Oh Canada

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Well.  I mean, I like adventures as much as the next guy, but border crossing is unnerving even when it goes smoothly.  Which it did not.  They got us all off the bus.  But four and half hours later we were on our way and now here I am, blogging from Toronto.

It’s been a few days and a few shows since my last entry and I must say I’m much recovered since my “Beat Up” post, or as much as I can be.  Still having minimal sinus issues and I can’t totally straighten out my knee, but still faring okay.

On the music side of things it’s all getting much deeper and much tighter.  It’s an interesting thing to be in a group that has such a strong improvisational foundation.  Those are almost contradictory terms as improvisation is pretty much leaping away from any foundation… in most cases.

One of the things we discuss a lot is about how we want the improvised jams to go.  We have specific goals in our jams as well as some “anti-goals”; pitfalls we try to avoid.  The whole thing is a study in contradictions.  We try to let go and allow the “music to play the band” while at the same time connecting to each other.  We try to compose on the spot rather than just improvise.  I guess that means creating melodies and song structures without having any preconceived notion of either.

And when it’s happening, wow… it’s really happening.  We turn on a dime.  It’s like we all fall into a thing together and we all realize it’s a thing and then without warning we all change, all at once.  It’s incredible.

But there are risks.  When it’s not happening, wow.  It’s incredible in the opposite direction.  The other night we hit the jam in “Jumping” and it seemed to go on forever.  Numerous times I tried to bring it to a climax and end but it seemed like nobody else was ready.  Afterwards we were discussing and everybody was feeling the same thing, like, “When the hell is this jam going to end?”  So in a way, we were all connected to the failure of the thing.  I guess that’s still a connection but it yields the antithesis of what we’re aiming for.

Another interesting aspect as what happens when we get comfortable with the new material.  It allows us to dig into it more and I find that my tastes are changing about which songs are my favorites to play.  Amazing what happens when  you take the fear out of the equation!

But I’ll dig deeper into the songs in a later entry.

Beat Up

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Three shows in and we get to the much needed day off.  In Richmond.  Finally.

I’m not sure people understand how much this gig beats you up.  Obviously playing the show is a physical thing…. I mean just standing for three hours is a physical endurance test.  Hang a twenty-five pound guitar around your neck and stand for that long.  Then there’s singing.  And in my case, screaming.  Then there’s jumping.  Every time that jumping stuff starts I’m thinking, “This could be it right here.  The last hurrah.  The final frontier.  The buying of the farm.”

I know this is going to sound like the wimpiest thing in the world, but there are two Victim songs where I wakawakawak the wah-wah pedal all the way through, so I’m basically standing on the other foot for the whole song… and my calf is killing me half-way through.  And my wah-wah foot cramps sometimes.

First world problems, or what?

On top of the three hour show there’s at least an hour of sound check as well.  And the in-ear monitors on the third day are like twisting thumb screws into the side of your head.

But hey now that the gig is over we can relax on the bus… which means sleeping in a box that’s exactly as long as your height (in my case anyway), that’s too small to sit upright in, on a two inch mattress that’s no more than a few inches above the rear tires which roar at about 80 db.  Every exit ramp, or rest stop, or traffic light is a wake-up jostle.  The temperature inside can vary anywhere between 50 and 80 degrees.  It’s like a road case for the musicians.

I’m not whining.

Okay, maybe I am a little bit.  All I’m saying is that the day off is welcome.  My body is beat up.  From the outside touring may seem like all sorts of glamour but it’s hell out here.  🙂

That said, the show last night was way more comfortable.  Being the third night it was the second time we played a lot of the new tunes and as such there was less concern about getting them right and more ability to relax into the cool stuff they have to offer.  And it’s only going to get better in that regard.

Okay, I need to sink back into my coma.  Only a few hours to go before we start all over again!!

Did anyone watch the new Star Trek Discovery premier?

Time to Pack!

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Rehearsals are over.  Time to pack!!!

So what do you pack for three weeks on a bus?  I mean besides the essentials. (I’ve forgotten toothpaste before!)  It’s actually a few days more than three weeks.  Maybe twenty-four days.

I mean, my gear’s already shipped.  So I don’t have to bring a guitar, amp or pedalboard.  Even strings are already on their way.

Picks!!!  Those live in my left rear pocket.  Always.  And I go through batches.  I use Dunlop 500 2.0 mm glossy so they never break.  But they wear down.  And so that’s on my list: refresh the batch of picks!

I’m bringing two book readers.  I’m reading books on both right now.  But reading on tour?  Does it happen?  Will it happen?  Probably.  I think I’m in the middle of three books.  And my lyrics are available on my Kindle and my phone!  A necessity!!

Tour buses are funny.  It can be state of the art regarding the entertainment systems, but it can also be a half a decade behind as well.  There’s always the question of how we’re going to hook up our tunes to the system.  So I bring a variety of connectors and adapters.  And even if you get everything plugged in it might not work.  I’m telling you, sometimes you need an engineer just to get tunes on the bus!!

Contacts!!  I’ve forgotten those, too.  THAT sucked!

As I’m typing this I’m organizing.  Three piles: suitcase, carry-on, and no-bring.  Plus, I have an ever-expanding list on Wunderlist.  Half of the anxiety of traveling is on my end.  Getting there and bringing everything are two anxieties that I can take steps to alleviate.  So I do.

Not to mention the anxiety of playing new material.  Lots of new material.  But that’s also the thrill of it.  New songs.  New sonic landscapes.  Pushing the stylistic boundaries…

… Remembering lyrics.  Remembering changes. Remembering harmonies.  Now relax.  Have fun.  Express.

Oh yes, and don’t forget to kick total ass and take no prisoners!!

No pressure.  😉

Now back to packing…

What is that guitar?

That guitar is one that was built specifically for this tour.  One of the themes of this tour is “moire” which is that weird thing that happens when you look through two screen and you see all sorts of weird 3D shapes.  Moire is everywhere in our production, including in our guitars!

Mike and I worked very closely with the builder, Ben Lewry of visionaryinstruments.com, who specializes in creating very funky electronic guitars that usually feature all kinds of touch controllers and accelerometers that can be used for controlling audio effects in software like Ableton Live and whatnot.  These guitars have no such controllers, but instead feature full RGB lighting behind the moire screens that make up the face of the body.

Ben and I had lots of conversations about my Ibanez because he wanted to create the instrument so that it would sound and play simlilarly.  The body shape and neck and headstock are all designed based on my favorite guitar.

As part of the design, he put all the controls along the top of the instrument, so there are no controls on the face of the body itself, to leave the moire screen as emtpy as possible.  There are four preset light designs built in that I can choose with a selector swith.  Most of these presets react to the sound of the strings, so that when I play something, the guitar lights up.  It’s very fast and when I play choppy rhythms or staccato leads, the lights really accentuate the sound!

But, even cooler than all that, the guitar has a DMX input, which means that it can receive color commands from the light board and be totally controlled by our lighting guy!  It took a few shows to get that working, but now it’s in full effect.  So cool!

I’m also using in-ear monitors for the first time.  And everything is wireless, so for each show I’m wearing a transmitter for the guitar audio, a receiver for the in-ear monitors, a receiver for the DMX data, and a battery pack for the guitar’s lights.

WIRED!

Three Shows In…

I have to say that we’re finally getting our “tour-legs” under us. Last night’s show at the Crystal Bay Casino felt like that magical thing was happening that was happening last tour. And we totally nailed “Mound.”

Tom Cleary has his own blog where he talks about learning Mound: http://www.tomclearymusic.com/#/events/learning-new-tunes-for-the-march-11-tour/

It’s interesting to get everyone’s take on learning this beast. I thought I’d write about my own process.

I was given a studio recording of the song, and later a live recording, and four pages of hand written sheet music that is the score for the middle section. The score includes the guitar, piano and bass parts as well as, minimally, the drum parts.

While I was pretty adept at reading for the trumpet and piano when I was a kid, I’ve never read music for guitar and so for me there’s a missing piece that is the eye-to-hand thing that happens when you read music all the time. So I have to look at every note and figure out where it is on the guitar. And beyond that, since there are various places to play the same notes on the guitar, I also have to figure out where on the neck to play things.

This is a very slow process but in a way it has the advantage of forcing me to memorize the part rather than be dependent on the sheet music.

So the first thing I did was to modify the media I was given to make it more “friendly.” I took the PDF files of the sheet music and edited them in Photoshop to create a “guitar-only” version of the score. This reduced the number of pages from four to one and made it a lot easier to follow.

I then took the corresponding section of the recording and using some digital recording software first applied some filtering to isolate the guitar parts as much as possible, and then forced it to fit on “the grid.” This accomplished a few things: I could slow that part of the recording down (very helpful!). I could also overlay a metronome onto it to clarify some of the rhythmic stuff. It also allowed the measures of the recording to be numbered in a way that corresponded to the sheet music, so that if I was working on measure 37 I could loop that measure in the recording and play along while reading the sheet music for the same measure.

Also, because I’m not a reader for guitar music, I notated all of the chords on the sheet music. The entire part is mostly three note chords and so I notated them with interpretations of the structures that recalled certain positions in my brain.

For example, one such chord has an A on the bottom, a C more than an octave up from that, and an Eb above that. You could interpret those notes as an A diminished chord, but the form that I’m using is more like an inverted F7 without the root, so that’s how I notated it.

Once everything was notated I started the task of committing everything to muscle memory. This is a very tedious process of taking two chords at a time and repeating them ad nauseum until the movement between them becomes second nature. Then I tie the whole thing together by starting with the first two chords, repeating them over and over, then adding one chord at a time until I have a whole “section” under my fingers. Then onto the next section.

Once everything is in the muscles then the challenge is… not over. Now I focus on the sound of each string of chords and how to express through them. That’s always a challenge. It’s one thing to learn and memorize a set of notes, but the extra thing is to take that pre-written piece of music and make it mine; express through it; play it as though I had written it.

Of course that’s just the middle section of Mound. At the same time I had to memorize the lyrics and learn the harmony parts for the verses, AND I had to learn to sing the backup harmonies in 5/4 while playing a guitar part in 4/4! (Still messing that up occasionally…)

Okay, enough about that. I’m in Santa Cruz now. I’m on the bus with the windows open and it’s just lovely.

Eugene

Well last night was the first night of tour and I have to say that it was… ok. I’m my own worst critic of course. We encored with Mound and it was not as good as I had hoped. We were sailing through the middle section and near the end I got lost and couldn’t keep up. It’s like there’s a threshold of how fast I can make each of those chords sound and last night’s tempo was just beyond that threshold. So I have some work to do to get it under my fingers so that the tempo should be irrelevant.

Everything else was pretty good with a few stand out moments. Tom was on fire last night! The crowd was very receptive and responsive to everything we were doing. We got some good feedback on our vocals.

The town was nice even though it was a drizzly day. I recommend The Sustainable Table. Great food all locally grown with vegan or gluten free options for most of the menu items.

Tonight we’re in Acadia, CA at the Van Duzer Theater right on the Humboldt State University campus. I’m blogging from Couple Cups, a nice coffee shop with good breakfast sandwiches and great coffee.

I can’t wait to play Mound again though it probably won’t be tonight. But let me at that b!#@%!!!!

Rehearsal Week

I’m writing from Eugene, OR across from the McDonald Theater. I was in Burlington all last week for rehearsals and I must say that they were great! We’re tackling some of the most complicated of Mike’s originals. I’ve had to memorize pages of sheet music and it’s some of the most complex stuff I’ve ever played. In the beginning of last week it all seemed overwhelming but now that we’ve played these tunes a bunch it seems almost reasonable. Most of the rehearsals were in the evening so I had the days to practice and learn this stuff on my own.

Monday, Mike brought me to his singing teacher. I’ve always wanted to take a voice lesson and this one did not disappoint. I learned a ton of stuff and got lots of questions answered that have been haunting me for years. Her method of singing is all about being as efficient as possible which is so helpful to me. It allows me to sing clearly without blowing out my voice and allows me to hear my voice in the lower registers even when the band is loud. Very cool.

She came to rehearsal on Wednesday to work with the band as an ensemble as well. Not only did it help each of us individually but it got us all thinking on the same page about our vocals so that our inflections and pronunciations are lined up. What a difference! Plus, by putting the emphasis on the vocals the instruments are quieter and geared toward highlighting the vocals.

All in all it was a great week!

We traveled yesterday flying to Portland last night and meeting the bus which took us to Eugene. We’re all well rested and ready to go!!

Pre Tour

I’m writing from Dobra Tea House in Burlington, VT. I’ve been up here since Monday rehearsing with the band. Tonight is our last rehearsal and tomorrow we fly to L.A.. The band sounds great as we’ve been learning more tunes from Mike’s new CD as well as some interesting cover tunes. Very psyched!

I’m thinking about making the blog entries this tour more about the personal experience of life on the road. There are certainly aspects about tour life that most people take for granted I bet. Things like trying to stay connected with loved ones, missing events at home while away, staying healthy, etc. We’ll see how that goes.

But I wanted to write more about that BreakDownWay.com video experience. They’ve put up another of my lessons btw. Check it out here.

In the beginning of the year I took an acting class. It’s been something that’s been in the back of my mind for years and years. I’ve always thought that acting would be something I could do and enjoy even though I’ve had no experience at all. It was certainly a lot of fun and I definitely learned a ton of useful stuff; useful in a variety of ways. The gains from it have spilled over into all aspects of my life I’d say.

Right after I took the class I got approached by BreakDownWay.com to do a video guitar lesson. They said I’d be the first electric guitarist on the site! I went on the site and checked it out. Very cool! They make great videos but beyond that there are chord charts that line up with the vids and whatnot. It’s all just very well done. So I accepted the offer.

The filming was to be done in NYC all in a single day, about eight hours worth. I put together some notes about different lesson ideas I could do.

It was quite a different experience than what I thought it was going to be. I thought it would be interview style where they’d ask about stuff and I would respond, but instead they set me up, turned on three cameras and said, “Go.”

I found that it took about an hour to get through the notes I had made and I still had hours and hours to go!

I was really nervous! This is where the acting class came in so handy. I was able to focus and get beyond my nerves and really become the instructor I wanted to be. Of course when I watch the videos I look really nervous to me but not as nervous as I actually would have been!

They filmed hours of stuff and now they’re going through that footage and cutting things up into individual lessons. The first lesson was about lead guitar techniques. I talked about some technical stuff in the beginning but I really wanted to focus on something that most instructional videos don’t focus on: expression through improvisation.

It was such a great experience and I’m so glad I did it! I’ve always thought that teaching was a great way to learn but this was teaching me things on many different levels, musically and beyond, and now as I watch the videos after they’re posted I find myself still learning from the experience!

They’ve just put up the second installment which is an instructional about playing my song, “Cruel World” using a looper.

Ok, back to tour…

Of course once we get to L.A. we’ll be on a tour bus traveling all the way across the country. Living on a bus with so many people is always interesting. One thing that I’ve noticed is that we’ve all found our permanent bunk locations. The tour buses have 12 bunks in them, arranged in two rows of three on each side. So they can be divided into groups: bottom, middle and top bunks; front and rear bunks; driver’s side and passenger side bunks.

For the past few tours it seems everybody takes the same bunks as last time even though it’s a different bus each time. Everyone has their preferences. Some won’t take top bunks; some won’t take bottom bunks. Some won’t take rear bunks (too close to the engine).

Mine is always the bottom rear bunk on the driver’s side. I like the bottom because I don’t have to worry about falling out, and it’s very easy to get into; no climbing involved. The rear bunks are noisier but I have no trouble sleeping through noise so I always take a rear bunk.

Today’s question is: which bunk would you take?

Ok, enough for now. See you “out there”…

Lebanon Opera House

It was another dreary day, pouring rain and cold and overcast. I woke up on the bus and I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t go find a coffee shop to blog in, or go for lunch or anything. I decided I would do everything at the venue. It had a very nice back room with a shower and they had coffee on in there. I was all set.

More than all set really. This place was gorgeous. It was truly a theater with multiple dressing rooms, a lovely main hall with theater seats and all. For a room as large as it was, it had great sound. They had rented a sound system from Atomic in Burlington and Mark had the room sounding great.

Sound check was a whimsical thing mostly spent playing with the lights for Mike’s family, or swapping instruments and jamming. It was the last night of tour and the band was greased and ready to go. We were all both happy and sad to be here.

Tom’s cousin, Joe Cleary came during dinner as he was going to sit in with us on fiddle for a few tunes and we worked them out while we ate (and skyped). We taught him my song, Willow Tree with the idea that we would quadruple the beat during the solos and switch to a traditional bluegrass tune. This is exactly what we did and it worked great. We then jammed into Mike’s “Weekly Time” which is another favorite of mine and Joe picked up on it right away.

Again the lights were amazing and the band was at its best, nailing all the tunes with ease (except the endings maybe) and taking the jams to the deepest of places. The Suskind jam was VERY deep, kind of modeled after a GRAB version Julia played me on the bus the night before.

Surprisingly, we encored with one of my tunes, Jones and then Country Boy, the fastest picking song I’ve ever done. Jones was deep, thick and groovy and Country Boy was like 1000 mph and no brakes. Joe Cleary came up for Country Boy again and nailed it.

So ends another MGB tour. Again I had the opportunity to make music with some of the best players I know and I learned a lot and had a blast at the same time. Plus I got to visit some different parts of the county, meet new people, and see people I haven’t seen in a long time.

Back to reality!