Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Camper Van Beethoven's Russian-Flavored Ska Tunes

Telephone Free Landslide Victory
Camper Van Beethoven’s brilliant 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory contains 9 or 10 sprightly instrumental tunes - purposely faux approximations of ethnic folk music with a ska beat. There’s Tex-Mex/NorteƱa (Border Ska, the almost instrumental Tina), Islandy Surf (Yanqui Go Home, Opi Rides Again), Eastern European (Balalaika Gap, Skinhead Stomp, Vladivostok, bonus reissue track Atkuda), Middle Eastern (Payed Vacation: Greece) and vaguely Oriental (Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China).

After Telephone Free Landslide Victory CVB became a little more song-oriented and/or the instrumentals were more sprawling and psychedelic. However the Camper tunes L’Aguardiente and RNR Uzbekistan are also in this pseudo-ethnic instrumental category.

The best of these types of tunes might be the minor-key polka Balalaika Gap, which could actually pass for a traditional Balkan or Ukranian melody. On their Facebook page, CVB recently shared an inquiry they received about this tune from a college student.
Message: Hi, my name is xxxxxx. My dad is a huge fan and I grew up listening to your music. I am in a college World Music class and I want to write a paper on your song 'Balalaika Gap'. Which member played the Balalaika, and why were you inspired to write this song? Thank you so much for your time!

(violinist Jonathan Segel replies) Hi. I’m sorry to say, nobody played the balalaika. In fact, what was used in its stead was a mandolin. The song itself came from a period of Camper Van Beethoven writing wherein we were purposely trying to make false representations of foreign musics, “ethnographic forgeries” as Holger Czukay called such things in his band Can. Our inspiration was the basic universality of popular culture, where things were heard and then played back from different perspectives, such as pretty much all music does; people try to make what they have heard with what they have. For example, there are stories of the origins of “Dub” style mixing in rock steady and reggae where they say that they heard the hits on the radio coming over the ocean from America to Jamaica and there were radio drop outs, so they tried to emulate that. In our case, we grew up in the 1960s and 70s and LA television had its own idea of what “ethnic” music sounded like, we took that as much as the real thing into account when we merged the idea of eastern European melody with ska backbeats. Ska, as a back beat, of course, is much the same as polkas and so many other folk musics anyway. Our intention was to hit punk rockers with punk rock, that is to say, not to fit into any sort of dogmatic idea of genre, but go to punk rock shows and play whatever we thought was a punk attitude to play, which included annoying the skinheads. They liked the beat, regardless of the pseudo-ethnic melodies (and I have to say, there was a sort of kick of putting klezmer-ish melodies to back beats that potentially Nazi skinheads would dance to, back in the beginning.) --Jonathan
CVB in 1985 - photo by Jock Hamilton
In a former post to his blog, CVB front man David Lowery explained how these fast Russian-flavored ska tunes were an important part of their live set.
Many of these songs came from two of the earlier post punk collaborations I had with Chris Molla. One was Sitting Duck the other was the Estonian Gauchos. Sitting Duck often played with punk bands at The Ritz - the short lived punk venue in The Inland Empire (an area east of greater Los Angeles). If you unearth tapes of these bands I’m NOT the guy with the fake English accent. These two bands were like Camper, they were not punk rock but needed to be understood in the context of punk rock. In Southern California there two thing the hardcore punks and skinheads would tolerate other than punk rock. Surf (hence Agent Orange) and Ska. In order to get away with playing in front of these audiences we would pepper our set with fast surf like or ska-like instrumentals so the punks and skinheads could commence to skanking.
As the bands evolved into Camper Van Beethoven these songs took on a distinctly Eastern European sound. Especially once Jonathan Segel joined the band in 1984.
Camper Van Beethoven often found themselves in actual physical danger playing in front of sometimes hostile hardcore punk audiences.
Camper Van Beethoven were fake hippies (maybe not Jonathan… he might have been a real hippy, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t any less brave). We grew our hair out long. We wore thrift store ponchos, beads, carried those hippy shoulder bags and wore clogs. Anything punk rockers would not like. Despite this some of the punk bands took a real liking to CVB. (So did Maximum Rock n Roll, the bible of west coast punk). One early vocal supporter was Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys. He invited us to do a few shows with the Dead Kennedys shortly after the release of our first record. One of the shows was at an American Legion or VFW in Chico, California.
In the big cities there were enough irony-enabled punk rockers that the audience would quickly get that we were more or less one of them and at least tolerate our set. Here in Chico that day in front of 800 hardcore punkers and skinheads that did not seem like it was gonna happen. Usually when we launched into one of our country-hippy-folk versions of a classic hardcore song, something like Black Flag’s Wasted, the punkers began to warm to us. This audience did not. When we launched into Wasted the audience stood there motionless and the skinheads right in front of me became very hostile. I watched a little knot of them as their eyes began to fill with white hot hate. This was like the early days of CVB back in the Inland Empire except instead of an audience of 50 it was 800 and we weren’t on our home turf. We had no homeys in the audience to protect us. After the song, the littlest of the knot of skinheads right in front of me points at me and says something like “fucking hippy, we’re gonna fuck you up”. BTW it’s always the little guy who says shit like this AND actually means it. I looked over at Jonathan I think because Jonathan grew up not far from Chico in the Central Valley. Fittingly Jonathan is chewing tobacco and spitting back into a beer bottle. He stares right back at me. He’s got this look on his face that says “Dude, I knew all along there was a 50/50 chance we were gonna get our asses kicked after the gig. Did you really just figure that out?”
We knew we had only one hope. I’m not sure if this is how we ended the show but it’s pretty much how we avoided getting our asses kicked. We played 3 or 4 fast Russian ska songs in a row, then played Take The Skinheads Bowling. Like the scene in the Blues Brothers, when they play Rawhide for the rednecks, somehow this little mini-set of ska and Skinheads Bowling converted a large portion of the crowd to our side. I don’t really remember if they were all skanking happily at the end of the show but we didn’t get the shit kicked out of us with steel toed Doc Martens. That’s as close as it gets to a happy ending.
To this day there is always an little echo of this gig in our sets.--David Lowery

Whatever the reason for their existence these CVB instrumentals are great tunes! Every bit as good as the actual Russian folk melodies like Korobochka and Katyusha that they are reminiscent of. I'm in the process of learning some of these, starting with Balalaika Gap, Opi Rides Again, Mao Reminisces, and RNR Uzbekistan.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lionel Belasco's Song of the Jumbies and Back Down to the Tropics (as recorded by Nick DiSebastian)

BTL Music Notes chart for Song of the Jumbies
In 2013 I hired musician Nick DiSebastian of Built To Last Music Notes to transcribe all 18 tracks from the rare, out-of-print Bonne Humeur album by The Etcetera String Band.  I sent him mp3s from the CD (early string band music of the Caribbean: Creole Louisiana, Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands) and Nick transcribed the music, sending back pdfs containing chords, notation and mandolin tab, per my request.

BTL Music Notes chart for Back Down to the Tropics
The tunes from that CD have become some of my favorite music to play.  One discovery made via this Bonne Humeur CD was orchestra leader and composer Lionel Belasco.  Born around 1882, Belasco grew up in Venezuela and Trinidad. He was classically trained, but composed indigenous pieces such as joropos, paseos and danzas.  I learned from the Bonne Humeur liner notes that a couple collections of his music were published over 70 years ago.

Recently I was able to obtain a copy of one of those volumes: the 1944 booklet Calypso Rhythm Songs: Authentic Tropical Novelty Melodies by Lionel Belasco and Leighla Whipper.  The booklet contains fifteen "authenticated West Indian calypsos".

I like to have audio and sheet music when learning a new song.  In this case I had the sheet music but no audio, so I asked Nick if he could make source recordings of a couple of the pieces from this collection and he said yes.  Sort of a transcription in reverse!  I sent Nick copies of the sheet music and not only did he make professional sounding overdubbed recordings for me (adding some embellishments and arpeggios where it fit), but he also created his own charts with some minor revisions to the chords and melody where it seemed to make sense.

Below are the recordings Nick made for me.  I have his permission to share them here.

I think these sound great!  Now I have clean sounding basic recordings featuring lead melody plus rhythm backup to get the sound of the tune into my head.  Without this I would be relying on my own somewhat unreliable reading skills and sense of timing.  If you have a similar need I encourage you to reach out to Nick to see if he can help.

See below for the original images that Nick had to work with.

Song of the Jumbies page 1 of 2
Song of the Jumbies page 2 of 2
Back Down to the Tropics page 1 of 3
Back Down to the Tropics page 2 of 3
Back Down to the Tropics page 3 of 3
Calypso Rhythm Songs front cover

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Three (of Four) Qualities That Make JRAD Different Than Other Grateful Dead Cover Bands

I haven't gotten to see Joe Russo's Almost Dead (JRAD) yet.  I hope that changes with Lockn', if not before.  Frankly I had never really paid any attention to them until they were included in the initial Lockn' lineup announcement.  Recently I've been listening to JRAD a lot and have been continually impressed.

JRAD is not your average cover band. They are a veritable all-star supergroup bringing new life into this music in a way that even the officially-sanctioned Dead and Company doesn't do.  Here are three - and maybe four - areas that set them apart.
The members of Joe Russo's Almost Dead all come from successful pre-existing musical projects.  Joe Russo and Marco Benevento were The Duo - an instrumental jazz/rock duo with a strong indie following.  Benevento has since gone on to front his own trio while Russo was picked up to drum for Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in Furthur.  Guitarist/Jerry-vocals Tom Hamilton is the creative force behind American Babies, one of the top emerging rock bands.  Guitarist/Bobby-vocals Scott Metzger has been a member of Rana and Particle, and is currently part of the guitar trio WOLF!  Bassist Dave Dreiwitz is of course the bassist for Ween - an American institution in its own right.

Being songwriters, composers and contributing members to these other creative outlets ensures that each member brings a unique perspective to the tribute band format.  Ultimately, JRAD is just a fun, mortgage-paying outlet for these guys, and the fact that it is not an end-all be-all musical occupation affords them a looseness that is one of the band's most appealing characteristics.  JRAD would be a great band no matter what music they were playing.

Led By Drums and Keyboards
Arguably the two most musically talented individuals in The Grateful Dead were lead-guitarist Jerry Garcia and bassist Phil Lesh.  With apologies to Bob Weir - the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time - Jerry and Phil's boundless creativity and sense of adventure were the driving force behind the Grateful Dead's musical superiority.  There were times when drummer Bill Kreutzmann played a bigger than expected role (check out the Grateful Dead Movie bonus footage) but being paired with 2nd drummer Mickey Hart for most of their run inhibited his fluidity.

In JRAD the foundation stems from the deep connection between keyboardist Marco Benevento and drummer Joe Russo.  The confidence and musical palette that these two draw from has a greater impact than guitar and bass in this interpretation of the music.  That said, JRAD is a true democracy where all members contribute to the creativity.

Improvisation and Risk Taking
Joe Russo's Almost Dead might primarily play the music of The Grateful Dead, but in between the lyrics and written parts JRAD improvises like a completely original ensemble and isn't afraid to take it waaaaaaaay out there.  Their jams almost always retain a semblance of "Deadness" even while venturing into waters that The Dead never swam.

Years ago Phish fans came up with a term called Type II jamming to describe moments when their beloved band leaves behind the structure of the song in favor of completely improvised music making.  JRAD often goes Type II multiple times each set.  In these moments of psychedelic sorcery JRAD can sound like some heretofore unheard of combination of '74 Dead, '97 Phish and Pangea/Agharta Miles - an osmosis of collective influences that also relies on sharp listening skills and a willingness to believe that magic can happen if you let it.

BONUS:  Song Delivery
Besides being the best guitarist of all time, Jerry Garcia is without a doubt one of the best vocalists of all time. Granted my standards are much different than an American Idol point of view but as far as I'm concerned Jerry was a great interpreter of songs, whether these were his own pieces co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter, or a Dylan song, or even something from the Great American songbook such as Irving Berlin's Russian Lullaby.  Anyway, the way Tom Hamilton pours himself into these Jerry Garcia numbers is starting to take on a broken quality of its own.  It's the same familiar songs coming from a comforting voice -- sung with a different perspective.  No other Dead tribute band does it so well and so singular.

It's not all Tommy Hamilton on vocals though.  Having a force like Scott Metzger at the ready for the Bob Weir songs gives JRAD sets the back-and-forth of a classic Jerry/Bob duel.  Metzger can really sound like Bobby when he wants to, while Hamilton "sounds like Jerry" by not sounding like Jerry.  It's more of an attitude in his case.

There you go.  It might be stupid to write this much text about a tribute band, but in a time when cover bands are a dime a dozen, JRAD is light-years ahead of most tribute bands.  If JRAD did a whole album of original material and started working these songs into their shows, and/or bringing in content from their other projects, I doubt anyone would complain so long as these arrangements retained the JRAD thumbprint.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Five Ways Irish Music Has Influenced Me

For the last couple years a lot of my time spent playing music was spent playing Irish traditional music: instrumental jigs, reels, hornpipes and such. Although recently I've temporarily drifted away from that repertoire it still has an impact every time I pick up my tenor banjo and pluck a tune.
Here are five ways Irish music continues to influence me:

1) It's All About The Melody
I love how in Irish trad if you play a melody instrument you play the melody all the time in unison with others.  You never have to comp or take a solo.  There is some variation and improvisation but it's minimal - you pretty much just stick to the melody and structure of the tune as it keeps repeating.

This mindset of repeatedly playing the melody has carried over into everything I play.  It's basically the same as using an instrument to whistle.  I try and find songs with good melodies and then just play those melody lines as instrumental tunes.

2) Dispense With The Chords
Harmony plays a big role in most music but in Irish traditional music it matters not as much.  When a jazz horn player plays a standard, he is conscious of the chord of the moment and that informs his note choices during a solo.  As a melody player in Irish music you don't really need to be aware of the underlying chords in this way since the tune is the tune and the chords are secondary or arbitrary.  You can be aware to the extent that you add harmony like double stops at certain places but those selections are often optional and variable.

Irish music has given me the confidence to use this same "chordless" approach no matter what I am playing.

3) Modes, Modes, Modes
My own theories toward music theory have been helped along by my experience playing Irish music.  I realized quite early on that the "modal" and/or "minor" tunes common to the Irish session repertoire (tunes in E-Dorian, A-Dorian, D-Mixolydian, A-Mixolydian, B-Aeolian, E-Aeolian) are all melodies comprise of notes from either the D-major or G-major scales, but resolving to a tonal center other than the "1" of those major scales.

Because of this awareness which stemmed from Irish music, I now analyze almost any melody I am learning in terms of the major scale - even if the mode being used is Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, or Aeolian.  When you analyze melodies in terms of the universal major scale patterns start to show up and you understand that "sharp" or "flat" note only occurs when it is truly sharp or flat!  This way of thinking also makes it easier to play the same melody in other keys since the major scale is universal.  Being a Dorian tune, Cooley's Reel is always going center around note 2 of the major scale.  It's normally played in E-Dorian, which is the D-major scale, but if you wanted to play Cooley's in G-Dorian you would simply transfer every note to the F-major scale.
4) Music Doesn't Need An Audience
People who play Irish music are going to play whether there's an audience or not!  A jig or reel is musically complete when one person is playing it on a fiddle, even if there's nobody else around to hear it!  I do realize that Irish music stems to a type of dancing which suggests the speed and rhythm that a tune should be played at and that Irish sessions are social in nature.  But musically these traditional dance pieces do not require full band arrangements or dancers.

This lack of a need for an audience is contrary to the way we're conditioned to think about music.  What rock band practices without some aspect of entertainment or performance or getting a gig being taken into account?  Yes you can play music for fun as a hobby without having to have performance or entertainment as the ultimate driver.

5) My Instrument Of Choice
I love to play tenor banjo.  More specifically, I love to flat-pick or pluck melodies on tenor banjo. I don't really believe in genre or style when I'm playing something.  I don't really care where the piece came from or what kind of tune or song it is supposed to be.  I just like using a tenor banjo to sound out a melody.

It just so happens that there's a whole genre of music where people flat-pick melodies on tenor banjo and it's called Irish traditional music!  Being able to hear masters like Angelina Carberry and John Carty play tenor banjo in this way really helps.  I know what the sound of a flat-picked tenor banjo by an expert musician should sound like thanks to these Irish banjo players.  I may not want to always play tunes of Irish origin on tenor banjo but without that connection I don't know that I would have made that leap to the instrument at all.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Should You Play Music, Write Poems or Make Art?

Comedian Jon Benjamin has put out an experimental jazz album where he plays piano backed by professional musicians.  At the time of recording Benjamin didn’t know how to play piano – at all!  He was completely making it up on the spot.  It sounds like free jazz.  In an interview with NPR Jon Benjamin admitted “It's a real insult to people who try.

I think this is hilarious and brilliant.  Of course on some level it is an insult to just start banging away on piano keys when there are people who have put in years of discipline and practice into their musical talent.  On the other hand I do believe that with the right attitude and approach someone who has never played an instrument before can pick it up and start making music from day one.  That’s basically what I’ve been doing for the last ten years, off and on.

There are elephants, chimpanzees and pigs who paint.  Their work is very avant-garde.  I happen to dig this kind of art.  Is this an insult to actual trained abstract artists?  Probably.
From around 2005-2008 I lived in a shitty house in the country where it didn’t matter if I spilled paint everywhere.  Somewhere during that time I decided I was going to start painting.  There were these old boards out in the shed and I would get paint very diluted and use non-conventional devices like spray bottles and toothbrushes to splatter paint onto these boards and then let gravity do the rest. 

Some paint would miss the boards entirely and either fall to the ground or vanish in the air.  Bon voyage.  The paint that did land on the board would become the painting.  This diluted paint would trickle down through cracks and crevices of the wood, eventually drying and leaving what was basically a discolored paint stain.  That would be the finished piece.  It was on par with elephant, chimpanzee, pig and worm art.  I might start doing this again.  Is this insulting to actual painters who rely upon skill?

I like to write in a ruled composition notebook three or four times a week.  I fill up the entire page – never more than one page per day – always stopping when the page is full.  I usually write in a linear top to bottom, left to right fashion but not always.  Days, weeks, months, or years later I look back at what I’ve written and make a “poem” out of it, usually retaining 80% or more of the original text.  http://www.mofvngo.com

That composition notebook process is completely freeform – almost like automatic writing – but I hesitate to call it prose poetry.  It’s more like improvisational journal entries.  I rarely have any idea what I’m writing about as I'm doing it; I just start with a blank mind/page and don’t stop until the page is full.  The whole process probably takes about ten minutes or less.  This format and these parameters work for me.  Is this insulting to actual poets?  Certainly writing in a diary is OK to do and that’s essentially what this is.

A few years after I had been playing tenor banjo I convinced my wife to start playing a baritone ukulele so I could have someone to play backup to my melody.  She never had any lessons other than what I could show her, but within days of her getting the uke and learning chords I had her record an “album” with me that we put on Bandcamp.  Is this an insult to actual musicians?  People post crappy YouTube videos of themselves playing music all the time!
I started this blog over five years ago to primarily write about music.  I enjoy writing and it comes easy to me but I am no expert.  I didn't get an English degree and I certainly don’t have a degree in musicology.  I’m not a performing musician and I am definitely not a music teacher with actual students, but this space gives me a place to share music tips and music theory theories as if I do know what I'm talking about.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Who Else Can They Get For LOCKN'?

Phish, Ween and My Morning Jacket.  Independently, these are probably my top 3 active, performing rock bands, and they are all playing this August at Lockn', a music festival in Virginia that takes place about 90 minutes from where I live.  I've never been to Lockn' before but I have to go now.  Is Yim Yames going to sit in with Ween on Homo Rainbow?  One can hope.
Even if they don't add any other performers it would be enough for me, but the website says "More Artists To Be Announced".  I wonder who those could be?  What other artists would be a good fit for that festival and also be on the top of my personal list the way those big 3 are?  Since I'm 3 for 3 already, maybe I'm not that far off base, so I might as well think of some more preferable add-ons to the lineup.

I'm not clamoring for Dead and Co., or Ratdog, or Bisco, or Widespread or String Cheese (or any of your token classic rockers that Lockn' alumni might be bummed about missing), and I'm no longer into the bluegrass-tinged acts that show up at places like this.  My tastes run a little different than the typical jamband route, despite the fact that the 3 headliners happen to be tailor made for me.  What I would dig is the inclusion of Camper Van Beethoven or The Meat Puppets...a couple of out there, underground 1980's bands that don't normally play festivals like this but who could sneak in on the Ween vibe.

Someone who would pair well with My Morning Jacket is John Prine.  The singing mailman ain't that jammy, but his songs come from a deceptively counter cultural perspective.  This wrinkly living legend would definitely charm the crowd and be a nice break from your standard everyday funk grooves.

Tortoise could play late night after Phish and melt the faces of anyone brave enough to listen; and Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians featuring Mary Halvorson would hoist a heaping helping of noise in the guise of classic soul.  But I doubt either of those are gonna happen.

More within the realm of possibility are modern rockers like Dr. Dog or Dawes.  Even though I like both of these bands, I'm not sure how excited I would be to see them in that setting.  What would get everyone off - and still be a great addition to the lineup - would be a Talking Heads reunion.  Talk about a ground score.  That would really light things up.  Or how about Tom Waits?  He would add a different type of trippyness to the happenings.

Lockn' could go really, really big and court the likes of Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam and the Stones, but that might be getting too far removed and mainstream.  Let Bonnaroo do stuff like that.  Or they could go more grassroots in the vein of Floyd Fest, Shakori Hills and Red Wing Roots.  No, I happen to like them right where they are this year - with a finger on the pulse of bands with a certain throbbing psychedelic sensibility who still bring the heat rather than a nostalgic shuffle beat.  So hey, what about Prince?!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Making Time for Down Time

One of my favorite times to play/practice music is during a short 15 to 25 minute window.  Like, for example, on the rare morning that I am ready for work about 20 minutes early, I’ll set the timer on my phone, remove all other distractions, and then devote my full attention to working on one musical task for the next 20 minutes until the alarm goes off.  It might be a difficult passage, a whole tune, an improvisation, etc.  Later on that evening when I pick up my banjo again I’ll find that the brief but dialed-in time I put in that morning really had an impact, as opposed to mindless noodling with a TV in the background.

The bottomless lake that is music can easily become an overwhelming, all consuming task with no end in sight.  It’s easy to get burned out.  I don’t want music to be a source of stress and anxiety.  I want it to be a source of pleasure, mindfulness and relaxation.  I need to have an off button.

I’ve realized that I need to make music playing more like my “down” time and not my “up” time.  One way to help achieve this is by focusing completely on the now when playing or practicing.  Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Set a timer for 20 to 25 minutes and then single-task on one very short term goal or project.  When that time is up take a short (or long) break.  Allow yourself to step away and be (temporarily) done.  When you resume – maybe just 5 or 10 minutes later – set the timer again and either continue working on the same project or try something new.  The important thing is to devote that short amount of time to your single goal of the moment.