Amazing. We’re almost in to the second half of the year. 2020 dragged on like watching an endless horror flick during a long drinking bender. I had high hopes that 2021 would end up being the great release and return to total normality. Silly me. Yes, things have gotten better. But this year still feels like a bad hangover from last year in many ways. I don’t think any of us wanted to give up another year just trying to return to ‘normal’. But anything that is worthwhile takes some work. So I’m trying to work on the good old ‘positive attitude’ and just ‘keep on truckin’ as the old hippie saying goes. Let’s take a deep breath, sit back, and listen to some tunes and see what we can come up with for positive attitude. We just finished re-watching Ken Burns’ great ‘Country Music’ documentary. Every time I watch it I pick up some new inspiration and ideas for songs. Hearing how great songs were conceived and constructed really helps to fire up the old brain synapses. And the wonderful simplicity of early country songs shows what’s really important when you’re writing. They often referred to country music as “three chords and a great story”. With the best songs the human connection always overwhelms any ‘simplicity’.
First Up: Bluegrass Jam – ‘Where The Wild River Rolls’
Let’s start with Bluegrass Jam. First, since we were talking about country and bluegrass music this is a great example. I really like the video because it gives you a great picture of live recording technique. In the studio, I would always give musicians who wanted to record ‘live’ the pros and cons. And truthfully, recording individual parts as overdubs is what I would usually recommend. One of the main reasons is that if one person makes a mistake like an incorrect chord change, in a live setting the entire group will have to re-record the track. Not all situations lend themselves to live recording. If you’re playing through amps with a live drum kit, the bleed through in to microphones can cause some tracks to overwhelm other tracks. The bluegrass instrumental set up we see in this video lends itself much better to a live recording. To do this you have to learn some ‘mic technique’. You’ll see someone step up towards the mic during a solo or back away when necessary. You also have to be aware of how hard you’re playing to keep a good mix and bring different instruments to the front of the sound at different times. Distance is important – each instrument projects sound differently. Banjos really project so you’ll stand a little further away. The three mic setup is nice – real old school recording had everyone work around one mic. Finally, I like the song a lot, it has a wonderful feel; the players all do a great job on their instruments and the idea of getting a recording like this live in a living room is totally awesome.
Next Up: Jane Weaver – ‘The Revolution Of Super Visions’
For our second tune this month we’ll move along to the wonderful world of thumping bass and snappy drums that highlight Jane Weaver’s ‘The Revolution Of Super Visions’. One of the basic needs of a great funk song is a stellar drum track. It doesn’t have to be complex – in some ways complex would totally defeat the purpose. The drums are placed relatively high in the mix, and rely on the snare, high hat and kick to keep the beat going. Although the beat sounds simple, getting that groovy hi hat is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes for drums keeping that slinky sound is much more difficult than blasting all over the kit. The verses keep the music a little more minimalist. There’s a clean guitar playing little riffs at the high end of the scale, a pretty standard feel for a funk based tune. You need that sound to cut through because a lot of funk has a heavy bass bottom end. In this song the bass is joined by buzzy synth sounds that act as a second bass feel. Weaver keeps her vocals high and airy, floating on top of the music. I like the fact that you can easily pick up the lyrics as the song is delivering a story and a message. When we hit the chorus the music fills in. Several more keyboards are added so the chorus really hits home. You need changes in dynamics to keep a dance song interesting and that is often created by beefing up the amount of instrumentation or vocals in the choruses. The little touches in the song that you may not notice if you don’t listen carefully also make a difference. Listen for the background vocals during the verses echoing the main vocal as well as more short riffs by bass and synth. Turn it on up and dance!
Finally: Alabama Slim – ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’
For our final track let’s venture in to a dark, smoky lounge and feel some old time blues boogie. Alabama Slim has been working the blues for quite a while. At 82 he’s still dropping great blues albums. He just put out a new album, The Parlor, in 2021. I decided to grab this song for the great ‘boogie blues’ feel it has. This blues style has been around quite a while and many great rock bands have taken this style and ran with it over the years (think early ZZ Top, ‘La Grange’ era). In this type of song the guitar is king. It’s backed by real simple percussion. The vocals are spoken as much as sung. A key to playing this on guitar is that it leans on the rhythm you do with your right hand as much as the melodic notes you’ll hit with your left hand (yes, yes, reverse that if you’re a left handed guitar player). You can pick up little riffs that repeat throughout the song. Pinpoint accuracy on notes is not real important. It’s all about the feel. He probably doesn’t play this song exactly the same each time he plays it. For me, that’s just another point that makes it fun and interesting. Turn it up, stomp your feet and feel it in your bones.
Retro: James Gang – ‘Funk #49’
What song to pick for the monthly ‘retro’ selection comes to me in many different ways. Sometimes I try to pick something a little more obscure that I think should of been more well known. Sometimes I cruise through my album collection and think wow, haven’t heard this in a while. Sometimes when I’m picking the new songs they trigger ideas of older songs. When I was listening to Alabama Slim, I thought, hey, haven’t heard ‘Funk #49’ in a while. A lot of people are familiar with Joe Walsh through hearing his solo work or work with the Eagles. I first heard him playing with the James Gang. ‘Funk #49’ is such a fun guitar song. The song’s initial guitar riff alone is worth a listen. Great string bends and a sloppy little riff start the tune with rest of the band dropping in perfectly. It also has one of the coolest middle breaks you’ll ever hear. The song is first stripped down to just drums and vocal shouts and hoots. Then that great, bendy initial riff hits again before the entire band comes back in. Absolute classic.