Friday, September 7, 2012

BB King, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Hollywood Bowl, 9/5/12: A Review

Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Derek Trucks play guitar knows that he is something special.  Even as a teen prodigy, Trucks opened for The Allman Brothers, and left much older musicians and audiences flabbergasted by his already impressive playing.  Now, 20 years later, Trucks is, quite simply, one of the greatest players that will ever be.  He plays without a pick, like Jeff Beck; but his liquid slide technique, that borrows as much from middle eastern quarter tone melodies as it does from Blues greats, is uniquely his own.

Until Wednesday's Blues Night at the Hollywood Bowl, a show that featured Tedeschi Trucks Band opening for BB King, I had not seen Derek Trucks perform live.  Sure, I'd torn through YouTube archives of performances and interviews, and I thoroughly enjoyed recordings featuring his playing.  But these hardly prepared me for my emotional response to seeing The Tedeschi Trucks Band live.  Fronted by Trucks' bullet-throated, uber-talented wife Susan Tedeschi, who deserves additional mention for her own Freddie King/Muddy Waters styled six-string prowess, TTB ripped through a tight and flawless set that featured not only the talents of the band's namesakes, but also those of their 9-piece backing band.  Bassist Oteil Burbridge deserves special mention for his greasy bottom end bump that, along with dual drummer/percussionists Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, provided a deep pocket for the rest of the band to sink into.  A talented group of backing vocalists and horn players further elevated the overall emotive strength of TTB's performance, which won over a crowd largely gathered to see the great BB King.

King turned in a memorable if uneven performance.  His set, which began with a funky five minute jam featuring solos by each member of his 8-piece backing band, showcased BB's skill as an entertainer.  His happy, generous spirit created rapport with the audience that made the nearly sold-out Hollywood Bowl feel as intimate as a neighborhood dive bar.  And while King's guitar playing is not what it once was (he is 86 after all), when he sang, it sounded and felt just like it must have in 1970, when he was at the top of his game.

After truncated versions of hits including my favorite The Thrill is Gone, BB invited Susan Tedeschi and "Trucks" to join him on stage.  John Mayer also joined and after a bit of unscripted chaos, the four sat center stage and embarked on an amusing if disconnected bit of banter and light guitar playing.  After poking fun at John Mayer for not being able to talk and for "staying out late last night kissing," BB turned to Trucks and said, "Trucks, it's a good thing I'm a boy, cause if I was a girl and I heard you play like that..." He then turned to Tedeschi and added "I see why you married him," before commenting again to Trucks "that's just about the best I ever heard."

At times, this end of the set banter felt awkward and uncomfortable.  But it also felt a bit like a passing of the torch.  Once upon a time, BB King could make a statue cry with the mere bend of Lucille's g-string.  And while, his voice could still bring life to a dead woman's eyes, age has diminished his skills as a guitarist.  King's body of work has cemented his reputation as one of the best guitarists there will ever be and he seemed to take pleasure in shining a little light on Trucks, a new inductee to that small club.  Derek Trucks is nothing if not an example of the lasting influence of BB King and his contemporaries.  I'm quite sure that seeing Trucks take the torch is a thrill and a comfort to the 86 year-old King, who can rest knowing that his influence will live on even when he is gone.           

BB King Live, In His Prime            

Monday, July 9, 2012

Playing is More Fun than Listening: Rush's "Circumstances"

I have been playing guitar in bands for awhile now.  In spite of the generous financial and career sacrifice that has accompanied these musical pursuits, performing and recording music with like minded folks has been one of my life's greatest joys and triumphs.  However, there have been moments during the journey that were less than great.  I blame at least a few of these on the rock band RUSH.

I'm not a RUSH fan.  It's not that I dislike their music entirely.  I'm sure there have been many times when I've stopped my radio dial on a RUSH song because it was the least offensive choice available.  But I own no RUSH recordings, I've never seen them live, and I've never joined in when the guys in my bands have broken in to RUSH songs during rehearsals.  These spontaneous musical tangents occur at 85% of rehearsals.   

Every time this happens, I seethe internally.  This is partly because I have no idea how long the foray into the prog rock cock forest is going to last; and when you have to wake up early to go to a job, those minutes of lost sleep start to add up.  But, it's also because I can't play along. I hate sitting on the sidelines and watching anything.  And every time I watch the guys rip into the opening riff of "Circumstances," impish grins curling across their faces, I've felt left out.  

The answer of course seems simple.  Learn a RUSH song.  But the complexity of RUSH's music seemed to far exceed my ability as a guitar player and I assumed attempts to learn would prove futile.  As such, I never tried.  However, I've decided that needs to change.  After years of merely observing my band mates engage in a musical circle jerk of joy over Canada's most loved export, I've begun to learn "Circumstances" so that I can join the party. 

I'm about half way through the song now.  The intricate arpeggios of the middle section lie ahead.  This is the hardest part of the song.  But I've got it.  And, while I can't say I'm becoming a rabid RUSH fan, I can say that RUSH is like golf - far more fun to play than to watch or listen to.           

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Time I Ruined My Brother's Mixtape

Back in the early 1980s, long before IPODS and file sharing and 99 cent downloads - back when Michael Jackson's single white glove and moonwalk were all the rage amongst the posses of small town elementary school kids circling recess playgrounds and singing "Billie Jean is NOT my lovebird"...back then we made radio mix tapes.  For those of you younger than 35, a radio mix tape was a collection of favorite songs carefully recorded during marathon radio listening sessions.  Creating these mix tapes was a practice in patience as it often required enduring hours annoying DJ banter and uninspiring tunage for the moment when a favorite song was finally cued...which almost always coincided with the moment you'd walked across the room for some unknown reason.  With the quick awkward grace of childhood, you'd leap across the room to hit record and hopefully catch most of the song's beginning.  Sometimes, an unfortunately timed trip to the bathroom would cause you to miss a favorite song and you would be forced to repeat the process over.  Because of the great effort required, when a favorite song was finally captured, you felt a sense of real accomplishment and joy.  FINALLY!!!! You had it!  99 Luft Ballons! Or whatever.

Around this time, The Police's "Roxanne" was a big hit.  My brother loved this song.  I hated it. I thought Sting's voice sounded like a yelping primate's.  Moreover my ears were not yet sophisticated enough to appreciate the then unfamiliar reggae/tango rhythms.

"Roxanne" was one of those songs my brother worked hard to capture on his mix tape; once he had, he played it CONSTANTLY.  Every time I heard it booming from his room, the hair on the back of my neck would pucker with anxiety and the muscles of my face would tense as if chalk was screeching across a chalkboard.   And I wanted to kill Sting.

One afternoon when my brother was gone, I trotted into his room to borrow his ghettoblaster so I could listen to tapes.  I had no pre-meditated plan or ill intention.  But when I pushed play, there it was - "Roxanne."  AHHHH!!!  The hair on the back of my neck!  The autonomic facial reaction.  My hatred was primal.  And I cannot be held responsible for my actions that followed.

A convenience of cassette tapes was that they could be recorded over multiple times as long as the tabs on the end hadn't been removed.  If after a period of time you decided you hated a song you once loved, you simply recorded a new song over the previous song - and erased all record of ever having liked the first song.  Also, if you had a microphone, you could record yourself onto a cassette.  I was quite familiar with how this worked because my friends and I were in the habit of making pretend radio interview cassettes.

Before my raging hatred for "Roxanne" could send me into convulsions, I plugged a microphone it to my brother's ghettoblaster, found a spot right in the middle of the song, hit record, and proceeded to sing "Raaahhhhhhhxanne" in my own horrific nails on a chalkboard child-voice.  Afterwards, I listened back.  Finally.  The song was listenable.  I snickered at my comic genius and then left it for my unsuspecting brother to find.

Later that afternoon, I was in my room reading, when I heard the beginning of "Roxanne."  I felt a tinge of fear.  Right in the middle of the chorus, there it was - my improvisation.  The stop button was aggressively pushed, his bedroom door was thrown open and an angry "MOOOOOMMMMMM!" echoed down the hallway. Quickly, I locked my bedroom door to protect myself from my brother's early adolescent fury.

My mom didn't hear my brother's shout.  She may have been outside in the garden or at the market.  Unable to elicit the help of a parent to resolve this matter, my brother came for my door.  When he found it locked, he took his anger out on the only thing of mine that was within reach - a Garfield door tag that said "Do Not Disturb."  He ripped it off my door and tore it into tiny bits.  I loved that doortag.  What a bummer!

Today is my brother's 42nd birthday; and this morning I was teaching myself to play "Synchronicity II" by The Police.  My aural palate has grown more sophisticated and I can now appreciate Sting for the musical genius he is.  But I still hate "Roxanne."

Happy Birthday Matt.

You're Bratty Sister