Step Back - Johnny Winter Brings It To A Fitting Close

 

Because Johnny Winter died just as Step Back was being released there has been much hype surrounding it, including a deluge of Internet comments proclaiming things like "his best album EVER!!!", often without the correct use of capital letters and punctuation. I wanted to give an objective review.


It has its strong points and its weak points. The rhythm section is solid throughout and the keys add a nice touch but the guitar sound is generic throughout most of it. Winter's distinct tone is noticeably absent. The guest guitarists are there merely for star power.Paul Nelson played most of the guitars, including many of the fills you would expect Johnny to be playing, and the standard formula is Johnny-1st solo/(insert guest name here)-second solo. The best songs are the straight Blues and the early Rock 'n' Roll numbers. The not-so-great ones are overly-commercial Rock stuff. All in all it's a good, listenable album as well as a fitting close to his life and career. If you're a Johnny Winter fan you'll be glad you bought it.

 

Johnny Winter 1944 - 2014

 

Johnny Winter has been one of my biggest guitar heroes from the time I first picked up the instrument right through to the present. To me he was the blueprint for playing Blues to a Rock audience. His death came a little over a month after finally meeting him and leaves a strange gaping hole.

 

My How Times Have Changed

 

My how times have changed. Sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop that I've frequented for the last nine years drove the point home. With my newspaper, cappuccino, pastry and cigarillos I would go through the want ads looking for suitable employment, i.e. something that paid well and left enough evenings open to play gigs. One must have one's priorities. By 3:00 in the afternoon I'd had a pleasant morning and done all the work that I needed to do for today. Nothing more to do other than wait for the replies to come in. Occasionally I'd stroll around the neighborhood and back home would break out my guitar to do some practicing. Sometimes I would take the rest of the day off. Rarely is job hunting so idyllic.

 

2012 In Review

 

New album finished after four years, headlining the Beijing Blues Festival, accompanying and producing Tara Tinsley, sitting in with Big Jay McNeely, doing interviews and closing out the year with a double Vicars guitar bill.

 

2011 in Review

 

2011 was hardly a space odyssey. More of a slow comeback after a couple years of what both the Western and Chinese zodiacs described as "everything you touch shall turn to shit." While it wasn't without its trials all in all it was pretty good. Even the rough spots had their advantages in the larger picture of things.

 

Frankie Camaro

 

The back cover of the Trash, Twang & Thunder album described Frankie Camaro as a "Surf musician from Indiana". As if that wasn't odd enough nobody seemed to know much about him, like where he was from or what happened to him after the album. A few things here and there popped up on the Internet over the years but no real insight. And then somehow he got word that there was a book about the Austin Roots Rock Revival of the 80's named after that infamous album and he e-mailed inquiring about a copy. When he found out that the book was still in progress he gave a full length interview in late 2010. Here in his own words is the story of Paul Jova aka Frankie Camaro, from his earliest beginnings, through the Trash, Twang & Thunder album, on up to the present day.

 

Denny Freeman (part 2)

 

In part 2 of an in-depth interview guitarist Denny Freeman talks about meeting Keith Ferguson for the first time, their shared musical interests, the winding down of the Austin scene at the beginning of the 90's, his later work with Taj Mahal, the Phantom Blues Band, and Bob Dylan, and his recent organ trio gigs at upstairs at the Continental Club. Denny wraps it up with an overview of Austin's Roots-oriented music scene despite the trends of the 70's and 80's, and its place in the larger picture of American music, namely the ongoing evolution of Blues and Rock 'n' Roll. Just as with part 1, the interview is presented verbatim with only the most minimal of editing to give the reader an inside perspective.

 

Denny Freeman (part 1)

 

Denny Freeman is most well known for being a sort of mentor to the Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray, as well as his tenures with Taj Mahal and most recently Bob Dylan. Anybody who discovered Blues, Roots music and/or the Austin scene via Stevie Ray Vaughan remembers SRV praising Denny wherever he was interviewed. The elder statesman of the three, his playing his a study in taste and understatement. His solo albums showcase the diversity of his talents and a YouTube search adds to that.

These days he holds down a regular gig at The Continental Club Gallery in Austin with his organ trio where he gets to indulge his Jazz leanings. Here in part one of the interview he talks about his beginnings in Dallas up through to the Big Guitars From Texas album TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER. Be sure to visit his website at http://dennyfreeman.com/

 

March 11th, 2011 Japan Earthquake - One Firsthand Account

 

This is my personal account of the 9.0 earthquake that occurred in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai, Japan as I experienced it and the resulting events. If you or someone you know is in Japan as this is happening please share your story in the Comments section.

 

Twenty-Ten in Review

 

Twenty-ten was an interesting year full of hidden gems.There were a few bumps in the road along the way but in the end it all worked itself out for the better and that turned out to be the 'theme' for the year. As they say in baseball, "You win some and you lose some, and some get rained out, but you suit up for the all." A few bumps in the road along the way but that's life. And that's also where the interesting stories come from! All in all it sorted itself out in the end and everything worked out for the best. Aliiance and Canton, Indianpolis, Tennessee, Houston, Austin, Vegas, Fukushima, Hiroshima and the Atomic Dome, "new songs from The Hillbilly Resistance, Nikki Hills, Gretsch guitars, LONGHAIRED LEFTOVERS re-released and studying Jazz via Robert Conti.

 

Bruce Sheeehan & Jungle Records

 

Bruce Sheehan moved from his home in Youngstown, OH to Austin, TX and by the mid-80's found himself in the middle of a burgeoning Roots Rock revival that brought Rock 'n' Roll out of the arena and back down to Earth. There he started up Jungle Records whose most notorious releases were the first Leroi Brothers LP CHECK THIS ACTION and the Grammy-nominated Big Guitars From Texas TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER.

 

Mike Buck - Texas Drum Legend

 

Mike Buck is a cornerstone of Texas roots music. He played with damn near every Blues and Rockabilly legend during his early years and at the beginning of the 21st Century has backed many of the younger musicians. He's the living thread that keeps it a viable musical form. Buck does more than most to keep it alive. Having played behind so many of the greats, helping put his own generation on the map and backing many up-and-comers he's also taken over Antone's Records. Half of his week is spent running the store that's practically a library. Rare and hard-to-find classics sit alongside obscure jewels and the latest releases by current groups. The living history is alive and well within those store walls.

 

Skynyrd in Japan

 

Lynyrd Skynyrd toured Japan in 1977 playing 5 nights, Jan 14th -18th & 21st at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo and Osaka Koseinenkinkaikan Hall. It was the only time the original band played there. Opening for them was Japan's top Southern Rock band, Idlewild South. Music Life was the major Rock magazine in Japan at the time, their equivalent of England's Melody Maker. When looking for someone to interview Skynyrd for a feature article they decided to let Idlewild South have free reign. Who better to interview Skynyrd for Music Life? It proved to be a good choice; rather than answering cookie-cutter questions from a journalist Ronnie Van Zant, Allen Collins and Artimus Pyle sat down for some friendly conversation with musicians who had embraced the Southern Rock style during it's heyday and were eager meet their heroes. The result was a very candid, informal article that did the band justice.

 

Ronnie James - Living The Dream

 

Ronnie James is living the dream that all musicians who grew up listening to the Roots Rock revival of Austin during the 80's dream of. While living in California he began his road career with Little Charlie & the Nightcats before playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds which led to his current gig as Jimmie Vaughan's bassist. Along the way he's shared the stage and studio with a Who's Who of Blues legends, most notably the time he spent with the late Bill Willis in Vaughan's band. Now a mainstay in Austin, he sat down in early April 2010 to share his story...

"As far as playing the first thing was guitar, like most kids. I liked sports and tried to be good at it but was terrible. Then got a guitar and realized I couldn't play ERUPTION. That and Van Halen's version of ICE CREAM MAN, those two solos, I thought if I could just figure those two out I'd have it made. I don't know if anybody's every figured it out properly."

His introduction to Blues and Roots music was standard for his generation, one high-profile musician opening the proverbial twin doors to the worlds of vintage Blues and the Austin Roots Rock revival. "For one of my birthdays my dad got me a subscription to Guitar Player and it was the October '84 issue, my birthday's October, and October '84 was Stevie Ray Vaughan's first cover issue. I remember my brother just kinda happened to say, 'I heard about him, he's supposed to be pretty good.' So after that I asked my dad for tickets or something. That was the beginning of the end. I saw Stevie and every time after that I'd see the T-birds open for Stevie. Read interviews with them and then it got into this thing; I didn't know what Blues was so it took some kind of home schooling like we all did; read an article, buy a record, take a test and move on. That's kinda how I did it. That was in high school so I was probably right around a sophomore when I got into Stevie and the Thunderbirds and anybody else that came out of Austin like Omar, Anson... if it came out of Texas I'd just buy it. I don't know what my fascination was but those teenage years you just have it made up in your mind, like Alice In Wonderland kinda stuff, Austin seemed like this fairy tale land... and now I live here!"

"I had a little band in high school. All we did was talent shows, our school's talent show, and one regional talent show. The name of the band was Homemade Sausage. And the only reason we named it Homemade Sausage was because one of the guys stole the banner at the State Fair of a homemade sausage stand, so we were the only band that had a huge banner! We had to name our band that because that's what the banner said. And then I moved to California after high school and just started noodling with the bass and realized that was my true calling. I never gave any other instruments a shot, I just kept trying to be a guitar player, refused to give up and was really not that good. I play guitar better now that I'm a bass player than when I was actually trying to be a guitar player. I just kinda found my thing, what I do. Started getting with these little bands and started going out to the Blues clubs, like JJ's, at the time they had San Jose and JJ's Mountain View, and just kept playing."

After finding his niche and settling he quickly honed his craft the tried and true way. "Little Charlie & the Nightcats was one of the first big road gigs. I was actually in Mark Hummel & the Blues Survivors and Mark Hummel is friends with Rick Estrin. When I joined his band in '92 two weeks later I was backing up Luther Tucker, Snooky Pryor, Jimmie Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, all these real bona fide Blues legends, and I knew one or two things, maybe none, and realized the depth of these guys. So that was school in itself and that Mark Hummel gig got me the Little Charlie gig. And that was simply because Little Charlie wanted an upright player and I had just taken up upright when I joined Mark Hummel's band. I knew I wasn't the best qualified but I had the upright so I was in. Then I just had to figure out how to play it to their level. That's why I say those years were really my hard, hard musical education 'cause you had Estrin, who was a hardcore Blues guy, and Charlie too. But then Charlie was also a hardcore Jazz and Bebop guy. It was kinda cool. It was overwhelming, really. Sink or swim and what I learned with them trying to figure that stuff out, sometimes live, I'm no longer intimidated. Someone throws me a curve onstage, making a mistake is the least of my worries. I don't care if there's people in the audience, I think, 'My ear's developed, I'll figure it out. I'll get it.' I'm not worried about 'my God, they saw that!'

He steadily ascended through a series of gigs building a resume that would be the envy of any Blues/Roots bassist. "I was with Little Charlie for about 8 years. I joined in '93 and went to the end of 2000. Then I ended up joining the Thunderbirds February 2001. I was only out of work for about a month. It's dumb luck on my part. I was with the Thunderbirds 7 years, right up into the time we did JIMMY REED HIGHWAY with Omar (Dykes) and Jimmie (Vaughan). As soon as I left the T-birds Jimmie just kinda took a liking to me and went straight from that JIMMY REED HIGHWAY record into Jimmie's band.

While good fortune smiled on him he stayed laid back and took it all in stride. "I don't even question it or try to explain it, it's just one of those blessings that I never take for granted. I'm blessed beyond words. What can I say? It's overwhelming. I remember looking at Jimmie and Stevie and even the Nightcats when I was in high school. I set the bar pretty to a pretty attainable goal; when I was in high school I wrote a paper 'if I could just pay rent in Somecity, U.S.A. and play music that's all I really want to do.' So I can only imagine if I set the bar higher what I might have accomplished, 'cause I never thought in a million years I'd end up playing with Jimmie Vaughan, or Rick Estrin, or Little Charlie or all those Blues guys, the real guys. I try not dwell on that too much because I'll have a panic attack."

"When I first joined Hummel, after a month of playing with him we did the San Francisco Blues Festival in September '92 and here I am with Jimmie Rogers and Billy Boy Arnold, and then on that same 2-week trip they had Luther Tucker and Snooky Pryor. That was just huge. I left Little Charlie for almost a year about '96, and during that time I did Dave Meyers  from The Aces. I did his only solo record because of my buddy Rusty Zinn. Kim Wilson was producing it and blowing harp on it and that's also kind of how I got into the Thunderbirds later on, working with him on that project. That was great and also intimidating; here's one of the greatest Chicago Blues bassists but he was playing guitar instead and I'm playing bass for him. That was nerve wracking, making sure he was happy and getting his approval was huge. And since being in Austin I've played with Pinetop Perkins his past two birthdays, his 95th and 96th. I hope I'm playing his 97th thus year. Billy Smith when he comes through town, backing him up. Lester Davenport, who used to blow harp behind Bo Diddley. A lot of guys I missed because I was too young. I would have loved to have seen Eddie Taylor, 'cause I didn't even know who that guy was, playing with Jimmy Reed, until that record that Clifford out out and then I dug back. That Antone's record that Eddie did, that's a great record. Him and Luther Tucker on that record is phenomenal."

Blues is a style of music that regards apprenticeship highly. There's a great advantage in learning firsthand from the ones who came before you, especially the ones who wrote the book on how it's done. "I feel lucky I got to play with some of the real guys and get their approval because you really learn so much more than you think you're going to. It's not just about the notes, it's about everything. It's something you can't just pick up a book and read about. Some of it's osmosis, you absorb it through them. I'm watching them, listening to them, listening to their stories and then you do a gig. It's everything you should learn."

Among the many older musicians he played with he was privileged to spend time on the road with one of the most significant, if unsung, sidemen in American music. A keyboardist and bassist who was a staple at the King Records studio in Cincinnati playing on now-classic albums that defined R&B at the time and continue to be a major influence on musicians to this day. "In Jimmie's band I got to play with Bill Willis his last couple years. I always think of him kinda like, as legend would have it like Snooks Eaglin, kinda like the human jukebox. You couldn't stump this guy. He knew every song. Played on half of 'em. And again just being around him listening to him tell stories about being at the King/Federal studios and staying to watch Bill Doggett, maybe Bill would show him something. He's even on some of that King early James Brown stuff, and Little Willie John, and just one of those guys that can walk around being himself. He's not a big star but has more connections and has played with bigger stars than we could ever dream of. And he can just go around to his local store. It ain't like today where there's some big star and you've got paparazzi following you. I'll bet people have been next to that guy in a grocery store and had no clue they were standing next to history, an historic musical figure of American music. That just blows my mind. Unfortunately he just passed away about a month ago (February 2010). He was a character too, he was funny. Just a good guy and a wealth of knowledge. Great to sit down and talk to somebody about people that are like superheroes, like James Brown. Back then! It's about as amazing and unrealistic as playing with him now. I just can't grasp it. So awesome."

"Someone once told me that luck was preparation meeting opportunity but I don't buy into that. I think a lot if it us actual luck of another kind because I got lots of friends that are more talented and more prepared and just and have had opportunities... it's just dumb luck. I just look at it like a blessing and try not to take it for granted. Especially now, these days. There's so much, the old me when I was partying and stuff, I don't remember a lot places or situations. They're so foggy, I don't remember big chunks of time. Now with Jimmie I wanna soak this all in and just enjoy every second of it and learn. Get all the information I can and hopefully one day be, like Bill Willis, be able to pass it on. What little I can do. Because that's what it's about, taking it in and giving it back. What good is it if you don't out it back out there? Can't take it with you!"

It's a sure bet that Ronnie James is moving into the position of mentor for younger up-and-coming players. Having played with a long list of Blues greats while spending a good number of years each with Little Charlie & the Nightcats, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jimmie Vaughan he's amassed a wealth of experience to pass on, much like Bill Willis before him. For someone who's goal was simply to be able to make the rent playing music that's a pretty cool accomplishment.

Trivia side note: Along the way he also got a taste of another influential city during the 80's, Minneapolis, when he worked with David Z (Rivkin), engineer on Prince's hits and brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z. "I always thought he was that wrestler, 'step into a Slim Jim.' He always had the bandana tied and the same manicured beard. I worked with him on that one Mannish Boys record LOWDOWN FEELING. I didn't even know who he was, which is not saying much because I'm so far out of the loop in terms of modern things. I know who all the old Blues guys are, modern things fly over my head. That was fun, he engineered it and there was so many people in that studio at that time."

 

RIP JoJo Billingsley

 

JoJo Billingsley was my favorite Honkette. Watching video clips of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd she immediately stands out among the backing vocalists. She has that look in her eye of being a real character, someone who eats life. Reading about Skynyrd she came across as a tough chick who could drink the boys under the table and didn't take shit off anybody. Listening close to the backing vocals she sang closely with Ronnie Van Zant, often doubling his parts on songs such as TUESDAY'S GONE.

In 2008 Darren Howells, at the time editor for Blues Matters magazine, asked me to write an article on Skynyrd. Wanting to avoid the usual cliches (mention of the plane crash was taboo for my article) I wanted to detail how this group combined the Blues, Country and Gospel of their southern backgrounds with the current sounds of the time they grew up in (most notably the British Invasion) to create a body of work that has become as much an American icon as Chevy, football and apple pie. I had had a couple e-mail exchanges with JoJo via MySpace and she seemed very approachable. We discussed doing an interview over Skype but then each got busy with other things and it fell by the wayside.

A year later I scanned an interview with Skynyrd for a Japanese music magazine Music Life (March '77, Ted Nugent cover) and tagged her in the photos when they were uploaded to MySpace. Talks about the interview resumed. This modern-day technology was a bit baffling to her but she was eager to learn more about it. Having recently bought a new laptop with webcam she liked the idea of doing the interview over Skype as opposed to the phone, almost like talking face to face. Sadly, she became sick just as it was getting underway. A few months later I heard she'd had cancer surgery and recovery was slow. Then on the morning of this writing (July 3rd, 2010) I heard from Tammy Michelle Van Zant, Ronnie's eldest daughter whom I had also become acquainted with via MySpace, that JoJo had died on June 24th after suffering quite a bit towards the end.

While going through old e-mails and messages for this article I found that most of the e-mails from her were gone. Usually these are saved in a separate folder and I'm at a loss to explain what happened. So I'm forced to recount from memory something she told me that was intended for the article; Ronnie Van Zant was a gentleman who kept his word. JoJo was a co-writer on THAT SMELL, which Gene Odom (roadie and childhood friend of Van Zant) confirmed when someone interviewed him. The Honkettes were on salary and somehow the legal end of things prevented her from receiving her writer's credit on the album. Van Zant intended to fix that but the album was only out three days when he died.

But a few messages remain in my Inbox and include a few things that I believe she would want shared at this time. Reminiscing on playing Japan with Skynyrd, "Those were the days. Too much saki!!! 'Saki to me' I used to say and it did. That promoter over there was wonderful; Mr. Udo."

After uploading the Music Life article she wrote, "Thanks so much and I am so grateful you offered to share with me! It is bad enough they never paid me for singing on any of those projects, so it would be nice to have a few photos, etc. for my children to see. I am a part of rock and roll history regardless and they can never take that away from me!" Hunter S. Thompson's famous quote comes irresistibly to mind. It's infuriating to think of how musicians who played or sang on landmark recordings get shuffled off to the side. When Skynyrd reformed in '87 for the Tribute Tour the surviving Honkettes (Leslie Hawkins survived the crash and JoJo was the only one not on the plane) were never called. When Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame a private individual flew the Honkettes out on his own tab. Without that person, who wishes to remain anonymous, they wouldn't be in the video clips from that night.

JoJo was always gracious whenever we e-mailed. A gregarious personality whose authenticity easily translated to the written word, something not easily done in e-mails. The tone of her writing was exactly the same as any video interviews I've seen. She was who she was, plain and simple, and that has always been one of the most admirable qualities of many Southern Rock musicians.

One of the accounts that sums her up best is from somebody who saw her with Skynyrd. Journalist Nishie Takehiro saw Skynyrd at Nakano Sun Plaza on January 15th, their 2nd of three nights in Tokyo. In the March 2006 issue of Beatleg, another Japanese music magazine, he reminisced, "Between the 12th and 13th row at Sun Plaza was a walkway, I looked back and JoJo Billingsley had come out to watch FREE BIRD. She was hanging out with the crowd and I was surprised when she shook my hand." Sitting right there with the rest of the audience, enjoying the show...

 

Bumbling Old Bats

 

One of the biggest cultural gaps I find being an American in Japan is old people. As much as they get on my nerves I do admire the old cockroaches. Constantly bumbling around, yakking at the top of their lungs early in the morning, completely self-absorbed... gawd, they can be annoying! On the other hand, being over 80 years old and having the energy of a teenager is something I almost never see back home. It demonstrates the cultural difference in attitudes regarding age.

For the sake of simplicity, the U.S. has two basic cultural foundations that inform the society. Christianity preaches original sin while Atheism is the Darwinian/Freudian model that life is a meaningless accident, the subconscious is a harbor for suppressed emotions, and entropy is the rule. At the core of both models human beings are viewed as inherently flawed creatures. Despite U.S. politics I would like to believe otherwise.

In a country where religion is minimal, fundamentalism is unheard of, and Zen Buddhism is the dominant spiritual philosophy, the picture is entirely different. All species including humans are viewed as an expression of the divine source, which is something beyond our words and symbols rather than an "invisible man who lives in the sky with a list of 10 things he doesn't want you to do". It's a well known fact that Orientals generally have longer life spans and retain full mental and physical capacities for much longer.

Another significant cultural difference is the food. Some of the funkiest, nastiest, smelliest stuff the old farts eat is also the healthiest. You don't see them guzzling soda and candy bars. In contrast, the younger generations are eating more Western junk food, less traditional food, and are beginning to have health problems akin to Americans the likes of which the older generations have never experienced. Meanwhile, the old timers drink like fish, chain smoke, and look like they'll outlast the brats.

When I see elderly Americans it's depressing. Many are consuming handfuls of pills daily, oxygen tanks are common, and there's often a general air of sadness about them. We're taught to respect older people- is it because of knowledge gained or do we feel sorry for their decay? Probably neither. Respecting older people in our society is really just obeying authority. If we truly respected them we would prize their knowledge and wisdom instead of glorifying the beauty of youth as our popular culture does.

The old fucks (refer to George Carlin on aging for the definition of 'old fuck') in my western Tokyo neighborhood are a pain in the ass. They have full mental and physical faculties and not enough to do, so they bumble around driving everybody nuts. The local hospital has a sign in the waiting area that reads, "Seniors, please don't have your picnic here." But at the same time I admire them. Most survived WWII and the 40 year rebuilding of the country that culminated in the Bubble Economy of the late 80's which burst in the 90's. At an age when their American counterparts are chained like slaves to petrochemical medication at over inflated prices these cranky old fucks do whatever they want whenever they want in perfect health. And having lived through the rise of the Imperial Army, the defeat in WWII, the rebuilding of the country and the continued corruption of politicians they don't give a shit about Social Security or retirement plans. They independently made their own retirement plans years ago and are financially sound today. It's one thing to talk about freedom, it's another to simply live it.

 

Ex-pat Cafe

 

Coffee shops over here are not like back home. They serve real coffee. The ones back home serve sugary coffee-flavored drinks with high fructose corn syrup and extra whip cream. Suburbanites in sloppy clothes indulging in a 'brand experience'.

The coffee shops here are descendants of European cafes. Cappuccino is served as it has been for over a century- shot of espresso with steamed milk. Iced coffee is just that- chilled coffee over ice. Other drinks stick to the same elegant simplicity, decorated with complementing flavors. Sugar is used as sweetener, not a base, and you can actually taste the coffee. Frozen drinks follow the same guidelines in a blender with ice. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The decor is often European in style, usually French or Italian. Jazz plays over the sound system; Errol Garner and Miles Davis are staples and Kenny G is thankfully absent. Unlike the 'brand' chains back home (unfortunately proliferating here as well) there is a smoking section. Good coffee goes hand in hand with a good smoke. This is where I sit, cigarillo in one hand and pen in the other.  

Outside the window is a bustling metropolis. Endless restaurants, bars and shops crammed into every nook and cranny, buildings 5-10 stories high. Beyond are the skyscrapers of the business district. The streets are alive; business men in black suits and white shirts with pale pink ties, college kids in reggae threads and rectangle glasses, slender women in colorful dresses and heels with their hair and makeup done perfectly. During these rare moments my cranky homesickness is gone and I dig being an ex-pat.

 

Mission Accomplished

 

On Friday March 5th, 2010 I headed to Narita airport to board a plane for the U.S. Six years previous, while living in Las Vegas, I had left the States in a rush and hurriedly threw my stuff in storage. In the long process of moving back home this was Step 2 of the plan; sell the truck, move my stuff back to Texas and play some dates to start establishing myself back home. The dates would help offset the expenses.Unbeknownst to me at the time I was in for a month-long non-stop adventure that would see my plans challenged at every step of the way, eventually leading me to question what I was really after and why.

In the two weeks leading up to my departure date the proverbial writing on the wall was already starting to show. Most of the venues were booked 6 months in advance time was running out to fill the week's worth of dates I had planned. The idea was to play dates from TX to Vegas which would offset travel costs; once I got my stuff out of storage we would head straight back to Houston where I could take a week off before doing some more dates around town. Bassist Kenny Payola, whom I had stayed with two years earlier when I was renewing my driver's license (Step 1) offered to help with the bookings. Booking from overseas had proven to be a headache (already had two cancelled tours under my belt) so having someone "on the ground" to make the calls would help out immensely. Once the introductions were made I would take the reigns back.

Kenny was notorious for being a control freak but I've worked with them before, as well as having a bit of that reputation myself, so I paid it little mind. He was eager to be playing again, having been dormant for some time. However, his drummer Parker Townsend, whom he raved about, backed out a few weeks before. Seems there was a fight with his wife and he went to his mom's place in Georgia. Kenny insisted this sort of thing was known to happen and would straighten itself out. But on March 5th, as I was leaving for Narita, it was clear he wasn't going to be back so it was time to look for another drummer. I posted on Facebook and MySpace and received quite a few recommendations. I was confident we'd have somebody.

In the meantime I had a plane to catch. It was my understanding that Kenny had a van (he was also supplying the PA) but I had found out that he didn't. My dad had a van in northeast Ohio he wanted to get rid of so I found the closest city on my flight route, Detroit, and jumped ship there taking a Greyhound bus to Cleveland. Little did I know that simply not using 1/4 of my ticket (round trip to Houston) would cost me an extra $250. Delta airlines gave me a spiel about pricing to Detroit being different but I still say it's a bunch of horseshit- it didn't cost them anything for me to not use one part of my ticket. It's an empty seat!

On to the Detroit bus station and now I know why Michael Moore makes his movies. Gawd, that place is depressing! Not just the bus station, the entire downtown. After a crack deal or two went down it was safe to quickly use the bathroom. On the bus, down to Toledo, hour layover, and into Cleveland where my dad picked me up. Because of crossing time zones I left the house in Tokyo around 11:30 AM Friday and arrived in at the Cleveland bus station at 9:30 PM the same day. Over 24 hours in transit and I'm looking forward to a shower!

Saturday I was in Alliance, OH recovering from jet lag and generally taking it easy. Had trouble finding an Internet connection (my dad didn't have one at the house) and after a few failed attempts at Applebee's (free WiFi with the purchase of mediocre food) Border's books in Canton fit the bill. And that's when the situation blew up.

Kenny was flipping out over my "drummer needed" posts and immediately threatened to cancel everything. At first it seemed he was just pissed at one lady in particular who had been in his cyber ear but he told me he was pissed at me as well, that "social networking 101" was to always project a positive image. Him telling me about social networking is a fucking joke; this is the guy that posts bulletins for a gig the same day with "call me for directions" and gets pissed when nobody comes out to see him.

When somebody pulls a tantrum like that I normally fire them right away. In the case there were extenuating circumstances; 1.) he had put me up and let me use his car two years previous when I was in TX renewing my driver's license; 2.) his brother had just gotten out of the hospital having nearly died the week before; and 3.) I had recently cracked under pressure, going off on people, saying things I shouldn't have, so who was I to pass judgement on somebody else for doing the same? I band-aided the situation under the assumption that it would dissipate in a day or two but it continued to linger as I left for Texas after the weekend, hanging over my head during the drive down.

Despite it all the trip to Alliance, OH was fun. Many years ago I had lived briefly in that small town where my dad is from. It was good to see the town revitalizing itself in the face of current economic challenges and I met some good people including Danny "Two Harleys". Eating at my favorite joints was another plus; there's nothing like a cheese omelet at Ferraro's. On the last day there I used my laptop to shoot a video of my dad and I playing a guitar duet. The video stops early on but the audio continues. The clip was later posted to Facebook.

Leaving Alliance for Houston I stopped in Columbus that Wednesday to see my youngest niece and met her fiancee. Having him marry into the family will raise the collective IQ several notches. I drove through most of the night to Indianapolis and visited my late grandfather's house in Greenwood. It's now old and wore out, the huge corn field across the street a strip mall in front of townhomes. Although it's been 13 years since he passed away this was the first time I really felt like he was gone. I could feel my dad moving into the family position my grandfather once held just as I was moving into my dad's position. The passage of time.

Onwards through Indiana, a beautiful state to drive through, over the Ohio river and through Louisville and finally into Tennessee where at last I got a motel (i.e. a shower) and had breakfast at Loretta Lynn's restaurant. Those Southern breakfasts sure do taste good but don't help the girlish figure. By Friday, the 12th, I was in Texas and made it down to College Station where I met up with Glenn Davis. Glenn is a Texas native who spent 40 years in Japan where he was a chairman of the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan booking the entertainment. A true patron of the arts, he's a personal favorite of all the musicians who played FCCJ and most of us would hang out there if we didn't have a gig that night. Often when one of us was in the audience he would get us up with the band that was playing that night, making for some interesting jam sessions. In College Station, where he now teaches at two universities, he introduced me to a friend who's working on a book about the many Blues players from the Brazos River Valley area; Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Albert Collins to name just a few. We spent the day in Navasota, Mance's hometown, checking out the local Blues museum. The collection there was unreal to say the least.

That evening I arrived in Houston. Driving through my old neighborhood where I went to high school was a shock- what had once been a nice area on the outskirts of town was now a crowded slum. Businesses had had barbed wire on the fences, a cop was at each bus stop and my old apartment complex now had a chained gate at each entrance. Sad to see. I stayed with my aunt whom I hadn't seen in 17 years. My cousins were little kids at the time, now they're grown adults with kids of their own. Talk about a time warp! Family business on Saturday and on Sunday it was over to Kenny Palyola's house where the shit hit the fan.

The entire incident was documented in the Blog/Note "Southwest Tour Canceled" so it doesn't need to be repeated here but a few other details have been recalled in retelling the story. When I showed up to rehearse he hadn't learned any of my songs despite having a month or two to do so. And people who have been to my gigs, as well as the musicians who have played them, know that I always open with the same three songs and close with the same two. After establishing the set lists before boarding the plane this dipshit had the nerve to rewrite them starting with five of his own each set. It's no surprise that everything went downhill in less than an hour.

The racist hate mail continued up until a few days before I flew back to Japan and will probably resume upon publication of this Blog. And the three that I reprinted were less than half, there were several others claiming that I had canceled the tour (after flying halfway around the world?!?) and threatening to come after me on gigs. I later learned that this was standard behavior for him; one venue pointed out that several people they know had the same experience, just ignore it and go on, and that they probably won't hear from him again for at least another 6 months or year. Despite his many threats the only person he's ever actually taken a swing at was Nick Curran outside a club in Austin, who was already on the ground at the time. Real tough guy! So glad to remove this piece of shit from my life. His last e-mail was to my wife -I wouldn't reply to him- saying he hoped my plane crashed and making Chinese jokes at her (she's Japanese).

Although glad to be rid of this douchebag it was still a bummer to not be playing the dates. A trip up to Austin hanging out with J.J. Barrera (Tailgators) revived my spirits and restored my faith in humanity. While in Ohio I acquired a CD of my dad's group from the late 50's/early 60's. (Note: my dad played with a black R&B group in high school when most white kids across America thought Pat Boone wrote TUTT FRUTTI). The disc was taken from a severely scratched 45 so I dropped off the files with Glenn Rios (Alamo Suite) to be cleaned up. If anybody can do it, it's Glenn. It was also a nice visit with an excellent musician and engineer who has a knack for calming me down when I'm stressed. Glenn also plays drums and percussion on the Charles Brown song my dad and I cut this past Christmas.

On the road to Vegas to pick up my stuff. The next day I was on the other side of D/FW cruising 287 through Wichita Falls to Amarillo. Passing through all those little towns was just plain cool. From Amarillo it was onto I-45 to Flagstaff. The drive through New Mexico was beautiful at night, I don't remember the last time I saw so many stars in the sky. On through Arizona, headed up through Hoover Dam which is undergoing construction of a new bridge and on into Vegas where the transmission went out. It was Friday, the 17th. Seems I always arrived on a Friday. Took the van to the Chevy dealer the next day and called my buddy Len Fassler, The Rev, to come get me. He put me up while I was waiting on the van and thus began the "Big Lebowski" chapter of the journey.

Imagine John Goodman in THE BIG LEBOWSKI running sound for a Slayer concert and you'll have a pretty good image of The Rev. Every other word is "dude" with a delivery that would make a movie director sit up and take notice. Len's trade is live sound and he's toured with the Stones, Allmans, Skynyrd and gawd knows who else. He's a world traveller who during my stay in Vegas articulated just what turns us ex-pats off to most American girls, "They think they have a right to entitlement." The city had built up quite a bit and the Strip more congested than ever including several large new casinos, some by Steve Wynn. He also explained how and why the suburban subdivisions had
scattered to the farthest reaches of town despite the faltering economy; when the housing market crashed they found they could make more money by going ahead with the construction and selling for less than by cashing out on the loans.

After picking me up we headed down to a supposedly hip club where the wannabe scenesters left a bad taste in our mouths. Everybody decked out in their Vegas hipstery trying to impress each other. We bailed and headed over to a locals' casino which was much cooler. Real people. The Rev is one of those guys who can hang with anybody and everybody and wherever we went he ran into somebody he knew or struck up a new friendship. My ideal touring situation includes The Rev running sound; he's the kind of guy that makes a touring entourage more fun and less of a grind. It's hard to stay in a bad mood with him around. While in Vegas we saw AVATAR at The Cannery and I was blown away. Like REVENGE OF THE SITH the groundbreaking effects supported the story rather than distracting from it. And what a story it was! The way the corporate/military machine was depicted struck a chord with me. Their inhuman greed and arrogance has ruined the U.S. too much already and needs to be called out. David and Goliath, baby!

By Wednesday the U-haul was loaded, truck sold and I was on the road again. I gassed up in Kingman and stalled out nearly empty near Seligman 70 miles away. Hitchhiked into town, got a tow truck and looked for a gas leak. None found but it still ate into my cash pretty good. On the road again now that the van started and then she stalled out again. Hitchhiked into the next town, got another tow truck and found a really cool old mechanic that knew engines like B.B. King knows Blues. Turned out to be the distributor rotor, cap and module causing a misfire and eating up a ridiculous amount of gas. Back on the road yet again but now running low on cash (although getting much better gas mileage). By Tucumcari, NM my credit cards were only working part of the time (my round ass? LOL) and cash was almost gone. I barely made it to Amarillo where I slept in the van that night and picked up a wire transfer in the morning. Having missed dinner the night before I pigged out on a BBQ lunch in some tiny town on 287. Usually I skip dessert but the homemade ice cream sounded to good to pass up! By Tuesday the 30th I had made it back to Houston and got settled. Couldn't believe all the junk I found going through my stuff, bills and receipts from as far back as '96! Several boxes ended up in the trash.

However, the strain of canceled gigs, backstabbing hustlers and automotive breakdowns was wearing me thin. I play music to make money and/or have fun, preferably both, and there had been almost none of either for quite a while. For a long time it had been an uphill struggle in the face of indifference making me wonder if I was doing it all out of vanity. I hadn't exactly set the world on fire; did it really matter if I put out another album this year? At that point I decided to give up playing music and focus on writing. My writing seemed to garner more response than my playing. I've never understood the big deal, but if folks like it maybe it'll pay off more than music has. At least I can work by myself and not have to deal with so many flakes and assholes. Worn down, tired of the headaches and I was dreaming of a more sane, stable existence.

A conversation with Jill Jones, whom I keep threatening to adopt as my big sister, turned all that around. No stranger to the trials and tribulations of trying to make music with integrity in the face of adversity (and overblown egos) she shed light on a few things that had escaped my notice and put the picture into a new perspective. By the end I was at a loss for words (we know how rare that is, mark it on the calendar).

Khalil Gibran wrote in THE PROPHET, "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore, trust the physician and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility." My favorite 'ghost writer' Seth (Jane Roberts) wrote, "You create your own reality," and went into detail (decades ahead of quantum physics) how and why we create the circumstances in our life. It became clear that many goals had been based on outdated ideas of how it should be, rather than on simply "following your bliss" (Joseph Campbell). Throughout the entire trip I kept thinking I had made a huge mistake, given all that went wrong. At the same time I knew that I had to do it now. The paradox had resolved.

That Friday, April 2nd, I headed to Austin to conduct interviews with some of my favorite musicians. At first it was going to be a series of articles that I hoped to have published in a couple magazines but after interviewing bassist Ronnie James, now playing with Jimmie Vaughan, and reflecting on Jill's words the idea evolved into a book tentatively titled TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER - AUSTIN'S ROOTS ROCK REVIVAL. Much has been written about Austin music but not even the handful of Stevie Ray Vaughan biographies has explored the Roots Rock scene of which he was but one part (the one that made Rock Star status). Except for Dan Forte's writings at the time and Craig Higgins' Keith Ferguson biography (now on hold) no one has given much attention to groups like The Tailgators or The Leroi Brothers, or musicians like Don Leady or Mike Buck. Time to fix that! Interviewing Ronnie James was the spark that lit the fuse; he's my age and grew up on the same diet of Austin Roots Rock albums just as I did. And for those not in the know the title is taken from the 1985 Grammy-nominated all-instrumental album Big Guitars From Texas TRASH, TWANG & THUNDER which featured four of Austin's hottest pickers (Don Leady, Denny Freeman, Evan Johns and Frankie Camaro) backed by the legendary rhythm section of Mike Buck and Keith Ferguson. Buck and Ferguson are also the rhythm section on the first, and in my opinion best, Fabulous Thunderbirds album GIRLS GO WILD and the Leroi Brothers debut CHECK THIS ACTION, arguably one of the most rockin' records ever made.

Technical complications prevented me from doing the other interviews (they'll be conducted later by phone) but I still managed to visit a few friends, though not all, and got an idea for a second book. On the way back to Houston I stopped in to see my buddy Todd Moore, whom I played with when I lived in Austin. Rehearsals for his new group Baby Anacondas had just finished and singer MaryAnn Price was hanging out. I had brought my mom along, who grew up in Houston yet had never been to Austin before, but due to knee surgery had trouble getting in and out of the van so Todd and MaryAnn came out to the van to say 'hi' and hang out with her. Once again it was nice to hang out with real people. A gentleman and a lady in the truest sense of the words.

Back in Houston on Saturday and seeing family I hadn't seen in roughly 20 years. Didn't get a chance to hang out with Wayne Bertone, whose ANOTHER YOU I flew in guitars for, but there's always next time. And now that there's an empty bass slot for the Houston chapter of J.J. Vicars & the Desiatos... More family fun on Sunday and then Monday it was time to board the return flight. I had hoped to interview Larry Slezak, one of the baddest cats to ever blow sax, on Sunday but schedule conflicts nixed that. His son Joe Slezak is my age, we started playing about the same time, and appears on Larry's Grammy-nomintated album NO WORRIES (2009). Joe is like part of the family and I was looking forward to jamming with both of them as well as doing the interviews. I hit him up for a ride to the airport and I'm glad I did 'cause that was the only time we got to hang out. One more jam session for next time. I've got a couple songs picked out on an upcoming all-instrumental album for them to play on. That's one of the reasons I make albums, to have a record of my buddies and I playing together.

As I boarded the plane it seemed the trip was over but a little voice kept telling me "not yet". It's not over until I'm back at the house and even that's questionable. I boarded the correct flight at the correct gate for San Francisco and flew to Sat Lake City. No mention of a connecting to flight to SF until the plane was about to land. Wonderful! Had hoped to meet up with Tara Tinsley in SF to work on some music (planning on using female vocals on some upcoming recordings) but again schedule conflicts got in the way. Spent the night at the airport with three books then boarded the flight to Tokyo. Flying international is so much nicer that flying domestic, you actually get real service! Landed in Narita and went to the ATM to take some cash out for the Limousine Bus back to the house. No dice, neither ATM nor credit cards are working and after spending several hours back and forth across the airport (and listening to all the tooth-sucking) Bryan Harmon, manager of the Barge Inn, came to the rescue. Like Glenn Davis, Bryan is one of those venue managers whom musicians are fiercely loyal to. He takes care of his staff, including the band. A couple beers and some food, a room for the night, and I'm on the Limo Bus the next day. Once again my setbacks are a blessing in disguise; I'm reminded just how fortunate I am to have the friends and family (and a few people who blur the line between the two) that I do.

For much of the time I had thought the trip was a mistake. Simultaneously, I knew I had to do it. Everything that happened, especially the worst of it, was going to happen sooner or later. The storm tore everything apart and gave a fresh start. While I was in Vegas my dad had said there was no point fretting over what I thought I should have done, that I would accomplish everything I set out to do except playing the dates and could do that next time and with better and sane guys. Business was taken care of, old friendships and family ties were renewed and after a long period of anxiety that had gotten the best of me, particularly around the holiday season, I was shown how many good people I have around me. On top of that I began a book, got an idea for a second one and ate lots of Mexican and BBQ. Not a bad month. Now to pay off the bill.

 

Southwest Tour Canceled

 

The Southwest Spring Tour has been canceled. What started out with high hopes was seriously damaged by unnecessary aggravation, but that would turn out to be the least of it. There was more to it than I could know at the time. After flying half-way around the world and driving half-way across the country it all came to a head. My plans to offset the cost of moving my stuff back to Texas and establishing my name locally were seriously undermined. An oportunist was hustling me.

 

Same Old Cliches

 
British magazine Blues Matters informed me that they've passed on my Jill Jones article but intend to run the Lynyrd Skynyrd article I wrote for them. This greatly disappoints me for many reasons. It seems that anybody who is not a black American regards Prince and his former associates as "80's Pop" rather than R&B. I've been listening to Prince since Jill stood behind the keyboard with Lisa Coleman in the "1999" video and have never understood this mentality. How could somebody who mixed James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Miles Davis and Funkadelic not be regarded as R&B? Maybe I'm not supposed to understand. Skynyrd is dead. They died in that plane crash. Southern Rock is now a Right-wing parody of itself. The Allen Collins influence remains in my playing but anymore I'm embarrassed to admit being into that group, despite Ronnie Van Zant's lyrical genius. Lots of macho posturing with Confederate flags. I always thought Skynyrd did themselves a disservice running the "stars & bars"; their music was overshadowed by their redneck image. It took me nearly two years to finish the article, largely because they've been done to death and I wanted to avoid the usual cliches of booze, dope, guns and the plane crash. Mainly I just lost interest. I was in touch with former Honkette JoJo Billingsley and planned to interview her but she recently had cancer surgery. Fortunately she's recovering, from what I've heard, so maybe it will happen in the near future. She's an uncredited co-writer on THAT SMELL and I intend to delve into that topic if the interview happens. Jill gave me a very candid interview that turned into the definitive article on her life and work to date. Engineer David Rivkin gave me an excellent quote that really helped set the tone and Ian Ginsberg of The Grand Royals also gave me great quote. Lisa Coleman chimed in for a short-but-sweet quote that echoes my own sentiments and Jeremy Gloff, one her most ardent supporters for many years, contributed a nice piece in addition to his own essay he wrote on her a couple years ago. It's their magazine and they can do what they want but I don't understand the logic behind the decision. The feature all sorts of acts that are very much not Blues but tell me her story isn't relevant to their readers. Since teenage guitar-shredders are becoming increasingly prominent in their pages a debut album of funky R&B with Claire Fischer on strings and Miles Davis as a fan apparently doesn't fit. The story of how major-label politics killed her album should be heeded by every musician, especially young up-and-comers, but apparent that's irrelevant as well. Despite the distinctly non-Blues acts they often feature TWO and WASTED aren't deemed in league with the alt-Rock acts they're so fond of. Fortunately Jill and her manager Bill Coleman liked the article enough to use it on her MySpace, Facebook Fan page and Peace Bisquit site. Read it here: http://www.peacebisquit.com/artists/jill-jones/ And read Jeremy Gloff's essay on her here: http://www.jeremygloff.com/jilljonesessay.html Jill has a great voice for Jazz and I've been encouraging her to do a Blues/Jazz/Roots album for as long as I've known her. I'm more resolved than ever to make that happen now.
 

Ignoring Everybody

 
Over the holiday season Derek Sivers sent out an e-mail soliciting volunteers for his latest project. Various musicians would read one of his two favorite authors, Hugh MacLeod and Seth Godin, and write about how their ideas applied to being an independent musician in this day and age. He would send a copy of their latest book and you had 3 weeks to read it and write a Blog. Out of 400 volunteers 17 were chosen. To be one of the 17 who made the cut is a great honor; Derek has done more to change the face of the music industry for the better than any other single living human being. I chose High Macleod's IGNORE EVERYBODY (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity). The book arrived and I began reading immediately. After two or three drafts of varying length and complexity here it is. These notes are meant to be musician-specific footnotes accompanying the book, from the perspective of a Blues/Roots guitarist, and are best read that way. I hope that older musicians will come to understand the potential of the Internet and younger musicians the importance of sacrifice and hard work. The tools have changed but the basics are still the same. --J.J.V. / January 10th, 2010 1.) Ignore everybody. Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships. The real bandleader is the one with the songs and/or the one who gets the gigs. If you're one of them, keep on truckin'. Anybody that doesn't like it can leave the fold. If you're not one of them then don't try to act more important than you really are, it'll backfire eventually. If you're not that person but want to be make yourself assistant to the one who is, the education is invaluable. 2.) The idea doesn't have to be big, it just has to be yours. Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and many other Blues greats played the simplest, most basic music there is. Legions of guitarists have tried to emulate them to no avail. It was their idiosyncrasies, the way they put themselves into it. All we can really emulate is their approach and when we do it opens the door for our own voice. The most important weapon in a soloist's arsenal is phrasing. It's a large part of your identity. We're all playing the same 12 notes anyhow. 3.) Put the hours in. Whether it's instrumental ability or career success there's no shortcuts. Woodshed and steal from everybody all the time. Rehearse the band two at a time in every possible pairing (varies according to instrumentation) then rehearse the full band again. This is also true for groups that do a lot of improvisation. Improvisation comes from listening and responding to each other. Without that it's just wanking. The band will curse your name until you hit the stage and blow the audience away, then they'll sing your praises. Read biographies on Louis Jordan, James Brown, Ray Charles, Ronnie Van Zant and Prince. All of them rehearsed their bands like a Marine drill sergeant, some with hefty fines for mistakes, and all of them changed the course of music history. It works. 4.) Good ideas have lonely childhoods. If it's fresh and innovative that means people aren't familiar with it yet and the blind masses like what is familiar. Expect mass approval to come last. When adding a new song to the set list sandwich it in between two familiar crowd favorites. Give people time to become familiar with something before deciding whether or not it works. 5.) If you're business plan depends on suddenly being "discovered" by some big shot it'll probably fail. "Overnight success" was invented to sell magazines, i.e. sensationalism. It's built on "...and they lived happily ever after." The first rule of showbiz is "You're only as good as your last performance." Your last performance is the last one any particular person saw. You could have 100's of "last performances" besides last night's gig. If each one was a show-stopper your reputation alone will open doors for you. Being "discovered" is not making your own destiny. Put your fate in your own hands. Nothing is guaranteed is life, especially not when dealing with a fickle public. Take nothing for granted, your reputation is the only real "job security" you have. 6.) You are responsible for your own experience. Whatever you want to happen make it happen. A couple musicians you'd like to hear together? Invite them both to play on your demo. A club that would be great to play but doesn't have entertainment? Have a dress rehearsal there. Most of all, get over the false idea that you will have one major event in your life. Life is a series of ongoing events. Stay in the driver's seat and keep steering. No matter how long you live you'll never see/hear/do it all. There's always a new horizon. Don't wait for the phone to ring, hustle something up. 7.) Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a set of crayons in kindergarten. See what comes out. Try it, no matter how daft an idea it is. Run three distortion pedals together all set differently. Put the Digital Delay in front of the tremolo and reverb. Call that dream lineup for a recording session. Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't and you don't know 'til you've done it. Work around your limitations. You may never be a Country picker like Jimmy Bryant or a Jazz guitarist like Kenny Burrell but adding what you can pick up from them to your vocabulary will season the gumbo that is you. The same is true for people who like working in music but aren't cut out to be musicians. They're good at a lot of things musicians aren't cut out for. They're always the best promoters to work with. 8.) Keep your day job. A person has to make a living no matter what they aspire to. Having steady income is a must in this world. Whatever you can do to turn a buck, do it. Add as many music-based sources as you can. When they make up at least half the list you're a working musician. 9.) Companies that squelch creativity can no longer compete with companies that champion creativity. The old world just blew up one Thursday and nothing has been the same since. Mega-corporations have the bucks to somewhat cushion themselves but they're not immune to it. The mainstream has degenerated to a new low. They have one business model, the Blockbuster. Put all your eggs in one basket. The only way it works is to appeal to the lowest-common denominator and a good chunk of people aren't interested in that. Major labels blame slow sales on downloads and file sharing but we were taping each other's records 20+ years ago when sales were booming. Independent artists are using the Internet to cultivate their own audiences and doing well for themselves. Welcome to the new world. No matter how big or small a player you are a large part of your success depends on being able to navigate in this new world. 10.) Everybody has their own personal Mount Everest they were put on this Earth to climb. Don't compare yourself to anyone else, it's a waste of time. Your set of challenges are the ones you need. Your triumph over them is your story. The ones on your instrument define your voice. Shying away from them is denying yourself. There's a small one every night on the bandstand. Play to that audience, find what connects with them. Never mind what your heroes did, that was a different time. They responded to their audience. Now it's your turn. 11.) The more talented somebody is the less they need the props. I knew a guitarist who went through a dozen Gibson guitars and half-a-dozen Fender and Marshall amps and couldn't find his sound. The real problem was he didn't have an identity on his instrument. I've heard great guitarists play the coolest stuff on the most gawd-awful excuse for a guitar. In many interviews with Stevie Ray Vaughan he plays an example on his #1 Strat unplugged and his signature tone is right there. Guitarists spend thousands of dollars on "vintage gear" and the old Blues guys played whatever worked. In the guitarist's Holy Grail quest for tone it should always be remembered that tone is in the fingers. Beware of musicians whoa are hung up on "big gear", they're usually trying to compensate for something. 12.) Don't try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether. Around Blues/Roots musicians you're just another Blues musician. Around other types of musicians you're THE Blues/Roots cat, an authority on the subject. Around non-musicians you're the expert on anything musical, they ask you first. Go off in your own direction and you'll be the top in your field. 13.) If you accept the pain it can't hurt you. Being a musician means living a life very different from most. It's not for everybody. You'll miss out on a lot of things that everyday people do. How important are those things to you? If you can't live by those terms you'll likely miss out on a lot of things musicians get to do. How important are those things to you? Whichever way you go you're gonna miss out on something. Make your decision and get on with it. 14.) Never compare your inside with someone else's outside. Each individual has their own path to walk down. It sometimes seems like another person got a better deal but appearances can be deceiving. Find your voice, hone your craft, find your niche. That's what you're here to do. 15.) Dying young is overrated.. It's also passe. You need a new gimmick. Nobody cares how traumatized you were. The inebriated greats weren't great because they were inebriated. They were born great and dedicated their lives to honing their craft. They were inebriated for other reasons; it's fun, grueling schedules necessitated some "pick me up" and/or "wind me down", or they found the world to be just a little too much and needed something to take the edge off. Party your ass off, it's fun. "Clean living" is for boring, uptight squares. Then get back to honing your craft. 16.) The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you're willing to do from what you're not. When you're getting paid for it it's a job, so don't cry about your "art". If you have to sleep in your own bed don't plan on going on the road. If you expect things to be done your way expect to bear the burden of being the boss, where everything falls on your shoulders one way or another. Whatever you consider out of the question isolates the areas for you to cultivate. 17.) The world is changing. It's amazing how many older musicians resist the Internet. They don't want to know. They say they're "not into the computer thing" or don't want to spend the time bothering with it. They're out of touch with the times. This technology is here to stay. It will evolve, it will be expanded upon, but it's staying. It's also amazing how ineffectively some musicians use it; MySpace profiles set to private, "check out my band and tell me what you think" cliches... I think you need a new line! The funniest one was a gig listing with "call me for directions". Information for all gigs (date, time, location, price, maps, directions, links) should be available 24/7. The easiest way is to include the venue's web address, they should be doing the same. Live video speaks for itself. Free downloads of low-fi live recordings along with albums for sale at CDBaby. A mailing list used once a month for regulars and once a week for reminders. You can use a lot of the same text, people just need reminders anyhow. This is the easiest, most effective way of keeping your name out there and letting the world know who you are and what you do. Take advantage of it. 18.) Merit can be bought. Passion can't. Some musicians have to play or their life has nor meaning or purpose. You can't touch them, they're coming from a whole different place. All the greats fit that description. If you do you'll know it. Be yourself and do what you do, you'll find your niche. 19.) Avoid the watercooler gang. The biggest disadvantage to having a day job is the people at your dead-end job who are obsessed with it. Restaurants are the worst. Don't go out with them after work. If they want to see you outside of work they can catch a gig. Never meet those people on their turf, always make them meet you on yours. They live in a different world.And when dealing with local musicians avoid any and all cliques. Cultivate your own circle of musicians, club owners, promoters, DJs, etc... Share the wealth with people you trust who are on the same page with you. 20.) Sing in your own voice. Chester Burnette tried to yodel like Jimmie Rodgers and became Howlin' Wolf. Hillbillies in the 50's started playing R&B songs and Rockabilly was part of the birth of Rock 'n' Roll. Country musicians in the 30's didn't sound like the popular big bands of the day when they played Jazz on their fiddles and steel guitars, they sounded like Western Swing. Link Wray described himself as "a slow learner" and wrote the soundtrack to juvenile delinquency in one D-E chord change. Johnny Ramone could play nothing more than fast downstrokes and no other aspiring Punk Rocker has ever been able to play then as fast and hard, often cheating with up-and-down strokes. Django Reinhardt lost two fingers in a fire and went on to influence every Jazz (and quite a few Blues) guitarist since. Somewhere between the things you aspire to and the limitations you have to work with is you. You only recognize it hindsight so don't bother, just keep on honing your craft. What seems rote to you is often your signature to the audience. 21.) The choice of media is irrelevant. A gig is a gig. Play the gig and leave it at that. Play that room to that crowd that night. I got a call once to do a solo gig at an art gallery in a trendy, upscale neighborhood for an Amnesty International exhibition on violence against women in the 3rd World. Not exactly the kind of venue you normally hear Lightnin' Hopkins kind of stuff but I went in and did the best I could to entertain the people that were there because that's my job. When it was over and time to collect my money there was a cherry on top. Use your skills to entertain the people in the room. Let everybody else analyze it. 22.) Selling out is harder than it looks. The Hair Metal guys were Rock Gods who got all the chicks. I didn't think too much of them and they didn't think too much of me until suddenly it was hip for a Rock guitarist to have some Blues credentials. Then they were all my friend. A few years later they were a bad joke, an embarrassment as the next trend came along then became a cliche. Throughout that 10 years I was still doing my usual Lightnin' Hopkins, Chuck Berry and Freddie King stuff. Another decade or so passes and I'm still doing the same thing, just a little bit better 'cause I've got a few miles under my belt now now. I don't know what will come next so I stick with what I'm good at and work that niche. Instead of trying to stay ahead of the curve, go for the core. I don't know how to do anything else anyhow but now I have all these cool tools to make videos, put out albums, book gigs all over the world and aim directly for people who are hard core into this kind of music. I can live with that. 23.) Nobody cares. Do it yourself. Jill Jones is an excellent singer who has worked with an impressive list of people but most journalists can't seem to get past Prince gossip. There was no background info on any of her albums, how they came about and so on. An interesting body of work not limited to any specific genre. Nobody was asking the questions I was wondering so I set up an interview and asked her myself. Told her and her manager they could use whatever they wanted of mine. Typed up the long version, sent it off and hoped I didn't embarrass myself. Hope this doesn't suck, I'm not a journalist. They used the entire thing for her Biography online. Guess it was OK. Now the whole world knows Miles Davis loved her debut and how corporate politics killed one of the best albums of that scene. Now we know where TWO came from and WASTED and what's cooking today. It's a feather in both our caps. I was irritated that no one was asking certain questions so I asked them myself. That's usually where you're best ideas come from, not what you think would be cool but what you think should be done that no one is doing. Jump on those no matter how crazy they seem, that's where the gold is eventually discovered. P.S. -The article came out in spring of '09. That summer Jill Jones had her first solo Billboard hit with LIVING FOR THE WEEKEND. Pretty cool for somebody who sang on quite a few hit songs. Congratulations, Jill. 24.) Worrying about "commercial" vs. "artistic" is a complete waste of time. It's also navel-gazing bullshit. Young Jazz players are shocked to learn Coltrane started playing R&B and walking the bar. They shouldn't. All the greats who defined the vocabulary of their instrument started out "in the trenches". That's where you learn how to work an audience. Real art connects with people on a primal level. If you can't do it on a simple entertainment level you can't do it on a deeper level. If your work has any artistic value it will show through on its own. And if it doesn't, you can't wring blood from a stone anyhow. 25.) Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. There's a misnomer that everything has to be a huge emotional outburst. No it doesn't. The cats that played like that did so naturally, they didn't force it. Work on your phrasing and vibrato. The same misnomer hovers around songwriting. Musical catharsis is a cliche, work on melody. 26.) Find your own schtick. Recreating what somebody else did 50 years ago doesn't keep a tradition alive. The people that did groundbreaking work did something fresh and new that excited people. It's good to study them and add some of their ideas to your vocabulary but leave it at that. This is a new era and we have our own frontiers to explore, our own challenges to face, just as they did theirs. Continue to hone your craft and your signature will develop. 27.) Write from the heart. If you don't say what you mean then you don't mean what you say. Not everybody is going to like it and agree with it. Get over the backlash from the idiots. If you mean it, stand your ground. Play "from the heart". There's always somebody who can do something better than you, but not many who can do it the same way as you. When you have your signature you're not in competition with anyone but yourself. It's your musical point of view. 28.) The best way to get approval is not to need it. Winning over an audience with bar band hits is easy but then you're just another bar band. If that's not a regular part of your act, avoid it at all costs. When the crowd is indifferent don't let it throw you off, just play for yourself. Tear into it and burn. They'll notice. 29.) Power is never given. Power is taken. Walk in like you own the place. It's showbiz so give 'em a show walking in the door. Exude cool confidence and back it up with a 120% performance. Make every other group scared to follow you, or at least have to work a lot harder after you. It's called "the trenches" 'cause it's war. 30.) Whatever choice you make, the Devil gets his due eventually. Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. Every path has some pot holes and bumps. Whatever course you decide will have its trials. The adventure evokes your character. Throw yourself into it and don't look back. 31.) The hardest part of being creative is getting used to it. Some people have something inside of them that needs to come out or they literally go crazy. Life will lose all meaning and purpose if they don't. To whatever degree a person has this trait all they can do is accept it and live with it. It never goes away, it's part of who you are. Be thankful for it, if you didn't have it you wouldn't be cut out for this. 32.) Remain frugal. What does the gig pay? What's your overhead? If the math doesn't add up the gig isn't there. Can you afford a hotel or do you have to drive back? Is everybody making decent bread? Good players are always in demand so be sure you have something to offer them. If you're a solo artist or bandleader you should be taking a leader's fee. That covers your time, promo materials and phone bill. If anybody in the band doesn't like it offer to let them shoulder some of the work. If they still complain get rid of them. Being a working musician is running a small business and you're the sole proprietor. 33.) Allow your work to age with you. There's nothing like youth, full of piss and vinegar with no fear whatsoever. There's also nothing like having some experience under your belt and the confidence that comes with it. As you move through the different phases of life your playing should reflect that. Some songs and some riffs & licks will stay with you down through the years but you shouldn't be playing the same as you did 20 years ago, you should be constantly reaching for the next horizon. 34.) Being poor sucks. It seems to be trendy to talk about "suffering for your art". Hone your craft, you'll go through all the suffering crap you need anyhow. Focus your skills on making a living. Learn how to negotiate a better deal for yourself. 35.) Beware of turning hobbies into jobs. For some people the business of music takes all the fun out of it. For others it just goes with the territory. Knowing which one applies to you is one of the most important decisions you'll ever make. 36.) Savor obscurity while it lasts. This only applies if your break into the mainstream. For the rest of us it has a counterpart, staying fresh by constantly reaching for new horizons. Learn those other styles you like, study harmony and arranging, learn another instrument. I was fortunate to grow up around local musicians who were constantly pushing themselves while at the same time having mainstream artists on the radio who were constantly reinventing themselves. Even today my "guitar guru" Don Leady and my guitarist dad are constantly pushing themselves to new heights when everybody else their age has retired. The mythical Fountain of Youth, like Heaven and Hell, is not a place but a state of mind. 37.) Start blogging. This is the 21st Century, the Internet is a part of life. If you don't have a good web presence you're shooting yourself in the foot. It's the one thing you more or less have complete control over, can keep going no matter what other ups and downs you have and reaches a large number of people who are interested in what you're doing. The following are essential to a musician having a strong web presence; *A good website. Uf you're not into web design go with Hostbaby, they have all the stuff you need; schedule, bio, streaming or download MP3s, photos, guestbook and mailing list. Send a mailer out once a month and every time something important is coming up. *MySpace Music page. The Music Player should reflect your overall body of work including some live recordings and the Calendar should be up to date. The background layout should be a good photo of you or your logo that doesn't interfere with reading the text. You should have some video and plenty of photos. Post bulletins with the same frequency as your mailing list. *A ReverbNation account linked to the "My Band" tab on your Facebook page and a Facebook Fan page that you actually use. It's amazing how many people set up a fan page that just sits there. *YouTube account with at least half-a-dozen live videos that are also on your MySpace and Facebook. Nothing sells your act like some good live video. I've gotten numerous gigs from bookers whom I met on a networking site and checked out my videos while we were messaging. *Twitter used to be completely useless, follow a bunch of people so they'll follow you but nobody is actually reading each other's posts, but now that you can link it with your MySpace, Facebook and YouTube one post on any can send an update to all. A very easy way of keeping your name in front of people's eyes and minds. 38.) Meaning scales, people don't. No matter what you do for a living you're going to spend the majority of your life at work. Do something meaningful, something that gives your life purpose beyond a paycheck. Life is in the details so start there. We're all going to die one day. Your time on this Earth is the most precious commodity you have. Spend it well, there's no refunds. 39.) When your dreams become reality they are no longer your dreams. Hone your craft, hustle up the gigs and take care of the day-to-day details. Along the way Life happens and your adventure evokes your character. You become the hero of your own journey (see Joseph Campbell for details). One day you wake up and realize this isn't a dream any more, you're doing it! It's rewarding to realize just how far you've come. You've paid your dues and earned your stripes. It's also a bit scary; what do you do next? Forget about it and tend to the day-to-day details of reaching he next horizon. Back to the woodshed. In Zen it's called "beginner's mind". 40.) None of this is rocket science. Up the mountain and back down again. Coming full circle. By the time you've had you've finished with something like this it becomes apparent that it was just plain old common sense all along.
 

2009 In Review

 
2009 was a rough year for a lot of folks, and I'm no exception, but as I sit here writing this on December 31st the good stands out and bad becomes "necessary self-correcting measures". The album I was working on, LONG WAY FROM HOME, was shelved halfway through recording. It sucked and I stewed over it for quite a while, but now that it appears the album will be finished elsewhere with a different rhythm section it looks like I'll have two halves that together will make both an accurate musical diary and an overall top-notch album. The guys on the first half couldn't do what the guys on the second half will do and the guys on the second half couldn't do what the first did. Regardless of any personal differences I stand 120% behind what we recorded. In February I interviewed vocalist Jill Jones. That article became my first nationally published piece, appearing in Florida-based magazine GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS and may appear again in UK mag BLUES MATTERS. BLUES MATTERS deserves a serious tip of the hat for publishing many of my letters to the editor and getting me back into writing. I don't know what it is that people like so much about my writing but as long as they like it I'll keep doing it. The article avoided the usual Prince gossip that journalists have bugged her with and focused on her actual work as a vocalist, covering all of her albums. Engineer David Rivkin and Grand Royals bandmate Ian Ginsberg both contributed lengthy in-depth quotes. Jill and her manager liked it so much it now appears on much of her promo material. Thanks, Jill! I've been discussing musical collaboration with her and it looks promising. A few months later I played the only Jerry & J.J. Vicars gig to date. The more both of us get back to our Blues roots the more similarities I hear in our playing. Not surprising, some of the songs he taught me when I first picked up guitar I'm still doing; COMIN' HOME, MEMPHIS, HONKY TONK, CHICKEN SHACK. Don't be surprised if I play all those on my last gig before shuffling off the mortal coil. When we lived in Cincinnati I played bass with his group, Jerry & the Hipswingers. We shot two videos but the one on my YouTube channel from Cincy is my favorite. Once he played on my gig, a private party, nothing special. This time we did a duo gig at Ben's Cafe with Mark Schwarz on bass and Jimmy Mack on drums. Mark recorded it and MP3s are on my website for download. There's also footage from a film crew who were making a documentary about Americans living in Tokyo but I don't know what happened with that. We repeated the show last week by recording his arrangement of Charles Brown's MERRY CHRISTMAS BABY, again with Mark on bass and available on the website. This year's CD release was LONGHAIRED LEFTOVERS, a collection of leftover songs from Jindaiji Monkey studio. These were done for fun and when an album's worth of material was accumulated it was decided to eventually release it. Since LONG WAY FROM HOME was shelved indefinitely and I needed an '09 release it got bumped up. I made my keyboard debut, Suzi V plays organ on one track and Jeremy Gloff piano on another. I covered his "1987" as a disc-only bonus track. Mark Schwarz designed the jacket adding all the background items to a photo he took that includes the Modbird in her early stages. The best came towards the end. A new venue opened up in Akasaka named Crawfish. Excellent room, fantastic gear (Fender tube amps!) and Carl and Jake are some of the best venue owners I've met. Chiharu Kawai was present for the first show there and filmed four songs which are now on my YouTube channel; WANG DANG DOODLE, STINKY TWINKY and DOWNHOME. Back at the Barge Inn, one of my all-time my favorite venues (in Narita near the airport), manager Bryan Harmon spent quality time with me, Mark and drummer Masaki Shibata fixing up the sound and lights. Our friend Oliver Richter brought out his camera and filmed all three sets, performed in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. Four songs in three videos have been posted to YouTube; TAKE ME ON DOWN TO MEMPHIS/ROCK MY WORLD, J.J.'s BOOGIE and BOOGIE ON DOWN all from the 1st set. Video from the 2nd and 3rd sets is being edited right now. The full unedited audio is available for download on the website, minus the first set. The Barge Inn gig was the debut of the Modbird, the custom guitar Mark Schwarz built for me. Mark has been building guitars for years, his Rocket Revenger bass is well known around town. This is the first one he built to order and she's a beauty. The body draws its design from the Gibson Moderne and Firebird, though much smaller, and has a Strat bridge. The P-90 from my Les Paul Jr. I had when I was a kid sits in the back position with Fender Fat Strat in front. The pickguard is similar to a Les Paul Jr. A Fender neck does the job for now, until a custom neck is ready. The Modbird is now my main guitar and playing her is not only the most fun I've had on any axe in years she's also a feather in both our caps, the luthier and the player. But the most lasting impression came from the least likely of sources, the TV. There was a short interview/documentary with an old woman who owns a barber shop under the train tracks near one of the busiest station in Tokyo. Didn't catch the station but it looked like the Shinkansen (bullet train) stops there. She lives in a two-story building ; the barber shop is on the first floor, her residence on the second. Many of her customers have been coming to her for 40 years. Sometimes they fall asleep in the chair. She lets them sleep. She charges customers according to what they can afford and if they're broke doesn't charge them at all. She lives modestly and always has enough. When the interviewer asked for her thoughts on the global economic meltdown she said, "People have been working for the country, money went to the bureaucrats. When they work for PEOPLE money will return to the people and it will get back to normal." Many folks I know back in the U.S. decided not to buy Christmas presents, or only select few, or to make a present to give. To me, that makes it one of the greatest Christmases ever; the crass commercialism normally surrounding the holidaze was dealt a sever blow, the vacuum filled with genuine concern for one another. At least that's how it looks to me. Some say it was a bad year but I disagree; it was a difficult year but that doesn't make it a bad year. People lost a lot of selfishness and remembered what's important.