Thursday, July 20, 2017

My First Dobro

circa 1995 (evidence: pastel couch)
At the age of 14 I got my first guitar, a cheap Yamaha electric and bad Peavy amp. Typical beginner equipment, easy to return if the kid gives up after a month. Well, 2 months later I had a Les Paul - just happened to see a cheap used one at the guitar store and my music-loving parents could see I was hooked.

Typically if a kid wants to go acoustic, they get a regular acoustic guitar. I got a Regal Dobro. I loved the sound of Duane Allman dobro's on "Little Martha" and "Please Be With Me" and Dickey Betts on "Pony Boy", so I just had to have one. I didn't have it for long, the cones started buzzing, which happens as seasons change. But I thought it was broken, so I returned it for a Marshall Amp. It would take 20 years before I replaced the dobro, and damn am I glad to have another one.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Altered Roots Band

Altered Roots Band at Funky Buddha Lounge
Last month I joined Altered Roots Band, founded by singer/songwriter/guitarist/foot-drummer Kenny Karr. After I finally got settled in south Florida, I decided it was time to stop picking songs on my own - I missed playing music with other musicians. Years of jamming on songs I didn't always know at Rocky Sullivan's Monday Jams back in Brooklyn prepped me for quickly picking up the material, especially Kenny's own excellent originals. The concept is "Americana Re-arranged", which naturally attracted me considering all of the acoustic re-arrangements I've been doing with this project.  However, I still get to plug in the PRS pretty often, so it's a really nice mix so far.

The band is rounded out by the excellent Bob Zimmerman (aka, The Mad Scientist) on bass and Emily Carter belting some fantastic lead and harmony vocals. UPDATE: Check out some highlights from an October show.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"Mountain Jam"

When I first started this acoustic project about 2 years ago, I scribbled down about 20 songs I might want to include. The Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" was on there towards the bottom, but I don't think I ever seriously thought I'd put together an acoustic version. But while noodling on Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun", which is prominently featured within the winding movements of "Mountain Jam", I figured why not take a stab at it the whole thing.

"Mountain Jam" was a showcase for the whole band, a lengthy instrumental that was born from The Allman Brothers and The Grateful Dead jamming together on a riff from Donovan's "There is a Mountain". For anywhere between 10 and 45 minutes "Mountain Jam" weaves through melodies from "Third Stone From the Sun" to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" to "What I Say". The version on Eat A Peach (33 minutes, originally split across 2 LP sides) gives everyone in the band a few minutes in the spot light: the melodic and funky drumming of Butch and Jaimoe and even a sweet and bouncy Berry Oakley bass solo. But it was different every night.

The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers jam at the Fillmore East
As the band's line ups changed and their song catalog grew, "Mountain Jam" would pop up in sets less and less. By the time the Allmans reunited briefly in 1979, "Mountain Jam" was played even less (a truncated version closes an epic 1979 Passaic NJ encore), which isn't surprising since long extended jams weren't exactly en vogue. But even when the band reunited again in 1989, "Mountain Jam" was mostly sidelined save for a tease in the middle of "Jessica". It wasn't until the Summer 2000 tour, the first without without guitarist Dickey Betts, that the band dusted it off so they could give Gregg Allman's voice a rest since Dickey's departure made him the sole singer. It remained in the rotation until the band called it quits in 2014, and was typically an epic set piece that could open and close the same show.

I drew on a few different "Mountain Jam" performances for my version. I needed a framework, so I picked the essential pieces from the band's 2004 In The Studio performance of Eat A Peach as a jumping off point. From there I had to figure out what I could perform and adapt. I wanted to add keys since Gregg Allman's hammond organ is such a presence, but it quickly became too busy. Plus I'm not a good enough keyboard player to justify that much bad piano playing. But I did throw in a few of those keyboard licks on the dobro solo. Same thing happened to the drum section. If I had more time, I might have been able to put together a something more interesting but there is a big gulf between being able to keep a beat and being able to put together a few bars of funky, interesting percussion solo. I initially intended the bass solo to be longer, but as I tried to figure out what to do there I realized I would have just been copying Berry Oakley's licks. So that got cut down considerably. The bass part is actually super simplified. Berry Oakley's bass playing on "Mountain Jam" is relatively busy, moving freely along side Dickey and Duane's guitar themes. I tried playing bass with a little more freedom but it just didn't fit (probably because he was an amazing bass player and I'm not), so I simplified the bass line to something less distracting.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Rock & Roll"

There has been more lionizing of Lou Reed than maybe any other musician of the past 40 years, especially in his home town, New York City. Along with fellow experimental musician John Cale, Reed infused pop music with an art house sensibility with The Velvet Underground at a time when The Beatles and Beach Boys were just starting to experiment sonically. Cale was soon dismissed and Reed left the band by 1970, just as their final studio album, Loaded, was being finished. Between Lou Reed's mythic status as the sound of 1970s New York, and Andy Warhol's initial involvement, The Velvet Underground is likely still better known for their art house reputation than their actual music.

There have been many rock & roll songs about Rock 'n Roll, but Lou Reed's autobiographical tune is probably the best, definitely the most personal love letter to the music:
"Rock and Roll' is about me. If I hadn't heard rock and roll on the radio, I would have had no idea there was life on this planet. Which would have been devastating - to think that everything, everywhere was like it was where I come from. That would have been profoundly discouraging. Movies didn't do it for me. TV didn't do it for me. It was the radio that did it." - Lou Reed
I  can't remember when exactly I heard the song, probably much later in life than I should have, but Lou Reed's deceptively minimal arrangement immediately jumped out at me from a pretty amazing album. After several jammy songs, I wanted to take a crack at it. Even though the song is mostly acoustic, I had to figure how to strip the song down acoustically without removing the attitude. Also, I just don't have a lot of punk in my voice. I tried to sing/speak it like Lou, but it sounded like a bad imitation. So I tried to put a bit of a melody to it, which I didn't love, so I tried masking it with harmony and back up vocals, similar to the "All Right" answer back up vocals on the chorus. I didn't love it, so I shelved it. I came back to it a few months later, with fresh ears, and thought it didn't sound so bad once I ditched the harmony singing, and wasn't going to get any better.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Back Where It All Begins"

I like to mix it up as much as possible for this acoustic project and create something different from what I've just done. Last month I finished The Grateful Dead's "Franklin's Tower", which came together fairly easily, which you would expect from a loose jam song. After noodling on my mandolin for a few days, I decided I wanted to feature it in order to add some variety to the instrumentation. I really hadn't used it as anything more than an additive to date, learning chords and parts as they were needed. The mandolin sounded pretty good as the backbone of the Allman Brothers' "Back Where It All Begins" adapting the song to a rootsier palette that still retained the song's bright essence. But recording it right after "Franklin's Tower" presented its own challenges. The two songs are in some ways related - their basic chord progression is basically the inverse of each other, only "Begins" has a more complicated bridge and instrumental section. It was going to be a fun challenge to separate these two songs from each other. (Coincidentally, the Allman Brothers began playing both songs in the mid-1990s)

"Back Where It All Begins" was released on 1994's Where It All Begins at the height of the Allman Brothers' Warren Haynes & Allen Woody era. At the age of 13, I just happened to be getting into the band, so with the band peaking, it was a perfect time. "Begins" was one of my first introductions to witnessing the band play. I tuned in to The Late Show with David Letterman expecting to see Gregg belt out their latest hit , "No One to Run With" (as he had done a week prior on Jay Leno's Tonight Show), only to see the cowboy guitar player singing a much sweeter tune. "Begins" is a mishmash of folk and jam music infused with desert drifter iconography, which is exactly what you would expect from Dickey Betts, yet still be blown away by. "Begins" takes you through 10 minutes of high peaks and quiet valleys. The set piece features Warren Haynes' blistering guitar playing that will make guitar players either want to practice their guitar or burn it (to quote a friend).

Allman Bros on David Letterman; first time I "saw" them play.
The song starts out simple enough, an inverse of "Franklin's Tower" circular major progression up from I and back instead of down to it. This is common in many popular songs ("Louie, Louie", "Wild Thing", etc), so it is a testament to Dickey's playing that he is able to make it unique. Superficially, the bridge could be mistaken for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star", which I'm not sure is intentional (Dickey would later change a lyric from "and the stars up in the sky" to "tell her one more goodbye" and I always wondered if it was to distance it from the nursery song or was just a more evocative line).

The instrumental section seems simple enough at first glace, but the jump into an E>D chord progression keeps a player on their toes. Well, it kept me on my toes, and to further separate the arrangement from my "Franklin's Tower", I decided to do a dobro solo which was even more challenging. The second solo section bring the song back to the A>D>E>D>A and is more traditional and mercifully more forgiving.

I recorded the tune in its native key of A, but it was too low for my voice, so I moved it to C, which moved the solos to a little more challenging spot on the neck of the guitar. It also meant the harmonies were pushed higher, so they certainly suffered. I won't lie, it got frustrating along the way, but at the very least, it definitely doesn't sound like "Franklin's Tower".

Friday, February 17, 2017

"Franklin's Tower"

I never really got into the Grateful Dead. I've heard some really nice performances from them, but I've also heard a lot of noise, as if 6 people were playing 7 different songs. But just as my appreciation for Bob Dylan grew from covers of his music, so did my appreciation for the Grateful Dead.

Dickey Betts, Jaimoe, Jerry Garcia, 1972
When Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, as a tribute to his friend and fellow guitarist, Dickey Betts added a tease of "Franklin's Tower" to his beloved, and similarly structured, "Blue Sky". That tease stayed there until he stopped touring in 2014, which is a pretty big compliment. I didn't know what it was when I first heard it, which likely would have been my first Allman Brothers show in 1996 (Wisconsin State Fair!). Eventually I got hip to "Franklin's Tower", which the Allman Brothers covered in full starting in 2000. With Oteil singing, it was likely included as something to give Gregg a singing break after Dickey's departure from the band earlier that year left them with just one vocalist. It turned into a pretty epic set piece, typically going full circle with "Blue Sky" teases by Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes.

After years of a lot of jam band music festivals, I have a softer spot for the Grateful Dead and their music. They may not have the greatest singing voices (nor do I), and have given some totally uneven performances over the years, but they wrote and made a lot of great music. Millions of stoners can't be wrong, and the remaining members continue to sell out stadiums and inspire the next generation of musicians.

Since February is Grateful Dead Covers Project month, I put together an acoustic version of "Franklin's Tower". Naturally, it's deceptively simple - it was a "go to" song for jams I used to take part in at Brooklyn's Rocky Sullivan's, and like he Dead, some were epic and some were not. I was able to arrange some peaks and valleys along the way, and even a quick animation to accompany. Roll away...

Butch Trucks, "The Freight Train"

"It took Jaimoe and I about forty-five seconds to get our groove back. We started playing ’In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,’ and once we hit the jam, tears just started rolling down my cheeks. I said to myself, ’So this is what’s been missing from my life.’"

 - Butch Trucks, 1990, Modern Drummer
The Allman Brothers, 1971
They say that guitar players watch the guitar players, the bassists watch the bassists, and the drummers watch the drummers. Not me. Even though I mostly play guitar (some bass, piano, mandolin, sax...) when I go to a concert, I find myself watching, often fixated on, the drummers mostly because I don't play drums. I can keep a beat well enough - the cow bell is totally doable - but simultaneously combining a snare, hi-hat, and a bass drum, seems like an Olympic feet to me. It's freaking fascinating. Guitarists stand in the spotlight and get the glory, bassists have a certain inglorious mystique as the glue between rhythm and melody, but drummers are the backbone of every great band and they are in constant motion. Jams I've been a part of get absolutely lost in the woods without a time keeper, meanwhile, we all nod and smile at This is Spinal Tap's running joke about the how interchangeable drummers are. 

Jaimoe, Butch Trucks, Duane Allman
Drummers substitutions may go unnoticed in bands that suck, but The Allman Brothers Band was literally built around its rhythm section. The first person Duane Allman rounded up was jazz & soul drummer Jaimoe, followed by bassist Berry Oakley, and second drummer Butch Trucks - Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman were added last. For all of the Guitar God talk about Duane & Dickey, Duane was experienced enough to know he needed a solid core before he started exploring the guitar jam nebula. Many assume that Duane wanted 2 drummers because he patterned his band after fellow jammers the Grateful Dead, but it was a while before the Allmans had much in common with the Dead (they were less of an influence and more contemporaries). According to Duane, he wanted 2 drummers because James Brown had 2 drummers (though legend has it that The Godfather of Soul employed 2 drummers in case he fired one in the middle of a show).

Duane Allman, Jaimoe, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks
Butch and Jaimoe played together like few percussion sections have in pop music. They never stepped on each others' toes, Butch drove the train leaving Jaimoe free to roam. Often 2 drummers can be a train wreck, either they sound like they are playing 2 different songs, or doubling the exact same parts. Not Jaimoe and Butch. They blended effortlessly just as the jazz percussion sections of the 1950s and 60s did. And once they added percussionist Marc QuiƱones in 1991, the rhythm section became an absolute powerhouse. Only the best musicians could keep up. There are a lot of jokes out there about Allman Brothers' drum solos (even The Simpsons made reference), and for every percussion showcase that didn't go anywhere and turned into an intermission for fans, you'd have 3 or 4 others that were transcendent. This was no bathroom break, this was a moment of glorious rhythm and melody.

That's right, melody. It may surprise some people, but drums are tuned, and even a novice ear can tell when a tom is out of tune. Listen to the "Mountain Jam" drum section on Ludlow Garage and you hear something almost hummable on top of Butch & Jaimoe's beats. Those who tuned out when the guitars take a break on "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" will recognize when the melody is coming back because Butch and Jaimoe are telling you it is. 

And now it is no more. Butch Trucks left us, very suddenly, at the age of 69.

The Allman Brothers in the Park
The Allman Brothers has always prided itself as a band of the people, and Butch has been the closest conduit fans have had in recent years. While Gregg shies from the media for the most part (save for perfunctory local interviews when in a given town), Butch was more than happy to not only take the mic, let alone jump on a message board or engage in a facebook conversations. As far as I can tell, Butch was among the first people to email a positive response to the first Allman Brothers animation I created. At Wanee Fest, he and Jaimoe, and Marc, and Oteil, would stroll through the camps of known, long time fans to say hello and chat. Butch enjoyed the spotlight and his bullhorn, but he understood that playing music that oneself enjoys can be self-indulgent without a group of people who want to hear it.

quickly thanking Butch
After the Allman Brothers played their final show in 2014, band members moved on to their own varied solo projects, but Butch seemed to feel the need to keep the torch burning, the very one that Duane Allman lit for Gregg, Dickey, Berry, and Jaimoe, and so many others, in 1969. He started not one but two Allman Brothers-related bands: The Freight Train Band, largely made up of young Florida musicians or honors students from Butch's rock & roll camp, Roots Rock, which toured extensively up and down the east coast; and Les Brers, made up mostly of Allman Brothers alums and played fewer dates at larger venues. I was fortunate to see The Freight Train perform in late December, one of his last shows, and this was no tribute act. This was Butch as leader and teacher, pushing young musicians to their potential just as Duane had done for him so many years ago. And of course, having a blast the whole time, even chatting with any knucklehead with a couple of beers in them in the parking lot after the show, even though I'm sure he was exhausted.

As a band of the people, fans of the Allman Brothers often feel like a collective family, and not just because the band was literally made up of family. Every show, the stage was a family affair, not just on, but backstage as well. Butch was well-known family man who brought children and grandchildren on tour with him often. Even his son and daughter have played in his recent bands when they could. That familial bond extended to the vast community of people it has brought together and from that, the band members become like family to fans. There is a deep caring for the people that maybe fans of the Rolling Stones or Eagles never gained. Glenn Frey is famous and an icon, but was he as beloved as much as the music he made?

Duane Allman's messianic shadow looms large over the band, but especially, it seemed, for Butch. He often eagerly repeated stories of Duane's impact upon him, saving him from a life as a high school math teacher. Butch seemed to feel the need to spread the Gospel that Duane preached, often referring to he and his fellow Allman Brothers as "Apostles". It kept the band going for 45 years, at times beyond reason considering the specter of tragedy. For a band filled with as much tragedy as the Allman Brothers have had, it would seem unfathomable that a band member would choose to leave us. But suicide is only rational to a single person in a single moment, and as much as the band feels like family, this is a stark reminder that for all of Butch's candor, we fans only see 3 of the best hours of a musicians' day: on stage, under the lights, doing what they love most, preaching to their adoring choir. Searching for reason is fruitless, and nowhere to be found in Butch's final interview, given just hours before he left us, in which he spoke of mostly the future: upcoming tours, Roots Rock Camp, his garden in the south of France.

Butch Trucks
Even though the Allman Brothers' music has had an immeasurable impact on me, I still found myself surprised at how much Butch's death affected me. Butch was an intense personality, which I always appreciated, but I tend to separate my love of the music from the personalities that made it. But when I read the rumors of Butch's passing that night, I couldn't sleep until I convinced myself that the cryptic chatter was only rumor. When it was all confirmed the next day it really hit me, I was absolutely crushed, perhaps irrationally considering this was a person who I had only spoken a few superficial words to a month prior. But the Allman Brothers are the sound track to my life, they inspired animations I've made and the music I love to play. This man's art affected my life greatly, as he did so many countless others, as not only an artist, but as a teacher.

After surviving the tragic deaths of Duane and Berry, many fans felt the remaining members escaped tragedy themselves, thereby earning the right to carry on indefinitely until old age, exacerbated by a long life on the road, caught up. But searching for meaning is irrelevant for those of us who are reminded that we are on the outside looking in, fortunate just to have this wonderful music. Our lives aren't defined by how we leave, especially a life as colorful as Butch's, who inspired so many young musicians, and likely will for years to come. So while I still don't fully understand drums, and likely never will, it is irrelevant because I will keep listening and watching all the same. And I will never witness drums played played better than by Butch and Jaimoe.

*** Author's Note: if any of these photos used are yours or you know the artist, please let me know so I can credit ***

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Done Somebody Wrong"

Robert Johnson
It is commonly said that you trace the history of the slide guitar back through three artists: Duane Allman>Elmore James>Robert Johnson. Each was a monster on their instrument and learned from and built upon their predecessor. Robert Johnson's status as "King of the Delta Blues" is legendary, if not mythical. The Mississippi musician's influence is likely unmatched in popular music - later blues giants such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were directly influenced by him, which would go on to influence the next generation of rock musicians such as Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. Many people have never heard Robert Johnson's records, but they know his songs - "Crossroads Blues", "Dust My Broom", "Come On In My Kitchen", "Sweet Home Chicago", "Love In Vain". Robert Johnson famously and mysteriously died young at the age of 27, never knowing his full influence.

Elmore James
A few years later, a World War II vet and Robert Johnson fan (and fellow Mississippian) named Elmore James incorporated Johnson's slide technique and sound into his own music. James would often play through a well-amplified hollow body acoustic, giving him a rich, dirty sound, especially when gliding or trilling his slide up and down the guitar neck. James' music was dirty barrel house blues - a heavy beat, a stinging guitar, and often a saxophone. He took Robert Johnson's lonesome acoustic blues and made it shake and dance with hits like "Shake Your Money Maker", "The Sky is Crying", "One Way Out" and even scoring a huge hit out of Johnson's own "Dust My Broom". Like Robert Johnson, he never lived to see his influence, struck down by a heart attack in 1963 at the age of 45.

Duane Allman
After his death, Elmore James' legend only grew. "Dust My Broom" and "The Sky is Crying" would become blues standards, achieving immortality through covers by Taj Mahal, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Haynes, John Hammond, Canned Heat, Ike & Tina Turner, Albert King, ZZ Top, Etta James, and countless other. Meanwhile, slide guitar master and Elmore James fan, Duane Allman, would pick a more obscure cut, "Done Somebody Wrong", as a showcase for his own slide playing. Where Elmore James plugged in Robert Johnson's music and made it dance, Duane Allman made it sing as he effortlessly created dynamic melodies using a glass pill bottle on a Gibson SG. Elmore James' "Done Somebody Wrong" was a foot stomper, but the Allman Brothers, as they did with so many of their covers, made the song swing. The Allmans first released the road-tested "Done Somebody Wrong" on At Fillmore East in 1971 and it stayed in the band's rotation up until their final shows in 2014 (their final show featured James' "The Sky is Crying"). Duane Allman, of course, never lived to see his own influence. He died months after At Fillmore East was released at the age of 24.

Derek Trucks
These days former Allman Brothers guitarist, Derek Trucks, keeps the song alive with an acoustic version with his own band, The Tedeschi Trucks Band, which returns the song to its barrel house, foot stomping Elmore James roots. I took that as a starting point, but I wanted to stretch the song out a little, rather than just a simple blues cover. I patterned my arrangement on one the Allman Brothers used towards the end of their run, complete with an opening jam that played on other Allman material from "You Don't Love Me" and the abandoned "One More Ride".

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Never Been to Spain"

There really isn't much to say about the song "Never Been to Spain". It was written by song-writer Hoyt Axton and first recorded by 1970s mega-pop group Three Dog Night. It was another in a string of hits for the group, and another hit song for Axton, whose songs had recently been featured in the film Easy Rider.

I first heard the song version performed by Elvis Presley on his 1972 Madison Square Garden concert album. It's catchy, if somewhat nonsensical - there's something universally simple in its lyrics on the surface, which is probably why it has been covered by Tina Turner, Cher, Waylon Jennings, Tom Jones, Chirs Robinson, among others. But I doubt any of those artists ever thought too hard about its meaning, and I wouldn't be surprised if Axton had either. It's a great song for a strong voice to stretch out since the song builds from a whisper to a church chorus, which is probably also why it has endured. I mostly dug the guitar parts, which is what drew me to covering it.

I had this on the shelf since last summer, but I finally got around to finishing it this week. I don't have a big voice, so I went with layering some harmonies. But then again, the lyrics don't really matter.