When It Rains, It Pours…

At the risk of sounding gloomy, I have been rained upon lately, both literally and figuratively.

I performed as part of Lord Russ & Friends at this year’s Transperformance, in which we “transperformed” as The Cure. Our rehearsals were great fun, and I was very proud to be a part of this great annual tradition in my area. Finally, the sun set, the crowd had expanded to fill the park, and it was time for us to go on. We got out there, and… Luke’s amplifier didn’t work.  A few crazy minutes of Dan and the crew running around, and then it was ready. I cued the producer we were ready, we were introduced, Brian counted us in, and Greg and I rang the opening chords of “Boys Don’t Cry.” Now, short sets like this go so quickly, you’re just getting warmed up as they end. So first songs in particular are a blur. Plus I was distracted by the mix on stage, where I could hear too much of myself and not enough of some of the others. But we comported ourselves well, and I mostly shrugged off the few rain drops I felt during the song. After all, rain was not in the forecast.

And then it was time for the second song. Brian counted us in, and we began “Inbetween Days,” which was sounding really nice. And then the skies opened up, and the rain began to POUR down on us in unbelievable torrents! The crew began running on stage and covering equipment. We all looked at each other. We could see it in each other’s eyes: “We’re not going to stop unless someone tells us to.” So we kept playing in the rain, and the crowd began to go wild as both they and us began to get drenched. Other than the mild hiccup of being distracted by the rain and momentarily forgetting the lyrics, Russ embraced the moment and danced wildly around the stage as we vamped until we all came together and finished strongly…

And then Brian counted us right in to “Just Like Heaven.”  We were fully committed now.  We were soaked.  Water was running down our instruments.  The crowd was going wild, and at this point we were able to just perform and play, having already shrugged our shoulders and deciding to soldier on. Brian’s makeup and hair gel was running into his eyes, partially blinding him. Russ tore off his shirt and mounted the monitors at the front of the stage, much to the delight of the crowd. Greg slashed at his guitar and stomped into the puddle that was his pedal board. Luke and I were rooted to our spot, the water dripping off our faces and running down our fretboards. We finished, and just like that it was over. I ran to the rig to unplug my bass and get out of there before I could get electrocuted, but then I realized, “Take in the moment before you go.” So I stopped and looked out at the crowd. Drenched. Soaked. And all smiles.

So I was rained on. Literally. But it was not only OK, it was great.

And the figurative rain? Well, that one is occurring during the recording of the new album. During my July and August sessions for the album, an odd thing began to occur when loading Pro Tools: it just wouldn’t load correctly. But other times it worked fine, and for the most part, recording continued unabated. Unfortunately, this was not to last. Pro Tools finally stopped working altogether, and I have spent the last six weeks or so just troubleshooting, researching, and working to get my studio back up and running so that I can continue recording the album. Mixing dates have had to be cancelled for now. It’s been a low point. My emotional reaction has startled even me–it turns out, I can become deeply unhappy when my creative drive is thwarted.

Anyway, to make a long story short, after weeks of working through the problems, it looks like maybe–just maybe–and cross your fingers for me here, but I think I may be able to resume recording the album this week. And I’m hoping that I will be able to salvage all of the work I have done so far. But most of all, I’m trying to incorporate what I learned when I was literally rained upon a few weeks ago… I’m trying to believe that not only will this be OK, it will be great. Because whatever happens, I do know this: I will put out this album. It will happen. Even if it doesn’t happen according to plan.

The Art of Albums…

Recording an album is a tricky business.  As I was telling one of my good friends the other day, your average person doesn’t understand the amount of work that goes into the making of an album. It is a completely different beast than performing live.  When you perform live, what’s most important are the broad strokes–the chord changes, the melody–as performed with some energy and, one hopes, a modicum of charisma. But when you’re committing that same song to “tape,” what’s going to give it legs are all the little sonic details you incorporate into the song. Many of these would be lost in a live setting, where you hear it once and move on. But these are *exactly* the sort of things that keep you listening to an album over the years.

Pat Garland was recording in the studio with me last night, and he said, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on in there. You don’t usually hear that level of depth in a pop song.” I took that as a great compliment, though I would say I do hear that level of depth in a lot of the artists that inspire me, from The Beatles to XTC to Gomez to Beck, etc.

Another useful way of thinking about it, using the medium of photography for comparison, would be “audio bokeh.”  Bokeh is the “aesthetic quality of the blur” in a photo, often seen in the background of the object being photographed. These blurry elements, some combination of light and color, add to the depth of the photo. And that is what I’m trying to achieve in the new album. Not only good songs, but well-recorded songs that will add depth and thus reward multiple listenings. I want to make an album that yes, you can listen to it blaring in your car on your way somewhere, and sing along to the melody and lyrics, but you can *also* listen with headphones late at night and enjoy the way those sonic details wash over you and change the song, the atmosphere, the space, vibrating and bouncing off each other, and hopefully firing some synapses and lighting up your brain in interesting ways…


If you haven’t already heard about Colorway, you should check them out. Colorway is the new band headed by F. Alex Johnson of Drunk Stuntmen, along with J.J. O’Connell and Dave Hayes. Talk about a power trio. They’ve been getting a lot of positive press, and rightfully so. Back in March, I witnessed their debut when we both played a Robyn Hitchcock tribute show at The Parlor Room in Northampton, MA. I couldn’t believe their take on a great Soft Boys tune (The Asking Tree), bringing some Zep to the table. It rocked.

The new album is great (self-titled… check it out!) and the CD release is tonight at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts. It will be a special night, and I hope to see you there.

Show(s) Alert!

Couple great ones this week

First, pop music geek/DJ/writer/musicianKen Maiuri takes over The Parlor Room in Northampton for a night, curating a night of music with a trio of his projects: The Super 8 Players (trio performing songs from films), The TV Show (quartet-plus playing classic TV themes), and The Four Color Press (playing Ken tunes new and old, with harmonies and keyboards and other goodies). This happens tonight, Sunday June 9 at 7:00 pm.  You can read more and get tickets here: http://www.parlorroommusic.com/the-ken-maiuri-mixtape-6913.html

Next, this Thursday 6/13 The School, indie rock from the UK, arrives at the Sierra Grille in Northampton, with locals The Fawns and a reunited Nuclear Waste Management Club opening.  You can read more about that one here:  https://www.facebook.com/events/568306623191261/?fref=ts

And finally, Friday 6/14 Fiesta Brava, my other project, plays at Cafe 9 in New Haven, supporting The Joiner Inners as they release their final album and then ride off into the sunset.  You can read more about that one here:  https://www.facebook.com/events/541873675858896/?fref=ts

Rest In Peace, Ray Manzarek.

I was lucky enough to meet Ray Manzarek once.  As an undergraduate, I assisted Ann Charters and Allen Ginsberg when they co-chaired a conference on the Beat Generation at NYU. During that conference, I saw Ray perform with Michael McClure, the poet–McClure reading and Ray playing piano underscore. The next day I was taking a break at a nearby bar when Ray walked in and sat next to me.  I wanted to say something, but decided not to say any of the things he must hear all the time and tire of, things like, “I really love The Doors” or “What was it like playing music with Jim Morrison?”

So instead I simply said, “Great show last night,” and Ray said, “Oh, did you see us?”

“Yes,” I said. “How did you come up with the music you play under McClure’s poems?”

And that’s when it came out. Ray began excitedly, “Well, it was *just* like when I used to play with Jim, man…” and out came story after story of how they conceived of the songs for The Doors, how life-changing it all was, how much he believed in Morrison and the band. His excitement was so thrilling. How many times must he have told these stories over the years? And yet, without even being asked, he launched happily into several stories, as excited as he must have been all that time ago.

“One thing,” I said, well into our conversation, “that bass figure you were playing underneath that one poem… that’s Miles Davis, right? From Sketches of Spain?”

Ray just looked at me. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been playing that underneath that poem all this past year, and you’re the first person to call me on it.” He turned to the bartender. “Bartender, get this man a Heineken.”

Ray Manzarek’s organ occupied a place at once sinister and yet playful–its sound and his playing was rooted in garage rock and yet yearned to be so much more, so much closer to the jazz and classical players he so admired. Along with Morrison, Krieger, and Densmore, he came up with a unique sound all its own, blending rock with jazz, poetry, classical drama, philosophy, blues, European art, spirituality, and a lot of tongue-in-cheek meta-analysis of pop stars and pop culture–the sound of The Doors. Among other things, The Doors were proto-punk. Without them, there would be no Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Echo & the Bunnymen, Jim Carroll Band, X… the list could go on and on…

It seems that it’s largely unhip to like The Doors these days, a phenomenon I mostly ascribe to the fact that most kids Gen X and younger get turned on to them, and their myth, at the tender early age of 12 or so, when adolescence breeds strong emotions, and so this music is forever tied to those youthful, naive times. Once grown up, these people feel The Doors belong in their past, along with their toys and cartoons. I do not count myself among them. It’s a valid emotional experience, and to each their own, but I still find in The Doors a power and a curiosity, a danger–can you even imagine this music coming on the radio in 1967, or seeing this dangerous livewire act perform in a time of the Viet Nam war, when the ’60s were just becoming the ’60s?–, and yes, even a black sense of humor and wicked intelligence that I believe deserves more.

So, in Ray’s honor, spin that first Doors album. Again, or for the first time. And tell me Ray doesn’t deserve a place among the best.

Show Alert: 4 Great Bands in 1 Night!

Wow, if you are in the western Massachusetts area, you need to know about this amazing show. The Demographic is celebrating its album release at The Elevens tomorrow night (Friday May 10), and they are a great act to catch. In addition, fellow Mystic Brian Marchese plays percussion on the album.  As if that’s not enough, there are THREE other great bands on the bill.  First off, you have TRUCKS, which also features a fellow Mystic in Matt Silberstein. This band is a lot of fun, and was recently made “notorious” on the Awkward Band Photos page on Facebook, a dubious honor they clearly went out of their way to court. Second, you have Easthampton Savings Band, which features Jenna Lloyd and Jeff Lloyd from other renowned Valley acts–I love this band.  When I was a judge for the Happy Valley Showdown, their set really captivated me, and it didn’t hurt that Jenna gave cookies to the crowd (and judges–smart move, Jenna). Finally, a new band with friends of mine, The Glad Machine. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’ve cooked up.

All of this at The Elevens in Northampton, Massachusetts. Friday May 10, showtime is 9:00. By all reports, it will be a crowded and fun night.  Here’s the Facebook event page:  https://www.facebook.com/events/450566725017582/


Sonelab Date

I went into the studio with Brian Marchese, Matt Silberstein, and Andy Goulet this past weekend, with Mark Alan Miller at the helm of Sonelab, a wonderful recording studio located in Easthampton, Massachusetts.  We had a blast.  The plan was just to capture the special chemistry that happens when the four of us play one particular song, Turn Signal in the Trees.  The session was so fun and smooth, we ended up cutting two other songs as well.  One is a new arrangement of Maudlin You Liar (formerly released on Winsted in the Space Room).  The other is an odd neo-surf-noise instrumental that we composed organically during rehearsals, tentatively titled Theme to “Night Sweats.” You can check out photos of the session here at the Mystics Facebook page:  Mystics Recording Photo Album.

Murphy’s Law

You’re familiar with Murphy’s Law, yes?  “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

I was invited to perform at a wonderful Mike Nesmith tribute show back in December. Several of my friends and peers would be performing, and it sounded like a fun way to spend an evening, playing music, hanging out with friends, and paying tribute to a great, underrated songwriter.  I signed up, and was scheduled to play the song “The Crippled Lion” fairly early in the show.

Brian Marchese, the creator and producer of the show, scheduled a few rehearsals with those involved, including a “house band” of sorts that would back several of the performers.  I spoke briefly with Brian and Ken Maiuri about performing a fairly stripped-down, “torchy” version of The Crippled Lion–think Harry Nilsson singing Mike Nesmith.  I figured this would be fairly easy to pull off with minimal rehearsal.  Well, it turned out that none of our schedules aligned, and we were going to need to pull this off with no rehearsal whatsoever.  In fact, it turned out I had no idea who I was even going to be playing the song with…

What to do?  Well, I practiced the song on my own, of course, and just trusted in showing up and having a good time.

The night of the show–a fairly cold, bitter night in late December–I drove to the venue, loaded in, tuned up my guitar backstage and felt my nerves come online.  How was this going to go?  Brian told me the “house band” ran through the song a few times, with him singing, in one of the rehearsals.  That was good news.  I checked in with Ken, and we confirmed we both learned the song in the same key.  More good news.  I checked in with Jason Bourgeois and he offered me use of his guitar amp.  All settled, then.  Ken asked if I still wanted to do the “torchy” version.  I decided, “Let’s just do it the way you guys rehearsed it, and we’ll see what happens…”

I was scheduled to go on third, and the first two performers sang one song each, so before I knew it, it was time for me to head backstage, ensure my guitar was in tune, and be ready to hit the stage.  I tuned up, had my cable ready to plug into Jason’s amp, and stood watching Jonathan Caws-Elwitt perform his song.  Matt walked backstage as I stood waiting.  “What are you playing?” he asked.

“The Crippled Lion,” I replied.

Matt, who had played percussion on the first tune of the night, asked, “What’s the percussion like on that song? You want me to play?”

“Sure,” I replied.  As he was talking to me, I was vividly aware of the fact that Jonathan had finished performing, and Brian was introducing me to the crowd.  This didn’t phase Matt at all, as he kept talking to me backstage:

“What’s the beat of the song?” Matt asked.

“Oh, you know,” I replied, and sang him the waltz country time as I began walking toward the stage.

Matt asked, “Well, what’s the percussion like on the recorded version?”

At this point, I’m no longer backstage, but in the club mounting the stairs to the stage, as I replied, “I have no idea.”

Not only were my nerves in full swing, but this last-minute exchange kinda threw me.  I usually take a minute to center myself before performing, so talking right up until I was literally on stage had my head spinning a little.

Next up, I walk on stage and it is at this point I see who the “house band” is for my song:  Brian Marchese on drums, Ken Maiuri on bass guitar, Bruce Mandaro (who I had never met before) on electric guitar, and Josh Sitron on keyboards.  Brian intro’d the song to the crowd, saying, “Well, we’re going to try something a little different right now, and play a song that we’ve never played together before.”

I walk over to Jason’s amp, and Jason is standing there next to it.  He says, “Maybe you shouldn’t use my amp, actually.  They have this other one mic’d, so it’s probably better to use it instead.”

“OK,” I reply.  I had my patch cord plugged into my guitar already, and coiled around my strap and arm for easy insertion into an amp, but now we had to unplug it and disentangle it so I could use the patch cord already plugged into the amp and various pedals. This felt like it took an eternity, with the band and audience waiting. And worse, after it was all plugged in, it made NO SOUND. Back to the drawing board. “I guess we should just use mine after all,” said Jason. We plug me back into that one, I strike a chord, and the amp is Spinal Tap loud!  Jason turns it down a bit and we get a good volume.

Now I make to walk to the mic, only to realize the patch cord I’m now using isn’t long enough to reach the mic stand. So I reach out and grab the mic stand and simply move it closer to myself and angle it so I can both play guitar and sing. Comedy of errors indeed.

“Ready?” Brian asks.  “Yes,” I reply.  Little did I know.

We start playing the song and suddenly now my guitar is not making any noise whatsoever. While the band vamps the beginning, I madly scramble back to the amp and mess with the settings, but to no avail. As the band reaches an appropriate number of measures for a vocal to begin, I finally decide to give up on the guitar and hit the mic. At a time like this, you just have to improvise.

One never sings their best when they’ve got a lot of nerves and adrenalin hitting, but I went into the fray nonetheless, and two things made this moment great: (1) the tightrope walk of playing a song with people with no rehearsals behind us, which was thrilling; and (2) the audience’s reaction, which was very positive and welcoming. Knowing about the tightrope walk themselves, I think this was a great moment for the audience as well.

The band killed it.  I hit more bum notes than I’d like, but I warmed up by the second chorus, I think. In any case, it was a blast. We all ended at the same time, on the same chord, and to much gracious applause. A few audience members even yelled out, inquiring what song we played and where they could find it, and of course our resident Monkees/Nesmith scholar Brian put them straight.

And after all of that, I could just relax and watch everyone else play great songs all night long.

And it just goes to show, face your fears head on.  Get out there, say “yes,” and see what happens.  Even when so much goes wrong, there’s an opportunity for it to go right, too. Maybe just not in the way you imagined.

Recording Resumes!

After a break of a few months, recording has resumed on the forthcoming Mystics Anonymous album.  Gondwanaland, my studio, is back up and running and yesterday I celebrated by (re-)recording some vocals for the album.  There are a few tracks that I’m having trouble deciding how to approach vocally, so yesterday I put down several takes for each of four tracks, and I hope that somewhere in there is the answer. Also, I have booked time to record at Sonelab with Mark Alan Miller in April. I’ll be going in with Brian Marchese, Matt Silberstein, and Andy Goulet to try and capture the magic that happens when the four of us play together in a room. Specifically, we’ll be tackling the song Turn Signal in the Trees, a favorite among the four of us.  So cross your fingers, but I’m hoping for a 2013 release of this album.

Show Alert: Spanish for Hitchhiking

You’ve already heard me extoll the virtues of Spanish for Hitchhiking. Well, this evening they are playing Sierra Grille in Northampton, MA. I recommend you go. It’s only a $3 cover for 3 bands (Grammerhorn Wren and Cause a Rockslide are also playing). And it’s a great venue as well. Check out Spanhike’s album The Starling here if you want a preview of their stuff: http://spanhike.bandcamp.com/