Ultimate Philip Glass Fanboi

by Steve, April 10th, 2015

musicI’ve liked Philip Glass since I first got exposed to his work in college in the 80s (yes i’ve heard the knock-knock joke; no, I don’t think it’s funny). I think Ben had a record of Einstein on the Beach, and maybe the Kronos Quartet. But it was Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi that really blew my mind and got me hooked. In more recent history, I’ve seen Portland Opera’s productions of Orphée (2009) and Galileo Galilei (2012), both brilliant, but not as brilliant as the Met’s televised production of Satyagraha (2012) which Nancy grudgingly admits she liked.

Anyway, Glass has written a memoir, and he’s hitting the airwaves and lecture circuit to promote it. I heard him with Terry Gross on her NPR show Fresh Air the other day. I have a real love/hate attitude toward Gross. She’s actually a really good interviewer, but it’s partly because she so unselfconsiously asks really stupid questions. (She’s famously bad at talking to black people.) Anyway, she plays a kind of clueless everywoman, with just enough book learnin’ to be dangerous. If her guest isn’t completely offended, it makes for pretty good radio. Like this exchange with Glass:

GROSS:
I always think of there being something obsessive about your music because of its repetitions and then variations on the repetitions and the speed of it and the precision of it, and I’m wondering if that’s fair to call… Like, do you think of your composing or your performances as having an obsessive quality to them?

GLASS:
You know, that’s a fair question and I’m wondering would people have said the same thing about Brahms or Chopin? ‘Why is he playing that strange music? Why do we hear those chords over and over again?’

GROSS:
You know why I think of it with you too, because I think, um, pattern is often a part of obsession? Like repeated patterns, shifts in patterns, and…

GLASS:
Well I certainly didn’t invent that, that’s been around for a long time.

GROSS:
Mm hm.

GLASS:
I think it may have been also, not just the music itself, but the way it was presented with the ensemble, you know with amplified music, it could be interpreted as being aggressive, though that would only be true if you didn’t know anything about popular music, and that most popular music was already much more heavily amplified than anything that we did.

GROSS:
So you’re telling me you’re not OCD. (laughs)

GLASS:
(laughs) I’m not saying that either.

GROSS:
Well are you? Are you?

GLASS:
I don’t think so.

GROSS:
OK.

GLASS:
But how would I know?

***

It’s actually a broad-ranging interview, worth listening to all the way through. Later on, Terry returns to her passive aggressive shading of Glass’ music:

GROSS:
Do you ever think, in spite of the body of work that I’m famous for, I feel today like writing a simple song with an easy-to-sing melody and some nice chords behind it?

GLASS
(Laughter) I feel that all the time.

GROSS
Do you write it?

GLASS
I’m always trying to – I’m trying to. I’m writing an opera right now for the Washington Opera, and I’m always looking for clarity and simplicity. It doesn’t come easily to me.

***

Glass is speaking at the Newmark Theatre in Portland April 14. Admission includes a copy of his new book, Words Without Music.

Hey Hey

by Steve, February 27th, 2015

Another long-distance collaboration between me and Jay:

The Long Distance Cosmic Express

by Steve, January 11th, 2015

jayharden1I haven’t played in a band since 1997, but just recently started some long-distance collaboration with a bandmate from Totem Soul, the group I moved to Portland with back in 1989.

Jay Harden has been keeping himself busy performing and recording, and asked me to add some tracks to some stuff he recorded.

I started with “Get Along,” which features Naomi Wedman on violin and vocals. I threw in some bass and drums.

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Then there’s “Sleepy Head,” which has a nice country blues feel. I threw down some bass and drums again, and thought about some backing vox. But couldn’t find a harmony I liked, so left it simple.

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Now, if we’re lucky, Jay will make us a couple cheap-o videos.

Fletcher Henderson “Sonny” Lott, October 17, 1941 – December 12, 2013

by Steve, May 12th, 2014

SonnySonny Lott (I never knew till today that he was named for Fletcher Henderson; he was always just “Sonny Lott” to everybody I knew) died late last year. Much like Dennis Jones, who died this year, every musician in Iowa City knew Sonny.

I first met him when I was playing bass with a rag-tag group known at the time as “Sky Truthhawk and the I-ones” (Scotty “Sky” Hayward on kalimba, Terry “Truthhawk” Hale on keys and vocals, and anybody else who showed up). Sonny, an ace drummer, played miscellaneous percussion because Terry had a one-man-band set up, playing kick drum and snare with his feet. Sonny didn’t care. He always had a great time, and his attitude was contagious.

We were playing a campaign benefit concert for Karen Kubby, who was probably running for city council for the first time (this was probably 1988, I’m thinking). I don’t think Sonny liked the name of the band. He said to me, “I told Terry we should all wear afro wigs on our butts and rename the band ‘Terry Hale and the Hairy Tails.’”

Yeah, you probably had to be there, and know something about the situation to appreciate how hilarious that was.

I didn’t know Sonny’s history at the time, just that he was always around, always making music. (He played with Patrick Hazel’s legendary Mother Blues back in the mid 70s, where Bo Ramsey also got a start.)

He was also night janitor for a time at the co-op where I was working produce. We’d hang out after work sometimes, just relaxing and bullshitting. Tony D. probably has some stories from those times. Seems like we ended up at Tony’s place more than a few times.

When Totem Soul was active in the late 80s, Sonny played drums with our friendly rivals on the scene, Divin’ Duck. When Nigel fell gravely ill on the afternoon of a gig at Gabe’s, we briefly considered going drumerless but instead called on Sonny. He showed up, played his ass off, and never missed a beat.

It was always about the music for Sonny. In a room full of egos, Sonny would be the one cracking wise, keeping it real, and laying down the groove.

I’m not going to write a song about Sonny, because Greg Brown beat me to it. Here’s Greg and Joe Price (another Mother Blues alum) singing about Sonny at the Mill back in 2010:

Sincere condolences to Sonny’s extended family.

Dennis Jones: a musical tribute

by Steve, March 20th, 2014

Here’s a song I wrote in tribute to Dennis Jones, who died last month.

Dennis Jones

by Steve, February 20th, 2014

musicThe last time I saw Dennis Jones was probably some time in the early 2000s. I was in Iowa City to see family with my wife and baby. We were at The Mill to see Dave Moore (whom Dennis had introduced me to in 1984), and Dennis was in his natural habitat behind the sound board, cigarette in hand. We only talked briefly; he was surprised and happy to see me and meet my wife.

Now I wish I’d chatted him up longer, or arranged to meet another day for a drink.

Dennis died February 9, on his 68th birthday.

I first met Dennis when I was in high school and the band I played in, the Sloppy Drunk Blues Band, was making arrangements to play a show at Regina High School circa 1983 or 84. Our drummer’s mom said she knew a guy who did sound and maybe he could help us with some gear. Now, Jhon and I were pretty sure we were pros at sound, having DJed dances since junior high. We even had our own “sound company” (RG Sound) and had t-shirts printed up at the mall t-shirt shop. We rented gear from Brad at Advanced Audio Engineering (later bought out by West Music) and thought our knowledge of PA gear was pretty tight.

But Dennis took us to the next level. Not just mains, but monitors (two monitor mixes!). Mics on everything, not just vocals! A snake so the FOH mixer was actually in the front of house! And he worked cheap, too. He showed up in a loaded step van with his helper Tim and set us up on the cafetorium stage. (Somebody help me with Tim’s last name and current status? He was with Bo Ramsey and the Sliders when they first hit the road in the late 70s, earned the nickname “Dirthead” and never lived down forgetting the mixer on that first tour.) Dennis showed me how to run the board and left.

Pretty soon we found out that Dennis was the sound guy in Iowa City. When we played the Crow’s Nest, a huge old barn, Dennis was there with an even bigger version of the PA we played with that first night, as well as a rag-tag collection of PAR cans and a light board. After high school, I ended up working with Dennis while studying theatre at the University of Iowa 1984-85. After moving out from my freshman dorm, I moved in with Dennis and continued working with him.

I worked all kinds of shows with Dennis (and Tim, and Kurt, who I met at the theatre department and introduced to Dennis), from local acts to Chicago blues acts, to (sometimes dickish) national college rock acts at local clubs and regional festivals. Acts like Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon, Asleep at the Wheel, the Replacements, the Del Fuegos, Billy Bragg, Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near, countless other folk acts I can’t remember, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, etc. I missed Los Lobos, but will never forget Dennis raving (in a good way) about that show at Gabe’s Oasis, right before they hit it big.

I left town in late 85 and returned in 86, and eventually formed Totem Soul with Jhon and Jay and Nigel in 87-88ish. Of course Dennis was around, and helped when we needed. I still did some shows with him through those years; I don’t really recall the specifics. We bought our own PA for Totem Soul, but ended up using his truck for moving gear from time to time.

Dennis was a character in many ways, and was on the Iowa music scene for decades, starting with Greg Brown in the late 70s (he had a producer credit on the original 1980 release of 44 & 66). When I heard he died, I told Jhon, “I’ve probably go a million stories about Dennis.” And I only knew him for a few of those many years. Here are some of mine, just to get things started. I’d love to collect more here, if anybody wants to contribute.

  • Dennis taught me the trick of putting your coffee cup under the drip instead of waiting for the whole pot to be done. Best life hack ever. Stronger coffee faster. Crucial for the morning after in the fast-paced, late-night world of rock and roll. Sure, it seems obvious in retrospect, but I was just a dumb-ass kid at the time.
  • We were setting up for a show at the Crow’s Nest, and I asked if he had a hammer. “No,” he said, “I can’t keep a hammer in my tool box.” Why not? “Because I might use it.”
  • Jhon recalls that he and I were driving Dennis’s step van back from Parnell (what the hell were we doing in Parnell?), and every time we went over a bump the headlights would go out. Jhon recalls having to reach down by the dimmer switch to jiggle wires to get them back. Dennis: “Oh yeah, I noticed that….” I seem to recall this happening with Dennis driving, and he’d smack the headboard and they’d come back. (Hmm, maybe if he’d had a hammer….)
  • Doing a show at the Stone City Inn, which had the biggest selection of imported beers I had ever seen. The owner told us to just help ourselves to whatever we wanted. I tried some really great stuff. Dennis stuck with domestic, explaining that he had personally introduced import beers to the state of Iowa when he was running the Sanctuary, and was sick and tired of them.
  • Dennis used to complain about Koko Taylor. I don’t remember his specific beef with her, but I think he was just tired of her schtick. We were doing sound for some crappy local band, and he never had much in the way of decent intermission music, so I put on some Koko Taylor instead of something somebody else had put on. “Oh thank god,” said Dennis. “But I thought you hated Koko Taylor?” “No, she’s great!” It’s all relative, eh?
  • Working a folk festival in Stone City (where I met Washboard Chaz), one of the headliners was a European new age guitarist (name withheld to protect the guilty). This guy was a prima donna prick from start to finish. His road manager/hatchet man asked Dennis to borrow his roll of duct tape. Dennis, always accommodating, obliged. The sumbitch apparently used the whole roll to repair his boss’s guitar case and returned the cardboard core to Dennis, who was flummoxed but did not complain (at least not at the time). When I reached out to Chaz a few years back, he actually remembered what pricks these guys were. Dennis, as was his practice, suffered this kind of abuse with great humility, and emerged with his dignity unscathed.

Dennis had his demons to be sure (who doesn’t?), but I don’t know if I’ve ever met a guy with a bigger heart. I’m picturing him driving a step van down an Iowa highway into a golden sunset. Farewell to Dennis: friend, mentor, employer/coworker, landlord/roommate.

RIP Stompin’ Tom Connors

by Steve, March 7th, 2013


Stompin’ Tom Connors 1936-2013

Vancouver Observer blogger Alan O’Sullivan had this remembrance on his Twitter feed:

Portland’s “arts tax” smells fishy

by Steve, October 22nd, 2012

electionOn the ballot in Portland is measure 26-146, which supporters say would “restore arts education to Portland schools.” Hey, great idea (and full disclaimer, I don’t vote in Portland, but I’d probably vote for it if I did), but there are some significant questions to consider with this $35 head tax.

  • Why can’t Portland schools fund universal access to K-12 music education like Beaverton schools do (with the exact same funding per student from the state), and why should the city bail PPS out (again)?
  • Why does only a little over half of the money go to schools with the rest going to RACC’s friends?
  • Why a regressive (and possibly illegal) head tax to the city instead of an operating levy to the district?
  • Why does it spread equal resources to rich and poor schools instead of focusing on the schools that need it the most?

The answer to the first question is tightly linked to the last question. Portland Public Schools has for years shifted funding out of its poorest neighborhoods to its wealthiest neighborhoods. The result is wealthy, white students have largely maintained arts education while non-white, poverty-affected student have lost it. This is the direct result of attendance policies implemented over the years by the school board. They should be held to account for it.

The PPS school board should be ashamed that this flawed measure is even on the ballot. It shows their total lack of ability to run their district in an efficient and fair manner. Yes, the state does not provide enough funding, and that should be dealt with. But this is not the way to do it.

In case you were wondering

by Steve, October 9th, 2012

This is what a mens’ room at a Justin Bieber concert looks like:

Traps

by Steve, September 22nd, 2012

Stay tuned… have a couple new tracks in the works with live traps (instead of midi).