Thursday, March 29, 2007

CDs/LPs purchased this year so far

Here they are. I'm not saying they're all good. Many were recommendations. Some were remasters of CDs/LPs I already own. Lots were infilling from artists I like. I think I'm making the case that music consumption is a big part of being a musician; I don't think we musicians exist in a vacuum. Listening is a huge part of creating for me. An approach of 'I'm just gonna play my way' leaves out so much good shit! I wonder what the rest of the year will bring.

Love: Forever Changes is essential — I even bought it on 180g vinyl.The Gang Of Four remaster sounds a lot better than the 1995 version. It has been exactly one year (3/27) since the death of painter and friend Maurine F. O'Connor. Interesting that would come up here; it was she who gave me my first cassette copies of Gang Of Four as well as the Au Pairs in 1983. The Paul Simon remasters sound very good, particularly his eponymous album from 1972. The other standouts are Bart Davenport: Game Preserve, Johnny Darrell, Rodney Crowell and Vern Gosdin. The Robert Johnson releases were described a few blogs ago.


Au PairsPlaying With A Different Sex
Ronnie BowmanMan I'm Tryin to Be
Tommy CollinsLeonard [Box set]
Tommy CollinsSinger-Songwriter-Comedian 1930-2000
Tommy CollinsThe Capitol Collection
Rodney CrowellBut What Will the Neighbors Think/Rodney Crowell
Bart DavenportGame Preserve
Bart DavenportSeal the Deal!
Bart DavenportMaroon Cocoon
Johnny DarrellSingin' It Lonesome: The Very Best 1965-1970
Echo & the BunnymenEcho & the Bunnymen
Echo & the BunnymenSongs to Learn & Sing
Gang Of FourEntertainment!
Vern GosdinChiseled in Stone
Howlin' WolfThe Chess Box
Robert JohnsonKing of the Delta Blues Singers
Robert JohnsonKing of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2
The KineticsThe Kinetics
LoveForever Changes
The Loved OnesBoom Boom, Out Goes The Lights (EP)
Lyle LovettJoshua Judges Ruth (DTS 5.1 version)
The Marshall Tucker BandSearchin' For A Rainbow
The McCoy BrothersComplete Recorded Works (1928-1932)
The McCoy BrothersComplete Recorded Works, Vol. 1 (1934-1936)
The McCoy BrothersComplete Recorded Works, Vol. 2 (1936-1944)
Bill MonroeLive From Mountain Stage
Bill MonroeLive - Volume One
Oingo BoingoOingo Boingo (12" EP)
Buck OwensRuby & Other Bluegrass Specials
Gram ParsonsSleepless Nights
Dan PennDo Right Man
Tom PettyWildflowers (because I've worn out a copy)
Paul SimonThe Studio Recordings 1972-2000
Robb StrandlundRobb Strandlund
Randy TravisAlways & Forever
Brenton Wood18 Best
Brenton WoodBaby You Got It: 1960's Anthology
Wildwood Valley BoysSongs from Wildwood Valley

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Looking back on my grad school experience, part 1

I just returned from a week in the desert with good friends, good conversation, and no responsibility. For reasons I don't fully understand, I quit drinking after February 14th. I cut back for a week, and haven't any since February 19th. Without exploring this further, it seems like it will stick until I understand what led me to this decision. I don't have alcoholism in my family and my dad hasn't drank since he was a very young man, before me or my brother were born. And though it seems trivial, I often recall Bill Monroe never drank.

Some of my time last week was spent with a couple of scientists that I've become close to, Marith Reheis and John Caskey. It was Marith that counseled me on a field trip in early 2000 near the same area in Death Valley. I struggled for years to arrive at the question: should I go for a PhD? I drank a lot at that trip, perhaps my first excursion into fine tequila, and I was deeply preoccupied about going back to school. Her and I sat in her rental car late into the evening on a Friday. Perhaps a little frustrated, she finally said flatly, "Well Andrew, it sounds like you should get a PhD."

Caskey is a former student of my advisor and is now a professor at SF State, currently advising my roommate's good friend Heather. My roommate Joanna is a student of Ken Adams, also an alumnus from my lab also advised by my former advisor. So we're all cut from the same cloth. I've been drifting lately for reasons that I need not explain here.

Getting back to John and Marith, we've also had a very deep musical bond. Marith and I were instantly very close on a field trip where I had my first exposure to Quaternary geology in 1995. We've been singing at the campfire since then. John and I had a similar bonding the following year, in 1996 at a campsite west of the Stillwater range on a large group of playa fringing dunes during Ken's field trip. To have a musical bond in the evenings and a scientific one during the day was one of the most compelling aspects of my career. It is a nice story.

I really felt the change that has occurred within me on this trip. Firstly, with a PhD's amount of coursework (yeah, I finished all that) and significant amount of my own research, I realized that I had arrived somewhere intellectually that I long sought. It was nice to feel equal footing, or approaching that, to these scientists I respect considerably. I didn't really engage though and kept mostly quiet, thinking carefully and comparing each of our respective scientific styles without asserting my own. For the time being, I am without an agenda or need to appear cogent to my peers. Secondly, coupled to this is the immense musical journey of mine. Some legs of this trip begun with those group campfires with Marith. She asked me what I thought of her singing and playing, and it was a great feeling because it became clear how far I have taken the music since the early days. To the point where I sensed that one of my heroes looks to me as I look to her. I respect her science and music and she respects my music and likely my science.

I arrived in Reno in July of 2002. I was in the last few weeks of taking the poorly understood (pharmacologically) acne medication Accutane. My face was still blazing red, but my three year bout with adult acne had ended. I was in a peculiar situation in that I was accepted without funding under his advisement. In fact, I accepted with no funding, to later be granted a TAship. I did have summer funding and at the CNS lab, I was given a project to study the Lone Mountain rangefront northwest of Tonopah using low sun-angle air photos. Later in August, I spent four days checking it out and exploring the fault I mapped. It was my first time on my own research of this scale, and it was exhilarating. I also spent a few days in the field helping Rich Briggs search for 14C samples in a trench on the Pyramid Lake fault and bonded with he and my other lab mate Senthil Kumar.

Soon the semester started and I found myself buried. I was required to take 3 grad classes, and also teach an undergrad class, which I had two sections. My advisor also made it clear I was required to tack on several advanced undergraduate math classes in differential equations. Perhaps everywhere, but at UNR, the math professors are not liked by the students. My differential equations professor was widely claimed to be 'the worst,' yet his section was all I could schedule. I buckled and withdrew mid-semester knowing I had to review calculus, the bane of my undergraduate GPA.

Well, I ran out of steam on this one. That barely brings me through my first semester, but it also sets the stage for the rest of my grad school career, which should go by more quickly.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Everyone says they’ve listened to Robert Johnson

I’ve been itchin’ to write something interesting. This came out in about half hour. It’s my first real free-association blog. I know they all seem that way, but this one really is.

It’s a tough listen. Recorded in 1936 directly to acetate. The enigma of his life and the legend about the deal with the devil. There’s a pretty good 80’s flick that gets into it with Ralph Macchio called Crossroads.

That crap is all fluff. Listen to this man. The degree to which his soul is exposed transcends the technology used to record it. It transcends all of that myth. But fair warning: it may not reach you. Not that there’s a special skill involved; you know what I mean.

Sure, everyone has a beautiful soul, and everyone can express themselves in some way. But to get that kind of sub..sub..subdermal? communication must require a highly developed set of skills. And it was that kind of thinking that turned me away from the blues 12 years ago. How the hell was I going to find time to do that and figure out college, career and love? Well, short-sided maybe, but life is long. Life is short. I don’t know.

The blues has been a sliver for me. But lately I see it’s the common element in all the music I’ve studied. Seriously. Townes Van Zandt bummed around with Lightnin’ Hopkins to understand that music. Then Townes found a way to express himself that breaks the blues form using mostly, as Guy Clark says, “hard fuckin’ work.” Townes taps into the blues with carefully chosen words and music and I’m often left with that feeling of "what the hell did he just sing? I felt something." Bill Monroe weaves the blues so deeply into his mandolin playing that it became his style. But he toggled between blues and the bluegrass he invented. Actually, I think that’s what good bluegrass always does. Anyway, Bill and Townes really channel that lonesome quality. But Robert Johnson conveys nearly all the human qualities of music through his blues.

What I love about Robert Johnson is his staggeringly creative guitar playing, (rhythm, tunings, use of capo, altering slide/no slide), and the spectacular deftness of his voice. But that’s all technical. Unless you’re trying to understand that elusive element. Some musician friends of mine are far closer to understanding this element than I. But good lord, when I figure it out. . .

The thing about friends is that they remind you of who you are. And I’d forgotten how deeply Robert Johnson affects me. And I’m glad I’ve met so many new and wonderful folks over the last few years. And one of particular relevance here. It certainty tempers the sting of not getting what I came for. Perhaps I got something better.

At this point, the daunting challenge I had with a Stratocaster in my hands in 1992 (to play ’good,’ like Hendrix and Stevie) isn’t present. I just wasn’t listening closely enough. I only understood shallow things about music. But I’m just getting to that deeper level after a long time looking. Can I bring it out of me? I don’t have to answer that, but that Robert Johnson’s music makes me want to try is, well, mighty powerful. Especially to come from 71 year old recordings.

So, take comfort in yer blues. It may be the most sincere and universal thing we experience here on the good earth.

A few things here, out of the flow. I’ve had these CDs since 1993, along with a few other blues masters. Some of that I’ve alluded to in a couple of other blogs here and here. (Wow, look at that. It’s been 366 days since I wrote that big guitar player one.) I could see that playing blues guitar was technically achievable, but there was so much, much more going in those notes. I couldn’t fathom a way into that realm. Yet I’m no bluesman; I’m not seeking to copy those styles and forms, just the expression. Err, not even that. Just trying is enough.

PS, evidently the best sounding remasters are The King of the Delta Blues Singers, volumes one and two. Cool cover art too. Man, are those on vinyl somewhere?

Post script 1, about 20 hours later
I tried not to edit this one too much, but this just surfaced. Way back in ’93, I had worked up Love in Vain into a more standard blues version. It was the only song that seemed accessible. Also, of note here, is that I never really got into the Rolling Stones. I dunno, that whole ’Stones or Beatles?’ thing is just not appropriate if you’re listening. So, many years later in 2005, I was in the field with my friend Ken Adams (the guy who first learned of last year’s Monroe mandolin workshop). I’d gone retrospective about music, and told him about my version of Love In Vain. He said, "oh, yeah the Stones did that." I didn’t know. About a year ago, while checking out Gram Parsons, I found out about the Exile on Main Street connection with Gram and Keith Richards. So shortly after that, which is probably about 8 months ago now, Leroy let me borrow all of his Stones CDs. Love in Vain is on their 1969 album Let It Bleed.

Anyway, back in the early days, I bought CDs with credit cards, telling myself I was going to make lots of money later, so there’s no reason to suffer now. Yet I was budget conscious. And the Robert Johnson version I picked up was not a fancy box set, which was ~$40, but instead, a virtually identical double-disc set, Charly Blues Masterworks Volume 13, that sold for about $18. The drawback was that it didn’t contain the extended booklet. That always bugged me. In mid 1994 I was well past studying the blues, immersing myself appropriately in classes, and working in a clothing store. The evening’s floor manager Kim and I got into a conversation about the blues. It turned out she owned the boxed set, and I diligently photocopied but never read the liner notes.

Until now. And interestingly, Keith Richards writes a small bit near the end where he mentions that during the time he was hanging with Gram Parsons, the second album of Robert Johnson’s came out for the first time. And they had never heard Love in Vain, but really wanted to work it up. I’ve always thought it cool that Gram covered two songs I also learned at a time when I was entirely oblivious to him. Those songs are on the International Submarine Band album Safe At Home (now excellently remastered by Bob Irwin at Sundazed) and are Porter Wagoner’s A Satisfied Mind and Johnny Cash’s I Still Miss Someone. I learned A Satisfied Mind from Verlon Thompson in about 2002. One of the earliest fiddle tunes I learned on mandolin was Soldier’s Joy from a recording of Verlon’s mom on an album featuring her called Darwettia’s Mandolin. I know Verlon personally from creating Guy Clark’s fan website. Verlon’s version features Darrell Scott, who played with Guy when I wandered through Nashville in about 2001 at the Douglas Corner Cafe while on a trip to study the New Madrid seismic zone. So there you go, another one of my ‘spiderweb’ stories. These connections are seemingly endless for me. I’m beat. I’m sure you are too.

Post script 2, about 12 hours later Well, my new copies of the above mentioned The King of the Delta Blues Singers arrived this morning. While not complete, the listening experience is entirely different. Wow. What you get is a whole lot more surface noise and also a whole lot more of the performance. That’s the thing about analog noise; it’s not constant and at frequencies where the music exists also. So the older, more ’noise reduced’ version is cleaner, but also less musical.

After listening to all this morning, the King CDs are indeed far, far sonically superior. After all of these years, I can enjoy RJ entirely differently. Firstly, there are two ’new version‘ duplicates; volume two is newer and is thought to sound better. Thus, the deletable dups found on volume 1 are tracks 9, Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil), my favorite track, and 11, Ramblin’ On My Mind.

It looks like the 10 alternate takes missing from Complete Robert Johnson are:
Disk 1:
08. When You Got A Good friend (take 2)
10. Come On In My Kitchen (take 2)
13. Phonograph Blues (take 2)
17. Cross Road Blues (take 1)
Disk 2:
07. Little Queen Of Spades (take 1)
10. Drunken Hearted Man (take 1)
12. Me and the Devil Blues (take 1)
15. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues (take 2)
18. Love In Vain (take 1)
21. Milkcow’s Calf Blues (take 2)

What can I say? If you dig Robert, you’ll want both King CDs for the sound quality and the ’complete’ set for these 10 alternate takes.

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