Live Music Report: Ziggy Marley At Musikfest 08/09/22

We went to see Ziggy Marley at Musikfest on a very warm Tuesday night. When does a concert become a communal celebration? When the entire crowd joins as one, gets out of their seats, sways to the music and sings along. You no longer feel like an individual and become part of a collective joined together by the performance on stage. This is what we experienced at the concert on Tuesday. It was an ‘assigned seating’ concert which usually means that most people will get up for certain songs and sit back for others. A lot of bands pace their shows this way, with some slower breaks then on to higher energy songs. Tuesday the entire crowd got up for the first song and never sat back down. Reggae music by it’s nature has a certain pace and feel to it. The pace is more mid-tempo, not really fast or slow. It’s all about the groove. And Ziggy Marley and his band hit that perfect groove on the first song and never let go. The concert was billed as a tribute to Bob Marley, Ziggy’s father, so the songs played were from Bob Marley’s catalogue and were very familiar to everyone in the crowd. Bob Marley’s songs, besides living in the groove, are heavily messaged lyrically. The messages run from the idea of peace and love to fighting the powers that try to control the average person. A lot of people can relate to the messages in Marley’s music. At a lot of shows bands will encourage people to sing along on certain songs. Ziggy never had to do that at this show. If he stepped back from the mic, you could hear the crowd singing along.

I have some pictures from the show. They’re a bit blurry as the night was hazy and we weren’t seated toward the front of the crowd. The venue was also pretty strict about not letting people hang in the aisles or get too close to the stage. Although that made it tough to get pictures (I’m honestly not as familiar with the camera in my phone as I am with my regular camera) I get that keeping people at their assigned seating probably provided a better experience for everyone.

Let’s talk about the band. It was a large ensemble. Two guitar players (in addition to Marley playing on some songs), two keyboard players, bass player, kit drummer, percussion player and two back up singers. That’s a pretty large band. And this band was really tight. When you’re working music that lives on a groove, anybody out of sync can destroy the feel. Everyone in the band held their own, coming front and center at spots and blending perfectly the rest of the time. Also kudos to the person who was doing the mixing at the venue. That’s a lot of players to work with and if you don’t do it right the entire show can sound like mush. It’s even more difficult when you’re at an outdoor open venue. Add to that the venue was in what is usually a parking lot so you have to deal with bounce back from the ground surface. The mix was spot on perfect.

We live in troubled times. The population of our country is fractured and angry. No place feels safe from this anger and confrontation. For an hour and a half Ziggy Marley and his band brought a large group of people together. Joined by a love of music and an undeniably joyful groove. You can’t ask for more than that when you attend a show. “One love, one heart, Let’s get together and feel all right”.

I’m including some video clips from Ziggy’s 2022 tour to give you a feel of the show we saw. The crowd sing along happens at all the shows.

August 2022 Grapevine

The year keeps rolling along. We’re now in the heat of summer. Personally I’m much happier when the weather is a little cooler. Fall is my favorite season of the year. But there’s a lot to be said for summer. I do like the extended daylight. The day may be twenty four hours year round, but extended daylight always makes each day feel a little longer. August is also the month where we have our biggest music festival in the area. I live right outside of Bethlehem, Pa and Musikfest is a big time of year for anyone who lives near and loves music. I’m literally a ten minute drive away from the festival. Even though I don’t get to spend a huge deal of time there most years, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it gives people to see live music. The best part is that most of the shows are free. That’s a plus for both the people attending the festival and the musicians. As people stroll through the different stage areas they may come across a band or a style of music they would not have gone to a dedicated place like a bar or concert venue to see. Maybe they’re not familiar with that specific type of music or that band. And they find out that they actually like what they hear. It forces you to ‘switch the station’ and listen to something a little different. It provides the same opportunity to the the bands. People get to hear your music and you can’t ask for much more than that. Every band would like to be popular. That goes without saying. But most people who play music are just hoping to have the chance to put their art in front of people and see what happens. It’s nice to see a situation where both the music fans and musicians get that opportunity.

First Up: Ian Noe – ‘Burning Down The Prairie’

This song points out some of the best qualities of the current crop of Americana musicians. It’s something that’s been said about the best of country, bluegrass and folk music – the lyrics tell a story. And the music, if done correctly, sets up the tone and feel to match the music. The basic underpinnings of the music here aren’t complicated. Simple hand picked guitar. The focus is squarely placed on the vocals and the story being told. We have a kick drum just keeping a straight beat to match the rhythmic picking of the guitar. A simple key note beat comes in a little bit in to the song. At 1:45 of the song the entire band finally comes in. The band maintains the same beat and feel, although the leads tend to straddle the line between the original feel of the song and straight up electric blues. All the parts are kept simple, which maintains the feel of the song. Going off on some wicked instrumental trip wouldn’t remain true to the overall song. After the middle instrumental most of the instruments drop out and we return to the lyrical story of the song. The story is given it’s conclusion and the song is finished off with another full band instrumental. Finally, this is another song that benefits from a great mix. All the instruments are clear and separated and the vocal is clear and up front. If a song mix is right, it always presents a song in it’s best form.

Next Up: Swami John Reis – ‘Rip From The Bone’

For our second cut I’ve picked a pretty straight forward ‘rock’ song. It has everything you would want – loud, riff based guitars, straight ahead four to the floor beat and scratchy hard pushing vocals. Let’s look at some of the arrangement and mixing decisions that make this work. First big decision was giving the main guitar it’s own space in the left side of the stereo field. Part of the drive on this guitar is that it’s not playing basic chords, it’s filling the space with a repeating riff. That gives the song a bigger feel of movement and drive. You can hear what sounds like a second guitar matching this riff in the right channel, but it’s not as distorted and not as loud. There’s two ways you can create this effect. First, you can simply add a second guitar track. When you’re mixing a song there’s some interesting things you can do with effects. Adding reverb to an instrument in the mix will actually move the sound in relation to the left and right channels. If you place the guitar fully in the left channel and keep the sound clean, you’ll hear it only in the left channel. The more reverb you add the more part of that sound will move over to the opposite channel. This is partially what creates the deep reverb effect. In this song, it sounds like the second guitar is a reverb ‘ghost’ of the main guitar. There is also a piano part in the channel opposite the guitar that is matching a lot of the riffs the guitar is playing. This really keeps the whole song chugging along. Another part I like is the chords used in the song’s chorus (you hear them first at :23). They don’t sound quite like the standard chord changes I was expecting to hear considering the main riff being played in the verses. Really a fun, energetic rocker.

Finally – Kurt Vile – ‘Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)’

We’ve reviewed songs by Kurt Vile before. Since I first heard his music years ago he’s achieved a level of popularity and acclaim that is very well deserved. I must admit that his popularity surprised me a bit. It also gives me a great deal of hope. His music is not the standard fare you’ll hear on radio stations. And his vocals can be an acquired taste. What has always drawn me in to his music is that the songs have an emotional ‘feel’ to them. The best music brings out feelings and emotions in the listener. ‘Mount Airy Hill’ is a great example of that quality. Instrumentally it’s pretty simple. Drums, bass, guitar and some wonderful slide guitar playing through the entire song. The thing that ties the entire song together is the emotional feeling it produces in the listener (at least for me). It’s a feeling that washes over you, somewhere between happy and sad. It’s what I feel when we go hiking and stand at the top of a mountain alone at sunrise. Or when you visit somewhere that you haven’t been in years and memories come flooding back over you. I usually like to take songs apart in the Grapevine and discuss how the pieces work. In a song like this that doesn’t seem like the most important point. ‘Mount Airy Hill’ accomplishes what the best music can do. You don’t really hear it as individual parts. You feel it as an emotion. It also does a great job of matching a video to those feelings. That’s not as easy as it appears. Almost like a home movie to remember what a certain place and time was like. It stays with you after you’ve seen and heard it. It gives you something to think about. Who can ask for more that that?

Something Extra: Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings – ‘Little Maggie’

Usually I’d drop in a ‘retro’ tune here. But in the spirit of live music time in the area I wanted to give you some live music at it’s best. I put some Molly Tuttle music in the June Grapevine. She’s a remarkable guitar player. I wanted to give you a live video where’s she’s playing with another amazing guitar player in the bluegrass genre, Billy Strings. I’ve seen a number of videos of them playing together. I’m not going to add a whole lot of verbiage to this. One thing to remember – this is all on acoustic. Not electronics to effect the sound. Just sit back and enjoy the amount of talent playing on this stage.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun….

We’ve been doing our ‘Messin’ With The Music’ series for a while now. A couple of years ago we decided to put all the song content on our YouTube channel. I think most people tend to find their music there – I do most of my Grapevine searching on YouTube. The first step of my music search begins in magazines, either print or online (I still love reading print). I use the reviews to try to determine if a band’s style sounds interesting – I’m not as worried about someone’s opinion on quality. I then search for the narrowed down selections on YouTube. Some songs have video, some have a static photo for the video. We realized that the first couple of songs we messed with didn’t end up on YouTube as we were just starting up our channel at the time. I thought this would be a good time to put the early ones up with the rest of the songs – that way people could find them all at one location. They’ll also end up on the ‘Videos’ page on this web site. Here’s our first three Messin’ tunes.

The first song here is ‘The Lovecats’ by The Cure. It was a non album single released by the band in 1983. To make our version a bit different we didn’t use the very prominent bass line and changed the vocal scat singing between verses to a line on banjo. We were just beginning to figure out how to convert ‘electric’ songs to acoustic instruments. I think our version sounds a bit ‘darker’ than the original. The studio doesn’t have any cats, so we’re using a picture of the studio ‘love dogs’ Bonnie and Samantha.

The next song is ‘It’s Gonna Be A Long Night’ by Ween. This is the first song we tried in the Messin’ series. The original song is a screaming blast of noisy crunch. It’s from their 2003 album ‘Quebec’. I’ve read that they were trying to make a song that sounded like Motorhead. Lyrically it’s about two people trying to ‘out substance’ each other over the course of a night. So we slowed it down and changed everything to acoustic. We thought the contrast of the lyrics and the acoustic version was a bit odd, so of course we had to do it. We even added a background ‘evil voice’ for the chorus. This really set us up for making the cover versions any way we wanted to instead of doing something similar to the original.

‘Messin’ With The Music’ is a labor of love for us. In our case it means we only cover songs we really love. I’ve always been a huge fan of The Gun Club. This song is from their 1983 EP ‘Death Party’. This is one of the few Messin’ covers that was primarily recorded on electric guitar. We didn’t record a lot of tracks – the main electric guitar, bass, electric slide guitar and hand drums. We tried to get the feel of a room bathed in black lights and incense. If you check out our YouTube channel you can find a live band version of The Gun Club’s ‘Ghost On The Highway’. I could happily cover their entire first album ‘Fire Of Love’.

Cover Yourself

One of the avenues we’ve worked on for both blog posts and our own entertainment has been covering songs written and recorded by other artists. We’ve labeled our endeavors ‘Messin’ With The Music’ although we were doing some cover songs long before we decided on that current format. We’ve already recorded over twenty songs in the series and are constantly discussing and working on more. One of the reasons we’ve worked on covers was to keep up our recording and playing chops. When you’re interpreting a piece of music that is already written, it allows more time to work on recording and arrangement techniques. You don’t have to work out chords and lyrics or worry if the song is ‘good’. We obviously pick songs we already like and think we can do something different with. I don’t really want to do a cover song and try to closely match the original recording. It feels like it would become a watered down version of something that I really like. What fun is that? When I was younger there was a big market for live cover bands. There were a lot of clubs that booked cover bands and if you were one of the better known bands you could make decent money doing it. When I was in college I made extra money playing in a wedding band. Most of those gigs are now handled by DJs or recorded music although there are still places where you can see cover bands live. The bigger trend tends to be in ‘tribute’ bands that take on the works of one specific band and try to match the sound and sometimes even the look and performance as closely as possible. I guess that’s fun for a lot of people that never had an opportunity to see the original band live, but I’m more interested when I hear someone reinterpret a song adding their own personality and flavor to it.

‘Covering’ songs has been around a long time. In popular music (where the term ‘pop’ music started – now ‘pop’ is used more to denote style than the fact that it is popular) songs were not always written by the bands who recorded them. There were song writers and there were recording artists. Some well known recording artists never wrote their own songs. That still exists today although I think that when most people hear a song, they think the artist doing the recording actually wrote it. If you look at the songs copyright, you may see a large number of people who wrote the tune as well as multiple people listed as ‘producer’. The ‘producers’ usually have decided on the instrumentation used as well as the song’s structure and sequencing. Think of a legacy rock band like Three Dog Night. They had three songs that were number one hits. All of them were written by different songwriters: ‘One’ was written by Harry Nilsson; ‘Mama Told Me (Not To Come)’ was written by Randy Newman; ‘Joy To The World’ was written by Hoyt Axton. Some of their other well known songs: ‘Old Fashioned Love Song’ was written by Paul Williams; ‘Celebrate’ was written by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon; ‘Eli’s Comin’ was written by Laura Nyro. The songwriter versus recording artist split was probably greater in the early days of radio music, especially when you’re discussing songs that became ‘hits’. Even Jimi Hendrix had hit singles written by other songwriters. ‘Hey Joe’ was written by Billy Roberts. ‘All Along The Watchtower’ is a Bob Dylan song. These days most bands in the ‘rock’ genre (we won’t open the ‘genre’ and ‘sub genre’ can of worms in this post) tend to write their own songs. If you look at pop chart hits you’ll probably still find a lot of well known performers who do songs written by or with other people.

With that background in mind the impetus for this post was some songs I came across while scrolling through the internet. Led Zeppelin has remained one of my favorite all time bands. I still listen to their albums frequently and love the variety of songs they put out that don’t always fit neatly in to the ‘rock’ stereotype. Robert Plant has recently done another collaboration album with Alison Krauss who is a remarkable talent and has put out great material in a variety of styles but is most known for country and bluegrass. They have been out on tour and decided to bring in songs from the Led Zeppelin catalogue for their live shows. To do this they’ve reworked the original versions of the songs. First, to fit the songs in to the style they do as musical collaborators. Second, Plant’s vocal range has changed since his Led Zeppelin days, so they had to take that in to consideration. Let’s start out with something with a pretty big change of style. ‘Rock And Roll’ is a hard rock guitar classic. Plant and Krauss have reworked it with a wonderful bluegrass country sound. There’s pull back on the tempo. Replace some of the guitar leads with fiddle. The biggest difference for me is the change from 4/4 rock pile driver to country swing. This is my idea of fun. If you’re going to cover your own songs, let’s really give it a twist. I’m going to put up the cover version first, then the original for comparison.

The next song we’re looking at is ‘When The Levee Breaks’. This song is not actually a Led Zeppelin original. It was written in the 1920’s by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Led Zeppelin reworked it for their fourth album and that is probably the version most people are familiar with. John Bonham’s drumming and the recorded drum sound really set it apart and it’s a sound people have been trying to duplicate since then. You can find entire articles dedicated to how the drum sound was achieved. The live version by Krauss and Plant really creates a ‘graveyard at night’ sound with the softer percussion but especially the haunting fiddle parts. Those changes and the more restrained vocal lines give the song an entirely different feel.

The final song we’re going to look at is ‘The Battle Of Evermore’. This song has the least amount of change from the Led Zeppelin version to the live version by Krauss and Plant. The reason for this is the original song was based primarily on a mandolin part. That sound crosses over pretty directly to what Krauss and Plant are doing. The song is also very spare in it’s instrumentation. You could add more instruments to the live version, but it would probably destroy the feel of this vocal-centric song. Another similarity is that the original version was recorded with Sandy Denny from the band Fairport Convention doing the call and response vocals with Robert Plant. I believe this is the only song Zeppelin recorded with a vocalist other than Plant. Krauss takes over the Sandy Denny parts in this live version. They have pulled back the tempo a bit for the live version. Sometimes a tempo change by itself can make a difference in the feel of a song.

July 2022 Grapevine

We’re now officially in the summer season for 2022. This is a fun time for me. We have our national park hiking adventures booked for the year. This is the time when I start to put together our guide for what to do and see in the parks. There’s scenic roads to drive, breath taking overlooks and many amazing trails to cover. We don’t make specific plans for each day, but it really helps to be familiar with all the options you have which allows you to experience as much of the parks as you can in the time available. What does this have to do with our music and blog posting? Inspiration. Creating music is an interesting process. There’s lots of things you do on a daily or weekly basis that don’t require any creative flow. I’ve found I can clean, workout or do household projects without needing to be ‘inspired’. Creating music, videos or blog posts takes a bit more creative inspiration. Practicing instruments from a technical stand point can be much like a workout. You focus on the process and try to improve your techniques. I’ve found, at least in my own case, I need to feel some inspiration to write and record music. If you’re ‘not in the mood’ it’s difficult to put ideas together that have any feel to them. When I’ve tried to force recording or writing, I’m not usually happy with the results. And yet there are times you have to push yourself to get going and work out musical ideas or nothing will ever get started. This is the mystery that has to be solved when you’re working on creative projects. Equal parts sweat and inspiration. At this time of year I’m hoping that the inspiration of trip planning carries over to musical creation. It usually does and I’m looking forward to new and interesting results that we’ll be able to share with you. Let’s move forward with the Grapevine selections and see what inspiration we can get from enjoying other artist’s creativity.

First Up: Graham Day – ‘Out Of Your Narrow Mind’

I thought we’d start out with a good blast of garage rock to wake everyone up. For me, the foundation of most songs that follow this style is the guitar sound. This is a good example of the impact of a song depending on two things: the song writing itself and the choices that are made in the recording process. For the perfect garage sound you really have to hit both targets. Listen to the guitar sound when the other instruments drop out at the 1:07 mark. It has a lot of top end, just enough distortion that it’s crunchy but not totally fuzzed out. Imagine if this guitar sound was more mid tone and the distortion was too heavy and actually smoothed out the sound. It would totally take out the impact of the guitar. The crisp, treble heavy sound is also applied to the drums and vocals. If you didn’t do that the other instruments would be overpowered by the guitar sound. This is an important part of mixing. When mixing you want to check the EQ levels of the instruments both separately and together. You rely partly on your ears, but it’s also a good idea to look at the EQ using the software or other tools that are available to you in your system. There’s definitely a late 60’s throw back feel to the song structure and sound. Good, chunky garage rock will never go out of style.

Next Up: Ditz – ‘Hehe’

We’re moving on to a song that practically weaponized the guitar sound. In some ways this song is more physical and visceral than musical. Guitar crunch and blasting feedback dominate this tune. There’s an interesting sound attached to the drums. Listen when the drums come in to start the song at :11. There’s some choices they make with the drum sound that set up the rest of the song. The snare and kick drums are drenched in distortion and reverb and yet if you listen closely, the high hat sound is clean. The guitar comes in and sits on a single note while the vocals appear and are placed in the background of the mix. All these mixing choices are used to set the feel of the song. You could take the same song structure, but if you had clean drums, put the guitars back further in the mix and put the vocals out front, you’d have a totally different song without changing the actual song writing at all. There’s also a lot of attention to dynamics – the drums drop down to rim shots before everything blasts in to full mode again. Again, the guitar sound is put in the spot light by separating the guitars in to left and right stereo channels, one side crunchy and the other side guitar drone. By the 1:20 mark the song settles in to a what feels like a more straight forward beat. There’s also an example of some very small choices that have a nice effect – see the one second drop out at 1:55. When you have a song this pummeling and it runs 4:30 you have to do something to break it up and add interest. At 2:50 the drums and song suddenly slow down before returning to full speed ten seconds later. At 3:15 the song begins to slow down again. At 3:30 the drums drop out and you have only guitar drone. This runs through the end of the song. I can picture the band setting down the guitars and walking off the stage as they feed back. It’s these arrangement choices that make the song interesting.

Finally: Kevin Morby – ‘Rock Bottom’

So for our final song, let’s have some fun. The first thing that hit me when I heard this song is ‘more cowbell’ (if you don’t know this SNL skit, you have to look it up!). The cowbell travels through the whole song. Somehow they pull this off without the sound becoming totally obnoxious. This points to another example of how important mixing is. You have to have that sound at just the right level in the mix that it drives the song without becoming overbearing. All the parts in the song have great energy and drive. Another song where I really love the guitar sound. The vocals are very syncopated and rhythmic which drives the song along with the instruments. There’s lots of nice drop outs where the bass comes to the front. It feels like the kind of song where if you see the band live the crowd would be bouncing along with the song. The song is great and what added to it and really sold me on it was watching the video. The concept is great and had me chuckling though the whole video. Sometimes a song has a video that feels right for the music and keeps the vibe of the song. There’s even a nice guitar solo thrown in that has the feel of a sax solo. Sometimes you hit a video that adds a whole extra dimension to the music. That’s definitely the case with ‘Rock Bottom’. It starts with dialogue and has some song breaks where the video takes front stage. Lyrically the song is for all the people who are treated as ‘losers’ – “All of my life, Everybody roasting me, All of my life, Like I was a piece of meat, It’s cold down here, despite the heat, In the rock bottom (bop-bop), Rock bottom (bop-bop)”. The video follows the concept throughout, with the people who laugh at the characters getting their comeuppance. The end of the video is the best. Enjoy!

Retro: Keelhaul – ‘Driver’s Bread’

So let’s go retro with some good old fashioned mathcore. Can you listen to Keelhaul at low volume? I guess you can, but why would you? When I want to clear out my head there’s nothing better than dropping on Keelhaul’s ‘Subject To Change Without Notice’ album and letting it rip. Loud, aggressive, multiple time signatures and loads of syncopation and changes in dynamics. I love the opening guitar riff in this song. So different from a straight forward time signature guitar riff. Then the drums come in like rolling thunder behind the guitar, sitting on another different rhythm. There’s knife sharp drop outs and returns throughout the song. At 1:35 the guitars drop on to another riff while the drums roll throughout the kit at breakneck speed. At 2:15 the bass guitar gets it’s turn at driving the boat. Then the song pulls back a bit with held guitar chords and rolling bass. This change in dynamics sets up the punch when the original guitar riff returns at 3:10. When we enter some ‘mellower’ sections of the song keep your ears tuned to the drums which stubbornly refuse to sit down on a straight beat. When you get to 5:30 the dynamics really pull back to a simple guitar part. The song rolls out to the end on this relatively softer feel. This style of music might not be for everyone. There are no vocals. But the aggression, time signature and riff complexity certainly have a place in my musical world. Try it, you might like it.