Thanks to Jeff Chu and The Plant Productions (www.theplantproductions.com), the Brooklyn Ballad Theatre debut from December 2, 2011 at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre is now on-line in a six part series. Here are the videos in order:
Thanks to Jeff Chu and The Plant Productions (www.theplantproductions.com), the Brooklyn Ballad Theatre debut from December 2, 2011 at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre is now on-line in a six part series. Here are the videos in order:
Bellingham, WA – Monday, Aug. 30, 2010. Weather: partly cloudy, 75 degrees, dry, beautiful. Coffee: overrated. hell-bent for purgatory
Pacific Northwesterners are coffee snobs, which might have been justifiable in the first decade A.S. (After Starbucks) but I have Southside Coffee two blocks from my Brooklyn apartment and they draw espresso as good as anything I’ve had anywhere, with elbow room for exceptions here and there. Gene in Vancovuer was in fine form last week. I had a crush on one of the espresso girls until one day she put Aerosmith on the stereo and I judged her musical tastes incompatible with mine. Her boyfriend came in the last day, looking like an Aerosmith roadie with long, long curly hair, babyface, and ripped jeans, which all made me feel better about her not giving me any special attention or smiles. But enough about coffee.
My spine is a total nightmare and I could barely hold my electric guitar last night at the Green Frog Acoustic Tavern. I’m doing push-ups and back-bends to try and regain my gait and stature. When your back hurts nothing goes right. You can’t sing, flirt, read, or think, and all your tele-bends go sharp. After our gig with Robert Blake, drummer Jordan Rain from the Yogoman Burning Band cracked my back and it sounded like champagne corks at midnight. But enough about the pain in my neck.
I’ve been away from home for almost a month. I’d say I was homesick, but what is home but a creaky bed, a cluttered desk, and a wilted basil plant? You can have my home. And while I’m thinking about it, my rent payment. I miss a few people. Maybe I could convince them all to move into a big house with me somewhere in western Massachusetts and we can plant a garden, full and leaden at harvest time with tomatoes, kale, peppers, and flowers. I’m thinking about gardens a lot these days. Vancouver is a garden town. That’s where Anais Mitchell and I recorded an album of traditional ballads with producer John Raham. We reinvented the wheel on Tam Lin. Willie’s Lady is our hit. We’ve already got a vision for the video, which we’re going to shoot in Brooklyn. Betsy Plum, Alex Battles, and I were talking about shooting a video in Prospect Park this fall, but Anais and I have a different idea. Hold tight Betsy and Alex, I think you’ll like it. We’ve got more tracking to do, both in New York and Vancouver, and the record probably won’t be out until sometime next year. I was hoping for sooner, but everyone is busy and that’s just how it is. I’m going to stop talking about this record now, because it won’t be out for ages and I don’t want to make myself or anyone else sick hyping it up.
I’m pretty sure that Delta employees profile musicians. They target them from behind closed circuit cameras and lick salty lips in anticipation of the coming excess baggage charge. They dress like cafeteria workers in a privatized high-school lunch program and treat their customers like 4th graders who forgot their milk money. I’d go on longer but I’m trying to bury too many bad memories, and as a friend of mine once said, talking about your troubles only makes them stick around longer. In fairness, she was talking about emotional dysfunction, which is a condition I’m threatening to approach if I wait for this delayed Delta flight any longer.
I’m back in New York after a three-week trip to Colorado, which for the most part was a total delight. I kicked things off at the Pagosa Folk and Bluegrass festival, where I caught up with some old friends and saw some great music. Darrell Scott’s festival-closing solo set was a particular highlight. Here’s a shot of my friends in the Bearfoot band, who taught the kids’ camp all week and then played a great set on the main stage.
After an all-night drive on Sunday, I headed to Denver and moved in with the guys from Boulder Acoustic Society.
We rehearsed for three days and recorded for six, nailing down five songs for their new acoustic EP. It’s called Coal, Cotton, and Dust, and it’s going to come out in August. It was a joy to produce their record. On the last night, sometime around 2:00 AM, Aaron Keim started bowing his open-back banjo while bassist Neil McCormick controlled the settings on engineer John Macy’s Space Echo unit. I have no idea how much of the stuff is going to make it into the final mix, but in my hazy memory I remember it sounding a bit like Ravi Shankar sitting in on a Donovan record. We worked late every night and ate Mexican food from a curiously plural taqueria called Tacoss.
I finished off the Colorado trip at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where I reconnected with old friends and enjoyed an all-star lineup. Highlights included Irish Rockabilly sensation Imelda May, who made me want to trade in my Tele for an old Gretsch hollowbody and sing gravel-throated breakup songs while strutting across the stage in a sexy dress. Other highlights included Swedish progressive folk trio Vasen, and Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Zakir Hussein. I had to catch an early AM flight out of Denver, so I missed the Sunday night headliner Mumford and Sons, but I caught them on the radio. They sounded as fun to watch as they looked to hang out with. I regret having to miss their rousing, emotional performance. Speaking of regrets: I missed my chance at a Friday night tweener- 9:45 PM, right after Lyle Lovett- because as I was warming up backstage the crew mistook me as the guitarist for Leftover Salmon (I’ve never been mistaken for Vince Herman before, maybe it’s the grey hair). Rumours were circulating the next day that I had been forcibly escorted from the backstage area by commandos in desert fatigue. Maybe they caught wind that I was going to play a 25+ verse English Ballad about a woman cursed to stay pregnant forever and her plan to break the spell by employing a wax baby deception at a staged christening party called “Willy’s Lady” (hey, they told me to play something “trippy”). Look for that hit single on my upcoming ballads record with Anais Mitchell. Recording commences this August.
My friend Nikolai Fox is a great old-time fiddler and photographer. Back in May 2008, in Durham, NH, he snapped this picture of me serenading a flaming chair. It reminds me of being a young boy, lighting things on fire in the kitchen. One time when I was eleven I poured an incendiary mix of dried basil, black pepper, and scotch whiskey into a burning candle. The flames leapt dangerously close to the teak-wood light fixtures overhead, and I thought it might be best to douse them with a glass of water. The whole thing turned into a science-lesson-learned-the-hard-way, as a spreading grease fire nearly incinerated the kitchen counter. I think we put it out with some towels. Considering the potental hazard to life and property, I’d say Mom let me off easy with a sharp verbal rebuke and a trip to my room.
Check out Nikolai’s photography site at: http://www.nikolaifox.net/index.html
Like any great week at any great summer camp, this week’s Ballad Camp with Anais Mitchell and Gary Martin has just flown by. We’ve got a couple new Child Ballads tucked under our elbows, and I learned a dozen more arcane ways to say, “Father, I’m pregnant.” I even got a sunburn. Would you like to see it?
We’re sad to pack up and leave Assonet, MA, but we’ve got a festival in New Holland, PA to drive to, and I’ve got to hurry back to New York to do my roommate’s dishes and throw some bills in the paper recycling before I pay them online.
Gary cooked some incredible meals for us. Here’s a picture of his ribs. Not Gary’s ribs, but the ribs he cooked. OK, these aren’t actually the ribs he cooked, but they’re the ribs he might have cooked, as posted on an website which shall go unnamed but you could probably figure it out without too much trouble. They look like delicious ribs. And they were.
He also fed us steak and pork tenderloin, and we went out for amazing Portuguese food at Antonio’s in New Bedford. We drank a fair amount of wine. It was a carnivorous weekend. I’m ready to hang out with my vegetarian friends again.
I wish I could talk more about the music, but everything is under construction and there’s not much I want to share just yet. Let’s say we’ve been reinventing wheels and they’re finally starting to turn. A little more grease and we’re going to be racing downhill at a terrifying pace. Everything is on schedule for our recording dates this August in Vancouver, WA with John Raham (of the Be Good Tanyas and Po’ Girl fame, who I worked with on Reed Foehl‘s 2009 record Once and Ocean).
Anais and I work really well together, and I’m excited for our collaborations this summer and beyond. In a quiet moment, she told me that she trusted my songwriting instincts, and even if the first idea wasn’t a keeper, a good one would ultimately prevail. This meant a lot to me, coming from a songwriter as gifted as she (have you heard Hadestown yet?), and I confessed to her that I was a self-loathing egomaniac but at least I had a warm heart. We finished our scotches and went off to our bunks, boys downstairs, girls upstairs.
p.s. Be sure to check out Anais’ summer tour schedule online at http://anaismitchell.com, and mine in the “schedule” link up above in the title bar. We’re doing lots of shows together, including some featuring some new songs from Ballad Camp!
I remember when my Dad first bought a CD player and a batch of compact discs. “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver”, and Deep Purple’s “Machine Head” showed up at my house when I was about 12. When I first started taking guitar lessons at age 13, I impressed my teacher because I knew who Ritchie Blackmore was. He taught me the solo to “Highway Star”.
After an early-nineties teenage foray into hair-metal- like when the extensions got clipped and the makeup started peeling off- I got into classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, and Jethro Tull. I listened to the radio back then, and heard pop-rock bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Blues Traveler, and REM. As a guitarist, I bowed at the flaming altar of Swedish electric guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen. Sometime in 1993 I starting collecting Phish bootlegs and learned a bunch of Trey Anastasio riffs on my guitar.
I started writing my own songs when I went to college. I listened to a ton of Frank Zappa and a bit of electric 70′s jazz. I got an acoustic guitar and started playing bluegrass. A teacher turned me on to Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, and Planxty, and I started my first band, Single Malt Band, an acoustic three-piece which played quirky originals and an eccentric mix of folk, rock, bluegrass, and pop covers, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, which we performed as part of a three-part medley from the “Top Gun” soundtrack.
I played tenor banjo in a traditional Irish band called the Wayfarers, then made my first solo record, which was influenced by electric-Americana acts like Uncle Tupelo and Lucinda Williams. I joined a touring country-rock-jam band called Great American Taxi, and because I was the youngest guy in the band and sang like I had just gotten dumped by a girl, I got compared to Gram Parsons a lot.
Now I like the simple delivery of traditional British and Irish folk artists and the odd singer-songwriter. I like artists who are exciting with their voice and their instrument. I’d say my biggest influences are Richard Thompson, Nic Jones, Planxty, and Gram Parsons. I listen to a lot of old-time Appalachian string band music. I love vocal harmonies. I like heavy, abrasive sounds like electric guitar and drums, but only in between the vocals. I love the fiddle. I never cared much for the cello.
The west coast is painted grey from two weeks of rain. Even San Jose labors under the drizzle; on April 5, the white peaks of Mt. Hamilton boast 4 inches of heavy spring snow. Now I’m back in Seattle, back where the rain belongs, back beneath the 60-foot convex glass facade I photographed with my cell phone one year ago, almost to the day. Laura and Matt weren’t even engaged then. The tour is over, and I’m flying home to New York. Now, as then, I worry about money. Where does it come from? Where does it go?
I worry about girls.
I spent the better part of the tour with the Child Ballad “Annachie Gordon” in my head:
I’ve been using this time-tested melody to learn more about the C-modal guitar tuning (CGCGCD). I like it because the medium-guage strings I use on my acoustic get all touch-sensitve and flappy, and they feel good and snappy beneath my fingers. Flatpicking remains a problem, but my touch is improving daily. Could this be my new thing? I take the American old-time tune “Farewell Trion” to task, and learn to play the melody in both a pure, fiddle-based single-note-with-drone melodic style and a ragpicker’s, alternate bass pick-and-fingers style. I learn the melody up and down the neck. This is really going to be great when I master it. Too bad I have to retune to C-modal just to play it.
“Guitar nerds are really gonna be into what you’re working on!” Laura complimented, sincerely.
“Well, great,” I thought, since that’s pretty much my target audience. I wonder if the guitar nerds are going to lose their shit for these stray lines in my notebook:
I swear, it’s better with the melody.
I must have been drinking when I wrote that. Good luck fitting that into a rhyme scheme.
Remember that one. That could come in handy someday.
I stop brooding long enough to move my seat away from the televisions in the airport waiting area. They’re blaring CNN’s report of the mine explosion in Raleigh County, WV. When the interviewer asks a teenage boy whose Dad has been missing since the explosion, “How does it make you feel,” I get choked up and tears come out of my eyes. If something happened to my Dad right now that would be the worst thing that ever happened to anybody on earth. Sure, it puts things into perspective when something terrible happens to other people. Sure it does. But perspective doesn’t make you feel better about anything. It just moves you to a different seat, maybe away from the TV’s or closer to distractions that make you forget, like the smell of hot buttery popcorn, or next to a pretty girl, a sexy-librarian looking one, sitting by herself with an expensive bag and nobody to get up and buy her a bottle of water, or watch her stuff if she goes to the bathroom.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter, and I often have trouble making small talk with people I don’t know. I promised a friend I’d have this Six Wives of Henry VIII done by the time I got home, and I’m only halfway through Anne of Cleaves.
On Monday, the 8th of February, I rode a chinatown bus from New York City to Boston. Anais Mitchell picked me up, and after a brief detour to Laura Cortese’s apartment to pick up my fiddle and some dirty laundry from our tour the previous week, Anais and I drove north to her house in central Vermont. I had two guitars, a fiddle, and a backpack full of recording gear with me. Our intention was to arrange and record a bunch of folk songs from the Francis James Child “English and Scottish Popular Ballads” collection.
For the record, the recording itself won’t be finished until next fall, and we’re going to do it right in a real studio, not in a cozy living room, although the crackling fire was a nice touch and I grew quite fond of Thomas the Mouse and Wolfgang, Anais’ sweet-tempered housecats. Here’s some thoughts on the week, in recap:
I. The Ballads (i caught a case of)
We’re striving to rework the lyrics just enough for audiences outside the folk-up-to-the-knee, Beowulf circuit to care and enjoy the songs without destroying their rarity of language and exoticism. There’s a push and pull between Anais and I in this regard. I seem to tend towards modernizing grammar and syntax, and she’s more inclined toward preservation, but we work and compromise well together. Our productivity has been impressive in spite of all the delicious home-cooked meals and slurps of Laphroaig. We’re rewriting and arranging a good batch of songs, including Bonnie George Campbell, Clyde Water, Geordie, King Willie’s Lady, Annachie Gordon, Captain Glen, Famous Flower of Serving Men, Courting is a Pleasure, and a few others. We definitely owe a large debt to Martin Carthy and Nic Jones for the work we’ve done so far. Their melodies and interpretations have been a starting point, as well as a benchmark for the quality of evocative singing, fierce guitar playing, and detailed attention to arrangement we’re striving for. Anais is a wonderful female vocalist, and puts a highly-personal, virtuosic stamp on these oft-recorded songs from across the Atlantic. She also helps me and my country-addled tenor find some claim on fertile territory the broad-voiced legends of British, Scottish, and Irish folk music have already settled. There’s room for well-crafted harmonies on all of these loquacious ballads, and we’re doing our best to make tuneful duets a signature of our interpretational style.
II. The Guitar (not for nerds only, although they’ll proabably find it more interesting)
When my Collings D2H got cracked up on a JetBlue redeye last fall- Calton flight case notwithstanding- I lost touch with the acoustic guitar for a while, both physically and metaphysically. Even after the repair, an miracle of cellulosic restoration performed by Pat Diburro from Exeter, NH, I was in the routine of playing mostly electric guitar. It had been years since I felt inspired by the percussive, melody-driven British acoustic sound that I fell in love with in my early 20′s. This week has been a reawakening of sorts, and i have blisters on the second and third fingers of my right hand to prove it. I’ve been working out the guitar accompaniment to these songs in a hybrid pick-and-fingers style, heavily influenced by Richard Thompson, but I’m trying to simulate the bare-finger thumb pulse that makes both Martin Carthy and Nic Jones’ guitar lines march forward with stately, austere authority. I play with a heavy, 140mm Wegen pick, and it’s always ready to strum a full chord when I want power, but resisting the urge to bash chords helps the finger-plucked notes ring with a volume that doesn’t sound wimpy in comparison. I’m learning to play in C-modal tuning (CGCGCD), which gives that harmonically ambiguous (i.e. no major or minor third) ringing-9th sound, a bit like DADGAD, but allows for a super-slack string tension that suits fingerstyle techniques on my large-bodied guitar strung with medium-gauge strings. C-modal also lets me sing in, you guessed it, C- a fine high key for my voice- without any high on the neck capo acrobatics. It’s exhilarating to get out of standard and drop-D tuning, and remember how satisfying it can be to play melody-driven guitar lines over slack, voice-like, nearly rattling drones.
III. The Meals (i’d call this section “the joy of cooking” but i’m not interested in a PBS lawsuit)
What a joy it must be to own a nice house in the country. What a joy it is to go visit a good friend who already owns one. I’m in Anais’ kitchen, looking out a double glass window into the backyard, and then deeper into 600 acres of Vermont conservation land. Three days ago I strutted into the forest on cross-country skis and nearly vomited out my calcifying heart, lungs, and liver. Most of our breaks from working on the music have either put us here in the kitchen or en-route to and from the Plainfield co-op, stocking up on more organic, locally-sourced ways to make the house smell like simmering garlic and herbs. Ahh, Vermont. Since arriving a week ago, I’ve cooked homemade beef enchiladas, wild-mushroom linguine with creme fraiche and parsley, pan roasted chicken with thyme and butter sauce, pasta puttanesca, smoked salmon with dill, fresh cream cheese, and capers, not to mention a bunch of snacks and lighter dishes. I love cooking, especially for women who like to eat and are occasionally (even often) willing to do the dishes.
IV. The Clothes (is that mud, or is it henna?)
On the drive to Vermont, I complained to Anais about my outdated, outsized, deteriorating wardrobe. My crotches needed mending, my denims were all blown out in the back and still sized for days when I ate well and exercised, my once crisp and starched shirts were flaccid, unironable, missing buttons, and the whites had faded to cloudy grey from too many warm-water combinings of the whites and colors. Back when I lived in Colorado and played guitar full-time in Great American Taxi, the favorable winds of a good-paying touring gig and low rent afforded me lots of disposable income to spend on my vices: musical instruments and gear, eating out, top-shelf liquor, skiing, and sweet clothes. When I moved to New York City two years ago, my rent shot through the roof and I didn’t have a steady gig. I had to rely on Citibank to put pizza and beer on the table, and my credit card ceased to be a one-way portal to a blissful sartorial fantasy kingdom. People in New York have a lot of money to spend on clothes, and I just can’t keep up. “I don’t even know how to dress anymore,” I lamented to Anais, and actually heard myself say aloud, “I think I need a pair of leather pants.” The opportunity was afforded to me two days later at Old Gold in Burlington, where a helpful and enthusiastic store clerk smelled my calfskin inclinations from a mile away. An hour later I was walking out of his store with a set of hand-sewn, Pakistani stretch leather trousers, waist size 28. I’m usually a 32, but “they’ll stretch, and there’s nothing worse than baggy leather,” he told me. Amen. He also got me to buy a plum-colored pair of stretch unisex cotton skinny pants, and by the end of my spree I also had some black Frye metallic-finish low cut shoes, some wax-coated Japanese-denim black and brown Postage jeans, and a threadbare T-shirt that says “I love country” with little flags, houses, and mailboxes arranged around a red-white-and-blue heart in the center. I love shopping when I travel. Store clerks in far-flung places like Burlington, Boulder, and Victoria, BC always seem to wonder why I get so excited about their merchandise. After all, I do live in Brooklyn. The truth is, I never shop in New York. It’s too huge and I’m not actually home enough to even know where to go. It’s also bloody hell expensive. I bet my leather pants would have cost double in the city. So that’s it. I manifested myself a new bought-in-Vermont wardrobe with the help of some plastic and a promotional APR. I guess I’m gonna be that guy who sings archaic songs about witches and cruel mothers and ladies who cut off their hair and pass for stout seamen and poor peasent farmboys who died for love, all while wearing the tightest, lowest-cut leather stretch pants anyone has seen since White Lion’s “When the Children Cry” hit number one on MTV’s video countdown. I hope these ballads (and pants) start generating some serious income soon, because the 0% interest rate on my credit card is set to expire on June 1st.
I do. He’s sleeping upstairs, but not for long. He’s also my stepfather, so I feel a certain license to go play my fiddle in his bedroom if he’s not up and ready by 5:15.
Anyway, my point is that I’ve been spending a lot of time over this Christmas Break (can I still call it that even though I’m not in school?) working on this website. WordPress makes it easier, but there’s still been lots to learn. I’m looking forward to having it to a level of completion which allows me to stop thinking about for a bit, rest easy knowing that it’s up, functional, and not embarrassing, and get back to the dirty business of making music, which is hard enough.
Then again, maybe I’ll switch careers and become a professional blogger. That’s an easy road, paved with gold bricks, right?
thanks for sending me birthday wishes. your Hanukkah candles warmed my Gentile heart. I had a border-crossing birthday. I went to an organic food store, bought a really nice bottle of wine, some Humboldt Fog, some French yellow-blue, some Dubliner Irish Cheddar, some Keifer semi-cultured goat’s milk, some olives, some sourdough, some wine glasses, a wine key, some organic uncured pepperoni, some organic uncured ham, some 87% cocoa Dagoba chocolate, and we had a picnic on the ferry to Victoria, BC. PATRICE, HECTOR, and I have become good friends, and we talked about love and sex and music and swindlery and relationships and great-expectations unmet and low-expectations exceeded.
They once had a love affair, and I find it interesting to watch how old lovers take certain liberties with each other, like snuggling. HECTOR was hogging my snuggles. That’s OK though, because PATRICE and I have a purely professional way of interacting and snuggles would just complicate things. Plus, she’s married.
Since you and I aren’t really in a band, it would be OK for us to snuggle sometime. Remember when you showed me your sexy underwear?
I’m in Costa Rica. People down here take forever to do anything, and internet is hard to come by. The only way to live is to show up with a pile of money and plan on spending it all on booze, drugs, and yoga. FLORENTINO and I were commissioned to play a party and this guy- PLINY, who was born with a golden spoon shoved up his ass and is completely clueless about most things- didn’t have an amp for us. We were out of ideas until the day before the party, PLINY told us he looked into the sky and saw a gleaming cross sillouhetted against the hot afternoon sun. He heard the sound of electric guitar, and knew that God had sent him to this church at this time to find the only guitar amp in the province. He showed up the next day with another full PA system (we already had one, but still no amp). He acted surprised that we were surprised. He served his guests peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and put out a tip jar for the musicians. This guy is worth about $20 million USD.
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