Thursday, March 23, 2006

I travelled to Wisconsin last Sunday with the MSCB to play a concert in a community theater in Prairie Du Sac. We were the visiting "stars" from the big city. There were two other bands who were local that preceeded us in a three hour concert. There were at least two hundred people there and the venue was a lovely auditorium built sometime in the past decade. The local bands were staffed by journeymen musicians; competent and fun to listen to. Apparently there is a thriving Bluegrass community around that area and these bands were representative of the quality of players found there. The pay was pretty good for the time spent performing but only so-so for the amount of time it took to drive there, do a sound check, play, and drive home. This is the musicians' lot. Very few people make a good living playing music. For that matter, very few people get any sort of return on the time they committed to learning their instrument. Why do people like me spend their Sundays driving for four hours one way to play for strangers? I suppose because they can. I related in an early post on this blog that I have been performing since I was a kid and knew one song on my instrument. The graduate students in the bluegrass band I hung around with thought it was funny. I was thrilled. I was hooked too. I have always enjoyed playing publicly and stage fright has not been an issue for decades. I play banjo and I like sharing the music I make with others who enjoy listening to me perform. I also enjoy the comaraderie of musicians. The jokes are good, the stories are amusing, and over the years I have amassed enough experience to have my own stories to share, some of which are in this blog.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The winter bluegrass weekend was a success by any measure. MBOTMA has a huge group of volunteers and the whole thing was as smooth as it could be. My duties as President of the Board were pretty much non-existent. We had a general membership meeting Sunday morning that I presided over and that was the extent of it. There was a group who played there that was really impressive. The group name was Foghorn. They are an old timey band and they nailed it. Excellent, driving rhythm with wonderful tone and great voices. It was kind of like the New Lost City Ramblers with memberships to the gym. The sets I played with my two bands went well too. Folks said it was the best they had ever heard Ivory Bridge. We had practiced our set a lot, including seamless transitions and no talking or screwing around with capos, tunings or whatever. It worked; we sounded really tight and we were comfortable with all the changes and the arrangements. It was a joy. In typical fashion, I played really hot during all the warm-up sessions. I was improvising really well and I was the master of the beat. On stage it is always a different story. I did okay, but I wasn't magical like I had hoped I would be. This is the way of performance. All my life I have experienced this strange juju about performance. There would be performances I would play where I could not hit a note wrong all night; I was just plain hot; I swung, was lyrical, made cool stuff up, and just plain blew my own socks off. No comment from any listeners. Then there would be nights that I wished I could have spontaneously combusted or disappeared down a big hole I played so poorly. Folks could'nt wait to tell me how great my playing was. Go figure. I guess I just don't get the cosmic jokes so I am doomed to be the butt of them. This weekend The Middle Spunk Creek Boys are playing a mini-festival up north with a couple of other bands and we are all guests of the LaPlant family. Lloyd LaPlant makes guitars and mandolins. Just about every "A" player in Minnesota has a LaPlant guitar or mandolin. They are super sweet sounding and beautiful to look at. It should be fun. The LaPlants also like to pick and they enjoy the same type of tunes I do and so I am looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

This is the high point of the Winter Bluegrass Weekend. Last night, after I played with the Middle Spunk Creek Boys to open the concert schedule for the weekend, I got to jam with some buddies. I decided what my blog topic would be based on that jam. A jam is a conversation held with instruments. We had guitar (former state champ flat picker no less), two banjos (my old friend Barry and me), fiddle, and bass. Before I get to my point I want to say that having two banjos in a jam session is VERY tricky. I have often said, on this blog and elsewhere, that banjos are the crudest and clumsiest of instruments due to their volume and the method of playing, which is essentially a steady stream of notes (think mini-gun; lots of bullets and lots of damage). However, if the two banjoists are sensitive (remember, this is banjos we are talking about here) and very respectful of others, it can not only be done but it can be fun too. Well, Barry and I have played together for decades, shown each other tons of licks and tunes, and we pretty much know each other's styles. The jam was going really well; we were playing jam-friendly tunes and everybody was limbering up and improvising smoothly and tastefully. Then, an old friend showed up who had a Dobro. This fellow is a prince among men and is universally well liked as a person, but... well, he doesn't show the same respect for others in a jam as the rest of us and he made the music very tough to enjoy. If he wasn't playing lead, he dominated the rhythm, especially when the guitar was trying to take breaks. He was chopping the back beat so loud that I was getting a headache from the volume. He would play fill licks whenever he wanted without determining if anyone else was doing that (if they were, then his playing muddied up or erased theirs), and he would not adjust his volume to allow the guitar to be heard when the guitarist was obviously taking the lead break. Remember my conversation analogy? If six people are having a discussion, is it annoying if one of the participants does not stop talking? At all? During the whole conversation? And he always talks loudly while others are trying to say something? To me the answer is yes. If you don't think so, I will email this guys name and number to you and you can invite him to your jam. Well, we live in Minnesota and there is a cultural bias against speaking up in situations like that and nobody did. After about three songs I excused myself and went to look up a special friend so I could have fun again. I reckon my real point is that I am getting finicky about what I want out of a jam session and high quality pickers who get it are what I want. So sue me. Tonight Ivory Bridge opens for Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, the big national act of the weekend. I hope it goes well; it is really satisfying when one plays a great set with a group for a room full of people and that is what we are hoping to do. I will report back.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I have been elected President of the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association. Don't ask why or how; it just is, like so many other things. This coming weekend is one of the major events of the year for MBOTMA. It is the Winter Bluegrass Weekend and it is held indoors at a hotel/conference center in the metro area. There will be non-stop picking and grinning for three days and people will get enough of the festival thing to hold them over until this summer when there are more festivals and fun. I will not only be wearing my crown and purple robes (I hope it's purple; I haven't actually seen it yet...) , but I will be performing on the main stage Friday and Saturday with the two bands I am currently playing with. Ivory Bridge is even opening for the main (national) act Saturday night. We have been practicing like crazy to be ready and to sound our best. Between now and Friday my biggest challenge is to get enough rest as I notice that I play better when that is the case. In fact, I now notice that my vocabulary (such as it is) drops off to about forty words when I am exhausted. Tonight I will go to the home of Kathe and Bill for some dinner and some tunes. Kathe and Bill took very good care of me last Summer when things were tough and their care consisted mainly of spending time with me and feeding me and playing tunes. It was a wonderful Summer in that regard. We all got really good on our instruments too. We had the groove all the time, didn't make as many mistakes, and blended really well. We now reminisce about those months and maybe we can capture some of that magic tonight. Those guys are really special to me. They accepted me into their lives and supported me like crazy. They really and truly like the way I play the banjo, which makes me play the best I can out of sheer appreciation for being appreciated. I had retired from music for over twenty years and these guys heard me play soon after I returned to performing and decided I was the banjo guy for their sound, despite the fact that the rust was flaking off my fingers while I played (it had been a long time since I was in shape). My playing has gotten much smoother and consistent now that I have been playing and performing again for a couple of years. My style is not the currently popular style of banjo. I am kind of a groove player and not a technical wizard or driving traditionalist. Actually, my style hasn't ever been popular but that didn't stop me from just making stuff up and enjoying what I could pull out of my a... arsenal (ooh!).

As for the rest of my existence, Spring is starting to hint that it might show up this year and I am in decent shape after getting to the gym on a semi-regular basis through the cold months and I am hungry for some cycling time. I managed to free up the frozen seat post on my fixie so the seat height could be lowered (I might be shrinking) and I have the new tires on it. It's close; very, very close to biking time. I am glad I got away from the bike for the frozen months and even happier that I kept some fitness. It's the Jim plan for cross training, but instead of cycling Saturday and swimming Sunday and running Monday, I cycled in the Summer, ran in the Fall, and swam in the Winter (you get my drift). Later.