RAMBLING THOUGHTS

Solid Sound 

Just spent the weekend at Wilco's biennial festival, Solid Sound.  It's really cool in a lot of ways, including that it's held at the largest museum of contemporary art in the United States, MASS MoCA.  It's a huge site in the mountains of western Massachusetts, near the Vermont border.  Over a dozen large former factory buildings have been adapted and connected together, with large courtyards as well as an indoor theater.  But the real action is outside, with stages set up in the courtyards of the buildings as well as a massive field next to it (Joe's Field, really!) with a large stage and food vendors nearby.  There's even a pop-up record store, and chances to meet some of the artists.  

And there are also pop-up performances inside the museum itself!  Announcements go out via a phone app with almost no advance notice, causing a small stampede of fans to certain areas within the place.  Some are just corners of large hallways, but some are buildings the can easily handle hundreds of folks.

I got there early on Friday, before the festival actually started, as I was scheduled to check out the permanent Laurie Anderson area of the museum, with virtual reality experiences that she put together.  This was my first time with a "real" setup (HTC Vive headsets), and Laurie did a great job utilizing VR in her artsy, clever way.  The first experience put you on an airplane seat.  The airplane then slowly dissolves away, leaving one floating in the clouds.  Various objects come at you, and it's quite something to grab them and hear Laurie whispering thoughts around them.  Eventually, one looks down and gets slowly dropped to just barely above a lake.  Yikes!

Even more exciting was the second experience, where one is inside a series of rooms which appear to be inside of a cave of sorts.  All kinds of thought-provoking graffiti everywhere.  One can select walking from room to room, or eventually just fly around the spaces which are built around simple concepts (water, words, flying, etc.).  It's so crazy!  In one area, I could "spray" words on a wall.  When I hit a wall while flying around, I found myself bracing for impact instinctively, even though I knew I was really standing in a room with a headset on.  The person before me couldn't handle it, and ran out hyperventilating, but I really enjoyed it.  It's not photo-realistic, but it definitely works.

Also checked out a hall of mostly unseen photos of major rock stars through the years (that's hard to find at this point!), a section of paintings by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, and even Annie Lennox had an installation.  I couldn't possibly see everything in there over the weekend.

Once the festival began, I was looking forward to checking out Courtney Barnett's set on the big stage.  I've seen her before, and she even had a short pop-up set inside that I missed but was pleasantly surprised to say hi to her afterwards.  She is so nice!  Such a clever songwriter, too.  She then rocked out on the big stage, and even came back later in Wilco's set with some thrashing, slashing guitar interplay with Wilco's lead guitarist Nels Cline.  This was one of the musical highlights of the whole weekend, for me.  Wilco sounded great; lots of energy and fun.  I always like it when they kick the show off with Random Name Generator.

Saturday included the Julian Lage Trio, a fascinating Yuka Honda solo set inside, and Minus 5 out in the bigger courtyard.  Minus 5 not only had Scott McCaughey, but also Peter Buck & Mike Mills (from R.E.M.).  I was extremely fortunate to find myself in the backstage lounge for some of the weekend, so I got to hang out with some of the folks that were playing.  It's very chill, with kids playing next to guitars and amps.  The Grammy folks were there at a table for a charity event, there were a couple of barbers giving haircuts (I've seen this before backstage, and it's pretty funny), and lots of couches & drinks to relax.  Performers come and go, some with their families.

I stopped by there during the afternoon, and after turning a corner was a little star-struck when I saw Peter Buck slumped back in a couch, shades on, in full Rock Star mode, staring right at me!  So I'm trying to be cool as possible, and make my way to the drinks, where I almost run into Mike Mills.  R.E.M. was a big part of my college life, especially when they were still with I.R.S. Records, so it's really something to have one of your big guitar heroes sitting RIGHT OVER THERE.  The guys who played on classic albums like Murmur & Fables.  I played their songs in cover bands for years.

But I was cool, and left them alone.  It was really interesting to see Mike & Peter talking at times about some things, and you could tell these guys still like being around each other.  It kind of gave me a warm feeling.  Good to see.   Before I knew it, they were getting ready to go and rock out.

After their set, I checked out Tortoise for a while.  Jeff Parker's crew switches up instruments quite a bit, and I can't recall any other act with a full-time mallet player.  But they certainly get some great grooves going, that build up in a funky but almost orchestral way.  They also played Sunday.  Wilco then gave a somewhat subdued set, but also included some new songs.  A lot of unusual song choices, deep cuts, as well as the bigger hits.  

Sunday was suitably bizarre, with the usually excellent coffee shop inside running out of food and a massive thunderstorm moving everything inside.  Nels Cline & Julian Lage played along to some very unusual art films in the theater.  Those two are always amazing to watch, as they seem to be of one mind at times.  Even when it's just two guitars & no effects, it's mesmerizing.

Later on, a really interesting set moved indoors with CUP (Nels Cline and his wife Yuka Honda). 

Then checking out more art (the Sol LeWitt exhibition there has some later pieces that are so huge they go down a hallway; there's nothing like seeing these in person), and Jeff Tweedy closing out the festival with his family & friends.  

By that point, I was completely exhausted and despite some invites to continue the party elsewhere I went back to my cabin across town and crashed.  My feet, legs and knees were in pain for days afterwards from all of the walking and standing around, but it was certainly worth it.  I can't thank the band and everybody enough for a truly great creative recharge!

I could go on more about Solid Sound and MASS MoCA, but suffice to say I don't do many festivals.  It was really nice to take a break from creating, playing, planning and working on my stuff and just take it all in.  It's almost like a family reunion as well as an art/rock festival.  A very unique event, and one that really distills the essence of what the band Wilco is about. 

Life-Changing Concerts 

The subject of concerts has come up.  I've been fortunate to have performed in front of many thousands of folks over the years.  I've also attended a ton of concerts, well over five hundred at this point.  Until recently, big name shows in large venues weren't that expensive, and I happened to be living in an ideal part of the world to see a lot of them.  The mid-Atlantic US has so many venues within driving distance! 

Even after seeing so many shows, there are always some that stand out.

My first big rock concert was Bruce Springsteen at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia.  The River had just come out.  It was a high-energy marathon that introduced me to the Rock 'n Roll Preacher act of his.  I'm not a fan of everything he does, but there's no denying that he knows how to put on a great show.  The entire audience sang Hungry Heart.  I also recall Backstreets being way better live; it's still one of my favorite Bruce songs.  The Big Man was the coolest, too.

The next year I was back at the old Spectrum for The Police, who had just put out Ghost In the Machine.  Nothing like seeing one of the top acts of their time, at their peak.  It was the first time I ever heard a truly stereo guitar rig, and I proceeded to go out and buy a flanger afterwards to get that Andy Summers sound.  Stewart Copeland is one of the most fun drummers to watch live; his ability to play slightly in front of the beat with that energy of his is so cool.  The Go Go's opened up, too, and what more could a high school guy ask for?  That was a fun night.

Fast forward a few years, and by this point The Grateful Dead became one of the bigger acts out there.  The first few shows that I saw in Philly & New York were just so different than anything else that I had seen.  Nobody else was playing venues that large and truly improvising & jamming like that.  And the scene was pretty unbelievable, too. 

Before it got too big, one could camp out in the parking lot for a run of shows and drop out of regular society into this other world that was the genesis of the jam bands as we know it.  At times I felt like Garcia was actually communicating with the crowd in an advanced manner, using the band.  Every show was unique, of course.

And I think their commitment to having the absolute best sound system in the world, no matter the expense, was really impressive.  It's only recently that I've felt other bands have even come close to the high quality sound that the Dead had.  It really helped create that effect that Garcia was intimately singing just to you, despite being in a stadium with 80,000 others.  They were also the first stadium band I saw using gigantic video screens, which really made the large venues feel smaller. 

As Garcia and the Boys were winding down in the '90's, the band Phish was just moving up to the big leagues.  They took some of the psychedelia and improv of the Dead and added in that quirky Zappa-esque sense of humor of theirs.  After all, the drummer wearing a dress playing a vacuum cleaner solo was certainly unique!  I especially remember a Merriweather Post Pavilion show in 2000 that stood out, with a Curtain that blew my mind.  Their lights are the standard in jam bands, and have been for decades.

Also have to give special mention to the U2 Zoo TV tour at Hershey.  The band reinvented themselves into something much darker and edgier than what they had been doing, and the set design was something I've never seen since.  Cars suspended over the audience with headlights, huge video screens everywhere, and the whole concept of watching TV at a big rock concert made quite a statement.  Bono played different characers, too.  The information overload that the show pushed out was years ahead of its time.  And they still try to push the envelope with live shows.

The Pink Floyd concerts in Philly also stand out, if nothing else because of the quad sound that nobody else did.  Their use of video projections during the shows was a big influence on me, of course.  Their light show was probably the best at the time, and how can we forget the lasers?  They had pyro, and even crashed a plane into the stage during a song.  Nothing like it.

I have to mention Neil Young.  I have seen him in a number of configurations over the years, but what I was really impressed with was the way that he could hold the attention of an entire stadium just by himself, with his acoustic guitar.  Even with Crazy Horse, he usually had a few songs completely solo, and that's very hard to pull off.  Only a few folks I can think of can do that.  His solo version of Cortez The Killer was transformative, every time.

Can't forget the time I saw David Bowie play at the Star Pavilion in Hershey.  Probably one of the smaller shows he ever did later on, and he did every thing one could ask for.  All of the hits, and some deep cuts.  I still can't believe he played there, such a small place.

After my divorce I started going out to local clubs more, and stumbled across the electronica jam band Quagmire Swim Team.  For a few years, this band was the biggest band around the area, and I got to know the folks in the band and their scene.  I was building up the concert lighting in shows I was doing with Greg Naylor (I was one of the first to get LED lights in this country), and started doing lights for Quag more and more. 

I knew their jams well, and was able to build things up along with their songs and get things in sync nicely.  It's a shame they never put any studio stuff out; they had some unique material and could do the group improv thing better than most.  But the scene got a little crazy towards the end.

Then there's Nels Cline.  I had seen him in Wilco, but it was his solo shows with the Nels Cline Singers as well as his annual run of shows at the old Stone in NYC that really changed my ideas of what a jazz/rock guitarist could try to do.  Once a year at The Stone, he would do a week of shows, with two entirely different BANDS every night.  Naturally, most of this was improvised. 

To see show after show, with all of the looping and weirdness being eaten up by sold-out crowds was really inspiring!  And the range of compositions with the Singers is something I've seen very few guitarists do.  His unusual techniques and gadgets are always entertaining.  

But even given that, my first time seeing just him and Julian Lage do their duo show with no effects at all was mind-blowing.  Just the two of them, and they could create these intertwining runs of notes between them that made it impossible to keep up.  It was overwhelming in a great way.  Amazing chemistry.

Other recent shows that stand out are David Byrne (his show with nothing on the stage is really creative) and Kraftwerk (3D glasses were handed out as you come in, and they had videos behind them that jumped out at you at times).

I'm not even mentioning hundreds and hundreds of other shows.  There are the numerous times that I saw R.E.M., Bob Dylan, Tame Impala,  Medeski Martin & Wood, Tom Petty, Dr. John, Leo Kottke, Courtney Barnett, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Lucinda Williams, The Allman Brothers, John Scofield, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Derek Trucks, Richard Thompson, 10,000 Maniacs, the local band FRICTION, as well as Michael Hedges, Sonic Youth, The Wallflowers, Black Flag, The Rolling Stones and Public Enemy. 

I really miss the nomadic lifestyle that one could lead before Clear Channel/Live Nation came along and started creating this monopoly that could jack up prices across the board.  The big shows really shouldn't be much more expensive than a movie. 

Which ones stand out for you?  Let me know in the comments below.

Basquiat and Modern Art 

I've always liked good art, especially modern art.  I don't know anybody else that had a Picasso poster up in their college apartment, along with an M.C. Escher print.  They were next to my posters of the Clash and the Beatles. 

Some of Picasso's portraits are really cool because every day they look different.  Some days the subject looks sad, some days they appear to be angry, or happy.  I don't like everything he did, but some of his paintings are just amazing.  So colorful and complex.  It's almost like there is an optical illusion built into some of them.

To me, he really is THE guy for modern art.  He had so many different periods where he changed his style.  And there's so much of it, too; the guy was prolific.  His bold but simple lines are deceptive.  I always thought he put a lot more effort into them that it appeared, because it just looks so perfect to me.  Almost child-like, but almost like an alien at times, too.  A very unique artist, and among the first to become a superstar in his field while still around. 

Most importantly, there is a real humanity that cuts through it all, and over the time that has passed since he made them.  More than once I've just stared at some of his work in a gallery and felt a strange, emotional feeling come over me.  A very moving experience, that "hair on your neck standing up" feeling when something really connects.

To have something hanging on a wall silently creating this effect so many years and years later is really unique.  A lot of people, maybe most of the ones that ever see these paintings, will never experience that.  But some of us do.  It speaks to us, and that's a remarkable thing.  And to know it might continue to do that for a long time to come is good to know.  It makes one feel better about the world, and the people in it.  It gives me hope.

It's always cool to go to MOMA, for so many reasons.  Not the least of which is there is an entire room full of Picasso's.  it's completely mind-blowing, like a three-ring circus overwhelming the senses.  The fact that there are millions and millions of dollars in that room just adds to it.

The other figure that has loomed large for me in modern art is of course Andy Warhol.  His use of screen printing techniques & repetition was a huge education to me, and while his early '60's stuff is probably what he is best known for (the Marilyn's, the Double Elvis, the Campbell's Soup Cans, the Flowers series, the Brillo boxes) I'm amazed at what he did later in his career in the '70's & '80's. 

Checking out his career retrospective at the Whitney last year was a real trip, with the gigantic Mao that seemed be a couple stories tall (love the huge works), all of the commercial posters that he did, and it was really something to see the room full of all of the private portraits.  It just went on and on.  The color combinations as well as all of the different styles that he used when he painted over the screen prints just seemed endless and really spoke to his creativity. 

But the real eye-opener was the abstract work he did towards the end, especially the Shadows series that originally went around an entire room.  Abstract isn't what you think of with him, but he really gave a unique, thought-provoking take on it.  And the use of skulls at times really got my attention.  Seeing his signature silk-screened colors like that was unexpected.

They even had some of the collaborations that he did with Jean-Michel Basquiat there.  I had seen a couple at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, but these were different.  A lot of the bigger pieces that they did were here.  I knew that it wasn't well-received at the time, and I started recently looking more into Basquiat.

Being the times that we're in, I checked out some YouTube documentaries on him, and learned about his evolution from street graffiti guy to a full-blown modern artist, selling paintings for a lot of money and going from homeless to superstardom almost overnight.  His style threw me at first, because it seemed really basic and haphazard.  But it eventually became obvious how amazing his work was.  And thanks to his graffiti days, he could crank this stuff out FAST. 

While watching the excellent Radiant Child documentary & interviews, there was a mention of the Downtown 81 movie that he starred in.  Turns out he was filmed going around NYC just as he was starting to do real paintings, playing a rising artist in a small production.  I was able to track down a copy from archive.org and checked it out.

After a while, his voice-overs in the movie as he walks around town at all hours takes one almost to a Taxi Driver sort-of mood.  It's a NYC that doesn't exist any more, with all of the sleaze and trash as well as crime that aren't as visible downtown any longer.  One feels what a lost and exciting time it was as the early rap scene was planting the seeds of what would become hip-hop later, alongside the punk and pop bands of the time, like Blondie.  

Speaking of which, Debbie Harry shows up in this movie towards the end.  I also couldn't help but notice the great soundtrack, including the excellent 15 Minutes instrumental snippet by Chris Stein that ended up being used in a background loop for Andy Warhol's short-lived MTV shows called 15 Minutes.  There's a few episodes online of that, too, and it also gives you that feel of '80's New York.  The best parts to me are where they just wander the streets at night.  Quite a party at times, but you never know what you're going to come across.

It's a real shame that the collaboration with Warhol & Basquiat didn't go down well with a lot of folks.  It seems to me that Warhol was used to bad reviews but honestly didn't care.  He had been established for decades, and had developed a pretty tough skin.  Basquiat, on the other hand, was young and had only been on the art scene a few years.  Shooting into the stratosphere so fast, he was thrust into a bizarre world where he didn't know who he could trust.  He was devastated, and was never the same after that.  He quickly descended into a very sad time and died at 27.  

Now his art, along with Warhol's, are some of the most expensive works sold.  There's real edginess to Basquiat's work.  The street vibe really comes though.

It was very interesting to see Basquiat working in the studio.  He literally bopped among a bunch of things he was working on, with music (usually jazz) playing.  Sometimes he'd stop and just dance for a while.  His love of life was contagious, no doubt.

A very interesting fellow, who lived in a very interesting time.  

I think a lot of musicians are into art, more than a lot of music fans would imagine.  After all, museums are a great thing to visit when visiting a town and there's a lot of thought-provoking inspiration that a good collection can create.  It's a helpful tool for a musical artist, providing ideas in one medium that inevitably spills over to another.  After being filtered and manipulated into something unique, hopefully.

I'm always on the lookout for cool new modern art.  Have you found anything that really speaks to you?  Who do you like to check out?  Let me know in the comments below!

Miles 

I thought it would be fun to post occasionally here, so please let me know if you have anything in particular you are interested in!  Also feel free to ask any questions.

I've been on another Miles Davis marathon, being that it was his birthday over the weekend.  He's been a huge influence on me, in so many ways. 

I first got turned on to him when I was discovering bebop & Charlie Parker, around middle school.  At the time I was more into Dizzy Gillespie (since I had just seen my first concert, and it was Dizzy at Juniata College).  But then the hormones hit, and it was all rock music for a while after that for me. 

Many years later, when I moved back from Philly, I discovered Kind Of Blue, and man what a masterpiece!  It was a real turning point for me, in discovering that a great musical statement could be made using (mostly) one chord. 

And I'm still amazed at how well that album in particular was recorded, especially for 1959.  A good copy on a great stereo almost feels like they are right THERE in front of you, playing.  It's one of the top albums ever for me.  The vibe is just so NYC for that time.

Then of course I got into Bitches Brew, a murky, spacey vibe.  John McLaughlin really caught my attention, and that lead to the Jack Johnson album, which has some of Miles' most powerful, athletic playing ever.  In A Silent Way is another one with McLaughlin that sets a nice, mellow mood.  Great background music on a date, I might add...

It took a long time for me to get into the '70's funk stuff, but I eventually saw the light while blasting the second half of Dark Magus at a friend's house one day.  It was just relentless, heavy, and angry.  I could feel all of the pain that Miles was in at the time, through the music. 

Pete Cosey would do these things with a guitar that sounded like a synthesizer, Michael Henderson was just laying down the baddest grooves on the bass, and then Miles would barely break in but it sure had an effect when he did.  It was just so tortured and emotional; I wasn't surprised to read later that he stopped playing for a while after that.

Miles was always at whatever was truly new in jazz for decades: bebop, modal, fusion, funk.  Always experimenting, always pushing forward what jazz could be.   And he had a knack for getting the best players in his band. 

Reading his autobiography was quite a trip, too.  He had a wild life, and he truly was like the Keith Richards of jazz.  He was a bad boy that was a true artist and didn't care what folks thought. 

I never saw him, but I was fortunate to know somebody that worked a show that he played in, and she confirmed that he was every bit the difficult personality everybody made him out to be.  When you are the most successful jazz musician of all time, I guess you can do that.  He really lived like a rock star.

One of the things I got from him was that if you put the right folks together, you don't have to really tell them too much about what to play.  Just let them do their thing.  It can throw lesser musicians off, because they aren't sure if it's working or not, but I give only the bare minimum as far as direction goes when dealing with my band.  They are all good enough that they can improvise, always have lots of ideas they can throw out there, and most importantly they can listen constantly and adapt. 

Since so much of what I do uses improvisation, it seems only natural.  It's not how most bands work, but then again, I don't want to be in most bands.  It's important to do something new & unique at this stage for me.  It limits where I can play a lot, but really cool stuff isn't for the masses.

Back when I first got into jazz, it wasn't really popular but there were a lot of folks that REALLY liked it and sought it out.  My friends in central PA made fun of me whenever I'd play it then, and I was really surprised.  I still get that "it's like a Charlie Brown special" which reminds me that most folks think of it as just background music.  It can be, but it can also be quite a journey.  It can be driving and energetic, mellow and sentimental, funky, spacey or whatever. 

I'm not really into the big band jazz thing; Sing Sing Sing stands out, mostly because of Gene Krupa.  Duke Ellington did some cool things too.  And some of the early stuff with the young Louis Armstrong & The Hot Five is interesting once in a while. 

But I'm more into the jazz of the late '50's to mid '70's.  It wasn't until the Dead and the jam band scene came along that I finally found some modern instrumental music that wasn't jazz.  Of course, one of my favorite bands is Medeski, Martin and Wood, but they are a jazz band that got big in the jam band world.  And they've talked about Miles, too.

One of the real revelations to me in my trips to NYC over the past few years is where jazz is currently.  There are some very dissonant, modern folks all over the city doing cool things, but on a very small scale.  Instruments you wouldn't expect sometimes are put together.  Bizarre things happen, usually at the right time.  And there a lot of folks who really get into it. 

I'm forever grateful that I got to go to so many shows at the old Stone in the Lower East Side, before it got moved.  It was a real education, and I'm probably still trying to bring some of that vibe back whenever I play out with my band.

A lot of folks can argue about whether or not jazz would have gone in the directions that it did without Miles, but to me he was absolutely crucial.  He was there at every turn for so long that it's hard to separate him from most of the what happened in the 20th century.  And he still looms large.