Thursday, October 27, 2005

Let's talk about bikes some, after all bikes are in the title of this blog. That's my bike up there and I took the photo in my guitar shop. Its a Serotta Ottrott, an unobtainium/carbon/kryptonite uber bike. I sold three other uber bikes to get it. I have been riding high end bikes since 1970. This one defines the high end. I ride over three thousand miles per year typically and up to six thousand on a good year. That's a lot of miles to a civilian but not much to a bad-ass racer type. Those guys will ride six at a minimum for a local licensed racer and Lance rides 22,000. Dude. Well, remember that the pros only have riding, training, and recovery to do so that's what you get. I believe most European pros ride in the 16,000 to 20,000 mile range. Oof.

I enjoy following the European racing scene, which pretty much opts me out of any meaningful cocktail party conversation or small talk with the guys. I can't fake even a cursory chat about any major league sport team or game, but if anyone ever wants my opinion of whether or not Eric Zabel should have ridden in the 2005 tour, I'm ready.

I have ridden probably close to 100,000 miles in my pseudo cycling career. I have broken my hip, leg, arm, and elbow. Other injuries too minor to mention have come and gone. Now I am a squishy middle aged white guy with a pricey bike who just likes to get out and spin. I used to ride with the feared Flanders Brother's Minneapolis Bicycle Racing Club team. My company sponsored the team during the good times. I can still hang with the Saturday morning coffee rides which are social and easy.

The past three years, prior to this summer, were awful bike seasons for me. My business was failing, my marriage was failing, and things just weren't going my way. I gained a lot of stress fat and lost fitness. When I did ride, I could not recover and therefore lost my only stress relieving activity. It sucked. Now, most of the stress has passed and this year I had a pretty good summer. I lost a lot of weight and regained fitness.

In August, on my first ride after taking ten days off with a broken arm (yes-cycling related), the Flanders/MBRC Tuesday ride overtook me. I sprinted hard to catch them as the dozen guys sped by in single file and I managed to get on the back of the pace line. My heart rate was pretty high by that time. I tucked in and hung on but I couldn't get my heart rate down. I looked at my computer and noticed we were going 30 miles per hour. Then I knew why my heart rate wasn't coming down. The Tuesday ride is the "fast ride", and I am here to tell you that thirty miles per hour is seriously fast on a bicycle on the flats. Its like, pro fast; euro fast; freakin' fast. I knew because my heart rate was high and staying high that I was only going to be there a little while. After a bit, there was a climb and I exploded off the back. It was twenty minutes before my heart rate and breathing were normal. Its nice to know that those guys are keeping fit and not just out fooling everybody by looking fast but not going hard. A couple of days later I noticed a bump in my fitness from that brief interval. I love those guys.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Its amazing how closely one can examine the acouterments of a particular specialty and what one may find there. Take banjo bridges for example. Most people probably don't give much thought to them in their daily lives. Some people do though. In the thriving subculture that is banjo playing, bridges are pretty huge. There are several designs on the current market, all focused on sales but designed to bring out the best sound from your banjo; "guaranteed to make your contemporary banjo sound pre-war". What does banjoboy use, you are probably wondering? Hey, thanks for asking. When I first moved to the Twin Cities area in 1970, I sought out the banjo crowd. I was led to a gentleman in south Minneapolis named Mike Osgar. Mike was a big guy, Scandinavian, and very Minnesotan in the old world sense. Mike made banjo bridges in his basement. He sold them to Grover and Gibson, who put them on their banjos and sold them to the retailers. I would visit Mike every once in a while and once he inlaid some ivory birds in a truss rod cover for my old '29 RB3. I would play tunes for Mike and he would say, "You can get a lot of music out of a five string". A couple of years after I first met Mike, I was working at The Podium, the area's finest guitar/pipe/tobacco/sheet music emporium. The owner mentioned he needed to order some banjo bridges and wanted to know from me what to order. I contacted Mike and we bought bridges directly from the source. I would go through the lots and select bridges that were exactly quarter sawn and showed the distinctive cross grain from that. I gleaned about a dozen through the year or two I was there and those are my bridges. I still use the first ones I put on each banjo, so the other eight or so I have left ought to last me forever and an extra five lives. These bridges are not only made by a master and selected for premium quality, they are now over thirty years old. They rock. They are transcendent bridges and there are none finer anywhere. I love them. I have let loose of only two through the years. One I put on a converted mint 1928 TB-5 that belonged to my buddy Bill's brother that I went through and set up. Eric mentioned to me that he put a new bridge on the TB-5 when I talked to him and I insisted he mail the bridge I put on it back to me. He called back and told me that he would be keeping the bridge I sent. He had spent some time comparing the sound of the two and heard the difference. Other than using some wood from The Cross, I don't know how they could be cooler. But that's just me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

One of the most memorable things that Peter Ostroushko, Mike Cass and I did was to back up the national acts that would come to town and play at the Whole Coffee House on the University of Minnesota campus. We would have two or three weeks to learn the repertoire of the visitor, so we would get together and learn the popular songs that the visitor would play. The visiting star and the three of us local guys would get together at the coffee house early in the evening of the job, and cobble together a set list or two that included the repertoire of the visitor and filled out with standards that everyone knew from the common pool of music. Remember that this was folk music, so there was a vast list of songs that were commonly known by the musicians who played bluegrass and old time music.

One time, the booking people at the coffee house engaged us to back up Vassar Clements. Peter and Mike came over to my apartment and proceeded to show me the important tunes. Yes, both of those guys had the stuff either already in their fingers or they would learn it fast. After a couple of painful (for them) and aggravating (for me because I felt so stupid in comparison to them) sessions, we pretty much had the necessary tunes learnt. The big night arrived and it was off to play with the star. We played the gig Friday, went off to someone’s house afterward and picked until the early hours. Saturday we all played on “A Prairie Home Companion” with Garrison Keillor, then the final night at the Whole, followed again by more picking until the wee hours.

To say that the weekend went well would be an understatement. The musical energy was absolutely unbelievable. One of the evenings was taped, and I managed to hear it a couple of times. The music was amazing, just absolutely amazing. We were totally pumped to be playing with Vassar, and he is such a master that his energy could pace ours to any level. Twenty years later, in a completely different and non-musical setting, I met a person who asked if I was the same Jim Tordoff who played banjo. I said I was, and this person told me that they remembered me from playing at the Whole Coffee House with Vassar Clements. They said it was the finest night of music they had ever heard in their life. Well, in my humble opinion, I agree. The tape of that night was magical. If I ever find the tape I will post it on this site. I am still looking. Recently, I heard another tape of a group who was backing up Vassar and it was “deja vu all over again” as Yogi Berra would say. That group was cooking with the gas on full. It was probably the fastest Bugle Call Rag ever played in the known universe. I guess Vassar just has a way of energizing his back up band in ways that defy understanding. Those guys were great.

The three of us also played with Frank Wakefield and that was pretty fun too. No other night ever reached the fever level of the magic Vassar weekend though. Some things can never be duplicated or experienced twice.

Monday, October 24, 2005

My first instrument was the five string banjo. While I was still a teenager, my family moved to Minnesota where I continued to search out Bluegrass and other banjo pickers to learn from. I met a lot of characters then, many of whom remain friends with me to this day. I have always been extra lucky with the people I found and I have been blessed to have played with a lot of very talented folks through the years.

One day my friend Judy Larson said, “Come with me, there is someone you should meet”. Mike Cass was (still is, actually) a very talented Dobro player and we had a lot in common, music wise.

We decided that we should put a band together in order to improve our skills. Soon, Mike had rounded up a fiddle player. Well, a beginning fiddle player anyway. This kids name was Peter Ostroushko and he had only been playing fiddle for a couple of months. It was a stretch to apply the term “beginner” to Peter because he already played REALLY well, even having only been at it for a while. Mike also found a guitar player who was only with us for a short while, Don. This was the beginning of Bush County String Band. Don left the band and was replaced by Larry Stolberg and we also had hooked up with John Pederson on bass. Bush County String Band only existed for a few months. We played some coffee house gigs and an out of town job or two then the band dissolved. My friendship with Mike and Peter continued. We never were an official band again, but we played fairly often in differing mixes of players and for this job and that. The three of us eventually taught at the West Bank School of Music, and basically hung out off and on through the years.

Peter went on to do well on "A Prairie Home Companion" with Garrison Keillor. He is now an empressario and has quite a following. Mike moved to Nashville and is considered to be the "pedal steel players' pedal steel player" there. He travels with Ray Price and I hear that when he plays, the other Nashville steel cats come to hang out and listen while they hold their tape recorders in the air so they can cop Mike's licks later. I have a little guitar shop and an obscure blog.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I was a young man of twenty in 1972, an aspiring banjo player living near the University of Minnesota on the West Bank campus. My friend Ralph was a banjo player too and had been friends with Jerry Garcia back in California in the sixties. “Cousin Ralph” told me one day that the Grateful Dead were coming to the Twin Cities to play a concert and, as he and Jerry were old buddies, that the Dead were coming over to a friend’s place after the gig to hang out and jam some. He wondered if perhaps I would be interested in meeting these guys and playing music with them. I knew very little about the Dead and I wondered what interest they would have in making the West Bank scene with the usual suspects. I did, however, understand the concept of food, which I knew would be there. The promise of getting fed was enough motivation for me to actually show up to see what I could see.

I was at the scene at the appointed hour, hungry, and I was not disappointed. In anticipation of visiting rock dignitaries, the local food experts were putting their best foot forward. It was starting to look like a fun time would be had by me whether or not the jam session panned out. Around eleven thirty, some very well dressed hippies came to the party. It was the Grateful Dead, live. Four of them came and soon two of them left. I discovered the two who stayed were Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. I did not know them, as such, because I was not a follower of popular music; I was a bluegrass guy. I sort of knew about them and didn’t know much but I would know more about them soon.

So, this Garcia guy has a banjo case. Well, I thought, this is getting more interesting. Maybe these guys can actually play some string music and not just Rock and Roll. Jerry broke out the banjo and Bob Weir produced a guitar. They made some noises about how much fun it was to just hang around and pick with real people. By this time, I had my banjo uncased and another local guy had his guitar. That was the jam; Jerry, Bob, me and the other guy. I noticed right away that Jerry’s banjo was unusual and a type I had never seen. It was a Weyman and it had a beautiful tree of life inlay up the neck. And, by golly, the guy could actually pick it too! He picked quite well, in fact. Better than I could even, and by a lot. Not only that, his right hand middle finger was missing from the first knuckle but it didn’t seem to slow him down at all.

It was beginning to dawn on me that I had stumbled onto something pretty special. Both these guys were seriously fine pickers, could sing REALLY well, and they seemed to be having a good time. Meanwhile, I was having one of the most profound experiences of my life. Until that night, I was pretty much a student of the banjo. I had learned many tunes in the four years I had been playing, but had not transcended from rote repetition of known songs to actual jamming or improvisation. But that happened while I stood in between Jerry and Bob. Yup, Kansas boy goes to the big city, has opportunity fall in his lap, and makes good. Right there in between Jerry and Bob; picking tunes, laughing at their jokes and acting all nonchalant and like I hung out with rock heavyweights and swapped licks with them every week or so.

I was learning fast. It dawned on me through the haze that this was really different than I had expected; that I was in a very special place and God was smiling on me right then. I started to be able to make up breaks to the songs these guys were playing by the time it was my turn, which was at the same time amazing but, well, expected somehow. And that Garcia fellow was a really and truly excellent banjo player. They were not just playing the old chestnuts either. I had never heard many of the songs, and others were old blues tunes, some were songs that they performed (Friend of the Devil, Casey Jones), and songs I just plain did not know the origin of but had chord changes that were comprehensible. Yeah, this was getting to be really fun but I wondered when they would tire of the locals and split. They must have enjoyed themselves because they stayed until the last dog was hung, which was dawn. And I was right there too. I found that there was a quality about Jerry Garcia that was transformational and I had been transformed by picking with him. I was now a real picker. I walked into that jam a banjo student and came out a picker. I never forgot that night, and the story of my experience with those guys never fails to amuse people when they hear it. If I can’t wow them with the status of being a banjoist (sarcasm) then the “Night of the Grateful Dead” story will at least confuse them.

I was still in a state of disbelief the day after this experience so I broke out my axe to see if I was just imagining having the ability to improvise or if something had really changed about my playing. Something had changed. Ever since that night I have been able to “just make stuff up”, as the old timers say. Now, I am not saying that the stuff I make up is good, but it is made up. Well, that’s another story for another day.

I learned later that Jerry Garcia was a banjo player first and foremost and that he ended up a guitarist so he could make a living. Learning that helped to explain why he would search out, or at least be open to, jamming with the locals. He probably didn’t get many opportunities to jam with bluegrass guys. Obviously, Bob Weir enjoyed playing music at the “folk level” too. These guys both were pleasant, polite, regular guys. Since that unique night, I paid a whole lot more attention to the Dead when I heard them and followed them in the media when they got ink. I will never forget that night and the gift I was given. Those guys rock.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Last night was practice. It went pretty well and I did remember a lot more of the eclectic tunes but there are still issues. Still, all in all it was good. My main complaint with MSCB is that they play a lot of songs too fast. What they don't seem to realize is that the listener has no point of reference as to speed. The listener cannot tell if a song is being played at 120 beats per minute or 100 beats per minute; it sounds fast either way. If the song is played so rapidly that the banjo player (for example) has to leave notes out in order to keep up, the overall quality of the song is compromised. If the song is played at a slower but still fast speed, the notes can stay in and the overall quality of the song is better. I once coined a phrase (with apologies to R. Crumb),"Tone will get you through times of no speed better than speed will get you through times of no tone". So true.

One of the principle reasons I agreed to join MSCB is that they have a couple of brothers in the band who are serious musicians. Chuck, the bassist, teaches symphony bass in the public school system. Bluegrass is just for fun with Chuck. His brother Mark is a full time musician, and plays with several bands and combos. Mark speaks several languages, fluently, and has taught some of them at the college level. These are guys with musical muscle. They both play several instruments. Mark quadruples on fiddle, mandolin, mandola, and guitar. Before I joined the group he also played banjo. I am a "better" banjoist than Mark. I have a fluid style and arguably know more phrasing and licks than he does. Still, he basically knows anything he needs to know. I manage to maintain my dignity by being a Black Belt to his Brown. Anyway, Chuck and Mark make up the majority of my reasons to be in MSCB. I like Alan and Bruce a lot and the money is good, but the Bros bring a steady beat and an upgrade that I like a lot. I played with MSCB from 1979-1981. It was a much tougher band to be in at that time. I was a much tougher person to have in a band at that time. I subsequently quit playing music from 1981 until 2002, and raised a family and did the career thing and all. I started again when I needed a non-chemical and non-addictive escape when my company and marriage went South. So, here I am. I am grateful for the doors God opened for me, even though many of them looked like chasms at the time.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

I play banjo in a Bluegrass band. Well, two bands, actually. It is a fun thing but for the fact that each band does a lot of original material so there are tons and tons of songs and chord progressions to know and remember. That can be a problem for the old (literal descriptor there) brain. Here's the deal; improvisation takes place over the basic chord structure of any song. If you know where the chords are going (knowing which chord is next and when) then improvising is really simple. But, and its a big but, if you don't know where the chords are going you are basically fooched because you are improvising but you can't because you are lost. Make sense? What is really interesting is that once you learn the progression and can accurately predict the changes, the song structure always seems so logical and you wonder how it ever could have been tricky to learn. The first band I was asked to join, I have learned pretty much all of the songs. The second band? I am still struggling with the repertoire. Now, this is not just your typical 1,4,5 cowboy chord stuff. Give me some credit. Some of these songs even have (gasp!) time changes! Oddball minor chords! Ninths and sixths and stuff! Non-resolving progressions! On banjo! Live! At least neither of these bands require me to sing, which is as much a relief for me as it is a blessing for the audience. Both groups already had the vocal parts worked out with enough voices that I just get to play banjo and be happy. In one group, Ivory Bridge, I am the only lead instrument other than the two guitars so I get to play just about all the fill and back-up stuff. That's huge. It means that, in a typical four hour gig, I am actually playing for about three hours and forty five minutes. Playing rolls that is, and not just keeping time by vamping chords on the off-beat (oomp-chunk, oomp-chunk, oomp-chunk). I would have to say that my back-up stuff is getting a lot better due to all the practice I get at it. The other band, The Middle Spunk Creek Boys, is your typical Bluegrass band build out with fiddle and mandolin, so I do a lot more time keeping and less back up stuff.

Last week I played a concert with MSCB and it was the first concert venue we played where the acoustics were such that everything could be heard. This is as opposed to a noisy bar or outdoor concert where there is ambient noise. In a situation like this, one really has to know one's stuff. There is no place to hide. I did okay, just okay. We had rehearsed the trickier songs but I had sort of a brain problem the night of the concert in that I could not remember stuff. At all. I think when I get tired and don't eat I start to lose some higher brain functions and that was happening. I recovered when we got onstage thanks to the adrenaline and years of playing. I remembered pretty well but more importantly I soft pedaled and hid well in the parts I was fuzzy about. The concert went well. Still, we practice tonight and I would not be surprised if many of the tricky tunes were simpler tonight than they have been in the past.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Now it begins. I will use my blog to further the best interests of mankind, solve the most difficult challenges facing modern intellectualism, settle disputes between soveriegn nations, tidy up the unified field theory and chart the course of man through the Age of Aquarius and to the final destination wherein humanity can live a sustained existence in perfect harmony with the universe and Mother Earth until our star attains supernova. Failing the above, I will just thrash about mindlessly spewing my own biased opinions and generally making a nuisance of myself. Maybe there will be some good jokes, too. I dunno, I might even get some sort of a theme going on this sucker and maybe I won't. And if you are reading this, you either know me or you have too much time on your hands and you should find something more useful to do with it.

Everybody wants to be the banjo player. Hey, would that be fun or what? Well, I AM the banjo player, so I know exactly how much fun it is. It is fun. It also took a llloooonnnggg time to learn and that was when I was a kid and had fresh brain cells and enough discretionary time to endlessly practice the rolls and stuff. Message to all you older guys who think it would be cool to play banjo: it is cool but its not gonna happen for you in this life. Buy a classic GTO or something instead and learn how to restore classic cars. It will soak up all your banjo time and more. Message to all you folks out there that want to hear the banjo player play "Dueling Banjos" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or "Man of Constant Sorrow"; please go away. I spent countless hours practicing and striving and hurting and being embarrased or frustrated or whatever. I did not spend all that time and energy learning how to play the most gawd-awful hardest instrument on earth just to validate your movie going experience by rehashing one of those sorry tunes for you. Just listen to what I want to play and enjoy it. Honest, I am using EVERY SINGLE NOTE that is used in those other tunes, just in a different order. On the banjo. In the moment, and just for you. And the others that are listening with you. Think of it as an enhancement to those songs, you know, like a sequel, like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown XXXIV or something. Just please don't ask me (or any banjo player) because we all hate those songs and the people that ask for them. Naturally, I will simply play these songs when asked because I am an entertainer first and an artist second, but I love ranting about it.

I also really dig my banjos. I have a couple of them from the twenties and they are seriously cool. They aren't the ones most sought after because those are flatheads and mine are both archtops. The hard core bluegrassers all want flatheads and they overlook the fact that the flatheads were engineered to be easier and cheaper to make than the archtops. Hey, flatheads happened in the thirties; hello, are we having fun in the great depression? There is a subculture of archtop players that love the archtop sound. Include me in that group. We are the subversive and free thinking arhtop anarchists. We like bright sounding banjos that weigh a lot and are old. I bought both of these beauties over thirty years ago and they are worth a lot more now than they were then. The point is, these are the only material possessions I have that I give a rats butt about. Well, I really like my bicycle too but I learned early on never to fall in love with my bike. No one ever told me not to fall in love with my banjo. I believe a lot of what people tell me. I am kind of like a Labrador Retreiver that way. In fact, I am a lot like a Lab in a lot of ways, but that's another blog. Today I am Banjoboy.