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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Two Great Guitarists Cross Over - Too Soon

Obsessive obituary readers (like me) often notice that some deaths seem connected. Of course, this isn't true - unless your talking about folks who die with a bunch of people in an auto wreck or something. But the news today was quite eerie - Hiram Bullock and Joe Beck both died in the past week.

Hiram Bullock was an amazing player and a flamboyant individual. He was a very adaptable musician, but his music came from the pop/rock/funk side. He was best known for playing in the original band for "Late Night with David Letterman" (On Monday night, Letterman did a special tribute to Hiram). It is a shame that he is gone -- Hiram was only 52. Here is a link to his obituary in the New York Times.

Last week, Joe Beck died. He was almost 63 years old - still young . Like Hiram, Joe could play with everyone, but his music came from the jazz side. He collaborated with a wide range of artists - from Miles Davis to Frank Sinatra to James Brown. Here is a link to Joe's obituary from his hometown newspaper.

Hiram and Joe both played with David Sanborn (the great jazz fusion alto saxophonist). They also both collaborated with Gil Evans, the great jazz composer and arranger. These two fanatastic guitarists moved in the same circles, and left the scene together.

Yeah, its a coincidence, but still eerie.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dragonfly Swarm

When the weather is decent, I take my exercise early in the morning, riding my Cannondale bike along the Evanston lakefront. The bike path winds north along the eastern edge of the Northwestern University campus. Many years ago, NU created a greenspace by filling in a bit of Lake Michigan and creating a small penninsula. Since this "lakefill" juts out into the water, its environment differs from the "natural" lake front. There are lots of gnats and midges, seagulls and mosquitoes. As I was riding one recent morning, I looked around and realized that I was in the middle of a dragonfly swarm! It was eerie - the morning sun sparkled on their wings and you could hear them humming. I didn't realize the these bugs swarmed; here is a chunk of info I found when I sniffed around the web:

Several species of dragonfly are known to collect in large swarms. In most cases this appears to be due to very favorable feeding conditions in the area. It may also be a "courting" group with males actively searching for females. This is less likely as males are much more aggressive to each other when looking for a mate.

Some dragonflies gather in swarms before moving to a new area (like a bird migration). The reasons for this are unclear but may be due to population pressures. There are records from the US of migratory swarms.

For some reason, being in a dragonfly swarm was uplifting.........

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Weekend of Gigs

As I rode my bicycle at dawn along Lake Michigan this morning, I was reflecting on the fine musical weekend that just passed. The Mystery Band was a pure blues unit on Friday and was a jazz/blues hybrid on Saturday. We had two musicians that played their first gig with the group over the weekend, and they handled the challenge well.

On Friday, I had the honor of playing with the great Felix Reyes, also known as "Uncle Fe." This was his first gig with the Mystery Band. Felix hails from Dallas and now lives in Chicago, but he spent quite a bit of time in Atlanta. His first band, in Texas, was called the "Weebads" (fabulous name!!). In Atlanta, his band, Felix and the Cats was a very important pillar of the Atlanta blues community. The Cats played B.B. Kings birthday party in the mid-90's and also played at the Atlanta Olympics. Mr. Reyes was also instrumental in the development of several young blues players, most notably the young guitar phenom, Sean Costello who recently died before reaching his 29th birthday. Felix and Sean are pictured together at the top of this post. Felix moved to Chicago several years ago and he is a fantastic guitarist, songwriter and vocalist (he wrote tunes for Susan Tedeschi and currently does music production work for the Oprah Winfrey Show and independent films). This cat is very heavy, and he just killed on Friday. The other members of the Mystery Band on Friday were all top Chicago blues veterans - Harlan Terson on bass, Tom Crivellone on guitar, and Aaron Almon on drums. These aren't my regular bandsmen, but the group sounded tight and we were having lots of fun.

The Friday night gig at Bill's Blues started slow, but turned into a frenetic dance party when a large group of folks came in at around 10:30 p.m. They had just left a wedding reception and were is a party mood (many had consumed a number of adult beverages prior to their arrival at Bill's). We had women down on the ground kicking up their legs and flashing their scanties to various interested observers. It was a very fine night for the Mystery Band.

On Saturday, a different Mystery Band assembled at Duke's Bar in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood. Duke's is a classic Chicago tavern with a small side room that contains a tiny stage and P.A. system. The Mystery Band plays there regularly (for the giggles, not the money). On Saturday, the Mystery Band consisted of Mike Finnerty and the Heat Merchants, with Mr. G up front on harmonica and vocals. Mike Finnerty is one of the tenor sax giants of Chicago; his band consists of Andy Meacham on guitar, Adam Kraus on upright bass and "Street Beat Pete" Castranova on drums (this was Pete's first gig with the Mystery Band). The Heat Merchants are not completely familiar with the various blues grooves typically explored by the Mystery Band, but the typical Mystery Band is not generally familiar with the changes to "Body & Soul." It was an interesting gig. We played blues, jazz and country tunes. We had some great moments and some not-so-great moments. Duke's Bar lets patrons bring their dogs into the joint, so we had two canines wandering around as we played.

These Mystery Band shows are always great evenings, full of stories and odd moments. They are times to be treasured.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blues Life

Here is a beautiful picture of Howlin' Wolf with Jody Williams, Hubert Sumlin and Earl Phillips. This was one of the finest blues groups ever, no doubt. I always found Jody Williams' life story to be very interesting - he was in the blues life, and he bailed out. After getting "sampled" (but not paid) by various artists, and after getting snookered out of some songwriting credits by his old bandmate, Bo Diddley, Mr. Williams turned his back on music. He stuck his Gibson guitar under his bed and went off to study electronics. Jody did radio and television repair work, and later got a gig as a technical engineer for Xerox. He was with the copier company for 25 years until he retired. It was after he retired that he eventually decided to start playing again - he emerged in 2000. Jody probably did a good thing for his physical and mental health by leaving the blues life. Let me tell you another story.....

I have had the pleasure of playing with many fine blues people over the past 4+ years since I kicked off the Mystery Band. One of the men I have come to know is an especially talented musician. He has it all - technique, a huge musical vocabulary (blues, R&B, funk, jazz, country) and he still loves to play after over 4 decades of mileage. My friend is a deep well of musical wisdom and creativity. He also is struggling with health problems, relationship problems and acute money problems. This man is in a rough situation. He is neck-deep in the blues.

So check out this chain of events: (1) My friend's car develops problems; it is stalling unpredictably and he is nervous about driving to gigs. (2) The mechanic that looks at his car tells him "you need at least $800 worth of work." Lacking the bread, my friend reclaims his car. (3) An argument with his intoxicated significant other leads to a scene and she busts the windshield of the car. Now it can't be driven at all. (4) Unable to drive to gigs, my friend's cashflow declines - not much dough available to repair the car. (5) After tapping friends for a loan, my friend gets his car partially repaired. (6) My friend parks the car in his usual spot in a lot in his very tough Chicago neighborhood. The car gets towed. (7) After paying a large fine to re-claim the car, my friend parks it on the street in his neighborhood. Within three hours of parking it, the car is stolen. He is forced to cancel his gigs for the coming weekend.

This is the type of negative loop that will bring a strong man to his knees. Sympathetic friends can help somewhat, but that source is finite. The blues life is a total bitch.

Light a candle for all the working musicians out there. As Eddy Clearwater likes to say, it is a hard way to make an easy living.