Ripping It Up

You can learn a lot of musical lessons by listening to certain musicians. Technical aspects of playing, the ins and outs of composition, performance that involves your audience. I wanted to present a video where we can talk about all these aspects of music. I came across this video of Marty Stuart doing a mandolin solo piece he calls ‘Mando Rip’ from 2011. If you’re not familiar with Stuart, he’s been playing professionally since 1972, when he joined Lester Flatt’s touring band when he was fourteen. He started out being best known as a mandolin player, but can certainly blaze on guitar too. In this clip he’s playing solo mandolin live. I think a live clip may be the easiest to use for this discussion as there are no punch ins, overdubs or any studio means to change or ‘fix’ notes. You can also physically see him playing the instrument, which gives you a better picture of just how fast your hands have to be (I, of course, would be happier if they just made videos showing the performer rather than panning through the audience). If you’re not familiar with the mandolin, it has four sets of doubled strings, going from a low G though D, A and and the highest strings being tuned to E. Compared to a guitar it has a very short scale, meaning the frets are much closer together. While string instruments will have different fret widths within the same type of instrument (guitars for example), the octave or twelfth fret on a guitar is a bout twice as wide as a mandolin. So although it might be an advantage to reach more frets without moving your hand on a mandolin, the target for a getting a cleanly fretted note is much smaller. This all leads to discussing the technicality of Stuart’s playing on this piece. For someone like myself who is a novice mandolin player, watching the performance he puts on here is jaw dropping. You have to have speed in both your left hand for fretting and your right hand for picking. And then to top it off, the sound is clean. Finally, you’re playing an acoustic instrument, which for me is a bit less forgiving than an electric instrument when it comes to missing a fret or a string when picking. I’m going to add the video here for you to see this first point before we continue discussing other aspects of the performance.

After watching this, let’s stick to the technical aspects for a bit more. You watch the beginning of the video, and boy, is he blazing. Then you keep watching the video. And the speed picks up. I like the part where he quiets the audience for a second then continues to pick up the pace. Now, for me, watching a five minute ‘solo’ performance isn’t always an exciting thing. I’ve seen plenty of fast guitar players, but simply running fast scales doesn’t really do it for me. You can find lots of speed demons on YouTube, but so what? This brings us to the next point that set sets apart a performer. Really listen to what Stuart is playing. It isn’t just about fast scales. There’s melody lines running though the entire song. So the song, although it’s just a single instrument, feels as if you added a second component, like a vocalist. You can hear an actual song in the playing, not just a blaze of notes. Now let’s add a third component. He’s also playing chord structures throughout the song. Many times you’ll see someone playing a song and they’ll be playing chords, then go in to a solo. Here, all the strings are often being played in a chord structure while the single note passage is also being played. And the strumming of the chords is as fast as the single note passages. There are times when he deadens some of the strings to create a percussive sound while playing the single notes on other strings. So instead of one person playing an instrumental solo, you have rhythm, melody and scales being played without even having a vocalist. He’s basically covering what an entire band would do playing one instrument.

Another important point in playing is dynamics. Part of making a solo piece interesting for the listener is having changes in dynamics. There are times the volume increases to add emphasis to a passage. Other times the volume is pulled back. These changes are not by chance. If you had a full band, players would increase or decrease what they are playing to change the volume of the song overall. With one person playing you have to be very conscious of how hard you are playing the instrument. The single player is responsible for the entire presentation of the song. Take some time and consider all the factors that go in to this performance. Then listen to it again. You might come away with a different perception of what it takes to perform a song like this at the level Marty Stuart is doing in this video.

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.