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.