Back to School

It’s only mid-August. The weather is still intense at times, and our annual Labor Day Weekend in Pacific City is still a few weeks away. But for a variety of reasons, it’s starting to feel to me like the beginning of a new school year. It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in over 20 years, when my final semester of business classes, trombone lessons, orchestra concerts and jazz band rehearsals filled my schedule. The coming week has me feeling some of the same feelings I felt then – the familiar buzz of making music with old friends after a break, the excitement of a new ensemble making its debut performance, the sense of wonder that comes with an approaching lesson and the slight dread that I will not be well enough prepared for it.

On Thursday August 22nd, GoBiggs Productions presents a rockin’ double bill at the Tonic Lounge. $5 gets you in the door to see two long sets of jams starting at 9pm with Jerry Rig. We’ll be playing a generous helping of tunes from our forthcoming 3rd album, as well as your old Jerry Rig favorites. Ninja Hippie follows with a long set of under-the-radar covers, classic and new, held together with tight arrangements and mind-melting improvisation. Best bang for your booty-shaking buck in town.

GoBiggs Productions presents Jerry Rig and Ninja Hippie, this Thursday at the Tonic Lounge
GoBiggs Productions presents Jerry Rig and Ninja Hippie, this Thursday at the Tonic Lounge

The next night, Friday August 23rd, the Latte Da Coffeehouse and Wine Bar in Vancouver hosts a unique evening of music, as we raise the curtain on a new project while bidding adieu to a bright young star on his way out of town. The show starts early at 7pm as Miles Hewitt performs one of his final solo acoustic sets of original material before beginning his own college adventure at Harvard. He will likely be featuring songs from his incendiary new release, Empire, which will surely be affordably priced at the show. Get it now before it blows up!

Shortly thereafter, proud papa Scott Hewitt and I will debut our new project, the Slope, along with our newest musical co-conspirators, guitarist Rick Kahn and bassist Keith Picone. The Slope is a blend of acoustic and electric sounds in an intimate setting. Scott and Rick bring some insightful and soulful original material to the group, as well as some imaginative arrangements of familiar favorites by Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Stephen Stills, to name a few. This gig is particularly exciting for me as I will be debuting a new and innovative hybrid percussion kit, integrating elements of my usual hand percussion setup into a small, acoustic-friendly drum set.

Scott and I have been playing together for many years, a fact that will be driven home on Saturday September 7th when we re-join Mike Smith and Matt Kuerbis for Mystic Canyon’s 10th Appearance at the Vancouver Peace & Justice Fair. We’ll be taking the Esther Short Park Bandshell stage at 2pm for our yearly tradition, but please come early to explore informative displays, worthwhile causes and a wide variety of performers the whole family will enjoy.

But before all of this, my back-to-school vibe reaches its peak when I have the privilege of taking a private trombone lesson with the sensational Natalie Cressman. As a reward for contributing to the Kickstarter for her brilliant new album Turn the Sea, Natalie agreed to meet with me for a lesson prior to her performance at the Camellia Lounge. I have been playing more drums than anything else this summer, so I’m playing a little catch-up this week, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve “crammed” for a lesson. I am confident that I can learn a lot from this extraordinarily talented young lady, and I look forward to writing about it here.

Here’s Natalie, aka “Chainsaw” Cressman, with the Trey Anastasio Band, tearing up his original tune “Mozambique”:

Gotta go practice now!

Hip Deep

I got a call around Christmas from my good buddy Jimi Hardin. Jimi was Mystic Canyon’s drummer when we started gigging regularly back in 2005. He brought an energy to the stage that took everyone’s game to the next level, and we developed an instant and undeniable chemistry. More recently, Jimi and I have connected when he co-hosts a jam night at Mama Maria’s, Queen of Hearts or Knuckleheads.

I had heard that Jimi’s band, Hip Deep, as well as the jam night at Mama Maria’s, had fallen apart. So when he called me on that winter afternoon, he filled me in on what had happened, but was already looking forward to the next project and wanted me to be a part of it.

He was putting together a funky backing band for a singer he had worked with over the summer. In fact, I had met Nayibe Rojas when we both sat in with Hip Deep in July. She was looking to put together a 60s, 70s and 80s revue of funky soul and dance music, and Jimi thought my percussion would be perfect for some of the songs she had in mind. “Don’t worry about the horn, right now we just want percussion and maybe some backing vocals.” I was happy to accept the challenge.

And what a challenge it has been! In just about three months, we have put together 3 sets totalling nearly 40 songs that cover a wide spectrum of dance music from classic 60s soul to 80s new-wave synth-rock. The percussion parts are juicy, and the background vocals are pretty lush. And sure enough, once the band got to know my skill-set, I found myself adding trombone, drums and even keyboards to the mix.

Now we’re ready to raise the curtain on this new incarnation of Jimi Hardin’s Hip Deep featuring Nayibe Rojas. Filling out the lineup will be musical director Julian Stefoni on keyboards, guitar and vocals, Tevis Hodge on guitar and Naiya Cominos on bass and vocals. Our good friend Maynard will be adding his saxes to the horn section as well. Check out the Hip Deep blog for all the details on our debut this Saturday at Portland Saturday Market, as well as our club premiere at the Spare Room on April 20.

Summer Update

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in here. For a guy who is still looking for a job, I seem to be pretty busy. Here’s what’s going on in my world lately:

The Ginja Ninja tears it up with Russell Batiste

Unfortunately, it was just too good to last. Family Funktion at the Tabor wrapped up in April, after a solid 3-month run of groovin’ and helping out the community. Before it was all over we had one hell of a Mardi Gras throwdown with New Orleans’ hardest working drummer Russell Batiste! Since then, C-Money split town and is now tearing it up back east with his new band Yeah Bud. Back here in Portland,  I know there are some of us who would love to get the Funktion started again in the Fall. Let’s make it happen, Family!

Speaking of family, Donna and I took a trip to upstate New York to visit her brother’s vacation home. We lounged for a week on Great Sacandaga Lake and Lake George while playing with our awesome nephew and adorable niece.

If you’ve read my Phish review from a few years ago, you may be wondering why I haven’t posted anything about this summer’s Gorge shows. Frankly, I was just too blown away by the experience to write about it. There are fine reviews at Online Phish Tour and Mr. Miner’s blog if you need a recap of what went down. The band is really on fire right now, and the 2 Gorge shows that opened the second leg of their Summer tour were among the best they have played all year, perhaps even since their 2009 reunion.

For me the shows were just the delicious creamy filling in the middle of a weeklong Twinkie of Phishiness. Coalition Brewing hosted a Gorge pre-party, where Portland’s Phishiest met in the beer garden for some tasty brews and vintage Gorge jams on the sound system. Scott Hewitt and I had a fun drive to and from the shows, improvising a Stephen King-esque short story about the rapidly spreading windfarms along the way. And while the counterculture bazaar in the parking lot never slept, it never got rowdy or ugly either. We met some really nice neighbors in the campsite and soaked in the one-of-a-kind atmosphere. I was riding such a high after these shows that I went out to watch the webcast of both nights at Lake Tahoe at a great local tap room called Hop Haven, meeting even more kindred spirits who just couldn’t get enough Phish.

Further Bus at the Gorge

While the highlights of my summer have been pretty exhilerating, the everyday stuff has been fun too. I get to babysit some pretty cool kids. I’ve got a great set-up in the guest room where I can practice trombone with some jazz play-along CDs, all through my headphones so I don’t bother the neighbors. And I’ve been playing drumset more than ever. In fact, music has kept me the busiest this summer, as I have jammed with no less than 6 bands in preparation for a full slate of gigs in the near future. Among the places you can see me sing, play percussion, drums or trombone  in the next few weeks:

Tonight with Mystic Canyon on NE 30th Ave, just north of Alberta Street’s Last Thursday Street Fair

Noon-2:00pm  Saturday 9/10/11 with Mystic Canyon at Vancouver Peace & Justice Fair, Esther Short Park, Vancouver WA

2:00pm Sunday 9/11/11 with the Featles at Squidstock (contact me in the comments for details)

8:00pm Saturday 10/1/11 with the Harmless Eccentrics and the Magenta Theater Band at the Magenta Theater, Main St, Vancouver, WA

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you soon. Keep an eye out for Umphrey’s McGee’s new album Death By Stereo, available 9/13/11 everywhere. I’m working on hosting a listening party here in Portland before the album drops, so stay tuned….

Uncle Bubba sits for a spell

The Art of Now

In January 2011, Camp Creek Records and the Mt. Tabor Theater rang in the new year by launching a brand new spin on “Jam Night.”  Each Tuesday this month, The Family Funktion assembled 3 diverse lineups of local jammers for an evening of 100% improvisational music. The spirit of spontaneous creation of art carries over into other media, as video and digital art is projected on the walls while dancers, painters and rappers become part of a masterpiece of the moment. 

Taylor Schwartz draws inspiration from the music to create this digital wall art

There is no charge for admission, but folks are encouraged to make a donation to  a local charity. January’s beneficiary was the Community Warehouse, a local non-profit that provides necessities to needy families in Portland. At the January 25th event, a raffle of jewelry and glass prizes from local artisans also benefitted the organization. Each week has attracted a sizeable crowd for a Tuesday night, even the second week, when ice storms threatened to make the roads treacherous. 

Within the walls of the Mt Tabor Concert Hall is a highly innovative canvas for artists of all persuasions to make an impact on Portland’s live music scene, and on each other. Digital artist Taylor Schwartz brings exotic and shapely figures to life against vibrant and horrific backdrops on his laptop and on the South wall of the room. A dancer named Sarah Flores combines rhythmic gymnastics with impressive body control to create a kinetic whirlwind of color with a glowing hula-hoop. Jordan Inglee from captures the music and streams it to the global community, and occasionally gets on stage to get his groove on. Each beat, movement and stroke is influenced by, and impresses itself upon, all who contribute to the whole.

All of this is not necessairly a new idea. I’ve been to many festivals, parties and campgrounds over the years that have combined live music and lights with fire dancing, juggling, painting and other forms of expression. But to see this kind of scene happening indoors on a Tuesday night in January feels fresh and exciting. Seeing more people at the Tabor on these Tuesday nights than they often draw on weekends is encouraging. Jamming with musicians who have never played together before just for the fun of it is liberating. And seeing a good cause benefit directly from the scene fills me with hope and pride.

Setting up for the Family Funktion Week 3.

The Tabor’s exquisite sound system has provided a fertile ground for sonic explorations by members of Sauce PolicyOutpost, Jesta, Reeble JarThe Escort Service, StellakinesisJuno What? and many other bands. Colin Ward does a great job harnessing these talents and putting together diverse and exciting lineups for each set. I am proud to have shared the stage with many adventurous jammers over the first month of this journey, and look forward to future Family Funktions. February’s shows will benefit Hope 4 Friends, kicking off with a lineup featuring the Motet’s Jans Ingber this Tuesday February1. Until then, enjoy this behind-the-scenes peek at a recent Funktion Jam.

My Northwest Mini-Tour

This evening I embark on a musical mini-tour of Portland and points North. Three very different gigs in three very different venues over the next three nights. I hope you’ll come out and say “Hey, Mike!”

Wednesday 7/28 9pm – 1am
Mama Maria’s, 5234 SE Powell, Portland
Shirley Sanders jam, featuring Ken Brewer (guitar) Toby Worthington (bass) and my man Jimi Hardin on drums. Looking forward to reuniting the powerhouse percussion assault.

Thursday 7/29 7:30pm-10:00pm
Corner of NE Alberta and 30th, Portland
Mystic Canyon returns to Last Thursday on Alberta. We promise to craft a set of music that will be the perfect complement to sunset, handcrafted jewelry and a slice from Bella Faccia!

Friday 7/30 6pm – 10pm
Old Town Battle Grounds, 316 E Main Street, Battle Ground, Washington
The Harmless Eccentrics return to Ed’s neighborhood with special guest Keith Picone adding to the rhythmic stew. We’ve planned three sets of our increasingly schizophrenic blend of acoustic harmony and groove, including new originals and covers from all over the last 50 years.

The adventures continue next week as the Harmless Eccentrics make their debut at the Local Lounge, 3536 NE MLK in Portland on Wednesday, August 4th.

It’s All Coming Back to Me Now

Same as it ever was...

The taste of metal, the tingly sensation after the first vibrations on the mouthpiece. The slight soreness above the upper lip, and the tightening of muscles in the corners of my mouth. Deep breaths through the nose, pushed right back out through the embouchure with a buzz that would be considered unacceptably rude were it not for the 9 feet of twisted brass through which it is directed. The mind starts to recall what the muscles still seem to know. C# sounds in tune, not because I remember where to put my hand, but because my hand already knows where it needs to be.

I can still fake my way through the first sight-reading, marking spots in my head that I’ll need to woodshed later. Second rehearsal much smoother, even starting to drop in little bits of personality that make the flute player giggle. Playing them with confidence helps me get away with the parts I’m still faking. Things have gotten better and better with each rehearsal until now, five days from showtime, the reality seems to be sinking in – I’m a trombonist again.

The whole experience of preparing for the Magenta Theater concert this Saturday has me remembering what it is like to juggle so many performing ensembles. In college, it was band, jazz band, choir, then later orchestra, but at least it was only trombone and voice, maybe occasionally drums in my fraternity band. Now, not only am I in four bands, but I’ve also got to be ready to play drums, percussion, voice, trombone, melodica, harmonica, pennywhistle and calimba. Sometimes I feel like I did when I was 12, in an arcade with a roll of quarters. I just can’t decide what to play next!

Most importantly, the theory is coming back. Remembering how it all fits together. Having people ask me questions I don’t expect to be able to answer, but somehow helping them understand what I’m feeling when I play and sing. Reminding the guitarists when they have forgotten their capos. Maybe I’m reminded so much of college because I’m on a college student schedule lately, but 2010 is feeling like a year of inspiration and education and I hope to soak in as much as I can.

Come see my first trombone concert performance in 18 years this Saturday

Playing the Field

There’s a scene in Mike Judge’s recent movie “Extract” – a good film, but not as instantly memorable as “Office Space” or “Idiocracy” – in which a rocker dude who works in the warehouse is describing the subtle differences between the five metal bands in which he plays. One is speed metal, one is more “grindcore,” etc. Two of the projects are actually the same four guys, with different band names because they play different kinds of death metal. This scene resonated with me, and not just because the over-categorization of metal is always good for a laugh. I can sympathize with warehouse metal dude because I sometimes find myself trying to explain why one band is just not enough.

I’ve been playing with Mike and Scott from Mystic Canyon for 8 years. In that time I have evolved from a guy with congas trying to figure out how I fit in, to a multi-instrumentalist looking for new challenges. I have learned to appreciate simplicity in songcraft and to seek my ideal contribution to each song we play. But the irony of playing in Mystic Canyon is that, as I improve and expand my range as a performer, the band  narrows its scope in order to establish an identity.

When we changed our name from the intentionally vague Verge of Something to Mystic Canyon, we wanted to send a signal that this was a new band, not just with a few new players but with a new acoustic direction.  We wanted a name that conjured images of serenity, wisdom and natural beauty that we hoped to echo in our music. We made it our mission to make music that felt like it could not be played on anything but acoustic instruments.

Over the last five years, we have worked hard to achieve that aesthetic while maintaining the adventurous approach of the jambands that have inspired us. A lot of the time, we nail it just like we want it to sound. Every now and again, though, we fall back on our natural jam tendencies and we become just another rock band that happens to play acoustic instruments. As much as I love what we’ve been able to create, I’ve found it difficult at times to stay within the lines we have drawn for ourselves.  

So, much like Jerry and Elaine concluded they had to have sex to save their friendship, I realized that in order to give my best to Mystic Canyon, I had to stray outside the band to satisfy my other appetites. One such fling was with a barbershop quartet I found on Craigslist. We called ourselves the Four Hoarse Men and we made some beautiful harmonies on a wide variety of a capella tunes. The experience helped me to relearn some vocal discipline I had forgotten since college and gave my voice and my ear a huge boost of confidence that has made an impact on my background and lead vocal work in Mystic Canyon.

Fortunately, our bassist Scott Hewitt had similar feelings about trying something new. He wanted to play some guitar, electric and acoustic, and find another outlet for his songs that didn’t quite fit the Mystic mold. Scott and I share many common musical tastes, so finding a new project together made perfect sense. For the last two years, we’ve been playing with friends in a project we call the Jersey Rhythm Mafia. While it’s always a fun jam and occasionally a party gig comes along, Scott and I sought more of a challenge. So this past summer, we turned once again to Craigslist to find a new kindred spirit.

We hooked up with yet another Jersey refugee by the name of Ed Travalia to form a trio we are calling the Harmless Eccentrics. Like us,  Ed has had years of jamband experience and an appreciation of quirky covers you don’t hear every day. He plays bass, keyboards and guitar, giving us a myriad of instrumentation options, and also brings a great voice and a keen sense of harmony. I appreciate that he can sing high parts, so I get to sing some juicy middle harmonies on a few tunes. 

As this year comes to an end, I find myself jamming with the Eccentrics more often than the Canyon guys, who have also been keeping busy with new projects. Plans are already under way to bring Mystic Canyon back to Portland stages in 2010, but I intend to continue my “transgressions” with the Harmless Eccentrics and Jersey Rhythm Mafia, plus the occasional one-night hookups with the likes of MiMo, Jerry Rig and Samba Soleil. In fact, my first performance of 2010 will be as the fill-in drummer with the Magenta Theater Band. While none of this is getting me any closer to quitting my day job, I believe each experience makes me a better overall musician.

I hope everyone had a terrific holiday and look forward to a fantastic 2010 for all.