Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Train Leaves Here This Morning"

Jeffrey Lebowski made it pretty cool to hate The Eagles in 1998's Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski, but that didn't stop the California country rock band from selling out massive concerts up until they disbanded earlier this year (their disbandment caused only by founder Glenn Frey's sudden death, which means this time it's likely for good). Love them or hate them, today The Eagles are considered one of, if not the, biggest U.S. bands of the 1970s (maybe ever). By many, however, they are dismissed as inauthentic sellouts to stadium rock.

After a successful stint backing up Linda Ronstadt, Glenn Frey and Don Henley decided to venture out and start their own country rock band, The Eagles. They were immediately successful, building on what The Byrds, Buffallo Springfield, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and others had started before: smooth country-based ballads with pleasant harmonies. The genre didn't have the grit and sweat (or authenticity) of outlaw country of Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, nor the goofy polish of Nashville establishment acts like George Jones. These weren't cowboy campfire songs and the musicians weren't from The South, rather, the music was light and breezy like waves gently crashing on the desert. That style would go on to influence the sound of light 1970s AM rock (a sound expertly mocked in Documentary Now's Light & Breezy: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee, which took direct aim at The Eagles' inauthenticity).

The Eagles, 1972 (Henley, Leadon, Frey, Meisner)
The knock against The Eagles is that they were too polished. Even for California country music. A few years after their 1972 debut, they added rock guitarist Joe Walsh in a move to further themselves from an acoustic country sound. People forget that in 1974, although they were successful, The Eagles were often still opening for bigger acts like The Allman Brothers (to be fair, bills were typically stacked with several big acts in those days). They were big, but they weren't the biggest yet. Adding Joe Walsh, who rose to success with The James Gang and handful of successful solo albums, was a pretty big get. It propelled The Eagles to the top with 1976's massive hit Hotel California, one of the biggest rock albums ever.

Joe Walsh replaced Eagles' founding guitarist Bernie Leadon who had grown tired of the grind of studios and touring, and some say, was against Frey and Henley's move away from light country rock. Of all of The Eagles hit songs, my favorite Eagles song was always Bernie Leadon's "Train Leaves Here This Morning" from their debut album. For a long time I thought it was an obscure, forgotten nugget buried on an album with big hits, but when I went to arrange my version, I discovered the song has quite a bit of life among country bands. It's something of a standard. The song originally appeared on a Dillard & Clark album, one of Leadon's previous bands he played in. He brought the song with him to The Eagles and since then it's become something of a signature tune for him, eventually playing it when he rejoined The Eagles for some of their recent tours.

I got a little ambitious with the tune. I wanted to slow it down, and give it some space to breath. That left it really empty in places, my voice alone couldn't carry it, so I added some totally improvised harmonies which I discovered is a huge part of the song. Since I've moved recently, the new room I've been recording in is pretty open and echoey at the moment, so the bass is a little muddy (probably a good time to record some Phil Spectre material) but it seems to have covered some of my harmony deficiencies.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

"Midnight Blues"

Shortly after the Allman Brothers reunited in 1990 they were invited to MTV's all acoustic Unplugged program. An acoustic show might seem unremarkable today, but after a decade dominated by electronic synthesizers and hair bands' guitar amplifier's gain turned to 11, the idea of an all-acoustic show was refreshing, if not revolutionary. The show felt impromptu (in the case of the Joe Walsh and Dr. John pairing, it actually was) but the Allman Brothers took it as seriously as their reunion. This was a chance to show a nationally televised audience that they weren't a dinosaur band. It was also an opportunity to show casual fans that they weren't just a guitar band that jammed for hours.

They performed lovely versions of acoustic-based classics Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider" and "Melissa", and introduced their latest album's title track, Dickey Betts' "Seven Turns". But they also dusted off some old blues songs, Robert Johnson's "Come On Into My Kitchen" and the traditional "Going Down That Road Feeling Bad". The performance was so successful that they added an acoustic set to the middle of their live shows for the next few years.

Blind Willie McTell
One of the songs Dickey Betts brought to the band for their expanded touring acoustic set was an old Blind Willie McTell song, "Blues 'Round Midnight". The story goes that he had remembered it wrong, to the point it was almost a completely different tune. Enter "Midnight Blues" which appeared on the Allman Brothers' next live album, An Evening With.

I recorded most of this song last Summer. I wanted to put a sax solo on it, but my sax chops have a ways to go to catch up to my 13 year-old self. The cigar box guitar fits in enough, I didn't want to over stuff the song.

Monday, July 25, 2016

"Keep On Growing"

Derek & the Dominos lone studio album, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, was not a commercial or critical success upon its release in 1970. Producer Tom Dowd found himself at a loss regarding the lukewarm reception the album received, he was certain he had just poured sweat and tears into an amazing collection of songs. The album's initial thud at the sales counter is pretty hard to believe today considering it is now so universally beloved and considered a high point of Eric Clapton's career, featuring his most famous song, "Layla". But, like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, many of history's great artistic achievements take a while to sink in with the public and receive the acclaim they deserve.

It took me a while to come around Layla as well. I have never been a huge Eric Clapton fan - his stinging Fender Stratocaster tone tires my ears. But you would think that the addition of Duane Allman, and what was essentially Delaney & Bonnie & Friends' touring band, would put this one in the win column immediately for me. But it didn't.

The story of Layla has been recounted many times. Eric Clapton was in a bad place in the early 1970s. After years being hailed as a "Guitar God" (or the Guitar GOD) while playing with John Mayall, The Yardbirds, Cream, and (briefly) Blind Faith, Clapton decided to retreat to the side of the stage. Meanwhile, the criminally underrated Delaney & Bonnie & Friends were playing rootsy folk, blues, and country music with a stellar band that included Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, and Carl Radle. At the suggestion of Eric Clapton's good friend, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie opened for Blind Faith during its brief tour before quickly disbanding. Enamored with the down to earth music Delaney & Bonnie were making, Clapton decided retreat from the spotlight and take the lead guitar chair with them on their next tour as a sideman (one that had been briefly sat in by Harrison, Dave Mason, and eventually, occasionally Duane Allman).

Clapton, Bonnie & Delaney Bramlett, Harrison
Delaney & Bonnie were always a critics and musicians' darling, but never a big seller. After the tour and a season of playing with them, Clapton used their bandmates for his first solo album (Joe Cocker also went on tour with essentially the same band - they were really good). Meanwhile, Clapton became famously enamored with best bud George Harrison's wife. The helplessness he felt for the love of his best friend's wife found itself into the song writing for his next album, which would not bear the guitarist's name, rather the band's new stage name in an attempt to give Clapton some anonymity. After a legendary meeting at an Allman Brothers concert, Duane Allman was invited to participate on the album as production was already underway.

Layla LP gatefold collage
The original and covered music on Layla is full of screams, cries, and pleas for a love that can't, or shouldn't, be. The energy is almost always hitting the ceiling - "Anyday", "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad?", "Bell Bottom Blues", "Have You Ever Loved A Woman", "It's Too Late", and of course, "Layla", is almost too exhausting to listen to from start to finish. There are plenty of concept albums that sport a singular theme, but Layla almost feels over-indulgent (anyone who has seen the album's interior photo collage can infer "over-indulgence" was the theme in the studio as well). I think that's why it never spoke to me too strongly, and much of it still doesn't (I still find "Why Does Love Have To Be So Sad" simple and childish, which it is kind of intended to be I suppose), but I've come to appreciate it much more in recent years. A degree of credit for my turn goes to the Tedeschi Trucks Band who have covered "Anyday" and "Keep On Growing" expertly (as well as a good amount of Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs & Englishmen material). I was surprised to find myself covering this song, but sometimes a project finds you. The lyrics are almost nonsense, but the music is so bouncy and hopeful, it is easily the most upbeat song on the album. This is also the final track to my second "album", The Front Porch.

Derek & the Dominos didn't tour extensively. They performed only twice with Duane Allman whose time in the fold ended up being only a brief dalliance: though tempted to continue playing with one of his heroes, he quickly returned to his own band that was just beginning to catch fire. Eric Clapton's life would unravel in a downward spiral over the next few years before a late-1970s resurrection. The rest of the group, whose names are known primarily due to Layla, essentially drifted after a brief reunion with Joe Cocker. Only Whitlock, who has recently returned to performing music, seemed to survive the industry intact - Gordon went mad and killed his mother, Radle drank himself to an early grave. Duane Allman died a year later in a motorcycle accident.  

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is heralded as a masterpiece.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"When I Paint My Masterpiece"

Although The Allman Brothers Band is my favorite band and their music has largely inspired this project, it is the music of The Band that has inspired my approach. After the brothers Allman, The Band has always been a close second to me. Although their time together was slightly shorter (what other band can go 45 years strong?), their impact certainly isn't. Their rootsy approach to folk and blues inspired everyone from Eric Clapton and The Beatles to the very musicians that inspired them. The Staples Singers, whose rich vocal arrangements inspired The Band's group vocal dynamic, covered "The Weight" soon after The Band's Music From Big Pink debuted, and joined them in their "final" concert film in 1976, The Last Waltz.

The Band, Madison Square Garden, 1993.
That wouldn't be the very end for The Band - they regrouped as a touring unit without guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson in the 1980s until Richard Manuel's 1986 suicide. They regrouped to greater success again in the 1990s when they toured and released 3 albums until bassist & vocalist Rick Danko's death in 1999. But it was their early loose demos that they recorded in the basement of their communal Woodstock, NY, home, "Big Pink", that inspired my approach to the back porch feel to this acoustic project. After years of backing up Bob Dylan on the road, the group retreated to Woodstock after Dylan took time off to recover from a motorcycle accident. It was there that The Band found its sound, ironically, after years of being booed as Dylan's electric band, in loose, rootsy acoustic arrangements. Those demos would eventually be released as Bob Dylan & The Band: The Basement Tapes, at a time when The Band's recording output slowed down considerably, and are an absolute treasure.

It was only a matter of time until I recorded one of my favorite songs of theirs, Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece". The song first appeared on Cahoots, The Band's 4th studio album. Many would go on to cover it, but my favorite version is The Band's 1993 performance at Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert. It is loose, goofy, and the first time many had seen the spirit of The Band in 20 years. With accordion and mandolin, it is also the most straight forward adaptation of a song I have done.

Joseph Tenuta
My grandfather, Joseph Tenuta, was a musician and accordion teacher. He passed away long before I was born, but my mother still had two of his student accordions (a LoDuca Bros made in Milwaukee, WI, no less), one of which I lugged home with me last year. Having played more piano recently, it didn't take too long to figure out how to play a very simple accordion part on "Masterpiece". I recorded a demo of the song last year, but I am glad I tucked it away and waited until I was ready to add the mandolin and accordion parts. I certainly didn't reinvent the wheel, but a song has already been perfected, what else can one do?

Friday, May 27, 2016

"I Walked on Gilded Splinters"

I can play a lot of things: guitar, mandolin, piano, bass, a little saxophone. One thing I am not is a drummer (many would say "singer" as well). So choosing to tackle Dr. John's rhythm-heavy "I Walked on Gilded Splinters" with stomp buckets and a cajon was a bit of a challenge.

Dr. John
Dr. John first recorded the voodoo song for his 1968 album, Gris-Gris. It's full of spooky atmosphere, with hissing and background singers seeming to appear from the ether, or at the very least, from the far corners of the recording studio. Dr. John recorded the song in the same studio Cher was recording an album in LA. Oddly enough, she covered the tune which is full of voodoo studio production and a tone-deaf Cher vocal. But she may have planted the idea to speed up the song, which a blues man from Georgia cutting his first album would also do - Johnny Jenkins.

Johnny Jenkins had played the chitlin' circuit for years as Johnny Jenkins and the Pinetoppers. For a time he employed a backup singer named Otis Redding. Jenkins manager, Phil Walden, would concentrate on Otis once his career exploded until Otis tragically died in a plane crash in Lake Monona (a block from my where I grew up and learned to skip stones). Walden quickly found a new project: Duane Allman.

As Allman put together his new band, Walden built Capricorn Records around them, as a place for his collection of southern musicians to record without having to leave for New York or LA (or Memphis or Alabama). One of the first albums Capricorn released was Johnny Jenkins' Ton-Ton Macoute. It is something of a concept album, full of voodoo inspired intensity, which Jenkins was reportedly not happy with. The songs themselves are a bit of a grab bag of unused material, including a couple of cuts from Duane Allman's first pass at a solo album. But somehow it all comes together and works beautifully, it is one of my favorite albums.

 The album kicks off with Butch Trucks' heavy, funky beat. It's a train that slowly gains steam until background singers and Duane Allman's dobro kick in. Johnny Jenkins' cover of "I Walked on Gilded Splinters" is heavy and funky. Others have since covered the song - Humble Pie, Widespread Panic, Paul Weller, even the Allman Brothers - but Jenkins' is the definitive version for me (The Allman Brothers would probably agree since their version is clearly based on Jenkins'). Not only have others covered it, but Butch Trucks' funky drum opening has been heavily sampled, most famously by Beck on "Loser" (whose dobro lick sounds an awful lot like Gregg Allman's "Midnight Rider"). Trucks has been quoted as wishing he received writing credit for his drum parts on songs, so hearing your drums on others' popular songs can't make him too happy and is probably why "Gilded Splinters" is part of his Freight Train Band's regular sets. Gregg Allman himself would rework his own epic "Whipping Post" into an acoustic version that sounds an awful lot like Jenkins' "Gilded Splinters".

My biggest challenge was translated his rhythms using simple tools. Our home just happened to recently add a cowbell, which helped, and I was able for the first time create some complementary rhythms that played off of each other. It was a challenge, but it all kind of came together, including dueling resonators in dueling tunings (G for the tricone, E for the spider with a capo at G).

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Medicated Goo"

Considering the Allman Brothers are my favorite band and can be credited with me picking up a guitar in the first place, it is only natural that their material (and related material) have dominated this project thus far. Of the 17 songs I have finished, 5 can be considered Allman Brothers songs: "Ain't Wasting Time No More", "Dreams", "Blue Sky", "Little Martha", "Statesboro Blues" (though an old blues cover, it is largely identified with the Brothers). 4 have been regularly covered by the Allman Brothers or related bands: "Into the Mystic", "In A Silent Way", "Preachin' Blues", "Feel So Bad". Another 4 have been performed by The Allman Brothers (or related bands) on special occasions or included a band member on the original recording: "Games People Play", "Memphis Soul Stew", "Soul Serenade", "Fat Mama". That leaves only 4 songs that have nothing to do with the Allman Brothers: "You Got the Silver", "Flying", "Albatross", and now, "Medicated Goo".

Traffic, Mr. Fantasy
I fist heard Traffic in early middle school when "Dear, Mr. Fantasy" came on the radio. I dug it, I looked them up, and picked up Traffic's first album pretty soon afterwards. I always marvel at all of the great music made in the late 1960's and how cool it must have been to have new amazing songs and albums released nearly every week, songs that would become classics but without knowing it at the time. No wonder so many people who grew up with that music in that period were so disappointed by the late 1970's - you just think that kind of quality is going to go on forever. Discovering all of this as a middle schooler was nearly as exciting - I'm still discovering great music 25 years later.

But Traffic is a unique group that doesn't get nearly enough credit. Growing up in the 1980s, I knew who Steve Winwood was from his bland, yet fun, hits like "Roll With It, Baby" and that he was the voice of Spencer Davis Group's hit, "Gimme Some Loving" (a band the Allman Brothers would cover with their first track of their first album). I read that he was in the super group Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, and had heard about Traffic, but didn't really know much about them - they were already something of a footnote in most rock & roll histories. Which is a shame, because they are one of the most interesting and dynamic bands to come out of that period, easily one of my favorites.

I picked up their second album, and dug it even more - the combination of Steve Winwood's bright, odd, psychedelic rock and Dave Mason's bouncy folk was perfect. But perfect musical marriages don't always last, and Dave Mason was in and out of the band, as Traffic unformed and reformed during the early 1970s. Eventually, as the 1970s rolled on, Traffic embraced more fusion based rock as Jim Capaldi's influence increased. Since then, Traffic reformed sparingly, once in the 1990s with Gregg Allman's old sax player stepping in for the deceased Chris Wood. But with the death of drummer/singer Jim Capaldi, only Dave Mason and Steve Winwood remain. Dave Mason has taken the stage with superfans Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks' bands, naturally great music finds each other. I got to see Dave Mason sit in with Gov't Mule in Milwaukee in 2005, and he joined TTB for their Joe Cocker tribute last summer at LOCK'N Fest since Cocker made his Traffic song, "Feelin' Alright", a huge hit for himself.

My middle school computer teacher recognized my interest in music and actually made me a mix tape that included a few cuts from Traffic's Welcome to the Canteen. It's now one of my favorite live albums, highlighted for me by the silly "Medicated Goo" that opens the album, so I decided to take a stab at it myself. I first recorded the song in the same key Traffic performed it in, key of D, but it was too high for my limited vocals to stay in pitch. After finishing it in D, I redid it in C. My pitch is more accurate, but it is a little more mellow, which suits my style better.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

"In A Slient Way / It's About That Time"

Dickey Betts & Duane Allman
The Allman Brothers' music is as varied as their influences, picking apart all of the pieces is like peeling an onion - just when you think you've peeled all of the pieces away, there is another layer to appreciate. The Blues is definitely front and center, the first song they rehearsed was Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More", and At Fillmore East contained another 3 covers of old blues tunes (Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues", Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong", Willie Cobb's "You Don't Love Me"). Country music influences can be heard through out their catalog ("Midnight Rider", "Blue Sky", "Ramblin' Man"). Gregg Allman was heavily influenced by soul crooners like Little Milton, Ray Charles, and Percy Sledge, which can be heard on cuts like "Please Call Home". Gregg Allman's folk influences from singers & song writers like Bob Dylan and his good friend Jackson Browne are less obvious until you look at his solo work which were stripped of twin lead guitars.

John Coltrane & Miles Davis
But as much as the Allman Brothers are hailed as a guitar jam band, one of the biggest influences on Duane Allman and Dickey Betts' interplay was jazz, specifically Miles Davis and John Coltrane on Kind of Blue. The structural influence can be heard early on in the 3/4 pulse of Gregg Allman's "Dreams" which has a patience and space that you don't hear in a lot of rock 'n roll. While Dickey didn't play on the studio version of "Dreams", you can hear the interplay on just about everything after that, but never more than on Dickey's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed". You could easily replace Duane and Dickey's Les Pauls for horns (something the Allman Brothers have done with Brandford Marsalis, Randy Brecker, Bill Evans and others). Many have tried to guess the band's direction had Duane not passed - There are tapes of the band working up a Contrane--influenced take on "My Favorite Things" months before Duane Allman died.

The Miles Davis influence on the Allman Brothers is even clearer when you listen to Miles' electric period. Miles was always pushing the boundaries of jazz, and never had they been pushed as far as he did on 1969's In A Silent Way. Adding John McLaughlin's electric guitar alongside Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, the experimental keyboardist who wrote the title track, stirred debate of what jazz could be. "In A Silent Way" opens with McLaughlin picking on Zawinul's melody, which doesn't sound too far removed from Duane Allman's "Little Martha" since both are in open E. The similarities end quickly, since where "In A Silent Way" is full of ethereal air and space, "Little Martha" plucks on sweetly.

The Allman Brothers brought this influence full circle when Derek Trucks, ever the jazznik, began teasing "In A Silent Way" during Allman Brothers' sets around 2006/2007. Eventually the Allman Brothers worked up full versions of not only "In A Silent Way", but "Spanish Key" from Miles' 1970 Bitches Brew as well. Miles' electric material didn't feel out of place in Allman Brothers sets alongside their own jazzy instrumentals like "Kind of Bird" and "Les Brers in A Minor". The word "eclectic" gets thrown around a lot, but The Allman Brothers tastes were as varied as any band out there.

I got ambitious and decided to take a stab at an acoustic version of "In A Silent Way / It's About That Time" after plucking on it on my dobro. It didn't sound wrong, and the slide even echoed the soprano sax and trumpet swells. I didn't want to straight up copy the song, especially the 12 minutes of "It's About That Time" which I condensed into 3 minutes, taking my favorite parts. One of my favorite parts about this project of playing all of the parts is getting to deconstruct a song, really learning how everything fits together. Even if the end product isn't a total success, I learn a lot along the way. The time-keeping is deceptively simple on "It's About That Time", and there is about 12 minutes of what seems like formless, random jamming. But it's not formless at all. It's several skilled players playing off of each, which was not easy to adapt.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"Memphis Soul Stew"

I first became aware of King Curtis in middle school when I picked up the Duane Allman Anthology. His cover of "Games People Play" caught my ear, and it was an early selection for this project last summer. It was the first I had heard or read about the legendary giant of saxophone and music in general - he could sing, play guitar, write songs, and it was his horn that swings the most famous sax solo of them all in "Yakety Yak". Duane and Curtis met while doing session work for Atlantic Records and quickly formed a mutual musical bond.

King Curtis, Delaney Bramlett, & Duane Allman | 1971
Shortly after King Curtis was murdered on the steps of a building he owned on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Duane paid tribute to his fallen musical brother on an A&R Radio Broadcast, just weeks after both King Curtis and Duane Allman had played the same stage with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends. On a 60 minute radio show where time talking takes significant time away from time playing, you know it meant something when Duane takes the mic to talk about King and his music, and sadly, his funeral. But the music takes over and The Allman Brothers launch back into one of their epic jams, "You Don't Love Me", until they slow down just long enough to play King Curtis's sweetest song, "Soul Serenade". I had a bootleg copy of the show, which has only recently been officially released ("You Don't Love Me/Soul Serenade" was available on the Dreams anthology in 1989). It was the first time I had ever heard the song.

But not only does Duane Allman pay tribute to King Curtis' "Soul Serenade", he eagerly plugs King Curtis' latest album, Live at the Fillmore West, a fantastic set opening for what would be Aretha Franklin's Fillmore West live album. The album was long out of print on CD, I didn't hear it for years. It was a lot more difficult finding older albums in the mid-1990s. Not everything had been digitally mastered yet, vaults were still full of albums only available on vinyl that hadn't ever even made it to cassette. I would search music stores and catalogues, but could only find general King Curtis compilations featuring early 1960s honky tonk covers and dance originals - all well and good, but not the same as those raw live performances.

Finally King Curtis at the Fillmore West was re-released on CD in 1999, and the opening bass line of "Memphis Soul Stew" hit me like a ton of bricks. No wonder Aretha had King Curtis and the Kingpins as her back-up band - you couldn't find a better one. Cornell Dupree's guitar is one of the most unique and funky styles I've heard. Jerry Jemmott's bass is smooth as silk, and even Billy Preston sits in on keyboards. A few years later, the whole gig, both Aretha's and King Curtis's sets, was released as one boxed set and it is epic.

"Memphis Soul Stew" hasn't really seen much life outside of King Curtis. There are a handful of covers out there by sax players or soul horn bands (the oddest being "Springfield Soul Stew", which appeared on a Simpsons album during the massive merchandising blitz when the show took off). It takes a special instrumentation to put all of the pieces together. None of them approach the intensity and swing of King Curtis's live versions, though my favorite is The Allman Brothers' tribute to King Curtis & Duane Allman with members of The Kingpins sitting in (well, taking over).

I thought it would be a perfect addition to this project, but I had to make sure all of the different stringed instruments were as separate as The Kingpins' horns. I substituted the horns for a mandolin, Cornell's telecaster for the Daddy Mojo biscuit, and the sax for my dobro. It took a while, but I was able to marry all of the parts together fairly well.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Feel So Bad"

Chuck Willis, aka "The King of the Stroll", originally recorded "Feel So Bad" in the early 1950s as a pretty (great) standard R&B tune, with rolling piano and horns. The structure of every future version is all there - the stops and starts, the lulls and crescendos - but the arrangement isn't too far from other R&B fare from the late-40s and early 50 (or Willis' other big hit, "C.C. Rider"). As far as I can tell, the song didn't get much more attention after the birth of rock & roll in the mid-1950s. Chuck Berry's guitar, Little Richard's piano, and Elvis's hips quickly left the horns & piano of Chuck Willis in their dust.
By the early 1960s, Rock & Roll had been mostly tamed - girl groups like the Shirelles and crooners like Dion had momentarily eclipsed greaser guitarists and bar room piano players at the top of the charts. Elvis, of all people, upon returning from the service to find a very different musical landscape and trying to fit within it, recorded a pretty straight forward, unremarkable cover of "Feel So Bad". It was a minor hit and resurrected the forgotten song, but it still isn't the funky blues tune most know today. At the same time, blues musicians of the day playing juke joints and clubs, put the funky spin on "Feel So Bad" that has since defined the song. Little Milton and Otis Rush both recorded bluesier versions of "Feel So Bad", making it a bit of a standard. In the decades since, everyone from Gregg Allman, Bobby Blue Bland & BB King, The Derek Trucks Band, Gov't Mule, Foghat, among a litany of others have added "Feel So Bad" to their stable of "go to" tunes.

I first heard "Feel So Bad" on The Gregg Allman Tour. I had the double live album on vinyl since it wasn't available on CD until the early 2000s or so. Gregg Allman rearranged the song quite a bit, as he often did, creating a funky interplay between the horns and guitar, and a call and response between himself and his backup singers. Most other versions use the Little Milton version as a blue print, which is probably my favorite version and mostly inspired mine. I also tried to add some of the funkiness of the BB King & Bobby Blue Bland Together Again version, which is bunch of funky fun from two old pros. Naturally, The Derek Trucks Band covered the tune, with Derek playing the hell out of it, bring the song down low and up high like no other.

I wanted to dirty up "Feel So Bad" which made me focus on my tricone rather than the earthier wooden dobro. The song is deceptively simple - I spent a lot more time putting this track together than others, mostly the getting the solos interplay just right. I really wanted to leave space and let the song breathe unlike the wall of resonator sound that I've laid on other recordings. I really got to know my tricone better as I spent time crafting the instrumental highs and lows and call and responses, which is difficult to do on ones own without losing a sense of spontaneity. Since I put the song in the key of E, it left me with less room on the neck of my tricone to play on, which I kept in D with a capo for open E. It was a good exercise, it was a challenge that definitely made me a better player.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Magical Myster Tour, 1967
"A Day in the Life" may be the best pop song ever recorded, but "Flying" has been my favorite Beatles song for a long time. Many Beatles fans are not even aware of the brief instrumental sandwiched in the middle of 1967's Magical Mystery Tour, the band's slightly less-loved follow up to the legendary Sgt Pepper. Part continuation of Pepper, part soundtrack to a movie no one except Paul McCartney was interested in making (which directly lead to an animation studio fully producing the content for their final contracted film, Yellow Submarine) Magical Mystery Tour contains several classic Beatles cuts like "I am the Walrus", "Strawberry Fields", "Hello Goodbye", "All You Need is Love", but was never thought of as the complete thought that Sgt Pepper was since it was essentially an EP (in the UK) with some previously released singles used to pad it to a full album (in the US). It was well-received at the time, but has never really received the acclaim that Sgt Pepper, Abbey Road, Revolver, and Rubber Soul have because it is a bit of a patchwork of (great) ideas.

The Beatles themselves didn't seem to know what to do with the song "Flying". In the years since the album was released several alternate versions have surfaced. Two of them are more common; the first is relatively similar to the final product, albeit looser and with some odd whistling effects. The second clocks in at 9 minutes, most of it being extended trippy noise similar to the outro. I wanted to expand the tune slightly, but without dragging it out - part of the song's charm is its brevity. I stretched it from 3 verses to 5, and brought the bass up an octave to add some warmth to the acoustic setting, though in doing so it lost a pit of the trance-inducing pulse.

Since it is a relatively obscure Beatles tune, "Flying" hasn't been covered as much as, well, pretty much every other Beatles song. But it is still a Beatles tune, so there are a few oddball covers that have been released over the years. Beatles covers can be dicey, for every "With a Little Help From My Friends" by Joe Cocker or Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude", there are 100 painful "Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the BeeGees or any whispy-voiced college girl with a guitar singing "Across the Universe". This is apparent on Julie Taymor's ambitious Across the Universe 2007 film, which features such failures as Eddie Izzard's rendition of "Benefit for Mr Kite". However, there is a gem of a cover from that film, The Secret Machines take on "Flying". They successfully stretched the song out, mostly using keyboards, expanding on the original while still adhering to what makes "Flying" a great song. It's a good blueprint for covering the Beatles - respect the original, make it your own, but don't take it too seriously.

I suppose it is fitting that immediately after covering The Rolling Stones I'd pick a Beatles tune. It wasn't done on purpose, I have a couple of songs loosely put together at the moment, I only noticed after I'd posted them together.

Friday, March 11, 2016

"You've Got the Silver"

Mick & Keith
I'm not sure when "You've Got the Silver" became my favorite Rolling Stones song. It must have slowly seeped into my brain after repeated spins of Let It Bleed, the Stones' 1969 album. There are some serious haymakers on Let It Bleed: "Gimme Shelter", "You Can't Always Get What You Want", "Love in Vain", "Monkey Man", just to name a few. There isn't a bad song on either album side. But "You've Got the Silver" stands out as unique - it's a quiet, front porch Keith Richards tune that largely avoids the Stones' signature chomping, bluesy guitar riffs. I thought such a sweet, melodic song would make a nice addition to part two of my acoustic project.

Naturally, one of my other favorite artists, Susan Tedeschi, must have thought the same. I recently discovered that Susan covered "You've Got the Silver" in 2005 with some guitar help from her husband, Derek Trucks. Honestly, Derek and Susan must have my ipod or something. It's a great version, but I wanted to stick closer to my "wall of resonators" sound without losing fidelity and simplicity. It is a song that should never stray far from the porch.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Guitars

Now that I've completed a few tunes, including my first album of sorts, I thought I'd do a quick feature about the instruments that I'm using.

Sovereign Harmony Acoustic Guitar
w/matching Tobacco Sunburst PRS
After learning piano and moving on to alto and tenor saxophone, I started playing guitar sometime in middle school. I never thought I'd ever want to play guitar, but listening to the Allman Brothers piqued my interest. Electric guitar is easier to begin on since the string gauges are lighter and the neck is often smaller, so it was a year or two before I got an acoustic guitar. In fact, I got a Regal spider cone dobro before I got a standard acoustic guitar, having fallen in love with the sound of a dobro after repeated listens to The Duane Allman Anthology. Eventually I bought this Sovereign Harmony acoustic guitar for about $125. It sounded decent enough and the tobacco burst matched the Paul Reed Smith I had already swept floors for months to save up for. They were my only two guitars for about the next 20 years - I was pretty busy working, going to school, and just making enough to feed and house myself to think about playing and collecting more guitars.

Having no easy way of inquiring about the history of the guitar in 1997, it was only recently that I looked up the model number to find out it was made in the mid-1980s. The guitar still sounds fine, though the bridge needs some work. Prior to getting my recent resonators, I would keep the acoustic in open tuning for slide and finger-picking which meant I would also keep the action high. The bridge has since started to wear and split, so if I now lower the action, the strings buzz. Still, it has a relatively rich tone and resonance for a mid-range acoustic.

Recording King Spider Cone
That first Regal spider cone I bought didn't last long. The cone quickly loosened up and buzzed, it was pretty apparent it was junk, so I returned it towards a Marshall amp. It would be almost 20 years before I replaced that dobro with another Chinese-made dobro, a Recording King. Although it isn't quite as nice as a Beard, the Recording King has a wonderful tone for a mid-range dobro. I did a lot of research and eventually found this Recording King round neck at Elderly Instruments. It has a wonderfully rich, warm sound for a mid-range dobro, though I would love to find a dobro that joins the neck at the 14th fret rather than the 12th fret.

It's amazing how much easier it is to research and shop for instruments in this day than it was in the mid-1990s. It would be unheard of to purchase an instrument that you had not played or at least heard, but today the internet allows you to sample audio and compare options that your local instrument dealer could not provide. Even living here in New York City, you never know what a high end or low end instrument dealer will have in stock. I was so happy to find this dobro at a steal of a price ($350 for a $550 retail) at Elderly Instruments.

Republic Tricone
I had wanted a steel body guitar ever since I first saw a photo of one when I was in high school. There was only one instrument store in Madison, WI, that carried anything close, so I never really got a chance to play a range of resonators. Therefor, I didn't really know the difference between a biscuit, tricone, or spider cone at the time, just that the art deco design of a tricone looked incredibly cool. Last year I began to research and fell in love with the tricone's sound. A biscuit cone is short and punchy, and a tricone is lush and steely.

Sometimes you don't know what you want, even when you really do know. Even after trying out a few Nationals at an expensive guitar shop in Soho and deciding I wanted a tricone, I first ordered a Republic Highway 61 parlour biscuit cone as kind of an in between option. But it just wasn't right. I returned it, realizing that a tricone was what I really wanted. However, I didn't want the maintenance of a shiny brass finish, so I was really happy to see this weathered body finish available on Republic's website. Republic does not custom order finishes, so I quickly snatched it up, and it's pretty damned perfect for a mid-range tricone and compliments/contrasts the spider cone nicely.

Daddy Mojo Cigar Box Biscuit Cone  

I bought a 3-string cigar box guitar about a year ago at Wanee Fest and really fell in love with their folk art qualities and simplicity. Why pay $4500 for a new National when you can build a guitar by hand out of found materials? It's a piece of art in its own right. But, I had to take it further, and found Daddy Mojo custom instruments shop who happened to make a biscuit cone cigar box guitar with a custom pick-up. I fell in love with its sound (and it looks beautiful), and returning that Republic Biscuit cone months earlier made even more sense. I pulled the trigger and a few months later I had an insanely amazing and unique cigar box resonator. It is plucky and dirty at the same time, like a piano with the damper pedal down. Of course, I needed a better cigar box guitar amp for it, so after months of searching I found Hip Kat amps and added one of their home-made 2.5w cigar box amps (the one I purchased at Wanee never worked quite well). This one has a wonderful range of tones and looks great.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Blue Sky"

Dickey Betts, 1974
Back when I started this project, the acoustic part for "Blue Sky" was the first thing I recorded. It took me a while to get to it, but I'm glad I waited (more on why later). Dickey Betts is pretty much my biggest influence as a guitarist (unless I'm playing slide). The man has the sweetest tone, I don't think there is a guitar player with a better sense of melody. I'm surprised it has taken me as long as it has to get to a Dickey Betts-penned tune, but perhaps that is due to the immense respect I have for his material. It's a lot to tackle.

"Blue Sky" is pure ear candy. It is one of the first Allman Brothers tunes to grab me. The original was set in the key of E, which really brought out its sweetness. Eventually Dickey would move the tune to G to make the song more easy to sing. With "Blue Sky" being such a signature tune for him, The Allmans took a 4 year break from playing "Blue Sky" after they parted ways with Dickey in 2000. He would continue to play the song in his own band, Great Southern, but it wasn't until the Allman Brothers were asked to recreate Eat A Peach live in the studio in 2004 that they resurrected the song themselves. It was controversial with fans at the time, many having sided with "mom" or "dad" in the beef that has largely endured to this day. Upon revisiting "Blue Sky", the Allman Brothers returned the song to its original key of E. The E>A progression is similar to another song from the last record side of Eat A Peach that the Allman Brothers rarely played until 2004, Duane Allman's "Little Martha". The two songs would be combined as an instrumental homage to its founding guitarists on rare occasions beginning with 2009's Beacon run.

Eat A Peach gatefold artwork by Flournoy Holmes
I always preferred hearing and playing "Blue Sky" in the key of E. It just belongs there to my ear. It is true, however, it is incredibly hard to sing in the key. I went low instead of high, but the lyrics aren't really the focal point to this song. I wanted to do 2 solos, but only 1 as a slide solo. That meant I would have to decide what instrument the 2nd solo would be on - tricone? Mandolin? Acoustic guitar?

It just so happened that I received my Daddy Mojo Cigar Box Biscuit Resonator around the same time. It has a longer neck, so I was able to push the solo past the 12th fret. The guitar also happens to echo Dickey's own tone on Les Paul - sweet, resonant, but with a plucky bite. I will write more about the Daddy Mojo guitar, but for now here is "Blue Sky".

"Into the Mystic"

Van Morrison, Moondance
I was a little late to the Van Morrison party. As a young kid listening to oldies radio stations, I always knew about his big hits - "Gloria", "Moondance", "Brown Eyed Girl" - but hadn't really ever felt the need to explore the rest of the Irish songwriter's vast catalog. But I still remember the moment one of the sweetest bass lines I've ever heard made my world stop while watching some inane rom-com I was forced to go see. I looked up the song and picked up Van Morrison's Moondance album, maybe not immediately (I was in college) but eagerly soon after.

It was probably only a year or so later when I noticed the set list for a 2003 Allman Brothers Instant Live concert recording from Walnut Creek and was surprised to see the Van Morrison tune smack in the middle (next to a Bob Dylan tune and Wynton Marsalis' name as a guest). Even though I consider myself a monster fan of the band, I had mostly given up on the Allman Brothers after they parted ways with Dickey Betts in 2000. I saw them that summer with Jimmy Herring, and although they had reintroduced some forgotten jam tunes ("MOUNTAIN JAM"!) to make up for the lack of a 2nd singer, it just didn't seem the same to me. Former Allman Brothers guitarist, Warren Haynes, would take over for Jimmy Herring in 2001 after he took time off from his own band, Gov't Mule, following the passing of his longtime band mate, bassist Allen Woody.

Fast forward to 2004 and the epic Fox Box, a boxed set of three Allman Brothers shows at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, GA, caught my eye. I checked out a few more recent shows to see what I had missed out on, to find that my favorite band now was playing Van Morrison tunes. It seemed like an odd pairing, but it worked. It also made a lot more sense when I learned that Bill Graham, famed promoter and owner of the Fillmore East who proclaimed The Allman Brothers his favorite band, also claimed "Into the Mystic" as his favorite song. So his favorite band was now playing his favorite song. Although I've been lucky enough to see Van Morrison in concert twice, I haven't heard him dust off "Into The Mystic", but he notoriously shies away from his well-known material.

The Allman Brothers would retain "Into The Mystic" in their set lists over the next 10 years (occasionally with horns!), including their last Beacon run in October 2014. I decide I wanted to take a crack at the tune, especially after I saw a rather mellow, horn-less version Van performed on TV in the 1970s. Though the Allman Brothers substitute the signature horns with Derek Truck's slide, this version gave me an idea of how to stretch it out. The hardest part was finding the right key to keep my pedestrian singing from sounding the least bad. I mean, a Van Morrison song? What was I thinking? I really just wanted to jam me some slide on the end and arrange a "horn part". Also, it's my girlfriend's favorite song, and I was hoping she might like it.

UPDATE: I have since re-recorded "Into the Mystic" because I came to find this version pretty rough.