Grrrlz Rock @ Girls Rule (by Ophelia’s Place)

Yesterday was my first contribution as a volunteer to Grrrrlz Rock.

Ophelia’s Place hosted an umbrella event called Girls Rule.  Our idea (actually Matrisha’s idea) was to conduct a pair of “Sample Rock Camps.”  Two distinct sessions of 50 minutes apiece, wherein we would school a group of young ladies, in about 10 minutes, on drums, bass, guitar, ukelele, keyboards, and vocals.  Then we would all get together and jam on The White Stripes’ “We Are Going to be Friends.”

Naturally, we had mild doubts that we could pull it off in such a short time.  But the kids hit it out the park.  In fact, they did so well, that we had them all switch instruments and nail the song a second time — in both sessions!

It’s inspiring and moving when things like this happen.  I’d like to attribute the success to Matrisha’s ingenious unbridled enthusiasm and her impeccable preparation, not to mention the focused talents of my fellow instructors (and myself!  …I got to work with Sean Brennan & Barbara Healy for the first time)…  But really, it’s the kids.  I always say: It’s not that difficult to teach kids something when they actually want to be there learning it.

Now I’m REALLY looking forward to this year’s Rock Camps.

Sittin’ in on Lap Steel @ Bend Roots Fest (Sunday 9/29)

An entire weekend of sitting in with friends as a side-man! What better way to kick myself back into gear? This afternoon was my third guest spot in as many days.

Friday night I was at Ninkasi in Eugene, perched on my Fender Twin wearing a strapless stratocaster for The Stagger & Sway.

Yesterday afternoon (Saturday), at the Bend (Oregon) Roots Festival, my old friend Brad Tisdel spontaneously invited me to accompany him on lap steel. It was an hour of sweet, sublime, rainy-day folk music, on which I trod delicately. (Mostly swells, paddings and eerie, moody melodies.)

And this afternoon, third and final day of the festival, again I was on lap steel. Sean McGowan let me wade sonically through a diverse dozen-song-set of originals. (In case you’re asking what a few others have asked: No, this is not “Shane MacGowan” from The Pogues who used to give drunken interviews and was in the news for having his rotten teeth fixed.)

Sean McGowan, is a Eugene songster colleague. And like Brad, he is a longtime friend going all the way back to high school in the 80′s. He’s also the Radio Americana DJ at KLCC.

I did have solo slot of my own, after playing with Brad. It was one of my best, deeper and smoother than ever, thanks to a generous audience and a well-warmed-up space. I didn’t even have to make a set list. It felt like a house concert, where it’s easy to read the emotional trajectories of the room. (And that is the sweetest spot to be in.)

That said, what I’m really taking away from this weekend is that I’ve fallen in love with my lap steel all over again, and I will be looking for more opportunities to caress it. And… I dare say, I am re-thinking the bad attitude I have towards my beast-of-an-amplifier: Fender “The Twin,” 35 years old, road-ugly, weighing in at something like a thousand pounds. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve left it on the sidewalk hoping someone would steal it. But now, it’s sounding pretty frickin’ good!

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“Better Off” in 2013

A friend from Eastern Washington (who goes by the nickname “Puck”) recently sent me a touching post, thanking me for a certain song that lifted his spirits, and sharing one of his own, thusly inspired.

Whenever I perform at Hogan’s Pub in Clarkston, (usually w/ Scott Cargill & 7 Devils) Puck requests my 12-year old break-up song “Better Off Without You.” I wrote it a dozen years ago — a paradox of anger & levity — and it got me through a difficult time. (It was cheekily deemed “the greatest break-up song ever” by a Eugene Weekly writer.) Here is a version from my former “Alternative Rock” incarnation (from Pollyanna Loves Cassandra):

The song seems to have helped my friend see the hard times through. That is the best news a songwriter can get. And, even better, Puck paid it forward by writing a similarly-themed tune “Better Off.” He graciously allows me to repost his video here:

As much as we performing/recording artists strive to get good reviews from the press, nothing gratifies like finding out that a fellow human being has been emotionally affected by the work we do. And even better, that someone would be inspired to put their own creativity to work and keep the collective torch burning.

Artists work for real human beings, not just Entertainment Biz entities.

Thank you, Puck. Keep up the good work. See you in April to celebrate happier times.

Here is the live acoustic version from the 2001 A Stealthy Portion, featuring Elisabeth Babcock on cello. (It was selected for Michelle Malone’s compilation of independent artists):

Shipe @ Saginaw Vineyard, Cottage Grove 2/15

Sometimes the demographic in the crowd is so mixed, it’s hard to connect, and hard to choose what songs to play from my 150-tune list.

Last night’s gig at Saginaw Vineyard started at 6:00 pm, with unfamiliar folks in the audience. So I started out with a bunch of cover tunes. Unusual for me; it’s not my style to lean on covers so heavily. I prefer them as palette-cleansers as I move through my original compositions.

(Did I just refer to my songs as “compositions?”)

When I first inquired about this gig, Karen (who is an absolute sweetheart) rejected me. The music on my website is not what they want. For the first time in years, I had to sell myself. She described the typical Saginaw performer as an easy-listening, semi-country, lots of classic singer-songwriter covers…. basically a “rural James Taylor.” (Admittedly, my latest album is produced with a light-indie, full-band tweak on my Americana sound.)

So I sent an email, fibbing that I am “exactly” what she has in mind. And I figured that when I showed up, I could approximate the requirements just barely enough. Although I have some sort of block against James Taylor, I have twisted two Van Morrison songs into my own unique personal indulgences, which go over well at wineries.

To liven things up, I had Pat Kavaney sit in. If I’m going to play my safest (oldest) material — and covers — it’s a lot more fun with a jammin’ friend.

However, I was pleasantly surprised (knocked out, actually) by the arrival some unexpected friends… including the drummer from Hot for Chocolate. And I did not want to feature my “safe stuff” in front of them. Poor Pat! I put him through my most challenging tunes, and new stuff he hadn’t even heard before — in keys like E flat and C#. (“Just play slide, Pat. you’ll be fine.”)

I know he’s gonna get me back by making me sit in on his Steely Dan set, a task of nightmarish proportions for a hack like me.

The good news is that the gig went great. House was full. Patrons were happy, CD’s were sold. (I am nearly cleaned out of “Villain.”) Karen said that a house record was broken.

“Love Ain’t Easy” (for Valentine’s Day)

Here is a close-up of my latest song. A gift to struggling lovers on Valentine’s Day.

Meet TC Ragstix

For the past couple years, I’ve had a casual, informal writing partnership with a friend I made in California named TC Ragstix. Through my well-advertised dryspell, he has been almost as encouraging as Ehren Ebbage.

Looking over the material I’ve eked out over that wretched stretch, I dare say that some of it is my (our) best work. (Believe or not, this often happens to artists during their worst creative droughts. They keep poking and digging, seemingly without any inspiration, despising the execution of every stroke. Finally they step back and look at what’s there: “Hey! That’s not half bad!.”)

TC’s contribution is substantial enough that I will be sharing writing credit on my 2013 release (whenever that happens — hopefully before 2014).

I credit TC for getting me unstuck when it comes to creating absurd, fun characters. He said: “Don’t be afraid that humor is gonna overshadow whatever serious stuff you’re talking about.”

Me: “Yeah, but I don’t to write novelty songs.”

TC: “If you do it right, your songs will be more meaningful. You disarm the listener by creating something fun, and then you melt their hearts, or you hit ‘em the gut… or maybe you just wanna make them think.”

He went on to say, “What is wrong with you Northwesterners, always so deep and meaningful… All that grey wet weather?”

When I ran these thoughts by Ehren Ebbage, he nodded: “Humor has always been a part of your work, Shipe. You didn’t already know that?”

No, I didn’t know that. But now that he’s mentioned it, I’m thinking of “Imitation Man,” “Villain,” “Honky Tonk Romans,” “Another Disaster,” “Junkies on Film,” “What Right Do We Have to Fall in Love,” “American Wisdom,” “Livin’ in Exile,” and “Better Off Without You,” “Surfin’ the Shock Wave.”

But what’s really funny is that, in every one of those songs, I was being deadly serious, broaching subjects that i find profound and unsettling, if not downright dark. It seems like every time I dive into stuff that affects me most deeply, at my best, humor naturally arises.

It reminds me of what Bruno Kirby said about acting in comedy: “You can’t really play a result (comic effect)… I just play the character’s point of view…”

The humor comes from fully and sincerely embodying a characters value system and all of its associations. The humor is almost unintentional, which is the best kind of comedy.

Anyway, I am convicted into sharing songwriting credit, even though he doesn’t want it. If it weren’t for him, my live solo acoustic sets wouldn’t be kickin’ forward with “Jesus,” “Beast is Back,” “The Decider,” “A Drinkin’ Man” (he preached me into playing on ukulele). Oh, and “Pit Bull Rescue Woman” which was originally the brainchild of John Grimshaw.

Shipe Tour Day 2: Pleasant Surprises in Coeur D’Alene (Moon Time)

I’ve been playing Moon Time for 15 years, and I never discovered the hiking trail along the lake until this this afternoon!?

20-minute lakeside jog, followed by a shower, a Moon Time Lamb-burger, load-in, set-up, a dollar pint of pale ale, and I inconspicuously launched into Mark Alan’s “Don’t Pass Montgomery By.”

I say, “inconspicuously,” because, as I have blogged so many times before, Moon Time is one of the loudest busiest of the dinner venues. Hardly anyone faces the stage; few are there specifically for the music. It’s dollar pint night in a place where people come to converse. I’ve learned not to fight it, and to start the night by blending and easing into their space. I would appear positively silly if I busted into my “show” with: “Hey everybody! How ya doin’ tonight! I am John Shipe! All the way from Eugene, Oregon! I’m here to rock you!”

“Montgomery” is a good opener in this atmosphere. It’s simple, with a steady, deep groove — even acoustically — when I play it right. Feels good, especially when I’m in the gospel-ish vein. Whether they end up riveted or not, they get the idea that I’m a solid decent singer & player — at the very least, they’ll appreciate the professionalism.

Another surprise: a friend & former guitar student of mine, who just happens to be the area, showed up out of the blue. I love it when this happens. (It does, more often than you would think.) Familiar faces mean a lot to traveling musicians. I discard my set list when old friends show up, and play any Shipe song they want to hear. The performance obviously improves, ’cause I have someone relate to. And this probably had something to do with the entire room being more responsive than usual.

Among the more attentive patrons was another Eugene musician, Matt Buetow, with a night off from tour with his band The Royal Blue. I am listening right now to a beautiful song of theirs called “December.” (When I get back home I will see them live.)

It’s funny; we performers can always tell which audience members are musicians. This used to make me nervous, until I realized that, for the most part, fellow musicians can be the most generous listeners of all. So I thank Matt and his CDA friend Jeff — and my friend Gina — for giving me some love at Moon Time.

Shipe Tour day 1: Richland, WA (Bookwalter Wines)

New wineries are popping up all over Eastern Washington, and I intend to inhabit each and every one.

Last night it was Bookwalter Winery in Richland. Gorgeous place, complete with Bocci and Croquette.

In the last several years, these wineries have become the bread-n-butter gig of choice for singer-songwriters. The people who come here like acoustic music. They listen and tip well; they even buy CD’s (instead of downloading from iTunes.)

And they like original music. In the old days, you couldn’t even get this gig unless you were an easy-on-the-ear act playing jazz standards Either that, or a human juke box serving up James Taylor, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. (I confess that I do, indeed, serve up sheepish versions of two light Van-the-Man songs.)

Summer still lingers East of the Cascades, so I was set up outside on this warm night. As I was settling into my stool, strumming the first few sound check chords, a table of elderly people was seated right smack in front of me. I could hear them wondering aloud about my potential volume. “Well,” joked one fellow, “If he’s too loud, I can just turn down my hearing aid. I don’t know what you’re gonna do.”

It’s a good thing I have box chock full of mellow tunes that I love to play — and I don’t get to play them often in the louder bars. And I respect my elders; so the first set was really lazy and soft. Later in the night, I ramped it up. (It blows my mind how many CD’s I sell when I play “Yellow House,” “Villain,” and “Jesus.”)

By the way, my wine of choice has become Riesling on the dry side — one glass during set-up, one glass per set, one glass while winding down with the staff. (That can end up being 5 glasses.) Since I’ve been playing gigs like this (and since my Hungarian friends in Florida, of Zemplen Oak Barrels, started schooling me), I’ve learned a thing or two about wine. No red for me, please; it gives me a headache.

Last time I was here, I chatted with the owner — J. Bookwalter — an appreciator of the Oregon-based McMenamins company. He frequently spends weekends revitalizing at The Edgefield in Troutdale, OR, which has inspired him to start building cabins on his own vineyard. So we can lounge and drink wine for days on end!

Pit Bull Blues T-Shirts/Fort Wayne, IN

New T-Shirts sold like crazy yesterday at the event in Fort Wayne. (Damn good-looking shirts, too, thanks to Claire Flint @ Three Seed Design and Webfoot Printing.)

(Check them out on the “Merch” page.)

They worked me in Fort Wayne, I gotta say — three staggered sets in Midwestern heat-n-humidity. I broke my cardinal rule of “Never play a song twice at the same show.” But things are different at these 6-hour Pit Bull Rescue fundraisers. I played all three of my canine-oriented songs once at the beginning, and once at the end. (Needless to say, I’m appealing to the kids. And by kids, I mean children –young children. Like cigarette companies, I’m cultivating that next generation of Shipe fans, so I can keep doing it ’til I’m old and gray. But, I also sneak in some adult-oriented stuff like “The Beast is Back Again.”)

I had a really nice moment with one of Fort Wayne’s best local artists, Sunny Taylor. She did an amazing version “God Only Knows” (Beach Boys). This is not an easy song to learn or play. Such a beautiful piece and she really nails it. Then, as I was going into my 2nd set opener — the intro notes to Temptations’ “My Girl,” Sunny said, “Hey I almost played that song!”

“Well,” I said, “Do you wanna sing it … key of C?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Modulate to D?”

And she the verses. We sang harmonies during the chorus. I love that impromptu stuff with fine musicians you’ve never met before.

Warm thanks to Kim Sargent of Fort Wayne Pit Bull Coalition for inviting me out there to Indiana and the almost-anonymous donors who sprung for my plane ticket. (I hadn’t been out to Indy since my Renegade Saints days.) And thanks to Janet & Jerry for taking care of me for 3 days and nights. Thank you all so much.

Shipe song among “Best of 2011″ in region

My new year kicks off nicely with a boost from the Eugene Register Guard (specifically, musical writer Serena Markstrom) who lists “Hard to Believe” as one of the Best Local Songs of 2011.

It’s my simplest, rootsiest country tune off Villain. A broken-hearted country lament in the classic male/female duet style. I credit my duet partner Halie Loren for putting it over the top, and producer Ehren Ebbage and guitarist Al Toribio for injecting just the right amount of twang.

Now, if I can find someone to help me shop the tune around Nashville, I will pay such a person handsomely in foot massages, grilled cheese sandwiches, and untold royalty percentages.