Sunday, December 5, 2010

'Twas the Winter of '86

How do I write music? I am never sure how to answer that question. However, I do remember the first time I realized that I can write music. 'Twas the Winter of '86, when we started rocking the house...

My first attempt at writing music occurred sometime in the Spring of '81. It happened late one Saturday afternoon, during my post bowling league ritual, where I would retreat to the cool confines of the basement and watch Grizzly Adams on the TV (a ritual that still persists today minus the bowling and Grizzly Adams). During this time, I would often monkey around with my first real acoustic guitar; a $10 model purchased by my father at a flea market. Classic. Without knowing how to play at all, I figured out how to tune the strings to an open chord. I could strum them without placing any fingers on the fretboard and a sweet sound would ring out. Technically, I suppose, this was also my first foray into the world of alternate tunings (fellow guitarists know what I am talking about). Soon, I strung together a few chords - by fretting couple fingers at a time - and spun out some lyrics with a mountainous, all around nature based, theme (it should be noted that John Denver was a big influence on me at the time). I have no idea how many verses I wrote, if there was a proper chorus, or what, but I know that I recorded the tune on our portable cassette player and played it for a neighbor friend. I think she told me that I was bragging, so, that was the end of my songwriting career for the time being. God, what I would give to find those lyrics, that guitar, and that tape.  

Winter in Minnesota is when life begins. The onset of long dark nights, short days, and a two week break from high school. This was December, 1986. And I fell into a new ritual: afternoon band practice, eating Little Debbie Star Crunch snacks, and my paper route. I had joined up with two other local musicians, Marc and Rick, to form a kind of side power trio. Our mission: to write original music. We had come to know each other around the periphery of what was the music scene of Rochester, MN. Marc and I played together for one gig, in a punk band, a year or so prior, and I knew of Rick as a consummate drummer who played with various groups around the area. After some holiday party, followed by a cruise down Broadway, I ended up sitting next to Marc in someone's car. "Hey man, how's it going?" "Good. You still playing?" "Yeah." "Me too. We should get together and jam sometime."  "Cool. You know any good drummers?" "Yeah, I know this guy named Rick." "Oh yeah, I know who he is." The following week, we assembled in Rick's bedroom, and thus began our musical odyssey.

Over the course of two solid weeks, working almost everyday, we crafted more than a half dozen original tunes. Marc had come to the table with almost all of the completed song structures - basic chords, melodies, lyrics - and they were all amazing. Collectively, we polished them and added our own parts and personalities. There was quite a diverse mix of musical styles and influences at work, but we were united as a creative force. We clicked, and for the first time, I understood chemistry. We were a band. Even this early in our development, our roles within were defining themselves, at least in my mind: Marc (lead vocals, guitar) was the raw talent, spontaneous, a funny brooder, the soul, and the bringer of ideas. Rick (drums) was pure energy, literate, a studied musician, and the fire. Me (bass, vocals)? I was also the studied musician and the arranger of ideas. I was the guy who would help mold Marc's songs into a tighter framework, you know, the verse - chorus effect, maybe flesh out the instrumental ideas, etc. Basically adding a level headed smoothness to his more erratic approach. I was the boring guy. Taking credit from no one, and giving credit to all, this was a truly collaborative approach - all souls being equal. We formed a deep, yet volatile bond, and an enduring friendship.

For the most part, as I stated, I was acting as an arranger; adding where needed, reducing where needed, but I had yet to arrive with a song of my own. Save for my Grizzly Adams era, I had never really completed an original piece of music. Contributing as a component of the band setting was an important step in gaining confidence to do so however. Marc had a book of WH Auden poems, and, (not being unable to write lyrics at the time) one particular entry, entitled But I Can't, grabbed me, so, I set out to adapt it to a piece of music. That evening, I strung together all of the coolest sounding chords I knew on the guitar, hummed a barely  intelligible melody over the top, conformed the poem to a lyrical rhythm, and there it was, my first (second) tune. I played it for the guys, shaky with much hesitation, but, they loved it (though, Rick did refer to one of my vocal cadences as sounding like Barry Manilow, not exactly a compliment given the context). At least, that is how I remember it. In fact, the song was actually well liked by many who heard it thereafter. I never liked it though (a continuing theme to this day). Finishing that tune was a key moment in my development. As self-deprecating as I can be, I acquired an odd confidence in my ability. I could write music. 

The culmination of our two week effort was a cassette recording of our masterworks (I do have this one!) and we decided to call ourselves, Canadian North. A very cool name in hindsight. I think it was Rick's idea? We continued on from there - eventually changing our name to Watercolor Sky -  for a couple of years, wrote many more songs, enjoyed some success, but ultimately fizzled out due to the onslaught of real life and the demands that go along with it. You could call it a microcosmic implosion. A typical ending.

When I reminisce, the soundtrack I often conjure up in my mind's ear is the Bryan Adams tune, The Summer of '69. Our version, of course, is The Winter of '86. When I look back now, that Winter did seem to last forever. Were those the best days of my life? No way, but there is no escaping the reverie of such days gone by, and it cannot be replaced or lost. Life has taken many sweet turns since then, but, that encapsulated moment, on the cusp, before the real world began, we were on top of it, and, for two weeks, we ruled.
That year, I learned that I can write music. 'Twas the Winter of '86.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Recommended Reading

Occasionally friends will ask me what I am reading and/or for book recommendations. So, I decided to write a brief summary of the latest titles that I think are exceptional - moving, thought provoking, enlightening, educational, and all that. For what it's worth, this is what I got:

Roadshow: Landscape With Drums: A Concert Tour by Motorcycle - Neil Peart

Written by the master, Rush drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart. I could go on and on about this book. I have lately been calling myself a born again Rush fan as, after a nearly 10 year on again off again hiatus, I have been reintroduced to, and re-inspired by, their music all over again. I mean, these guys were a seminal influence on me as a musician. Now, Neil has become influential on my prose writing as well. This book - his fourth - is pieced together from a series of journal entries while on a concert tour with the band. Neil rides his motorcycle between all of the dates - eschewing the usual band tour bus regimen - exploring the back roads and small towns of the US and Europe. Known as being fiercely protective of his privacy, the book is a surprisingly revealing account of his life on the road. There is no gossip here, just observations, personal ruminations, and descriptive essays. Part travelogue, part memoir, part method book, overall, a very insightful, literate account of his experience as one of history's greatest rock drummers traveling with one of history's greatest rock bands.

Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells - Tommy James & Martin Fitzpatrick 

Lent to me on a whim by a neighbor, I only had a vague impression of who Tommy James is at the time. Oh yeah! The guy who wrote Mony, Mony and Crimson and Clover. However, his story is deeper and much more convoluted than his classic hits will have you believe. Scooped up by the mob ruled record label, Roullette Records, at a very young age, he was soon under their thumb. You can imagine all of the rock-n-roll cliches that would come of such an arrangement. All of the lascivious trimmings are included - drugs, sex, money, violence, etc. (Fun fact: The record label head, and mob boss, Morris Levy, was the model for the Sopranoes character, Herman 'Hesh' Rabkin.) And of course, Tommy was never paid his proper royalties and over time, he lost millions and millions of dollars. The good news is Mr. James is ultimately redeemed. It is a fun read and also an interesting take on the music industry at large during the 1960s - 70s.

Autobiography of Andre Agassi: OPEN - Andre Agassi  

One of my heroes. I have always felt a certain kinship with Andre. My wife makes fun of me for that. After reading his book, that feeling has only increased. So, writing an objective summary is very difficult. Even if you are not a fan of tennis, or Andre, you will enjoy this book. The tennis stuff is interesting, sure, but more so, it is a revealing story that exposes Andre as a far more complex, at times troubled, human being - very much at odds with the image that we all know. I found it oddly comforting that despite all of his success and rewards, he was never fully at peace with himself. He was always searching for the real Andre, the better Andre, even when he was the best in the game. The good news, like Tommy James above, he too finds his redemption.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man - Jerry Weintraub

I would love to meet Jerry. Talk about a media tycoon. This guy has been a manager, agent, producer, directory, promoter, movie mogul, and on and on for over 50 years. He has worked with so many giants of the industry: Elvis, John Denver, George Clooney, Frank Sinatra, etc. that he is now a veritable giant himself and just loaded with wisdom acquired from such an amazingly rich life. This is a true by the bootstraps success story and truly inspiring. Written in a perfect conversational style, it is a slick read with tons of parables and insight into the entertainment business at large. I want to read it again as there are so many life lessons to be learned from this old wise man. The final quote in the book is really the perfect summary:  I was never afraid to fail, which meant I was never afraid to try. I was never afraid to look silly, which meant I was never threatened by a new idea. I see the road ahead, too, a stretch that bends into the undergrowth. I do not know what will happen there, but I do know, whatever it is, I will rush to meet it with joy.

Lilac - Helm Matthews 

I know Helm from the music scene of Rochester, MN some 20 years in the past. He his also known as Ted. I picked up his first novel a few months ago and I am duly impressed. It is a well formulated story - emotionally gripping, relatable, grounded in realism with a hint of Twilight Zone overtones. The perfect kind of balance in storytelling that I find to be most compelling. Here is the brief review I sent his way:  I am no literary critic, so, I won't try to say anything profoundly insightful, but, GREAT book. Seriously impressive. It is very well written - a tight, concise, right to the point (to the emotions most importantly), well told story. When I had time to settle in, the pages just kept turning on their own. Consider me a fan and I am spreading the word. I look forward to your next work. Also, makes me want to visit Winona again! Was cool to connect with all of the MN references as well.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Scenic Overlook

Fall 2010: I traveled North to the shores of Lake Superior, South to the bowels of Kansas, East to the reminiscence of Milwaukee, and then West to the rest stop. Yes, the rest stop. A destination unto itself. A perfect punctuation point to conclude this series of road trips, or road work, as I prefer to call it.

All of this road time was solo and a somewhat measurable exercise in brain development, i.e. a lot of time to reflect and process and create and plan. Time in the past I have hated, but this time, it was different. I actually found a lot of joy and self-fulfillment during the long hours of solitude. So much so that I began to wonder if my true self is actually the guy on the road, the guy who takes the bold step of leaving the cocoon, mildly rootless, venturing out to the relative wild to work, and advance life on his own terms. 

Now, of course, I say this not at the expense of anything. I think the thing that actually has made these trips easier is that I am able to maintain a closer home connection by way of cell phone, text messaging, e-mail, ubiquitous wi-fi, and so on. All combined, they help ease the loneliness, to lighten the dark shadows that follow along with the miles. They unclutter the mind for purer musings. Without those lifelines, it would be quite a different venture. And, in the end, as satisfying and necessary as these brief times of solitude are, both for personal and musical growth, it is always an even greater joy to come home. I guess maybe I am not that guy.

The last of the series was a trip to Milwaukee to complete work on a DVD project for Hal Leonard Corporation. I have driven that long stretch of highway, I-94, Minnesota to Milwaukee and back again, a hundred times or more. And, as the common story goes, the drive is about consuming the miles, getting from point A to point B as fast and efficiently as possible, essentially, to get the drive over with already! However, this trip (and on my previous trek to Kansas) I took a different tack. I stopped a few times, took a few moments, and just did my best to enjoy. After all, it was in the peak of Fall, my favorite season, the weather was consistently glorious, and I found the expansive rural landscapes to be mesmerizing.

Shooting the DVD project was a grueling process. The day was long, having to play perfectly and speak generally off the cuff without error for nearly 9 hours in total. The shoot was staged under the bright, persistent gaze of the studio lights (I can now see how interrogations can be so disorienting and successful) and it took everything I had to stay in character the final two hours. When it was done, I felt like I had climbed Mt. Whitney all over again. I was left drained with a complete loss of perspective on what I had just accomplished. As per usual, in my mind, I could have, should have, done so much better. I often get so wrapped up in my own head, self-critical to a detrimental effect, rarely, if ever, do I enjoy the process of a work in progress. Ditto for my life at large.

On the drive back home, heading West, I paused at a rest stop just outside of Black River Falls, WI. This particular rest stop caught my eye as it also offered up a scenic overlook. I found the path that led to said overlook and began to walk (first having to ditch the internal clock pestering me to get home) and just kept walking some more. The paved path led into a wooded area which ultimately converged with a kind of boardwalk right through the trees. Besides the hum of the neighboring highway, it was very peaceful. And I was alone.

After what must have been about a 1/4 mile stretch, I reached the scenic overlook - a still pretty swath of picked over trees as far as the eye could see. Despite the somewhat arid condition of the foliage, there was a lot of beauty to behold. Another mesmerizing landscape and an obvious metaphor - the scenic overlook that was my life and work for the year. Yep, this was a good old fashioned stopping to smell the roses moment, actually seeing the forest despite the trees so to speak. The DVD work was suddenly intoxicating, a realization of a job well done, and I extended that feeling of good will to the work over the course of the year and to my life in general. I actually started feeling right about what I was doing, had done, and do have. From this vantage point I saw the blessing that is my family, I saw my good health, I saw my friends, and on and on. I surveyed the scene, the scenic overlook of my life and work so far. And what a stunning landscape it is.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Winfield Performance Review: An Interior Monologue

i am cool as a cucumber uncomfortably cool clammy is becoming me you can do this be the man japanese kids rule the day don't do the collapse am i in tune? smiling happy man confidence is fleeting that guy is playing a really long time number 34 there is a fan folks in kansas are very friendly 3 hours later don't talk feedback all i hear is my foot stomping stop steady steady steady breathe where's the sound? hey eric i enjoyed our chat you played very well bad note bad notes missing notes too much bad ending try again 2 chances to make it well this greek food is not sitting too well text messages what a clean horse barn pete huttlinger is watching me folks in Iowa are very friendly made some new guitar friends youtube faces come to life judges hear everything judges focusing on my weaknesses my weaknesses win pat kirtley played a fine set you against you brother and 39 other players caught off guard did i turn off my phone? i was ready relax release who am i? don't think feel you are the man a prepubescent guitarist where did i go? last tune better than the first but not good enough completely utterly deflated beautiful landscapes saved me i miss sadie sparse but attentive crowd I miss my wife folks in missouri are very friendly yesterday was a long day today was a long day tomorrow is going to be a really fucking long day objective sidecar walk off stage left bow look cool job undone that wasn't so bad nah it sucked don't think i will return next year perhaps i will.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wax on. Wax off.

I got cocky this weekend. Or, rather, I should say, careless. New Roots Duo had two shows, one a.m. and one p.m., and I have no excuses for a poor showing in the morning. Okay, as usual, though not usually in a public forum, I am pretty hard on myself. I have spent much time on this blog expounding on the beauty of transcendent playing; the spiritual, existential, metaphysical, blah, blah, blah, experiential moments that occur in live performance. See my previous article here.

Now, I feel it is my duty to expound on the other extreme. I hadn't rehearsed, or even touched, the duo material since our last show together which was....I am not sure (still no excuse). When I opened my case, I had  to confirm that the baritone guitar still had six strings attached. This Summer, due to my familial and professional obligations, any rehearsal time that was allotted to me was spent on my solo gigs (still no excuse). See my previous article here.

But hey, no big deal right? Dan and I have tackled numerous gigs with zero run-throughs and always found a way to pull it off; often with exceptional results. I still believe in allowing time and space for the music to grow. Time away from the guitar can be very productive and valuable, but, not too much time. So, what's one more shot in the dark? A big miss. A fat zero. Fortunately, it was a very laid back show (a farmer's market), and the only people I was really letting down were myself, and worse, my musical compadre Dan. Sorry Dan.  (I would like to take a moment to ensure the readers that Dan played great at both events.)

From the moment we kicked off I was unfocused and really had very little idea what I was doing. I mean, a certain amount of muscle memory and a well trained autopilot can carry you through, but, that is just enough to get from the start to the finish; point A to point B without crashing. I did everything I could to get myself on track, listened, tried to concentrate, people watched, turned away and then toward the sun, tried to find amusement in toddler's dancing, engaging people who walk up and talk to you in the middle of a tune, "Hey, what tuning is that?!", a woman requesting her favorite tune from the CD, sitting down right in front of us to listen, then realizing it was the wrong tune, smelling the food, and, even watching my shadow for clues. That turned out to be the most useful device.

Dan was his usual easy going self, " Don't worry man, it's good to be on the edge. That is when magical things happen." I remarked, "Sure, that is true if you can ultimately pull it off." It can also be disastrous. Okay, I am being a little over dramatic. It was not that terrible. As I already mentioned, it was just a farmer's market. We often use such gigs as rehearsal (sorry music coordinators). But, still, a performance is a performance and I need to be there 100 percent and give it my full attention, my full effort, every time. That is what a professional does. It is not fair to Dan, in this sense, perhaps even more so, to myself, and even more so, to the music. Lesson learned. I guess I will never stop learning these so called lessons.

We (I) made it through and the morning was done. The great irony of it all was, we sold more CDs than we ever have at this particular farmer's market. It is a phenomenon I have experienced countless times over the course of my performing career; the worst shows always sell the most product. WTF? Just demonstrates how subjective this performing thing is, the internal perception anyway, and, I guess in all reality, I really have no clue.

Fortunately, the evening's gig was something else all together. My head was in the right space, still on edge, but magical things did happen. See my previous article on the topic here.

The rust was abated. Wax on. Wax off.

Time to get to work.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Goodbye August. Goodbye Summer.

It appears we have entered the long dénouement into Fall, then...fade to black. Yep, the Minnesota State Fair is in full swing which is the ultimate symbol of Summer's demise. So be it. I am ready for Fall but have really enjoyed the past few months...more so than I ever have. I actually was successful (sort of) in my efforts to embrace the sun, though, many evenings were comfortably spent in the basement recovering. I was lucky enough to enjoy several vacations, tons of quality family time, and now, it is time to reflect a bit and get ready to move forward. It's not quite over yet though! In fact, I started writing this in between grill check points.


I played a few fun shows this Summer with two exceptional stand out performances: The annual Lake Harriet gig with New Roots Duo and my new favorite solo venue up at the old Historic Inn at Itasca State Park. Dan and I always find a way to rock the bandshell. Itasca was a serene setting with a relatively large and enthusiastic crowd AND all of that old historic inn wood just sounded amazing! It's so easy to play when you are surrounded by good vibrations. I am going to video this one next year.

The precious free work time I had was spent playing the guitar, of course, and I must emphasize the word playing. It was an absolute joy to sit down periodically for spontaneous practice sessions; short bursts of inspiration that yielded surprising results. I will expound on this experience in a later article. Anyway, it was a welcome relief to the usual overly focused intense 'gotta get something done!' sessions which dominated the previous year. I think I am on to something. And, I no longer wake up at 5:00AM to work.

Moving Forward:

I have been working up several new solo guitar arrangements of pop tunes from various eras. This is not a concept that has necessarily been planned and carried forth. It's just what has been showing up at my door. See my previous reference to playing and joy. Not sure if it will lead to another immediate project or not. If so, it will be an odd duck - perhaps 1/2 arrangements and 1/2 new compositions. Talk about a mixed up muse.

I am also very much looking forward to regrouping with New Roots Duo. We have some solid shows coming up, some new music, and are hoping to record a few singles later this Fall. I head to Milwaukee sometime in October to tape a session for a new instructional DVD that is being released by Hal Leonard Corporation. It is not exclusively my instructional DVD but rather I am one of the featured acoustic personalities in the series. More on this later as well. Needless to say, it is a fine opportunity.

I am hoping to play live more this coming year, maybe hit the road more often, beginning with a trip down to Winfield, Kansas later this month to compete in the International Fingerstyle Competition. Why I submit myself to such abuse I will never know. A born hedonist, I suppose I need a counterweight. Perhaps there are some masochistic tendencies hidden within. It will be interesting to see what goes down. My playing style isn't really designed to win competitions but this is an opportunity to showcase in front of a large and selective audience. Hopefully I will make some new, more far reaching, connections as a result. If I escape the experience with my ego still intact, I will count it as a victory.

Yes, another time of transition is upon us. A time to look back, a time to look forward, and time to stay present.

 See you later in September!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Technique

What is technique? I like this Merriam-Webster definition the best:

A method of accomplishing a desired aim.

Developing and refining one's guitar technique is a lifelong evolution and absolutely essential to becoming a proficient player. Every day I am reminded of this while working with students or working through my own practice routine. There is always something to be changed, added, deleted, fingerings to manipulate, postures to adjust, flexibility and fluidity to be maximized, motion to be minimized, and, all in all, it is the necessary grind to facilitate the most glorious end: making powerful music.We, as players, particularly finger-style or classical guitarists, spend endless hours obsessing on and developing our technique as a means to communicate our music in the most effortless manner possible. We try to knock down all of the physical impediments so as to allow the metaphysical elements the requisite room to sing out.

I remember two specific instances quite early in my development as a guitarist when I first learned the importance of developing a strong, solid, technical base. Back in those days, the early 1980s to be sort of specific, experiencing music was still predominantly an aural experience. Some of the most profound musical developments for me occurred as I would lay on the ground, headphones on (and plugged into the turntable), eyes closed, listening deeply. What the players were doing at this time - or the method in which they were accomplishing their most awesome aim - was left up to my imagination. I would hear Leo Kottke play all of those notes, so fast, so loud, so soft, and thinking to myself, 'How is one human, with presumable only two hands and 10 fingers, able to produce so much sound'? I would hear Geddy Lee whipping off these crazy fills, and riffs, and again, inhuman feats. 'How in the Hell'!? These guys have got to be moving a mile a minute and there extremities HAVE to be running wild! Right? Wrong.

And then I saw each man perform. What a revelation! As I studied their hands I could not believe the economy of motion each exhibited, I mean, relative to the notes being produced, their hands were barely moving. I could hardly tell what they were doing as all motion was so extremely limited; extremely compact as they navigated the fretboard. Lesson learned. Efficiency of motion is so key to effective communication. I had my work cut out for me.

I am sure that these guys still practice. I believe any true virtuoso does. Not just for writing purposes, to produce new material, but I am willing to bet that each still obsesses over ways they can improve their respective abilities and still work things over and over again. Even at the highest levels of mastery, there is still something higher. However, the first steps require long disciplined practice and self-analysis. From the beginnings to the desired end, a strong, solid, technical base is absolutely fundamental and essential. If something is difficult to play, chances are, your technique is a bit unstable and just needs to be tweaked. Get used to it. Keep working. You are only getting better.

And always remember the desired aim: making powerful music.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer Fancy and Mindless Practice

Just before the Summer blast set in, I rediscovered a long forgotten technique for practicing my guitar; TV practice. Yep, that's right. You plop down on the couch, flip through the channels, find a bad program, and let the aimless wandering begin. I can't tell you how many compositional ideas I have stumbled on this way over the years. This sort of exercise facilitates mindless practice, an altered state if you will, where the subconscious rises to the top and assumes control. Now, I am in no way advocating this method as your PRIMARY practicing routine, it is just a way to shake up the grind and allow the whimsy a little space to groove.

For me, with the limited time that I have, the tendency is to get bogged down by the time crunch and fall into the required regimen of having to work on this piece or that in preparation for this concert or that recording. As a professional it is very easy to forget how to 'play' the guitar. Since I am in full time Dad mode for the Summer, my free (and work) time has been drastically depleted (all for the great), however, when I do have time to practice, it has become my freedom to explore, to alleviate the pressure, and to unwind. The usual persistent, disciplined practice has been temporarily put on hold, and the pure fun has returned. I tell you now, this expanded space has only benefited my playing. A little bit of letting go can go a long way. Try it.

TV practice can also turn the redundant repetition of working on a particularly difficult passage or technique into a very effective and efficient routine for improvement. When you pull away that intense, focused attention, things fall into place in the most unexpected ways. I often think of a classical guitarist I new in college. He went on to study at Juilliard and ultimately became a GFA (a very prestigious guitar competition) winner, and  he played the most flawless scales I ever heard. He was an occasional TV practicer. I would be willing to bet that there are many more top flight players out there who have employed this ancient technique.

Of course these days, you have a massive library of bad TV, reality shows, movies, and scattered media, at your fingertips by way of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and the like. The possibilities are endless and there is no excuse for not getting something done. So, take a break, and get down to some serious mindless practice.

I got a ton done late the other night watching this...

Monday, May 24, 2010

What's Happenin'

Back in Buffalo 
I was lucky enough to spend three (all too quick) days visiting an old friend back in Buffalo, NY last week. It is one of those friendships that are quite divided by time and distance but remains close nonetheless. I flew in, played a quick featured set at a local open stage, yes, I flew 1000 miles to play at an open stage, not really, but it was just a last minute thing at the last minute. And, I will say what a blast it was! The place was packed (I know of no other such rockin' acoustic joint on a TUESDAY night in the Cities) and had a total rock club ambiance. I took the stage with no time to think (or sound check) and played my ass off. Somehow, I turned the surrounding noise into silence (because the patrons were listening NOT because they all left) until the end. This was an electric feeling I haven't felt in a while - playing out of my mind with a complete sense of abandonment. Many lessons to be learned here and I will expound on them in a later article.

The next two days we spent recording at a new friend's studio - I played secondary guitar on my buddy's developing vocal project entitled, Distant Songs. Again, a quick hit, but we definitely rounded out some beautiful sounds that day, we just need more time to really dig in. Hey, I guess the Internet and home project studios will have to fill in the gaps. His project definitely has some new momentum and I look forward to working on more tracks to see it all to it's conclusion. Additionally, I now have a new favorite guitar that is owned by someone else: A Martin 0-45S Stephen Still Limited Edition Guitar. It almost found it's way into my flight case, but no, thou shall not covet another man's guitar...or something. 

And then, we attended a solo Neil Young concert at the Shea's Buffalo Theatre. The venue? Stunning. Neil? Mesmerizing. I won't even attempt to describe such an ethereal experience, it's impossible, but it definitely has left a permanent etching on the inspired zone of my brain, and heart. As an unforeseen bonus to the night, Bert Jansch, one of the godfathers of finger-style guitar opened the show. So thrilled to add one more great to the 'seen live' list.

The LOST Finale
 Well, it was what it was and is what it is. I, like many millions, have been anticipating this for months. I have also, like many millions, gave up on this show months ago. If you went into this final program with no expectations to get any answers on most everything, like I did, then, I believe it was a very emotionally satisfying conclusion to one of the best TV series of all time. The final scene, particularly the final few seconds, were very powerful and so beautifully shot, I got a 'Six Feet Under' vibe from the whole thing. A visual elegy of sorts, still can't get the last image out of my mind. In the face of many critics near and far, I will say that final shot was brilliant. So there.

Embracing Summer
Summer is here. It is hot. I am embracing the warmth though it flies in the face of my natural state. However, I'll check back with you on this topic in July. Enjoy it and hold close the ones you love.

 Back In Buffalo (Leo Kottke)

We got out of Buffalo
Locked inside the plane
And underneath the clouds below
The weather turned to rain
The weather turned to rain

Sunlight blinded passenger
Staring down at fright
We said don't we love misery
Maybe we were right
Maybe we were right

Far above Lake Erie
We got lost on wine
We said we know what we're doing
But we had lost our minds
We had lost our minds

Ten more years on marley floors
We left that job to go
Back where people loved us once
We're back in Buffalo
We're back in Buffalo

Friday, April 30, 2010

Why 'The Spirit of Radio' is My Favorite Song

Can you answer the question, "What is your favorite song"? I can. Yep, I have whittled it down to one and I have known it since I was 12 years old. This is my desert island song; my funeral song. I am talking about The Spirit of Radio by Rush. It played a very big role in what remains one of the most decisive musical experiences of my life; it was the opener of the Power Windows tour '85. If I close my eyes, and lean back, I can still feel the sheer impact of the lights going up and the bombastic opening riffs coming down. I must have heard this tune some 5000 times throughout my lifetime. 5000. Seriously, how can someone listen to a tune 5000 times and not get sick of it?

Yes indeed, how and why? I will attempt, to the best of my conscious abilities, answer those questions below. Most of the deeper intangibles escape the surface, but, the things I can describe, I will.

First, this tune always makes me happy. Always.

Second, this tune f'ing rocks. I mean, it seriously rocks. It is a prime example of virtuosic rock. It is one big fat timeless sprawling epic masterpiece of a tune exhibiting sophisticated jazz man chops yet is completely accessible to the masses. You can sing it, you can dance to it, you can air guitar to it, you can play your air drums to it, you can just listen, you can analyze it, and it always satisfies in every dimension.

Third, it is smart writing. The lyrics alone read with the smooth grace and perfect rhythm of a Longfellow poem.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antenna bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on a timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free

Fourth, the impeccable musicianship. The sum of the parts are certainly the strongest force, but, when broken down individually, they hold up on their own; almost like three, or four, solos playing in tandem. Remember, there are only 3 guys in this band. I love power trios and the amount of sound they project is astounding. Also, the bass tone is killer.

Fifth, the tune is very dynamic and takes the listener on a musical journey. Like a great novel, it is so easy to lose yourself in the experience. When you wake up you wonder, "What the hell just happened?" "Where was I?" "Whatever, man, that was awesome!"

Sixth, it is innovative and has withstood the test of time. It juxtaposes some seriously heavy rock guitar riffs with a perfectly pretty pop melody, and then, a reggae breakdown. What is THAT all about?

Lastly, and certainly not least, this tune always makes me happy. Always.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Back to the Basics

It was the great Benjamin Verdery who said (paraphrasing), "Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics of playing the guitar." I have been ruminating over this comment ever since I heard it last year during a master class at St. Thomas University. Recently, it has been sounding a particularly resonant chord within. Of course, at the time, Ben was referring to technical aspects of playing the guitar, i.e. slurs, scales, arpeggios exercises, you know, guitar heads, the basic technical work that we all go through to become proficient players. Even when you think you have things under control, mastered maybe, there is always something to be learned and refined by revisiting the fundamentals. This is applicable to technical as well as metaphysical aspects of the playing the guitar. For this article, I am focusing on the metaphysical. Technique will be addressed at a later time.

These past couple of weeks I have been reverting back to the basics of my playing by burying myself deep into some of the roots music that forms the relatively short, yet rich, history of American finger-style guitar. I think it is important to do this, to become aware of the history of what you do, to further deepen your relationship with the music you play and ultimately produce. I guess it is, essentially, looking back to move forward.

Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Joseph Spence, are the artists that have been speaking to me as of late. Blake's (ragtime) hey day was in the late 20s to early 30s. Fuller (blues/ragtime) was active in the late 20s to the 40s. And Spence (gospel/Bahamian songs) was 'discovered' in the late 50s and remained an active player until he died in 1984. I always find myself circling back to these players when I need to ground myself musically, when I feel things are spinning way out beyond the stratosphere and everything sounds like trash. It happens.These dudes are another form of gravity.

Blake, Fuller, and Spence exhibit three common qualities that all players should hear, listen to, and absorb (of course there are more but these are the ones that are most striking at the moment). You don't need to play their pieces, or explore their respective genres of music, or even like them for that matter, but there are some true bedrock, foundational principles that endure and will help anyone further their abilities. All three are open to interpretation in the strict sense, but when you listen, you'll know what I mean:

1. A profound sense of rhythm (groove)
2. A profound sense of emotional expressiveness (soul)
3. A profound sense of freedom (sense of humor and spontaneity)

All of these qualities are adaptable to any kind of music that you play. It is so easy to get bogged down by the 'what' and the 'how' and forget the 'way'. These three giants (and many others of their time and beyond) were connected in such a 'way' that is infectious. People smiled when they heard them, hell, people danced! Never ever be afraid to go back to the basics.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Guitarists Are A Passionate People

Good morning! It is approximately 5:00AM as I write my latest blog entry. I have been on 'Spring Break' this week, so, alas, my productivity has been somewhat sluggish and nullified by family fun, and, I have fallen behind on everything. In quest of this week's topic, I have been reviewing some of my guitar history books and stumbled upon the hilarious image below. It is a lithograph created by Charles de Marescot, a French guitarist who was active in the mid-19th century; a time widely considered as the first 'golden age' of classical guitar. The image is entitled, Discussion between the Carullists and the Molinists; that would be Ferdinando Carulli and Francesco Molino, two well known players and pedagogues of the era. What the gentlemen in this illustration are  fighting about, no one really knows. There are no historical records of any great rivalry between the two artists, so, Matanya Ophee has surmised that perhaps they were fighting over some aspect of each player's methodology. Mr. Ophee compared their respective teaching methods and boiled it down to one main difference between the player's technique: the use of the left hand thumb. His article can be found here. I hope that is what caused this riot. THAT would be hilarious.

Anyway, it just reminded me how passionate guitarists can be about their own craft and the players they love. I don't know of any all out guitar busting rumbles in recent history, but I have encountered some very opinionated musicians who, if crossed just the right way, just might take you down with their axe. So, I wonder, what could cause such a riot in this day and age? There are many, many, "schools" and "schools of thought" so to speak within the world of finger-style guitar and, as beautiful as this world is, conflicts regarding that which is 'good' and 'bad' do exist. Guitarists are a passionate people. What legendary players and their respective followers would stir such a violent passion today? Hedges vs. Kottke? Chet vs. Merle? Ackerman vs. DeGrassi? Bensusan vs. McLaughlin? Ross vs. Emmanuel? The possibilities are endless.

I jest, but I do think it is important to have, and stay true to, your own core principles as a player. Such clarity is essential. I have a pretty clear idea of my own but would never challenge another's approach or belief system. If you do come after me though, get ready for a fight, but please, let's leave the guitars in their cases!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Cleaning

This week I offer a short and sweet post as I am on my way out the door for some Spring skiing/snowboarding. Yep, Spring is upon us and I am feeling reborn. The malaise that typically coincides with the completion of a relatively major project is gone, and now, I am ready to subject myself to much more; projects and malaise. Portrait of a tortured artist? Or an artist that loves torture? I hope I am not THAT cliche ridden.

The days are getting longer which gives me more time to retreat from the sun (I am a salamander), hide away in my bunker, and get to work. Right now, I am all about industriousness and full on output...with some quality control of course. I don't know, maybe I am falling victim to the latest rash of Home Depot commercials - turning up my "doing dial" - or something like that. But really, this is also about staying busy and staying positive in a down economy. It is no secret that gigs have been tough this year, all things are slow, so, I am working on controlling what I can while I can.

My wife often asks me what I do during the day when I am home working. In a nuttshell, in no particular order, and with variable attention and priority, here is what I am working on. ALL of which will be completed by year's end. Here it is in writing. It shall be done. If I could sign this blog, I would use twenty pens to do so.

My current work flow and projects in process:
  • Spinning some solid ideas for new solo compositions.
  • Completing work (at least back in the groove) on the next New Roots Duo CD. The tunes are getting close and recording should begin this Summer.
  • I have outlined and have begun arranging the Christmas CD. Yep, I am going to do it.
  • Getting closer to starting my etude project/teaching method.
  • Finally transcribing my pieces and will have them available for sale on my site as I get them done.
  • Setting up shows/gigs.
  • Playing shows/gigs.
  • Scheduling and keeping up with various rehearsals.
  • Practicing, practicing, and practicing again.
  • Always listening. Always.
  • Researching new pieces and ideas for instruction.
  • Teaching.
  • Keeping up with business junk and general promotion.
  • Blog.
Of course, all of these options could be sent back to committee for review. I also reserve the right to repeal any and all subjects based on feasibility. Geez, I don't want to bankrupt my soul.

Happy Spring Everyone!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Great Christmas Album Dilemma

This week's events have sparked, or rather, reignited, the nagging internal debate that I have suffered through for years as a musical artist: Should I make a Christmas album? My wife thinks so. I was at Hoffman Guitars the other day, and, I was being encouraged to do so by the staff as well. I greatly respect all of these opinions.

As we all know, Christmas is BIG business. Some say it is evil business. And EVERYONE has made a Christmas album. To me, Christmas has always just been about a fun time filled with family, friends, warm memories, and...presents! A beacon of light in the the vast darkness of the Minnesota Winter season.

Many artists that I greatly admire have made Christmas albums. I remember when  Billy McLaughlin took the turn sometime in '96. His words: "Ben, I sold my soul and finally made a Christmas record." Now, he is doing VERY well with his 'Simple Gifts' ensemble and has managed to make the experience into quality musical art...and big business.

Leo Kottke actually contributed a tune to a Christmas compilation album. His only criteria: he had to write his own Christmas tune; the exquisite 'Accordion Bells'. Of course, this idea is the most appealing to me.

Pete Mayer released a holiday album called, 'Midwinter' - a collection of original songs on various themes of the holiday season, some more strongly related to it than others." Another attractive idea but, I am no Pete Mayer.

And then, there is Lorie Line...we'll let that one go.

I guess I have always thought of these projects as 'selling out', or a way to jump start a sagging career, or a way to jump start ANY semblance of a career. I have not been able to put a positive spin on my own possible participation in such an endeavor. I am still desperately holding on to the idea of being 'the artist', the guy who does not compromise his principles, and, blah blah blah. So, how does one balance the business vs. art in this debate? I think it is an unwinnable war. I feel as though there is devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other both whispering in my ears. Is that a scene from 'Animal House'?!

So, I am starting to make plans and have begun to outline the project. This does not mean it is going to get done, it just means I am thinking more about the possibility.There has to be a snappy title; something other than "Holiday Guitar", "Christmas Music for the Soul", "Guitar and Tinsel", and so on....

Tune selection will be very important. I gotta incorporate the 'hits' but be sure to include some creative twists as well...maybe an original composition or two. Maybe some Elvis? Oh! I have an idea!

Cover art is key as well. See title comments. Avoid any and all cheese.

No flutes, no strings, no harp.

Keep it simple. Intimate. Do what you do best.

Red and green with a little blue.
100 percent solo guitar.

A lot of joy and additional warmth can be brought to a lot people with music; especially friends and family. What a wonderful gift.

Hmm...this could be good.

Stay tuned my friends. 7 months and counting. Have you started your shopping yet? Get ready! Ben Woolman's Christmas album, coming to a Walmart near you!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just Walking Around

Dan said, "Let's just spend a quick 10 minutes on this." And then, we were off...

I have been decompressing from my CD release and accompanying release concert the past couple of weeks. Just kind of walking around both literally and figuratively; stuck in a moderate rut. Coming down from these peak events can be so draining and it always takes some time to find my feet again, stand up, balance, and start moving on to the next thing.

Dan and I were setting up to begin working through a routine rehearsal session. We have both been more preoccupied with our other projects as of late but remain committed to writing and rehearsing as a duo in an effort to release another collection of music later this year. We were tuning, chatting, etc, and then I started to play a rather simple, lush, chord progression on my baritone guitar to warm up. Dan started playing along and the beginnings of a new piece of music were born.

By the end of the session, we had the framework, or at least a bulk of the main ideas for a complete piece. You never know when these moments will occur and it's funny how sublime ideas can emerge after some time away and extended periods of nothingness. This wasn't the intention of our rehearsal. What was on it's way to being  somewhat standard ended up being somewhat liberating.

Moments like these serve as a reminder of why I make music in the first place. It is so easy to get bogged down by the business, the criticism, the stalled progress, and the emptiness. But every so often, there is a light. Even a new sprinkle of a musical idea can serve as a fine elixir to ease the ailment of creative and professional stagnation. It is even bigger than. When one is so consumed  by their work, it can influence the overall perspective on life and existence. I am serious. Looking inward, mining the dark interior caverns, following an idea to it's ultimate apex, or ultimate demise. When you are fully consumed with this process, you forget everything else but the music. And, no matter how brief, said process is crucial to maintaining the mental and spiritual health of any musician. These are the only times when I feel that I am truly living in the present, completely centered.

So, 10 minutes and 1 hour later we had a new tune. I am still walking around. However, I definitely have a new spring in my step.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tune In, Listen, Raise Your Thumbs!

This week I offer you a sort of corollary to my previous article, The World is Not Small. Internet radio is quickly becoming a viable promotional tool for independent musicians such as myself. They are becoming more and more ubiquitous, are often free, pay royalties, many major artists are on board, and, the most powerful aspect of all is that the listener is in control. On various services such as Pandora, listeners can create their own personalized stations based on an artist or genre they like, and then, music that fits the chosen criteria begins to populate their set list.

Currently I am in the process of adding my music to as many of these stations as possible and just working on getting to know the medium. The approval process for Pandora is quite lengthy, is cool, then, a friend of mine introduced me to Jango which boasts over 6 million listeners strong. It works the same was as the other stations with one additional feature; the artist can pay for target marketing. The theory is that with target marketing you can identify the exact listener who your music will appeal to according to demographics, genre, geography, and hence, start building a legion of  fans potentially around the world. Sure, I am skeptical but, since I am not touring at the moment, any and all forms of promotion for the new album are on the table. So, I bought 1000 targeted plays, and this is how it all went down (I mean, Madonna is here, so, how bad could it be?):

Here is the link to the Ben Woolman Jango Station.

I associated myself with artists like: Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, Sting, Pete Huttlinger, John Fahey, Nickel Creek, James Taylor, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, and so on.

Genre (never has there been an adequate genre description for finger-style guitar so I always settle for what is offered): Folk, Instrumental, New Age, Ambient, Barf

In a little more than a week I have had my music played 2000 times to a target audience (yes, I re-upped to another 1000 plays), plus, additional organic plays to folks who found me on their own. 131 people have become fans in that they chose to click the thumbs up logo on my station which states, "I am a Fan!".

My music has now been heard in the following countries, that I know of: US, Canada, Texas, Italy, Australia, Egypt, Brazil, Japan, UK, Columbia, New Zealand, Mexico, Phillipines, Finland, Netherlands, Turkey, France, Germany, Morocco, India, Bosnia, Singapore, Czech Republic, France, Portugal, and, Romania.

Select listener comments:

very nice mood indeed, Ben...thank you!

fantastic guitar playing.

Make me feel dreams!!

this is very light, pretty and very relaxing... Reminds me of the beauty of simplicity.

nice guitar...makes me more jealous of you..amazing ...

Time will tell if this kind of promotion will yield any tangible results, i.e. sales. I remain a skeptic in many ways but it has been a kick to get e-mails on a daily basis informing me that someone, anyone, is listening and that they are now a fan of me. But, they are tuning in and showing their love. It definitely has been an effective promotional tool for my self-confidence and most assuredly my ego. Without much live performance at the moment, this kind validation can be invaluable. The bottom line is, my music is out there and it is being heard. Oops, that reminds me, I am just about out of plays this week. I better login and check my account. Hey, who says money can't buy happiness?

Friday, February 26, 2010

CD Release Concert Review: An Interior Monologue

nice venue a little bright it's not too noisy i hope people are comfortable i hope some people show up ah the sound man young dude seems slightly incompetent i left nothing to chance so much can still go wrong cds cds cds who will buy? there is a lot of new music on this program sadie is so cute oh! there is Jen my lovely wife who will show up? look more friends who is that? many people many moods fine backstage i feel like a rock star backstage show time! family a little cold my hands are clammy sound ok? i think so oops feedback damn feedback i am ready am i? that note was loud that note was wrong that note was sweet that note was gone ok starting to groove now where is the beef? feel emote be the ball oh look dancing girls that is not cute i am not looking now i knew this kid once he told me I could play so many excellent guitarists in the twin cities thanks to the mn guitar society for having me more notes feeling groovy talk chatter smile audience seems content I am mildly shaken but not stirred have i ever played this tune before? am I in tune? play play my damn hands won't move fingers dance ah sweet music kind of bored with this tune love this one so much new music on this program never played these live before no need to panic just adjust mid-flight ah better the winter olympics have been so fun to watch this year snowboarding is a rush what time is it? i hope i sell some cds sweet sweet music i am so glad to be here and there looking forward looking back nice moves stay in control balance tension release tension tension hang on awesome! oops. what is next i see more sounds tone is solid people seem content audience is applauding will they want more little time left make it big play strong be bold don't blow it i am digging this a little unsettled do they notice? mistake mistakes sweet sounds mistake beautiful someone turn the lights down good thing i practiced remember to smile and say thank you.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Preparing for the Olympics

Watching the Winter Olympics this week has been a tremendously inspiring experience. I am not a world class athlete (never will be). I am not a world class guitarist (maybe someday). However, in a very small way I can relate to the athlete's intense preparation, the complex psychology, the emotional extremes, the personal triumphs and failures, the plateaus, and the elation that comes with achieving your goals. I mean, who can't? If you are involved in a job, activity, sport, something that you are remotely passionate about, you can relate.

This coming weekend is my CD release concert. Sure, by direct comparison, it is an embarrassingly minor event, but, no matter how small scale a show may be, in my mind, I am always preparing for the biggest concert; my title match, my Grand Slam event, my Olympics. This is how I push myself to stay sharp and hopefully improve along the way. It helps bring the mind and body into proper focus and to ready myself for a performance of the highest standard. On the lighter side, at least I don't have to wait another 4 years to try again and I have not sacrificed a virtual lifetime for one ultimate attempt. I mean, I will get another shot next week at my cafe gig right?

I have always been pretty much a lone wolf, attracted to the more independent sports: track, boxing, tennis, golf, skiing, you know, the basic one-on-one, mano-a-mano stuff, you against the other guy, and perhaps, even more so, you against yourself. As a performer, and a self-diagnosed head case, various applications of sports psychology are particularly useful in combating the potential influx of internal turmoil that can come into play just prior to a concert.

After her gold medal winning downhill event, Lindsey Vonn described how she wasn't nervous, that she was able to empty her mind, be brave, and was able to just go for it. She had prepared properly and she was ready. Before his super fights, Sugar Ray Leonard always said to himself, "Just be the man. Be. The. Man." And he was. Prior to the Miracle on Ice, Herb Brooks, pumping up team USA for their infamous hockey game against the USSR, said (paraphrasing), "Screw 'em!(referring to the almighty USSR team)This is YOUR time! Now go out and take it!" In other words, all insecurities do not count right now, they are not allowed, they must be banished, and, you almost have to trick yourself (at least I do) at that moment, just when you are about to hit the stage, you are the best. You must believe this. If you are well prepared, then your mind, body, and hence, the music, will respond. To me, that's a powerful way to launch into a solo guitar performance.

And so, here it is, the final stretch, the final week of practice. My tunes are tweaked, the set list is complete, and I am ready. On Sunday, I will step into the ring in quest of that elusive world title, that Grand Slam victory, that Olympic gold medal. This is my time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The World Is Not Small

The original title of this articles was "the world is small", as in, the "world is getting smaller". However, as I began to write, I realized, quite the contrary, the world is not getting small, it is getting huge. The world I am talking about is my world, my 12x14 basement studio space. The dwelling place of my guitars, my recording gear, tunes, books, computer, and now, a web cam. This is the world where I spend many of my waking hours, sometimes long and lonely, working on my craft and attempt to conduct business.

You see, I just gave my first online video lesson by way of the videoconferencing application, Skype, to a new student who lives in New Jersey; a great guy and a perfect candidate for this new teaching venture. Online lessons are kind of becoming a 'thing'. Many world class guitarists are offering lessons through this medium, and, slowly, but surely, it seems to be taking off. Needless to say, I was pretty honored, given so many other (IMHO better) available options, I was sought out.

For years, the standard teaching routine is such that I go to the studio, students come and go according to schedule, quality face-to-face time, and done. Now, I can walk downstairs, login, and there is my student, right there, about 2 feet and 1200 miles away. Sure, I know videoconferencing technology has been around a while. We have had several family gatherings this way, but, this experience was different. This was my first tangible happening in terms of applying it to my business, allowing a stranger into my personal creative domain, and, it is nothing short of revelatory.

Of course, the standard, now traditional, teaching routine has forever been altered, and, with that, so has the methodology. When I first met this student, I couldn't shake his hand. We had to fumble a few steps getting the video and audio to synchronize. I couldn't play or evaluate his guitar or get a full read on body language and posture. I couldn't zero in on technical aspects with my usual scrutiny, and, several times, while going over the music, I caught myself pointing at the transcription, the one that was sitting on my desk, in front me. "Oh, yeah, he can't see that". I would literally catch myself pointing at the screen, a mad attempt to reach out to his fretboard, to help him navigate a fingering or two. It was odd. And fun. In the end though, we found our rhythm and got into a groove with the lesson, just as most lessons go, but it was a new groove and a new learning curve. Already, I have ideas on how to improve the experience next time.

After the lesson was over, I went upstairs to grab another cup of coffee and when I returned to the studio and resumed my work for the day, I couldn't shake the feeling that the student was somehow still there, but he wasn't. I would look up at the monitor, expecting him to ask me a question or two, but he was gone. Everything was shut down. I guess, in a way, I am not alone anymore.

Suddenly, I have a whole new world, in the global sense, of potential students. I get it now. As I catch wind of listeners from Finland, China, Spain, and so on, suddenly I have a whole new world of potential listeners as well. I get it now. This is the Web 2.0 experience that a friend of mine recently helped me understand. I get it now. It is wild and whacky stuff.

Yes, my world is definitely getting bigger, and oh, the possibilities...

Friday, January 29, 2010

One man. One guitar. Many moods. Here is my new CD.

Project Summary:

Floating Feather Music is pleased to introduce, Many Moods, the fourth solo CD by Minnesota based finger-style guitarist, Ben Woolman. His latest effort offers the listener a diverse mix of musical genres ranging from the 1920s through the present century. In a sense, it is a nod to the history of finger-style guitar as well as an example of contemporary development of the style. This cosmopolitan collection features 8 original compositions and 3 arrangements with melodies hinting at the regional influences of: Latin America, Africa, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and the US, and evoking colors of: sunshine, sorrow, soul, funky, energy, joy, drama, and hope. Not since his debut CD, Lost in Density, has there been such a comprehensive representation of his abilities; a pleasant intermingling of diverse musical influences which in turn showcase his virtuosic skill and range of musical expression. It is a fine balance between intellect and intuition. According to Ben, "This project comes the closest to representing the many aspects of who I am as a player. It is a very personal statement with a splash of academia. Get to know this music and you will get to know me."

The Facts:

Male, 5 foot 10 inches, 39 years old, father, husband, musician, basement dweller, Minnesota proud, 15 year professional, 10 fingers, 10 toes, sensitive soul, big heart.

The Process:

Many Moods was recorded by the artist, alone, for the first time, in his basement studio. Says Woolman, "The time and space that was afforded with the independent process of recording at home was absolutely crucial in obtaining the results I wanted. With these luxuries, I was really able to control my environment and capture better performances in the studio more so than I ever have in my career. The result is a very intimate, natural, and transparent sound. There is no hiding on this record."

The Personnel:

Ben Woolman: All guitars, all music
Recorded and Produced by: Ben Woolman
Mixed and Mastered by: Tim Snow
Friends and trusted ears: Tim Buzza, Steve Digre, Dan Schwartz
Photography and Design Concept: Rebecca Pavlenko
Design Layout: Jim Dryden

The Track List:

1. One Afternoon (3:32) - A simple happy tune written one afternoon.
2. Invisible Sun (3:27) - One of my favorite songs by The Police, arr. Woolman.
3. Sadie's Smile (3:45) - My daughter, her smile.
4. Mazurka Dance (4:19) - Conjuring the spirits of my Polish ancestors.
5. Picture of Romance (3:44) - Dedicated to my lovely wife.
6. Salamander Swing (3:39) - Me. I am a Salamander.
7. Me, Myself, and You (3:24) - Wife and daughter sleeping upstairs, me in the basement writing.
8. Up and Back (4:01) - A reflection on progress.
9. Wicked Ascent (4:18) - Inspired by my climb of Mt. Whitney with my Father and Brother.
10. Blake Says (3:13) - An homage to the great guitarist, Blind Blake.
11. Legends of the Fall (5:12) - A gorgeous sweeping orchestral piece written by James Horner, arr.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Student, Teacher, and Fan

Since becoming a "professional" musician, how I experience a live concert has forever changed. It is no longer simply an open, joyful absorption of sound that formed my musical being as a youth, but, rather, I now process the experience (in varying degrees and order) as a consummate student, teacher, and fan. For better or for worse, this is how it all goes down, and, ultimately, all three elements mix together, funneling down into the big pot of professional development, and, hopefully, inspiration.

As a lifelong student of music, I analyze a performance and try to learn something new - a technique, a lick, a compositional concept, a joke, etc. A guitar concert can be especially fruitful given that is my primary medium. Depending on the performer, you can also learn what NOT to do as well. Then, student becomes teacher. I try to extract examples to reinforce a topic, clarify an idea, or gain a new historical or musical perspective to incorporate and pass on to my students. As a fan, I find a moment to lay back, listen, and enjoy.

So, it is from these perspectives that I offer you my thoughts on the Dakota Dave Hull show which took place at the Riverview Cafe in Minneapolis, January 16th, 2010:

Dakota Dave Hull is a self described 'Guitarist. Producer. Old Fart.' I chuckle every time I read that on his Facebook page. A longtime local musical fixture, he is an absolute joy to watch; a model of good taste and musicality. All contemporary finger-style guitarists need to see this guy as there are too many lessons to be listed here. His playing incorporates very subtle, internal pyrotechnics, that have a huge impact. As a player, I can tell you that pulling off such musical effects is way more difficult than speed and technical facility. It is something that can only be developed from years and years of practice. He tells a great story with his playing, with every note that he plays, and is always following a catchy, sometimes profound, sometimes whimsical melody. The performance was a veritable guitar/roots music history seminar as well (albeit a very entertaining one). Over the course of the evening Dave played 5 different guitars: two National baritone guitars (tuned down to low B), a custom Hoffman piccolo guitar (tuned up an octave above standard tuning), a jumbo 6 string, and a standard National Reso-Phonic guitar. The musical ground he covered began somewhere in the 1800's moved through the 20th century and landed in the present. He played tunes of or inspired by: Tin Pan Alley, Stephen Foster, Ragtime, Cakewalks, Gospel, Joseph Spence, Irish Fiddle Tunes, as well as his own compositions that were a happy blend of some or one or ALL of these genres. He is a throwback, one of the most direct links to the traditions of American music for sure and through his work and performance over the years, he has become an important historical figure unto himself. This is meat and potatoes music, it is substantial, the base, and, who doesn't love meat and potatoes? Dakota Dave demonstrates that old time is a great time and still very relevant.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Do the Hustle

Ah, fear, loathing, and the drudgery of self-promotion. This is the game we play as independent musicians, the big challenge of the one man show. Armed with 1000 copies of the new CD, wielding the the double edged sword of ego and arrogance from a sheath of humble graciousness, I am ready to battle the behemoth of the music industry. It is time to get the new music in the hands of the press, radio (what is left of it), Internet resources, famous people I know, Blogs, and so on. It is time to do the hustle, time to face the business of music, time to market myself from an objective point of view. Step one in this process: writing the press release. I must find the proper superlatives to describe the CD, the music, and myself. I must say nice things about myself, be creative, avoid cliches, convince others (press folks) that what I say is true, to convince them of the same things. My words will become their words. "Really, the CD is great, I am great, the press release says so!"

Oh, but it would be so much more fun if somehow the CD would take on a life of it's own and somehow, magically, land in the right hands, the right ears, which, in turn, would yield the positive press and the gigs that I need. I know, things could be much worse. I also know, things could be so much better as well. I guess this is what keeps me going, pushing forward, and avoiding a day job.

Yep, it is time to do the hustle. Gotta write that press release, gotta make that call, send that e-mail, make that poster, book that gig, route that tour, but, gosh, that song sounds so good, my guitar is right here, have you checked out that old Dylan album?, I need another cup of coffee, I should text my wife, what time is it?, ya know, I haven't checked Facebook in a while...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Out of My Hands

So I have done it again. I delivered the master CD to the duplication house, and, in return for my several thousand dollar investment, I will soon receive 1000 copies of my latest release. I have listened to this musical collection at least 1000 times and have probably spent 1000 hours in totality trying to make the music right by my intuition and expectations. Oh man, expectations can be debilitating. It always feels like such a long road, a long arduous journey, all in the name of trying to make good product and working that tricky business of art as commerce. Lord knows through the recording process it is very hard to please the player. At least this player. It is also hard to listen as an objective listener. But in the end, I love the music, the performances, and then again, sometimes I am not sure. The tunes have already changed and are indeed living breathing organisms that continue to grow. But as they now exist on the CD, embalmed in a digitized form, they are beyond my control. No, it is not all that bleak. I really do love this record (yes, I still think of them as records) and I am very proud of the work and very much looking forward to sharing it with the masses. But there is always internal conflict. It's just hard when you grow so close to something, grow with something, grow into something, help it develop, pain and pleasure, sorrow and elation, and all of the other varied mixed emotions, and then, you have to let it go, coming to terms with the fact that you did the best you could, and tried to develop it in the most honest way holding true to your core values...wait...that sounds like...This is my first solo studio release since my daughter Sadie was born. And, of course, like with all other life endeavors since that day, my perspective has forever been skewed within my craft. She has not yet left the house. Thankfully that is many years away, but, I have a sneaking feeling, a microcosmic sense, of how that day is going to feel. Perhaps, with every CD, every tune, I release into the wild, it is sort of a conditioning process for such times of farewell, a sonic workout for this sensitive artist, preparing for my child's ultimate departure. But, geez, it just never really seems to get any easier. And, I suspect, it never will.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Babe and the Punk Band

I must have been 11 years old. A time when I really started to relate to music in a passionate way. The cool older brother neighbor was filling me with megawatt infused doses of various classic rock favorites; Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Rush, etc. (to this day, Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic is still one of my favorite records). Piano lessons had been offered and accepted and I was slowly working my way through the basic classical repertoire of the day. On the side, however, I began to learn pop tunes; music that really inspired me to play. The evolution of my own personal musical discovery had begun. One day, our babysitter, she must have been 15 years old, was watching my brother and I. I sat down to practice my lessons, soon got bored, and then broke into the Styx tune, Babe. She who was previously ignoring my efforts suddenly rushed over in a fit of excitement, seemingly all hot and bothered, and began to fawn over my playing. She was just so excited and made me play the tune a couple more times. What was this all about? To me, this was Beatles stuff. I was a rock star. I was so cool. Or so that is how I saw it. She was a 15 year old girl. I was 11. Nonetheless, it was an epiphany. In an instant I understood the power of music and it's ability to move others, the listener, and hence, the audience (and how to pick up chicks. I met my wife at one of my gigs). I learned that music is not just a solitary experience during performance. It is about connecting and inciting emotion from the listener. I learned that the music lives beyond my own personal borders.

Fast forward 3 years and I get a call to join the neighborhood punk band. By this time I was a budding bassist and had yet to play with any other musicians. I had no idea what to expect. Punk rock was not even on my radar screen. I show up at the first rehearsal, the guitarist leads me through the chord progressions (all original material which was cool), a count of four and we were off. Something about that afternoon, the Summer air, the hormones, dumb luck, whatever, we clicked. The music was loud and forceful. It was sheer power, pure energy, summarized as raw expression. I can still feel the drums kicking down my back. The bass vibrations were intoxicating. The presence of sound was utterly and completely rocking my previously ordered sensibilities. I had never FELT the music like this before. I did not want it to end. The foundation had been laid and I was ready to run.

To this day, I think, on a subconscious level, I still draw upon these two experiences when I play (albeit, in a much more mature/developed manner), and try to recreate each one, again and again.