Random Post and Pix

Donna and Mike at the Northern Lights Saloon, Polebridge, Montana, August 2006

I’m finally getting my computer fixed, so I’ll get back to posting more and better stuff here and at my other blogs for Mystic Canyon and the Harmless Eccentrics. In the meantime, just a few random thoughts I didn’t get around to blogging about, along with some random pix I found on my old computer.

Getting tilted at rehearsal in Camas, April 2007
  • Unfortunately, one reason I’ll have more time to blog is I am out of a job. I am certain I have the skills to get work again in medical billing soon, but I don’t have much passion for the work and would love to be able to take the time to find something I truly enjoy. Anybody hiring bloggers?
  • I thought about doing a “Best of 2009” post, but I really did not pay much attention to what was new in 2009, unless it was on Sirius Jam On. Mantis came out in January and nothing I heard for the rest of the year even came close, but I’m sure my opinion could change if I actually listened to some other stuff. What little I have heard of Muse has me curious, I’ll have to check it out when I have my good computer back.
  • I did see some great movies in 2009 and would say this was my top five, in no particular order: Up in the Air, Watchmen, District 9, Tell No One, and Extract. No, I did not see Avatar, but that’s probably the only movie that could crack this list.
World Premiere of Scary Bloated Banana, Lincroft, NJ, July 2009
  • If you followed my Fantasy Football posts, you probably just assumed I crashed and burned in the playoffs. I actually went to the Championship in my ESPN money league and lost a heartbreaker by one point. Still won myself a bit of prize money, which has already been spent of course. In my Yahoo league, I lost in the semi-finals but won the consolation game for a third place finish in a tough league.
  • As a follow-up to my last post, Mystic Canyon is ready to return to the stage on Saturday, February 20th at the Sellwood Pub. The evening will feature the extended Mystic Canyon family, as the Harmless Eccentrics will open the evening and Mike Smith will follow with his new bluegrass project. I’ll post more on the other blogs as the evening draws nearer.
  • Finally, one last point about 2009 – it was a great year for live music. I saw more of my favorite bands in concert than any single year, including Phish, the Dead and the Allman Brothers, Pearl Jam, The Swell Season and Umphrey’s McGee. My only regret was missing Railroad Earth despite having three chances throughout the year, but I enjoyed discovering some new favorites in the local scene, which I look forward to writing more about in 2010.

Mystic Canyon at the Someday Lounge in Portland, July 2007

Fantasy Football Week 6 Recap

Last Sunday should have been a forgettable day. Both of my teams were involved in lopsided matchups, one winning and one losing. But after weeks of sick and/or lazy Sundays, I was ready for some fun. I watched the early games at a great sports bar, then had quality rehearsals with two of my bands, Mystic Canyon and Harmless Eccentrics. Turns out the best way to get over a crushing loss for the Giants is to jam late into the night.

North Coast Greenleaves (4-2) 162,
Vancouver Volcanoes (4-2) 120

Jason and I had been looking forward to this matchup for a few weeks, as it also happened to be the week that his Saints faced my Giants. We met at the Cheerful Bullpen for the 10am start. While the game was painful to watch, the breakfast was tasty and the Spanish Coffee strong! Drew Brees gave Jason an early lead, and Randy Moss sealed it later in the day. Like the Giants, the Volcanoes put up enough points to win against a lesser team, especially during the bye weeks. But there was no catching Jason, even if Pierre Thomas had managed to be one of the 7 Saints to score a TD.

Things don’t look too good for Pierre this week either against a stiff Miami defense, but the rest of my team looks solid going into Sunday’s matchup against another New Orleans native, Steve, and his Amite Steelmakers, who are gonna need to make some moves due to injuries and byes this week.

PDX Prowlers (4-1-1) 111,
Degoba Green (1-4-1) 55

It was a small consolation as my Giants went down in flames that Drew Brees’ huge game was at least helping me in this league. But the Prowlers’ biggest point total of the year went to waste as my opponent didn’t even show up. Greg Jennings remained on his bench from the previous week’s Bye, and he never picked up a Defense to replace the ones that weren’t playing this week (Miami and SF.) At least I got the Toyota Biggest Fantasy Blowout award for the week, a new feature on Yahoo’s league page. This weekend’s matchup holds a lot more promise as I look to break a first place tie with TDs ‘N Beer.

Birth of a Song, Part 3: Bringing it all together

I started with a few verses, then decided that the song should end with a chorus I wrote 3 years earlier. The first part is an A-minor reggae groove, while the Rejoice! chorus in D-Major has a more West African feel – same tempo, but straighter eighth-notes. Since the song was inspired by memorable jam sessions, I have always envisioned Our Own Holiday as a jam vehicle. So I wanted the middle section to be an instrumental improv with a little bit of structure, ideally in A-Major. I may eventually write something for that part, but for the sake of getting to work rehearsing what I’ve got so far, I asked my good friend Scott if I could borrow a tune he wasn’t using.

Signs of Life is a jangly instrumental jam in A-Major, built on an Allman Brothers-style bass riff, set to a tribal sort of beat that would flow nicely into Rejoice (A>D.) Scott wrote the song a few years ago, right about at the time that Mystic Canyon went full-time acoustic, so it never found a home in the stage repertoire, but we’ve revisited it in casual jams a few times. Scott agreed that it would be a good fit.

One final touch was a brief turnaround in F-Major, to transition from the A-minor verse to the A-Major Signs of Life section. I put together a chord and lyric sheet and headed over to Keith’s house for Jersey Rhythm Mafia rehearsal.

We worked on a bunch of other stuff earlier in the evening, and in retrospect, we would have had a better first read if we had done the new tune earlier. It was a good reading that kind of ran out of steam, as we never quite worked out the ending. But I felt I was able to communicate what I was looking for. With a few more tries we’ll smooth the transitions and lock in the rhythms. A recording was made of the final run-through but I have not heard it yet. I’m hoping to see Keith before he skips town for a week so I can listen to what we’ve got so far.

I’ll continue this series in a few weeks when we’ve got a few more rehearsals under our belts and hopefully a recording worth sharing.

Birth of a Song, Part 2: Rejoice!

In July 2005, Mystic Canyon played at the Bend Summer Festival, still the farthest we have ever traveled to play. We did the right thing and rented a cabin so we could sleep well and jam throughout the weekend. At the time, Matt Kuerbis was moving beyond “new guy” status and starting to show us some songs he was working on. We also discussed collaborative writing, something the band had never really tried. He even suggested a lyric idea from a store marquee in his neighborhood, an optimistic twist on the familiar incantation of doomsday street prophets:

“Rejoice! The Beginning is Near.”

This line repeated in my head for most of the afternoon while driving around Bend and setting up my percussion gear. I thought about other ways to spin a potentially fearful situation into a message of hope.  The weather took an unusual turn that day as storm clouds blew in and drenched our audience. But the rare summer storm also provided the perfect metaphor I was looking for:

“The rain will wash away fear.
The storm will be chased by the dawn.
We will be one! We will be one!”

The last line was inspired by the sense of tribal unity that I felt all weekend, especially later that evening at the cabin, when I taught the rest of the band my new melody and Scott helped me figure out the chord progression in D. We made a joyful sound that night, working out the three-part harmonies I had been hearing in my head all day.

Upon returning to Portland, I was eager to add some verses to this new chorus, but I was never satisfied with the results. I tried to come up with stories of people perservering through dark times, et.al. but every attempt sounded forced, not at all as natural and inspired as the chorus had come to me. Eventually I accepted that it was a great but incomplete idea and kept it filed away until I could find some use for it.

As I alluded to in Part 1, I have now found a home for this chorus as the ending of Our Own Holiday. The message of hope in the lyrics, which I had originally conceived on a more global scale, fits well as an addendum to the first verses about overcoming social discomfort through music. The beginning of a beautiful union is near, if we are not afraid to let it happen.

In Part 3, I try to tie it all together with an instrumental jam section in the middle. I’ll also report on how the first rehearsal goes tonight.

Birth of a Song, Part 1: Inspiration

Being in a band with four very talented songwriters, it is hard not to be inspired to write music of my own. I have never considered myself a composer, but I have often had musical ideas pop into my head that capture my imagination. Most of these ideas go no further than that inital spark, as my attempts to develop them usually end in forced lyrics and incomplete chord progressions. But I have tried to keep these song fragments in mind in case I am ever compelled to complete them. Recently, inspiration has taken hold and I am finally ready to share a creation of my own with my musical brethren.

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting the Birth of a Song. Since songwriting is new to me, I thought I would share my process here for the sake of discussion and facilitation of future compositional endeavors. The song is called Our Own Holiday, an upbeat jam tune with multicultural influences. I am sharing writing credits with my Mystic Canyon bandmates Scott Hewitt and Matt Kuerbis, but since the song does not really fit the MCB repertoire, I will be introducing it via my side project with Scott, the Jersey Rhythm Mafia.  

The first part of the song, an A-minor reggae groove, came to me in July 2008 after a particularly fun jam at Horning’s Hideout. I was invited there by some friends for a birthday party, although I did not know the hosts or the guest of honor. When all of the scheduled bands had finished, there was plenty of time left before the sound curfew, so I joined up with Chris and Ken from Jersey Rhythm Mafia, Dave from Jerry Rig and Josh from High Ceiling for an impromptu open stage jam. Afterwards, the campfire jams continued well into the morning hours.

The next morning I was filled with wonder at the ability of music to bring people together. There were a lot of people at Horning’s who I could not pick out of a lineup today, but that night we were one musical family. Drawing from that feeling, I sketched out some lyrics – essentially an invitation from one musician to another to let music be the bridge across their fleeting acquaintance. One line is even borrowed from an actual party invitation I had sent a few months prior: “No gift but your presence, no presents but your gift for music and conversation.” This line in particular suggested that the song would work best in a reggae style.

After writing two verses and a B section, I hit a snag. I wanted an instrumental jam section in the middle, followed by a return to the verse and chorus, but I didn’t want to repeat myself or force some lyrics to fit the form of the first part of the song. It then dawned on me that the jam section should be followed by a distinct third part, and a long-abandoned melody jumped immediately from the back to the front of my mind. In Part 2, I’ll flash back to the Summer of 2005 to revisit the creation of  a chorus that waited a long time for the right verse to come along.

Project: Hewitt

Scott Hewitt at the doorway of creation

In a year full of musical highlights, the ones that I believe will stand out the most occurred during a week-long visit to the Berkshires. My dear friend Scott Hewitt invited me along on a working vacation to put the finishing touches on his “vanity project” of original songs. After a few days of recording at his brother’s studio in Amherst, MA, we’d spend the weekend at the Saratoga Jazz Festival. I kept a mini-journal and took plenty of photos, even some video.

Scott had a few days’ head start on me, so by the time I arrived at Watercourse Studios, he had already done most of the guitar and bass work. After catching up on a little sleep, we went on a mission to borrow some drums from Lorraine and started adding my parts. Our goal was to come away with four new recordings and add some drums to a track or two that Scott had started two summers ago on his last trip to Doug’s.

Way Across the Water is a song Scott wrote years ago that was once a staple of the Verge of Something repertoire, so its calypso rhythm was very familiar to me but still a challenge to synch with the track. I was very comfortable with Norman’s Song as well. It’s one of Scott’s newer ones, but it swings with a groove that Scott and I have honed for years.


Taking the borrowed drums for a test drive while Doug gets the mics in place

I found the other tracks to be far more challenging. Another Bend in the Road is a song that Mystic Canyon plays, so my percussion part has always been more decorative. Here I had to relearn it and provide the rhythmic momentum. Before the Duel was the wild card; we had no idea how this would turn out. We decided to keep it simple with a slow heartbeat that became increasingly rapid toward the end. That simplicity left surprisingly little margin for error.

We got a lot of the drums down on Day 1 and finished them on Day 2, including take after take of silly arhythmic fills for Scott’s old ditty Razzy Hat. The rest of Day 2 found Scott working on vocals and me working on a bottle of rum. I took one late night stab at a backing vocal track for Way Across the Water before we all agreed we needed fresh ears in the morning.

Imagine Doug’s surprise when my first vocal track on Day 3 was nearly indistinguishable from my rum-soaked take 9 hours earlier. He decided to keep them both as stereo harmonies. I added harmonies to a few more songs and a harmonica solo on Before the Duel that unexpectedly took only two takes. Scott added a guitar solo to his beautiful jazz ballad Elsewhere and we wrapped the session just in time to host a party for Doug’s friends.

The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt
The Zen Cats ride again - Doug and Scott Hewitt jam at the "Wrap Party"

Of course, it would not be a Hewitt party without some music, and everyone joined in the jam. The recording process had given me a different perspective, as I remember catching details that might have otherwise faded into the groove. Even after dozens of hours of dissecting and reassembling music, we still found the energy to jam into the wee hours. Luckily, Doug keeps a schedule that synchronizes well with our West Coast body clocks.

The next day we took off for Saratoga Springs, but that is a story for another time. Until then, I hope you check out Scott’s Myspace to hear the fruits of our labor.

Go Smitty! It’s Your Birthday!

(l to r) birthday boy Mike Smith, Mike Lambe, Matt Kuerbis, Jason Rizzuto, Scott Hewitt

Here’s a picture from Mystic Canyon’s most recent gig at the Sellwood Pub. We had a great time celebrating our guitarist Mike Smith’s birthday last Saturday with some fun jams, great friends,and quality tequila shots. The knees to the right belong to fiddler extraordinaire Alan Glickenhaus, a Portland music icon with whom we have been honored to share the stage a few times.

Next up: We return to the 9 Muses Tavern on Friday, September 26.