UNCLE MIKE

My sister was out of town for a week, and Pony and I agreed to look after my nieces, Alyssa and Emily.  Alyssa is nearly 13 years old. She is a slender, slightly shy kid, who enjoys gymnastics and likes to read and do Sims on her kindle. Emily is 6 years old, loud and constantly kinetic, from the moment she wakes (cruelly early on weekend mornings) till she finally conks out at the end of the day. 

Living in Colorado, while my sister has been living in Maryland, I have not had a chance to do much hanging out with my nieces.  So while even my sister was somewhat surprised that I would offer to not only take Alyssa to her gymnastics class, but to stay and watch her work her routines and exercises, it is as much as anything catching up of years of not seeing these kids grow up.  I have no kids of my own, although I am both “official” and “unofficial” uncle to various kids, by virtue of siblings and friends.  Over the last dozen years or so, I have started to wonder if one of the reasons I can so genuinely enjoy the time I spend with kids is not only because I have none of my own, but the implicit advantage that, after spending time with this or that kid, I have the luxury of giving them back to their parents. 

That arrangement has been tested just a bit over the last week or so, while watching my nieces.  I am more of a morning person than Pony, so most mornings, I took on the task of driving them to school (although I have to give Pony full cred for taking the time on most of the mornings, last week, to see that the girls had a decent breakfast, and left for school decently clothed and with homework and such in hand). 

I was helping Emily with her homework at one point last week.  There was a story to read, with discussion questions that followed.  One of the discussion questions had to do with knowing the difference between “fact” and “opinion”.  This was a an interesting  and somewhat challenging task, but after working with Emily on these concepts, I am willing to do the same for someone like the folks at Fox News (although that may prove to be a far harder bunch to deal with). 

It looks like we may be hanging around a little longer than we originally planned.  We have heard from the insurance company of the guy who hit our tow car, and they have written the vehicle off as totalled and offered us a settlement.  We now have the challenge of finding a replacement vehicle, while seeing to the repair of the RV and getting the RV and a new tow vehicle outfitted with a new towing rig.  In the meantime, I am looking forward to getting to spend a bit more time with my nieces.  The road is going to take me away again soon enough, and there will be big chunks of their growing up that I will not get to see.  So I will take what I can get. 

GREMLINS

“Never deny the existence of Gremlins!”

That was the advice of my friend, Gordon, who proceeded to tell me of some personal experience on the nuclear sub he served on for some years.

“There was a chief engineer who initially would loudly proclaim that there was no such thing as gremlins, only to have something go wrong within moment after uttering such a statement,” Gordon told me.  “He learned to keep his mouth shut.”

I mention this in the wake of the string of mechanical mishaps that has accompanied us on the first three months of our tour.  It began with a fuel leak on the auxiliary generator of our RV, followed by a battery problem on our tow vehicle.  There was the spark plug that worked loose from the engine while driving through Iowa, shooting out the iginition coil along the way, followed by a flat tire on the RV in Indiana.  There was another loose spark plug while in New Jersey (although at least this time the mechanic that took care of us took the time and trouble to check all the plugs and make sure they were well and truly tight and secure), and most recently the guy who drove into the back of our poor tow car (our “yellow submarine”), demolishing our towing rig along the way.  In between, there has also been a problem with one of the levelling jacks on the RV, in that it takes a good 30-45 minutes to retract, and there has been an intermittent issue with the RV’s water heater, where we can occasionally smell a stray whiff of propane. 

Gremlins. 

Pony ordered some smudge sticks.   The RV is in a service center even now (taking care of some of the effects of the recent crash, as well as addressing a few other stray issues).  The plan, sometime shortly after Thanksgiving, is to have a cleansing ceremony and a christening.  There is a reason that my sweetie has endured more than her share of sleepless nights of late, and we hope to at least invite some peace of mind by engaging in this spiritual exercise. 

One might ask why I don’t have more sleepless nights, myself.  I have had a few, here and there.  But, to be honest, I feel that letting worry consume me will not improve our circumstances any.  It certainly won’t help me when I need to get on stage and give my best.  I know I have mentioned something about this before, but I think about the musician, Steve Goodman.  Goodman had leukemia from the time he was a teenager, and although it would occasionally go into remission, it ultimately claimed his life.  Steve Goodman had a more acute sense than most of us of how fragile and uncertain life can be.  My buddy, Ernie Martinez saw him in concert, and said to watch Steve Goodman perform was a truly wondrous thing, since he treated every concert as if it could be his last.  I have tried to learn something from that, even if I don’t feel death hanging quite so close over my shoulder.  I don’t want to take any moment for granted.

There is an old zen Buddhist story about a monk walking along a mountain path.  Around a bend in the path, he sees a tiger in front of him and, startled, he slips off the path to fall a bit down the mountain slope, managing to grab a strawberry bush as he fell.  As he holds onto that branch, he sees another tiger waiting below him.  A tiger above, a tiger below, and the bush starting to lose its hold on the soil. He sees one strawberry on the bush; not the best berry in the world, but as he plucks it and pops it in his mouth, it tastes delicious!  I think about that story.  

GROG AND TANKARD

The Grog and Tankard is located in Stafford, Virginia, on the Jefferson Davis Highway.  I start with this because I originally had the Grog and Tankard listed as being in nearby Fredericksburg, which was driving my poor Tom Tom GPS (and, by consequence, me) crazy.  Fortunately, I had given myself plenty of time to navigate the Friday afternoon, rush-hour traffic, and managed to arrive with still plenty of time to get set up and good to go. 

I had a very welcoming audience, thanks in no small part to the King Street Bluegrass band (billed as “Alexandria’s Hometown Band”) .  I was given to understand that they were a little more compact than usual, as a couple of their members (a fiddler and mandolin player) had other commitments that evening.  Still, John on guitar, Robert on banjo and Nancy providing a solid foundation on stand-up bass put out a good, tight sound.  They showed no pretense,  but displayed themselves as the good friends and musical companions that they were.  They had a good mix of bluegrass and country standards and did them all justice with some tight vocals and lovely picking. 

They had a good bunch of fans that had come out to see them, so, as it turns out, I was the opening act.  Still, as I already mentioned, I was made to feel very welcome.  I managed to sell a CD or two, as well, and hope that I gained a few new fans in my own right. 

The Grog and Tankard itself is a pub in every best sense of that term.  Not too big, but absolutely comfortable for an acoustic act, with a fine sound system that could more than cover the room, and a comfortable stage with good lighting as well.  After a somewhat stressful week, I felt at home on that stage, and played like it. 

After my set, I had a good number of folk come up (including the folks in King Street Bluegrass) to remark upon the smoothness of my playing,  how solid and inventive my guitar arrangements were (how well they supported my vocals), and a few wonderful compliments on my songwriting.  Yeah, I know that to write this sounds audaciously boastful, but it is to underscore just how good the evening felt.  I had gone to this, another entirely new venue, feeling a bit nervous (mostly because of the stress of traffic and a poor, struggling GPS), and headed home at the end of the evening feeling relaxed and energized.  I could play this kind of gig six nights a week, and that is more or less my goal for the foreseeable future. 

LESSONS ON DOING THIS BUSINESS OF MUSIC

I recently acquired a new book on my Kindle: “ Your Band Is A Virus”, by James Moore.  It is a helpful and informative book, describing various strategies and tips for effectively marketing your music and making good use of the ever expanding possibilities of the internet.  We have already put some of these suggestions into place. 

Mr. Moore begins by emphasizing that you have to make sure you have solid product.  Don’t settle for some half-assed, fault-ridden recording, but try for the best quality you can manage.  Now, having said that, there are artists like the Australian Gotye, who took a laptop to a secluded cabin and used various “found” sounds and samples to create his musical palette.  Digital technology has made it possible to create incredibly fine and creative music on a laptop, in a living room or basement, or in all sorts of circumstances that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.  It is not necessary to go to a professional studio (unless you want some of the special bells and whistles that such a facility has to offer).  In my case, for my two newest releases, I used engineer Bob Matros, and his home studio, Hooker Street Studios.  Bob’s studio was more than adequately equipped for what I was trying to achieve, and Bob’s own experience and creative instincts (he has had a long and rewarding career of his own as a performing musician, songwriter, engineer and producer) proved very valuable to the final result.

Solid product. Check.

Next, Mr. Moore recommends that the second page of your website be your store, or some means by which people can hear, see and buy your stuff.  So we re-arranged our website accordingly. 

We are presently working on some of James Moore’s suggestions for doing research on the internet, regarding writers, blogs, music websites, podcasts, and other places where our music can be heard and hopefully talked about.  I say “we” , because my wife, Pony, is in the thick of all of this.  She has been scaling a steep learning curve in terms of web design and maintenance and various other internet-related matters.  I am trying to catch some of this as well, but my efforts have centered more on researching potential performing venues, contacting such places, and the necessary grunge work of practicing and rehearsing and playing the gigs themselves.  Ours is a small enterprise at the moment, with hopes of building things as we travel and learn,  And yes, we are working to turn the music viral. 

So anyone reading this: feel free to pass the word along. 

 

NOT MELLOW YELLOW

Let me start right off by saying it was not my fault.

Monday, November 11, and we’re leaving Mahlon Dickerson Park for what we assume to be the last time for this year.  The plan is to drive to Freehold, New Jersey, to spend a couple of days there in the company of our new friends, Tim and Chris.  But first, we wanted to stop off at Garick RV to see to a couple of things for our RV. 

I do the appropriate bits of putting on my turn signal and slowing down to enter the parking lot of Garick, and as I turn into said parking lot, we feel a significant “THUNK” behind us. 

For what it’s worth, the driver of the car behind us (Gil is his name) admits it was entirely his fault.  He was driving a too close behind us, did not see the turn signal, and failed to slow down when I did.  The result is that he slammed into our little, yellow car, taking off the rear bumper, caving in some of the front grill (where the posts are that attach the car to the tow rig), and turning our tow rig itself into something very much like a pretzel.  When we opened the yellow car (looking for the proof of insurance card and registration we keep in there), we also discovered that the stereo and AC/heating controls had basically flown out of the rest of the dashboard, to rest in the middle of the front seat.  Oh, and the electric windows do not seem to want to work, either. 

There was about 90 minutes of doing the usual trading of information (plus waiting for the local police to arrive and put together a report).  The immediate problem is that we could not leave town until Gil’s insurance company could send an assessor to look over the damage and get the paper work rolling to get our car fix (assuming it would be fixable and not totalled).  And we would have to get a rental to use in the interim. 

So we picked up a rental car (a decent minivan), and ended up driving the RV once more to Mahlon Dickerson Park (now becoming much more of a home than we ever intended).  At this point, there was no way I was going to make it to the DC area in time to do my gig on Thursday night, so I had the great fun of contacting the club owner and telling him I would not be there. 

We are still working on the idea that we can make it south in time for my gig in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on the 22nd of this month.  There are still some things to be worked out. We are also still working on the assumption that our little tow car can be repaired and made road-worthy once again, but that would also mean coming back up to New Jersey at some point to pick it up. 

Or the car could be written off by the insurance company as totalled.  We don’t quite know as yet. 

Add this to the litany of vehicle mishaps, with less than three months on the road. 

THE MINSTREL IN MORRISTOWN

There is an organization in central New Jersey called The Folk Project.  They host a number of concerts and other events each year, including an open stage on the second Friday of each month.  I figured the open stage as a good way to get introduced to folks in the area (with the hope and intention to come back in about ten months or so to play one of those aforementioned concerts), so I managed to get on the schedule.  It was a thoroughly fun experience.  There was a lovely crowd of about 40 or so folk, who are an attentive, encouraging , listening audience. 

A side word to singer/songwriter, Laura Nordstrom:  consider the golden rule.  Just as you would not enjoy it if people walked in on the middle of your set (or, even more to the point, walked out), next time you should think about getting seated before the musician starts his or her set, then at least staying until the musician after you has finished his or her set.  You don’t want to stay all night?  Fine.  Still, do unto others as you would have others do unto you (and that goes double for your Dad and uncle, who should be old enough to know some basic stage etiquette). 

That minor bitch aside, it was a fun night.  Open stages often bring out a wide variety of talent, music, combinations of sounds, range of experience, and surprises of all sorts.  But, as I mentioned before, it is a particular joy when you have such a receptive audience.  It lets me know that the folk and acoustic scene in Central New Jersey is active.  In fact, I could say that in this, and in various other ways, New Jersey has been something of a very pleasant surprise to Pony and me.  The problem is the “reality”show, “Jersey Shore”.  Anyone watching that would get a very distorted view of this state, especially if you get out further west into some of the more rural areas.  The land can be very beautiful, with rolling, wooded hills and serene lakes.  And folks have proved themselves  downright welcoming to a couple of wanderers from Colorado. 

Following the night of the open stage, the next night was a jam session/party at the home of one of the members of the Folk Project.  We were invited to join in, and again, I had a great time joining in with several fine musicians as we played every kind of tune, from traditional folk, to country and rock and jazz standards, to original singer/songwriter fare.  We left sometime after midnight, not necessarily tired.  In fact, I felt very much energized by the whole experience. 

 

YANDA DOWN THE ROAD

Yanda Down the Road

Two young men met in college, became room-mates and good friends, discussed music and philosophy and all manner of things over an occasional beer (perhaps several occasional beers), then they both set off traveling through time. 

The last time I saw my old buddy, Jim Yanda, was some 30 years or so ago.  And yet , when seeing him ago last week, there was that old cliché of feeling (on one or two levels, at least) that no more than a few days had passed.  Oh sure, we both wear the changes that time has wrought upon us.  We are both married now, and Jim has an eleven-year-old son who is polite, thoughtful , and very intelligent (I suppose I would expect nothing else, in a way).  Pony, Rufus, and I went to visit Jim and his family in a small, New Jersey town, and had a fine dinner of Iowa pork chops (from his family’s farm), a salad with fresh tomatoes (from their small, backyard garden) and a bottle or two of red wine. 

Pony and Ellen (Jim’s wife) got along immediately.  Ellen is a writer and editor, and as Pony is in the thick of working on her own first novel, they chatted enthusiastically about writing and related topics. 

Jim and I did some of the expected catching up: comparing notes on fellow college classmates, recounting what each of us had been up to in the intervening years and such.  I had brought along my two guitars.  I wanted to show Jim these guitars that Edward Dick had built for me; not so much to show off, as such, but because I get such a pleasure playing them, and I felt Jim is one of my friends who could appreciate a well-made instrument.  We ended up sitting down with my guitars and jamming on a few tunes.  And, of course, we talked about music, and where we have travelled on that fantastic journey, too. 

We traded CD’s: I gave Jim copies of my two newest, and he did the same.  I have been listening to Jim’s CD’s on the car stereo since.  Jim started out playing in rock and country bands in his high school years (like most of us, really).  Then he heard jazz, and it fired his imagination.  He arrived at Coe College with a rather spare knowledge of music (he took the music fundamentals class his first year of college, to acquire a foundation in the basic elements that had been missing from his early, rather informal musical education).  Jim’s hard work, his immersion in all things musical, was really something of an inspiration to me at the time. 

Listening to his CD (“Regional Cooking”), I am pleased to hear the essence of Jim in his playing.  There is the thoughtfulness, the intensity, the energy….all the things that are an integral part of Jim. 

Over the years, I have had various students (mostly young, teenage boys) ask me who is the best guitarist.  I gradually came up with an answer that satisfied me, if not them.  There is no way that you can compare Andres Segovia, Chet Atkins, Joe Pass, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Eddie Van Halen, John Scofield, or countless other magnificent players, and say that one is better than all the others.  What I could say is that I can hear about five to ten seconds of any one of those players and recognize them by the way they play.  And that, I believe, is the goal: to reach a point where who you are is able to come through in your playing.  Listening to Jim’s CD’s, I can hear that he has come into his own in just this way.  It was great seeing him (and hearing him) again. 

8 GIGS OF A DIFFERENT SORT

A couple of days ago, I took the morning to engage in a pleasant diversion.  We had stopped in a Staples to grab a some office supplies, and I splurged on an 8-gig memory stick.  Back in July, my mother-in-law, Margaret, spent a couple of days ripping nearly all of my CD collection onto a hard-drive that we how have hooked up to the desktop computer in our RV.  So I spent a couple of hours going through that collection of music and downloading a huge batch onto this memory stick to provide us with a huge batch of music to listen to while driving.  Pony had showed me a way to do this where the computer would shuffle the tunes, so it makes for a very eclectic mix, indeed.

I have rock music from Chuck Berry to the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Hollies, Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, The Pretenders, REM, U2, Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows, Rush, ZZ Top, Steppenwolf, and more.  I have folk music, like Utah Phillips, Ani Di Franco, Steve Goodman, Gillian Welch, The Chieftains, and Stan Rogers.  I have Dixie Chicks and Muddy Waters.  I have jazz artists, from Django Rheinhardt to Miles Davis, to John Scofield.  I have Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  I have The Decemberists, Old Crow Medicine Show, Florence and the Machine, Annie Lennox, and more, and more, and more….

1396 songs in total.  Mind you, this is not everything in my collection of CD’s.  I left out my classical guitar stuff, and pretty much all the classical music repertoire.  For one thing, we have another memory stick that holds most of that and is dedicated to that music.  Even so, with 1396 tunes, that covers a lot of miles down the road.