Over the past year this space has been a place for me to explore and expound upon musical threads and ideas as well as journal a bit. In light of the immediate heaviness of the murder of George Floyd, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the entire racist history of the US, I want to zoom out from threads to the very fabric of American music, one woven largely from Black expression and emotion.
I like to think that in my earliest musical education was conscious of the fact that Black musicians were an absolute essential part of the story. Bass-wise it was impossible to ignore. Growing up, almost all of my favorite bass players were Black Americans, Victor Wooten being number 1. I must have owned 5 different copies of his CD, A Show of Hands. While I was probably first drawn to Victor’s virtuosity, I also resonated and adopted his message of peace and love and equality for all. Words of Wisdom from that record is a good example. I wanted a world that was fair and equal for all regardless of skin color or any physical traits just like Victor. I wanted a world where we practiced love and understanding and patience just like my bass hero did on his records. I thought that since I loved music made by Black folks this was enough, I wasn’t racist. I was wrong.
I don’t think I realized that I benefitted from White privilege until much later. All of my understanding of Wooten’s music and message was applied with a background of the post-racial, color-blind America of the 90s and early 00s in which I grew up. It was one where slavery was behind us and equality was realized. It was one where we already learned our lessons from the Civil Rights era and we all were truly free. It was in my head. It sounds incredibly naive now but this idea and ideology was how I operated well in to my 20s mostly because my Whiteness allowed it. It wasn’t until I got some reading recommendations from friends that I realized we are still living with the effects of slavery and Jim Crow today. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant memoir Between the World and Me that I came to see how much the world (America mostly) was still tilted in my favor towards my Whiteness. And away from others who didn’t look like me. He showed me the systematicracism that we all live in and the ways that most white folks engage in a passive racism. A more elusive racism. Through this and some other Black writing, I came to realize that equality is not enough when the whole system is bent. Fixing the system is called justice. I believe this is what Victor Wooten was really calling for.
Once I wrapped my head around the idea of systematic ( or institutional ) racisms it was plain to see its many incarnations throughout society. American musical culture is no exception. The recent podcast 1619from the New York Times sums this up so well in the third episode, The Birth of American Music. It outlines how the first truly American music form was the Minstrel Show, a show where white people applied Blackface and lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, and happy-go-lucky. It also goes into how Motown was its antithesis. LISTEN TO IT ASAP. It should be required listening to any music student in America today.
“the thing that made me laugh was just how all that history is just very silently coursing through this music. It might not even be aware that it’s even there. It’s so thoroughly atomized into American culture. It’s going to show up in a way that even people making the art can’t quite put their finger on. What you’re hearing in black music that’s so appealing to so many people of all races across time is possibility, struggle. It is strife. It is humor. It is sex. It is confidence. And that’s ironic. Because this is the sound of a people who, for decades and centuries, have been denied freedom. And yet what you respond to in black music is the ultimate expression of a belief in that freedom, the belief that the struggle is worth it, that the pain begets joy, and that that joy you’re experiencing is not only contagious, it’s necessary and urgent and irresistible. Black music is American music. Because as Americans, we say we believe in freedom. And that’s what we tell the world. And the power of black music is that it’s the ultimate expression of that belief in American freedom.”
Where this piece from The New York Times connects the coopting and stealing of Black expression in America to today, it does not really go into the financial realities that many Black artists faced (or in a lot of instances, were completely left out). It should be no surprise that label owners (largely white men) have reaped many the profits through complicated royalty schemes, bad deals, and outright theft.
So how do we reckon with these histories? How do we change upon takin in these realities? How can us White people enact justice in the musical world? As a White man I’m not who you should be asking. But since you read this far, I can tell you what I’ve been up to. First and foremost, don’t look away. Recognize that it is a privilege to learn about these things in the comfort of our homes. These are realities that many BIPOC folk have lived their whole lives. It is a shame and a testament to the White supremacy still alive today that so much Black history is not taught in our country’s classrooms. We need to take seriously the many non-White voices in our worlds. Right now there is an outpouring of so many folks stories and experiences being non-White in America all over social media. Actively listen to their stories. No “buts”. It’s not about you or how you see it. It’s about listening. Here’s one I found very powerful from Charlie Gabriel of Preservation Hall Jazz Band. These realities are within one generation from us. They’re still living.
Also educating ourselves by reading (countless lists out there by now, I’ll add some of my big influences below) and by engaging in tough conversations when they come up and educating people in our community who resist acknowledging these truths.
Most importantly, we need to pair this education with meaningful anti-racist action. There are plenty of online resources from BIPOC folks that can point you in the right direction. Here‘s one I found helpful from the music world. Lastly, and most importantly, prepare for a lifelong fight for justice. Though these issues are pervasive in our society believe that WE ALL CAN CHANGE. Don’t buy into an idea that we are stuck here or that it’s all for naught. All anti-racist activity is meaningful in the fight for justice for all and that is what we are after.
Here is a reading list of books that opened my eyes to systematic racism:
Happy May Day all!!! Theres a lot of new music out today- here’s some I had the pleasure of playing bass on! Freddy and Francine are putting out singles we recorded in Nashville last November. The record is called I Am Afraid to Die! Click the images below and follow the links to listen to the singles and pre-order the record (VINYL too!). This is some intoxicating poppy goodness for ya, don’t sleep on it!
Also I had the privilege of recording with my friend Ross Bellenoit back in June 2018. In the mean time we’ve toured with twice with The Sweetback Sisters and I moved in next door!?! True story. The recordings are finally coming out tomorrow on a release called Where Does the Light Go?Click the photo below to check that out.
I have been holding tight during the pandemic mostly pouring energy into writing music and collaborating remotely via my home studio. These uncertain times are stressful for all including musicians and artists. I’ve already had a tour with Joe Pug cancelled in April and many local dates cancelled or postponed. This summer is quickly hollowing out as the pandemic continues to sow uncertainty for the future. I have found that there are a lot of resources keeping people like me afloat though! Thanks to MusicCares for their COVID relief grant. A great way to support artists in this time is buy their music! A lot of people are conscious of how little streaming services pay the artists that are the bedrock of their “service”. I urge you all to try and buy directly from the artists when possible ala Bandcamp or directly from their websites like the music above. Also many artists are doing live-streaming from social media platforms which often offer links to send money through Paypal or Venmo. Please be generous if you can. Zooming out a bit to the larger picture it is clear to me that so many of the essential workers keeping us afloat right now (Grocers, Walmart/ Amazon, Delivery workers, Food service workers ect. ) are paid so little and often disregarded as replaceable or disposable. They are on the front lines right now sacrificing their health and wellness for us to be okay. Let’s honor them today on May Day and everyday forward by fighting for a living wage for all! I wish you all love and health.
Not too much more to this post other than that! I was lucky enough to get to play w/ Freddy & Francine during a run opening for JJ Grey & Mofro this past month. I’d heard of JJ before but never heard them live so I was pumped to get to listen for a few nights in a row. Lee (of FF) expounded a couple times about how great (and nice!) the bass player Todd was. During the first night, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize not just any Todd – It was TODD SMALLIE on the P-bass! Big deal for me! I’d seen Todd perform with Derek Trucks Band countless times in middle and high school and it was a trip to see him live again! The music he made with Derek, Kofi Burbridge, Yonrico Scott, Mike Mattison and Count M’Butu moved me so much as a teen! It’s true (and I told Todd this…) that I grew my hair long bc of Derek Trucks Band. More importantly, I wanted to make music like that!! He’s still killin w JJ too of course! – Thanks to Freddy and Francine for making it possible.
Taking a quick look back into 2019, I am filled to the brim with love and appreciation to all the folks who asked me to be a part of their musical projects and musical lives. There are infinite angles into the musical sphere and 2019 was my most multifaceted year to-date! I got to play bass and sing with a bunch of inspiring songwriters, I played in the pit for some groundbreaking theatre, and I’ve been expanding into new roles in the studio. I have taken in so much from collaborating in different musical landscapes and I’m excited for what the New Year will bring. I hope you all have an inspired and fruitful 2020. I hope to see you somewhere down the line! – Love, Charlie
It’s been busy since the last I wrote! Good-busy for sure, the kind of busy you want in the summer months, gettin it in before the slowing down of autumn and the winter freeze. In early august I did a run of shows in New England with my buds Cold Chocolate then somehow the universe allowed that the end of that tour (Bethel VT) collided with a run with my friend, songwriter Rachel Baiman for the Green Mountain Bluegrass & Roots Festival in Manchester VT. What a great festival! We coordinated a drop off near Bethel and we had some hours to kill so I looked up a swimming spot on the White River (Thanks swimmingholes.info!!) as you do in Vermont in the summer! It had to be the most beautiful swimming holes I have ever visited (and thats saying something!) in fact it was so beautiful that after I passed from one band to another, I took Rachel and and Cy (who plays guitar w/ Rachel) back to the spot for another go.
Right before these dates I was excited albeit a bit nervous to drop my bass off at Mike Shank’s shop in Elizabethtown PA to undergo the most extreme work I’ve had done thus far – make the neck removable for traveling! In plain terms, Mike allowed for the bass’ neck to be taken on and off via a 4inch bolt through the saddle (bottom of the neck). I’m sure this sounds kind of insane to bass players and bass lovers alike but it is more safe than you might think and becoming more and more common in the past few years.
I knew that Mike was who I wanted to do the surgery. Mike is an incredibly talented luthier who, lucky for me, lives only 25 minutes from my parents house in Lancaster, PA. I bought the bass from him in 2006 with financial help from my Grandma Betty and the Christopher “Busetto” bass was always special for me. It got me through my undergrad and seeing me though countless gigs. It is equally equipped for arco playing and pizz playing and I find that it stratels that line about as well as any hybrid (plywood back and sides, fully carved top) bass can. Mike’s set up and finish are an enormous part of that.
After compromising for so long,(read my post about what I had been using to travel here —> https://charliequestion.com/2019/06/27/tribute-to-a-travel-bass/) I still wanted to have a bass that I could take anywhere via plane/ train/ auto. I really wanted to be able to take that sound and feel with me on the road and Mike and I made a plan to make it happen. The risk of course was that changing the bass in such an extreme way could alter the tone/ volume of the instrument but it was something I was prepared to risk. Two weeks later I came back and tried it out! There was only the slightest loss of volume but the tone remained stunningly intact! We made a few adjustments, he showed me the set up and break down method and I was off with my newly travelable old friend.
Mike showing me the new rig!
We made some tracings of the instruments shape to send to CaseExtreme in San Diego who made a custom flight case for the instrument. It came *just* in time for its maiden voyage to the Wheatland music festival with my buds Freddy and Francine and it went off without a hitch!
w/ Freddy and Francine @ Wheatland Music Festival with the new bass!
In other, non-upright bass news, I was so excited to get to bring my friend Mike Reilly’s new record to the stage this past month. Mike’s project, “Pretend Collective”, released their first LP on the Philly-based label, Giving Groove. I was privileged to get to be in the *stellar* band for these shows in Philly and New York. I’m sure thery’ll be more shows soon. Check out the new record here —> https://www.pretendcollective.com/
I’ve got some more dates through New England with Freddy & Francine coming up in October as well as a West Coast run with singer-songwriter Joe Pug. I hope to see some friends out there!! Dates are below! Big love ❤
I was given a free month of audible, the Amazon audio-book service, recently and of course I forgot to cancel it before the free part was over. I’m a huge podcast fan (#millenialAF) and I’ve recently enjoyed a few longer form listens ala audiobook. I’m currently quitting all things Amazon but I figured I’d at least use the 5 or so credits I had before I would cancel my subscription. I browsed the “stacks” for a while and finally found a couple of music bios as well as some other things that looked interesting. One of them was Searching For the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by bassist, Phil Lesh. I had a super long haul drive that day Nashville—> Philly that day and found myself alternating between Phil’s bio and and something I thought would be completely different, a social-psychological work called Range, Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. As the drive went on and on and I kept switching between the two they started to reveal themselves in one another.
I have always been a fan of the Grateful Dead’s recorded work (American Beauty, Workingmans Dead were my first exposures). I was a huge jam band fan as a teenager but never connected with The Dead’s vast live recorded archives. I felt disconnected growing up in the 90s and felt it was hard to fully be into a band that “wasn’t around anymore”. I knew was that their leader Jerry Garcia died when I was in Kindergarten so I’d thought pretty much missed it completely. I was much more into bands who I could go and see live like Phish, The String Cheese Incident, Umphrey’s McGee and Moe. Recordings of the Dead never really hit me like any live show I’d been to and how could they? In college I had friends that would share wild stories of the band, some about the music and some about the scene. The band’s following, The “Dead Heads” are legendary in their fervor and commitment to seeing, taping, and sharing shows ( heres any show you’d ever want —> https://relisten.net/grateful-dead ) There’s all kinds of stories that come along with the Dead and their music and the more I learned about the band, the more I came to appreciate their impact on modern music.
What finally pushed me into becoming a true fan of the music was learning how The Grateful Dead intentionally created conditions for an entirely new music concert experience; one that’s key was to share a collective energy with their fans, and dedication to never playing the same song the same way, ever. It relied on a collective consciousness between the musicians themselves and the band and the audience. No one knew exactly what was going to happen but that unknown was how their creativity was born, live on stage every night. It’s what kept it interesting. It wasn’t the first instance of this kind of approach to music (ie Jazz) but it was done on a scale never before seen.
Phil Lesh’s approach on the bass is basically a microcosm of the Dead’s approach. His book starts from the very beginning of his life and almost exclusively relates him to music. He came from a family of music lovers, lucky for him. He started on the violin in the third grade learning play “off the page” from a public school music teacher. His parents invested in his musical interests as well, a huge privilege and advantage for Phil. In middle school, he was good enough to make it into the county orchestra where he first became interested in playing the trumpet. Again, his parents supported him and he quickly became proficient on this new instrument. Advancing quickly, he sought out musical theory classes but there were none at his high school. He discovered he could take theory and composition at the adjacent district’s high school but he would have to transfer to take them. Amazingly, his parents were willing to move to a new house so that Phil could continue his studies. The school also had a “dance” band that played Jazz and Phil tried out on the trumpet. During the audition he came to a spot on the page marked “Ad Lib” and asked what it meant. “What’s Ad Lib?” he asked to his peers’ amusement. “My life and idea of music had changed forever. Play something that’s not written, something that’s never been played before. Yow!”
After floundering a bit he ended up at Jr college in San Mateo to continue his music studies in composition and play in the jazz band. To help pay the bills, he took a part-time job at the college library. He had to audition records for scratches and pops so they would know any damage incurred while the records were lent out. “Talk about a kid in a candy store! I couldn’t wait to get to work every day to see what new stuff I could treat myself to. In this way I was able to hear the widest possible range of music, from folk to bebop to the symphonies of Mahler, without having to buy the records which I couldn’t have afforded in any case.” He attended college in the late 50s with Jazz still a huge force in music but also just as the counterculture was sowing its seeds and the folk revival was just taking off. He met Jerry Garcia, who was big into the folk revival, at a house party one night and was introduced. Phil recounts “Hey Phil this is Jerry – he’s a musician too. I responded with some snotty comeback like “Yeah well I play jazz man” but Jerry just said something like “Cool! You gotta meet Lester and Jackson (other Jazz players he knew at the party) – even then, [Jerry] was about furthering the music.”
Check out Phil playing in the San Mateo Big Band!
He goes on to recount the cross-fertilization of the Jazz world and the folk/ blues world in that Palo Alto . He also volunteered at KFPA which “cast their net far and wide for the most unusual and striking recordings of everything from ethnic to avant-garde…” He was certainly casting a wide musical net for himself and discovering so much. Despite a broad range of experience he never really settled into what “his thing should be”. In the early 60s, post-college, he continued to compose avant-garde music and take in the varied musical scene in Northern California. He composed music (with Steve Reich!) for a a Mime Troupe- “ a bunch of actors and far-left theorists dedicated to provocateur street theater.” They flipped theatre on its head by doing “improvisational pieces that combined music, improvised dance / movement / lights to “manifest a collective conscious. It was a prototype for the now famous “Acid Tests” that would happen later in the 60s. This was all at the same time as pop music was undergoing massive changes. The Beatles were blowing everyone top and the Stones were developing an edgier rock and roll sound.
Phil’s composition with the SF Mime Troupe
Despite all this, Phil describes an intense loneliness and longing for his own way forward in music. He stayed in touch with Jerry’s musical projects and went to see his band the Warlocks play one night and it was one of the first times he’d heard Jerry play electric guitar. The band was dabbling in a kind of a new sound, something like a “jug band, but electrified”. In between sets Jerry told them they needed a new bass player ( “We gotta tell this guy what string to play!”) and asked if Phil would give it a go.
“At first I didn’t know how to respond – this was sorta out of the blue… having been at loose ends for so long, I was tremendously excited, as I’d been waiting subconsciously for some opportunity to get back into music on any level at all. Besides, I knew I could learn the instrument and even play it differently than I had so far heard it played ( Something I instinctively knew had to happen, even Jerry’s unique approach to music.).” He took Jerry up on it under the condition that he get one lesson. Jerry told him to swing by after the show. It went something like this: “See this guitar, man? The bottom four strings are tuned the same, so borrow a guitar from somebody and practice scales on it until you can get down here and we’ll start rehearsing”….it was almost as if he didn’t want to influence the way that I approached the instrument, so I could come to it with only my own preconceptions as baggage. It’s sobering to contemplate the many events and encounters that lead to such a pivotal moment in one’s life. Singly, they seem almost random, and they could have resolved differently. Seen as a sequence, the can evoke the indifferent majesty of predestination. I didn’t know or care if this trip would last more than a week – I was going to give it all I had while it lasted.
After a few hours of driving and listening to Phil, I switched over to Range. David Epstein is a journalist and investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated but also has a degree in Environmental Science (he’s a generalist!) and his wide background shines through in the text. I was drawn to this book maybe because I have been trying to broaden my ideas of playing music for a living in the last year, mostly trying to expand my possibilities both within music and outside of it. I recognized that have been working in a fairly specialized lane (playing bass in folk/americana/ rock music) for a while and I thought maybe this would prove thought provoking.
Epstein gets right to the point in his introduction: Roger vs. Tiger. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer are both masters of their respective sports but how they got there is quite different. Tiger for one was brought up from day one by his father to be a golfer “Because [Tiger’s] father couldn’t yet talk with his son, he drew pictures to show the boy how to place his hands on the club.” He won his first tournament at age 2! His father was certain that he would be a “Chosen One” in golf and even would prep him on how to curtly answer questions from reporters! Tiger focused exclusively on golf and as most know became a master of master at his sport. Rodger Federer on the other hand walked a much more winding road to his legendary status. “His mom was a coach but she never coached him… As a boy played squash with his father on Sundays. He dabbled in Skiing, wrestling, swimming, table tennis, badminton, and soccer at school. He found that the sport didn’t matter much as long as it included a ball.” It wasn’t until later in his adolescence that he gave up other sports to focus on tennis and even then he wouldn’t allow the coaches to move him up with older players because he wanted to play with his friends. None of this proved to be a disadvantage to him in the long run as he was still #1 in the world well into his mid-thirties, a time when most tennis pros have already retired.
Left: Young Tiger Woods as a very young specialist, Right: Federer pictured with Rugby ball
Woods’ path to mastery is a common one, hyper-specialize, start early, practice intensely. Basically the earlier you get to 10,000 hours the faster one reaches an elite level which gives them a foot up on their peers and lands them further on their way to success. Federer’s path as a late specializer is less lauded but Epstein argues, more common than Woods’ and there is plenty of research to back it up. “In 2014 a team of German Scientists published a study showing that members of their national [Soccer] team, which had just won the World Cup, were typically late specializers who didn’t play more organized soccer than amateur league players until age 22 or later.” He goes on into many many sports examples of late specializers including Tom Brady, Nick Foles, Vasyl Lomacheko (who won world titles in boxing in three weight classes), and many others. So this just means that there’s plenty of ways to get there, right? What’s the point? The key difference and the key to Epstein’s larger point lies in the qualities of each respective sport.
To explain this, he references a study by a psychologist named Gary Klein and his colleague Daniel Kahneman. Their central question is “Do specialists get better with experience, or not? Whether or not experience led to expertise was dependent on the domain in question. Klein studied what is known as “kind” learning environments which feature “patterns repeating over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid. In Golf or Chess, a ball or piece is moved according to rules and within defined boundaries, a consequence is quickly apparent, and similar challenges occur repeatedly.” Golf is a prime example of this: one can drive a ball then see how it goes and make adjustments and repeat. “The learning environment is kind because a learner improves simply by engaging in the activity and trying to do better. Kahnman was focused on the flip side of kind learning environments, “Wicked” learning environments. In these, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may be no repeating patterns and feedback is often delayed. “Compared to golf, a sport like Tennis is much more dynamic, with players adjusting to opponents every second, to surfaces, and sometimes their own teammates. But tennis is still very much on the “kind” end of the spectrum compared to, say, a hospital emergency room, where doctors and nurses do not automatically happens to a patient after their encounter… They have to find ways to learn beyond practice, and to assimilate lessons that might even contradict their own direct experience. The world is not golf, and most of it isn’t even Tennis…. Much of the world is “Martian Tennis” You can see the players on the court with balls and rackets but nobody has shared the rules. It is up to you derive them, and they are subject to change without notice. “
Maybe it was “Martian Tennis” that got me thinking about the Grateful Dead and Phil Lesh again (Mars Hotel??) but it seemed to fit his musical journey to the bass so well. Applying this to musical isn’t an exact fit but there are some very real parallels in my opinion. My mind goes to the differences in classical music “off the page” to jazz being improvised. Classical music is much more like golf, a “kind” learning environment where the player has a set of “boundaries” to execute. Jazz (or really any improvised music) is much more like Tennis, a “wicked” learning environment, where players are constantly adjusting to one another and reacting and changing to fit in with one another. They both require sometimes extreme levels technical ability but if you think about it through these lenses, the two seem like two completely different “sports” of music.
Phil is definitely more of a Federer-type, experimenting with different instruments early on, excelling but never narrowing himself to a single musical outlet. He gained experience analyzing music on a theoretical level and composing avante-garde music (…. rules of the game were unclear…). He immersed himself in all kinds of music working at the college library and at KFPA. He saw all kinds of music in Palo Alto. What’s really amazing to me is Jerry’s trust in this experience. I’m sure that he was conscious of Phil’s many musical perspectives when he asked him to play bass. Phil’s lack of knowledge of the bass was seemingly barely even a thought for Jerry. Instead, he was relying on a creative energy that saw Phil had. Phil was willing to pick up the bass and learn to play through “wicked” ways of the Dead’s sometimes lengthy improvised sections. As Phil’s playing developed and he gained more and more experience trying things and learning what works, I believe it allowed him to develop his unique style. Of course the rest of the band was doing a similar thing individually and the more they played together, the more they learned and the further they could take it.
Phil’s telling of his journey to the bass shined a light on some of the conditions and influences that he absorbed to create such a unique, completely original style. In light of Epstein’s observations about learning it made so much sense how his unique voice on stage came to be. He may not be everyone’s favorite bassist but one cannot deny that he has his own sound and approach. In the past couple years I have come around to it completely. His choices playing rhythmically while at the same time maintaining a melodically interesting line is so different than anyone else I’ve heard, certainly that came before him. More than that I’m always engaged listening to how Phil is playing in context of the band. It’s clear he’s tapping into the micro and macro levels of twisting and turning, pushing and pulling, winding it up and then letting it go again. As a musician, it reminds me that every opportunity to play with others is one not to be taken lightly! Each one is a unique opportunity to become better at playing with others and to develop listening skills. The harder the better as well. It may feel terrible in the moment, but if I took anything away from Range it’s the fact that trying to find solutions to problems with many variables is how we better learn.
5/08/77 Live @ Barton Hall is widely regarded as a favorite show among Dead Heads
Phil Lesh is certainly a strong example of someone who struggled to find himself at first but remained open-minded and eventually took advantage of an opportunity in something he had never considered. The struggle turned out to be well worth it. He would go on to create a completely fresh approach to the bass. Like Phil, we are much more equipped to make creative solutions in our “wicked” world when we immerse ourselves in as many unique experiences and information as possible. After taking it all in, I am moved to fully recommit to keeping my musical eyes and ears wide open. When I shun this or that in music, I’m uselessly closing myself to possibilities perhaps I’ve never considered before. I recommend both of these reads to anyone who finds themselves struggling with a way forward. Over the past decades our society has increasingly become geared toward paths to hyper specialized jobs and careers but these paths can be limiting and inhibiting to creativity. It may not be the most celebrated or direct way forward but to experiment and try new things is in fact how smart people find new ways forward and revolutionize. We could all use a bit more of that right now.
I didn’t make it to Blissfest until Saturday but the blissful magic started for me on Friday. It just so happened that my friend May Erlewine needed a bass player for her set near Traverse City that night. Freddy and Francine, who I’m touring with currently, didn’t have a show. May had me play bass on her UK tour this spring and in parting from that tour we discovered we’d both be at Blissfest. She reached out about possibly subbing a few months ago and by crazy happenstance it all worked out! We, along with her regular drummer Mike Shimmin (check The Olllam !!), played a super fun set at The Music House Museum near Traverse City, MI. It has what has to be the most extensive collection of “music machines” in the US, if not the world. Sure there’s player pianos but there’s also analog “drum machines”, parade organs, and even a “player violin”. It was like a dream!
It was also a dream to go to Blissfest with May, as I first met her there 8 years ago. Blissfest always keeps Michigan musicians front and center and I remember first seeing May perform alongside the Starlight Six, all Michigan natives, in 2011. I was completely transported by the songs and the sound then and it was a wild twist of fate to drive to the grounds with her on Saturday morning.
I was ecstatic to be back for another bunch of performances with Freddy and Francine. (See my last post for an overview of what they do…) I hadn’t been since 2013 and I was hoping that it would live up to all the memories from my previous times there. I remembered the lineup always held some solid folk and roots festival headliners (Taj Mahal, Buffy Sainte Marie in my years past) but what I loved about it most was all of the bands you’d never heard of, below the top billing. This is how I’d discovered bands like Good Lovelies, May Erlewine, Laith Al-Saadi, Joel Maebus, Euforquestra, and Jaron Freeman-Fox (w/ Good Buddy Taylor Ashton!). The lineup always seemed to dig a little deeper than the obvious trending bands. They may not always be well-known performers but the organizers always find music that inspires, sometimes purely by musical talent and sometimes by challenging what music can do and be.
I’m happy to say the culture of the festival is solidly intact. Headliners included Sam Bush Band, Canned Heat, Amy Helm, Steve Poltz, and Martin Sexton. I loved seeing Martin Sexton again (Mariposa last week) and he was again an absolute force! I was naive to his music but now I know and I’m going to dig in to his catalogue! His songwriting, singing, and guitar playing is completely unique and it was a treat to take in at his sunset set, side stage. I ventured out into the front of the stage to take in the vibe and spotted an 18ish year old sax player playing along with him in the dance section of the crowd. He was deep in the bliss. I went to grab a bite to eat and when I was walking back toward the stage I was astonished to see that Sexton had invited him up to play with him! When the song ended he introduced the sax player and mentioned he was a Michigan native. The crowd went insane and the kid on the stage was absolutely beaming, cloud nine status. I started to tear up a bit because it was just such a perfect moment. The absolute gift of sharing the stage shared between strangers is what music should strive to be about. Always. The lack of ego and humility that it takes to reach out like that is rare among musicians in my experience, and all of the love I had for Martin and his music quadrupled in that moment. My heart was full of hope and love.
Another high was seeing my buds from Lafayette, LA do their thing. The Revelers take elements of Western Swing, Cajun, Zydeco, Tex-Mex, and Swamp Pop and combine it into an original undeniably fun sound. I first saw some of the members of this band (Chas & Glenn) as members of The Red Stick Ramblers at Grey Fox Bluegrass Fest in 2009. It was the first time I experienced Cajun music live and I was hooked. The dance tent set and the energy they created there that year change my life. After watching them I knew I wanted to be in a band that could play at festivals and make people move. The Revelers are killer musicians individually and collectively. I surely wasn’t gonna miss them when they closed out Blissfest 2019 in the dance tent.
Bianca asked (The) Chris Miller from the Revelers (and the Faux Paws) to sit in with us for a new tune. It was only the second time playing it on stage and it definitely had the “new music” edge vibe that can be so special. Chris is a master collaborator and he brought it to the next level with us. So fun!
We also got to collab with Steve Poltz again (see my last post about him at Mariposa Folk Fest). We played Waterfalls by TLC and he crowd surfed. 💯What a guy.
On Monday we simmered in the bliss afterglow by Lake Michigan and it was the cherry on top of the experience. After 8 years I still love this festival. I love the spirit of the people who put it together with such care. I love all the musical fans who lean into whatever music they discover. Next year is the 40th annual and I hope I can make it. I know I’ll be back some day.
I’m so happy to be getting back to playing some shows with my pals Lee Ferris and Bianca Caruso aka “Freddy and Francine”! We’re playing around the Great Lakes, both Canada and US sides, then taking a swing through the midwest. It’s my first tour with them since February and we’ve been breaking up the drives by takin dips. when we can.
These two have an undeniably intoxicating energy. On stage, the fusion of their powerhouse singing and their potent pop-folk songwriting is something to behold. I fill out the third part on some of the vocals I have to sing with all my voice just to be able to add anything to the sound. I’ve been learning a whole lot about singing while collaborating with them. It’s a sublime feeling when we snap into a three part together. Off stage, they are some of the most thoughtful, intentional and hilarious people I’ve had the pleasure to ride around in a van with. We’ve been cracking each other up all day this past week and it’s made the long drives fly by. I’m so happy to be playing in the band. Check this episode of Show on the Road podcast to catch some of their vibe and a bit more of their story.
We’ve just come off a weekend playing and hanging at the Mariposa folk festival (that’s MaripoZA for anyone reading out loud) and what a time it was. It’s been a bit since I’ve been to a Canadian Folk Festival and I had forgotten about the “workshops” they put on. Basically they throw three acts on stage with a loose prompt and say GO! Collaboration is strongly encouraged. Apparently the workshop form started at Mariposa and has since been adopted by a lot of the folk fests in Canada. The first time I ever played one was with The Stray Birds at Calgary Folk Music fest. The workshop was called “Home For a Rest” with us, another band I cannot remember and a guy we’d never heard of named John Mann. We figured we’d sing some songs vaguely related to home, Old Home Place or something the like. Once John Mann (who we quickly learned is a legend in Canada) sung his anthem “Home For A Rest” and the entire 1200 people in the audience sang along, we realized how naive we were.
I was lucky enough to get to play in the “Angel From Montgomery: Inspired by John Prine” workshop this weekend with Freddy & Francine, Courtney Marie Andrews and Steve Poltz. As we all threw our gear on stage and plugged in, somebody asked who was hosting (essentially who would MC) the workshop. I was damn near sure it would be Steve and anyone who has ever seen him live knows why. He has that hard-to-come-by entertainer instinct that never comes across as forced or farced. He’s a true pro. He told me he never ever plans his sets, relying only on his instincts and the audience’s vibe which is immediately right there with him. He’s one of the most positive people I’ve ever met and it’s absolutely intoxicating. He’ll tell you “every show is my favorite show” and you’ll believe him when you see him play.
Steve started out with the John Prine song In Spite of Ourselves, splitting the duet with Courtney. Many in the audience knew the words and were singing along. Freddy and Francine played some original songs with shades of Prine’s twangy sensibilities including a song they had never shown the light of day called “I Am Afraid to Die”. We had worked it up in the hotel room earlier that morning and it matched the freshness and edge of the workshop’s atmosphere. By the time the second chorus came around, everyone on stage and in the tent was singing along.
Courtney sang a couple of her originals as well recounting her time opening up for John Prine on tour. I had heard of Courtney’s music from various friends and have been a fan for a while but I’d never seen her live until last weekend. Her songs’ emotional intensity are second to no one doing it today and to see her play them live is unreal. I was standing close enough to her to hear a bit of her monitor mix and I couldn’t believe the sound. Her voice sounded like it was being piped through a Leslie speaker, in the best way. It has organ-like warmth but with the edge and projection of a trumpet or a clarinet. We’d seen her play the day before so Lee and Bianca sang harmonized on the chorus of her song Rough Around the Edges. It was a high point in the show to be sure.
Steve somehow took everyone to another level with a performance of his song “A Brief History of My Life “ part of which is a tribute to baseball radio announcers gone by. It’s capped off with his impression of Tom Cheek’s call of Joe Carter’s walk-off homer to win the ’93 World Series for Toronto. He had all the Blue Jays’ fans literally crying in the aisles.
We ended the session with John Prine’s classic Angel From Montgomery swapping verses. By the end of the show it felt like we were in a band together. I’d do it again in a heartbeat but it could never be quite that special.
I’ll be playing a couple more Canadian shows with Freddy and Francine this week then back to the US for Blissfest (near Traverse City) on Friday. It’s a special one for me as it is one of the first festivals I ever played (actually the first, way back in 2011) and I’m excited to be getting back to the bliss for the first time since 2013. It was also the first time I heard May Erlewine play her music, someone I’ve come to love and respect so much. By a wild happenstance I’ll be reconnecting with her for the first time since our UK run in April to play a show with her near her hometown. Check my dates for details on that as well as Freddy & Francine shows.
Just the other day I said goodbye to a musical instrument that had been with me for the better half of six years. A utilitarian workhorse of an instrument meant to take on the road, this bass ended up meaning a good deal to me and I wasn’t sure how I would feel parting with it. I definitely wanted to take a second to reflect…
I’m not sure there is really an exact equivalent relationship to the one that a musician shares with their instrument. It’s somewhat like the one that a craftsman shares with their tools, or an artist with their respective creative instruments, allowing one to express their inner selves into the physical world. I’m definitely biased but this outer to inner transformation seems most direct (or immediate?) to me in the form of musical expression. Watch the greatest woodwind players breath in air from the world and combine that breath with themselves then pour it into their instrument and into the world. Watch a pro pianist watching their fingers fly over the keys as if they are watching the concert unfold, and not playing themselves. Watch a drummer close their eyes and get lost in it, knowing exactly the feel and space of the kit. It’s instantaneous and seemingly magical. The instrument gains a life force from the player. Under ideal circumstances It IS the player and the player is IT
With perhaps the exception of vocalists, I’m not sure anyone feels this deep connection to an instrument right away. Maybe I’m wrong here and it’s a part of the spark that keeps young players going, but at least for me it did not happen on day one of playing the double bass, my first instrument. Not even close. I was privileged enough to go to a public school that gave string instrument lessons in the summer between 3rd and 4th grades. I naturally wanted to play bass because my Dad was a bass player and with his encouragement signed up. I was also tall enough (I remember them coming to measure me in the 3rd grade) so I was in. As long as I carried it! Mom and Dad wouldn’t do that. Looking back it was my first gig. The first song, the open D String.
Someone once broke down the realities of playing a string instrument compared to the piano and it always stuck with me. The physical act of producing a note with any kind of acceptable tonal quality on a string instrument is much more laborious and complicated compared to the instant gratification of pushing a piano key. No disrespect to ANY pianist. It just takes more time to develop the somewhat unnatural and physical parts of basic technique. Feeling at all comfortable with the bow can take months and anyone that plays seriously knows that it requires daily maintenance and attention to play with a good tone and in tune. I think I’m fortunate that a lot of that basics happened when I was young and inspired. I’m not sure I would have the patience if I started from the ground up today.
It wasn’t until college, with the prompting and direction of my bass professor Pete Paulsen, that I started thinking about the physics of the bass and their relation to tone and playing. I was preparing increasingly difficult exercises and music for lessons and becoming bogged down by my approach. I had to learn to be more efficient! This was a huge leap for me conceptually and for my playing and I bet anyone who has moved to advanced levels on any instrument have made these incredibly important discoveries and done this hard work. He encouraged me to travel and explore the path of the sound from brain —> arm –> hand –>bow/fingers –> string –> bridge –> top to bass –> world. It was a new beginning for me on the bass. I was learning the best way to connect with my instrument. I was learning how to transfer myself into the bass.
In 2011, out of school, I joined The Stray Birds as their full-time bass player. Like most bands trying to make any money we toured a lot. It quickly became apparent that I would need to find a better way to travel with a double bass. Ideally I needed a way to fly with one. From what I knew at the time, it was an extremely costly to-do both in buying a massive flight case and the oversize fees incurred to actually use it. I had heard rumblings of a guy in Nashville who had designed a bass that fit into a much smaller package and even weighed just under the standard 50 lb checked bag limit. How you ask??? Apparently he neck of the bass was built with a hinge and it “folded” into a specially designed panel that opened in the back of the bass. I googled it immediately and saw it with my own eyes (on the internet). I did some more reading, asking around and eventually went for it, probably also motivated by the fact that we had dates booked for a fly-in tour and I needed a solution. Thus began my life with the Chadwick Folding Bass and I was off.
Over those 6 years, people asked me all the time, “How do you like it?” and I never really came up with a short way to answer. I’ve always kept with the fact that it enabled so many opportunities and saved so many dollars and headaches. After playing it for a while, it was a bass that I “knew” with some muscle memory and that was something I never would have had renting and playing random basses everywhere I went. I even recorded with it in the studio with some success. Me as a starry-eyed college student that had been working on efficient musical expression had quickly transformed into someone who was trying to pay rent by playing music and I knew thought for sure that there had to be a few things sacrificed to make it all happen. It came to be that my instrument’s tone would have to be one of those things. The pathway through my instrument to the world was less than ideal and it paralleled a lot of the sacrifices that musicians (not touring with bloated budgets) have to make to take their show on the road. Oh well, it’s better than that not playing at all! There were times where I HATED it. The tone was dull and it was unresponsive. Playing it acoustically was certainly an underwhelming and sometimes frustrating experience. There was just no making up for the opening in the back of the instrument.
It wasn’t the most ideal situation but this bass was a huge enabler for me to travel and see some incredible places. We traveled all over the states and Canada. We went to the UK and Europe together. I’ll never forget the all the times we fought baggage agents together. All the times I folded it down and put it “bed” in the coffin case. That one time when the neck fell off and Gerald and I glued it back together in London. All the strings it ate. That one time it ended up in Reno (I’ve still never been there???). And of course all the music we made together. I’m happy to be passing the folding bass on to my friend Mali who maintains a busy touring schedule with her band Lula Wiles and she’ll keep it moving. We met up on the NJ turnpike as she lives in NY and I in Philly. It felt like the most appropriate place to do pass it on, with cars from all over the country passing us at 80mph. This transient bass will live to see many more places and that’s exactly how it should be. Play well my sweet one.