Because today I picked up one of these. Fender Highway One Telecaster
Not a bad way to celebrate the holiday.
As I said at the beginning of the Sunday night show, it's been a long and interesting year for the Pigs -- in the fall we played for the joint Southern/MAC chapter meeting and had a pretty great time. In late March we all went to Memphis for the spectacular Brown Beverage Sessions, and then in early May we played in Durham for the 4th EBLIP conference. That's a lot of playing time for us! By the time we left Memphis, we realized that we actually had decent arrangements for more songs than we could get through in a couple of hours -- and we also realized that we had a pretty cool band within a band -- the power trio that we're referring to as the Ducleus (or Duculus if you're from Texas).
And that was all good & wonderful and we're grateful for the opportunities, but it was oh so good to be back doing our Sunday night rehearsal at the MLA meeting. In Durham, the long soundcheck sapped a lot of my energy, and the relative lack of responsiveness on the part of the crowd (we did have a good core of dancers, but the room was too big and too formal for the number of people there) made the gig a lot of work. I think we played well, and I did get many positive comments the next day, but it wasn't the kind of joyous fun that we get when we play to the MLA crowd.
And "crowd" it certainly was. As is typical, when we started out about 8:15 there was only a scattering of people in the room, but it started filling up pretty quickly, and by 9:00 they were starting to stack up outside the door. And once the dancing started, it never stopped.
The miraculous thing about the Pigs is the comfort level we have with each other -- we all bring something very different to the mix, and, as Duke was pointing out in Memphis, it has evolved from a singer/songwriter act with me out front and the others backing me up to a real band, with Russell, TomCat and now TG all taking a larger share of the vocals.
We've got plenty of room to grow -- in particular I want to hear more dueling guitar leads from Russell and BtheA. And there are so many more songs we want to learn! What an amazing ride it's been.
Oh, and one more thing worth noting. Russell's wife Nicole was there -- and maybe my favorite part of the whole thing was watching her watching him sing -- the woman absolutely glowed!! And no matter what all the other reasons are, playing guitar while a beautiful woman glows at you is surely part of the essence of rock and roll.
I was feeling nostalgic for the days, about six or seven years ago I guess, when I'd put two speakers, my Peavey mixer, my ever reliable Takamine guitar, a microphone stand and a canvas bag of cords into the back of the Little Black Car and head down to Marty's, where I'd play and sing until four in the morning and drive home at dawn with $400 in my pocket. Not a bad way to kill a Friday or Saturday night.
Now it's all of that, plus the monitor speakers & amp, 3 telecasters, stands for the speakers, guitar stands for the guitars, a couple of guitar amps, and a big box full of cords and percussion toys. I spent ninety minutes last night getting it all packed up from the basement and up into the garage where I can load it into the van later this morning for the drive to Memphis.
When you're over fifty and still playing rock and roll, you've long since given up the notion of the hit record and you don't even fantasize about the groupies anymore. You just wish you had roadies! A couple of years back, when I was in St. Louis for a visit and spent an evening playing with some of the local musicians who'd been good friends & companions back when I was living there, we were comparing all of our various aches and pains, marvelling at the fact that we were still able to do the damn thing. Drummers have it worst of all, of course.
All of that will be forgotten once we get everything unloaded and set up. This is going to be a pretty rare event -- I doubt that we'll ever have another opportunity. We managed to find a weekend when ALL of us could gather in Memphis for a couple of days to play. Most of us will be arriving this afternoon and into the evening -- Duke can't get there until tomorrow, but we'll be ready for him.
Pigs in Memphis -- we're calling it the Brown Beverage Sessions.
Turns out the woman I was having lunch with is a voice teacher. I had mentioned something about being a musician and it set us off talking about the differences between operatic singing and the kind of singing that I do (call it rock, on any given day, or folk, or even pop). Her main point was that regardless of the style, there is a "correct" way to sing, that properly uses all the muscles in your torso and protects your vocal cords. A voice virtuoso uses that control of the lungs and all of those muscles to get incredible volume and sustained tone, but even if you're not going for that, you don't want to shred your vocal cords.
I've never had a great vocal instrument, and while I know about the things that she was talking about, I'm not great about putting them into practice, although I think I've gotten better and more disciplined over the years. But I can still get overexcited and strain my voice -- as I've done on a couple of Pigs gigs. It frustrates me when I do that, because I also know that when I am paying attention I can sing for hours and hours without running into any problems.
These days, in anticipation of the spring gigs, I've been trying to get down to my practice room for at least half an hour or forty-five minutes every day. I've been working on a few new songs, and I'm always trying to find a better approach to the ones I've been doing regularly for years.
For the kind of singing that I do, expressivity, phrasing, and emotional tone are what matters. The actual tone color of the voice is least important. Somewhere, recently, I was talking with somebody who mentioned how badly Joni Mitchell's voice had degraded and what a shame it was. I was polite and said nothing, but I think she's singing better now than ever before. While it's true that her voice doesn't have the sheer beauty that it did twenty-five years ago, the age in it (and the life wisdom that she can bring to a song) gets her deeper into the songs than she was capable of when she was much younger.
That's the endless debate about Dylan as a vocalist. Lots of people think he's a terrible singer because they can't get past the tone color. It doesn't sound like they think a singing voice ought to sound. Then there are people like me who think that he is one of the best rock singers ever, and that he can pack more emotional punch into his delivery than just about anybody who has ever hoisted a guitar behind a microphone. And as his voice has gotten older and weirder his singing just gets better and better. Of course, I think Tom Waits is an excellent singer as well, and even I find him difficult to listen to on some cuts.
Dylan is tough to cover because he's so distinctive. I've been working on "Thunder On The Mountain." It's a long process. There are enough similarities between our voices that it's very easy for me to fall into the trap of simply mimicking his delivery. He teases with the melody on virtually every line, so no verse is sung in quite the same way. I have to figure out what the underlying consistent melody actually is, and then find my own way into the song so that I can be expressive and interpretive without just doing a pale copy. I'm getting there.
Sometimes it takes a very long time to find my way into a song. The first time I heard the Lucinda Williams album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road I was particularly taken with the song "Can't Let Go" (ironically, one that she didn't write). So I tried to figure out an approach to it, but I couldn't quite find my way -- everything I tried sounded too forced and off. Periodically over the years (the album came out nine years ago!) I'd come across that lyric sheet and give it another try. Same thing. Then, a week or so ago, while I was sorting through the song sheets it came up again and I nailed it. Now I've been singing it every day and I feel comfortable with it and like it's finally my own.
That's always the goal. To make the delivery so real and so true to the song, that it's as if I'd written it myself. There is nothing that pleases me more than to have a song that I typically do come up on the radio or the iPod in its original version and have Lynn listen to it and say, "Not bad. But I think your version is better." Sometimes I even agree with her.
Duke was particularly keen to be playing in the same hotel where Jimi Hendrix had played when he'd come to DC. The MLA meeting in 2004 would be our first time playing as The Bearded Pigs and we didn't quite know what to expect. We still wanted to stay below the radar, but to generate just enough buzz so that we'd have a little bit of an audience. We arranged with the conference organizers to make use of the meeting room that the International Visitor's Reception would be held in -- it's down a long corridor and away from any sleeping rooms, so we wouldn't have to worry about the noise.
We decided to make just one poster to put up on the message board. We'd see if that, along with word of mouth, could generate a bit of interest. We'd try for Sunday night, the one evening when there isn't a major conference event planned. Maybe a few people would stop by after dinner.
We'd looked into the cost of hosting a cash bar, but we'd've had to guarantee several hundred dollars for bartender and setup. We weren't sure if anybody was going to show up anyway, so it didn't seem worth the trouble.
But people came, indeed. And when they saw that there wasn't anything to drink in the room, they just headed down to the hotel bar and brought drinks back. And then someone asked at the front desk where the nearest liquor store was, and headed out and brought back six packs and started handing them out for a buck or two. A group of teenage boys were drawn down by the noise and sat right in front of Bruce as he wailed away on his Clapton solos.
It was the night that TomCat came in to complete the band. He'd mentioned some time earlier that he played a bit of guitar, so I invited him to sit in, thinking that he'd join us for a song or two. He played all night, and by the end of it, he was in. (He'd even grown a beard for the occasion!)
Two days later, I was in the exhibit hall when Carla came up and said, "Would you go talk to Paul about your little event the other night? There's apparently some dispute with the hotel and he'd like to get your side of the story before he figures out how to handle it." Paul works for the company that we contract with to manage the conference. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It's true that we hadn't really done a very good job of cleaning up after ourselves. And there were a number of beer bottles and cans scattered around the room. Possibly a large number. And maybe an empty whiskey bottle or two. But I was still rather shocked when Paul told me that the hotel had claimed that we "trashed" the room, and that they were going to charge MLA an additional $8,000 for cleanup.
I gave Paul my version of what had happened. As always, he was calm and cool and seemed mildly amused at the situation. It takes a particular type of temperment to do his job. And that was the last I heard of it (I did find out from Carla much later that the charges had eventually been waived). Personally, I was mortified. I felt terrible about causing trouble for the organization, although Carla, Paul & Ray all assured me it was no big deal. I was determined that if we ever did this again, I'd work more closely with the hotel to be sure there were no more "misunderstandings."
On the other hand, I couldn't help but be secretly pleased that on our maiden voyage, the Bearded Pigs had trashed the Washington Hilton....
UPDATE: Duke sent me a copy of the poster from that famed Hendrix in DC concert, so I'm including it here. He says, "At one time back in DC, I had an original which got ripped off from one of my
temporary residencies. I wasabout 10 feet back from the stage the entire concert. Forever etched in my memory."
Guy Clark was back in Nashville with the stomach flu, and we all wished him well and were disappointed that he wasn't in Birmingham. But his mates made the best of it.
Who knew that Hiatt was such a damn fine guitar player? Brilliant songwriter, of course. Utterly distinctive, passionate, and witty vocal stylist -- it goes without saying. But the only time I've seen him live was last summer and he had Luther Dickinson playing guitar for him. Who cares what Hiatt was doing on that baby blue Strat when you've got Luther to listen to?
But last night, when the Songwriter's Tour came to the Alabama Theater, it was Hiatt's guitar playing that was the standout of a standout show. He's got a great loping rhythm style on that Gibson SJ-200, but he played wonderful lead lines all night long as well. He'd break out into something in the middle of his, or one of the others', songs and he'd get real serious as he was burning up and down the neck. He'd hit that last note of his solo and his whole body would rear back... the audience would roar and he'd look out at 'em with the expression on his face -- what're you all doing here? And then he'd burst into a huge grin.
Lyle Lovett & Joe Ely came along, and the three of them sat on straight-backed chairs and took turns picking songs out of their vast catalogs. As Ely & Lovett both found opportunities to point out, they do this with no set lists, no plan -- each one figures out what he's going to play based on what the guy before him played, and what coincidences that tickled.
So when Hiatt's first turn came, he was thinking about the Daytona 500 that had just run that day, and how Mark Martin had come just this close to winning, and that put him in mind of a song he wrote coming home from Daytona one time twenty years ago... Lovett followed that thought up, and dedicated one to the aforementioned Mark Martin -- "Let's have a hand for that young cowboy.... and wish him better luck next time...." The night was like that. After every song, the audience would start shouting out suggestions to the next singer -- "Oh, yeah," said Lyle, quickly taking the capo back off. "Thanks for asking for that one..." And off he went.
I've seen Lovett several times, and Hiatt that once -- but seeing Joe Ely was a real treat. He's never pursued that "career" the way the other guys have. Likes to stick close to home (but has a book and two CDs coming out this week.) So his guitar playing & his singing were the most rudimentary of the three (rudimentary -- as in, when I'm having a really good day, I can almost play like that...), such wonderful songs!!
Lovett was actually a bit of a surprise in that he didn't do more with his guitar playing. He had on those damn fingerpicks that he always uses, but he did very little picking. When he's with the large band, you don't notice that he's really just a great rhythm player. He loves putting the capo way up -- ninth, tenth frets -- to get the high ringing sound.
Three guitar players, three different guitars -- three completely different styles. So I learned a bit from each of 'em last night.
I just wanted to pull the various posts about the history of the Bearded Pigs into one place, so it's easier to find them. Here's what I've put together so far:
I'm way behind, of course, and there are many stories to tell about what's happened with us since San Diego. Eventually, I'll get around to some of 'em. In the meantime, you know what they say about pictures telling stories....
Update: I've added a bit about our 2004 gig in Washington, DC.
A few years ago I saw a video on TV of Dwight Yoakam performing "Suspicious Minds" which happens to be my favourite Presley song. I immediately went out a bought the CD and, in my usual manner, played it a few times and then forgot I had it! A week or so ago, for no particular reason at all, I thought I would play it again and I must say what a gem it is! This is helped by the fact that it contains some promising Pig material.. Not only "Suspicious Minds" but also excellent versions of "Things we said today" and "Here comes the night" - all of which I reckon we could perform and which would keep the Thicketeers dancing the night away....
Maybe we could enlist some Thicketeers as our media army...a contest for the coolest way to help us get out there more?
Not to enflame the RIAA against us, but for those folks across the pond to whom Bruce refers now and again...
By late afternoon on Friday I'd had just about all the conferencing I could handle, so I went down to the Swamp Fox bar for a drink and a little journal writing. After a bit, I fell into conversation with the guy sitting next to me, who had been at my presentation that morning, and had nice things to say about it. Eventually he introduced himself as Steve Dew, now at UNC-Greensboro. Conversation moved on from work issues to family and other interests and eventually music came up and when Steve asked if I played solo or had a band, I told him about "the world's first international librarian rock band." I'm used to getting a bemused or laughing response to that claim, but Steve got this thoughtful look on his face, as if he was trying to jiggle a memory loose. "No, no," I was about to say, "you've never heard of us..." But before I had the chance, recognition dawned and he said, "Savannah! That was you! The Bearded Pigs in Savannah! I was at the offcampus library services conference! I was one of the people who came back to dance!!"
So now I was dumbfounded, but realized why he looked somewhat familiar. I told him about the Evidence Based Librarianship conference coming up next May. I hope he'll be able to join us for that. We need all the dancers we get!