History in Reverse

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First, if you don’t subscribe to the excellent MusicREDEF newsletter, do it now.

Each day you get a carefully curated email with links to some of the best pieces on music, tech, or culture. Recently, I came across this article, “Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards,” by Geoffrey Hines. It was written three years ago for the Smithsonian (who knew?), but some of the ideas Hines presented really connected with me. Here’s Hines’ thesis:

Think about it: how does one discover and fall in love with the music by the likes of the Black Keys? Is it through first investigating Charley Patton and then working the way through Son House, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd till finally reaching the Ohio-based blues-rock band? Not if you’re under 35, because by the time you began listening to music, the Black Keys were already part of your world. Once hooked, you love them so much that you read every interview to find out who influenced them. That’s how you and other true fans find out about the backwards progression to North Mississippi Allstars, R.L. Burnside, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and then finally back to Charley Patton.

In a nutshell, that describes exactly how music is disseminated through culture. I shared this article with a colleague and we both came to the conclusion to why can’t other topics be taught in the same way? In particular, music theory.

I distinctly remember being a freshman in college with absolutely zero knowledge of standard notation and music theory. Where did we start? Bach chorales and voice leading. I slogged my through it, but at the time I didn’t have that much appreciation for the classics. They were simply rote exercises that I had to get in my head in order to move to the next thing. Now, I’m not discounting how helpful learning about how Bach moved voices individually, but what if we approached it in a different way?

For example, say you want to learn about diatonic chord progressions. Check out the Beatles songbook. What about secondary dominants? Well, also the Beatles, but blues music — even the Black Keys — has some great examples. Extended intervals? Dave Matthews Band has made a career playing riffs with tenths (also, the Beatles). More advanced harmony? Hello, Steely Dan.

When I was teaching more regularly, I unknowingly took this approach with students both for theoretical concepts and techniques. I once had a young teenage girl come in for her first lesson. We started talking about music she was into and almost immediately she mentioned Paul Gilbert. What? That took us down the path of some shred, classic rock, and even a bit of prog that she would likely not have checked out for a while had we started with the dawn of rock guitar and moved forward.

Tools and Mentors

I blame Kevin Rose.

Back in the early days of podcasts I listened to quite a bit of tech-focused pods because they were on the bleeding edge of this new medium. One of my favorites was Diggnation with Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht. Basically, it was two tech nerds sitting on a couch, drinking beer, and laughing at the internet. It was on one of these episodes that I heard about Tim Ferriss.

Remember when Super Size Me came out? That move about how you could literally die if you ate only McDonalds for a month. Well, Tim does that kind of stuff. He’s a literal human guinea pig for health, productivity, mindfulness, and so much more. Although I doubt he’s taken a fast food death march. Since hearing about him from Kevin Rose I’ve kept up with Tim’s blog, podcast, and books. His first few books, part of a “four-hour” trilogy, were centered on trying to improve the quality of your work life, understanding your health, and learning how to learn. I casually looked through them, but none of them really connected with me.

Until these two came along.

After experimenting on himself to discover new ways to develop muscle or the most efficient way to cook a steak, it seemed like Tim decided to turn the microscope, so to speak, on the most successful people he could find. Tools for Titans is a series of dozens of short interviews with some of the most interesting people in the world. Curious about addiction advice? It’s in there. Looking to streamline your morning routine? That’s in there, too. Wanna get into meditation? This book has you covered. It’s not really a book that you sit down and read front to back. Just have it out and when you have five minutes open it up and learn something new.

The other side of this coin is Tribe of Mentors. Although it’s similar in scope and format, the presentation is different. Here, Tim painstakingly came up with a set of 11 questions to ask a series of people as if they were your mentor. (The chapter on how he devised, edited, and arranged the questions is worth the price of the book alone—especially for interviewers.) My colleague Andy Ellis is a recent convert to these last two Tim books and he has since bought the set for his son as well.

Of course, none of this advice means anything unless you put it into context and action. For me, it’s 30 days. What is it for you?

New Album Feels

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My band (The Bamboozlers) just finished our first album of original material.

It’s quite a feeling to see something that you had a hand in creating — from the earliest stages — come over the finish line. I’ve been playing with group for close to eight years now and some of the songs on this album have been hanging round for a good four or five. One of the questions I almost always ask artists that I write about is the feeling when something that you’ve lived with for so long is finally out into the world. Interestingly enough, every answer is slightly different, but the intent and perspective is the same.

I get it now.

It’s one thing to toil away and chip away at ideas, lyrics, or riffs. It’s entirely different when you take your hands off and send it out into the world. And that’s exciting.

I’ll share more details and info on the album after we formally announce all the details, but until then make a point to finish something and send it on its way.

Grant Green’s Solo on “Cool Blues”

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Here is Grant’s Transcribed Solo on “Cool Blues”

Grant Green is one of my biggest influences. I first heard about him from my guitar teacher in college, who didn’t care for him too much.  I then was a casual listener until I became friends with Corey Christiansen.  Corey is the closest to a GG scholar that I have ever met.  He has literally written the book on Grant’s playing style.

This solo on “Cool Blues” was one I transcribed in college for a blues improvisation class.  It is a great example of Grant’s style in a medium blues setting.  I am a firm believer that nobody could hang with Grant when it came to playing over a blues.

I also isolated some of Grant’s key phrases and wrote those out below

Grant Green Licks

Finally, one of my favorite (and only) videos of Grant.  Here is his playing with Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessell.  I love both Kenny and Barney’s playing, but on this gig neither one can touch Grant.

An Autobiographical Dave Matthews Playlist

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If it wasn’t for Dave Matthews, I probably would have never picked up the guitar. Over the years my fandom has gone up and down, but I still buy a physical copy of every studio album they put out. It’s the least I can do.

Below I put together a playlist of 10 of my favorite DMB jams with a little memory about each one. If it wasn’t for my parents letting me go see the band on 8/17/95 at Palmer Auditorium … well, I’d be willing to bet my life would be considerably different.

“What Would You Say”
Like many people, I first heard of DMB through MTV — you know, when that was where people learned about new music for the first time. The opening guitar riff was unlike anything I had ever really heard before. He was playing slippery, angular slides in this syncopated pattern that was so foreign to my ears.

“Typical Situation”
Imagine this. It’s your 9th grade talent show and you and some friends decide to play one of your favorite songs for the audition. You work incredibly hard learning the seeming impossible chords and riffs and everything feels good after the rehearsal in the hallway. The audition starts and everything is going well, and then … your mind goes blank, the song turns into a trainwreck, and you don’t make it. Yep. That happened to me.

“All Along the Watchtower”
Arguably, this could be first on the list. On 8/17/95 (two days after this live album was recorded) I went along with a friend to see DMB at Palmer Auditorium. Dionne Farris opened. The only songs I knew were “What Would You Say” and “Ants Marching” since they were in rotation on MTV. That night the encore was “Watchtower” and I distinctly remember thinking, “Wow, I had no idea they wrote this song!” It wasn’t until a year or so later that I realized that DMB didn’t write the song — Hendrix did. Hey, this was before the internet.

“So Much to Say”
By this time, I was a die-hard fan. Once I heard Crash was coming out, I made sure to show up on release day to get my copy — remember that? The intro riff has to be one of the most difficult in the DMB catalog. It’s so funky, percussive and swinging. I’m still trying to crack the code on it to this day.

“Stay (Wasting Time)”
I was a junior in high school when their best album, Before These Crowded Streets, came out. It was by far their deepest musically, but “Stay” has this infectious gospel feel to it. I remember seeing them on 12/18/98 hoping they would break this out. They made me wait until the set closer, but it happened. Still bummed I missed being there for Live in Chicago by one day.

“Pantala Naga Pampa” > “Rapunzel”
These go as one, because I don’t think they’ve ever been performed individually before. I distinctly remember bringing the CD home, sitting in front of my stereo and hitting play. PNP was this fun, light groovy jam. Then when “Rapunzel” kicked it with its odd-time syncopation my brain warped a bit. I had never felt a song in an odd-time signature move me so much. Soon after this I discovered Rush.

“41”
Welcome to the jam. It’s always exciting when the band breaks this out. Although not as many DMB tunes lend themselves to stretched-out, exploratory jams, “41” is a blissful canvas that allows the main soloists (usually Boyd or Jeff) to take their time and really spread their wings. This version is a highlight, but I’d also recommend checking out the version on Live Trax 19.

“Grey Street”
Some might say this is just “Tripping Billies” V2.o, but I disagree. Yes, the intro riff uses tenths and is syncopated, but the groove is so syncopated and funky thanks to one of Carter’s most recognizable intro fills. Busted Stuff might be in my top 3 DMB albums.

“Shake Me Like a Monkey”
With the Big Whiskey album, I really felt like the band was back. Cindy and I caught them in Hartford right after this album came out and by far this was the one track I wanted to hear. It didn’t happen. However, the energy and horn parts that Jeff and Rashawn put on this is unbelievable. So much so, that I can’t even listen to a Dave and Tim version.

“Two Step” 
I was there! Finally, after decades of just missing out on being at an officially released show, it finally happened. This was the second night of a two-night stand at Chicago’s best stadium. A few days earlier I had done a Rig Rundown with Tim in Omaha and we worked out to do Dave’s rig at the Wrigley show. In my opinion, this is the most stylistically unique DMB tune. It has bluegrass blast beats, a meaty improv section, and a huge sing-along chorus.

Book of Mormon

Hasa Diga Eebowai!

I know I’m behind, but believe the hype.

Friday night, my wife and I (finally) went and saw BoM. In short: It was great, but leave the kids at home. I almost got to see BoM of Broadway a few years ago when I travelled to NYC to do a series of Rig Rundowns with some Broadway shows.

 

Maybe it was because I just played in a local production of Bridges of Madison County, but I paid a bit more attention to the musical interludes this time. In Bridges we had tons of different cuts, repeats, and entirely different sections placed throughout the main numbers. We did everything from big band jazz to minimalist monophonic pieces. I’ve had a few friends do some pretty serious Broadway work and that steady, but monotonous, work seems like a pretty rewarding discipline.

 

David Grisman is Cooler Than You

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A while back I wrote a feature on the amazing Jon Stickley and his futuristic trio of boundary-breaking musicians. While we were talking Jon mentioned how much he loved the first David Grisman Quartet album. It was time I went back and checked some of that out, so I dug up this video of the group playing “E.M.D” and wrote down some notes as I watched it.

  • How about that lineup? It’s a band full of bandleaders. (RIP Rob.)
  • :08 – Love the counterpoint during the head. Definite jazz influences in both the melody and how Wasserman treats the bassline.
  • :21 – I’m weirdly interested in picking styles. Interesting to note here how Grisman has a more “open” hand placement where someone like Thile keeps it close and tight.
  • :33 – Again, Wasserman is a flat-out master. His transition to a walking line for O’Connor’s solo is easy to miss.
  • 1:11 – Here comes Tony.
  • 1:24 – Great shot of one of the best picking hands ever to work a flattop.
  • 1:29 – Ok. What’s the verdict on planting your pinky? I tend to go back and forth, but usually I let it float.
  • 1:35 – Ooooh. That break. Unbelievable.
  • 2:03 – Yeah, you can tell Dawg knew how to play over these changes. He’s completely relaxed and making all the turns.
  • 2:14 – I feel like I need a red velvet jacket. Like right now.
  • 2:29 – What show is this from? Hee-Haw?
  • 2:43 – Wow. Look how much Tony angles his pick forward.
  • 2:50 – There’s so much swing in Tony’s lines. Hillbilly bebop.
  • 3:11 – So that’s where Thile got that from.