Cape Cod Acoustics

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Acoustic Guitar Blog
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The perception of "good" tone

Sun, 11/12/2017 - 12:31
One of the most subjective topics related to acoustic guitars is “tone.” What do we mean by that, or getting right down to it, what constitutes “good tone?”
 
So many variables here. What type of music do you play and how do you play it, with a pick, your bare thumb or with nails, flat pick, finger and thumb picks? Do you play unamplified, in front of a mic, or via onboard electronics – or some combination of those things?
 
Then there are physical aspects related to judging tone. How good is your hearing? How’s your finger strength and are you able to vary how you attack the strings?
 
I don’t have the answers for those questions because we’re all different. I can only relate my own experiences in trying to attain what I consider the best possible tone. And the thing is, my standards have changed and evolved many times over the many years I’ve played the guitar. So here goes.
 
It’s important to state right off the bat that I don’t play big venues anymore; mostly I play coffee shops, galleries, private functions, wedding ceremonies and the like. When I’m home I play in my studio most of the time and it has quite good acoustic qualities in spite of having a vaulted ceiling and lots of junk (my wife’s term!) hanging on the walls. Sometimes I enjoy playing outside if the weather is right. If I was still playing large venues and festivals like back in the days when I toured with fiddler Marie Rhines, things would be different. Banging away on my Martin D-28 of the time produced the tone that I needed; loud and percussive, the rest was up to the sound man. But now I totally control my sound wherever I play.
 
I’m not going to get into the intricacies of electronics as they relate to tone. That is a huge and separate subject. No, I’m talking about the player’s perception of sound from an acoustic guitar as he or she plays. I will relate one bit about the use of electronics though. One of the things that I’ve found quite astounding in the last few years at my weekly gig at the Daily Brew Café is that my sound seems to get more muffled or “mushy” the more I play. It took a while but I finally figured out that this is because I play with the pads of my fingers (not nails) and as the playing progresses I think those finger tips soften up. I fix this by boosting the treble control on my RedEye pre-amp (a wonderful little device by the way, highly recommended) that gives my guitar that is equipped with a K&K pick-up a bit more bite in the high strings.
 
This same obvious change in my fingers takes place while I’m teaching too, when I hardly ever play amplified. My guitars sound quite different the first couple lessons of the day compared to later. I thought this was just my perception but I’ve been able to confirm it via the CD recordings that I do during each lesson. The same song, played the same way, sounds much muddier later in the day. Seeking that crisp sound again, I sometimes run the side of my thumb across the string instead of the tip and the difference in sound is remarkable. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to actually PLAY that way but you get my drift. I’ve begun pointing this out to students who complain about not getting clear tone and are working hard on finger picking. Not much you can do about it I guess, but at least understanding why that guitar sounds better when one begins practicing than later on – even if the mechanics of playing have improved over the course of the practice session – seems to help a bit with their frustration.
 
Ah, the mechanics of playing. That’s what we think about all the time when we practice, and rightly so. Buzzes, muffled notes, scratchy sounds…. many of those things can and should be corrected with good technique. Let’s assume you’re OK in that department or at least you know what’s causing those annoyances.
 
Another thing to consider in searching for good tone should be quite obvious but is almost always overlooked by players: you’re sitting BEHIND the guitar when you play! Acoustic guitars are designed to project their sound AWAY from you! So it can be very difficult to truly judge whether or not your overall tonality is good from that perspective. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve tuned up a student’s guitar at the beginning of a lesson and played it a bit, to hear them say: wow, I wish my guitar sounded that good when I play it! Sometimes this comes down to my playing experience versus theirs but in some cases, they sound just as good as I do. This is especially true with students who own very nice guitars. I have a few students right now who own very expensive Martin, Taylor and Gibson guitars and when they play and I listen the glorious sound of those guitars comes through just fine. But they have trouble hearing it. This assumes those nice guitars don’t have dead strings of course. Buy new strings for those nice guitars!!!
 
To counteract this I sometimes urge them to play a few feet directly in front of a wall in their house. The reflected sound can be much more gratifying and pleasing compared to playing in a wide-open space. I discovered this a few years ago in my studio when I was figuring out songs I had on my computer, which is on a desk against a wall. Suddenly a guitar that didn’t sound all that good took on a whole new personality. Try it!
 
So what do I consider “good tone”? I seek a combination of clarity, resonance, a kind of melding of the sound of the strings with no one register overpowering another. With a well-made guitar a player should be able to accentuate any of those attributes as needed. Unfortunately the guitar that gives me all those things perfectly hasn’t crossed my path just yet.
 
Maybe it never will. Because our perception of sound is just too changeable. That’s my conclusion anyway! And one final note. Never discount the emotional aspect of the perception of sound from a guitar. Here’s a prime example. A few weeks ago I put down my Eastman AC422CE, which I’ve been using at playing engagements for about two years because I thought the tone was not satisfying anymore, or at least not as much as it used to be. I’d been feeling that way for a couple months and I have to admit it affected how well I was playing. I began using my Martin D-35 at gigs. It sounded great, my playing was better, and I felt better about my playing. But dreadnoughts are big and to me at least, much more unwieldy than they were in my younger days. So today I brought my Eastman to my regular Daily Brew gig and you know what? It sounded GREAT, played like butter (which it always has) and the result was I played better than I have in while, and damn, that felt good! I think the Eastman is back in the rotation. For now, at least.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
Categories: Acoustics

Recent show & fun music!

Sun, 10/29/2017 - 15:06
Been a while since I checked in so I thought I’d better let the small but devoted readers of my ramblings know that I hadn’t gone to the Great Guitar Store in the Sky or anything like that! Actually, I’ve been pretty busy with various music adventures both as a listener and a player.
 
A highlight in the listening category was going to a show about a month ago to hear one of absolute favorite singer/songwriters, Kim Richey. I’ve been a big fan of hers for about 20 years and she rarely comes this far north (she is based in Nashville these days) and it was also an opportunity to check out a concert venue up in Plymouth called The Spire. More on that in a minute.
 
Kim’s music is fairly traditional country if you had to put a label on it, I guess. But since I bought her first album back in the 1990s I’ve always been struck by how well she crafts her songs, both lyrically and musically. They have a wonderful quality of seeming like a really, really song that you swear you’ve heard before….even if you haven’t! Plus she has a great voice, beautiful to listen to but with no affectations, just a natural, clean and clear resonance that is so delightful. Unfortunately, she is much less known in this area than she is elsewhere and the crowd was quite small, although everyone there seemed to be rabid fans (well, maybe not my wife, but hey, I don’t care for the Broadway show tunes she likes so she’s entitled, ha!).
 
Kim is not a fancy guitar player, just a solid strummer on her well-worn Gibson J-50, a vintage example that suits her style perfectly. Another highlight was her lead guitar player (on a Telecaster) who I did not know but he put on an absolute clinic in how to back up and enhance a single acoustic guitarist/singer without getting in the way. They played some tunes from her many albums but also a couple selections from an upcoming release on Yep Roc Records (where many of Nashville’s finest songwriter reside these days) and they sounded great. The best she saved for last, her most famous and well-loved tunes, “These Words We Said”, “Every River” and “Straight As The Crow Flies.” She still sounds great on those tunes, which were on her first and second records. She was also very gracious and funny between songs although I sensed she was a bit disappointed with the turn out. But being the seasoned pro she is, she didn’t put in any less effort and the crowd loved her for it. There is a reason she won a Grammy and was nominated for another.
 
The venue was fantastic! It is an old church, which is now owned by the town of Plymouth and run as a non-profit. They have been open only a couple years but already have a very impressive history with concerts by such artists as Shawn Colvin, Tom Rush, Peter Wolf, and many many others in the folk, country, jazz and rock world. The quite large stage is in the area of the old church where the altar must have been, with excellent lighting and a great sound system. Behind the stage are two huge stainedglass windows. About half the space has the old church pews (padded, thank goodness!), which are numbered for reserve seating. There is seating about 200 I would guess. In the back is a large open area with a small bar serving beer and wine and a few high top tables, no chairs but a couple benches. This encourages listeners to mingle before the shows and during intermissions and we found everyone to be friendly and musically astute. The mostly volunteer staff were great too. I am watching their schedule and will surely go back soon. The ticket cost was very reasonable too. We are fortunate to have The Spire nearly!
 
On a more personal level, I had a really fun evening last week playing with a friend and former student who still plays guitar but in the last few years has really fallen in love with the stand-up bass. It was sooooo great to hear him play with a lot of the songs I’ve been doing for the last few years by people like Steve Earle, Shawn Mullins, Tom Waits, Keb’ Mo’, John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Harry Manx, Taj Mahal, Chris Smither, others…  The next time we get together – soon, I hope – we will try some of the new songs I’ve learned recently by Iron & Wine and especially Mandolin Orange, who he recommended to me a about a year ago. I was definitely “late to the parade” on them, they are great and worth checking out if you haven’t heard them.
 
He is in a couple bands around here who are on something of a hiatus right now for various reasons so I want to keep this going. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a stand-up bass and an acoustic guitar. Not that I don’t appreciate a good electric bass player but the combo of those two instruments is much more organic and natural, which is something I’ve been striving for these days.
 
Where this will go I really have no idea. Work is tough to get around here even in tourist season and in the winter it is almost impossible. Also I must factor in the reality that people who go out to bars around here would much rather hear “Margaritaville” and “Sweet Caroline” than some obscure (but good, damn it!) songs by the artists I mentioned above. So it always has been on Cape Cod, and so it most likely always will be. Been there, done that. Really, really don’t want to do it again. But we’ll see.
 
In any case, my long-term gig at the wonderful Daily Brew café continues every Sunday morning. Today I played inside after a great summer season outside on the back deck. In the words of Jon Snow, winter is coming. But even though I must now pay closer attention to volume and dynamics in that small room I still love it and appreciate the fact that I know I have a good reason to keep practicing and learn new tunes. I’m hoping that I can get my bass player buddy involved before too long. That would be even more fun!
 
And speaking of practicing it is about time to drag out and dust off my folder of, gulp, Christmas songs. I always wait too long to refresh my musical memory of those things and there always seem to be a few bumps in the road when I try them again after ignoring them for the last 10 months. But I have a nice arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” that I’ve been meaning to learn, and I need a better arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Holiday season will be here before we know it. Or so the little man on my shoulder keeps whispering in my ear.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
Categories: Acoustics

Musical Embellishments, Part 1

Sat, 10/07/2017 - 10:10
Yet another great idea from Tony in Australia. He was wondering about embellishments in the structure of songs. This is a really fun subject because these little tweaks can make that song your own. First, we’ll look at chord embellishments.
 
Of course, the larger question is whether or not you want to play a song exactly like the original artist. In some cases, leaving things as they are maintains the original intent of the writer and the song sounds just fine as it is. Nothing wrong with that. Some songs demand a minimalist approach to be effective. Sometimes though the recipe need a few more spices. This is especially true if the chord structure already has interesting nuances beyond the straight scale-line triads. Wait a minute, Gene? What are those?
 
I’ve written about the importance of understanding scale-line triads before (search back through my posts for a complete explanation) but in a nutshell it comes down to this. Almost all popular music is based on the major diatonic scale. There are many other scales of course, and many are used in formats like jazz, world music, and blues. But the major diatonic scale (we know it as do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) is the melodic base of much of the Western popular music heard and played for at least 100 years. Each note in that scale has a corresponding triad chord, which is built using notes in the key. The formula goes like this:
 
I (major), II (minor), III (minor), IV (major), V (major), VI (minor), VII (diminished, or with flatted root, major).
 
Adding notes to those chords or moving one of the notes in those triads up or down one half-step or a whole step adds some musical spice. Keep in mind however that our brains have been programed to know and be most comfortable with chords that are built entirely of notes in the key (those scale-line triads above). The more notes in a chord that are NOT in the key, the more disturbing – or some might say, interesting – that chord will sound in relation to the others and in relation to the major diatonic scale on which the melody is most likely based. Good songwriters almost always “resolve” one of those outside chords on the very next change with a chord that IS in the scale-line. This makes our brains go…. Ahhhh…. that’s better! In other words, embellished chords are usually used judiciously.
 
So here a just a couple of examples. In my opinion, the most commonly used embellishment is the suspended chord. To change a major chord into the suspended version, raise the 3rd of the chord by one-half step. This can be quite dramatic and interesting if the chord voicing you’re playing includes two thirds, usually an octave apart. An example would be first position C Major. From the lowest note to the highest, you’re playing the chord like this: Root, 3rd, 5th, Root, 3rd   (C, E, G, C, E, strings 5 – 1). By raising the 3rd on the 4th string from an E to an F, you’ve developed some subtle dissonance in the chord (play just the F and the high E string together to hear it by itself). Players will often then resolve that suspended note back to the original note in the chord. Many songwriters use the suspended chord for “coloring” in almost every song they play. James Taylor is one example. Joni Mitchell also does it in the many open tunings she uses. Listen to the change at the end of just about every line of “Both Sides Now” and you will hear her do it and then immediately resolve the sound to the previous chord.
 
It’s worth learning the suspended version of all the Major chords you commonly use and try inserting one here and there, especially on chords that last more than two beats. A nice effect, for sure!
 
The next embellishment you’ll hear again and again in modern singer/songwriter tunes involves adding a note to existing chord, either Major or minor. These are the minor 9th and Major 9th . Understanding this is a bit more involved because in guitar music players sometimes refer to a 9th chord (which includes the dominant 7 note plus the 9) when they really mean a Major 9th but that one is another critter altogether. It’s not important to understand that right at this moment, although it is worth your time to delve into chord construction that involves four or more notes in a chord at some point if you’re going to truly understand chord theory.
 
No, we are talking about taking a straight Major or minor triad and adding the 9th to it. The 9th is the note that is one whole-step above the root. Here are some examples. In some cases for ease of fingering, depending upon the inversion or voicing of the original chord you are playing you may have to eliminate one of the notes in the triad. That is a huge can of worms that I don’t want to get into to avoid giving you a headache so for now anyway, let’s just accept that on face value. Some will sound better than others, that’s the bottom line….for now!
 
Two very common Major 9ths I’ve seen used lately are CMaj9 (C, E, G, D, E, strings 5 – 1) and FMaj9 (A, F, G, C, F, strings 5 – 1). Many of the younger singer/songwriters like Sarah Jarosz, Iron & Wine, Joan Shelley, others, use these and other Maj9ths frequently, in some cases more often than the straight major chord.
 
Minor 9ths (no 7th ) add a nice almost jazzy touch to a minor chord. Two of the most common are Em9 (E, B, E, G, B, F#, string 6 – 1) and Am9 (A, E, A, B, E, strings 5 – 1). Resolving the Em9 to Em (lowering the F# back down to the open E natural on the 1st string) and resolving the Am9 (raising the open B back to a C – the 3rd of the chord – on the 2nd string) can be quite dramatic, especially if you’re finger picking.
 
Those are just two ways to add some embellishments to your chords, there are dozens of other ways (single note scales between chords, chromatic tones inside chords, etc.) so the trick is to experiment. Also, study what some of your favorite artists do; you’ll often find the little things they do to chords happen again and again in various songs. This is loosely called…..style. Find your own!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
Categories: Acoustics

Effects and their affect

Thu, 09/21/2017 - 10:39
For many years I’ve been seeking “perfect” tone from my acoustic guitars, whatever that is. OK, to my ear I kind of know what I consider perfect tone but I totally know that my opinion may not jibe with what others want. In a nutshell, I want the purest, most resonant sound that I can get from an acoustic guitar.
 
So I am always conflicted when I hear a talented guitarist using effects, whether machine created or done by the player. For example, I recently listened to and watched a very talented young guitarist via some links he posted on one of the guitar forums. He has great chops and his arrangements of popular songs for solo guitar are quite advanced and pleasing to hear, except for one thing: he insists on “tapping” and “slapping” on the back beat between just about every chord or phrase he plays. Now I realize this is a widely accepted technique in flamenco music and also in some forms of latin guitar music, but to me it is just….annoying. After listening to a few of his tunes my reaction was – just STOP that!!!! You don’t need to do that!!! Your playing and arrangements are awesome on their own, why insert percussive noise that detracts from the sound of your guitar? Is he afraid the listener won’t know where the beat is?!? Who knows?
 
In flamenco music – which is essentially back up music for dancers – I guess it makes sense. Being totally bonded with the dancer in a rhythmic sense is vital. But my guess is that the young guitarist I mentioned doesn’t play for many people who are going to dance to his arrangements of Stevie Wonder or Phil Collins songs. I could be wrong of course. In any case, to my ear it is a distraction from some otherwise excellent playing.
 
How about effects boxes? They are hugely popular these days with hundreds if not thousands of new ones coming out every year. I confess that back in the 70s when I was enamored with the style of players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Larry Carlton I used a phase shifter and stereo chorus quite a bit with my electric guitars. But when I stood back a bit (perhaps after realizing that I was never going to be as good as any of those guys!) and began again paying attention to my blues idols I realized that except for perhaps a bit of reverb and subtle distortion produced by their amps they didn’t need any of those stomp boxes. They also didn’t need to play a zillion notes a minute to convey emotion, but that’s a whole separate discussion (!). So those phase shifters and chorus boxes are gathering dust in a box in my cellar.
 
Perhaps most used and abused device is the distortion box. Now, I know I’m an acoustic guitarist who has no practical use for those things anyway but most if not all electric guitarists you will hear at your local bar could not imagine playing without one. I also readily admit that long ago in my much younger days when I first began playing an electric guitar it was so, so cool to crank it up with plenty of distortion and flail away on “Smoke On The Water” and “Sunshine Of Your Love.” And I have the damaged hearing today to prove it! I just wonder how many younger players are confident enough to play without depending upon a distortion box to cover up any deficiencies in their playing? Harsh, yes. Sorry.
 
Wait a minute, Gene, you may be thinking. You’re talking about electric guitar technique and players. What about acoustics? Certainly some effects have value.
 
Some do, when used judiciously. A touch of reverb adds depth and if the reverb unit or on-board effect is of good quality it will not color your sound to the point of being noticeable. Some players add a bit of compression to even out the highs and lows but my experience has been that those devices, when doing what they are supposed to do, tend to make the sound have an artificial edge. It’s entirely possible that I just haven’t used a good one, though. Or perhaps I just am not adept at setting them correctly.
 
A good quality DI or pre-amp can be very useful in shaping your acoustic sound to account for variable environments, amps, PA systems (and the person controlling it!). I ALWAYS use a RedEye pre-amp with my K&K pick-ups in my acoustic/electric guitars. It allows me to tailor the sound subtly for the room I’m playing or even as the room fills with sound-absorbing bodies.
 
Many, many acoustic guitarists who perform regularly as singles use loopers and/or harmonizers. On one or two occasions I’ve heard a looper used to good effect (no pun intended), meaning they were used only occasionally and not on every single song. Yes, a looper can make your night go faster: recording a loop and noodling endlessly can turn a 3-minute song into a 10-minute song and your set listed doesn’t have to be as long. I guess I’ve heard too many guitarists playing every blues lick they know over a 12-bar blues loop to be very interested in those things. A longer and varied set list holds the audience much better. A short solo over a loop once in a while can still be interesting though.
 
I predict that harmonizers (used primarily with vocals) are a passing fad. One guy I know who is a recreational guitarist who goes out to clubs often told me recently that if he’s listening to a performer who suddenly is singing along with multiple singing clones of himself it is time to get up and leave. I’m not quite that severe about harmonizers; a duo or trio of singers who use a harmonizer can effectively beef up their vocals without the audience thinking – hey, wait a minute, where’s the other singer?! But in the long run I consider them a curiosity rather than a vital part of a performer’s pedal board.
 
Ah, peddle boards. With so many sonic toys available these days they seem to be a necessity for many performers. Putting aside the question of expense for all those boxes, I guess a performer has to ask him or herself: do those things REALLY add to my sound or are they just some new and fun toys? If the answer is yes, I think they sound great and I couldn’t imagine playing without them then God bless, go for it.
 
The big question all guitarists need to address is this. Is my playing good enough to not NEED devices? Because if the answer is yes, using devices and effects in a subtle way will enhance the listener’s experience. If the answer is no, practice will do more for you than any stomp box.
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
Categories: Acoustics

The Jitters

Thu, 09/07/2017 - 10:51
I go to great lengths to make my guitar lessons as low-stress as possible. It takes a few lessons for me to zone in on the personality of a new student but when I think I have their personality figured out I have plenty of techniques based on many decades of teaching that help them relax when it’s time to show me how well they’ve learned what I gave them in their last lesson. This works most of the time…. to a point!
 
Performance anxiety has probably been around as long as people have been playing music. It is a well-documented and discussed subject but I thought I’d offer a few hints and observations that may be of use.
 
First and foremost: EVERYONE gets nervous when they play in front of another person. I know I do, even after countless performances in front of audiences ranging from a few dozen semi-interested listeners to shows in front of many thousands. The trick is to channel that nervousness into something else. Because I can tell you from personal experience that the times I’ve performed and went out there totally at ease I probably screwed up faster than I should admit. Which then leads to a state of mind where I’m probably MORE nervous than I would have been otherwise!
 
So, what to do. Pre-show jitters are often counter-productive but incredibly common. Avoid slurping down that third cup of coffee before you perform. Shaky hands and a shaky voice aren’t easy to overcome when they’re caffeine-induced. Likewise, avoid mood altering substances, for the most part anyway. A glass of wine or a beer or two, fine. Other substances tend to make most people feel like they are sounding really good, when more often than not their playing is at the very least self-indulgent and at the worst, sloppy and ultimately disrespectful of a paying audience. Some players – Willy Nelson comes to mind – seem to have no problem with, shall we say, altered performances but in Willy’s case, there is a lifetime of practice doing it that way and his audience almost expects it. I once heard a story of the late, great folk blues legend Dave Van Ronk playing a concert here in town shortly before he passed away and the person assigned to host him was required (by Dave) to stop at the nearest liquor store and buy him a quart of whiskey, which he downed in short order before his show and did just fine. But these are the exceptions, friends.
 
Remember that audiences are a lot more forgiving than you might realize, especially older ones. When I was very young (high school age, perhaps a bit later too) I and my friends were very judgmental about bands of our peers. Our standard was – how much do they sound like the original artists? Fortunately, I matured enough and played out enough to realize that if a group sounded just like the original artist, they probably wouldn’t need to play for little ol’ me! Mature audiences take that into account, whether they’re conscious of it or not. They want you to succeed! And if you look like you’re having a good time playing, mistakes or a less than perfect performance doesn’t matter much at all.
 
Here’s a simple one. Don’t forget to breath. Sounds logical, right? But when we’re nervous it’s easy to be so focused on the music that our breathing is irregular. This causes something akin to panic in our brains, which ramps up the nervousness factor by a lot. If you’re a singer, a deep breath the instant before you sing a phrase will go a long way toward making you relax.
 
Think ahead as you play. I know that the worst performances I’ve given were due at least in part to putting my mind on autopilot and listening to myself rather than anticipating the next phrase or series of chord changes. This too will help you relax, based on the presumption and confidence that you know what will happen next. (And that’s why we spend time practicing, right?!?)
 
If you’re just getting into playing in front of audiences it sometimes helps to pick out a point in the back of the room to focus on rather than looking out at those expectant faces. This gets easier with experience of course, and making eye contact with listeners is always a good idea. But if you find yourself starting to choke when you see some local guitar hero watching you play or a very attractive member of the opposite sex is sitting there in the front row, shifting your focus point can help you calm down and deal with the task at hand.
 
Keep a bottle or glass of water close at hand. A nice deep swig of water between songs really helps eliminate the dry throat syndrome that goes along with heightened nervousness. It feels good, you will feel better and the next tune will go smoother.
 
And finally, accept your mistakes. It is a bummer to mess up a song but let the little man in the back of your head tell you that you WILL play it better next time. Don’t let a screw-up affect what comes after it. If your mistake is blaringly obvious, don’t be afraid to acknowledge it to your listeners with a laugh and a shrug. They will appreciate your honesty and keep rooting for you, I promise!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
 
 
Categories: Acoustics

Live Music on the Cape, Summer 2017

Tue, 08/22/2017 - 08:37
I’ve heard plenty of live music this summer and made plenty myself. Here are some observations.
 
Starting at the top of heap, we had a fantastic time hearing the Taj Mo Band at the Cape Cod Melody Tent last Friday evening. What a great combination of talents! Keb’ Mo and Taj Mahal may be the best representatives we have of traditional blues. Backed by an ace band that included Taj’s two daughters on backing vocals, plus horns, keys, a great bass player and a drummer that was an absolute machine of rhythmic goodness they put on a show that was, for lack of better description, a celebration of the blues. We had second row seats and watching the grins that never left their faces was almost as much fun as the music itself. I heartily recommend their recent album too. Unfortunately, the years are catching up with Taj and he needed help getting on and off the stage but the years have in no way diminished his singing or his guitar chops. Keb’ demonstrated his prowess on resonator guitar and also electric lead, and oh man, that voice is pure smoke and honey. See them on this tour if you can, judging by Taj’s health it may be your only chance.
 
Then there is the local music scene. I’m pleased to report that there are more places than ever to hear live music on Cape Cod, which is a wonderful trend compared to a few years ago when DJ’s and karaoke seemed to rule the world. I’m seeing signs advertising live music at restaurants and bars that never have used live music before. My only conclusion must be that owners of those places have noticed the big crowds at places that have always had live music and they want in on the action. Plus there are more outdoor concerts in various towns than ever. Yeah!
 
Of course, the overall quality is variable, which is to be expected. I was reminded of the age-old truism of putting a back together that many groups seem to ignore: no matter how hot a player you are, no matter how well your group knows the tunes….. someone has to sing! I heard a local group in town at the Friday evening free concert series and they had an impressive line-up that included bass, drums, congas, sax, keys, and two (!) guitars. But unfortunately the vocals seemed to be an afterthought and weren’t very good, to say the least. I have to believe that with the popularity of TV shows like The Voice and karaoke sessions in many places there must be a good singer out there who could front this band. But so it has always been. Any group playing most any style of popular music has to understand that the audience for the most part doesn’t really care if you can play a Santana solo note-for-note, they want to hear good vocals.
 
On the other hand, I went to a GREAT afternoon of bluegrass at a local venue called Highfield Hall, a restored mansion with beautiful grounds. It was a free event, held each summer. There were two bands and both were excellent but my favorite was a bunch of young guys calling themselves The Lonely Heartstring Band. They played traditional bluegrass of course but also plenty of original material in the bluegrass style. All were superb players and their vocals were top notch. It turns out they were the National Bluegrass Association “Up and Coming Band of the Year” last year. I spoke to the young guitarist/leader at length between sets and he was very friendly and modest. They sold out Passim in Cambridge the next night, probably the most prestigious gig in the acoustic scene in New England. I bought their CD and have been listening to it a lot. Just a great band – search their name and check them out on their site. And see them if you can!
 
This was a truly wonderful family event held under a perfect summer sky with young and old enjoying themselves thoroughly. There were upwards of 500 in attendance and the only negative was the guy who is in charge of booking music at Highfield who featured himself the master of ceremonies and seemed to want to keep the attention of the audience on himself as much as on the music. I kind of felt like telling him to just shut up and sit down and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one! Oh well, ego is a tough thing to battle I guess.
 
A couple of local bands I know are doing better than ever, gig-wise. Again, this is great to see. They have the right attitude: have fun, make good music with solid vocals, don’t fall into the trap of having aspirations of glory (unless they were willing to travel, which they are not). Just play it right, play it tight, and keep a smile on your face. The audience WILL respond.
 
Last night I went over to a popular bar/restaurant to hear one of them but unfortunately the online listing of entertainment at this place was not accurate and instead there was a young woman playing outside under a small tent. While she was enthusiastic, and in fairness I didn’t listen too long, I do wish women who bang away on guitars would just retire “Me & Bobby McGee.” Most guys I know who do singles have finally retired “Margaritville.” Is it too much to ask?! Sorry, cranky Gene comment there, ha!
 
Finally, I had a wonderful conversation with a guy who I introduced to guitar 40 (gulp!) years ago. Haven’t connected with him in decades. He was at that time my best guitar student and he has made a very fine career in music over the years, playing in rock bands, general business and other bands and most recently has begun playing in a couple of bluegrass bands, returning to his acoustic “roots.” He also has taught guitar right along and for the last few years has been a guitar and bass teacher at an exclusive and expensive private school. We reminisced about the old days and told war stories. I hope to hear him soon and even do some playing with him. I’m hoping to trade some bluegrass tunes for his jazz chops!
 
Peace & good music,
Gene
Categories: Acoustics