Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Rumination: Music and Stuff

If you are looking for political commentary or information about the culture wars in Montgomery County, you can stop reading now. Today I am just relaxing, kicking back, talking about my week, call it self-indulgence.

We went out and saw Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood last night. Yes, people, that makes me a baby-boomer. Both those guys are a couple years older than me, but not much. They were at the Verizon Center, we sat up sort of behind the stage. We were behind the Jumbotron, which was projected on a sheet of fabric, it appeared, so we could see it but from behind -- Clapton was playing left-handed on a backwards guitar. A reviewer might say "they ran through their hits," and dismiss it at that, but the way they ran through their hits, that's why people pay that kind of money to watch a couple of old guys jam on some songs.

I'm a guitar player, you know, and oddly I have not seen Clapton since he and Winwood last played together, probably 1969. Clapton is, and has always been, at the top of the heap of guitar players, and it was fascinating to watch him play. He had two black Strats, blowing through a couple of Fender tweed Twins, it looked like, a classic setup. Two stomp-boxes, one was a wah-wah pedal, the other one I don't know, he stepped on it one time, otherwise he played straight into those tubes to get that clean Strat sustain.

Washington is a Telecaster town, it's strange but everybody here plays Tele's, nobody plays Strats. If you don't play, these are two types of guitars made my the same company, Fender. The Tele is usually associated with country music, but a lot of guys use it -- Springsteen, Muddy Waters, Pete Townsend, and everybody in DC -- Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Bill Kirchen, Dave Chappell, Tom Principato, all the local guys. The Strat was played by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, this instrument has a little different sound, it's a matter of personal taste but there is also a political aspect to it, the Tele is a working-class instrument for some reason. You make a statement when you play the Tele, you're a blue-collar guy, when you play a Strat I think the statement is that you are a tasteful roquero. I come from California, I am not natively committed to the Telecaster. I play a Stratocaster. And so does Clapton.

Actually, in California I used to know the guy who sets up that black Stratocaster for him. I lived in the Central Coast region, where the Ernie Ball factory was, and that's where Eric Clapton would send his guitar to have the the action worked on. A bass player I knew named Gary had that job, he talked about it sometimes, that Strat would come carefully packaged and they would give it special treatment. Watching Clapton last night I can see how that works. I was watching him play up at the fifteenth fret and beyond, and he has the same sustain and tone he gets further down the neck, every string rings true even on the highest notes. My Strat doesn't do that, my strings bottom out on the next fret when I try to sustain a note that high. My solution is just to avoid playing up there, but maybe I'll send my axe in for some work, what do you think? You think I should take it to those guys at Chuck's? They did a good job with my Weissenborn.

My wife made a comment about how nice Clapton's guitar looks, compared to mine. His neck has all the varnish on it, the wood looks pristine and new, mine looks like somebody drove a truck back and forth over it. Well, it's true somebody has spilled a couple of beers on it, you might say, and it has been played hard. And I can't afford to send it to California so a guy can adjust everything to within a micrometer of perfection. Actually, I wouldn't, I like my axe just the way it is.

Guitar playing is gunslinging. When you're playing guitar and another guitar player comes into the room, you know it, even if you don't recognize the guy. I recently sat and watched Bill Kirchen play a gig down in Rockville town center, and I know he clocked me as a player. At one point he looked over at me and put his pick between his teeth and played some finger-style stuff, and I know it was just gun-slinging, he was showing me something I can't do. I did it to a guy last week, I was playing and I saw a guy sitting at the bar and there's just something, I knew he was a guitar player (I turned out to be right) and so I smoked him a little bit, played some stuff to singe his eyebrows, that's just how it is. You play guitar because you're competitive. I studied with a flamenco master from Spain and he was the same way, he'd look at you and do things on the guitar that you couldn't do, just to burn you. I don't think any other instrument is like that, and I don't know why it is.

We took the Metro there and back, and it was a little funny, the concert got out at the same time as the pride parade in Dupont Circle, so the trains were packed. We chatted with a guy who was coming from that, he grew up in the city and was talking about how to carry yourself so you don't get in trouble. Looking up and down the subway car you saw people with Mardi Gras beads from the parade, normally gay people are not so easy to identify, and you might be surprised. Actually, lately I have noticed more gay couples than usual showing affection in public, on the Metro. I wonder if it's a trend, if they are feeling they can act like the rest of us. I saw two guys holding hands and talking, it was nice somehow, they shouldn't have to worry about that, it wasn't cramming anything down anybody's throat (and of course I just love it when anti-gay bigots say that!), it was just two people who cared about each other. Two women at the end of the subway car, talking and caressing one another, well straight couples do that all the time, it isn't any big deal. I hope the world is changing so that people don't have to be afraid to show someone they love them.

We don't usually get out to hear this much music, but earlier in the week we saw Elvis Costello at Wolf Trap. He seemed to think that was hilarious, to be playing at a place called "Wolf Trap." Well when you think about it, it is a pretty funny name for a place, it sounds like you're out in the boonies somewhere. I first saw Elvis Costello when he came out with "My Aim is True," his first album. That show was so intense and so on-target, I actually couldn't speak for several days, I remember him singing "Lipstick Vogue," saying "You wanna throw me away but I'm not broken," he spoke so perfectly I couldn't believe it. Then I saw him in the early 80s and he was fat and bored, it was tragic. But now he's come through all that, Elvis Costello has risen to a certain level in the music business where he can do whatever he wants. This week he had an all acoustic band, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, stand-up bass, acoustic guitars, and he did some great classic country songs, Haggard and Jones, besides his own stuff, and other songs too. Unfortunately, the sound at Wolf Trap was not perfect, it was hard to make out the lyrics sometimes, and when he was doing novel material you wanted to hear the words. When he sang "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding" you realized that he really is a visionary, he nailed something down that was slipping away, people were embarrassed to be reasonable. Making sense, thinking clearly, had become a joke. I'm glad it's back in style.

The band I'm in is doing pretty well. We started out to play rockabilly but our repertoire extends a little beyond that on both sides, the blues side and the country side. Seems like every time we play people like us and we get more bookings. I have been learning a whole new right-hand technique on the guitar, and in fact Clapton was doing some stuff last night that I want to try. He was also doing an unusual vibrato with his index finger, I want to look into that. Our band is three old guys playing old songs, but we are not really an oldies band, I think of it as going back to the roots of rock and roll. We play songs that come from the period starting when white guys, country musicians, began recording music by black artists in a style emulating R&B, and going until about when the Beatles came and the music industry realized there was a lot of money to be made from this teenage music. I like to capture the energy of that time, when Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and Johnny Burnette and Jerry Lee Lewis were going crazy in a controlled way, eliciting emotions and expressing a way that people felt and still feel today, though music now has become a corporate mass-produced product. We'll be at the Quarry House in Silver Spring in two weeks and are looking forward to that. It's a cool little place, down underground under an Indian restaurant, I have heard that it has been open continuously since Prohibition was repealed. If you go there, you have to have their tater-tots. It's not that there's anything special about them, but you've got to have them. There is just something perfect about sitting down there in that shotgun cavern drinking a beer and eating tater-tots.

Well, I'm sitting here at the kitchen table looking out at a beautiful, hot summer day, where the grass in my front yard is, well, let's say, it's up to your ankles. I have a shaggy lawn. I see the Peruvians streaming to the schoolyard for their soccer and picnics and folk-dancing, and there are a couple of yard-sale signs nailed to the telephone pole. I know what I have to do, I have to get up from this computer and go out there and knock the grass back. Come on, can't you think of a reason for me to put that off? Oh, okay, here I go.


Blogger Tish said...

Well, JimK, you've finally done it: I have to get my oldest unmarried son in here to read your post.

OMS is fifteen. We bought him a cheap beginnner's electric guitar set-up just after his fourteenth birthday, and he started lessons last June. Typically for teenage boys, he knows what he likes and doesn't see much point in anything else. He liked Metal.

So when he started talking about Les Paul guitars I bought some Les Paul recordings and he wouldn't listen to them. I handed him my Clapton Unplugged CD and he nearly dropped it it was so nonworthy. I mentioned some roots blues music in our LP collection and he sniffed.

A year is a long time in the life of so young a boy. When his guitar magazine arrived with a cover shot of Clapton in his Cream days, with the story titled, "Clapton is God," he snuck my Unplugged CD into his room. The Blues LPs are often left on the turntable, giving me the chance to nag about not taking care of irreplaceable music. He found Danny Gatton all by himself. He saved his money and bought an acoustic-electric.

He still likes metal and straight edge, but he now knows what good guitar musicianship is and will give anything a try. I recently asked him to listen to some Per-Olav Kindgren and he did, very politely telling me that preferred not to listen to it for his own pleasure, but he recognized the quality of the playing.

He will enjoy your take on the concerts.

June 14, 2009 2:08 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Good one, Tish. The Les Paul is a massive chunk of wood with lots of power, serious heavy rockers tend to prefer that instrument. Very few play Fender guitars, for some reason. The Fenders have more character, I think, but of course it's a matter of taste.

BTW, if he's into Danny Gatton, he might like to know that a lot of Danny's licks come directly from Les, in fact the two of them played together sometimes. A lot of the really flashy stuff that Gatton played was pure Les Paul, just louder and played on a Tele.

Tell him I wish him good luck mastering the instrument, sometime I'll walk into a place and he can try to burn me!

That is, try to burn me.


June 14, 2009 3:15 PM  
Anonymous goodness gracious said...

"I like to capture the energy of that time, when Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and Johnny Burnette and Jerry Lee Lewis were going crazy in a controlled way"

Jerry Lee Lewis. Now, you're talking. He's basically the guy that put the wild in rock and roll.

I went to see him with Little Richard and Chuck Berry at Wolf Trap eleven years ago. I took my son to see him, thinking they'd all die soon and I wanted him to be able to say he saw the founding fathers.

Berry duckwalked and Little Richard actually let the audience come up on stage and dance around the piano. Jerry Lee somehow got his boots up on the piano during Great Balls of Fire.

The joke was on me, of course.

They're all still going strong.

Little Richard just played the Birchmere last week. He almost makes you think being gay is good for your health.

And Jerry Lee actually released the greatest rock and roll record in history a couple of years ago. Called "Last Man Standing", it features more members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than any record in history. Clapton's on it. Keith Richard, B.B. King, Neil Young, John Fogerty, they're all there. But the most historical moment is when Lewis and Jimmy Page have a duel between heavy metal guitar and rock and roll piano.

Don't think I need to tell you who wins.

At the end, he bangs on the keys and says, "ya rememba me, donja?"

Jerry Lee Lewis.

The rock star who could never get the country out of his soul.

The country star who can never forget that, once upon a time, he'd been the very brightest star in the rock and roll universe.

June 14, 2009 9:49 PM  
Anonymous RT said...

So, when are you gonna post some of these eyebrow singeing licks of yours online?

June 15, 2009 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he's got a point, Jim

you need to post up some video online to develop a following

June 15, 2009 11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

June 16, 2009 5:24 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

I just deleted a spam comment, and will delete one on another thread, too.

The band has a few songs recorded as demos, but there's not much guitar on them, and we don't have any video. I guess you'll have to come to one of our gigs. I'm not going to use the blog to promote the band, but sometimes I write about my personal life, and I did go to two concerts this week, so Sunday morning that's what came up.


June 16, 2009 7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

keep us updated on the gigs, Jim

we need to know the bat-time and bat-place

June 16, 2009 11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my favorite story about Clapton is that once he was being interviewed and the interviewer asked him how it feels to be the world's greatest guitarist

"I don't know", he said

"why don't you ask Phil Keaggy?"

June 16, 2009 3:47 PM  

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