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.
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.
Serena Markstrom, from the Eugene Register Guard, interviewed me by phone last week as I waited outside The Gypsy Den for my time to play. It was a long phone call, preparing coverage for the Villain release at Sam Bond’s Garage.
Serena asks delving, insightful questions–questions for which one’s answers can’t be rehearsed. She also does a lot of the talking herself, in a two-sided conversation, which leads to spontaneity and a real context for the interview.
Coverage of CD release parties–reviews, previews, or interviews–ostensibly serves to publicize and promote for the artist and the venue. But if that’s all they do, a journalist can get lazy, rushing through a list of generic questions, the answers to which I’ve given a hundred times.
Ms. Markstrom’s journalist obligation is to her readers more than to the subject. She’s mining for copy that someone might actually want to read. (I’ve heard that she works incessantly.) This raises the bar for a performer’s lucidity quotient.
I found us talking about a lot of things seemingly unrelated to the CD Release. Travel, the local scene, writing, family, growing up in the Northwest. The result is more thorough article than you often see on these occasions. It’s not so much a review as a report, taking for granted the integrity of the artist, rather than evaluating it.
One of Eugene’s steadiest bands is The Last Drags, fronted and led by my friend Pat Kavaney. Pat consistently works a ton of songs into their set. A wealth of originals & covers. What’s really cool is the way he covers songs of his friends and regional colleagues–including yours truly (below).
I have been a part time member of The Last Drags. Pat loves jamming with friends and he knows how to make them comfortable sitting in.
Here’s a tasty morsel from Portland where he has none other than the great Al Toribio joining at The White Eagle, playing on my song “Waiting on You.” It’s appropos, as Al played the original lead guitar on the album from which this came–Sudden & Merciless Joy (1999)
They do emphasize the funky-friendly side of the tune. (This surely comes from Pat’s love of Steely Dan.)
In mid-lockout session with Ebbage. He’s really cracking the whip. (Lead vocals completed for 4 songs in one day.) The early results suggest the best stuff I’ve ever done. Going into the second day with high hopes–gotta concentrate and be careful to keep the eye on the ball (As Ebbage says.)
But now I’m taking some time with my morning coffee at Muse in Seattle to think and talk about the second 2010 installment Music’s Edge Camp, at which I’ll be teaching all next week. (Monday the 7th through Friday the 13th.) This is the 3rd year for me. And each time it is an exhausting, rewarding and uplifting experience that I look forward to all year.
It’s directed by Tim McLaughlin. (One of my bandmates in The Blue Rebekahs.) It’s happening at WOW Hall. There’s still time to register, if you’re a kid in the Eugene, OR area between the ages of 10 & 17.
These days, I’m so swamped with my own Biz, I rarely go out to see live music. The only bands I see are the bands I share the bill with. (It’s a shame, ’cause I risk alienating myself from my own field of endeavor.) But last night, my old drummer Dyson was here in Eugene at Luckey’s with his S. F. band Crackerjack Highway
It was worth staying out past 2:00 a.m. to watch Dyson killin’ it with this group of amazing jammers. Back when he joined my band at the turn of the century, he was raw, just out of music school, with a fondness for fancy Carter Beauford-like chops, which he couldn’t quite pull off. We had band a meeting to ask him to calm down and smooth it out for my more song-oriented material. It’s quite common with young drummers, many of whom complain about controlling singer-songwriters always putting them in straitjackets. But Dyson had a rare work ethic–the results of which became obvious on our 2002 album, Pollyanna Loves Cassandra
Nowadays, Dyson has chops in abundance–and an apt band in which to use them. Crackerjack Highway is one of those bands for whom songwriting is mostly a series of canvases on which to apply spectacular instrumentalism. A funky-ish jam band, less with the endless hippy-noodling of Phish spawn, and more with the purposeful trajectories of blues-rock, Allman, and maybe fusion. Suitable for a bill with Derek Trucks or Umphrey’s McGee.
And love those Allman-esque twin leads! Crackerjack constructs plenty of their own, but of course, with that ability, you just have to throw in “Liz Reed” and “Jessica.” And furthermore, why not segue into “Boys are Back in Town” and “Frankenstein.” I don’t care if you’re one of those anti-lead-guitar hipster short-songs-only kind of critic. When it comes to guitary indulgences, someone has got to it. (You know it’s true.) The elite few who can pull it off have a duty to do so with this much conviction and gusto. If you were at Luckey’s 1:45 a.m to hear the Pat Travers version “Black Betty,” you would know what I mean. (After-hours folks were wandering in from the streets like they were heeding a distant call.)
In some ways, Cozmic Pizza is not Eugene’s hippest, most desirable venue. It’s a big, vaulted echo chamber, so you don’t want to bring your rhythm section, unless you’re certain to fill the place with bodies to absorb the excess sonic boominess. However, it’s a right nice place for a Holly Brook / Shipe pair of intimate solo performances. Other venues in town have more built-in attendance, but it’s good to play for an audience that came to listen.
It was a decent crowd, between Holly’s considerable Facebook following, and my local cronies.
As for my set, it was a solid short one, with two highlights. First, I tried a new song: “No Use Crying Over a Spilt Life.” It’s a sad piece about dreams slipping away, musically influenced by the Irish musicians I chummed around with in North San Diego County.
For my second trick, I forced my wife Amy Wray to join me on the debut our country duet, “Hard to Believe.” This brought the house down. Video for this is forthcoming, and you’ll see why.
About Holly:she is a special artist. Looks good, sounds good. A consummate professional–on piano mostly, but adds guitar and lap dulcimer. Her voice is impeccable, haunting. With a theatre background, so she knows how to make the stage her home.
I met Holly’s mother, Candy, back in November while doing a two-night stand at Bandon Bill’s in Bandon, Oregon. She too is a professional musician–an acoustic diva in the style of Joni Mitchell. (She joined her daughter on stage for an amazing version of “Both Sides, Now.” It was one of those cover-tune moments when you say to yourself, “Wow, I forgot how good this song really was.”) Candy warned me about Holly, that she would be coming through the Northwest, and would probably impress the hell out of me. Parents are predictably proud, but in this case, they come off like colleagues just as much as family.
At one point, Holly introduced a song as being inspired by the “Twilight” series. That movie has the potential to make me vomit in my mouth a bit, but her song was outstanding–the best of her set, with Radiohead-like cadences in a soprano voice. Chills. (She is forgiven for the lapse in pop culture taste.)
Before the show, Holly was not very talkative, sitting quietly with her mother. Everybody is different in the way they deal with pre-show tension. I tend to be excitable and gregarious–if in a distracted way. (Let’s go ahead and call it manic.)
What impresses me is when artists take seriously their presentation, taking care of their performance to the utmost, even in the humblest of venues. Coffee Houses, taverns, restaurants… It always matters, especially when people pay to see and hear you.
After the show, she was more chatty, as if released and relieved. I was glad to hear more of her story.
Holly Brook was a signed Warner artist, frustrated in that major record labels typical frustrate their artists. Now she is on her own, managing her own career, which she seems ready to relish–particular the ability to release her own music any time she wants. She records on her own, at her home studio, which intrigues me, because, guess what, so do I.