Sunday, July 24, 2016

Road Trip: Coastal Oregon to Coastal California (Depoe Bay to Big Sur)

I'm planning an ambitious, six day coastal road trip (US-101 to CA-1) that starts in Portland, OR and ends in the Los Angeles area.  I've been to sporadic places along the California coast but never to Oregon so this should be quite an adventure.  Departing from the Portland airport (about 90 miles inland) and then taking the most coastal route via Depoe Bay, OR, the journey is about 1,100 miles, not including side trips.

Below are my notes regarding many places of interest along the way - mostly scenic, recreational attractions that are not that far off the Pacific Coast Highway.  Because of time constraints, we are not going to start as far north as Astoria, OR so this itinerary omits Oregon's North Coast (Astoria, Cannon Beach, Manzanita, Tillamook).  The places of interest listed below begin just north of Depoe Bay, OR near the top of Oregon's Central coast and run through Big Sur, CA.  The 300 miles from Big Sur to Los Angeles haven't been covered in any detail because we'll mostly be driving that day without much time for stopping.
Depoe Bay, OR
Day One - Portland Airport (PDX) to Depoe Bay, OR via OR-18 W.
The point of this day is simply about getting from the airport to the coast!  Google Maps say it's approximately 115 miles (2.5 hours) via OR-18 West.  The coastal places of interest begin around US-101 mile 125 (about 12 miles south of Lincoln City).  Of special note - I was able to include mile markers for all of the sites in Oregon because that information is provided in the Oregon Coastal Access Guide by Kenn Oberrecht - a book I highly recommend.

U.S. 101 mile 124.8 - Fogarty Creek Recreation Area
Trail with wooden bridges along creek and under highway to scenic cove and beach with tide pools.
A spouting horn south of the beach shoots jets of water skyward during incoming tides.

U.S. 101 mile 126.1 - Boiler Bay Scenic Viewpoint
If low tide, descend short rough trail to see tide pools.
During high tide waves crash into shore creating salty mist.

U.S. 101 mile 127.2 to 127.5 - Depoe Bay Promenade
Stone seawall and sidewalk with spouting horns that can shoot water 60 feet high.
Depoe Bay - world's smallest navigable harbor; whale watching capital of Oregon.

Cape Perpetua Lookout Station
Day Two - Depoe Bay, OR to Port Orford, OR (160+ miles)
This day is all about getting acquainted with the wild Oregon coastline and perhaps getting in a short hike or two.  Towns along the way include Yachats, Florence and Bandon.

U.S. 101 mile 129.5 - Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint
Overlook with views of ocean waves and Whale Cove to the north.

U.S. 101 mile 131.2 - Cape Foulweather and Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint
Viewpoint 500 feet above the ocean.
Views (south) of Otter Crest, Devils Punch Bowl and Yaquina Head.
The Lookout gift shop.

U.S. 101 mile 132.4 - Otter Rock, north junction (Devils Punch Bowl)
Hollow rock formation that resembles a giant punch bowl.
Stairway to Beverly Beach south of the Punch Bowl.

U.S. 101 mile 137.6 - Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area
Turn west off highway on Lighthouse Drive (1-mile drive off Highway 101).
Some of the best views and photo opportunities on the central coast.
Tallest lighthouse in Oregon at the tip of the promontory.

U.S. 101 mile 138.3 - Northwest Ocean View Drive
Residential street that parallels highway along the ocean.
Rejoins Highway 101 at mile 141.3.
Good way to avoid Highway 101 traffic through Newport town center.
Leads to Agate Beach, Nye Beach, and Donald A. Davis City Park.

U.S. 101 mile 148.9 - Ona Beach State Park
Short trail to beach.

U.S. 101 mile 163.3 to 165.6 - Yachats
Village of Yachats (pronounced YAH-hahts) with a beach like surface of the moon.

U.S. 101 mile 166.9 - Cape Perpetua Scenic Area (Devils Churn Viewpoint)
Hike trail down to water's edge to 800 overlook to see incoming waves.

U.S. 101 mile 167 - Cape Perpetua Day Use (800 foot high overlook)
Turn east on Klickitat Ridge Road, go .8 mile, then north (left) on Forest Service Road 5553, which leads to the day use parking lot. An overlook stands 803 feet above sea level with view of 65 miles of coastline.
A short trail leads west from the overlook to a stone lookout called the West Shelter.

U.S. 101 mile 168.4 - Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint
Day-use area with benches overlooking ocean and access to beach and tide pools.

U.S. 101 mile 175.6 - Carl G. Washburn Memorial State Park
Hobbit Trail - winds 0.4 mile through dense forest to three-mile long beach.

U.S. 101 mile 178.8 to 179.1 - Heceta Head Viewpoint
Three small turnouts lean west off the highway.
One of the best viewpoints on the entire West Coast.

U.S. 101 mile 190.7 - Florence Old Town
Riverside town of Florence.  Waterfront Depot restaurant.

U.S. 101 mile 222.3 - John Dellenback Dunes Trailhead
One-mile interpretive loop trail through forest to dunes.
Five-mile beach route marked with blue-banded posts.

U.S. 101 mile 232.3 - Viewpoint
Small parking area with views of North Slough, Haynes Inlet, and Coos Bay.

U.S. 101 mile 233.2 - Conde B. McCullough Memorial Bridge
5,305 foot masterpiece by Oregon's premier bridge builder, completed in 1936.
Sidewalks on both sides of bridge provide platform to see and photograph from.
Highest point of bridge is said to have great view of Coos Bay.

U.S. 101 mile 259.2 - Bullards Beach State Park
The park road skirts the north bank of the lower Coquille River and ends 2.8 miles from Highway 101 at the Coquille River Lighthouse.

U.S. 101 mile 262 - Bandon
Old Town Bandon - shops, galleries, restaurants, including Winter River Books and Gallery.

U.S. 101 mile 262.5 - Beach Loop Road (Face Rock)
Scenic road that leads to beaches, trails, park and Face Rock, a basalt monolith that resembles the face of a woman gazing skyward.
The Beach Loop Road rejoins 101 at mile 277.6.

U.S. 101 mile 296.4 - Cape Blanco
Westernmost point on the Oregon coast. 5 mile drive off Highway 101 to Cape Blanco State Park and Cape Blanco Lighthouse.

Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
Day Three - Port Orford, OR to Trinidad, CA (140+ miles)
The fifty mile stretch from Port Orford to Brookings is said to be the most scenic portion of the Oregon Coast.  This day's drive also enters into the Redwood Forests across the border into California.  I don't have mile marker info for California, but I believe everything is still listed in a North to South order.

U.S. 101 mile 299.8 to 301.8 - Port Orford (Battle Rock)
One of the most beautiful natural harbors on the West Coast.
Port Orford Heads State Park - view of Port Orford's natural harbor, rocky shoreline and 1,756 foot high Humbug Mountain.
Mile 301.4 - Battle Rock Wayfinding Point.

U.S. 101 mile 334.8 - Cape Sebastian State Scenic Corridor
Parking lot and viewpoint more than 200 feet above the ocean.  On clear days visibility extends north to Humbug Mountain.

U.S. 101 mile 337.3 - Myers Creek Beach at Pistol River State Park
Mile-long beach at Myers Creek with sea stacks and monoliths.

U.S. 101 mile 344.1 to 353.3 - Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor
Twelve mile stretch of Highway 101 along forested coastline overlooking pocket beaches, cliffs, islands, sea stacks and rock formations.  The most scenic part of Highway 101.
Mile 344.6 or 344.8 - Arch Rock Viewpoint.
Mile 345 - Spruce Island Viewpoint.
Mile 345.9 - Natural Bridges Cove Viewpoint.
Mile 347.8 - Thomas Creek Bridge - highest bridge in Oregon.
Mile 348.4 - Indian Sands Viewpoint.
Mile 349.2 - Whaleshead Beach.
Mile 351.2 - House Rock Viewpoint.
Mile 351.9 - Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint.

U.S. 101 mile 355.7 - Harris Beach State Recreation Area
Craggy rock formations and evergreen forest with views of Bird Island (AKA Goat Island) off shore.


Clifford Kamph Memorial Park - 2 miles South of Oregon border.
On a bluff overlooking beach.

Crescent City
Brother Jonathan Park and Vista Point  at Pebble Beach Drive and 9th Street.
Point St. George - end of Washington Blvd. Cliffs and steep trail to beach.
Battery Point Lighthouse - located on an island just north of Crescent City Harbor.

Crescent Beach Overlook
Cliffside platform at South end of Enderts Beach road with trail to Enderts Beach.

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway - Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
(About 5 miles south of Klamath.)
5-mile alternative to 101 with roadside pullouts and paths into the forest.
Big Tree Wayside - walk up to the 304 feet tall "Big Tree" on a short loop trail.

Gold Bluffs Beach - Access via Davison Road, three miles north of Orick.
Fern Canyon Trail - end of Davison Road near Gold Bluffs Beach.  Water streams down 50 foot walls draped in ferns.

Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail - South end of Redwoods National Park.
1.4 mile loop where redwoods and fir create cathedral like canopy.

Patrick's Point State Park
The Rim Trail follows a route along the ocean bluff.
Wedding Rock.

Trinidad State Beach College Cove Parking Area - one mile North of Trinidad town.

Avenue of the Giants
Day Four - Trinidad, CA to Jenner, CA (250+ miles)
By now dramatic coastlines, beautiful beaches, craggy rocks and massive trees should be old hat so I'm hoping we can cover more ground this day - hence this challenging 250 mile leg of the journey.

Avenue of the Giants - 20 mile alternative to 101 between Scotia and Garberville
Founders Grove Nature Loop Trail (mile 20.5 on Avenue of the Giants) - easy half-mile trail, big trees up close.

Benbow Inn restaurant with patio overlooking water.

Legget - Junction of US-101 and CA-1.  Leave 101 to get on CA-1.
Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree

South Kibesillch Gulch View Area - overlook at mile post 71.95, south of Westport.

Mackerricher Park - pristine stretch of coastline just north of Fort Bragg.

Fort Bragg - Windsong Used Books and The Bookstore Vinyl Cafe

Pomo Bluffs Park - just south of Noyo River Bridge
Views of Noyo River mouth from atop bluff.

Jug Handle State Park Natural Reserve
Sandy cove beach and short hike to unusual pygmy forest trail.

Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park - 300 acre nature preserve 2 miles North of Mendocino.

Picturesque artsy village.
Mendocino Headlands State Park - Cypress Grove and Portuguese Beach.

Mendocino Bay Overlook - views from South of Mendocino town from grassy bluff.

Van Damme State Park - 3 miles south of Mendocino
Pygmy Forest - .25 mile loop trail of stunted cypress and pine off Little River Road.

Point Arena Cove - end of Iversen Ave./Port Rd., 1 mile west of CA-1.

Jenner, CA - where Russian River meets the Pacific.

Bixby Bridge - Big Sur
Day Five - Jenner, CA to Big Sur, CA (220+ miles)
Unfortunately we don't have time to include an overnight in San Francisco, but thankfully I've been there a couple times before.  This day's mission is to get through the congestion of the Bay Area and stay on the coast through idyllic Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel-By-the-Sea to finally arrive at the grand destination that is Big Sur!

San Francisco
CA-1 does not run along coast in San Francisco.  To stay along the coast take the Great Highway to CA-35 (Skyline Boulevard).  The Great Highway starts at the western end of Geary Avenue (Point Lobos Ave.) and follows beach past the San Francisco Zoo.  When it hits Skyline Blvd. (CA-35) take CA-35 for five miles where it meets CA-1.

Monterey - old fisherman's wharf.

17-Mile Drive - Enter at Pacific Grove Gate and exit at Carmel Gate.
Famous scenic drive. Toll is charged for entry.
Lone Cypress, beaches at Spanish Bay, many turnouts, Pebble Beach golf course, Bird Rock and Seal Rock (seals and sea lions).

Rocky Creek Bridge - half mile north of Bixby Creek Bridge
Similar but smaller than Bixby Bridge.

Bixby Creek Bridge - 11 miles north of Big Sur Village
713 foot long bridge built in 1932.  There's a pull off on the North side.
260 foot high bridge.

Big Sur - Rugged coast between Carmel and San Simeon.  CA-1 twists around mountains and clings to rocky cliffs.

Morro Rock
Day Six - Big Sur, CA to South Pasadena, CA (300+ miles)
Due to the long, demanding drive from Big Sur to the Los Angeles area (not recommended to do in one day) I've only listed a couple sights along the way.  I'm not making it a plan to seek out and stop at the typical tourist attractions along this route - I know I am leaving out a lot of interesting places during this stretch -  but may explore random sites more spontaneously this day if time and interest allows.  Although, I have listed the Morro Rock because that sounds interesting.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (11 mi. S. of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park)
Overlook trail leads to observation deck with views of McWay Falls.
Park east of CA-1 and cross under the roadway on the Waterfall Trail.

Morro Bay (110 miles south of Big Sur)
Morro Rock - W. end of Coleman Drive.
580 foot high "Gibraltar of the Pacific".

There you have it.  These notes are mostly so that I have a customized online place that I can refer to along the way, but it may be of interest to others as well.  In addition to the Oregon Coastal Access Guide mentioned above, I also used the books Coastal California Access Guide, Moon Coastal Oregon and Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip to gather the notes for this trip.  If you're looking for one book that covers it all, that may be Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip by Victoriah Arsenian.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Five Favorite Instruments of Mine (That Aren't Tenor Banjo)

I play music for fun as a hobby. The instrument I use to do so is the 4-string tenor banjo. In my case I tune it GDAE (low to high) which is one octave lower than a mandolin/violin. The tenor banjo allows me to pluck instrumental melodies to songs or tunes, similar to what someone is doing when they are whistling. Each evening around the house, during the same free time that someone else might choose to watch TV or play Pokemon, I play my musical instrument of choice: the tenor banjo.

Despite being my favorite instrument to play (and the only instrument I play), I wouldn't necessarily say that tenor banjo is my favorite instrument. In fact, I can think of at least 5 other instruments that I would place ahead of it, even though I don't play any of them. These include...

The marimba is a tuned percussion instrument with wooden bars laid out in a similar way to a piano keyboard. The wooden bars are struck with mallets to produce musical tones. Resonators suspended underneath the bars amplify their sound. The marimba was developed in Central America and is the national instrument of Guatemala. It is like a xylophone although it is pitched an octave lower and produces a richer sound.

Why I Haven't Played the Marimba Yet: Cost, size and playing style. I haven't done a whole lot of research but beginner/student level marimbas seem to start at over $1,000. That's a pretty steep investment. Also, marimbas are pretty big and would take up a lot of room in the house. I don't really have the space for one. My last excuse is that the proper playing style involves holding more than one mallet in each hand and I don't really see myself wanting to do that. I'd probably just want to hold one mallet per hand and try to bang out single-line melodies. I might still get one in the next year or two.

The melodica is a free-reed instrument similar to the pump organ and harmonica. It has a musical keyboard on top and is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece that fits into a hole in the side of the instrument. Pressing a key opens a hole, allowing air to flow through a reed. It produces sound only exhaling into not inhaling. Melodicas have a rectangular shape and they are held with one hand (a handle is located underneath most of the instruments) while the keyboard is played with the other hand. The keyboard is usually two or three octaves long. Melodicas are small, light, and portable, and inexpensive. The modern form of the instrument was invented by Hohner in the 1950s.

Why I Haven't Played Melodica Yet: This is simple...spit! Although I like the sound of a melodica I don't want to play any instrument that you have to use your mouth to play because the idea that moisture gathers into the instrument is just unappealing to me. This probably also rules out another favorite of mine, the clarinet.

Appalachian Dulcimer
The Appalachian dulcimer (or mountain dulcimer) is a member of the zither family. The dulcimer has a drone similar to the bagpipe, reminiscent of the early settlers of the Appalachians whose music helped shaped the beginnings of bluegrass and early country music. The hourglass shaped body extends the length of the fingerboard and its fretting is generally diatonic. It was originally used as an instrument to accompany ballad singing. Traditional players use a wooden noter, or dowel, to fret single melody notes, while others prefer the more modern approach of chording as both accompaniment and lead. It is unrelated to the hammered dulcimer.

Why I Haven't Played Dulcimer Yet: Tuning limitations. Due to the diatonic fret pattern and various tunings the dulcimer isn't versatile enough to cover every possible melody or scale. From what I understand the most common tuning facilitates playing in the Ionian mode, and then you have to re-tune and/or use a capo to play in other modes. I don't want to play any instrument that you have to re-tune for certain keys, etc.

The Upright Bass (AKA "Double Bass")
The acoustic upright bass is the largest and lowest-pitched instrument in the violin (or viol?) family, but it is tuned in 4ths rather than 5ths like the violin, viola and cello. The bass is used in a range of genres, such as classical, jazz, rock, blues, tango, bluegrass. You're probably familiar with it already so I don't need to go into much detail. When I think of upright bass players I think of people like Charles Mingus, Chris Wood, Mark Schatz and Stephan Crump.

Why I Haven't Played Upright Bass Yet: Well, they take up a lot of room and I suspect that they are expensive. But the main reason is that the bass is an accompaniment instrument and I simply like playing lead melodies. I would like to perhaps get a bass some day to learn more about harmony and chord theory, but I probably wouldn't choose an upright bass simply because of its size. I would probably go with a shorter scaled electric bass just to learn the concept of bass playing.

The Electric Guitar
Do I even need to describe the electric guitar? We all know what it is. It's a guitar that uses a magnetic pickup to convert the vibration of the plucked strings into electrical impulses that can be heard when the guitar is plugged into an amplifier. The electric guitar was invented invented in the early 1930s and quickly adopted by jazz guitarists who sought to be able to be heard in big band ensembles. During the 1950s and 1960s, the electric guitar became the most important instrument in pop music, serving as a major component in the development of electric blues, rock and more. I was going to make the last instrument on this list the accordion, but most of my favorite musicians are electric guitar players (Jerry Garcia, Trey Anastasio, Bill Frisell, Mary Halvorson, Dean Ween, Derek Bailey) so it would be disingenuous not to include electric guitar in the top five.

Why I Have't Played Electric Guitar Yet: I dunno, too common? (I actually did have a left-handed electric guitar once). The guitar checks all the boxes in terms of versatility and repertoire but for some reason I'm not drawn to it as an instrument I want to play for my own enjoyment. Any melody I can whistle can be played on the guitar in any key. However, I can also do that same thing on my chosen instrument, the tenor banjo, and still feel like I'm doing something fairly original (AKA self-indulgent). There are just too many awesome guitar players. I would feel like a poser if trying to play it. The bar has been set too high. If you played guitar there would be constant reminders of how you're not ever going to be as good as Hendrix or Zappa or Jerry. Whereas with tenor banjo I can play whatever I want on it and feel like I'm the only person in the world doing it. I've never once questioned the decision to play tenor banjo even though I'm always wondering what to play on it.

Honorable mention instruments: accordion, clarinet and steel guitar.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Bill Frisell: An Anthology - Song Book

Until this past weekend I didn’t know there was a published book of Bill Frisell compositions but there is! It’s called Bill Frisell: An Anthology. If I had known about this book prior to now I would have bought it years ago. Soon I will have a copy though.

An Anthology was first published in 2001 so it only includes Frisell's work up through that year’s Blues Dream album, but it still contains over 80 pieces dating all the way back to Throughout from 1983’s In Line. Other tunes include Amarillo Barbados, Lookout for Hope, Rag, Strange Meeting, Egg Radio, Verona, Monroe, Poem for Eva and Ron Carter. The full contents are below.

In the preface Frisell says “I’d rather not try to explain too much about how any of this music might be approached, but let the notes speak for themselves. When I’ve played these pieces over the years with my various groups, they’ve been a jumping off place – hopefully with something new happening each time. There’s no real set way to approach them. I hope that anyone else playing them will try to find her own way – changing the tempo, orchestration, whatever. They’re not really meant to be played just like the record. I hope the music in this book will be of interest not only to guitar players. Some of it was written with guitar in mind, but much of it is presented like a score and could be arranged in any number of ways, for any instrument(s).”

On writing, Frisell says, “I’m not a fisherman, but writing for me is something like what I imagine fishing to be. There’s this huge ocean of music surrounding us, moving by us all the time, and if we’re patient, quiet, and sit there long enough, a melody will come along”.
Bill Frisell: An Anthology contents 1 of 2
Bill Frisell: An Anthology contents 2 of 2
Recently I’ve been trying to play along with some of Frisell’s more approachable single-line melodies, such as We All Love Neil Young/Song for Lana Weeks from Big Sur and Farmer/I Am Not A Farmer/Small Town from Disfarmer. Hopefully we are due for An Anthology Volume 2 because arguably Bill’s best work has come in the 15 years since this initial collection was published.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Jerry Garcia Guitar Solos

If you want to plunge into Jerry Garcia's guitar playing, spring 1977 is a good place to base this study.  Jerry's playing was about as pristine, inspired and melodic as it ever got during this period.  Many of the Grateful Dead's best songs were already written by '77 and in the active repertoire.  Last Saturday I put together an ear-training playlist consisting of just the Jerry solo breaks from live recordings of over 30 Grateful Dead songs.  The idea is to have something to listen to, learn from, and play along with.
Jerry Garcia 1977 - photo by Rob Bleestein
The melodies to these Grateful Dead songs are very familiar to me and each one is distinctive and instantly recognizable.  Sometimes I slowed down these snippets to 85% of the speed but didn't change the key.  With a little bit of work I feel as though I could figure out the basic melodies to pretty much any of them, and then start to fill in around that based on things I might take away from what I hear Jerry doing.  The way Jerry fills out an otherwise sparse melody is of great interest to me.
I limited my sources to what is on Spotify with my focus on shows from May 1977.

From the 5/19/77 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, GA I used China Doll, Looks Like Rain, Loser, Peggy-O, Ramble on Rose, Row Jimmy, and Terrapin Station (the instrumental part after "strategy was his strength and not disaster").  From 5/21/77 at Lakeland Civic Center in Lakeland, FL comes Bertha, Brown Eyed Women, Comes A Time, Fire on the Mountain, Jackaroe, Scarlet Begonias, and St. Stephen (intro).  The 4/30/77 show at the Palladium yielded Deal, GDTRFB and Stella Blue.  By poking around on Spotify I found a few other stragglers such as Franklin's Tower (5/22/77), Friend of the Devil (5/18/77), It Must Have Been the Roses (11/5/77), and Uncle John's Band (9/29/77).

After all that there were some more songs I was looking for that I couldn't find on the 1977 shows available (some weren't written yet) so I had to expand the search.  These include Been All Around this World (1980), Black Muddy River (1989), Crazy Fingers (1975), Deep Elem Blues (1982), Dire Wolf (1973), High Time (1980), Mission in the Rain (1976), Ship of Fools (1974), Sing Me Back Home (1972), Stagger Lee (1978), Standing on the Moon (1989) and To Lay Me Down (1974).
The uniting thing about each of the solos is that they are loose, melodic breaks based on the structure of the songs.  Some of them are traditional songs that the Grateful Dead added their unique touch to, and the rest are originals that seem directly evolved out of traditional music - like taking the same basic folk music concepts and adding one or two new levels to it.  This gives me another option when playing tenor banjo.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Getting Excited About Seeing Phish In Chicago

I've started to get that feeling again.  You know, that feeling of anticipation that comes when a Phish show is looming on the horizon just a few weeks or days out.  I've seen Phish 54 times over the last 22 years and it's always been like this.  The excitement builds until it's showtime and the band comes on stage for that first set.

The upcoming shows in Chicago at Wrigley Field later this month will be numbers 55 and 56 for me.  Chicago is definitely a city I would like to visit but never had the impetus to do so until now.  This should be especially cool because it's a destination event.  I'm not really expecting Phish at a major league baseball stadium to be all that mind blowing in and of itself.  The setup certainly won't be as conducive to a concert experience as a theater or outdoor music venue.  But it's more than that.

For one thing it's at Wrigley Field in Chicago.  That is exciting, unique and historic.  It's also a downtown setting meaning that you can walk from your accommodations to the concert while bar hopping along the way.  In my case, nobody has to worry about driving or working on the days of the concerts.  You're basically on holiday in a new city where the only thing for sure happening for two evenings in a row is Phish is playing.  We'll probably also go to breweries, Irish pubs, some jazz clubs, a few dive bars and ethnic restaurants.  Maybe an art gallery.  Who knows?

In a lot of ways this is like the perfect way to see Phish at this point in my life (short of the unbelievably awesome Riviera Maya trip earlier this year).  It inspires me to get a quick glimpse of a classic American city I haven't really been to yet.  This isn't a camping/festival situation, so you get to sleep as late as you want in a comfortable bed, if you are lucky enough to do so, with easy access to bathroom/showers.  Plus there are oodles of bars, restaurants, museums and other sights to check out.  In other words, "culture".  It won't be like Hampton Coliseum for example where, although the venue and music is almost guaranteed good, the environs are bland suburbia.

Basically you get to be a tourist and see Phish at the same time.  I can see myself doing more of this in the future -- integrating travel and Phish.  One thing I'm wondering is how much will a beer at Wrigley Field cost?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Tenner: Ten Years Playing Tenor Banjo

It was almost ten years ago to this day - Memorial Day Weekend 2006 - that I began playing tenor banjo.  Even though I had never played an instrument before, I decided out of the blue at age 32 that I was going to begin playing 4-string tenor banjo.

Ever since I received that first banjo and had it set up left-handed with new tuners in the "Irish" GDAE tuning, I have rarely wavered in thinking that the tenor banjo is the instrument for me.  What I have struggled with is finding the right music to play on it.  My favorite music to listen to at that time - John Prine, Neil Young, Ween, Phish, Grateful Dead - either wasn't fun to play or was too advanced harmonically to translate into single-note tenor banjo plucking.

I soon learned that I wanted to play instrumental melodies -- not strum and sing.  Irish music made the most sense: an endless repertoire of tunes - no chording required - in a style of music where the instrument I held in my hands was commonly used.  Delving in to Irish and old-time fiddle tunes forced me to learn about tenor banjo "flatpicking" and also a little bit about music theory due to my curiosity about the modes and scales.

Fast forward to's taken me about ten years but I finally think I've cobbled together a personal repertoire of tunes that I endlessly enjoy playing.  I like to think of it as an "East/West" repertoire.  East being music with an Eastern European sound, and West being music with origins in the West Indies and therefore a more Caribbean sound.

The core of the "Western" repertoire is the music from an album called Bonne Humeur by The Etcetera String Band.  Around 1990, this ragtime string band from Kansas City recorded an album of early Caribbean music - dance tunes and other melodies from the 19th and 20th centuries.  The lead instrument is a banjo-mandolin.  My favorites from this CD include:  Aurore Bradaire, Bad Woman, Carnaval En Margarita, Dessan Mouillage, La Douceur, Lisette, and many more.  The majority of the 18 tracks, actually.

The core of the "Eastern" repertoire are the faux ethnic original tunes recorded by the band Camper Van Beethoven, primarily those from their 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  My favorites are Balalaika Gap, Border Ska, Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China, Payed Vacation: Greece, Skinhead Stomp, Tina and Yanqui Go Home.


Add in a few other East or West type tunes from these and other sources and there are well over 40 tunes I'm trying to keep up with!

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.