Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mike's Tavern

So, Reading PA is not the most up to date city in the US. It's a fairly depressed area, and Mike's Tavern sits in what could easily be a rowhome. If it weren't for the GPS in my phone, I'd be lost still. But Mike's Tavern, while a local dive bar, is very serious about their beer, their alcohol and their music. They have good single malt scotch and they have absinthe. They have four beers on tap that you haven't heard of, but which the bartendress will be happy to describe to you in terms of hoppiness and alcohol content. And they have open mic nights and good musicians in. At 7pm the after-work crowd is just finishing up. By 10pm the place is full of weekend couples out for drinks and companionship. Michael Ronstadt was slated to play from 8pm on, and invited me to join him, to premiere some of our songs. In his first set, we did "O Zebra" and "Little Jack Horner." "Little Jack Horner" was so good that the folks in charge asked it the song was on a CD. In the second set we did "Cassandra Blues" and "Falling Angels." I didn't realize we were going to do "Cassandra" and had to scribble the lyrics on a few pieces of paper and read them off, so the song didn't go off as well. "Falling Angels" is a frightfully difficult song and I botched the melody and Michael botched the timing and the whole thing fell flat. Sigh. We will have to review the song before our next outing. But I've seen great musicians get up at empty venues and give it their all -- Michael certainly does. So it was an educational and foundational experience. Looking forward to the next time. We'll nail "Falling Angels" yet. And we'll finish "Irish Queens" one of these days.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Snowmobiles (The Admiration of Z. Mulls)

I’ve been meaning to post about Susan Werner’s new CD HAYSEED, because it’s her best album in a long time, full of her old puckish humor and cockeyed lens on human nature. I could go track by track, explaining what I like about each song, but since this is (ostensibly) a songwriting blog, I am going to go through one song that I think is a marvel of construction, “Snowmobiles.”

Starting from the title, this song works on misdirection, giving you an unlikely metaphor and sticking close to it. It’s a first person narrative (subtitled “The Worries of Patrick Lunquist” – three of the songs have these subtitles and they are the best songs on the CD).

Here’s the first verse:

The summer’s hot and the winter’s cold
That’s when the snowmobiles get sold
That’s what we got up here
Snowmobiles and deer
That’s how it is when you live up North
Winter lasts till July fourth
So we snowmobile till April, maybe longer
And my wife she says the cold it makes us stronger
And we’re strong up here
Strong as six-point beer
Comes to the weather
The weather is what it is

She works entirely in couplets in this song, but sets them apart with musical pauses and mini-interludes, and she varies the meter on each couplet. This allows for variation and gives the impression of thought and careful consideration of each couplet. Using the couplets allows the funny lines to land – line 1 sets up the thought, and the second line can click in with either a rueful or an amusing one. The “snowmobiles and deer” line and the “six point beer” line make you chuckle because of the way they are phrased.

She then starts using repetition between verses -- each verse talks about the weather. The summer is always “hot” but in verse 2 the winter is “cool” not “cold” and in verse 3 it is “warm.” Each verse mentions a particular time of the year – verse 1 is “July 4th,” verse 2 has “Columbus Day” (when the pool finally closes) and verse 3 has “New Year’s Eve” when it rains for the first time rather than snows. Patrick’s wife chimes in several times during the song “My wife says….”. Verse 2 also ends with the resigned line, that the weather “is what it is.”

But verse 3 ends with the sad memory that the weather “was what it was.” And isn’t any longer. Because – obviously – this is a song about global warming, without a single strident line in it. It’s just about how the changing weather happens slowly and creeps up on people, and how it alters lives that have long lived a certain way.

Patrick “lives for” his “Arctic Cat.” It’s part of his life. A life that is melting away.

The bridge (and anyone who knows me knows that I live and die for the bridge of a song) nails the theme, takes it from the storytelling to the central idea:

Or so I thought until a couple years ago
Now anymore we got a lot more rain than snow
I mean it really rains a lot
And then whatever snow we got
It melts away
In just a day
So strange
My wife she says that nothing’s changed

I really love those tiny little lines in the middle – “It melts away/In just a day/So strange” and then Patrick’s wife is the voice of reason, or so she thinks. I love the vernacular phrases "Now anymore" and "whatever snow we got" (And the bridge is usually where Werner pull in the most unusual chords that hit you in private places.)

It’s a song that comes on you slowly, through the chuckles and small observations, the worry and sadness and loss hit you by the end, when there is almost no snow, and everyone stays inside “drinking too much beer and watching too much cable.” And

Missing how it feels
To ride snowmobiles
When the weather
Well it was what it was.

There are many excellent songs in this collection, but this one immediately goes on my pile of favorites. The construction is elaborate and elegantly executed, the tone is pitch perfect and internally consistent, and it achieves a lightness that belies the hours of work that must have gone into it.

HAYSEED is highly recommended and is every bit as good as TIME BETWEEN TRAINS and NEW NON-FICTION.

You can watch her sing "Snowmobiles" at this artist showcase site:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Baby You Can Drive My Karma

So, there was some sort of weird karmic cloud in Philadelphia last night. I got a freakishly good parking space (all the way east on Chestnut, right on Front), and simultaneously got a cancellation text from an old friend who was supposed to join me. Then, while I was at the bar at the Tin Angel, up walks my friend and co-writer AlyCat (@thealycat on Twitter), local bass player and general musical badass – haven’t talked to her in a couple of years as I’ve been in hibernation.

Between seeing Aly, her amiable and fashion-conscious social worker friend, and meeting an animated and engaging independent film producer at the bar, who was there with a friend who runs a charitable series of concerts in Venice, CA (Grassroots Acoustica) -- it was an unexpectedly social evening.

Plus the music was great.

Maia Sharp is just one of the best songwriters around. The lyrics often layer two meanings in one line, or juxtapose two thoughts in one phrase; every song has at least one turn of phrase that makes me thrilled and jealous. She has a gift for melody and her voice is wonderful. Plus she can play the bejesus out of her instruments. (She even pulled out a clarinet last night).

It helped that she was backed up by Linda Taylor (from Who’s Line is That Anyway) on bass, acoustic and everything else. They didn’t need anyone else on stage with them. We stood in the back and whooped and hollered. (The most popular song of the night was probably “Whole Flat World” from her last album, “Echo.”)

But even before Maia stepped on, we were treated to Dante Bucci, a Philadelphia fixture. I hadn’t seen him before. He’s a friend of Aly’s. He plays the “handpan” or “hang drum.” I have never seen this instrument before, but it is capable of an amazing range of sounds. Everyone just stopped what they were doing and tried to figure out if he was hitting anything with his feet.

Look for yourself. Guy has some serious game with this thing:

Monday, April 29, 2013

What a Year it Hasn't Been

Has it really, really been a full year since I last posted?

Why yes, it has. My, how time crawls.

It’s been a low-key year, a museless time. More real-life things had to take a front seat for a while and my urge to write went into hiding. I hit sort of a wall with why it is I wanted to write, or what I wanted to write about, let alone who.

But I think it’s time to start pulling out notebooks again, listening to new music, working with partners and generally getting into mischief.

I’m still working on the songs with Michael Ronstadt and we’ve recorded some demos which still need to be mixed. I’m hoping to work with a guitar player so I can hit some open mics.

And so it goes. I will try to report back from the Maia Sharp gig on Wednesday night.

Welcome back. To me.