Friday, May 29, 2009

Short Burst Series- Crimes of Corruption

So, yet ANOTHER Chicago Alderman is being charged with what I like to call "crimes of corruption."

According to today's Chicago Sun-Times, "Ald. Isaac "Ike" Carothers (29th) was charged Thursday with fraud and bribery for allegedly accepting $40,000 in home improvements and other gifts from a politically connected developer, but he has been cooperating with the feds since April 2008, according to court papers."


So it goes...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Short Burst Series- The Children Are Our Future?

Life isn't always about fun and games and being on the road and playing all these gigs that I play.

OK, it is, but sometimes, there are other things that are equally as important.

In the continuing growth of the "Nanny States of America," it seems that we are allowing the yet-to-fear-us U.S. government to walk one step further into our homes (which we so desperately protected during a tiny argument with the Brits called the Revolutionary War back in the 18th century):

Drug testing for students engaged in extracurricular activities
, mostly aimed at the "student athlete" (whatever that means,) but extending to any student that does anything in addition to attending class (school dances are included.)

(Aren't we supposed to learn from the past?)

The government, of course, tries to justify these actions very simply: Addiction. Treatment.

Professional help.

The alleged problem and solution, wrapped up in a nice little package.

First off, this all sounds like a benefit to the insurance industry (the cynic in me always comes out first.) After all, someone has to get the contract to administer and obtain the results of this test (read: American Way.)

This is just another example of the growing FASCISM in the U.S. That's right, fascism. And we're afraid of European SOCIALIST ideals?

According to the web site, U.S. Supreme Court Center, "The U.S. Supreme Court (Veronica School District vs. Action ) 'caution[ed] against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass muster in other contexts,' identifying as 'the most significant element'...the fact that the policy was implemented under the government's responsibilities as guardian and tutor of schoolchildren."

The government is the guardian and tutor of our kids? OUR (broken) government is gonna take responsibility for our kids? The same government that does not provide health care or substantial social services to those who truly NEED them? The same government that ok'd and encouraged the mass distribution and use of Ritalin to fix the dreaded ADD (read: boredom?)

The same government that can't educate our kids in the first place.

This is sick and disgusting, pure and simple. It's a(nother) heinous intrusion by the government in our personal lives. Maybe one day we'll be like China, and just limit everyone to one kid per family (to keep down the costs of drug testing, you know.)

At least a mandate like that would reduce the number of street musicians in the next generation.

So it goes...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Semi- Live Blogging: On the Road w/ Mississippi Heat

The final stop on the tour was Allentown, PA, headlining the Mayfair Festival of the Arts.

And, yes, Allentown is also the name of a Billy Joel song.

The Heat rolled into town Sunday afternoon, after enjoying a welcome day off, ready for the 90 minutes of face-melting.

We only had to do 60 minutes, though, so that was a bonus (less work for the same bread- the American way.) Apparently, the schedulers didn't take into account the time it takes to change over the stage from one group to the next. I gotta say, for a festival of that size (it was big, believe me) it was very poorly organized.

Since everyone working there was a volunteer, I guess the old saying "you get what you pay for" rang very true. It seemed that all of the workers really didn't know what was going on, where the various stages were, or who was in charge of what.

Even the cops directing traffic were clueless (big surprise there.)

Despite the minimal organizational short-comings, the set was awesome. It was really nice to have the big stage that I like so much. The clubs are fun, don't get me wrong, with the intimacy and all. But the festival stages are the best. I get my own monitor mix (more kick, please,) everything has a big sound, big lighting, and smoke machines are the norm.

Gotta love the smoke machines.

The show started with an uptempo, instrumental shuffle. Pierre took the head of the tune, blowing his harp (that's a harmonica for those of you who don't know) loud and proud. Carl was on, as always, tearing into his Gibson with reckless abandon, and bass-man Steve Howard was holding the pocket like a new pair of Levi's.

We played two up front before we called up (relatively new) vocalist, Rhonda Preston. She's a small woman with a big voice. She's probably not 100 lbs. wet. But she's strong. We brought her up on Dirty Deal, the first track off the Glad You're Mine CD. It's a swinging shuffle with a nice hook, and an interesting ending (a sus chord, for all the music geeks out there.) We followed with the rockin' Handyman (RIP George Baze) before slowing it down a little bit with some "down in the alley" blues. The set finished with the boogie fan-favorite Johnny Boy to raucous applause and a standing ovation (no encore, no time allotted.)

All in all, a great show, and a fitting end to a fun tour. Despite life in the van (we drove home through the night directly after the gig,) this was a fun group to spend the weekend with. And believe me, the most important thing to have in a touring band is good vibes between the members. Everyone out on the road can play, make no mistake. But can they all get along?

Hopefully they'll call again. I'm into it.

So it goes...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Semi- Live Blogging: On the Road w/ Mississippi Heat

Washington D.C. was a blast.

Who would've thought?

I don't know about you, but every time I'm in D.C., I always feel like I'm being watched. For some reason, my brain seems to notice many people wearing trench coats (it was 80 degrees) and sunglasses (it was dark), pushing a finger into their ears.

In this cesspool of scum and corruption, I hold everyone suspect.

Aside from that, though, it was smashing.

Madam's Organ is a really cool little dive. Dark and (formerly- how sad) smoky. It's actually not little. There are 5 bars on 4 floors, so it's quite huge. The music, and all things cool, were on the ground floor, right when you walked in the door. The stage was small and cramped, but it was good enough.

One thing that I noticed (which really stood out) was that the crowd was very diverse and mixed: Black, white, Asian, Latino. It was really a melting pot of cultures and peoples. Quite the opposite of Chicago, really.

We saw everyone coming through the door.

They saw us.

Really, it was a killer dance party. Everyone was into what they were into (read: wasted,) and they were all movin' and shakin' and dancing on tables and swinging from chandeliers.

The band was cookin'. We really had it together, especially since it was only my 2nd time with the band, ever (had I mentioned that I've never worked with this group?)

Like riding a bike.

This tour is featuring Carl Weathersby on guitar. I've been knowing him for years, yet this is the first time working with him. He's a really nice guy: military vet, former cop, and smokin' guitar- man. He used to be Albert King's rhythm player for a few years in the late '70's, early '80's.

Really, he's excellent. He's got a large vocabulary, able to pull out songs that go beyond the straight blues realm (when he's given the mic to lead the show, which is for about half of each set.)

We played "Cowboys to Girls" by the Intruders. You gotta be kidding me.

Sings as well as he plays, too.

After the show (a grueling 3-setter ending at 3am), it was back to the band house. Oh, joy. I've decided that instead of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards band houses, I'd just assume leave it, bite the bullet, and just get a room.

Sometimes it's worth the dough. Especially when there's a day off, like today.

Not only did the band have to share a fairly small space, but it turns out that other people lived there, too. So there were basically 9 people there. Unreal. They (the residents) had the upstairs, and the band had the downstairs, which consisted of a living room with 3 beds, and two bedrooms with a bed apiece.

Not exactly a bastion of privacy.

At least the hosts cooked us breakfast. I gotta say, it was quite a spread: eggs, bacon, sausage, ribs, chicken, grits, biscuits, and syrup. Wowee Zowee. Indeed, it was a major redeeming quality.

Should have gotten a room.

So it goes...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Semi- Live Blogging: On the Road w/ Mississippi Heat

Madam's Organ in Washington, D.C., is, the blues capital in the nation's capital.

I made that up, by the way.

The drive from Williamsburg was quick and easy. We even had time for breakfast, compliments of the leader, Pierre Lacocque (gracias.)

"Washington DC has always been rich with Blues, R&B and Jazz and Madam's Organ Blues Bar is the place to find it! Madam's Organ is an authentic Soul Food Restaurant & Blues Bar located in Adams Morgan, DC! ALL LIVE MUSIC - SEVEN NIGHTS A WEEK!"

This is the quote on their Facebook page. They build (and bill) themselves as the place to be. In fact, someone that works at the club said that the strip that the Madam works (made that one up too,) will be filled with about 10,000 people tonight.

A typical Friday night, I suppose. We shall see what we shall see.

Well, anyone who's been here knows that D.C. is kinda crappy. Homeless people camping out (living) in front of the White House and all.

Traffic is horrible, too. It took us almost 30 minutes to drive the 2 miles from the club (set up early. Sweet.) to the band house.

Band house?

That's right folks, yours truly is not only back in the van, but back in the band house. It's not nearly as cool as the Slippery Noodle's pad, but it could be (and has been) worse.

So it goes...

Semi- Live Blogging: On the Road w/ Mississippi Heat

The first leg of the tour was quite eventful and successful. Even if I DID have to sleep in another strange hotel.

J.M. Randall's is more of a sports bar than music venue, here in lovely (colonial) Williamsburg, VA. It's got several big screen t.v.'s, a pool table, and a full service menu. Perfect for a blues party, eh? I, for one, appreciate the fine art of watching a band and the Yankees at the same time.

Not really.

But, they had an actual sound system and an engineer, so the music club definitely trumped the restaurant aspect of it. It was a pretty healthy crowd, too(just about all the seats were full,) and they seemed to be into what was going on. Even a few dancers showed up. When you can pull that off on a Thursday night, you can do just about anything.

On a side note, the legendary linebacker, Lawrence Taylor (LT) was in the audience. Apparently he grew up just a few blocks from the club and his dad still lives there. He had a crew of people with him, and they stuck around for almost the entire 2 sets. Pretty cool.

Now it's on to Washington, D.C., where taxation without representation abounds. The name of the club is Madam's Organ (I like it.) Tonight is a 3- set hit, so it'll be long, but not daunting.

The drive is short, though.

So it goes...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Semi- Live Blogging: On the Road w/ Mississippi Heat

Well, today is the first day of a three-day east coast tour with the renowned Chicago Blues band, Mississippi Heat.

This band has been a fixture on the Chicago Blues scene for nearly 20 years. Led by harmonica player Pierre Lacocque, there have been many names and faces that have shared the stage with the group, both as subs and regulars.

This weekend, I'm one of those names AND faces (thanks, Diff.) This is my first time playing with the band. I've been called by Pierre several times over the years (usually later than last minute,) and this is the first time I've been able to say yes.

Very exciting.

Right now, we're in Williamsburg, VA. I'm in the hotel room listening to the tunes that MIGHT be played. I've got 5 CD's and little time.

But the blues is the blues. It should be a piece of cake.

I'll be leaving in 2 hours for the first show, and I'll keep you updated all weekend.

So it goes...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Life (and Racism) in Music- Takin' it to the Streets

A long time ago, in what, at this point, seems like another lifetime (it actually was), I was a street musician.

One of the best summers of my life.

I was 19 years old (with ways just like a baby child) and in college. I had no money. I had no real gig. I had no real experience. I was underage (although I'd been working the clubs since I was 18).

I wasn't really that good yet, either.

Just like everybody, in the beginning.

I knew this guy who was (is) a saxophone player. Beau Barry is (was) his name. We had a mutual friend who was a blues singer, L.C. Walker (RIP), and had done a few cheap-0 gigs together, as was the case most of the time in those days.

Meaning cheap-o gigs.

Beau supplemented his career (supported it, really) by performing on the street (sure beats selling drugs. Or junk bonds.) Or at Wrigley Field. Or in the subway on the platform. Essentially, he would go wherever there was likely to be large groups of people. That makes, uh, sense, right?

(It sure beats selling drugs. Or junk bonds.)

Large groups of people.

At some point in our relationship, he suggested I join him. He said that it was very good for your chops. Lot's of playing.

Pretty decent dough (you haven't lived till you've brought home $200 worth of quarters) too.

However, ahem ahem, it would take roughly 4-6 hours to make that kind of coin (get it? Coin? I slay me sometimes.) Also, it was a sax/drums duo, so it was very unusual. No bass. No chordal instruments. New territory for both of us, frankly.

In order to play for 4-6 hours, you need a lot of stamina, perseverance, and patience. You also need material. Any working musician knows that a large repertoire requires a lot of practicing and learning. Since we were playing 4-6 hours, and doing the cheap-o gigs, that didn't leave much time for practicing. Meaning on our own time in a room by ourselves. So where do you practice?

While you're on the street, working, of course.

Look, a street musician's audience is mostly transient. Kind of like a prostitute (but without the nasty diseases.) They walk up to you, they may or may not stop to listen, they may or may not drop a ducket in the bucket. Sometimes (and for Beau and me it was often, because we kicked ass, after a while) people would eagerly gather around and we'd have an actual crowd. That was always a ton of fun. People of all ages, races, religions, creeds, and colors. Exactly what you would expect in a major, supposedly international, city (that's really where this is going. Patience.)

The people, however, DO move on sooner, rather than later.

Even when they dig it.

The point is that there is a point where you run out of material. So what do you do? You play tunes many times a day. You play it over and over, tweaking and refining it. The musical freedom you are allowed on the street is like nowhere else. No band leader, no club owner, no booking agency to pay off, nothing like that. You're not even asked to draw your audience.

The ultimate DIY (read: the American Way.)

And it's music, the one true international language. If people like it, they pay. Or not. It's not a requirement. If people don't like it, they don't pay. Or maybe they do anyways (like I said, the American Way.)

We kept playing our limited-yet-growing material over and over. We're better off for having done that.

We were also required, as street performers still are, to purchase a license (the city ALWAYS gets her cut). So the city, one would assume, considers this a legitimate line of work, right?

Yeah, right.

In the Sun-Times last week, Chicago Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) introduced an ordinance in the City Council to curtail the already very-limited freedom of street musicians. He's claimed that, "Street performer noise comes up at literally every condo association I address."

"Imagine a boom-boom-boom for six hours outside your window. If you're trying to work, it sounds as if they're playing their instruments in your office. And it's tremendously disruptive . . . on residents."

Condo associations.

Trust fund babies.

Credit card hippies.

Investment bankers.

Chicago is allegedly an international city. So they say, anyways. The Mayor has been selling us out to obtain the 2016 Olympics to solidify that fact (we'll be right up there with Lillehammer, Norway, no doubt.)

One of the things that defines an international city is a fairly large population. Meaning a lot of people.

Meaning a lot of noise.

If you want peace and quiet and space and alienation from the rest of society, then you move to the country.

Or the suburbs.

You DON'T move into a downtown condo on Michigan Ave. That makes you just as annoying as the people who move next door to the airport and then complain that there is too much air traffic.

The good Alderman also cites the "criminal element" of street performers, particularly and specifically, the "bucket boys."

You know who they are. The kids who play drums on plastic buckets. Kind of like a drum corps for a college football team. Just less formal. They're (for the most part, anyways) pretty good, too. Believe it or not, it is a talent and a skill to play the same rhythms with the same stick patterns (including the twirling of the sticks and other show-biz tricks) among a group of people.

Besides, with the domination of American Idol, and things like that in our society, how can any form of musical entertainment not be considered legit?

"There is a criminal element. Some crews use their performance merely as a distraction to lure unsuspecting tourists. And there are people in those crews who are tasked with reaching into people's shopping bags, purses or wallets to make off with their valuables," Reilly said, noting some drummers have "lengthy criminal records."

Ok, point taken. Sometimes the (often quality) performance is a ruse in order to accomplish a bigger scam.

Are you listening AIG? Or Enron? Or the Investment Banking Industry? Or Bernie Madoff? Or George W. Bush?

Or Mayor "I razed Meigs Field in the middle of night under the cover of darkness with no witnesses or the press. So what?" Daley and the rest of the Chicago City Council?

Did I mention that the Bucket Boys are generally young black kids?

So it goes...

photo credit: Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Life in Music- Bruce Writes the Songs

"Mary Lou she found out how to cope, she rides to heaven on a gyroscope. The Daily News asks her for the dope. She says, 'Man, the dope's that there's still hope'."- Bruce Springsteen, Does the Bus Stop at 82nd Street.

The Boss was here in Chicago a few days ago, and, sadly, yours truly was not in the audience. It's the first time in a while that Bruce came to town and I didn't show up.

Tickets are pricey, you know, but that's not the point.

Or is it?

Anyways, I had written previously about songs. More specifically, the fact that so many cats on the scene don't learn songs.

That fact still annoys me, by the way.

That's not the point either.

No, the point for today is that Bruce Springsteen knows songs. He writes songs. His band learns his songs as well as other people's songs (they did the Who's My Generation just a couple of days ago- man I would have loved to have seen that.) The catalog of the E Street Band is in the hundreds.

Hundreds of songs. Just 1 guy (and his guys.)

Springsteen is one of those aging rock gods that people love or hate. Surprisingly, there are a lot of musicians who are in the latter category. I've always wondered why that is. Here's a guy who started his career nearly 40 years ago playing crappy dive bars in sleepy Asbury Park, N.J.

Not exactly a tourist destination (native New Yorkers notwithstanding.)

Bruce can play. Well. Same with his group. It would be a challenge to find a tighter unit. So why are cats against him?

Maybe his looks.

He's not the most attractive guy (ok, ladies, lemme have it.) He's short, like me, and has a hideous under bite, not like me. You can see the wear and tear in the lines on his face from years and years on the road, and he travels well (when's the last time THAT band got in the van?)

Must be jealousy of his success.

Yet, he's still as relevant as ever. Why?

Songs, songs, songs.

Unlike the Rolling Stones (and they ARE the world's greatest rock and roll band) who haven't put out a meaningful album since Tattoo You (1981- it was a "comeback" record,) Springsteen is still writing new material. Most of it is even quality material. Sure, none of it is as impressive as his very early stuff (most songwriters write their best tunes early on, when they're young and hungry,) but he has refined and polished and had the E Street style well defined. He is also, from what I understand, relentless in his rehearsing of the band, and by the time they go out on the road to start a tour, they're more than ready.

They're even ready for tunes they may have not rehearsed. After all, when your catalog is that large, how can you really prepare?

The answer is that they have been preparing their entire careers. They (the band) have been learning material for decades. Not sort of learning it. Really learning it.

You stay ready to keep from getting ready.

Like I said before, they also do other artists' tunes. They do some Motown stuff (you should hear the Detroit Medley- fantastic.) They play folk music (get the Seeger Sessions.) They do blues.

Bruce is successful because of songs, and we as musicians need to understand that without knowing songs, the chops you have (or think you have) become meaningless. Your guitar shredding becomes noise. Your thumb popping on the bass is a bottom end rumble mumble jumble. The crazy drum fills are just, well, crazy.

And then people don't want to hear you, and you're stuck wondering why there aren't any gigs out there better than bar gigs that are worth fifty bucks and a chicken sandwich.

You gotta learn the songs of your genre. I do, and you can too.

Max still hasn't called me to sub, though. He thinks his kid is better than me.

So it goes...

Learn the tunes

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Who Writes the Songs?

I know a lot of songs.

Rock songs. Blues songs. Jazz tunes.

Hundreds of them.

I'm not talking about just sort of knowing the songs. I know them: I know the arrangements; I know the lyrics; I know the guitar licks and horn lines; I know when to take it to the bridge (if there's a bridge for it to be taken to.)

When you do work as a sideman, you gotta know tunes.

Some cats, when you call out a certain tune, they just say something like, "Yeah, I think I remember that one. What key is is in?" That's usually code for, "No, not really, but I'll give it a whirl because, you know, I've heard the song dozens and hundreds of times, but I've never really sat down and played it."

They might even actually have a copy of the song somewhere.

Then the song, generally, proceeds to get butchered.

Now when I say butchered, I don't mean like a full blown train wreck (although that still happens too, some times.) I mean that it's just not played right. And when you're not playing it right, that means that you're playing it wrong.
Born Under a Bad Sign (Albert King) is one of the most wrongly played blues tunes out there that I can think of. It's also a song that just about everybody "knows". When you call that tune, and someone asks what key, they actually mean it, oddly enough. There certainly won't be anything even close to a train wreck. But when it's (inevitably, usually) played incorrectly, the band is usually (inevitably) unaware.

Because they probably never really listened to Albert King's version of it. They've only heard the version(s) that are played live on stage night after night.

The song works, sure. It might have even been a stellar performance. But when you play a song wrong, it's still wrong.

Which still means not right.

The audience usually is unaware of these type of things, hardcore audiophiles notwithstanding (are there any, anymore? just asking.) Maybe that's how some cats justify not learning how to really play tunes correctly. Even when they've flubbed a song the night before, and they know it will be called again tonight, they generally don't seem to take the time to listen to the song.

Did I mention that musicians have big egos? Especially us pros. We don't like to be told how to play, yours truly included.

However, for those of you out there who are getting their feathers ruffled a little bit as you read this little nugget (guilty as charged, I suppose,) let me just remind you that there's this great new invention called the Internet. A quick search will allow you to listen to just about anything you want to hear right now without ever having to leave the house.

If not for the sake of personal pride, then know this: learning tunes will make your job as a player that much easier. It won't be as much work, so to speak (we're all used to not much work, eh?) You'll be able to have more fun, as a result, which is why we do this in the first place, really.

Is that why we do it?

When you really know the tunes, then you can really play. It frees you up and allows you to make full use of your vocabulary. Ultimately, it makes you a better player all around. You don't have the crutch (see excuse) of not having a copy of the tune.

Listen to it. Learn it.

A large repertoire is a life's work.

So it goes...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Short Burst Series- Idol Insult to Injury

I wrote very briefly last week about American Idol, and the fact that it propels amateur (karaoke) singers into the stratosphere of the music biz, leaving the REAL musicians shaking their heads as we continue to scratch out a living.

Today, I read in some trashy magazine that Simon Cowell, the real star of the show, collects a cool $36 million per season. He also makes 10 million (British Pounds) as the emcee and chief jerk for "Britain's Got Talent".

He also has his own record company, Syco, which signs the shows' "artists" (how convenient.) That nets him another cool $12 million.

I knew American Idol was huge, but not like that. And he's just one of the judges. How much do the others, Randy and Paula and the other lady, get to find the winning "artist?"

I'm guessing it's more than "50 bucks and a chicken sandwich."

So it goes...

Monday, May 4, 2009

(In)Security Check- Flying to Gigs

I was in Albany, New York, this weekend for a gig. The group was flown in for it.

I fly quite regularly being on the road with Lonnie Brooks. At this point, I'm an expert in dealing with all of the b.s. and hassle that is now required for air travel in the U.S.

Flying used to be fun, by the way. Especially for gigs. But not so much anymore.

So paranoid are we. When I say we, I mean America. For some reason, after 9/11 (which, I still say, had to have been an inside job. Box cutters? C'mon), we were hoodwinked to believe that we needed this illusion of security. Take off your shoes (rarely do you have to do this in countries outside of the U.S.), take your computer out, take the stick bag out and open it, make sure your shaving cream is in a ziploc bag, no water or coffee or sodapop allowed (that you haven't bought in the secure area at the airport, that is), yadda-blah-alright-already.

We can carry lighters again, though. I've already had my party to celebrate that one. Sorry if you missed it.

Today I had to go through the blower machine that tests for chemicals or fertilizer or explosives or something. Maybe dog doo. Who knows. Funny, but I was the only fool that was "randomly" selected (yet again) to stand in "the pod". I actually asked a TSA person why I was the only one to go through it (always risky to talk to them. You could easily be arrested and probably water boarded) and she said that it was just random, of course. But if I was the only person to go through, that means everyone else didn't.

Or no one else did. Whichever you prefer. The glass is half empty or half full. Pick one.

Anyways,the TSA agent said they didn't have time to do it to, with, or for (whichever you prefer) everyone. Planes gotta be on time, you know, and time is money, which obviously trumps security.

You've heard about the economy not being so healthy these days?

Speaking of the economy, you have the option of paying some membership fee (congratulations, you're a Member) with the airline (that's a private company, right?) so that you can have a quicker, more convenient security soiree. You know, just sign here, give us a fingerprint and retinal scan, and, of course, pay up sucker.

The (no frills) airline I flew today also includes a free (huh?) drink in their membership "package."

So, to summarize, I was the only person out of several dozen, if not a hundred, people who had to stand in some machine (likely with a very, very steep price tag) to be probed in whatever way I was probed (at least I didn't feel anything) so that everyone was able to feel secure and be on time. The performance by the TSA was compelling and impressive at the same time.

Applause, applause.

The Members might have appreciated it most of all.

So it goes...