Superlative APBF concert for Shipe (7/16)

Before I delve into this extensive blog full of delight and gratitude about last weekend’s Pit Bull gala, let me just get one thing out of the way:

Lucky Five. Remember that band name. Lucky Five could become the best rock-n-roll band in the country. I won’t waste time describing them, only to say that if The Allman Brothers had a secret love child with Gnarles Barkley, Lucky Five would blow it off the stage at battle-of-the-bands. For the time being, Lucky Five belongs solely to Charlotte as their darling local band. But if and when they tour, watch out!

Okay, in the wake of the posting of my recent video Pit Bull Rescue Woman, I am aptly impressed by the Sara Enos, the director of American Pit Bull Foundation. This was a large, multi-dimensional event — a 6-act music festival/fundraiser that included vendors and booths outside the venue. (Amos’ Southend.) Although Sara has a bright cadre of volunteers, it’s clear that the buck stops with her on nearly everything. She handles it flawlessly, and pleasantly with no drama.

While driving me to the airport, Sara mentioned to me how “gracious” all the artists and celebrity guests were. I had to let her know that she was the reason we were on our best behavior.

“We artists are like children,” I said. “We need structure.” When we know what is expected, and when the situation is organized & professional, we don’t want to be the cause of it all devolving into chaos.

(Somewhere in there, I think, love of Pit Bulls may also have something to do with it.

I refer to “celebrity guests.” Indeed, I was a little starstruck. Pinups for Pitbulls was there. I found myself circling their table incognito several times before working up the nerve to approach them. I’m normally not so shy, and we already know each other from our online association. But I thought I should change into my stage attire before I met them personally. Plus, I wanted pictures, and I feel awkward asking for such things. It was sort of funny the way I went into my head just then. (It must have been that Southern humidity.)

The Pinups are so sweet you wouldn’t believe it. Lovely, bright, and committed to the dogs. They have wild & crazy tattoos on the outside, down-to-earth wholesomeness on the inside. The three ladies who were representing each have husbands serving in the military — one whose husband was coming home for R&R from Afghanistan the very next day.

Also there was Shorty Rossi, to MC the event. Just in from Nicaragua, en route to Vegas, with his dog Hercules (and assistant Juan), Shorty the Pit Boss was in splendid form for such hard travel. A professional, with a sense of humor.

I mention Ken Foster (author) in a previous blog. He’s from New Orleans, with tales to tell about canines and hurricanes. I had the pleasure of dining with him the night before, so I got a taste of the human voice behind his writing.

And, oh yes, the bands. Top notch, every single one of them, leaving me with the impression that Charlotte has a brilliant music scene.

I’m listening to The Situationals right now. A fine work — excellent songs. But like so many bands, they have more power on the live stage. Loud, with a fine female vocalist and a pair of aggressive Americana guitarists. (I thank Mike for his tuner, ’cause I had no room for mine in my carry-on luggage. Sorry I kept it up there on stage, Mike. I hadn’t expected Shorty to introduce me while I was tuning up.)

Jared Allan & Company. If I had known what they sounded like, I would have asked to sit in. Jared is a singing voice to be reckoned with. (Not many can get away with covering Ray LaMontagne.) With mandolin accompaniment, and being from the South, Jared’s brand of acoustic Americana makes me envious. It makes me wish my family had kept me near the Ozarks where I was born. (I can strain that loose association all I want, but damn me, I’m a Yankee!)

Charlotte has a Reggae band called Jah Fishermen. While they jammed, Situational Mike and I sat outside ruminating over how difficult Reggae Music is to play. It’s simple sounding, but it’s hard to play. Most musicians can’t. They think they can, but they can’t. Jah Fishermen get it right. And a good reggae band is always a peak spot on any multi-band bill.

Porcelain Mary is temporarily deserted by their Germany-bound lead singer, so they were unable to play their originals. Nevertheless, in true “the-show-must-go-on” ethic, they plowed through a set of classic rock covers–as a power trio–including Big Head Todd’s “Bittersweet.” Two things: 1)This guitar is good enough to pull it off. 2)I’ve thought that some of Big Head Todd’s music would be better with a less-busy rhythm section, as this one is.

Lucky Five!

My own set? I frickin’ love playing solo on big stages — especially to an audience who is waiting for particular songs to sing along. (That would be “Pit Bull Blues” and “Pit Bull Rescue Woman”) The question is always, “But will they like my other songs.” I think this audience did. Having been invited to come so far, I really wanted to please. So I didn’t hold anything back. It was honestly the best I could do.

One last thing: Thank you to Sara’s family for the bed in which I got my best night’s sleep in months.

And I haven’t even yet begun to talk about the things I learned at the booths outside the concert. Stay tuned.

All choked up on Flight 2211

The day after the American Pit Bull Foundation Summer Concert. Flying home from Charlotte, North Carolina.

On the flight, I read, in its entirety, Ken Foster’s memoir The Dogs Who Found Me.

This is not a book for a grown man to read in public. Unless such a grown man doesn’t mind being seen with tears in his eyes.

Ken was one of the APBF Concert’s celebrity guests. I found him gracious and forthcoming, I had to dive right into his book before I returned home to the distracting vicissitudes of life.

It’s a big deal for me to be fraternizing in the greenroom with a published working author. (A lot of folks don’t know that I went to college to become a writer… a real writer. But once I started writing songs, I my challenged attention span led me to 4-minute pieces containing a mere 3 verses, chorus, and a bridge. I remain envious of anybody who does the sublime work of authoring an entire book.)

Ken answered my “professional curiosity” questions. Then he accepted in trade 2 Shipe CD’s for his book (The Song Clearance of course, which has “Pit Bull Blues” on it, and Yellow House.)

I tend to be an awkward fan, and I find it hard to ask for autographs and photos, etc. I recounted an embarrassing story about meeting Al Franken, to whom I once gave a Shipe CD and then thanked him “for accepting my CD as a gift.”

So Ken signed his book: “Thank you for letting me give you this book.”

I spent most of the flight sheepishly alternating between laughter and crying. I finished the book, recovered somewhat with a few deep breaths, and struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. I told her that I had just performed at a benefit for pit bulls.

She replied, “I have Pit Bulls. Two rescues. One of them has three legs.”

The combination of fatigue and delight must be getting to me. I started laughing, and my eyeballs abruptly starting squeezing out all of their liquid contents.

Shipe @ Oregon Country Fair (7/8)

Yesterday, I had my strongest Oregon Country Fair show ever. The crowd was generous at Shady Grove Stage. And I felt good. They didn’t even seem to mind as I had trouble tuning my guitar under the hot sun. (Read further for my theory as to why this year’s set is better than the past.)

I’ve been performing at Fair for two decades now. Almost every year, I’ve appeared on one of the many side-stages — semi-acoustic or entirely acoustic.

A few blissful times, with my old band The Renegade Saints, I’ve rocked the main stage.

This evening, Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra headlined. And I am fondly reminded of year I was exceedingly blessed to join them. I say “exceedingly,” because E.O., as an entertainment act, is what Country Fair is all about. They are not a “band” so much as a “gathering of musicians” by invitation — a different lineup every time — horns, guitars, percussion, strings, turntables, old-timey stuff, banjos and mandolins, exotic things like sitars and ouds. Whatever and whomever Matt finds intriguing. They are absolutely unrehearsed. Matt directs them with hand signals and a grease board through a series of improvised pieces.

My bands — The Saints, The Blue Rebekahs, The Scapegoats — and my solo act, for the most part, have leaned towards the serious side of song. Not exactly what you’re in the mood for when surrounded by painted bodies, stilt-walkers, centaurs, clowns, fairies, carnival barkers, and other swirling odditorium entities.

The Fair is a vaudevillian/circus sideshow melded with rootsy hippiedom and craft-booth creative capitalism. It’s where you go to see entertainment that you can’t get at your average local venue. Yeah, there is some fairly conventional reggae, hip-hop, jamband, and socio-political folk. But the real appeal is the unusual stuff: juggling troupes, burlesque, circus music, exotic vaudeville, and some acts that I can’t even describe.

There are a lot of homemade instruments, played by the makers who have mastered them. My own set on the Shady Grove stage was preceded by Shovelman, who built a guitar out of shovel, and plays virtuosic weird blues. After me, came the legendary Baby Gramps with his eccentric old-timey dobro.

This year, I was promoted as “Thurberian character-filled Americana.” Ha! If there is one thing that Oregon Country Fair is all about… Well, The Fair is about a lot of things. (Strange and bizarre things.) But one thing here, that we celebrate mightily, is the ancient art of story telling. And if there is one way to make “Americana” sound like it’ll fit the Country Fair vibe, it’s to call it “Thurberian.”

All that dovetails nicely with the developments in my own craft and career over the past 3 years. Between songs, I must have talked to the crowd nearly as long as the songs themselves. And my songs nowadays are full of a lot more stories and characters than they used to be.

By the way, if you’re interested, James Thurber was a mid-20th century satirist who wrote my favorite fairy-tale: The 13 Clocks.

Pit Bull Rescue Woman

I said I’d do it, and I did it….finally. My cohort John Grimshaw and I made a video/slideshow out of “Pit Bull Rescue Woman” (Thanks to a multitude of contributors in the world of Pit Bull Rescue, the list of whom you’ll see on the YouTube posting.)

Although the song waxes tongue-in-cheek, I hope the message of gratitude and reverence rings out loud and clear.

I’ve got a confession, though: The seed of this idea does not belong to me. It belongs to Mr. Grimshaw.

Back in April, I had just returned from an event in Phoenix, a benefit for May Day Pit Bull Rescue. I had had such a rewarding experience, and I was so impressed with the woman who ran the operation, that I couldn’t stop bragging about how smart, organized, and authoritative she was. And somewhere in the conversation, the subject came up that she also very attractive… uh…. as a woman…

“Oh,” said John G. “Is she single?”

“Um,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” said John G. “Maybe next time I could go with you. And you could introduce me to her.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“What do mean?” he replied.

“Well” said I, with unusual thoughtfulness in my reply. “She’s a pitbull rescue woman.”

“What do you mean?” asked John G.

“A pitbull rescue woman,” I replied, “ain’t for the faint of heart.”

“Is that right?” said my friend John Grimshaw.

Moments later, I found myself sitting on the couch in the next room, a little dazed, and wondering why I had said what I just said, as if I really knew what this pitbull woman was like. And suddenly, I heard, faintly from the other room, my friend John Grimshaw strumming lightly on his guitar, and singing: “Pit Bull Rescue Woman, she ain’t for the faint of heart………”

And this reminded me: One of the great secrets to being a successful songwriter is knowing when a good song is staring you in the face. “Pit Bull rescue woman; she ain’t for the faint heart.”

I confess, I’m a little embarrassed, as a songwriter, that I missed the obvious song-hook moment.” But that’s what’s collaboration is all about.

Read more »

Shipe @ Art & The Vineyard (7/2)

It’s rare to play a full-length featured solo set on a big stage at a festival. 90 minutes is a long time to carry a show by yourself, but I love it. In the past, I would take on some accompaniment for a gig like that. (Jerry-Groove on upright acoustic bass or Ebbage on lead guitar. Or both.) But from here on out, 90 solo minutes on big stages is exactly what I want, as often as possible.

The hour-and-a-half went by in a snap, and I could have easily gone another half-hour. It might have been nature of the event. You know, wine & art in the park. And it might have been the home-town welcome. But the moment was surprisingly intimate — suitable for a singer/songwriter sitting on a chair, wearing a tie and a fedora, with a guitar, a ukulele, and a few stories to tell. It was just me hanging out with an audience sitting on blankets in the sun on a grassy field. Not much different from a wine-bar or coffee house gig.

My eyes were opened to the potential power of the solo set about 6 years ago, when I was booked as an opener for Jerry Joseph at John Henry’s in Eugene. Jerry was on a solo acoustic tour, without the Jackmormons. But I didn’t have a solo set worked up at the time, so I brought my band The Blue Rebekahs.

Conventional wisdom says that full bands play after acoustic acts. But conventional wisdom also says that John Shipe plays before Jerry Joseph. So I asked him: “Hey Jerry, is it all right that I brought my band?”

Jerry answered, “I ain’t afraid of no f–kin’ band.”

(Now, before you interpret this brusque response as rude, I should tell you that Jerry later invited me to sit in on his set. After I jammed on two songs, he said, “It sounds so good, why don’t you just stay up here and play the rest of the show.” Graciousness with fellow musicians can be one of Jerry’s golden features.)

In that moment, I vowed to also never be afraid of playing solo, in any environment, on any stage, on any bill. The trick is to make sure that your acoustic versions are not merely quieter versions. They are different; not less. You gotta lean into that difference. Sing along with the solo acoustic instrument that you’re playing in the moment, not the absent band in your head. Furthermore, as you embrace the intimacy, you’ll find it surprising just how aggressive, rockin’ and big you can get all by yourself. But it must make sense in sonic context. (I have discovered this in my acoustic version of Al Toribio’s “Letter Home.” In The Renegade Saints, this song is powerful, grandiose Southern rocker. By my lone acoustic self, I enter the song softly, relaxed. 3 minutes later, I find myself belting out the vocals and banging out the chords, but in an entirely “acoustic” way, earned through a gradual intimate trajectory.)

About that ukulele. I’m still working on it. I can’t keep it tune, my rhythms are plain, and I haven’t yet tapped into those wonderful uke-swinging 4-note chords that make it so special. But damn! It never fails to be a showstopper. One woman came up to me later: “When I heard that ukulele, I came running over to the stage to see what was going on.” So, no doubt I will be delving deeper into uke territory.

Shipe & Walker @ Rock Creek Tavern (6/30)

Last night, old friend and fellow Renegade Saint Mike Walker—back from Africa—sat in on piano at Rock Creek Tavern in Hillsboro, OR. Delighted, I’m hoping it’s a prelude to more such gigs. (Add Alan Toribio to mix… and/or Dave Coey, and we get closer to real Renegade Saints shows. But I like these acoustic sectionals, sometimes wondering if I actually prefer their subtlety and warmth to the spectacle of unbridled Saintly gargantuanism. We used to advertise such meetings as “Petty Saints” gigs. The rule was, any combination of 2 or 3 of us was Petty Saints. If we had the entire front four—even without Ned the drummer—we called it a Renegade Saints show. With Ned the drummer, we have a very special kind of beast, after which I’m usually prescribed bed-rest for several days.)

Mike is a “listening” player. He pays close attention, responsive to the singer/songwriter’s dynamics. You easily witness his concentration. He doesn’t just learn the chord progression and plow through it. This visceral manifestation of musical respect, in the moment, brings out ever more pronounced dynamics in the lead’s performance, resulting in emotion. There is more space-between-the-notes. Starker melodic trajectories. Quieter, more intense low spots. More aggressive highs.

It’s a paradox: With the right musical hands, you can discover new levels of feeling, mood and nuance in under-rehearsed material.

Mike was a session cat on my last album, so he’s somewhat familiar with newer Shipe stuff. But I didn’t want his whole night to feel like “hanging-on,” so I gave him a lot of my older tunes. Wow! I hadn’t realized how much I’ve changed since those rockin’ days of yore. I was darker then, driving at something, like trying to scratch an itch that I couldn’t reach. (Which is why you play with a band sometimes, ’cause you gotta hand someone else the scratcher for those certain hard-to-reach places.) A few of these songs are on the Saints live album. Mercy Saints Alive!

Mike plays with a lot folks in Portland. But right now, his main act is with those other four Saints I’m talking about in Mexican Gunfight.