Rambling Thoughts Blog

My Ambient Journey 

 

 

 

My first exposure to ambient music was in college.  I had a part-time work-study job at the theater department (lots of audio equipment), and they had hundreds of albums in a room that were set aside to be used as background music or effects during the shows.  One of my tasks was to keep this place in order.  Most were either sound effects, or Broadway related.  A couple of albums by Brian Eno caught my eye, and the cover gave little indication of what the audio was.  I asked the old director there about them, and he raved about how helpful the albums were in some productions.  So I threw one on, and was introduced to perhaps the first modern ambient album, Music For Airports.

 



It's still one of my favorites in the genre, with a very minimalist piano loop that is hypnotic and soothing.  There are a few variations of it on the album as well.  I then remembered reading in the old Musician magazine about how this was played continuously at one of the busiest airports in the world, to calm down stressed-out people trying to get through there.

Later, after college, I found myself at big stadium shows put on by the Grateful Dead, who were getting very popular at the time.  Every show sold out, no matter how large of a venue, for days on end.  I was interested in not only the state-of-the-art sound system and the wild scene around the shows, but also in the variety of material they played.  Folk, rock, originals & covers.  There were frequently group improvisations that appealed to my jazz sensibilities, but also a very unusual section in the middle of the second set.  After an extended drum solo, which frequently involved surround sound, sound effects, and just plain shaking the crowd with massive subwoofers, there was an interesting section where Jerry Garcia would just stand there, noodling around to provide a quiet space that allowed folks to recover & reset from the previous onslaught. 



 

A lot of people wrote this off as a chance to take a bathroom or beer break, but I always thought it was very brave for the band to do this.  It provided a unique improvised experience for each show, sometimes getting echoey and relaxing.  Other times it got kind of nasty & evil.  Occasionally it got very atonal and cluttered, with lots of screaming guitars and feedback.  Utterly unique for a rock audience in huge venues.  Other band members eventually filtered back onto stage, and it was off to the races for the big rave-up singalong at the end of the show.

Around this time a radio show called Music From The Hearts of Space began to go out to public radio stations, and this introduced me to the ambient music movement that was building at the time, under the radar.  Folks like Robert Rich, Steve Roach, Jonn Serrie, David Parsons and others were getting noticed for their atmospheric, instrumental ambient soundscapes that didn't have the typical, somewhat embarrassing New Age cliches that this frequently got classified under.  Instead, there was a certain edgy psychedelic quality that hinted at ancient memories, tribal rhythms, and something very deep and hypnotic.  It was really powerful stuff, and I was hooked.  Something that was really cool and certainly not in the mainstream.

It was hard to find, but thanks to the Backroads mail order catalog from California I was getting CD's that got played a lot, usually late at night before bedtime.  Falling asleep to these albums became part of the daily routine.

I continued to go to a lot of other big rock shows, and recording bands both in the studio as a full-time engineer and on the road, but also continued with listening to ambient music.  The next big development was finding out that the Philadelphia public radio station WXPN had put up a transmitter in my area, and there was a show of nothing but ambient & electronic spacemusic all night every Saturday night/Sunday morning.  It's called Star's End, and started in the mid-1970's.  It still continues to feature this type of music every week, which is quite a run.

Even better, the host of the show, Chuck van Zyl, had organized some volunteers to help put on occasional live concerts featuring these artists!  When I heard that Steve Roach was coming to Philadelphia to put on a show, I made sure to check it out.  I had no idea what to expect, and was surprised at how many people showed up.  Steve was into his tribal ethno-ambient phase, and put on quite an entertaining show.  I remember him coming in from the back of the venue, with a didgeridoo that was amplified by a wireless transmitter.  It was like having a shaman enter the room. 

 


I started going to as many of the shows as I could, wanting to support them in any way that I could.  I even wrote mini-reviews on internet mailing lists dedicated to ambient music.  I've seen Steve play at least a half-dozen times, and he always has something new and interesting going on: miking up a bowl of water and looping drops of water to start a show, bringing big video screens that had interesting abstract images, looping percussion elements, and of course lots of synthesizers.  Now he is more into the modular sequencer thing, which is pretty wild.  He's an interesting fellow, living out in the desert.

Another artist that really stood out is Robert Rich.  He even did a couple albums with Steve Roach, and his solo albums had a very exotic, ethereal feel that was very transporting.  Seeing him live was a revelation, as I found out that one of his signature sounds of a distant, almost angelic voice was not a synthesizer, but actually a sort of pedal steel with a lot of processing.  It made for something to look at, besides somebody poring over keyboards and a mixer.  Even better, he had these unique flutes built out of PVC pipes.  He made them himself, I found out later.  He had them labeled for what key they were in.  Again, it made for a fascinating, deep experience live.

 


He also did something I had never heard of before.  He sometimes has put on Sleep Concerts, where he plays all night while a small crowd sleeps on the floor.  The concept is that the environment and the music influences your sleep and dreams.  And what a unique experience!  The stamina to play all night is pretty amazing, too.

 



Some of the other stand out shows would include a rare performance by the Oklahoma duo Coyote Oldman, who layered Native American flutes with Lexicon reverb units to the point where it sounds like a synthesizer.  Yet it had an obvious human component that cut through the processing and made it very personal and organic.

 


And then there was Jeff Pearce, a really innovative electric guitarist that created these heavenly compositions that were made in part by looping and layering guitars with synth pickups using a butter knife.  The idea was that by rubbing the knife with the dull side of the blade against the string, one would not cut the string but get it vibrating without any real attack.  It reminded me of David Gilmour's technique from the late 1960's/early 1970's where he would rub a glass slide on the neck of a guitar to get the strings vibrating without any real attack.  Jeff also used the butter knife to cut all of the strings at the very end of the show, which was shocking and unexpected.  He also was one of the few acts that would stop after every song and talk with the audience.  Sometimes it was a story about how a song came about, or just a quick joke, but it was a change from what others did.




There were lots of other shows, more than I can possibly remember: Ian Boddy, Radio Massacre International (all from the U.K.), John Serrie, and Chuck van Zyl himself.  Chuck's music involved lots of sequencing, maybe influenced more by the Berlin school of electronic music.  He has put quite a few albums out over the years, too.  Good stuff.

 


I wasn't able to keep going to the shows, because I started having trouble with my hearing.  There's a genetic disorder called otosclerosis that runs in my family tree, and it essentially causes an arthritis-like growth on one of the bones in the inner ear.  It doesn't affect everybody in the family, but I started getting signs of it.  Suddenly I couldn't hear properly, and everything sounded like it was underwater.  Listening to music was impossible. I was devastated; I had just finished my first solo album after working on it night & day for almost a year, and was trying to put together a group to tour behind it.  That went on hold, and I had to have a surgical procedure to correct my hearing.  It's called a stapedectomy, and the doctor I saw claimed he had a 93% success rate with it.  They basically replace the gunked-up bone (which is the smallest in the body, almost invisible) with an artificial one.

After the procedure, I was confused because while the underwater sensation had been alleviated, it was replaced with a horrible, loud ringing in my left ear that was simply unbearable.  It was like a smoke alarm going off next to my ear 24 hours a day.  If I tried to talk on a telephone, the other person sounded like an alien.  If I heard a musical note, I couldn't tell which of numerous notes it was that I heard.  I couldn't sleep at all, couldn't listen to music, and was told by the doctor that unfortunately I was one of the 7% that it didn't work for.  Too bad.  Next patient.

Redoing the procedure probably wouldn't make it any better, and could make it even worse.  Adding to the pain was finding out that the surgeon was using outdated techniques, like not using a laser.  He also used a stainless steel implant for the bone he took out, which means any strong magnetic field like a CAT/CT scan would literally rip the artificial bone right out of my skull.  This could have been avoided by using more modern materials.  And it was done in a hospital with a relatively bad track record.

I was a mess, and I went from one ENT to another to another to another, trying to find somebody who could help me.  My marriage basically fell apart around this time, mostly because I was a miserable person that nobody wanted to be around.  It was the only time in my life I seriously contemplated just ending it all.  I was in really, really bad shape.  Cut off from the rest of the world, inside a bubble with my smoke alarm going off next to my head constantly.  Struggling for anything, and desperate, I even tried to get in contact with Pete Townshend to see what had worked for him and his tinnitus.  Everything that gave me real joy and purpose in my life besides just paying the bills had been taken away from me, probably for good.

Eventually, I was referred to the head of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Dr. John Niparko, and that's where it started to turn around.  The doctor had been having success during the early days of restoring hearing with cochlear implants and was one of the national experts on conditions like mine.  And he was amazing.  He was willing to at least try some experimental drugs that were still being tested.  Finally, at least somebody was willing to try something!  It probably saved my life, and I can't thank the late Dr. Niparko enough.  He turned around a lot of lives, including mine.  One of the greatest humans I've ever met.

The drugs had some serious side effects, and caused some personality changes, but at least got me out of the funk that I was in.  In addition to physically helping with the damage, they also bought time for my brain to rewire itself slowly over years and adjust to what had happened.  Most of my hearing was shot in the involved ear, except for a narrow band of midrange.  My theory is that the brain basically kept turning up the volume, to the point where background noises get turned up and become excruciating.

For a few years, all I could listen to was ambient music.  The more minimalist, the better.  Brian Eno's Neroli came out, and I used to fall asleep to it every night for probably a year.  David Parsons' Yatra was another one.

 

 

 

Also around this time a friend of mine that had been in a band I was in years ago called me.  He had a huge show playing the York Fairgrounds, as a solo singer/guitarist, and really needed me to help him out on guitar.  I wasn't sure that I could do it, but he said if I had problems I could just stop and he would understand.  It was tricky, and really hurt most of the show, but I got through it, and started playing a little acoustic guitar.  This eventually led to us playing out as a duo and keeping me busy for a few years, which was the best thing I could have done.  I'm forever grateful to my buddy Greg Naylor for helping me out during a tough time.  We had a lot of fun learning songs, going out and seeing what happened.

In addition, I kept busy with another band that I was in, sparkOmatic, that my friend Paul Kruis organized.  It was an electric band, but it wasn't really loud and over the years we also learned a bunch of material: lots of New Orleans, funk, jam band, and really eclectic stuff.  The personnel frequently changed, depending on who was available, so I got to know most of the area musicians well. 

On top of that, I was also doing some very cool lighting for a few select bands; I had one of the first small LED setups and could synchronize them with moving lights better than anybody else in the area at the time.  I was getting calls to do lighting all over the Northeast US for a while.  I was out every weekend playing or helping other bands.  And had a day job.  I was working so much at one point I was getting a little physically worn down, but got a lot accomplished.

I eventually weaned myself off of the experimental drugs, which took a while, and wasn't easy.  Greg & I played a ton of shows throughout south central PA for many years, and eventually started cutting back.  The bars were frequently full of cigarette smoke then, which probably caused me to become asthmatic.  There were some drunks that caused a lot of trouble, and we were getting burned out playing the same stuff to the same folks every weekend after a while.  Four hour shows also were physically demanding, especially when you have to haul the PA in & out.

After a few years went by, I started recording my own original instrumental material, and then worked more seriously on getting it out and noticed.  Having folks all around the world messaging me about how they liked it was really cool, and inspired me to work even harder at it.  One of the most pleasant surprises was having the ambient musician George Wallace open up for me at my first solo show.  I found out he had been in the field for a while, and had even played at the Star's End Gatherings in Philly.  It was during the time I couldn't go out, though.

The rock/ambient hybrid of that first solo show I did led to more solo ambient work, and then a parallel project called the Joe Olnick Band that has been going on since.  I like having two different tracks that I can use to create original work, and going back & forth between the two genres keeps things interesting as time goes on.  A lot of my biggest influences have done similar sorts of jumping around musically, including Brian Eno, Nels Cline, and to some extent Miles Davis.  I discovered an ambient track Miles wrote when Duke Ellington passed away, and found out later than Eno also thought it was one of the greatest tracks ever.  It was way ahead of its time.

 



So when I started working on a recent ambient project, I got in touch with Robert Rich to master the album.  He's done a lot of mastering work not only on his material but others over the years, and they always had a very hi-fi quality that was very pleasing.  His monitoring system is one of the most expensive in the world.  Sure enough, when I heard what he came up with for my album I was very impressed.  It wasn't a total transformation, but he gave it a sweet, wide, deep sound that I could never get on my own.  No matter how hard I tried.  It was great to chat with him, too.

Amazing how life goes full circle some times.  I was listening to a recent bonus track from Brian Eno's Neroli album, and got a kick out of how folks commented that it was the only thing that helped their tinnitus.  In addition to being a good artistic work.  The healing power of music.  And the journey still continues.

 

 

 

King Tubby & Dub Music 

 

 

While I was in college, I was very fortunate to get to know exchange students from other countries.  My freshman year I had a British fellow next door in the dorm, and we bonded over our mutual admiration of the then up-and-coming bands known as U2 and The Clash.  In particular, we both shared a real fanaticism over The Clash's groundbreaking, sprawling masterpiece Sandanista!  I remember first hearing this at a very crazy party my senior year in high school, and was instantly intrigued by the blend of various influences, especially Jamaican dub music.  It was probably my first exposure to toasting and dub remixing techniques, where the recording gets transformed via reverb, delays, strange EQ moves, and the occasional track mute (the drums suddenly vanishing, etc.).

Mikey Dread's Living In Fame track on Sandinista is a great example of Jamaican toasting, which is actually a type of early reggae rapping.  Great stuff, and some of the other tracks on there also had a dub feel to them (Silicone On Sapphire, One More Time, One More Dub).
 


Dub originally started out as something DJ's would do to tracks to customize them, while they rapped over them.  A big part of it was simply removing the vocals, and emphasizing the beat.  Early reggae singles frequently had a "Version" side to them, which was a dub version.  One of the real pioneers of this early spacey dub style was King Tubby.  I was more familiar with Lee "Scratch" Perry, but King Tubby really was the originator of it.  He probably is still the best, although his protege Scientist continued that particular style.
 


How did all of this recently come up?  Of all things, an article on the atmospheric band Khruangbin.  I knew about these guys from Texas a long time ago, thanks to my bass player & fellow music fan Jamie Aston.  But what caught my eye was a mention that this band runs everything they create through a very obscure tube spring reverb unit originally built for automobiles back in the '60's, the Fisher Space Expander.  Hmmm.....where else have I heard this unit?  Turns out it's the same unit that was used on everything that King Tubby made!  It has a unique sound, because while it is a spring reverb, it keeps that 'pinging' sound to a minimum.  And King Tubby probably modified it as well, because that's how he got started: fixing radios and creating custom sound systems.
 


What always grabbed me from the first listen with dub is the atmospheric sound.  Very spacey.  Seems to come from another world.  Plus I love the way it turns the common structure of a song on end.  The predictability of the modern pop/rock/country sound that is everywhere in the modern world is one of the very things that I'm not a fan of.  Sure, the AABA format has proven itself over time, but it sure is awfully predictable.  What if you just want some atmosphere?  What if you don't want vocals to be of the structured type?  How about letting the producer surprise you with some unexpected changes, like a delay that almost goes into uncontrollable feedback?  Or the low end of the vocals suddenly vanishing?  It's not just for reggae; funk tracks have used these techniques at times as well.
 


I used to say that I could never get into reggae until it was hot enough, because it goes so well with grooving in the heat.  But lately I've been really enjoying a deep dive into dub this winter, with snow & ice everywhere.  Surprised me, but sometimes you just have to be open to new ideas.

 

August: Ripples of Music 

 


After reading the excellent article on the 60th anniversary of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album at Hypebot I realized that the album came out the same weekend as Woodstock, albeit years earlier.  It got me thinking about the musical ripples from a couple of key events that could continue to resonate for decades, and still keep influencing people.  And how it has affected my life.

This being the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock concert, I especially enjoyed the real-time playback of ALL of the audio from the event on WXPN, thanks to the amazing efforts at Rhino records for years in creating the definitive box set.  I couldn't listen to all of it, with things like deadlines and sleep getting in the way, but it was very interesting to finally hear a lot of the music that was performed at the concert that never made it onto the film or soundtrack albums. 

Country Joe and the Fish stretched out way more than I would have imagined, although not nearly as far out as the Incredible String Band (hard to imagine something like that in a festival situation today).  I have even more respect for Joe Cocker's band, who demonstrated their musical chops in a way that the film couldn't show.  And I had always assumed that The Band was never happy with their performance, but listening to it I was just blown away by how they got their vision across, despite the considerable distractions and issues that the festival suffered through.  Tears of Rage?  Don't You Tell Henry?  Who knew? 

The Airplane also impressed, despite having been up all night waiting to go on.  The crowd demanded more!  And of course, I still got chills hearing Hendrix wail the Star Spangled Banner, after a blistering Voodoo Chile.  I always wanted to have a band do justice to Villanova Junction, but that's way more difficult than it might appear.


And my respect for the announcer for the entire event, Chip Monck, is even higher now.  His calm delivery, ability to quickly react to the crowd and situation, and tireless patience trying to prevent a disaster of falling towers really makes the experience of listening to the announcements between acts actually enjoyable after a while.  To hear all of this now is truly remarkable; I never knew there was a recorder rolling the entire time by the side of the stage, in addition to the multi-track truck behind it.

What really got to me though, was finding out later that Jerry Garcia was quoted around 1971 that he felt the invisible presence of time travelers from the future while at the event!  Was he talking about me, and everybody that was listening along 50 years later?  Granted, it was a huge event at the time, but still.  That's kind of eerie...
 

 

Because Woodstock really changed a lot of things: it showed that large festivals could happen without massive fights or police, that extremely powerful sound systems could actually be constructed that could provide quality sound for hundreds of thousands, that there was a real need for fans to get together.  A meeting of the tribes, in a way.  It's been corrupted into an extremely expensive, commercial industry now, but wasn't always that way.  

Long, improvised jamming wasn't something you heard on the radio, yet here was act after act showing that there were listeners who wanted to take the musical journey.  Who knew where it would go?  It's one of the things I was struck by when I first saw the Grateful Dead at JFK Stadium in Philly: there's a band really jamming in a STADIUM!  And the crowd was digging it.  The jam band scene as we know it really started there, as far as I was concerned.

 

 

Ten years to the day earlier than Woodstock, one of the most successful jazz albums of all time was released by Miles Davis.  Kind of Blue is one of my favorite recordings of all time, and has been ever since I first discovered it.  It is the embodiment of modal jazz, and it creates that relaxed vibe that most people think of as classic cool jazz in New York in the late 1950's.  I've gone on before about how huge this album is, not only technically but the fact that such a classic really was nothing more than a handful of scales before the session.  It was essentially all improvised live in the studio.  Not the first or last album to do so, of course, but here was definitely a case of capturing lightning in a bottle  Just like with a live show of improvised music, sometimes it's going to be truly fantastic, and sometimes it won't be.  When it works, it REALLY works.

It was this sort of thinking that I had in mind when I put together my band a few years ago (as opposed to my solo ambient work).  I was always drawn to bands that had the ability to cut loose and just groove on one chord for a while, exploring all of the possibilities in the moment.  Of course, doing this nowadays, combined with being an unknown, not in my 20's, and not in a major music city guaranteed that it would be quite a challenge to get it out there in front of listeners.  There are virtually no jazz performances nearby, and the jazz clubs in the big cities already are struggling.  Good luck if you aren't well known.  The rock nightclubs always want a singer when they are booking acts.  They might take a chance on some young dudes that can bring in a crowd.  So I'm left with a lot of support from overseas and elsewhere, but not a lot of options nearby.

The jam band crowd is probably where most people would categorize my band, and that's certainly fine with me.  Although I like to keep throwing some unusual angles out there, and always looking for ways to blend in ambient or unexpected turns when I can.  But I must say I was not expecting the struggles of booking shows, finding venues to play, and getting anybody that I had heard of to check out my stuff.  And I understand they have more than they can handle, so who cares about this weird music and video coming from south central PA? 

I was warned about this from friends that I trusted, too, but figured I had no real choice.  Was I going to go through the rest of my life regretting not doing what I felt deep down that I had to do?  After all, I had been making up stuff since I was a kid, had worked in radio stations and recording studios, been in cover bands for years and years, playing hundreds of shows to thousands of people.  I knew other experienced musicians that could improvise also, so why not just do it?

Then came the non-stop world that basically took over my life: composing/jamming/writing/recording/editing/mixing/mastering/duplicating/promoting/publicizing, making web sites, creating video after video, sending out CD's to stations and promoters, designing posters and covers, making sure the social media channels know what's going on at all times, learning how to properly promote a release, work with publicists, create a one sheet, secure copyrights, register with BMI so I can pitch songs to be licensed by web/movie/TV/media, coordinating schedules for practices and shows with everybody, being constantly on the verge of bankruptcy because nobody will help me.  Oh, and deal with overworked venue booking agents and try to line up some live shows so people who don't know me will take my music seriously.  A handful of really cool souls who care come through once in a while; most just ignore anybody they don't know or haven't heard of.

I wish I could spend more time just hanging out, and supporting bands & venues.  Think I have time for that?  I try, but there's only so many hours in the day.   How about getting enough sleep, for once?  Or seeing my friends and family once in a while.

Despite all of this, and the complete deconstruction of any normal life that most folks could relate to, I still do it.  How can I not?  Throw on Kind of Blue, and I remember why.  The ability to communicate across time and create a mood for people I've never met is an amazing honor.  Every time I get an email or post from somebody who says they liked what they heard, I know why.  When I get virtually transported back to a muddy field in New York state for a weekend of electric jams, I remember why.  


My boss at my day job says that he would love to learn how to play guitar, and thinks it's amazing that others can do it.  I guess in a way some of us are just destined to create, and endure what comes with it for better or worse.  But at least we know deep down that we've accomplished to some extent what we know is there.  It just has to be done. 

Some say that all music has already been written, and as musicians we just tune in on it because we can.  Some folks like my Dad could build just about anything, which I could never do.  It's not in my DNA, for some reason.  But having a person in Mexico City tell me how my music got them through a rough night at work, I know I can create something cool, and get it out there so it can touch somebody.  And hopefully continue to do so.

August is an amazing month.  So hot, so full of energy.  And with ripples from it that continue to spread out, perhaps forever.
 

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.