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.
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.
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
I’ve been away from the blog for a while now, mostly due to computer trouble, but also due to a lack of downtime. Summer has been full of musical adventures – unusual Mystic Canyon gigs, new collaborations, and a jammin’ reunion in Jersey – all stories for another day. Right now, the journey that is freshest in my mind is the trip I took last Saturday with my buddy Tom to see Phish at the Gorge Amphitheater.
This would be my 55th Phish show, and my first since the last time they came to the Gorge in 2003. My expectations were mixed – after Phish fell apart in 2004, I’d accepted it as a bittersweet end for my favorite band, but the buzz about their return this year had my hopes up. Were they really playing better than version 2.0, or were people just glad to have them back and more willing to overlook a little sloppiness?
As the show approached, I tried to clear my mind and just appreciate the moment for what it was. When I saw some of the songs on my wishlist popping up on setlists from Shoreline and the first night at the Gorge, I decided to abandon all preconceptions and surrender to the flow. My faith was rewarded with the best Phish show I have seen in ten years.
The Gorge scene was amazing as always. The remoteness of the venue has a way of weeding out the less desirable elements of the lot scene, rewarding those who commit to the journey with a mellow freaky flea market vibe to enjoy. After haggling for some shirts, Tom and I downed our last brews and headed for a spot on the lawn.
Just after the sun ducked behind the canyon wall, Phish treated us to a Mango Song opener, a rare treat that set an “anything goes” tone from the start, followed by a more traditional firestarter, Chalkdust Torture. I’d never heard Mike’s Middle of the Road before, but it sounded like classic Phish to my ears. I always love a good Tweezer, and this one was focused and funky. Driver was an unexpected change of pace, but it piqued my attention for the new song Twenty Years Later, which is enjoyably darker than the other new ones. Ya Mar is always fun and Its Ice is a personal favorite that demonstrated the band’s renewed focus on the composed sections of their trickier songs. Wolfman’s Brother brought back memories of the thick funk grooves of 1998, and peaked with an energy that could have closed the set. But Phish had another trick up their sleeves, playing a somewhat predictable Character Zero but then following it up with the tightest Antelope I can remember. The frenzied peak maintained a driving intensity without ever losing control, contrary to the lyrical plea at the end of the song, I suppose.
Tom and I moved down from the lawn to the floor for the second set, which kicked off with a monstrous version of Velvet Underground’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. I had always found this tune a little boring, but this 21-minute jam session was anything but. After some mesmerizing twists and turns, the band settled into the thick reggae of Makisupa Policeman. Mike Gordon’s bass dominated this show, particularly the outstanding fuzzed-out solo he took on this tune while Trey worked the octave pedal to keep the bass line going. Having thusly exchanged roles, they closed out the song by switching guitars for a few minutes, before switching back and launching into the bouncy new tune Alaska. The Wedge is one of my favorite rarely-played tunes that has a way of feeling like the perfect song choice at exactly the right time. Phish followed with You Enjoy Myself, once again showing restraint and focus that resulted in a highly enjoyable groove, featuring more bass virtuosity from Mike and some particularly creepy vocal jamming at the end. Perhaps further demonstrating their renewed confidence, they fired up an extended version of the new tune Backwards Down the Number Line, a melody that echoed through my head for the next few days. This segued smoothly into a Piper that seemed to launch the crowd into the night sky, culminating in an atmospheric soundscape, intermittently punctuated by Fishman, who seemed to be teasing Llama before joining the rest of the band at the front of the stage for an a capella set closer, Grind.
Good Times Bad Times has been a frequently appreciated encore for me, giving my first 2009 Phish show a very old-school finish. Page’s vocals in the out-chorus sounded better than ever, taking on a hearty growl that I’d never heard before. As much as I loved the first set Tweezer, it does have a way of telegraphing the final encore. I found myself hoping for the Reprise to pop up earlier in the show. Still, no matter how expected, it’s one of the most kickass finales I have ever seen by any band.
Phish 3.0, as the kidz are calling it, lived up to the hype and sounded better than they have since before their first split. Their playing was precise when it needed to be, with a few minor flubs from which the band seamlessly recovered. The jams were looser and more adventurous than they have been all year, from what I have heard, but they never wandered off aimlessly. I’d say the magic is back for this Phish fan, and from the way they seemed to be enjoying themselves, it’s clear that the magic is back for Phish.
This wouldn’t be much of a music blog if I didn’t tell you about my favorite bands, so I’ll start with my absolute favorite live band, Umphrey’s McGee. They just played last Friday at the Crystal Ballroom here in Portland, where they have established a high standard for outstanding performances. Whether or not this show met or exceeded that standard, by whatever criteria such things are judged, is a matter of some discussion on the Bort. I’ll forego that sort of nitpicking here and write instead about what sets Umphrey’s McGee apart from (and far beyond) most other touring bands.
They’re often labeled a jamband, and there is plenty of evidence to support the tag. They never play the same setlist twice. They play in many styles and move fluidly from one to the next. They play all of the big festivals and inspire fans to travel the country to see multiple shows. And, despite the best efforts of their fans to avoid comparisons, the influence of bands like Phish, moe. and Strangefolk is undeniable. However, once you get past the superficial similarities, you’ll find that the music of Umphrey’s McGee doesn’t sound much like any jamband you’ve ever heard.
The best phrase I have heard to describe Umphrey’s sound is “aggressive progressive.” The band writes complex compositions reminiscent of progressive rockers like Frank Zappa and King Crimson, without sacrificing lyricism and soul. Other songs can sound like pop songs, with weighty lyrics and memorable riffs, but developed well beyond the typical confines of a radio hit. In the studio and in performance, they make full use of accents, mixed meters, key changes, alternate chord progressions, and silence in a way that reminds me of Steely Dan’s finest work.
As with most “jambands,” Umphrey’s McGee is best experienced live in concert. They play with authority and precision, but not without emotion. One set can feature moments of deep funk, dank reggae, metal mayhem and uptempo electronica woven into the fabric of a song or as a transition from one song to another. Their improvisations are semi-planned, with a basic structure laid out in advance and on-stage direction guiding the creation of new music in the moment. Some of these moments develop into glorious peaks, some are quickly left behind for a new groove, and some are revisited at future shows, given lyrics, even worked into full songs in the studio after being born on stage.
This is not a band for everyone. They throw a lot at you in a short period of time, so it’s been hard for me to win my friends over. But my buddy Scott enjoyed the Crystal Ballroom show more than the last one he saw at Roseland two years ago. And I even caught my wife singing along to Liquid in the car. For me, they do everything right. The encore of Shine On You Crazy Diamond puts last week’s show near the top of my list, but I think my favorite Umphrey’s McGee show will always be my next one.
Phish announced today that they will be reuniting for 3 shows next March at the Hampton Coliseum. And while this is exciting news, you might be surprised that I am not bouncing around the room, desperately trying to figure out a plan to be there. Once upon a time, I would have been all over this, but now I can think of more reasons to stay home than to go.
The scene in Hampton is going to be insane. Hotels are already sold out before a single ticket has been sold. There could easily be twice as many people outside as inside, and there are just too many people I’ve encountered who feel they deserve to see the band more than the next guy. I feel bad for the newbies who will be trying to see them for the first time.
They’ve said there will be more touring announced early next year, so I can’t imagine them not returning to the Gorge. And for me, five hours in a car beats five hours in a plane.
Given the insane demand, there could be another simulcast, which I really enjoyed for Coventry.
Speaking of Coventry, I am sure they wouldn’t even be announcing this if they were not confident that they could give a better performance. But nothing post-first-hiatus really came close to the buzz that I used to travel great distances to feel.
I got over the breakup pretty quickly and moved on to other amazing music. I learned to seek that buzz in my own playing.
Ironically, I am far better able to afford such an excursion than I was 10 years ago when I was travelling to Virginia, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Las Vegas to see my favorite band at the top of their game. And much to my surprise, when I told Donna the news (fully expecting a groan and a roll of the eyes) she was ready to book the trip for both of us until I told her I wasn’t really suggesting that. Even with the means and the opportunity, I’d rather sit this one out. But next summer, West Coast Run? Yeah, I’m probably there.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about who I am as a musician, and what can I offer the world that no one else can. This blog will be an outlet for ideas, advice, reminiscences and eventually, you know, actual music recordings and maybe even videos. But before I go shooting off at the mouth, I’d like to tell you what I think gives me the right. My musical path has been unusual but deeply satisfying. I think most high school band geeks eventually settle on one of three fates: Pursue their training further in college, give up entirely when the real world beckons, or find a happy medium and join a rock band. Somehow I managed to fulfill all three of these destinies.
I got my Bachelor of Music from DePauw University in 1992. Music Business was my major and trombone was my axe. My college years revolved around performing in any ensemble I could: Concert and Marching Band, Choir, Jazz Band, Brass Quintet and eventually, as my playing improved, the DePauw Symphony. These were top-notch groups with great players, many of whom went on to sing or play professionally. It was there in Greencastle, Indiana where I honed my ability to listen to my fellow musicians, to read and react. These ensemble skills are the bedrock of my musicianship, much moreso than actual talent. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had accepted the fact I lacked the chops to ever be a professional trombone player.
In my final semester, just for the hell of it, I took drum lessons and discovered that my true calling was rhythm. I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on the face of Pat Reynolds, my band director, when he heard my first drum jury. After years of hearing me struggle through uninspiring trombone juries, his expectations must have been pretty low. Making such a positive impression on him from behind the drum kit was a thrilling affirmation.
My development as a musician was put on hold for several years after college as I tried to focus on the Business part of my degree. I tried to stay close to the music world with jobs in music retail and entertainment marketing, but was very disheartened by the commodification of art. I began to harbor a deep resentment of radio and MTV, trying to feed me what their demographic analysis told them I should want, and an even deeper appreciation for art created outside of that bubble. Phish became a religious experience for me, having grown from a college curiosity to a national phenomenon with little influence from the machine.
Before long I was once again surrounding myself with musical people. Only now they were not music students but working folks who were finding the time to create something special. While they may not have had the same discipline as me, they more than made up for it with passion, talent and creativity. For a few years I lived and breathed music that relatively few people had ever heard, soaking up inspiration from bootlegs of Phish and God Street Wine concerts, and seeing bands I had befriended like thE otheR waY, Three Hour Detour, Kid With Man Head and Burning Bus. All without playing a single note or beat.
I bought my first congas, which I still play today, from Ray Ashley in 1996. Before leaving New Jersey four years later, I collaborated with friends on a few short-lived rock bands, the 9-Volt Smoke Detectors and Go Banana! Soon after arriving in Oregon I was introduced to Scott Hewitt (by a mutual Jersey friend, naturally.) I accepted his invitation to play with some friends in his backyard, and the musician in me was reborn.
Seven years later, Mystic Canyon still brings me much joy and satisfaction, combining the discipline of my formal education with my passion for the creativity of my friends and my love of music that has thrived outside of the commercial influence of the music industry. The lessons I’ve learned in this band are as profound as any I learned in college, and will be the subject of future posts. I just figured, when you read them, you’d like to know where I’m coming from.