Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Last Saturday my youngest daughter Elspeth brought five of her friends to the shop during the Ivory Bridge practice to listen her Dad play music. In spite of the style of music, or maybe because of it, the kids (all in the fourteen to sixteen year old range) loved listening. Here is a typical, world weary, ipod driven group of teens who were blown away to hear acoustic music played a couple of feet away. I forget the sheer power of music that is being performed at arms length from the listener. I always think that being a banjo player is about as dorky as you can be. At times like last Saturday, I remember how hypnotic music was when I was the age of these kids. I had heard acoustic Bluegrass, Folk, Blues, and Jug Band music when I was twelve. I had been exposed to it through my big brother Jeff who is six years older than I am. There was something compelling about hillbilly music; it was undeniably corny but it conveyed a certain lonesome, nostalgic, bluesy feel. I was hooked.

After I had been listening for a couple of years and I had something in common with Jeff that we could enthuse and talk about, he took me to a concert that he knew I would enjoy. We went early to the coffee house so we could get good seats and arrived about 45 minutes before the doors opened. There was only one other person there waiting to get in. We got seats directly in front of the stage, which was a riser about a foot tall. I was sitting square in front, about four feet from the chair that the performer was going to be sitting in. The performer was Doc Watson. Remember that this took place in 1967. Nowadays, Doc draws thousands of people to his performances. In 1967, a kid and his big brother could sit close enough to touch him. When I remember the impact that listening and watching Doc had on me, I can understand how Elspeth's buddies were blown away listening to the Ivory Bridge practice session. I was never the same after that night. I had bought my first banjo by then but didn't know much about how to play it. Suffice it to say I was inspired after watching and hearing Doc Watson at a distance of four feet for three hours.

A year after that night, Jeff put together a Doc Watson concert at Michigan State University in East Lansing. I took the running dog up to spend the weekend with him and enjoy the privilege of hanging out with an icon for a couple of days. Merle and Doc had been driven up from Deep Gap by cousin Jerry. Merle and Jerry schemed all weekend long about installing a still in a semi trailer so it could be driven around to sell moonshine and evade the BATF and the "revenooers". It sounded like a perfectly fine plan to me but I am pretty sure they never did it.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Later today the other members of Ivory Bridge (see link at right) are coming to my little guitar shop to practice and jam. We are playing at the local Bluegrass music venue at the end of the month and we are whipping our hands into shape so we sound good when we play there. We are going to record the performances of both nights in hopes of gleaning some good cuts to use on a CD we want to put out. I often wonder at how I got to be a "banjoist in demand". There is no secret to how it is done. It is done by taking thousands of insignificant steps over several years and eventually one accumulates experience and skill. There was only one breakthrough event, the night I jammed with the Grateful Dead and learned improvisation. Or at least made a profound gain of skill in improvisation technique. I recount that story in one of the first entries of this blog and it may be of interest to some. Check the archives to the right.

A musician can only gauge their progress by looking back. I was never much for learning big blocks of music. I could only learn snippets and pieces, but eventually they add up and you can play. Earlier this year, I set about to learn a melodic piece named Jerusalem Ridge. It is a fiddle tune (written by and for the fiddle) and consequently has an intricate melody. The five string banjo can either roll through the chord changes, which means try and approximate the melody with arpeggios that sort of fit, or work out the melody note for note just as the fiddle plays it. This style of banjo is called "melodic style"(go figure). Some guys (and gals) can do this easily. I can not. It took daily practice for six weeks to memorize and gain facility with the melodic version of Jerusalem Ridge, and that was with the part already written out so all I had to do was memorize the piece and not find where the melody lays out on the fingerboard. I got it though, and when we play the piece it sounds pretty good. Still, I know and can play hundreds and hundreds of songs and tunes. How did I learn to do this with such a thick head? By playing some every day for years and years. That's why they say, "Keep on pickin'".

Friday, January 13, 2006

I was about five or six years old when a kid from the neighborhood showed up at the play ground with his ultra, and I mean ULTRA, cool honest to goodness racing bike. It was definitely a Peugot. It was probably a px-10. This would have been in the late fifties when the american bike scene was dismal from the standpoint of euro racing bikes. But this thing sang a siren song to me and in that instant a life long love of skinny tire racing bikes was born. I still remember the moment, the lighting, the smells, the whole shebang. Soon I was rigging up faux derailleurs and wistfully hoping for racing handlebars for my 20" no name hand me down kids bike. Then my mom took me to get a "real" bike when I was getting closer to nine and she bought me a Raleigh Gazelle (at my insistance); a skinny tired single speed wonder that I loved even if it didn't have gears. This bike was stolen and then recovered with the help of my eagle eyed big brother. I was glad to have it back but as I reached my teens I disdained bikes and didn't rediscover them until I was eighteen and I needed a bike to get to work and back one summer. I went to the local college bike shop and promptly bought a 1970 Gitane Tour De France with sew-ups, which pretty much insured I would never earn any actual college money that summer as the bike cost about what I would be making all summer long-$225.00. Naturally I was clueless about sew-ups and I spent a great deal of time that summer putting tires on the bike, learning how to repair tubulars, airing them up at the gas station just to have them explode off the rims on the way home, and other such stuff. It was still fun though. I then reached the phase of my bike education where I learned about the mystical wonder of Campagnolo parts. I started replacing my parts with Campy as fast as my pocket book would allow me to and eventually ended up with a bike I was hopelessly overinvested in and which was an amalgam of inappropriate but Campagnolo parts on an old frame that didn't fit me. I was in my mid twenties and had met a guy who had just discovered the racing scene and I embarked on the longest phase of bike love of my life once I learned a little about spinning and long rides and cycling shorts and cleated shoes and such. It took about three months to progress from total geek to quasi-initiate and the next thing you know I was shaving my legs and getting some shape to my quads. By now I had met Jim and Scott Flanders who owned Flanders Brothers Cycles. I also had a real job with actual income and I could at long last afford real equipment. Naturally, in keeping with my experience to date, I had purchased another star crossed frame (Ciocc) that was too small, fitted it out with my accumulae of Campy stuff, and showed up for a group ride with the Bros. These guys were the undisputed top of the heap-they had both won the state championship many times, had raced on the national team, and ruled the scene in Minnesota. They mentioned to me that my frame was too small, showed my why, and stepped back. It wasn't long before I was in their shop seeking advice and purchasing my first real, proper sized, full Campagnolo Super Record equipped Basso. 100% Italian. Whoa. I had finally reached a state of humility about this euro bike thing where I realized I didn't know much about it. I relied on Jim and Scott to help me select the right stuff and that was an excellent decision on my part. I then bought a new bike every year and sold my old one. In this way I was able to own and ride many Italian frames, always Campy equiped. Eventually I ended up with a DeRosa in 1985 and equiped it with Campy although Dura-Ace was a viable option that year. I also was having kids so I rode that DeRosa for ten years, busting my hip, shattering my elbow, and other such mishaps but I always managed to hurt me and not the DeRosa. I started buying bikes again in 1995 but I have not been able to switch as often as I did in the halcyon days of the eighties. Jim and Scott still advise me of what to ride. I am now on the Ottrott and it is a wonderful bike. It is like riding my own stealth fighter. I miss the days of toe straps and Super Record parts though. Campagnolo had the mystic thing totally dialed in for decades and finally "achieving" Campy was a wonderful and magic experience. Modern parts are so far superior to the old stuff that comparison is impossible, but the magical Campy feeling is still a fond memory for me. I still have the Gitane Tour De France. It is my fixie. It is still too big and has definitely seen better days but it works for slugging out the early and sloppy days of the season which are coming up again soon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Why do we do what we do? Today's photos are of a staircase Gruppo did for a philanthropic outfit called The McKnight Foundation. The top shot is the rough fabrication stage in the metal shop. Basically, in case anyone wants to build one of these at home, you get the exact dimensions from the job site of where the thing is going to end up, then you build it in the shop where all your tools are handy, disassemble it and take it to the job site and put it together there for (hopefully) the last time. Pretty simple really. Oh; be sure to measure twice.

I still do projects with the lead Gruppo fabricator (of the project in these photographs). He has his own shop and he and I do projects that I continue to take on. I do that because I can support myself while the guitar shop gets up and running. When one of my projects is happening I am a busy guy. I hit the metal shop in the morning and the evening and sell guitars all day long. My weekends are spent in metal toe boots slinging heavy stuff around while trying my best not to tear or saw off any fingers. The way I figure it, I need intact hands if I am going to have any credibility as a guitar purveyor, not to mention as a banjoist. So far, so good. I have hurt myself but so far I have managed to remain able to play the five string with whatever injury I incurred. I am grateful for all that I have and where I have been but I pray for a less exciting and more stable life sometime in the near future.