waste time dwelling on it.

(and…it should be said – in retrospect, he was right.  it did look pretty cool on film.)

JDME
JD, working up the Beat Poet Remix of "emmitt meets a demon".

dean brought plenty of nervous energy to the gig – he had come to see us play a street fair in west chester the prior week (which we were using as something of a rehearsal for this show), and we hadn’t really turned in a performance that would’ve been worthy of the CD release show – for a number of reasons, and there’s not much point in rationalizing it now, but we were waiting for a thunderstorm to roll in any minute (the streets were already wet from a heavy rain that had come through just prior to showtime), and there were a couple of cues that got lost between avery and i in a song that dean felt was a cornerstone of our set that we’d never even played before prior to recording it…

so…with the prospects of rolling both audio and video tape for this show, he wanted to make sure everything was well-oiled and with its best foot forward – and rightly so.  i think, though, that he was interpreting the general personality of the band as being at odds with that objective for a bit of the day, during mondays’ rehearsals.  i think that – once we’d been there, gotten through all the technical hurdles, and had run some of the set, he felt better about it…but i’m not certain that, at the end of the night on monday, he was free of doubt.  and honestly, he was probably the only one.  everybody in the band, including our special guests, were feeling pretty loose by the end of the rehearsal.  we were all getting there bright and early the next day as it was, since whatever final adjustments that the sound, light, and video guys might need to make would require us to be onsite, and i was prepared to do a little more run-through, if necessary.   we had to strike most of the stage for a show that the school was presenting the next day, so while we weren’t starting entirely from scratch, we’d had to reset a lot of the stage.

JDME
the stage, just before showtime...

the day of the show…well, it was everything you could imagine, just in terms of sheer frenetic activity.  there were caterers, video people, house folks setting up chairs, the whole shebang.  this was gonna be a party, no doubt about it…but the room actually looked pretty damned great.   the only thing that struck me as odd was this huge – and yeah, huge in the truest sense of the word – floral arrangement that was sitting on the piano that we’d hidden behind my backline gear.  i can appreciate the sentiment, but – ok, yeah, i’m a dick, but it was a bit of a vibe killer to have those on the stage.  but, at this point, this thing had taken on a life of its own and it was too big for me to fight it.  and, truth be told, it wasn’t really my fight to begin with.  somebody obviously wanted those up there, or they wouldn’t be there…so screw it.  the show goes on. 🙂

JDME
with jay davidson on keys at the CD release concert

now, before i seal the deal and paint dean as having been totally unreasonable in his presentation of the band, let’s be fair – there are some criticisms that were perfectly valid, in terms of the way the band presented itself.  he wanted us to tighten up some of our seques, especially early on in the show, and to be certain – we haven’t always been that professional in that regard.   he wanted to tie the setlist together in a way that made the flow of guests on and off the stage as non-disruptive as possible, and while that didn’t necessarily make for the best setlist – it was hard to argue against it.  i think that there was some natural blowback amongst the folks in the band, who had been blissfully exempt from that kind of direction up until that point, and we went from zero to sixty pretty quickly with this show – some of it necessary, some of it maybe not so much, but hindsight is always 20/20 where this sort of thing is concerned.

either way, we worked out the few remaining kinks, we had a solid setlist, and we were ready to grab a bite to eat and get ready for doors.

JDME
onstage with the lovely miss Jayda...

i took refuge in the closest thing to a green room they had to offer, with the rest of the folks in the band, and stayed out of sight while the doors opened and folks started to file in.  it was apparent pretty quickly that any worries about a thin crowd were unjustified – there was a huge line filing in almost from the time the doors opened.  i was torn (for a bit) between the urge to go out and greet folks and the more necessary need to stay out of the rampage and just wait for our cue to take the stage – definitely the wiser and least stressful of the two paths.  a few folks spotted us and stuck their heads in the door to say hello, but it was few enough not to be a distraction.  my good buddy michael tearson hung with us as we waited for the cue to take the stage, which came only a few minutes past showtime.

we planned a three-banger for the opener: still love you right into silver from into just like new – with almost no space in between the three of them, for the sake of impact.  in retrospect, tightening up those seques turned out to be a great idea…there were quite a few moments where JD’s ad-lib circuitry went into overdrive and huge chunks of time went by between songs – now, it was his crowd, and they were on his side…but even without some of the patter, it was going to be a long show – and i don’t know that we really had the luxury, with the setlist being as packed as it was.

we blazed through the set, though – the sound onstage was phenomenal, my onstage sound was probably as good as it’s ever been (i had pulled out pretty much all the stops for my live rig for this show…both my gibson GA-20T and my deluxe reverb were onstage, both fed independently by my pedalboard, and i had a submixer feeding an SWR acoustic amp for my mandolin, dobro, et cetera…it really did sound wonderful on the stage that night).

so we came offstage after she likes, with the full intention of returning for three songs – black yodel, leave us alone (man with a worry), and emmitt meets a demon…easily, the three best songs on the record – and held for the encore for that reason.  now, i never fully made it down off the stage – i went down the steps about halfway and then back up, as i was farthest from my spot, and i didn’t want to take too long to get back into position.

so i get back up, and jim yells over, “we’re going straight to emmitt.”

“whaaaaaaaaaa…ttt?”

“yeah – dean called an audible.  we’re going straight to emmitt.  we’re running out of time.”

i was somewhere several miles down the road from furious, on the outskirts of livid.

JDME
on lap steel, with john farrell on harmonica, during "she likes"

i felt like an offensive lineman, running the plays sent in from the sidelines with no control over the game whatsoever.  this was bullshit.  we couldn’t run the set we’d all agreed on?  we’re just gonna gloss over two of the best songs on the record because we’re worried that people won’t stay for the whole thing?  what about the people who came from four different states on a weeknight to see this show – what about making this worthwhile for them?  was there a curfew?

i was so pissed that i don’t even remember playing the last song.  i had to work hard to summon some degree of chivalry to come back up the hallway afterward and fulfill my meet & greet obligations…it wasn’t the audiences’ fault, after all – i’m not going to take it out on them.

once the place had emptied out, i packed and started the trek out of the room in pretty quick order – i had so much gear onsite that i had to bring some of it back in jayda’s car.  i didn’t really say much to anyone else, but i don’t conceal anger well, and they knew i was pissed.  i just drove home with the windows down and tried to decompress a little.  on one hand, an argument could be made that i’m a little old to be getting bent out of shape about something like this…and there may be a degree of truth in that.

on the other hand, though…look, sometimes i’m not really sure why any of us are doing this.  it’s certainly not because there’s a shit-ton of money in this business, and i’m too old to be doing it for any of the benign crap that attracts a young man into this game.  at the end of the day, the only reason most of the people who were in that room that night were there in the first place was to see this band – to witness this thing that we’ve managed to forge together on a big stage, under lights, loud and proud in a fashion that they don’t really get to see that often.  it’s supposed to be something special, something that doesn’t happen often enough to allow for ignoring it.  there were people there, on a tuesday night, who’d come from scranton, PA…from point pleasant, NJ…from wilmington DE…from Mt. Airy, MD…

JDME
if i had it to do over again, i'd TOTALLY be wearing a knit cap in these pictures.

and yeah, it’s a free show.  but those folks drove for hours, on a weeknight, to come be a part of this.  they deserve the best we have to offer.  they shouldn’t be subject to the perceived curfew of a bunch of folks who might want to leave at the insinuated end of the show.  i’m not there to play for the folks who are leaving…i want to play for the ones who are still cheering for more at the end of the night.  i appreciate all of them, but no one gets anywhere in this business playing to those least interested in what they’re doing – you have to nurture the affection of the ones who get it.  they’re the ones who’ll still be coming to your shows when the others have moved on to the next shiny pebble in the pond.

and, no…to answer your question, i still haven’t quite gotten past it.  i’m sure it’s going to come up in conversation soon, and we’ll put the whole thing on the table and deal with it, but i don’t even wanna talk about this with any of them right now.

aren’t i such a grownup?  🙂

Session Log: Seamus Kelleher at Cambridge Sound Studios

i first met seamus through jd malone, when we did a show together some months ago in doylestown at puck – and i had played with him and his band on a couple of songs. i must’ve made an impression, because he called me and asked if i’d contribute some parts to his new record.

he emailed me most of the songs that he’d cut basic tracks for, along with his thoughts regarding instrumentation…and right away, there were a couple that stuck out to me for either dobro or weissenborn – my personal favorite being reno winter sky, although i also really liked thank you for the music and bell ringing out.

cambridge
in the studio, working on seamus kelleher's new record at cambridge sound

i brought in the dobro and my favorite of the weissenborns i own, an old superior/K&S that i bought on eBay years ago…it’s tuned down to open C, and since the song i was hearing it for was in that key – i figured it’d be a good choice. i added dobro to his song bell ringing out and then he pulled one out of the hat on me…he’d sent me all the songs, but some of them were more in line with what i felt i had to contribute than others. there was one that was a bit of a rocker that i wasn’t expecting to be asked to play on – a song called sheppard’s song that was written by a friend of his who’d passed away some years ago.

 

it was a rocker, something of a latin-flavored, santana-esque groove that i didn’t really see myself on…but he asked if i’d play lap steel on it, so i took a swing at it. now, whether the part i ended up cutting will find its way onto the final product or not remains to be seen, but – who knows? stranger things have happened.

i really felt good about the weissenborn part, though – it layered nicely into the acoustic guitar pattern, and added a nice counterpoint to it, without being too overbearing. and – because it’s a slide instrument, there were some nice legato passages strewn in there, too.

seamus is a monster guitarist – he was a founding member of Blackthorn, which is something of an irish supergroup in our part of the country…and there’s no getting around seamus’ heritage, but he’s not afraid to turn up the volume and rock, either…and there are some fingerstyle chet-atkins flavored pieces on the record, too – one in particular, moose rag, that’ll probably give folks a headache if they try to get under the hood of it.

we’re playing together in september at puck – should be fun. not sure if the record will be done by then, but i’m sure it’ll be great when it’s finished.

Tour Diary: Craig Bickhardt and Ronstadt Generations

itinerary:

june 24th: sellersville theater, sellersville PA

june 25th: studios of long valley, long valley NJ

june 28th: eagleview summer concert series, lionville PA

the folks in ronstadt generations have become friends over the past couple of years from a handful of one-off shows here and there. michael, the patriarch of the band, is linda’s brother, and he helms the band with his two sons, petie and michael G…they’ve been travelling with josh hisle for the past few shows we’ve done with them, as well. you’ll probably remember josh if you’ve seen the deja vu documentary from the CSNY tour that followed the living with war album, having been in the movie and subsequently taken under neil’s wing. most recently, they had been part of our “evening of thanksgiving” show that we do every year at milkboy in ardmore.

this was the first time we’d put together something like this – we’ve done on the road and in the round shows before where we’ve done strings of shows with guests, but we hadn’t really done a co-bill like this…with the OTRAITR shows, everything is in the “round” format, and the formula is largely tried and true – it’s just a matter of gathering the right personalities and talent. these were standard co-bill performances, and relied strictly on the two artists – the ronstadts, and craigs’ mighty little touring unit (which, for these shows, included michael G on cello, since he was along with the family and all).

sellersville
tommy geddes onstage during load-in for the sellersville show...

the first gig was a sellersville theater show that we all promoted pretty heavily – it’s a 300 seat room, and it was our first time putting a show there that wasn’t as an opener for a pre-booked headliner…so there was some pressure to put bodies in the seats, as we hadn’t really proven ourselves there in that capacity. we were really happy to have drawn the respectable numbers that we had at showtime – it was quite a relief, believe me. now, what i wasn’t really aware of was that petie was planning to record the show. i didn’t really give it a thought, as we record shows occasionally at sellersville, but it’s usually just as a record of the show, or to review the set…generally academic in purpose.

this was more than just a soundboard recording, though…petie was setting up for a multitrack capture. i just assumed that they were recording their own set, for their own purposes, and it wasn’t really pertinent to us at all. well, as it turned out, they were recording our set as well…but i didn’t really realize it until after the show.

we were incorporating a couple of new songs into the set tonight – one of them a song that craig had written in the aftermath of the nashville floods called men and rivers, and the other an ode to the creative spirit, called crazy nightingale:

in the video, you can plainly see the price tag still hanging from the headstock of my then-still-new-to-me national new yorker lap steel, the one i’d just gotten while on the road with the boys in boris garcia during our west coast run. 🙂

during, and then after the show, i felt good about how we’d played…i wasn’t particularly excited about it – didn’t feel it was exceptional from my vantage point or anything like that – it just seemed like a solid set, good performances, minimal clams. everyone enjoyed everyone else’s music and company, and we said goonight until the following nights’ show.

the next night, when i got to load-in, larry was positively raving about the recording from the show the night before.

apparently, petie’s recording of our set had turned out pretty well. 🙂

ronstadts
ronstadt generations onstage at the studios of long valley in NJ

this venue, the studios of long valley, has been a favorite of mine – fabulous sound system, good people…a little off the beaten path to be sure, but a great place to see a show. our friend carol bernotas from WNTI was there for the show, and her musical DNA is very, very similar to mine, and she’s a pleasure to hang with. jon and georgina rosenbaum made it out to the show, and i had a little something special in the trunk for jon – he had bought a les paul standard goldtop from me, and we’d agreed to do the exchange at this show, since he was planning on being there.

there was only one other date set for our shared run – an outdoor concert series in chester county, just outside downingtown and pottstown in tiny eagleville that’s been happening on tuesdays in the summer for several years, presented these days by jesse lundy and rich kardan at point entertainment.

eagleview
my side of the stage at the eagleview summer concert series with craig bickhardt

it was pretty much the perfect show to wrap up the run…it was sticky and humid outside, but we had a great crowd – and that went a long way towards making the heat bearable. we even had a dancer during our set, at one point…who slowly started removing clothing during the song, but thankfully we ran out of song before he ran out of clothing. 🙂

after the show, we all grabbed a table in the courtyard behind the stage area – the ronstadts, craig, elaine, jake and our crew – and ordered some food, a few drinks, and watched hisle terrorize our waitress for a good half hour…papa ronstadt sat at my end of the table, and we had a great conversation. we had just lost kenny edwards, who played bass for linda and produced karla bonoffs’ amazing debut album, so we remembered kenny together for a short while…he’s a good soul, papa ronstadt. the whole night reminded me that there’s a lot of comeraderie that’s been lost as our business has morphed over the years…i use almost famous as a yardstick for a lot of things in my life, and i couldn’t help but flash back to the backstage scene early on in the movie as everyone was getting reacquainted, running into folks at the arena dock during load-in. a lot of the time in between nowadays is spent in solitude now, and we travel in tight circles because that’s what we can afford…and the hang after this show just reminded me of that.

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EPILOGUE: the multi-track recording of the sellersville show apparently turned out so well that craig and pete are mixing it for release as a live album!

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