One Man, One Guitar and a Song

I love it when there’s one person on stage with an instrument and a microphone. The artist is raw and exposed and vulnerable. After seeing a bunch of these shows, you start to get a feel for a performance that has the ring of truth about it. Recently I saw a really “true” performance. The artist’s name is Rich Podgur. Everything about him screams “authentic”- from his left-handed Guild guitar to his corduroy sport coat.

His songs have working-man imagery and feel. At different times I was reminded of other songwriters whose delivery also feels honest and gritty- like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Full disclosure- I’m trying to figure out how get hired as a sideman in his band. I feel like I’m getting a sneak preview of something really great. It reminds me of time when songs had integrity and life.  Good songs make us feel and remember and think- they take on a life of their own.  They have the ability to travel with us and comment and connect with us when we least expect  it.

I’m really looking forward to a recording from this guy.  I want the ability to read and listen to the lyrics and gain some new traveling companions.

How to Play in a Band

Before you start playing be familiar with the hierarchy of good band manners.

First, be in tune. Everybody’s uncomfortable when something sounds sour and is out of tune.

Second, play in rhythm. Groove with the bass. When in doubt, pause and listen for the next down beat. Play as little as possible. I’m not sure of the author of this quote but it’s made a lot of sense through the years “It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play”. The less you play, the easier it is to play on the beat.

Third, play the right chords. Do your homework and be prepared. Learn the chord chart before you come to rehearsal.

Fourth, learn the notes of the melody- they’ll come in handy at a bunch of different times and on different levels.

After you start playing follow these rules when possible:

First- Start together and end together. Beginnings and endings frame the song you present on stage. It’s the first and last thing that the audience hears and remembers. If these are tight, other “discrepencies” will be forgiven.

Next, when someone starts singing, play softer so that the singing is featured. Create a sonic support/safety net for them. The vocalist is is the most exposed member of the band- make them sound good. In general, build volume in the chorus.

Lastly songs are cycles of repeating musical ideas. Try to add something different each time you play through a verse or chorus or bridge. Something simple- an extra note, a different voicing, a rhythm motif. Add interest to the performance.

Be kind to your band members. Support them musically. Make sure everyone gets a chance to shine. Playing music can be as challenging as it is rewarding. We are at our most vulnerable when on stage. Make it fun for your bandmates and they just might return the favor.

7 Favorite Banjo and Fiddle Duet Recordings

Banjo and Fiddle Duet
Tim and Mike at the Black Creek Fiddlers Reunion

Just banjo and fiddle playing together was the original rock band. From the earliest time of the banjo in America – the mid to late 1800’s, the music partner of choice was the fiddle. Here’s a list of some of my favorite duo recordings:

Banging and Sawing by Bob Carlin and Guests

Southern Summits by Alan Jabbour and Ken Perlman

Tommy & Fred  by Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham

Starry Crown by Rhys Jones and Christina Wheeler

The Time’s Been Sweet by Jeanne Murphy & Scott Marckx

Phil’s Patio by Aaron Jonah Lewis and Matt Ball

The Fun of Open Discussion by Bob Carlin and John Hartford

These recordings have all affected me on different levels.  They’ve inspired me to learn the tunes.  They’ve compelled me to seek out fiddlers and sit knee to knee and communicate musically.  I’ve shared tunes with my bands and we’ve learned them and added more instruments.

When I think back on wonderful musical moments through the years, many of them have been at festivals where two of us have searched out a quiet corner to sit and play together.  Starting with a tune we both know (or not…) and first developing the common ground to kind of establish the musical outlines of the thing that we are creating together then having fun and allowing new ideas to emerge.

The albums above all do this. Most of it is banjo and fiddle but there are some really beautiful fiddle duets on Starry Crown.  In the duet form I always love when the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

Bluegrass Band Scramble Review written by Rich Stillman

Last Sunday’s BBU-sponsored band scramble at the Real School of Music in Burlington brought out about thirty people who discovered talents many never knew they had. If you’ve never been to a band scramble, the idea is a cross between pickup baseball and the Hogwarts sorting hats: take a bunch of strangers who play bluegrass instruments, throw their names into paper bags. Draw names at random to create bands. Send each band away to rehearse for an hour and a half with a simple mission: create a 5-7 minute set of music on stage. Call everyone back, and put on a show.

The five bands that competed in Sunday’s scramble showed a range of talents. Every band had some people who had never played bluegrass onstage before. At least two people made their singing debut as well.

I can tell you from touring the rehearsal rooms during those 90 minutes that the energy level and enthusiasm was high. Everyone was involved in picking band names, repertoire and arranging. The atmosphere in every room felt like a really good band rehearsal. That spirit made it onto the stage, where all the bands, who were competing for an opening act slot at a local coffeehouse and a set of tuners, put on enjoyable performances and cheered each other on from the audience.

The comments were unanimously positive from everyone involved, and I really enjoyed the simultaneous spirits of cooperation and competition that extended from the selection of the bands through the concert itself. I think the first scramble was a complete success, and I’m looking forward to many more. Thanks to everyone who came out to participate, help out, or just watch!

Boston Bluegrass Day

Boston Bluegrass Day Mini-Festival this Sunday!

Sunday Jan. 2nd 2pm to 6p at The Real School of Music in Burlington, MA.
Performance by the Etienne Bluegrass Experience
Open Jamming and Slow Jam
Rich Stillman of Southern Rail to lead a Bluegrass Band Scramble.

When:  Sunday January 2nd, 2011 at 2pm
Where: 56 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington, MA 10803
How Much:  $10 at the door. ($5 with flyer-print this page!)
Is there a budding stage musician inside you? Have you ever dreamed of standing on stage, with people you didn’t know two hours before, playing bluegrass in front of tens of screaming fans? (Dreams have to start somewhere.)
The Band Scramble may be for you!  If you’ve ever played in a jam session, or if you can play three chords in rhythm, come out to the Real School of Music on January 2 and try your luck. Musicians enter the Scramble individually, and bands are created by picking names out of hats – one for each instrument, so bands have the tools they need. You and your new bandmates then have a two hour practice session, with coaching from BBU and Real School instructors, to prepare songs and stage patter for a six minute turn on the Real School’s stage, in front of a sound system and a live audience.
Every band will need a name, so be creative! (sorry, the name Wabash Cannibals is already taken!) The winner will be chosen based entirely on audience response, so stacking the audience is strongly encouraged. Judges will be on hand to make the tough call if the audience response is close. A prize, consistent with the dignity of the event, will be awarded to the winning band.
Come Join us for a really fun bluegrass event!

Blue Moose at Fiddle Hell

Whenever I hear a live show that makes me either want to hang up my instruments forever or go home and practice all night, I know I’ve just heard something really good. Last Friday night I was at this great fiddle event hosted bay Dave Reiner and his family. It’s a three day fiddle learning event called Fiddle Hell. There are classes, performances, workshops and jams galore. I was lucky enough to catch a set by Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers. Fresh from their CD release party at Club Passim, their performance was tight, surprising and inspiring all at the same time. The band consists of Andy Reiner on fiddle, Mariel Vandersteel on fiddle, Stash Wyslouch on Guitar and Bronwyn Bird on the nyckelharpa (a very unusual type of Swedish fiddle).

Essential Old Time Music Recordings

I’ve often been asked what are good recordings to listen to. One reply that I often give as an absolute “must own, listen and learn” is the first Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.

This great album was recorded in two living rooms live to a a two track tape recorder and was one of the first albums released by the Rounder label in 1972 (ROUN0010).

There are so many things that I love about this album. The spirit in which it was made, the choice of tunes, the instrumentation, the totally shoestring manner in which it was recorded, the album packaging, and on and on. If you’d like to learn more about the musicians that made this and the various bands that were spawned by what was originally a gathering of friends getting together at local homes to play and enjoy old time music then visit the site of the original Red Clay Ramblers.

There are twenty cuts largely taken from the Henry Reed repertoire. These tunes were collected by the great fiddler Alan Jabbour. These tunes show up regularly at every jam that I’ve ever attended. If anyone wants a good place to start in building their own list of tunes that they can feel comfortable playing on, there could hardly be a better place to start.

Rounder combined thirty-three cuts from their first two albums on a CD release in 1995 (ROUN11571).

Some of my favorites from this venerably vinyl disc are Old Mother Flanagan, Magpie, Protect the Innocent, Frosty Morning, West Fork Girls, Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, Santa Anna’s Retreat, Quince Dillon’s High D Tune. If you’d like to listen to me playing some of these tunes with my friends, I’ve posted a bunch of MP3’s on my Banjo Hangout music page.

This is a video of me playing one of my favorite Henry Reed tunes that I learned from the Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.