Monday, October 30, 2006

Duane Allman - RIP - 35 years ago

Earlier this week marked the the 35th anniversary of the death of Duane Allman. Duane was one of the seminal guitar players of this generation and a big influence on my playing. When I was a freshman in college my good friend Pete Bardolph introduced me to one of the great albums of all time – The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East. (I mention it in my list of 10 albums that changed me.) This double album, full of jams and songs from two nights in NYC was exactly what I needed to start to think of the lead guitar in more melodic terms. The dual leads of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts were inspirational and exciting. This lead me to experience the blues in a whole new way.

Duane then appeared on one of the other albums that shaped my early college years; Layla by Derek and the Dominoes. Duane’s playing alongside Eric Clapton’s lifted the album to where it became a touchpoint not only for Clapton’s career but for a whole generation of guitar players. Known to some as “Skydog,” Allman was best known for his slide playing. He is still perhaps the best slide player of the past 40 years perhaps only matched by Derek Trucks, the nephew of one of Allman’s fellow players in the Allman Brothers Band. But Duane was an important player to many of us who learned about playing the blues by trying to play like he did.

Funnel Cloud – Hem

Last summer my daughter Bethany saw Hem in concert in Atlanta. They shared a bill with Bethany’s favorite band, Over the Rhine and Bethany was so impressed that she told me that I needed to listen to Hem. I did and I was also very impressed - so much that I went out and bought their new album, Funnel Cloud.

Hem is a band that almost defies description. They have country instrumentation but don’t play country music. Their singer, Sally Ellyson, has a deep beautiful voice that she uses in a very quiet manner. The band sounds like what a country band from New York City might sound like – sophisticated and hip. Ellyson seldom sings loudly and even when she does her voice still has a gentle, quiet tone which fits the tone of the music exactly right. The songs on their latest album, Funnel Cloud, themselves are pleasant enough and a few of them are downright beautiful but Hem’s songs can seem to run together. Their sound is so distinctive that I often have a hard time remembering which song is which. (Listening in the car and on my iPod doesn’t help – I really ought to sit with headphones and the liner notes but the day when I had the time for that seems to have passed.) This was also true of their previous album, Eveningland, which featured a wonderful version of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson,” slowed down and done as a solo (instead of a duet) and turned into a wonderful slow ballad.

I'm probably being a little too hard on the songs. They really are very nice and have some wonderful hooks and lyrics but their sound is so distinctive that I have a hard time thinking of the songs - I'm so busy listening the way the songs sound – and what a sound it is. The range of instrumentation from guitar and piano to oboe and cello and pedal steel guitar helps turn each song into a thoughtful, evocative and stirring piece of music. I’m unsure if I like Eveningland or Funnel Cloud better – they are almost like two sides of the same album. Either way, Hem is a band worth checking out. I hope I get to see them in concert some time.

Sample the album on iTunes here or go to their myspace page or their webpage. They even have a podcast.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Scott Adams nails it

From today's Dilbert - and yes, I see the irony of posting this on the internet:

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lazy Blue Tunas at GRAM 10/27

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The Lazy Blue Tunas, the band of which I have been a founding member for almost six years, will play a show this Friday 10/27/06 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. We play from 6:15 to 8:15 PM.

This will likely be my second-to-last show as a Tuna. Life has just gotten too hectic to keep everything going so I must bid farewell to the Tunas. My last show will be Dec 21 at the One Trick Pony so there aren’t many opportunities left to experience the original Tunas!

Monday, October 23, 2006


Last January I had to quit drinking all caffeinated things for health resons and, even though I am determined not to be one of those "everyone should get off caffeine" people I have been enjoying Dilbert's latest adventures with coffee.

I don't miss the buzz but I do miss drinking coffee. That was awesome. Tea just isn't the same (and decaf coffee also gives me stomach issues so that isn't an option either.)

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The class of 1976 – Blue Sky reunited

Yesterday was the 30th reunion of the Calvin College class of 1976. I had a great time meeting old friends and thinking about things that happened over thirty years ago. But more importantly to me was that Blue Sky reunited for the first time in at least 30 years – I’m thinking it has been slightly more than 31 years since we played together.

Blue Sky was a band made up of me, Pete Bardolph and Ken Winters. We were more than a band - we were also best friends. Pete and I continue to play together in the Lazy Blue Tunas (which we formed almost six years ago) and we’ve kept in touch pretty regularly in the intervening years, even when I lived in Colorado. But I lost touch with Ken completely. About a year ago I got Ken’s email address from our alumni association and asked Ken if he’s be interested in getting together to play a few songs for the reunion. Ken agreed, even though it meant a trip up from his home in Memphis, and we’ve been in occasional contact ever since. Then, Thursday, Ken arrived on campus and he and I got to hang out for a couple of hours and it was absolutely delightful. We practiced together on Thursday evening and last night we performed three songs together as Blue Sky (with the help of our classmate, friend and part-time Blue Sky and Lazy Blue Tuna member John Gelderlos) in the middle of a six-song Lazy Blue Tunas set.

I had an amazing time. First of all, something has happened over the past thirty years – the standard tunings must have gone up because all the songs were a lot higher than they used to be. But aside from that, Ken was in fine voice (although he didn’t play guitar even though he used to) and we sang three songs from the Eagles first album. More importantly, though, I got to connect with one of my best friends from both high school and college and discovered that the years melted away almost instantly and that we still have a great time together. Laura and I got to meet his wife Stacy and truly enjoyed that too. There was lots of laughter and fun and the great feeling that a part of my past that had been lost had been found again. It was a great two days. Thanks for coming, Ken!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Grammar Girl and other podcasts

There are a few podcasts that I've enjoyed. Most of them have to be short because I only like to take a few minutes away from what I'm doing to listen to them. So here are some recent favorites.

I’ve been listening to and enjoying a podcast that I recently discovered, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. I find her tips helpful and the podcast generally well done and fun to listen to. So, if you write and you want to think a bit more carefully about your writing give it a listen!

Another podcast that I listen to daily is the Beatles Minute. Literally, a minute-long update on things going on with the Beatles.

And, of course, I listen to StrongBad.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A new way of listening

The iPod has changed the way we listen to music as a culture. It has become the icon of the new century. Newsweek editor Steven Levy writes in this article that a 2005 survey would report that the iPod is even more popular on college campuses than beer. That’s pretty popular. Having come somewhat lately to the iPod party I was merely an observer to this phenomenon over the last few year but now that I’m one of “those people” I have to admit that the iPod has changed the way I listen.

While my iPod is only a few months old I have been an iTunes user for quite a while. I discovered the joys of party shuffle a long time ago and find it especially good for working. No longer do I have to think about what I want to listen to when I work. I just turn on party shuffle and I get a steady stream of Bob radio. One of the reasons I waited to get an iPod was because I wasn’t sure I’d use it. I was quite wrong. I use it when I grade papers and when I read at home. I find a nice corner of the house, pop in my earbuds and I’m ready to go. I used to have music on the stereo but that meant that others had to listen to what I wanted. Now I don’t bother anyone. I also listen in bed when I’m up in the middle of the night or when I wake up too early. The bad news is that I’ve been awake in the middle of the night a lot lately but I have found that listening to my iPod is a great way to not “just lie there” and get frustrated because I’m “just lying there”. So, even if that was the only benefit I’d be a pretty happy iPod user.

But the best thing is that I’m listening to music again. Don’t get me wrong, I never stopped listening but now, with earbuds, I’m really listening. The iPod allows me to tune in to what’s on in the music and hear things I never heard before. (Aqualung’s album, Strange and Beautiful is a great example of this. Thanks, Meredith, for pointing that out to me.) The other part, though, is that with shuffle mode I never know what I’m going to get. This means that much of my time is now spent listening to tracks instead of albums. (I still play complete CDs in the car, however.) I find that I can appreciate some songs much better if I don’t have the whole album around it. Then when I do get the song in the context of the whole album I enjoy it all the more. Plus the surprise of what comes next is always fun. Since I only have a 1 GB nano I have figured out a way of having it randomly load music from the 14 GB collection on my computer. I do, however, load some complete albums and those songs come up more often so I get to hear a random selection with a generous helping of new material – how cool is that?

So, while I agree that the iPod might mark the beginning of the end of the album as an artform, something I will truly regret, I really enjoy being surprised by the juxtaposition of new artists and new songs when I don’t expect it. I like being able to just “listen to music” instead of having to choose a particular album (which I sometimes still do on my iPod.) But most of all, I like that I have found a new way to enjoy some of the music I’ve loved for decades.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Wait - Is this about baseball?

Does it say something about where my head is most of the time that when I see the headline "Cardinals oust Padres" I think it has to do with the Catholic church?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Paul McCartney – Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart)

I’ve tried really hard to concern myself with art rather than personalities despite our society’s obsession with who’s going out with who and all of the garbage that passes for news. To say that Heather Mills McCartney has been treated poorly by the press (especially in England) is an understatement. Did she ask for some of it? Maybe. She did seem eager to share in Paul’s spotlight once they were ‘an item’ and it could be argued that what has gone on is the inevitable backlash of that. But, the simple fact is, I don’t know what went on and I like Paul’s music so I’m predisposed to like him more than Heather in this pending divorce thing. I’m sure Paul feels better now that he knows I’m on his side.

All of this is preamble to saying that, while I try not to notice such things, they inevitably have some influence on a person’s art and so knowing the back-story can be helpful in interpreting what they create. I’ve mentioned before how it seems that Chaos and Creation was actually a huge hint that all was not well in Paul-land and that Driving Rain showed more grieving over Linda than I first thought. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt that Paul never really let his art speak of his grief after Linda died. His first album after her death was Run Devil Run, an album of mostly covers of old obscure rock songs. Paul said that she always pushed him to do more rock so this was a tribute to her. OK, I can buy that – but for a guy who writes as much stuff as Paul does, you’d think there would be more than that. What I didn’t realize was that there was. Ironically, Paul used the opposite medium, a classical composition, to work out his grief in music. The piece, Ecce Cor Meum has been something like eight years in the making. Paul was commissioned to write this choral piece by Magdelen College, Oxford so, evn before Linda’s death, Paul started working on some of the melodic ideas, not knowing what he was going to do about the text. After Linda died he was in a church and saw a statue of a crucifix with the inscription “ecce cor meum” which means, behold my heart. This phrase struck Paul as an expression of what he was feeling over the death of Linda and gave him the impetus for the text for this hour-long choral piece.

Paul’s previous textual writing for choir has been spotty at best. He may well be responsible for one of the worst pieces of text that a choral group has ever sung with the finale to A Liverpool Oratorio – “God is good without an ‘O’, the devil is evil with a ‘D’.” I’m not making this up. So when Paul decides to get serious and use Latin to do it that might well be an indication to go for cover.

The piece, four choral movements with a short wordless interlude between the second and third, opens with “Spiritus.” The opening phrases set the stage – “spiritus, spiritus, lead us to love / spirit of holiness, teach us to love / spirit, show us how to live in pure love.” It goes on more or less like that for fifteen minutes. In three more movements Paul refers to his heart, love, a sense of loss and the importance of music in expressing that. Depending on your attitude going in to it, it comes off as either pretentious or a pretty good attempt to try to express the grief that losing a partner brings. It is never maudlin but comes off as heartfelt and sincere. Unfortunately, Paul’s theology is wishy-washy at best. Trying hard not to offend anyone, he sees God with a mix of Hinduism, Deism and gooey nice feelings.

The music itself is quite nicely done, feeling a lot more like an actual classical piece than merely a rock star trying to be serious. McCartney’s sense of melody is obvious throughout and, while the choral writing is not stunning, it does the job. The emotional heart of the piece is the wordless interlude (Lament) in which the solo oboe captures the spirit of what Paul has been trying to say much better than his words do. The dynamic range of this recording makes it challenging to listen to in the car – my primary listening spot – but this is true of many classical pieces. I’ve especially enjoyed listening to it through headphones, where I can really concentrate on it.

One wonders if Paul would have been this forthright in telling of the genesis of Ecce Co Meum had he not recently split with Heather. He tends to keep such things close to his vest, actually – surprising for someone who can seem to be an attention junkie. He has made no mention of Heather or of recent difficulties in any of the press relating to this album but one has to wonder. Perhaps it was the rocky state of his second marriage over the past few years that caused him to dive back into this piece as a salve. He has referred to music as therapy and I can see that that he may well have used this piece as one way in which he worked through his loss. In many ways this is the album I was looking for when Driving Rain came out. I remember being disappointed that Paul seemed to go straight into being happy about Heather without letting his fans see him reflecting on the loss of Linda. Not that I had any right to see those feelings but after listening to his music for over 40 years I felt like I wanted to at least share a little bit of his loss with him. Now I feel like I can.

This album is not for casual pop fans who are interested in what McCartney is up to these days. But for those who want additional insight into this artist and want to hear him take some melodic and harmonic ideas and stretch them out over an extended piece, I find this an enjoyable listening experience.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Phil Keaggy’s Roundabout

I’ve been a fan of Keaggy’s since I first heard Love Broke Thru in 1975 so when he releases a new album I usually snatch it up quickly and play it a lot. Roundabout is an exception to that. One of the highlights of PK concerts is his improvisations and they often feature his JamMan – a looping device that allows him to lay down guitar tracks live on an endless loop and then build up a short section. It’s almost always fascinating and interesting. Over the past few years he has been using his sound checks to create new loops – this is a particularly creative time for him and he enjoys trying out new things and just seeing where the muse takes him. His road manager has been recording these and Phil takes them back to his studio to see what he has. He did some editing, (although no overdubs) picked out what he thought were some of the more interesting pieces and named the album Roundabout.

This is an album that sounds just like you might think it does – lots of “wow, that’s cool” moments but it doesn’t particularly stand up to repeated listenings. I’ve had it in my car for a few weeks now and it soon got ejected and replaced with something that has a little more staying power. This album just doesn’t work for 50 minutes. When a three minute song pops up on my ipod in shuffle mode its fine but to listen to the whole album is, frankly, a bit of a chore. Phil’s next album is scheduled to be a regular vocal album. It’s about time – he’s released so many “different” albums recently that I’m starting to wonder if I’m willing to hang in there with him.