Tuesday, November 26, 2013

:30 Side Trip--Bottom of the 33rd

I was searching for an appropriate gift to thank a friend who recently hosted me for a weekend trip. During my search I happened across The Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry. I don't include this to prove my blog isn't strictly about music, although the book I'm currently reading is quite lyrical. I don't read a lot, usually because I'm not impressed with too many authors. Sure, this book is about a baseball game (the longest ever played), but how many sports books have literary morsels like this one:

"Time, once a quiet comfort, is now impatient, and clearing its throat."

Not just a book about baseball, it is a compelling and stimulating read that is inspiring this writer to become a better one.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Have a Cigar (10.12.13)
Part 1

Spending too much time online looking up semi-popular music artists that have fallen off the radar can be a semi-dangerous—or, at least, semi-expensive—pastime. Finding Chris Connelly led me to attend a weekend symposium on the music business in Chicago. I don’t regret the experience, especially having gotten the chance to spend some moments with Chris and let him know that his artistry was appreciated. “Shipwreck” is one of my all-time favorite CD’s.

Rediscovering Pat MacDonald led to a more involved and expansive series of events that ended up having nothing to do with the ex-Timbuk 3 frontman and one of the most clever artists of the early days of the music video era. What it did lead to was spending time at a tiny bar and one-of-a-kind museum located about 45 minutes east of the East’s last real city—or the Midwest’s first.

Pat’s current project is another two-person group called Purgatory Hill. I opened a video and watched it repeatedly, trying to figure out what the hell he was playing. It looked like a box with strings running along a pair of broomstick handles. It was electrified, and he was playing it like a slide guitar. It turned out that the body was a cigar box.

I had never heard of a cigar box guitar, so I set about learning more about it. I found that these guitars can have any number of strings, from one (making it a “Diddley Bow”) to six or more. Many, including those I saw on other YouTube videos, seemed to have three strings. This was appealing to me for the sole reason that it must be easy to play. It is, if you are willing to be satisfied with a basic repertoire.

I know because I bought one (see photo at right). Like all instruments of this type, it was made by hand. I got it on eBay from someone in Alaska. It has an electric pick-up and short neck. I went back to the online store for a medicine bottle slide and began messing around with it.

For help with getting started I sought videos on YouTube. Here I came across a series of tutorials by a self-proclaimed “king of the cigar box guitar,” Shane Speal. There were many more aficionados out there than I would have imagined, as evidenced by their online presence.

As is usually the case, more research revealed more connections. I never dreamt that the next one would lead me just down the road to the aforementioned establishment near Pittsburgh. I came to learn that Shane was part of a family that had for years owned Speal’s Tavern. I had passed this place hundreds of times but never even noticed it.

It turned out that this was not just some dive bar, it was home of the world’s largest collection of cigar box guitars. The museum within a tavern was Shane’s brainchild. It includes instruments he made, that others made, and even one from the early 20th Century. The display also includes informational plaques identifying each one and still more with interesting facts about the origin of the instrument and how artists like Hendrix, King and others started playing guitar on their own handmade cigar boxes.

A longtime friend of mine supplied the final connection that gave me a great excuse to check it out for myself. Her husband Dennis James, a guitar-slinger from “down under,” played somewhat regularly at Speal’s. I learned this because when my Alaskan guitar was delivered to my office, my friend saw it and immediately recognized what it was. That was surprising enough. When she told me that her husband played at Speal’s, I was floored. She suggested I come for his next appearance there, which I naturally did.

Explore the interactive version here!
After seeing the exhibit for myself, I contacted Shane and his dad to make arrangements to create a virtual tour of the place. I was quite pleased with the way it turned out. It can be explored in great detail in two parts at GigaPan.com. 

Explore the interactive version here!

(Next week: part 2)

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Loud Lovin’"
Rochester, NY (9/10/13)

Find my photos here.
The Henrietta Red Roof Inn was my home for the night. After a long day skirting the Lake Ontario coast from Old Fort Niagara to Sodus Point collecting lighthouse pictures, I arrived at the Rochester, NY suburb a little before 4:30PM. More than anything, I wanted to take a shower. I really needed to wash the day off! Sunscreen, sweat and record heat for Rochester (the Mini's gauge read 95° at one point) made the shower feel like my entire soul was being cleansed.

Afterward I settled on my king size bed to take a look at the local offerings for the evening. The city paper was conveniently located right next to the ice machine that I had stopped at before that cathartic shower. Options were typically sparse for Tuesday night. One club featured a punk band I knew of but didn't appreciate. The only other show this evening sounded a bit more intriguing, so I investigated the venue. Not only was it a great sounding, funky pub, it was only 10 minutes away – a real bonus given all the miles I already logged today. I called to ask if I could still get a ticket, dressed, and set my trusty GPS once again.

The Lovin' Cup Bistro was a very interesting place, oddly located within an upscale mini mall and adjacent townhouse and apartment development. It had an open layout with seemingly good acoustics. I was offered a drink, opted for my usual Makers Mark, and began to peruse the menu.

"DJ Tanner," a heavily inked young woman with a Meg White look, was old school all the way, from the vinyl on the turntables (Technics on the right, Genesis on the left) to the mostly obscure rockabilly, blues, R&B, and punk numbers she served up with a "Pulp Fiction" vibe. Later I told her that for all the music I thought I knew, she stumped me way more often than not. She guessed that she had somewhere between 1,400 to 1,500 records in her collection. I have her beat on the basis of pure numbers, but I also have many years of collecting on her.

The mix worked perfectly for the main act and the crowd. Segues did not seem to be a top priority, nor did they seem to be important. The jumping' jive of twists and turns added anticipation to the feel. You never knew what was coming next, but it was always dead on. In typical fashion, she ended her set with a song I never heard, "Why Can't I Touch It" by the Buzzcocks. Nice!

All the while I took my time with the menu, lingering over the bourbon that was lingering over ice. I finally settled on the "Me and the Bean" appetizer and, after a while longer, "Bell bottom blues " burger. I was hoping my table would also be my vantage point for the eight o'clock show. I enjoyed the ample garlic hummus and sweet red pepper coulis snack, and the wheat beer complemented the burger. On top of that, it turned out I got to keep my seat, so it was all good!

The headliner had a test pressing that he had autographed and was selling via raffle ticket sales before the show – like he took a page from the Band:Smart approach to real money made at concerts.

Barrence Whitfield and his band, the Savages, impressed me from the moment they did their sound check two hours before their show. Guitar, bass sax, drums, and a wailing Whitfield pounded their audience with a full-blown, no holds barred attack I was only vaguely prepared for. About three steps beyond dirty, they were at once tight and ragged--the embodiment of what rock 'n roll is supposed to be. My only worry was that my stereo wouldn't be able to support the energy level, or volume, displayed on this night.

As it happened the show was part of a series of benefits for Rochester's local music scene. The sponsoring organization, Bop Arts, is led by the owner of a great record store called Bop Shop Records. Tom Kohn served as the evening's MC. I admire his ilk. Like Cindy Barbers and her "Cleveland Rocks" organization, these are genuine people who pour heart and soul into helping local clubs and artists. I hope they are all successful, and I encourage all of you to check out the special events they produce.

Postscipt: Barrence and company appeared on a recent episode of "Later with Jools Holland." Look for it, as they rerun the program on both BBC America and Palladium.

Next Week: "Have a Cigar (part 1)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

"Welcome to the Music Business..."
The Weekend: Day Three (9/11/13)

The symposium’s second day began with Martin Atkins talking about how important it is to develop a social media mindset. He invited his audience to choose select vehicles from a lengthy list (including many I had never heard of, like tiny URL, Klout, Nimbit, Topsin, etc.) and encouraged them to develop a system of posting once a day vs. seven times on one day per week. He also noted that Tumbler.com is now the most popular platform for the under-26 demographic.

Main Takeaways:
1.     Think of online posts as t-shirt designs,
2.     Tweet is the new fax,
3.     “Shoot the dolphin,” meaning that your message should jump back and forth between digital and real worlds.

Gary Kuzminsky (right, aka Sir Real) is one half of JaGoFF, an artist, activist, musician & media collaborator. Like Atkins, his maniacal approach to public speaking was used effectively to drive home points related to the film industry’s ties to music. Unfortunately, his delivery was so powerful that it kept me from taking extensive notes. I did get to speak with him later, but that conversation mainly centered on “Dust Radio.” BTW, he knew little about the artist and nothing about the project.

The morning’s panel discussion featured information on networking, photography, promotion (by Umphrey’s McGee drummer Kris Myers), filmmaking, performers’ venue rights (or lack, thereof), and the radio industry.

Takeaway: Photographer Mary Sweeney talked about a Madison, WI group called Sexy Ester. It made me stop and wonder how many bands there are. As I sat down to write this, I searched for the answer online. This was my favorite, from a Yahoo Answers user named “SleepWalker” four years ago:
              “There are about 7,000,000 bands on Myspace (a recent survey was conducted).
                So there might be around 8,000,000, out of which 7,999,000 suck.”

One band that doesn’t suck is the aforementioned Umphrey’s McGee. They give away more music than most anyone else records and sells—supporting the idea that “free is the new black.” Just search their podcasts on iTunes for hours of free live music that is worth hearing.
Kris Myers (far right) and bandmates can be vewed (among hundreds of other places) here.

After lunch, a session called “Zero Dollar Marketing” was delivered by the organizer. I have seen this idea in practice at every show I have attended since. The use of signed material, promo copies, and, of course, t-shirts sell and are raffled off regularly. More on this to come.

The next event included a t-shirt screening workshop, so I decided that it may be better to spend the next hour or so at the Navy Pier. With camera in tow, I set off to see and document the Chicago Harbor lighthouse. To my disappointment, the end of the pier was off limits. A concert was happening, and the crowds made any good views of the structure impossible. With nothing more than the workout of walking out and back on the long pier to show, I returned to SAE for the day’s final lecture.

“How to Make Your Show an Event” was a highlight of the conference, both in content and delivery. Atkins’ patter had not become boring, and the practical information was worth the band attendees internalizing (though I had my doubts as to how much was absorbed, as only one other person was taking notes). The main theme was that the show is not the first thing, but the LAST thing.

Top Ten Takeaways:

1.     Sell more than one style of t-shirt,
2.     Your band’s name does NOT have to be on the t-shirt,
3.     Put a tip jar on the table and keep it full,
4.     Sell re-mixes, live CD’s; don’t sweat quality, make them limited editions,
5.     Make EP’s and singles more that full-length CD’s,
6.     Add a cause to the event,
7.     Assign a theme, based on coinciding calendar events (even obscure ones),
8.     Piggyback onto a nearby major concert event,
9.     Incentivize early ticket buying
10.  Play five venues within 40-80 miles of an actual target city, depending on the area (a larger area in the Midwest, for example),

And my favorite quote. It related to a great story about a band who promoted a show as their last before embarking on a fictional European tour, only to be caught by some fans when they went out to buy beer: “It’s not lying, it’s show business!” So true.

As we broke out, I headed out to the post-conference party. I was looking forward to seeing Moldover perform, having heard so much about his unique approaches to music, production, packaging and promotion. I was quite impressed, enough to get sucked into buying a personally hand-made package of his CD. I was pleasantly surprised about how lucid and friendly he was to talk with, and I asked him to consider bringing his distinctive brand of performing to Pittsburgh. Here’s hoping this San Francisco product fares better than the hundreds of thousands of others.

 The long day ended with a fantastic dinner just down the street, at a nice neighborhood pub called the Green Door Tavern. I headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before heading back home the next morning.

Postscript: At the time of this posting, Moldover’s Kickstarter campaign for the production of his second release continued steay movement toward its $290,000 goal. As mentioned before, this second offering is even more creative than the above-first release.   
Check out the video here!

Next Week: "Loud Lovin' in Rochester"

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Welcome to the Music Business..."
The Weekend: Day Two (9/10/13)

I had turned in early after a nightcap and woke up even earlier. I waited until I could see some daylight then went out for a morning run, which I find more effective than caffeine for charging up my system.

I had no trouble finding the host site, SAE Institute of Chicago, and registered at the front desk. The first person I met at breakfast gave a preview of the kind of diverse backgrounds I would encounter throughout the next two days. Attractive but nerdy looking, she was born in Montana, where she grew up on a stead diet of country and bluegrass music. While attending college, she got into hip-hop and is currently a performer in that genre and has been living and working in Chicago for the past two years. She was a disciple of Atkins, having come away from previous lectures of his feeling “energized and like I could take on the world.” It remains to be seen if she will. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

As I waited in the auditorium, I took note of the numbers and types of attendees. There were almost as many of each. There were about 40 or so artists of varying styles, producers, promoters, executives, just about everything but a recently out-of-work teacher who was there just for the experience (lucky I was in the room!).

As of 9:07AM, the 8:30 keynote address had not yet begun. I wondered if the Midwest was on a different schedule. When the festivities did begin, the days became a series of micro-blasts. Information came screaming out of each presenter’s mouth, body language and AV support. In the 30 years of attending educational conferences, I had no idea what I had been missing. The energy, humor, vulgarity, and pure usefulness of the talks exhilarated and exhausted this reporter. The symposium organizer, a mad scientist of a post-punk drummer and no-holds-barred entrepreneur, started things right off with advice about how to promote yourself in one-to-one conversations about your latest CD release:
1.     Don’t open your conversation with it;
2.     don’t keep mentioning it;
3.     share credit;
4.     be thankful;
5.     be humble.

He moved on to talk about the cyclical nature of the entertainment business, starting with the notion that we are on the brink of rediscovering the cassette tape, and using Robert DeNiro as an example of how celebrities start as objects, move to weird/new, then are adopted, achieve iconic status, become lame and discarded, later become hip memory prompts as they settle into once again being objects. It made a lot of sense!

Just a sample of other takeaways:

1.     “Free is the new black” (saying that big money can be made by giving stuff away, Atkins contended that it’s not a problem if 2,000 people illegally download your music, rather it’s a problem if they don’t).
2.     You have 13 seconds to make an impression on YouTube.
3.     Always be nice to everyone, especially to those who can do the least for you in that moment.
4.     Packaging sells—make it cheap and unique (more on this later when I talk about the artist Moldover’s hand-made and fully functional CD package, shown below).


There was also a panel discussion detailing such concepts as how a band needs to promote itself (and be resigned to the fact that it is the soul architect of its promotion), how bands need to work with the owners of clubs and other venues, and how social media, blogs, and podcasts are essential ingredients to promotion.

Perhaps the afternoon’s most interesting session was devoted to Kickstarter, the online community for raising monies to fund productions and start-up businesses of all types. It was a Kickstarter project that secured funding for “Dust Radio,” a movie about Chris Whitley that has yet to be released after three years of supposed post-production.

Day one ended with a presentation by Wendy Day, a pioneer in the recording industry for both her gender and race. Day the founder and CEO of The Rap Coalition and is another “in-your-face” entrepreneur who seems to fear nothing.

The day ended with a gathering of attendees to sample Wisconsin microbrews and listen to the man who’s web site informed me about the event—Chris Connelly. It was nice to talk with him about his career and the interesting turns it has taken. If you ever have the chance to hear the “Shipwreck” CD, I highly recommend it.

Postscript: At the time of this posting, Moldover is in the early stages of his own Kickstarter campaign for the production of his second release. It is even more creative than the above-mentioned packaging. Check out the video here!

(Next week: ”The Weekend: Day Three)