a little random advice…

SO – recently, I was approached by a musical colleague with a proposition to produce his debut album.  I was (and continue to be) flattered – it’s not a scenario that comes up often, even though I’ve been involved in production for some years now.

We’ve been going back and forth for a week or so, exchanging thoughts and demos and such, and tonight he sent me an email with the question:

“…do you think I should even be thinking about making a record right now?”

I sat down to reply to his note, and several hundred words later, I finally got around to hitting “send” and thought – maybe these words might find a nerve with a larger audience, so – here you go.  Reprinted here in its entirety.

 


 

Boy….you’ve asked the $64,000 question, there.

And of course, I’m not gonna be able to go to bed without spitting out an answer of some sort.

There’s really only one person who can answer that question, and that’s ultimately you.  BUT – there are some points to consider when thinking about something like this.

You can’t really base the answer to “should I make a record?” on the number of Facebook followers you have, or how many people are showing up for gigs, or statistics, or algorithms – because none of that is gonna give you the right answer.

First of all, you should come to terms with a couple of universal truths:

1. Your first album will underperform your expectations.  Even if it sells a quarter million copies, it will fall short of some mark you’ve set for it in your mind.  It’s just the way our brains work.  There’s nothing you can do about it either before or afterward, it’s just the way it is.  Might as well prepare for it.

2.You will hate your first record for the rest of your life.  I won’t try to explain that to you in an email, it’s best saved for a conversation – but you should also make peace with that beforehand.  It’s yet another universal truth – you will likely end up hating your first album.  Jackson Browne hates his first record, and it’s universally considered one of the best debuts ever.  Counting Crows’ first record is brilliant, as is the debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash – they’re the exceptions to the rule, as those records represent something unique to their frames of reference….but if you surveyed a thousand bands or artists, 997 of them will hate their first record.  They will almost all have fond memories of making their first record, they’ll have stories about the making of their first record, they’ll tell you all about what they learned making their first record, but they’ll insist they hate it.

NOW – that last point is important.

Because – not unlike having children – making your first record is something that it’s easy to convince yourself to put off, to postpone, to talk yourself out of making that first record.

But days become weeks become months becomes years until it becomes “why bother” and you end up shelving it indefinitely.

So the answer to your question is yeah – you should make a record.

BUT – what’s a record?

Does it need to be a full length, 12 song effort?  Can it be an EP?  Does it need to be physical product?  Can I release it on iTunes/Spotify/etc. only, or do I need to actually have something you can hold in your hand?

This is all stuff you have to think about and come to the best conclusion for yourself, but I’ll tell you this:

Every single artist whos’ ever walked the earth has been in your shoes.  Everybody started somewhere, everybody had to figure this out for themselves, everybody had to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons from, everybody played to empty rooms, everybody slept in rest stops, everybody lost sleep and worried too much…frankly, if they didn’t, they’re not doing it right.

Making your first record is a rite of passage – no matter what the final product is (EP, CD, Vinyl album, iTunes only release)…it doesn’t matter.

You’re gonna learn the process, you’re gonna figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’re gonna develop preferences for certain rooms, certain microphones, certain instruments, certain players – and honestly, man…the only way to do it is to do it.

I feel like my job in this process is to make it as painless for you as possible, and the way to do that is to develop as clear a vision as we can for what you want the final product to sound like and come up with a way to get you there.  What form that product takes is up to you, and we don’t necessarily need to know that out of the gate…obviously, with limited budgets, that’s going to affect the process and we’ll have to make decisions around that once we start devising the game plan.  You have options.  A veritable SHITLOAD of options.  There’s no one right way to make a record, and our mission is to figure out YOUR right way to make a record.

I don’t need charts at the moment, but I appreciate the offer.

Since you’re not on a timetable, then right now my advice would be to keep writing.  Keep making demos.

Momentum generates momentum.

If you tell yourself you’re making a record, it grants validity to your efforts, it creates inspiration, and it makes you feel like you’re working towards something.

So write and record at home and think about this vague concept of a “record” and write with that in mind and write so many fucking songs that you’ll lie awake nights thinking about which songs belong on the record, and what the record will sound like based on your choices.

Some folks might call it anxiety, but I tend to think of it as feeling alive.

Let the work call the shots, and we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go – it’s far and away the best way to make a record.

That way, when you’re seventy years old and thinking back on this time of your life, you can look at the whole experience with a smile on your face.

Yeah, you’ll hate your first record, just like everybody else…but if you don’t make your first record, you’ll never make your second, or your third, or your fourth – so at some point, you gotta jump on into the water, brother.

Come on in and join the rest of us.

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Tom Petty

So I’ve come to the conclusion, based on almost two weeks’ worth of introspection and careful consideration, and…I’ve decided that – during the course of my lifetime, anyway, that there have been three deaths within the realm of rock and roll that, within my world, could be considered seismic in nature.

Ronnie Van Zant, Jerry Garcia, and…Tom Petty.

Certainly, there have been deaths that affected me more deeply on an emotional level (Dan Fogelberg, T-Bone Wolk, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gregg Allman, Michael Hedges), and there have been people who’ve passed that would be considered more influential (John Lennon, Bowie, George Harrison, Prince, Kurt Cobain), but – from the perspective offered from my own view of the world, these three mark significant, distinct turning points.

Ronnie Van Zant and the infamous Skynyrd Plane Crash happened when I was twelve years old and literally just discovering rock and roll from my perch in rural western Tennessee, and their importance within my peer group couldn’t possibly be overstated. Southern Rock was at its zenith at the time – I hadn’t been around for Duane and Berry…or Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, even…and The Day The Music Died happened years before I was born – so the first death within this new world I was just discovering was the grim and grisly events of October 20th, 1977…now almost exactly forty years ago.

It was surreal for a 12 year old kid to hear music coming out of the radio played and sung by folks who’d shuffled off this mortal coil. I’d experienced Elvis’ passing, but – no disrespect – his music didn’t speak to me at all. Elvis’ music didn’t belong to me, it belonged to “old people”. I didn’t have the respect for history then that I have now, clearly. In retrospect, it’s odd to think that Elvis passed away barely more than 60 days before the Crash, but the two events affected me completely differently.

The Skynyrd Crash was a perpetual subject of discussion among all the kids I knew who were remotely into music…and even the ones who weren’t. And it’s interesting to realize now, all these years later, that my first memories of the music that I was discovering, the specific stuff that I related to was already inextricably married to tragedy. It’s a thread that’s run through almost everything that I’ve been musically attracted to ever since, somehow. If there’s a self-destructive tortured artist involved somewhere in the mix, I’m sold. Gram Parsons, Chris Bell, Ted Hawkins – I’m all in. But with Ronnie, his songs and voice were literally everywhere. And, as has been thoroughly chronicled in the time since in print and documentary alike (the BBC alone has done Song of the South and Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga to cover the subject), the Skynyrd Crash was the bellwether that foretold the end of the dominance of Southern Rock as a microcosm of rock and roll in general. Obviously, I had no way of knowing it at the time, but in retrospect, the turning of the tide is undeniable. The shift was bigger than just the music, through…times were changing all around us, and music was just a means by which to measure the direction. But by the time the wave had crested and broken on the shore, I had ventured well past the Point of No Return. I was coming home from school and plopping down behind the drums and playing until my mom told me that everyone else was going to bed and I had to cut it out. I was gone, and there was no coming back for me…and the footprint left on my impressionable palette by Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and the lost Skynyrd brothers was permanent.

Time went by, my focus drifted from the drums to the desire to write songs…I saw Dan Fogelberg at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis in 1983 shortly before leaving my hometown to join the military, and – it wasn’t that I lost interest in playing drums as much as I felt like there was an entire world that had opened up to me, and I intended to learn to play guitar and learn to write songs. The future, as it’s said, was wide open.

Rock and Roll was my identity. In a lot of ways, it still is. I learned to play guitar. I became a pretty decent singer. I learned how to record myself. I made demos of my amateur songs and taught myself how to sing harmony by singing along to those homemade Portastudio recordings. Music was all I thought about. Sure, I had a job, I had shit that I had to take care of, bills to pay, groceries to buy – but any sense of purpose I had at all was related to my identity as a musician.

My first wife was a self-professed “deadhead” – and I’d heard the Grateful Dead in fits and starts prior to meeting her, but it was one of thousands of blips on a huge radar screen, and my attention was focused on what I thought were bigger, more important dots around the radius. But she hipped me to the fact that the Grateful Dead Experience wasn’t just about buying the records and listening to the music, it was much, much bigger than that – and that, in fact, “The Dead” didn’t really give a shit about making records. Making records was, to them, an afterthought…and their tours and live performances were not only their bread and butter, but the lifeblood to an entire counterculture that found its way into their orbit as the Sixties became the Seventies and the tectonic plates shifted beneath our collective feet.

Still, my path went in another direction and it didn’t really intersect – at the time – with what the Grateful Dead were about. It took some years of absorbing their music and a gradual understanding of their work ethic for it to sink in. To this day, I’m still more a fan of their songs than I am the extended, improvisational jams that were their trademark…I’ll listen to American Beauty and Workingmans’ Dead all day long before I’ll put on a tape of a show from 1971 with an extended “drums and space” segment. I’m a song guy. That’s just where my head’s at.

In August of 1995, I was playing a lunchtime show on an outdoor stage in Hershey, PA – and a buddy of mine tended bar during the day at a club in town that I played at on a regular basis, so I went over to pop in and visit before I turned around to head home. When I walked in, everybody in the room was morose and Brokedown Palace was playing on the jukebox. I sat down and ordered a Rolling Rock and opened a volley of small talk. “Yeah, kind of a bummer of a day,” he volunteered.

“Garcia died today.”

I sat there, silent, for a minute…he filled in the details, but I don’t know that I really heard him. I don’t think I stayed for more than another five or ten minutes before I got in the truck to drive home…I was as much stunned as I was saddened by his passing – it very much felt like the final nail in the coffin of an era that – without Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, couldn’t possibly forestall its demise any longer. Sure, the sixties, hippie culture – it had been over for fifteen years by then, but you could still go to a Dead show and forget, even for a few hours, about Ronald Reagan and the collective sellout of the Hippie Ideal. Jerry was a musical and visual representation of something that, I came to learn later, he quietly resented – he never set out to carry the burden of being the Shepherd of the Anti-Flock…and all he ever wanted to do, from the beginning, was to Play In The Band.
I’m not sure which demons eventually consumed him, but he was gone.

I drove home and grabbed a blank VHS tape and popped it into the VCR and spent the rest of the night watching and recording news reports of Jerry’s passing. I called off sick at work for the next two days…I was both saddened beyond belief and – honestly, very much surprised by how affected I was by his passing. For years afterward, I would mark the anniversary of his passing by watching that tape with a six pack of Rolling Rock.

I’ve come to learn a lot more about the clouds that surrounded the band in the final days, and I’ve also come to appreciate the improvisational nature of the band to an extent, as well – but I still feel a deep sadness that I didn’t appreciate Jerry and his contributions while he was here as much as I do now. And I’ve had opportunities to dip my toes into the DeadHead waters as a musician and a bystander to what still exists of Deadhead Nation, and I’ll be eternally grateful for his spirit for the rest of my days.

In the years since, there have been legions of talented musicians, writers, and “rock stars” who’ve left us…and again, this isn’t to catalog our fallen brethren by net worth or cultural relevance or any other means of measurement other than their significance as signposts in my life. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Time passed.

I matured as a musician, I wrote songs, I recorded my own songs, I played my own songs for other people, and…I eventually found a path I was comfortable travelling that was much more centered on being a sideman and contributing to other peoples’ visions than trying to force my own works on people. I put tens of thousands of miles behind me, played hundreds of hours’ worth of shows….changed a LOT of strings, played a lot of sessions, made a LOT of friends, had a lot of experiences I’ll never forget, and I’ll be thankful for the road I’ve taken until the day I draw my last breath.

It really has been a Wonderful Life.

So I suppose it’s fitting in a sense that, at this point in my life – as I’m reaching the twilight of my own musical career and looking down the road to a point that I can begin to identify as The End Of The Road that we would lose someone like Tom Petty.

Goddamnit.

For me, there was literally never a point in my musical life that Tom Petty wasn’t a part of.

My mother got me a clock radio for Christmas in 1977, and that bullshit little $15 radio became my tether to the world that existed outside my ridiculously limited view. The following summer, the movie FM came out, with Breakdown on the soundtrack and an actual appearance by the band in the movie, so – as far as I was concerned, they were part of the echelon. They weren’t one of those bands that I stumbled upon later that I got the privilege of going back and rediscovering their back catalog after they’d already done a handful of records….they were there from the outset, and they just NEVER. FUCKING. WENT. AWAY.

I need to admit a couple of things, though.

They were never my favorite band. I never put them at the top of my personal musical food chain, and – truth be told, there were periods of his career that I wasn’t particularly fond of.

But then again, I’d be willing to bet there are fans of Neil Young and Bob Dylan who would admit the same thing if they were willing to be completely honest.

I didn’t care much for the Jeff Lynne method of making records where it applied to Tom’s music…I had become too much of a fan of the records they made in a largely live setting, and the Jeff Lynne process just didn’t resonate with me. Obviously, I’m in the minority there, as they were some of his most successful recordings, but – as I’ve said multiple times, your mileage may vary.

For me, the Holy Trinity of Tom Petty albums are:

Damn the Torpedoes
Hard Promises
Long After Dark

As with Bob Seger, he had the good fortune of having a three album run that – for me – really perfectly represented his artistic identity. For Seger, it was Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind…for Petty (again, in my opinion), it was those three records.

I know Tom wasn’t fond of Long After Dark – I think it was made with waning interest from Jimmy Iovine, and there were a lot of distractions that didn’t fuel the creative process, but – man, it’s a fucking great record. The singles were phenomenal, and the album tracks that most folks aren’t familiar with could easily be cornerstone material for a lesser band – Deliver Me, I’m Finding Out, Straight Into Darkness…seriously, those songs are just plain unbelievable, and I wish the record had been successful enough that more people heard those songs.

As I fell deeper and deeper under the spell of the electric guitar, Mike Campbell became one of the faces on my personal Mount Olympus, and those records were textbooks.

And as I started to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, they were a huge dot on the map for me…and, thankfully, towards the end, they rediscovered the mojo (pardon the pun) that they seemed to have lost for a moment there, when they were making records instrument by instrument for those years between Long After Dark and Highway Companion.

Too often, when we’ve lost important, influential artists, we look at their work in a typical creative curve with low points at the front and back and an apex in the middle…but I feel like they were really doing some of their best work on Highway Companion and Mojo…and their live shows over the past decade have been Springsteenesque tours through not only their own discography, but through the history of rock and roll in general.

To me, that’s one of the biggest tragedies of Tom’s passing.

I feel as though we’ve lost a thread that connected us all to the very seeds of rock and roll. Tom still had the fire, right up until the very end. Tom came from The South, just as Ronnie Van Zant had – he had that particular soulfulness that seems to emanate from this particular plot of land down here in the Southeastern quadrant of the US…and he carried that spark with him, in varying degrees, right to the bitter fucking end. It’s to his credit that he went out with all his sensibilities intact. Maybe he couldn’t hit the high notes of Refugee or Here Comes My Girl anymore, but he still played like he fucking meant it, and he still brought it, ALL of it, every night, right up through the last show of their 40th Anniversary Tour at the Hollywood Bowl, just a week before he died.

Now, that tether that tied us to the genesis of rock and roll is gone.

And maybe to much of the world – the world that’s enamored with Real Housewives, Bullshit YouTube channels, and InstaCelebrities like Nicki Minaj and the like – maybe they won’t notice so much. They’ll hear some fuckskillet like Jason Aldean when he turns up on SNL and do one of Tom’s chestnuts and that’ll be the extent of what they know about any of this. They didn’t live through it, it didn’t comprise any of the rings inside the tree for them…they know his name, they know the video with the top hat or the video with Johnny Depp or the video with Kim Basinger and that’s about the extent of what they know or can relate to.

I find myself often thinking about Johnny Carson in the days since Tom died, and how he was just Always There. No matter what else might be going on in the world at large, you could turn on the TV after the evening news and Johnny and Ed would put a smile on your face. Likewise, where TP was concerned…it could be said that some albums were better than others, he had peaks and valleys…but you always knew that he had another great record in him. Or that if you went to a show, you were going to leave with a smile on your face and a memory that no one could take from you.

We’re riding out the waning moments of 2017, and there are quite a few folks still walking among us that, frankly, I’d have expected to have preceded Tom Petty. And there are still others who I can’t really allow myself to consider the thought of losing at the moment.

Springsteen. McCartney. Dylan. Any of the CSN principles. James Taylor.

And God help me when either Jackson or David Lindley passes. It ain’t gonna be fuckin’ pretty in my neighborhood, folks.

I remember an Idlewheel show from 2010 or so in New Jersey….we were sitting at dinner between soundcheck and showtime, and Craig said something about the notion that, at some point in the not too distant future, we were gonna hit a slick in the road and all our heroes and musical icons were gonna start dropping like flies. I still think about that conversation all the time…as if I’d know when we’d arrived at that point. But I think I’ve come to realize that it’s not an impending landslide, it’s a constant, undulating erosion of the landscape. And it’s getting harder and harder to maintain a foothold.

But I’ll try to remain grateful for the fact that I got to walk the earth before so much of the musical topsoil washed away.

Jerry Opdycke, 1953 – 2014

(Jerry’s official, self-penned obituary can be found here.)

once upon a time, in a land far, far away...
Jerry Opdycke at far right in the rear…behind the guy with the afro in the red hoodie.

Instead of offering any additional commentary on my friend, I’ll share with you what I shared with the folks at his memorial service earlier today.

I’ve had a week to grieve, and I feel like I’m just getting warmed up.


(I didn’t have any prepared comments…I made notes before I left – which I glanced at and then sat down beside me and forgot about.  This is from memory, and isn’t exactly as I recited it, but it’s pretty close.)

Hi, Everybody…

It’s been 32 years since I’ve been here – this room wasn’t even here when I graduated in 1983.  I actually had to use my GPS to find the high school…it’s been that long since I’ve been here.

it’s been that long since I was in a band with Opie, too, but that relationship went beyond Jerry’s talents as a musician.  The few times I came back to town, I always sought him out.

Jerry was the person who broke the news to me that David Philips died a few years ago…I know a lot of you knew David as the co-owner of Maxine’s House of Music on Florence Road that I used to haunt as a teenager.  I remember telling Jerry that day that I could count the people in Savannah that I went out of my way to keep in touch with on my testicles, and now that David was gone he was gonna have to be careful or he was gonna leave me in a hell of a bind.

Well, folks, I stand before you today as a man with no testicles.

Jerry has left us – and some of us may have expected it, but after him battling back from everything that life’s thrown at him, I fully expected him to battle back from this, too, and I’m sorry to have been wrong about that.

At almost 50, I think I’d rather be without my testicles than to be without Opie.

I see a few faces here that I know, but a lot more that I don’t, so let me introduce myself – as Debbie told you, my name is Tom Hampton.  I doubt many of you know me, but I met Jerry when I was a teenager and we played in a band together called the New Hope Music Project.

When I was 14 years old, I had the audacity to dial a number I heard on the radio to call the studio that Jerry shared with the band because I’d heard them on the radio, talking about a 45 they’d just released, and I called to ask if they ever needed session musicians.  I was 14 – I didn’t know if that was how it worked or not, but they actually told me that if I wanted to come down and try out, that I was welcome to.

I think I knew even then that they were probably just being nice to a green kid who’d never been in a band before – but my aunt took me to the studio, i went in and played three songs with them, and they took my number and wrote it on a card and hung it on the wall in the control room.  and time went by…a lot of time…and one afternoon i got a phone call from the band, because their drummer had taken a job out of town and had to leave the band – so would I be interested in coming in and auditioning for their band?

It was the beginning of a two year run playing drums behind Jerry with a group of musicians who were all at least a decade older than i was…and in bands, there are inevitably cliques that emerge – Pat and Frankie were longtime friends, and Ricky the soundguy was dating the lead singer, so Jerry and I were the last two left.  If we were gigging in town, Jerry would drive me to the gig in his turd-brown Toyota Tercel hatchback and he’d brainwash me on the way to and from the gigs by playing Little Feat incessantly in the car.  We’d go back to Jerry’s house after shows and he and I would rifle through his album collection and he forced me to fall in love with Karla Bonoff…we covered her song “Trouble Again” and I had to hear where that came from.

I talk about Jerry and David Phillips in the same breath because just about everything good that’s happened to me in my life since crossing paths with them was made possible by the fact that they took an interest in me. I was a dirt poor kid, living in Walnut Grove with my mother, brother and sister, and if those two hadn’t shown me the possibility that there was something else life had to offer, there’s absolutely no way that I’d have had the experiences I’ve had. It might sound cliche’ to say it, but it’s absolutely true that Jerry changed my life.

I joined the Navy and left town, and took my guitar with me because it was impossible to travel with drums…and Jerry’s ghost followed me too.  In fact, I listen to recordings of myself playing guitar during the years that I was “graduating” to playing lead, and if you listen to him and listen to those tapes back to back, the influence is undeniable.

When I came back to Savannah the first time after having left, I looked Jerry up and he told me to meet him at the old drive-in…I thought he was nuts, as it had been closed for ages, but Jerry had helped convert the refreshment stand at the old drive-in to the first Elks Club in town, and we talked for hours and hours…I remember snippets of the conversation, and I remember him saying several times that “your money ain’t no good here” when I’d try to pay for drinks.   After a while, I don’t really remember much else about that night…or leaving…or how i got home.

Our paths crossed time and time again over the years – he came to Nashville to see me play with my band, he came to Nashville to pick me up at the airport when my car crapped out on the way to a gig with Daryle Singletary…and he was always a phone call away.  I’ve still got voicemails on my phone from him.  I talked to him at 9 o’clock the night before he died.  Even after all that he’d been through, he was a rock.  I truly believed that we had a lot of miles left on our odometer.

About a month ago, I came to town with my friend Bert, who’s here today, to visit with Jerry…I brought my wife and 5 year old son, neither of whom he’d ever met, and we spent the afternoon together. Capped it off with a shot of Jack, his favorite drink. And I remember thinking on the way home that we should’ve taken a picture…but that we could do that next time.

One of the things I find a lot of peace in is the fact that there wasn’t anything unsaid between Jerry and I…he knew I loved him, and I told him everything I’ve told you today.  He was aware of the profound effect he had on my life, and I’m so happy that we got that afternoon together last month.  I thought it would be the first of many more, but it turned out to be the last.

If there’s a silver lining that we can take away from losing Jerry…all of us…go home today and pick up the phone.  send an email or a text.  Find somebody that you haven’t talked to in a long time and start a conversation.  Let them know you miss them.  I’m incredibly fortunate to know, at the end of the day, that Jerry and I said everything we needed to say to one another.

I was lucky in that respect this time.  It’s not usually the way it ends…but that’s the way I want to do it from now on.

how do ya get to carnegie hall?

just a short note from the unsolicited advice department here at tomhampton.com, for you aspiring guitarists out there – and in here, as well…

it’s extremely important for any aspiring musician to learn to recognize the difference between studying your instrument, practicing your instrument, and playing your instrument.

this is a distinction that is easily lost on newcomers, and often overlooked by intermediate players as well…but it’s hard to become an advanced player without eventually coming to terms with the differences between the three.

some of you probably aren’t crazy about the idea of thinking of your instrument as something that you have to study, but the form of study that you apply to your instrument doesn’t have to be purely academic. you may also be one of the many players who tends to confuse the study of your instrument with the concept of practice, but the two are actually separate and independent of one another.

the study of your instrument consists strictly of gathering new information about it. when you learn something new from watching a video on YouTube, or seeing another player live, or reading something on the internet, this qualifies as study. anytime you’re gathering information, it can be considered study.

when you take that information and apply it to your instrument, it can be debatable to some whether that should be considered study or practice, but for the purposes of our discussion, practice should be considered as the process of taking information that you currently possess about your instrument and learning to apply it in a playing environment. this means that you’re taking those rudiments and scales that you’ve already learned and you’re running through them to reinforce them in your mind, and you’re also working on your physical technique to improve the means by which you actually play your instrument. speed, accuracy, and fluidity aren’t born into the vast majority of us, and improving those qualities takes a degree of repetition to hone them, and to push our personal envelopes past our comfort zone.

a healthy (but not necessarily exclusive) regimen of study and practice are vitally important to you as a player if you want to continually grow and improve. when a player constantly practices the things he already knows, the only opportunity he’s really giving himself is to become better at executing the things he already knows – and there’s a brick wall waiting at the end of that path. conversely, you can study your instrument, gather information about it, learn new things about it – but if you don’t take the time to work on incorporating that information into your vocabulary as a player, then that information only exists as random academia in your brain, and not in the muscles that control your instrument.

your ultimate goal in finding a balance of these two activities should be in cultivating the ability to take your instrument into a gig or a session or any other performance situation and be able to call upon this stream of new information when you play.

you’ve likely heard it said before – when you strap in and get ready to do this for real, the best work you’ll ever do is when your brain is switched off and you’re relying on your internal wiring to send the signals back and forth without fully realized instructions from your conscious thought processes. if you’ve done the necessary work to gather information about the instrument (study), apply that information to your personal ability as a player and have repeated it enough times to commit it to your vocabulary (through practice), you’ll find that it’s not really necessary to expend a lot of attention towards your actual technique when you’re playing with your band or cutting a track for a session.

i don’t know much, but i do know that – without a doubt – one of the best things about being a musician is that moment of euphoria that occurs when something flies off your fingers that amazes you as much as anyone else who might have heard it…and leaves you wondering where the hell it came from.

you may not always know specifically where it came from…but if you strike the right balance of study and practice, you’ll at least know why it came.

with Paul Cotton of Poco at National RockCon, East Rutherford NJ

(thanks for fellow Poconut Claudia Upton for use of the photos.)

 

since i was a teenager, paul cotton has been an icon to me. one of the heads on my personal mount rushmore of guitar, along with david lindley, with dan fogelberg, with joe walsh, with lindsey buckingham, and a small handful of others – and as a near-lifelong fan of poco, his playing and songwriting were practically engrained into my DNA.

i’d loved their music as a teenager, and had been fortunate enough to have gotten to know them as acquaintances, then as friends, then later as peers during the course of my musical career. every so often, i’d gotten the chance to open shows for them as a solo artist, and then later as part of any one of several bands that i’ve worked with over the years.

so when i woke up one sunday morning a while back to my wife delivering the news that she’d just heard on facebook that paul had left the band that he’d been part of since jim messina’s departure in 1970, some forty years ago. i was absolutely stunned. not surprised, but stunned – if that makes any sense. not surprised in that it was becoming obvious that there was a rift, but stunned in that it actually came to the point where they parted ways.

the one constant in poco has always been rusty young – and rusty hired a replacement and has kept the band going – it’s not the same band, but then they’ve been through plenty of changes over the years…and it was to be expected that they’d weather this as well.

now, some time before this, poco had a date at penns peak in jim thorpe – paul’s flight came in late, and i picked him up at the airport in philadelphia and drove him up to the hotel for the gig. during the drive, we’d talked about some of the idlewheel dates that i’d done with jack (poco’s bassist) and craig bickhardt, to include a house concert we’ve done on pretty much every run that we’ve done at charlie and dorothy wade’s house in union, NJ (which we’ve since nicknamed “the casbah”). paul’s eyes lit up…”i definitely need to do some of that kinda thing,” he mentioned…”at some point.”

well, under the present circumstances, it became somewhat more of a priority to explore the possibility of doing some paul cotton solo shows.

not long after all this went down, i got an email from paul – he’d been asked to perform at RockCon, a weekend-long convention that featured live performances throughout…he wanted to have myself and tommy geddes accompany him for his set at RockCon, and we’d get some MP3’s of the songs we were going to do via email and we’d work everything out before the gig at the hotel.

with paul and drummer tommy geddes at RockCon

for a music geek like me, it was a pretty cool thing – i could see where someone more cynical than myself (if there is such a thing) would see it as something of a star trek convention for aging rock stars, but there were a lot of folks there that weekend who i was familiar with. paul’s merchandise booth was set up right next to johny barbata, the drummer from CSNY and later, jefferson starship. i was excited to see him because i’d heard that he was in a pretty serious car crash some years ago, and wasn’t sure if he was even alive at this point. i was mighty pleased to find that not only was he alive, but that he’s still a hell of a player…and a nice guy to boot. al jardine from the beach boys was there – gene cornish from the rascals…and my new friend john ford coley, who i’d done a show with at the record collector in NJ a short time prior…it really was a nice collection of folks, some of whom i was familiar with, but many that even i had no idea as to who they were – people who were the 326th runnerup in season three of american idol, that kinda stuff.

now, as far as the performance goes – we were originally going to do a full band thing, but i heard from paul shortly after i started putting everyone together that we weren’t going to be allowed to play as a band, that we could only play acoustic instruments – which struck me as oddly as it’s probably striking you right now. so, we worked out a different set and discussed what instruments to play on which songs and the like…but after a while, i thought it might be a good idea to actually check in with someone involved with the event and see if i could get a bead on what the actual deal was. not because i didn’t trust paul, but because it just seemed like such an odd premise to begin with, and i wanted to make sure that everything had been properly whispered down the lane.

i called pat horgan, who helped put the event together, and got the scoop – apparently, the venue was in the jurisdiction of a stagehands local chapter, and they were exercising jurisdiction over the event. and what that meant was that, in order to comply with the union regulations, they had to set up the stage at the beginning of the event and it had to remain the way it was. that is to say that the amps that were in place had to remain in place, the drums that were in place had to remain in place – nothing that could be considered backline could be taken away or added to the stage for the duration of the event.

so we could’ve done the show as a full band – we just wouldn’t have been able to bring our own amps or drums or anything…we’d have had to use what was there.

armed with this new information, i gave paul a call and told him what pat had told me…and we revisited the setlist. first of all, for heart of the night, we’d definitely want to go with the pedal steel…it’s such a defining instrument in that song, and it really needed the hook. same thing with bad weather…it really needed the pedal steel to work in the trio format. i’d play mandolin for under the gun and barbados, and dobro for child’s claim to fame. there’d only really be three instruments from my perspective, changeovers should be easy enough, and we’d be in great shape.

so the day of the show, i picked tommy up at home and we drove up the interstate to east rutherford, new jersey – home of the new york football giants – to meet up with paul and caroline at the hotel and rehearse the set that afternoon. paulie seemed upbeat, he looked good…and we ran the set acoustically in his room (with the pedal steel through a small amp that i brought up to the room just to use for rehearsal) and everything sounded great. paul told me – “in thirty years, i’ve only ever played heart of the night with one other steel player, ya know….”

as we were headed down to the elevator to go downstairs for lunch, i took a minute to let that sink in.

we spent the rest of the afternoon before the set wandering around the conference rooms where the tables were set up, chatting with folks, and waiting to go on. we were set to go on after vince martell and vanilla fudge. the legendary new york disc jockey pete fornatale came up to bring us on, and began his introduction as the vanilla fudge guys were getting off the stage…as soon as he started talking, i knew we were in trouble. there was no way we were gonna get them off the stage and get the three of us set up and ready to play in the time it would take him to do paul’s introduction. and sure enough, he announced paul while we were still plugging in cords and situating instruments. thankfully, he picked up on what was going on and rescued his introduction and started talking again to give us a couple of extra minutes.

can't remember what we were laughing at....

now, since we had to use the existing backline, i could bring up the pedal steel, but i had to use whatever amp they had onstage. my choices were a marshall solid state combo amp and a line 6 spider. i thought i’d be better off with the line 6, but after playing the first notes i played on the pedal steel, i got a knot in my stomach. it had practically no bottom end, and the sound of the steel through this amp was like someone jamming razorblades into my auditory canal. i know it sounds like i’m exaggerating, but it was truly, truly awful…from where i sat, anyway. that, combined with the fact that no one had bothered to bring any boom stands (which meant that i had to play pedal steel with a mic stand between my arms and legs, sitting between me and the pedal steel), made this set extremely uncomfortable. we got through it, though, and it was quite well received. for me, it was yet another example of how hard it is to turn in a comfortable, well-executed performance when so very little is going your way.

when we parted ways that afternoon, we planned on doing more of these shows down the road…we’ll see how that turns out. it’d be great if we could, but i also know that paul doesn’t want to head north in the winter, and with that being the case, it could be a while.

on the way out of the hotel, we bumped into charlie gracie standing outside, smoking a cigarette…charlie is a rockabilly legend, someone that paul mccartney still considers a hero. but here we all were, standing outside shooting the breeze. i mean, in this day and age, there’s really not much left of the mystique that used to be such a big part of rock and roll…but between the internet cultivating the perception that we should have full, unfettered access to the people who make the music we love and things like this, that mystique should be all but extinct once this generation of rock and rollers has passed on into the sunset.

and those who come afterward will have no inkling of what they missed.

with Mercy Blue – “Rosewood” CD Release party

it’s probably a textbook case of oversimplifying, but josh werblun is a Good Kid.

i’ve known joshs’ dad, art, for some time, and josh has become a member in good standing of what’s left of the philadelphia music scene at a pretty early age…he just graduated at drexel this month, and his senior project was rosewood – a concept album recorded by his band, mercy blue. josh invited me into the studio to cut steel parts for the record, so i got to put some slightly left-of-center pedal and lap steel parts down…certainly not what i normally play, which made it a lot of fun.

pedal steel at mercy blues' CD release show

josh and company were running around like madmen to try and get the record ready for completion in time for their release party, and somehow they managed to pull it off, even if only to have the album downloadable for the guests by the following morning. it’s an easy mistake to make (i know – i made it myself) when you’re doing an album early in your career…overlooking all the things you have to line up to have in place before you announce your latest work to the world. but after you do it a couple of times, eventually you learn to set your release date for at least a month after you think you’ll have hard-pressed copies in hand (if you’re still someone who believes in the whole “physical copy” thing. that’d be me, for one).

so, i found my way to 40th and walnut to the rotunda with my gear and loaded in for the gig…very cool little performance space…and managed to situate myself up there with the pedal steel in such a manner that i had two cables going back to the amp – one directly from the volume pedal for the pedal steel, and one coming from the pedalboard, which would be the lap steel and electric guitar and such. it was a little cumbersome, but it worked – i was close enough to the amp to be able to just reach back and plug in whichever signal path i needed, so everything went relatively smoothly.

i am immune to your charms, young skywalker...

i have to confess to feeling – well, rather ancient when the show started and they called me up to sit in. i actually posted a twitter update during the show comparing it to stephen stills sitting in with green day…and yeah, i felt pretty old up there with the upstarts, but they genuinely wanted me there, and that made it a little easier.

we closed with tom petty’s running down a dream, which ended too soon for me, but with that one finished, the night was a wrap.

it’s rejuvenating, in some ways, to be in the company of young musicians whose outlook hasn’t been stomped under the cleats of the realities of this business yet. in their eyes, the possibilities are endless and it’s all out there, waiting for them to just go out and gather it all up. i mean, i doubt they actually, consciously see it that way…but when contrasted to how so many folks in this line of work (including myself) tend to see things, they’re downright starry-eyed. but it’s not a naive fantasy-based optimism…they know what kind of work is involved, and they’re not adverse to doing it.

they’ll be fine…and ultimately, so will this business of ours, i think. i hope.

last call at the spectrum (1967-2009)

you guys know me by now. about as nostalgic as they come.

so, yeah – i kinda had to be here for this.

the spectrum had been here for years before i showed up, and folks who grew up here who are my age have stories about the shows they’d seen at the spectrum many years before i showed up – and in that regard, i kinda felt like i was mourning someone else’s loss by coming to say goodbye to the spectrum at this show.

it was, to their credit, an all philadelphia bill – starting with the hooters, followed by todd rundgren, and headliners hall and oates.

ramon, derek, dylan, and..."booty" in front of the spectrum...

now, before i’d left, i made mention to dylan that i was going to this thing, and he was actually interested in seeing hall and oates, which…well, to say it was out of character for him would be an understatement. but sure enough, he wanted to come along. and not only did he come along, but he brought three friends with him. i’d already gotten my tickets (down front, complete with afterparty passes and all), but i got them tickets when we got there so that they could get in to see the show, and told them that i’d meet up with them afterwards to try to get them into the afterparty.

eric bazilian and john lilley of the hooters onstage at last call

i bumped into beth kretz and her oldest little guy – she’d brought him there to see what an actual concert was like, and from what i could tell, he hung in there pretty well…they were really only there for the hooters, and they played first – so it was pretty easy to manage him, since she was able to get him in and out relatively quickly.

i got there, picked up tickets for dylan and his friends and parted ways, met up with mark and we went down front and found our seats, and watched the hooters set from there. i got up and took a walk around the arena, though, for todd rundgrens’ set…it was, to be polite, a little hard to digest. todd made what felt like a conscious attempt to stay as far away from playing anything palatable, sticking instead to obscure stuff that wasn’t terribly tuneful. plus, his voice sounded pretty shredded. instead, i took a few laps around the concourse, taking in the larger-than-life murals of great moments in flyers and sixers history, as well as some of the shows that had taken place there over the years.

todd rundgren, taken from backstage. that's my buddy rob nagy in the red sox hat in the front row.

the grateful dead played the spectrum 53 times, more than any other act – but the spectrum hosted everyone from cream (during their farewell tour), the doors (whose live in philadelphia ’70 was recorded there), and pink floyd (where it’s said that roger waters’ experience that inspired comfortably numb occured). the flyers won a stanley cup there in 1974, and the sixers (led by julius “doctor j” irving) hosted the NBA finals there in the late seventies.

so, yeah…there’s a lot of history in this place…not to mention a million stories that exist in the memories of the people who filled the seats here.

hall and oates take the stage for last call at the spectrum

after rundgrens’ set, i wandered back down to my seat for hall and oates, who put on a phenomenal show…encored by the soul survivors doing expressway to your heart and an all star finale, including pretty much everyone left in the dressing rooms, doing the ojays’ anthem, love train.

the lights came up and the crowd started to mill about, finding its way to the exits – i went out and found dylan, ramon, derek and company and told them to stay close to me and – when they finished prepping the floor for the afterparty – to just follow me down, and keep talking to me the whole time and we’d see if they were stopped at all. if so, they’d have to wait a while…but if not, to just come on down and hang and have fun.

i ran into pierre robert not long after we got down to the floor, and introduced the kids to him, introduced them to john lilley when he came out, and by then the food was out, and they had amended their agenda somewhat. 🙂

with t-bone wolk - THE nicest dude in rock and roll. 🙂

t-bone wolk came out at long last, and attracted quite a crowd the minute he came out, which was quite a testament to his stature, i guess…but also a testament to what a friggin’ nice guy he is. i managed to catch a couple minutes’ worth of conversation with him, though – asked him whether or not there was any progress on the john eddie record that i’d played on for him some time before (answer: it appears to have been abandoned for the time being, and he hasn’t heard from john in quite a while) – he’s enjoying working with darryl on his solo record, and on the live from darryl’s house shows. i also had to tell him how much my daughter loved the across the universe movie…t-bone played on a lot of the score for the soundtrack (which, you may or may not know, is all beatles songs…arranged into a plot that unfolds as the movie progresses). that brought a smile to his face….but he looked pretty tired, and there were quite a few sharpie hounds with albums under their arms vying for his attention, so i said goodnight.

as the night wore on, though, and a lot of the folks filtered out into the night, i found myself sitting in a seat along the side and watching the stage being torn down by the crew…it was the first few verses of jackson browne’s the load out personified:

now the seats are all empty
let the roadies take the stage
pack it up, and tear it down

they’re the first to come and the last to leave
working for that minimum wage
they’ll set it up in another town

tonight the people were so fine
they waited there in line
and then they got up on their feet and made the show

well, that was sweet
but i can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs
and that’s a sound they’ll never know….

"..'cause when it comes to moving me, you know you guys are the champs..."

it really is a lonely moment – when the hall has emptied out and the stage is being torn down and loaded onto the trucks to move on to the next show and the only sounds in the room are the jarring echoes of cases slamming shut, platforms being lowered to the floor, wheels careening across the hall from the arena to the dock. it’s quite a spiral in energy, from the show to the load-out, and it can take a toll when you ride that curve a lot.

i had a hard time leaving the spectrum that night knowing that i’d never be back…it’s yet another important chess piece in a game that’s falling out of fashion, and further evidence that time marches on and that none of us are getting any younger.