My ITunes Playlists Are Starting To Bore Me………

Throughout the last two years my musical tastes have undergone a bit of a shift.  It used to be a relentless pursuit anything that had a blazing guitar solo, any opus that would wander for 15+ minutes into territory that was usually only captured on stage, rather than in a studio.  I was, for all intents and purposes, feasting on a steady diet of  “jambands.”  I’ve never really understood that label, but at the end of the day, it is what it is.  They jam.  I just think it discounts all the other genres those bands pull from to weave together their sound.  I digress.

I still enjoy the 17 minute versions of Love Tractor by touring machine Widespread Panic, and I still love it when ITunes randomly throws me a block of Grateful Dead songs.  But in an attempt to branch out, what I really look for and enjoy is simpler.  Strings.  Lots of them.  Fiddles, banjos, mandolins or guitars, I’ve got a thirst for simplicity when it comes to the music.  No need for the big amplifiers or cabinets on stage.  No, no, I want minimal amplification, and I want the songwriting craft to sit front and center.  Trying to satisfy my search for what I really wanted, about a year and a half ago I came across Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch.  And as quick as my pursuit had begun, it was over.

I’d heard of Gillian Welch, sure.  She’s was the one who sings all that yodeling heartache stuff, right?  Seriously, who had time for that when there was another Grateful Dead cover to hear for the 5,000th time? Nah.  No time.  I’m sure it’s good, but no thanks.  I’d never heard of David Rawlings either, and once I stumbled across he and Welch’s efforts, the change was on.  Standing in a field in Western Maryland, listening to the two of them play their set to close out DelFest, the annual bluegrass festival named in honor of Del McCoury, I realized.  Corner, turned.

I wasn’t discounting the endless times I’d listened to all those other bands, I was, I felt, growing up a bit.  There was substance here to this sound I’d ignored for years.  There was substance to these two that I hadn’t ever really experienced before, especially in a live music setting. The nimble picking of Rawlings on guitar and haunting lyrics of Welch’s voice were almost as perfect a musical combination I’d ever heard.  It wasn’t an eye-opening performance, it was a personal musical enlightenment, the realization that when I pulled back the curtain a little bit-there was after all-more to be heard.

In 2010, Welch and Rawlings, her musical partner of over a decade, joined up with portions of the folk/bluegrass titans Old Crow Medicine Show to form Dave Rawlings Machine, the first musical effort of Rawlings’ to bear his name.  They were my musical revelation of the year, but still, I felt I had been late to the party.  After all, Welch and Rawlings had been recording together for years, and I almost felt foolish for being such a late arrival.  Some musical genres lend themselves to a constant one-upping, repeated stories of how many Phish shows you’ve seen, or the time you saw Widespread Panic at Jones Beach and they killed that version of Space Wrangler.  Around these parts, it seems a little different. It’s not about when you got there. It’s fine-as long as you make it.

The Video I Should Have Tweeted A Week Ago

I’ve known Ben Townsend for a few years.  A classmate of mine in college, we knew each other from various classes and the college radio station, where I was the host of the local blues/rock/southern rock show (it was pretty much all things Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic peppered with a little Blues Traveler) and Ben was one of the hosts of the station’s bluegrass show.  Over the years, my musical tastes moved more into the string band variety, trading endless guitar solos for frantic banjo picking and anything that sounds like it comes from the hills of West Virginia.  Ben, unbeknownst to me since our departure from college, had forged ahead as a musician himself, as the fiddle player in a string band outfit known as The Fox Hunt.  In a never ending attempt to one day see life on the road with a band, I reached out to Ben and his band, and asked: Can I come join you guys for a week on the road?  He said yes, the band agreed, so I packed up my camera gear, and with an assist from another friend from Alaska who also brought his gear, we hit the road with The Fox Hunt.  The finished film is still TBD, as it’s in the edit stages.  I wrote a feature piece for CNN, and below is a little taste of their music, and a larger taste of exactly how cramped things were stuffed into a van with 6 people. Fortunately, there is no ability to convey smell through a video camera.

Clapton Is God And The Politeness Of His Disciples

Over the years, I’ve been to more concerts than I can count.  Venturing a guess, I’d say it is somewhere in the 300 mark.  And what often is a great topic after a concert is to systematically deconstruct the audience behavior/interaction, the respect shown for the performer, or the complete lack of respect and rudeness, depending on who is playing and where they are.  Concert going etiquette, especially in the YouTube age, has gone completely the way of the dinosaur.  That is, until I saw Eric Clapton in London a few nights ago. It was, by all accounts, one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a concert-goer.

To understand the setting, Royal Albert Hall is for all intents and purposes, one of the greatest concert venues on earth.  Built in 1871, it’s named for Prince Albert of the UK who despite leading the charge to have an arts building built for community enlightenment, never saw it completed.  Ten years after his death, it was finished, and it’s been one of the most distinct buildings in London ever since.

Clapton, who has made it his virtual home arena in London, has played the hall just about every year since 1968, when Cream played their farewell show. It’s probably the venue he is most synonymous with, and seeing him here is a real privilege.

Taking my seat, I first had to overcome the height of where we were sitting, as the crowd was funneling in before the show began.  As the lights went dark, the normal cheers and screams erupted for Clapton, as he took the stage with his band. His set began, and the normal concert behavior I was used to went out the window. Clapton started the show with the classic tune Key To The Highway, and I was struck at the lack of, well-anything- from the crowd.  No bobbing of the heads.  No standing.  No cheering.  There was nary a foot to be tapped here.  I was confused to the point of feeling guilty if I made any motions at all.  And once the song was over, there was thunderous applause.  There was a bit of a yell from the upper tier, but it was pedestrian applause for one of the world’s greatest musicians.

As the show went on, I began to take notice of some other things that were, for lack of a term, not what I was used to. No constant up and down, no incessant in and out from the arena, and no drunken revelers walking back to their seats with beers for the entire row.  No, this was a show that explained clearly that once you are seated, you are seated.  End of story.

One of the most glaring differences rested in the fact that we weren’t subjected to the faint blue glow of 3,000 cell phones being held up, capturing the concert in 5 minute increments for all the world to see on YouTube. (And I’ll confess, I’ve been guilty of it myself…..30 seconds if fine.  But the aspiring Scorcese who films the entire show goes a bit far.)

I had a bit of a mixed reaction to this new way of etiquette, as it was great to not be constantly subjected to conversation from neighbors, who save life-changing conversations for the middle of a rock show.  However, the seats at Royal Albert Hall, while they are witness to some of the great musical performances London has, aren’t comfortable.  At all.  In fact, I’d say they might be the worst seats I’ve ever subjected my backside to for the better parts of two and a half hours. It’s a good thing it was Clapton, otherwise I would have thrown concert etiquette out the window and stepped over 10 people to give my body some relief.

Towards the end of the show, it seemed the rules were suddenly thrown out the window, as a large portion of the crowd on the floor ran towards the front, standing right in front of the stage for Clapton’s encore.  Almost on cue, as if waiting the entire show for the signal to unleash their inner dance machine, the crowd was front and center while Clapton played a searing version of the Robert Johnson classic Crossroads.  Save it for the end, I suppose.

Derek Trucks is good. Really good.

Again, I’ll reiterate: This blog really has no vision.  The vision is essentially what is right in front of me at the moment, and the moment right now calls for a little music review.  I’ve been listening to Derek Trucks for years.  I, as well as a number of other people have been convinced for some time that he is one of the best guitar players walking the earth right now.  So this morning, as I was sifting through my ITunes, I realized I had 25 dollars in ITunes credits left just burning a hole in my pocket.  You see, I have this thing-When I buy music online, it really doesn’t feel like I am spending money, so i tend to, oh, I don’t know, DO IT ALL THE TIME.  And when I realized this morning I didn’t have the latest release from his band, I of course promptly snatched it up.  To this point, it’s been playing on loop for three and a half hours.

If you know nothing about the Derek Trucks Band, then perhaps you should stop reading now because the rest of this entry may bore you. Or, run to the Itunes store, buy the album, and then send me a thank you note for having a profound impact on the shift in your musical tastes. It’s that good.  Really.

For about 15 years, the Derek Trucks Band has been straddling a musical fence, finding ways to create blues with a heavy dose of jazz and middle eastern musical influences. I’ve often said that what they need is to finally break out the full blues catalogue, and shelf some of the jazz/middle eastern sound.  Not that I don’t like that part of their sound, but they are a blues band, and always have been as far as I’m concerned.  And their last studio effort, Already Free was the result of-what seemed to me anyway-the band getting together and everyone finally throwing the other stuff out the window, and deciding to cut a straight ahead blues record. And it promptly won a Grammy.  Despite people’s opinions on the validity of a Grammy, hey…it’s still a Grammy.  And their latest album, a live version of many of these tracks simply titled Roadsongs is one of the finest live albums I have heard in years.  The effort to catch a band in it’s most natural environment can often be a swing and a miss, falling victim to the need to fix and tweak things after the fact in order to avoid showing any of the potential inconsistencies that come with rolling tape on a live performance.

This album appears to be nothing more than pushing play right before the first note, and hitting stop as the band walked off stage.  Everything in between is an crystal clear snapshot of what they are capable of when they let things really go.  Mike Mattison displays vocals that after years of being in the shadow of the real lead vocalist-Derek’s guitar-have finally found their rightful place in the grand scheme of things.

The real strength of the record, and any Derek Trucks performance, really, is what he doesn’t do with his guitar.  I’ve often watched him and waited patiently for him to really let loose, and show what he is capable of when he has the real run of the place.  But to his credit, that would be too easy.  Instead of slapping people over the head with his talents, there’s a slow build with Derek, rising to a crescendo throughout a show that always ends with a bang.  And Roadsongs is no different, as they hit their full stride on the cover of Eric Clapton’s “Anyday.”  It’s a regular part of their setlist, but still, on this record they found a way to make it a little different.  And after waiting all record long for him to let his guitar really do some talking, the words it says on the final track are quite profound.

Roadsongs served as a bit of a transition for the Derek Trucks Band, with their leader merging with his wife, blues songstress Susan Tedeschi, and shuffling their lineup a bit and now touring as The Derek Trucks And Susan Tedeschi Band.  While the original lineup is considered on hiatus, whether or not this serves as their farewell offering remains to be seen.  Just like their live shows, Roadsongs is a perfect crescendo to an incredible 9 album evolution that regardless of personnel, is likely to keep going as far as the glass slide on Derek’s finger will take it.