Old-Time for the New Year

The coming of the New Year is always a time to look back and look ahead.  I’ve done both the past couple of days as I’ve enjoyed seeing some new video of the “progressive” old-time banjo work of my buddy John Balch.

John and I played together in high school and college under a couple of band names – the best one being The Fiery Gizzard String Band (which we used about 20 years before another band from the area took it up).  The name comes from a beautiful and wild area in the South Cumberland region of Tennessee that I’m pleased to say has recently been saved by my friends at the Land Trust for Tennessee (winners of a 2010 National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award).

But I digress.  I’m talking about new style old-time music.

John is a terrific clawhammer banjo player, with two stellar CDs out under his own name.  Clawhammer is known as an old-time style, but John’s music sounds as fresh and current as anything coming out in the acoustic music world today.  Don’t take my word for it.  Bluegrass Unlimited said of John’s second CD HOT Biscuit Jam:

This is 45 minutes plus of delightful string band music.  John Balch is a clawhammer player, but hold on, this music is as close to newgrass as it is old-time.  Jack Pearson’s mandolin and Shad Cobb’s fiddle don’t go anywhere Balch’s banjo can’t go.  This makes for one fine musical journey.

A couple of nights ago, John joined the aforementioned Jack Pearson (Allman Brothers, Jack Person Band) and Shad Cobb (I last heard him with the John Cowan Band), along with guitarist extraordinaire David Grier for a “Jack Pearson and Friends” showcase.  They played some of John’s music, including “Wesley” which is captured in the video below.

John is one of those folks I’m honored to have known in my life.   You can listen to his music and marvel at his talent.  If you know that he’s battled multiple sclerosis in recent years, yet continues to play, his music becomes all the more remarkable.

Nothing’s speaks to the past like old-time music.  But the past can be a great foundation for the future.

And with that thought in mind, I’m heading off into 2011.

More to come…


18 Years, Yet Seems Like Only Yesterday

Today began a new era.  Today was the first day after Andrew and Claire’s 18th birthday.

The twins were born mid-day on a Sunday.  At the moment of their birth I happened to be singing There Is No Rose in the church choir for the last Sunday in Advent in 1992.  Because we adopted Andrew and Claire, we didn’t know they had been born until the next day after receiving a call from the adoption agency.  Eighteen short years later, Andrew, Candice and I were spending December 20th sitting in the Strathmore Music Center listening to Claire and her high school choir join the Cathedral Choral Society in a wonderful Joy of Christmas concert (blackberry photo at the top…don’t expect to see great detail).  It seemed a fitting bookend:  they came in to song, and they entered “adulthood” singing.

When friends ask how it feels to be the father of 18-year-olds, I don’t offer any profound insights.  I usually say, “It seems like only yesterday…”  or “Time flies….”  The years and the associated memories have been wonderful.  Andrew and Claire are not perfect, but they’re pretty terrific people – who are now really young adults.  (Andrew asked where he could register to vote this morning.)

I couldn’t be prouder of the two of them.  But instead of writing more, I’ll simply post a few of my favorite pictures from the different eras of their lives.

Happy Birthday, Claire and Andrew.  I love you.


Fretboard Journal: The 20th Issue

The 20th issue of The Fretboard Journal showed up in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago.  Any time a big package shows up in the mailbox these days, the kids get excited as they wait to hear back on their applications to college.  But I’m the one who shouts for  joy when I see the package that turns out to be my favorite magazine.

I’m glad to see The Fretboard Journal make it to 20 issues, as I wasn’t sure they could sustain this model.  But the editors keep putting out the best guitar porn on the planet, with stories about both players and builders.

Readers who like North Carolina’s Avett Brothers will want to check out this issue.  As always, there are great introductions to builders and players I’ve never heard of (see the Joe Veillette article and his beautiful creations).   I enjoyed a Bobby Long piece about how Dylan’s Gibson J-200 on the front of Nashville Skyline (see photo at the top of the post) inspired a life-long passion.  Paul Mehling, founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco, talks about all things Django.

But my eyes really popped out when I saw that Bela Fleck had a feature in the Winter FJ. Bela has redefined the banjo throughout his career, and the article covers all the major elements of his work.  He talks about learning from Tony Trischka, his time with New Grass Revival, and his more recent projects.  There’s a great section on his main instrument – fondly named old Number One.

Banjo jokes aside (What do you call it when the accordion lands on top of the banjo in the dumpster?  Perfect Pitch.) Bela has shown how this instrument can rightly claim its historic place in American music in the 21st century.  The video below neatly demonstrates how bluegrass banjo has evolved.  On the Steve Martin tune, The Crow, Martin begins with a standard Earl Scruggs-style send-off.  Then at about the 1:30 mark, Trischka demonstrates the more melodic style that he and Bill Keith pioneered in the 60s.  Finally, at about 2:08, Bela jumps in and shows where he’s taken both of those styles in his own unique brand of music.   Take a read through The Fretboard Journal, take a listen to the video, and enjoy.

More to come…


A Celtic Yule

On a blustery, cold evening in suburban Washington, a full crowd was warmed by the 11th annual Celtic Yule concert of Robin Bullock and Amy White & Al Petteway.  Hosted by the Institute of Musical Traditions (or IMT), this annual concert is like much of the holiday musical scene – familiar yet welcome.

Bullock has a wonderful tone coming out of his Taylor guitar and sounds better with age.  The second half opened with his haunting In the Bleak Midwinter/The First Noel/It Came Upon a Midnight Clear medley.   His solo mandolin pieces exploring the Bach unaccompanied violin and cello suites are a new (for me) part of his show, and they demonstrate his impressive chops.  The Cello Suite #4 is technically demanding (the E-Flat major transposes into B-Flat major on the mandolin), but Bullock made it sing on his beautiful Gibson A-style mandolin from the 1920s.  Check out the video below of Bullock playing solo guitar, and then imagine that it sounds twice as good live.

Al Petteway and Amy White played holiday tunes (including a beautiful The Holly and the Ivy) but also promoted their new album High in the Blue Ridge. They opened with The Drovers’ Road, an evocative piece celebrating the switchback roads of the North Carolina mountains.

All in all, a satisfying and enjoyable holiday evening.

More to come…


Music of the Season

Among the treasures of Washington are the musical offerings at local churches and synagogues throughout the city and at all times of the year.  Today, the Madrigal Singers from Andrew’s high school sang a Music of the Seasons concert at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square – the “Church of the Presidents” across from the White House.

It was a beautiful 30 minute concert that was captured live on the Episcopal Church website.  Click on the link and you can see the entire concert which begins with O come, O come, Emmanuel, moves through Riu, riu, chiu and includes beautiful music by Holst and Parsons.  The mood shifts with the Thomas Dorsey Precious Lord, take my hand and the moving spiritual Ride on, King Jesus.  The Christmas Song and It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas round out the set.

Although I didn’t know it when I arrived for today’s concert, Andrew had a few solos.  I wouldn’t be the proud father if I didn’t point out that you can hear him kick off Riu (at about the 5:10 mark), sing a solo in Holst’s Lullay my Liking (at about 17:20), and then really get into Ride On, King Jesus (at about 27:07).  But really, you should listen to the entire video.  Andrew’s classmates – including Nelson, Caroline, Nick, Izzi, Anjolie, Katie, and others – have terrific solo turns as well.  Enjoy.

More to come…