Monday, June 29, 2009

Short Burst Series- Health Care

Most musicians, as you know (since my audience seems to be primarily musicians) have very poor, if any, health insurance. For those of us who have seemingly good (enough) fortune, myself included, to be able to buy insurance, well, I guess we're "lucky".

Kinda like the politicians that are making the tough decisions for us: Lucky.

Lucky to have a job at all, that is, since something like 50% (give or take) of the populace doesn't seem to bother to vote. (I used to not understand that at all, but when the betrayal from our so-called-leaders is so rampant, the notion just seems that much less unfathomable.)

These chuckleheads have the nerve to tout the greatest health care in the world here in the trusty U.S. of A, where freedom and civil rights are fleeting more and more with each passing day (weapons check points at the Taste (Waste) of Chicago anyone?)

"A single payer system will be a disaster," is what we are being told.

Try telling that to the 45 million or so Americans that have no coverage (and no, being able to go to the E.R. at County, excuse me, Stroger Hospital, does not count as sufficient.)

That being said, any pol who votes against any real health care reform should be forced to give up their own, precious, single payer, socialist-by-design health policy and be forced to fend for themselves: buy your own policy, and be taxed on it (that's right, since I pay myself, the money used to pay the bill is after-tax dough.)

The best health care in the world carries no meaning if the majority of the population can't access it.

So it goes...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Work Hard, Play Hard

Well, life with (Lonnie) Brooks has brought me over the pond and back.

That's the Atlantic Ocean, for those of you that have yet to have that first cup of coffee.

The tour was a blast. Spain is a glorious country, and Madrid is high on the list of places to live in the (near) future. It's very relaxed and low-key, there are a lot of musicians, and seemingly many places to play.

Plus beer is cheaper than Coca-Cola.

The trip was also a lot of work, as overseas tours usually are. There are flights to catch, customs officials to deal with (the U.S., by the way takes the cake in terms of jack-booted thugs. No shoe removal necessary in Barajas International), mediocre sound guys and gear to "work" with, and promoters to please (one more song? sure. why not? we've only been on stage for 2 hours and it's 90 degrees outside. dinner's still not for another hour you say?)

Sleep is usually at a premium (5 am pick-ups in the hotel lobby are the norm.)

That being said, coming back is always a culture shock. Not only does it suck to have to come back from fantasy land, but it's gross and disgusting having to change your clothes in a bathroom stall in some crappy bar.

Like I said, it's work.

I recently got an email from a fellow pro and scribe, Steve Hashimoto, one of the best bass players in town. Perhaps you know him. He writes the weekly "News from the Trenches", his own little platform for rants and raves and songs and praises (and looking for gigs like the rest of us.) I wanted to share this with all of you who might be working while I'm playing:

"...perhaps a reason why people see what we musicians do as play rather than work is that we make music for pleasure, or for no payment, as often, if not more, than we do for compensation. To paraphrase, “You don’t see plumbers having jam sessions”, a concept that I found highly amusing. Which, of course, begs the question, why don’t musicians (or all artists, for that matter) get paid BETTER than any other trade, or skill? We artists, whether in the fields of music, visual arts, literary arts, dance or acting, generally work constantly to improve our skills, practicing, rehearsing, experimenting, working on new techniques, honing old ones, and yet people get all bent out of shape when we try to charge what a plumber or doctor or electrician charges for a comparable amount of billable time. As usual, my belief is that it all comes down to culture and education – if all of America’s schools, whatever level, were a bit more forceful about teaching the sheer work ethic involved in the arts, maybe we’d have less artists (scared away), but better respect for those who stick it out. Because I do think that America, for all of its cultural shortcomings, does respect hard work. And maybe this is as good a reason as any to call what we do work– it is, after all, work, and hard work, and maybe we do ourselves a disservice by trying to pass it off as being easy, as it being something that just “comes” to us, mystically."

Well said, Steve.

We keep on keeping on.

So it goes...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On the Road w/ Lonnie Brooks

The seemingly never ending Lonnie Brooks tour has taken us back to the glorious European "destinacion" of Spain. The first show was a festival in the northern town of Getxo.

One of my faves.

Sadly, Koko Taylor was supposed to be on the bill (also one of my all time faves.) We really missed her.

Luckily, the powers that be were able to put together an exceptional fill-in bill. I say fill-in because you can't replace the Queen.

In her royal absence, it took three people to fill her spot: E.C. Scott, a powerful West-Coast singer, along with the incomprable Henry Butler on piano, and Kenny Neal playing guitar, harp, and singing. Both of those guys are from down in Louisiana, New Orleans and Baton Rouge respectively.

Of course the Blues Machine was still the backing band, with Shun Kikuta and Mike Wheeler on guitars, "Pooky Styx" on drums, and the rock-solid Melvin Smith holding down the bass chair. I gotta say, these fellas really rose to the occasion for the show. They were clearly down and perhaps a bit lost because their blues mama was not there.

Shun and Melvin, especially. They were with her for what seems like ages.

We had to miss her funeral because of the tour, something that we weren't exactly happy about. But, somehow, we all knew (and know) that she would have it no other way.

That being said, the festival was extraordinary. It was 2 nights, with Brooks and Co. headlining the first, and the Blues Machine on the second. Both nights were packed and rowdy (5000 strong per night, and Getxo is a small town, really) and ready for some great music that is so very well appreciated in the Old World (the U.S. could really stand to take a page out of that handbook- Europeans really love live, American music).

Particularly the blues.

Lonnie killed 'em the first night. The show was a marathon, nearly 3 hours ("I've got blisters on my fingers"- J.Lennon.) He put that voodoo spell on the people like always, his Gibson screaming and his voice in fine form. We even pulled out a few tunes that hadn't been played in quite a while, Voodoo Daddy in particular. Kenny joined us onstage for the last few tunes, "All My Money Back", "Inflation", and the crowd pleasing "Something You Got."

The last few tunes lasted about an hour past our scheduled time. So it goes when you're playing an audience for the Queen.

("What are you guys, the Grateful Dead or something?")

The second night was more of the same. Koko's band came out and played 3 cuts before E.C took the stage to sing a few. Henry was next to front the band, followed by Kenny.

Rockin' good time. People were freaking out, erupting in a wash of sound that could only be described as thunderous.

Then came the goods. The band started "Wang Dang Doodle", Koko's signature cut (read: bread and butter.) E.C and Henry came back out to join in on the action. So did Lonnie. So did the rest of the Brooks crew, yours truly included. We were all onstage singing and playing together. The crowd was in the palm of our hands and was not going anywhere. We got the whole place singing the chorus, almost like a mantra:

"All night long, all night long. We gonna pinch a Wang Dang Doodle all night long."

Every great gig comes to an end eventually. Sometimes mercifully. Sometimes happily.

Sometimes you don't want it to stop.

"All night long."

Luckily, we've got another stop. Benidorm, in the southern part of the country, is the next show. We'll do it all again, one more time, knowing that it could be the last time we all do something like this together as one voice.

All for the queen.

So it goes...

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Queen

Koko Taylor.

Really, you don't have to say much more than that.

She shares the table with the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon. All of them were of the greatest generation (in my opinion) of bluesmen.

Yes, I know she was a woman. That's what makes her a true original.

She was the blues.

Me, I'm just contributing to her eulogy.

I could go into her historical details: coming from Memphis to Chicago in the '50's, being "discovered" by Willie Dixon at a Howlin' Wolf club date, etc. But I won't. Everyone else has, so there's no need.

Aside from being the "Queen of the Blues", she was a good woman, and someone I considered as a friend. In all of my years on the road with Lonnie Brooks, we've done a lot of gigs with Koko and the Blues Machine (her band.) Both Koko and Lonnie are Alligator (Records) artists, so naturally, the two acts were packaged together regularly. Next week, in fact, we were to go overseas to Spain together.

Now it's just us.

One of the best memories I have of Koko is from 2003. Both Koko and Lonnie were on the roster of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, a floating blues festival in the middle of the Caribbean. There were probably a dozen or so acts lined up, all of them A-listers.

Koko was the draw, though. She was the Queen, and it was HER gig, no questions asked.

And she exercised her royalty, without doing a damn thing.

You see, we were all flying together out of Chicago to Florida, Ft. Lauderdale, I think. It was winter, so the weather was typically crappy. And our flight out of O'Hare was typically delayed. The delay was so long, in fact, that it got to the point where we realized that we'd never make it to the boat in time for the scheduled departure.

For those of you that have been on any kind of a cruise, then you know that if you miss the boat, so to speak, you're basically out of luck. It's not gonna wait for you.

Anyways, all of the powers that be are running around and basically freaking out. "Oh, my God, what are we going to do? We have to get to that boat. This is an outrage. It's our jobs, here!"

Etc., etc.

Tempers were a bit flaring and hostile, airline workers were getting yelled at, phone calls were being made. You could say there was a bit of stress in the air.

Koko just sat there quietly. She seemed to not worry about anything and she certainly was not giving anybody and earful of anything.


To make an already long story short, we were able to fly out, but not to Ft. Lauderdale. We flew into (I think, anyways) Miami and then had to be driven to the boat. It was, needless to say, a big production. And there was still uncertainty as to whether or not we'd make it to the ship.

Koko, of course, showed no signs of sweating it.

And, as I'm sure you've obviously surmised, we made it.

The boat had waited for us. Really, though, it waited for her. After all, she was the Queen. Blues royalty.

The rest of us? We were simply part of her entourage. We ended up being something like 4 hours late for the scheduled departure. In fact, Lonnie was scheduled to perform the first night of the cruise, and we were forced to sett up and sound check and then doing our show before we even got to our cabins and could unpack and have a drink or a smoke or something to eat or do whatever. It was a flurry of activity.

Koko didn't have to work the first night, and she could have taken the time to rest for her performance the next night. But she was at our show, anyways, hanging out with with us and all of the bands and musicians.


She seemed to have a particular attachment to Pinetop Perkins, another old blues man (Muddy Waters' piano player for years and years.) They spent a lot of time together on that cruise, basically sitting and holding court for everyone that wanted even the briefest of interviews.

They held each others hands frequently, I'd noticed.

Koko's passing marks the end (just about, anyways) of the great blues migration to the north from the south. She was pretty much the last of that ilk. I can only hope and pray that her legacy will be carried on and that the music that she helped to develop will live on and stay strong.

So it goes...

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Play On, Bo Diddley- RIP

Bo Diddley is dead; been gone from us for a year to the day.

I'm not feeling too good myself, either.

Actually, I'm fine. After all, it's already June, the weather is still (STILL!) crappy, and my health insurance bill is paid up to current.

Government Motors should be so lucky.

Bo never did get a government bailout. In fact, he really never made much money at all. Like so many of the old blues and rock and roll guys, Bo Diddley was a great musician, but not so great as a business person.

The biz will show no mercy, especially if you are a giant.

But he played on. Because that's what he did best. Even if it wasn't under the best of circumstances. I can remember the times that he would come through Chicago, play at Buddy Guy's Legends (with Howard and the White Boys as his backing band- since he made relatively low money, he didn't, or wouldn't, support a touring band.) Now don't get me wrong. Buddy's is a great, great, great club to play. Personally, it's one of my faves. But it's still just a club. And Bo was, well, Bo. It was our good fortune to see him in such a small and intimate place, but he deserved bigger and better digs.

And he was a giant, too. I mean HUGE. Without him (and Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon), the rest of us, who play generally "popular" music, would be out of work. His "Bo Diddley" beat was and is as infectious as swine flu (not that we call it that anymore.) It works with so many different songs, and can be played on any instrument, not just the thundering jungle drums.

Really, that groove is a musical style in itself.

Bomp, bompa bomp, a bomp bomp. Bomp, bompa bomp, a bomp bomp.

"Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, have you heard..."

Bomp, bompa bomp, a bomp bomp. Bomp, bompa bomp, a bomp bomp.

"Mama's gonna buy you..."

It just doesn't quit. The rhythm is moving and grooving and driving, and powerful. If your body isn't shaking and your big toe isn't coming out of your boot, then, surely, there is something wrong with your sensibilities.

Too bad for you.

RIP Bo Diddley.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Don't Forget to Play

Sometimes, in my spewing and espousing of all things wrong with the music bid-ness, I sometimes forget to talk about the good things that make up this wacky career choice I've (we've) made.

Like how cool music really is. It's fun, it's exciting, and it's full of emotion and feelings (am I talking about music here?) It's also what we (I) do, so in some sense, there is no choice.

Read: Societal Misfits.

One of the blogs that I follow,, reminded me of something that can easily be forgotten as I spend my free time doing things that aren't musical: "...nothing is as important as getting out there and doing what you do: playing."

Never mind the fact that only .65% of the population makes it's living as a musician in Nashville (it tops the list, according to the most recent U.S. census.) Or that Lawrence, KS (2nd on the list) is at .31% (a distant 2nd it seems.)

Chicago, by the way, doesn't even crack the top 10.

With that in mind, (guess the cynic leaked out a bit), read the article by drummer Craig Pilo.

And play.

So it goes...