Wednesday, August 15, 2007

It's Never Too Early to Play Christmas Tunes

Last night I practiced with Lorraine Goldie, Deek McCluskey, and Kenny Innis for a one-hour set that we'll perform tomorrow night at the Rocmaura Nursing Home in Saint John, NB. The practice actually went very well. We played a few really nice tunes that were unfamiliar to me.

Not too long into the practice we began to play Jingle Bells. I don't recall exactly how this came about, but I think it was Deek that started it. I joined in, then Kenny and Lorraine. Before we knew it, we were doing a full blown version of Jingle Bells. It was a lot of fun.

Did you know that according to some research I did, Jingle Bells was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont, was originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh and was meant for a Thanksgiving program at a church in Savannah, Georgia where Pierpont was organist? Apparently, the song was so well accepted that it was again sung on Christmas day and since then became one of the most popular Christmas carols. There you have it; a little Jingle Bells trivia.

I was amazed at how much of the song (Jingle Bells) I was able to remember on the banjo. Playing it reminded me of all the fun times I had last year at the home of Ed & Becky Betts, practicing for the Bluegrass Friends Christmas party. In particular, it brought back fond memories of singing and playing our rendition of Patty Loveless's Bluegrass, White Snow.

I try not to dwell on the fact that when it came time to perform Bluegrass, White Snow at the Christmas party, it was a train wreck. There must have been 47 people on the stage. Alright, there weren't 47 people, but there were way too many for sure! I remember Harvey Arbo was standing on the extreme left edge of the stage; how he kept his balance I'll never know. I was standing to Harvey's immediate right. I remember not being able to move an inch lest Harvey get the headstock of my banjo in his forehead! Everything that could have gone wrong while trying to perform this song did in fact come to pass. We had a lot of fun practicing this tune however, and I remember doing what I thought were some really good renditions during practice. I can't wait to start playing this song again. Ed, I hope you're ready.

Once we had Jingle Bells out of our system, we continued with our normal practice. The practice went very well and I'm looking forward to playing at the nursing home. I know both the staff and the residents look forward to the entertainment provided. If nothing else, it puts a smile on their faces for a short while and that makes the effort well worth the time. I try to keep this at the center of attention, even when I know I'm not very good at playing my instrument or when I don't feel like doing it.

To end our practice we played Jingle Bells one more time. I thought I started playing Christmas tunes early last year but I think I've broken my own record this year!

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Monday, August 13, 2007

It's Just a Church - What Does That Mean?

I played at the Grand Bay Wesleyan Church yesterday with a group of Bluegrass Friends. I was commenting on the high temperature in the church and about how I don't handle the heat very well. At some point during the conversation the question of how can we become a tighter group came up. Of course, that left the door wide open for me to do some more complaining about how this could be better and how that could be better, especially when speaking about myself.

At some point during the conversation however, someone said "don't worry about it, it's just a church." If the person who made that statement just happens to be reading this blog, don't get too upset with me for mentioning it. I'm not singling you out. You are just one of MANY people that have made the exact same remark, which is why I decided to write about it. I have a question that relates to it, and it's this: what does that mean?

I think I know what it means alright! I hear the same comment being made with regard to other places as well, such as nursing homes for instance. Translated, I think it means who would bother putting in enough practice time in order to get good to play at one of these lowly places? Maybe lowly is a bad choice of words here, I just can't think of another way to convey my thoughts about it.

It's as if to say all of the "old folks" that generally attend the kinds of events that we play at wouldn't know the difference between good, bad or indifference when it comes to the music we are trying to play. But I'm here to tell you differently, or at least I disagree with that way of thinking. To be certain, there probably are some people that fit this line of thinking, but it's not everyone. A lot of people may not know why something sounds good or bad, but they know the difference between a so-so band, a pretty good band and a fantastic band. They can't explain it, but they know.

I have one question to ask. If we're always willing to fall short of our best simply because the venue doesn't warrant the practice time, what venue WOULD actually warrant putting in the required amount of practice? Are there any? I guess that's two questions.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Lousy Tone

So, I'm sitting in my office practicing a banjo break for one of the songs I'm supposed to help out with in the upcoming gospel show to be held at the Grand Bay Wesleyan Church on August 12, 2007, from 2:00 - 4:00 PM. The song is In the Sweet By and By. Having played it a few hundred times by now, I'm feeling reasonably comfortable with it, and I'm thinking "hey, this doesn't sound too bad!" At this point I've even got the speed at a reasonable pace while maintaining a fairly clean sound. At least that's what I'm thinking.

I get up from my chair to see if I can play it as well while standing up. I go to the closed window and face it so as to hear some of the sound reflect back at me and that's when I get the rude awakening. My tone sucks, and so does my playing in general. Pull-offs aren't clean nor consistent, hammer-ons are weak and I can't pull decent tone out of the banjo.

It's not the fault of my new Huber banjo. I know that because it sounds great when Jim Mills and Harvey Arbo play it, although the tone from each player is completely different. That's how I expect it to be with me too - a different tone, but not the cruddy one I'm producing! And even though my strings need changing, I can't blame my poor tone on them either.

Banjo players - listen up! This is more evidence, proof as far as I'm concerned, that at least 80 percent of the tone produced comes from the hands of the player, not the instrument. Obviously, a decent instrument is required as well, but hear me well when I tell you the tone you are able to pull out of your instrument is largely dependent on your technique. A lot of people claim it's the picking hand that counts the most, but I'm hear to tell you your fretting hand is every bit as important when working on producing great tone.

I've had this rude awakening before. In fact, I've posted about it previously at least twice back in July and August of 2006. Here's some advice: if you want to work on your tone, face a wall or a window while playing so you can hear the sound of the banjo coming back at you. On the other hand, if you don't want the possibility of being disappointed, stay away from the walls!

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

County Bluegrass Festival

Ed & Becky Betts, along with Kenny Innis and I took in the County Bluegrass Festival in Fort Fairfield, Maine on Saturday, July 28, 2007. My first question as we were entering the site was "where are all the vehicles parked?" I was very surprised at how few people were in attendance at this festival, and I doubt very much if there were 400 people there - a very small festival indeed for the 5th year of its existence.

The headline act was the Lonesome River Band. This would be my first time to see Sammy Shelor pick on the old (actually, a fairly new Huber) 5-string banjo and of course, I got his signature on my banjo head of fame. Other bands included the Blistered Fingers Bluegrass Band, White Mountain Bluegrass, The Eddy Poirier Family and Friend, The Muellers, Borderline Bluegrass, The Adrians, James Delnero and Lost Mountain and The LaClaires.
I've got to give my honest opinion on the performances at this year's festival. I'm not complaining, just stating what I witnessed. Maybe I am complaining a little bit. While I truly did enjoy my weekend away, the festival was the least entertaining part of it and the jamming at Ed & Becky's cottage was the most fun. I never thought I would ever say something like that, but it's true. But don't get me wrong, I did enjoy my day on the festival grounds as well.
Just another sign of how Bluegrass music is changing into country music played with what we consider typical Bluegrass instruments, I'd have to say it would have been more accurate to call the festival a country music festival with the odd Bluegrass tune. I wouldn't blame the festival organizers as much as I would the performers for this troubled trend in Bluegrass music. It's not a specific problem of the County Bluegrass festival, but a more widespread problem at all Bluegrass festivals. To set the record straight, what I'm saying is that while most of the music wasn't all that bad, there was more country than Bluegrass. Sorry, when I go to a Bluegrass festival I want to hear Bluegrass music. I don't mind the odd country tune thrown in the mix, but I don't want to hear country music dominating the festival. This trend finds me staying away from more and more festivals. I'm just not going to continue to spend hundreds of dollars each year to hear country songs at so-called Bluegrass festivals. Now, if the country songs are suitably grassed up, I'm okay with that.
Of all the groups I heard, two stood out above all - the Eddy Poirier Family and Friend (yes, it's friend - not friends) and the Muellers. Based in new England, the Muellers are a true family band comprised of six children ages 5 to 19, plus Mom and Dad. I really found the group to be highly entertaining and the talent of the children reminds me of the Cherryholmes family, although maybe not quite at that level yet. For me, they were the high point of the festival.

I've seen Eddy Poirier a few times now, but I've always seen him playing accordian or fiddle and up to this point, I had never heard him sing. I'd say the Eddy Poirer Family and Friend played more traditional Bluegrass tunes than any other group by far, and to boot, they can sing! I was reasonably impressed. As for the rest of the groups, including the Lonesome River Band, I'd like to hear a little more grass. I cant't say anything about James Delnero and Lost Mountain or the LaClaires because we didn't arrive in time to catch James Delnero and the LaClaires were not going to be playing until the following day.
During the supper break at the festival, Kenny, Ed and I had a short jam at the tailgate of Ed's vehicle. That's where I think I lost my $65.00 Frank Neat banjo capo that I purchased from Little Roy Lewis at last year's Thomas Point Beach festival, probably never to be seen again. Oh well, what can I do about it? Not a thing! Purchase another one and get over it!
I missed the performance of the Blistered Fingers band. I was visiting Eddy Poirier at this time, getting a few pointers. Eddy played my Huber Jim Mills banjo and said it was "top notch." That's a good thing, right?

At the conclusion of the festival for the day we drove back to Ed & Becky's cottage where Kenny and I stayed for the night. I think we arrived at the cottage somewhere between 2:00 and 2:30 in the morning. Man, was I ever tired. I had only gotten a couple hours sleep the night before. I was so tired that I was fully prepared to sleep in Kenny's car with the seat reclined but Ed and Becky made me come in to the cottage which of course was the only sensible thing to do.
On Sunday morning Ed, Kenny and I jammed while as usual, Becky listened in. Becky, are you really enjoying this or do you just put up with it? This is where I had my first attempt at playing the upright bass. It was a lot of fun, even though I didn't really know what I was doing. I have been wanting an upright bass for some time now, but that day at the cottage has firmly planted the idea in my head that I MUST HAVE ONE SOON. I have been researching upright basses ever since. Sorry Hunny, maybe we can get rid of the sofa to make room for it!
Kenny and I departed Ed & Becky's place at about 2:30 PM and arrived home shortly after 4:30 PM. All in all, we had a good time. Thank you again Ed, Becky and Kenny for another nice weekend with music and friends.

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