Book Review: “Up Jumped The Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson”

Summary

Of course I’ve been a fan of Robert Johnson for a long time, and added “The Complete Recordings” to my list of favorite blues records. Details on his life were fuzzy; but rumors, myths and stories abound. This book as meticulously researched by Bruce Conforth¬†and¬†Gayle Dean Wardlow, who each spent decades on it. I appreciated how the book was very clear about what parts are documented fact, which have strong records to support them, and which parts are more speculation. It doesn’t try to fool you into thinking a rumor is a fact, or vice versa. It’s an engaging, hard-to-put-down read and I can’t recommend it enough for fans of music, blues or simply early 20th century American history.

What I Learned

The great things about this book is that it brings you along as an itinerant musician in the American South during the late 20s and early 30s. It’s one thing to imagine and get focused on the romance and embellished stories; it’s something entirely different – something deeper and more real to read about how many miles they had to walk. Using train routes to get from town to town. The lack of accuracy with birth and death record. Growing up as a sharecropper in the deep south in the early 20th century – especially growing up and not wanting that life!

It was cool to see pictures of census forms and birth and death records. It was a bit revelatory how inaccurate those were. People took their best guesses at not just dates, but names. The book has aerial maps of land so you can see the location of key buildings and plantations in his life.

It was interesting for me to hear about the various musicians Robert Johnson played with on his travels – who he got along with, who he didn’t. He often performed – as was the norm for a lot of that music at the time – as a duo. One guitarist would play rhythm, one would play melody or lead. He would gig around with someone for a while, then take off for another destination. A lot more people played with him that I realized.

Another cool thing about the book was explaining the language used at the time, which helps explain some of the context. For example, when he sings “…with a rider by my side,” rider refers a girl he’s seeing.

On that note, I didn’t know Robert Johnson had married young. Part of the tragedy in his life is having two important women – his wife, and later a woman to whom he may as well have been married – both died. He kept in touch with the families, such that they were, but throughout the book those losses weighed heavily on him.

Finally, had no idea Robert Johnson had travelled so widely – from the delta up to Chicago, to Canada, and New York. While he obviously spent a lot of time in the delta, he was more worldly than I expected. This puts this line in “Sweet Home Chicago” about “California” into new light.. maybe a bit aspirational. The book also covers a lot of his specific routes from town to town, and which highways likely took him there. If I ever get back to that part of Mississippi, I may want to get this again as a map!

Visiting Missippi and Exploring Yourself

On that note, there is actually a really good iOSapp called the “Mississippi Blues Trail.” I can’t recommend it enough. A few years ago I visited the BB King Museum in Indianola, MS and the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. I wish I had the app at the time, I would have made more stops along the way. It was an amazing trip, and I really enjoyed both.

https://visitthedelta.com/the-blues

Where To Buy

I got it from my local library system (support your local library – it’s an incredible resource for your community!), but it’s available at your favorite bookseller. Obligatory Amazon link:

Inspiring Bands Hitting The Pavement

Note

I started this article before Covid lockdowns hit and the live music scene was decimated. I saw one of the artists I talk about below – Papa Chubby – the week before I got mandatory work from home orders. It took me a while to pick this back up and find the right angle. The gist is the same: supporting locally- and regionally-touring artists. Showing some love and respect to musicians that are following in the long historic footsteps of artists that made their living by hustling, working hard, and hitting the pavement every day. Give them a listen, view or stream; and if you like it, throw them a few bucks for some virtual content. Similarly, when your local venues open up again and you feeling safe, please give some love to these local places. They need you, the customer, and you always vote with your dollars.

Live, Local, Cheap and Easy

Lately I’ve seen a lot of smaller, local, regional or even nationally touring acts that have been inspiring because they’re out there putting in the mileage, hitting the pavement. No glamorous tour buses or five star hotels. Creating a community, building a fan base one at a time, bonding as either a group of friends or as family. I want to call a few of these groups out, and bring visibility to the smaller acts that are bringing great music to all corners of the country. Think about how you can support these artists, now more than ever. I had been really enjoying going to closer, cheaper and more fun concerts from these artists compared to the big arena or festival bands.

Ida Mae

I first saw this husband-wife duo a year ago opening for Greta Van Fleet. I liked them then, but seeing them more recently in a smaller venue opening for Tommy Emmanuel was much better. Their blend of acoustic blues and country connects better in a more intimate venue.

Visit Ida Mae Music to learn more, buy music, and keep up with them!

Ida Mae on Spotify

Marbin

It’s been a few years, but when I saw Marbin at the Blue Bamboo performing art center (basically a 50 person capacity room) I was really inspired. This sparked the “bands out there hitting the pavement” line of thought. They’re an incredible four piece fusion group, consisting of drums, bass, guitar and horn. They music is fun and interesting, each of the musicians is great, and what really comes across in these smaller shows is that each song had a great story behind it. With instrumental music like this, hearing the stories behind the music really helps connect.

Another thing that’s great about these small, local venues is that my seats were fantastic! The Blue Bamboo has tables set up in the room, for all unobstructed views and comfort. They also serve a selection of nice beers, and cheap popcorn.

You also never know what you’ll find at local places. They have a small bookshelf with CDs and DVDs for sale – some new, some used. A few years back I heard an incredible jazz piece on the local jazz radio station, and I liked it so much I kept humming the main part to myself and went back as soon as I got home to look up the play list. It was Martin Bejeramo’s TRIO Miami and the song was the Reckoning Song. The Blue Bamboo had their disc – with the long I loved for $2. Can’t beat that! I had it in my Amazon cart for years, and the album cover is very recognizable, but I just couldn’t bring myself to purchase.

Visit Marbin Music to learn more, buy music, and keep up with them!

Marbin on Spotify

Eric Gales

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eric Gales. He’s made quite a name for himself over the many years of his career, but especially recently. He has an incredible life story of early fame, terrible fall, jail and a renewed life and career. I’d heard of him, but he came to the local (The Alley in Sanford, FL) blues club a few years back and I saw him twice. I was getting burned out on blues/rock, but he reignited my faith and love of the genre. It was incredible – the passion and soul he pours out on stage is so inspiring. The whole band cooks, and they do a perfect combination of blues, rock, and R&B.

His album “The Bookends” was my favorite album of 2019. I went up there (it’s about a 30-40 minute drive) twice to see him, but for $20-$25 tickets, great seats at a nice bar with good BBQ, you really can’t beat it. The place was pretty packed, and the crowd was into it both times I went. He’s since started playing some bigger places, and doing the Bonamassa Blues Cruise, which I’d love to attend some day. I hope Eric all the best in his renewed and revitalized career, and I’m glad I got to see him in a small place!

Visit Eric Gales Band to learn more, buy music, and keep up with him!

Eric Gales on Spotify

Popa Chubby

Popa Chubby is a long-established blues/rock singer and guitar player hailing from New York. A new blues-focused club/restaurant opened up not too far from me – Dexter’s New Standard in Orlando/Winter Park, FL. It’s much closer than The Alley, and on a whim I went out to see him, both because I wanted to see him and because I wanted to support this new venue.

His set was hit or miss – I could do without the overplayed Hendrix covers (like Hey Joe) – but I dug some of his originals. The title track on his latest album – “It’s a Hard Road” was pretty cool. He had a good, solid band and has a great voice to go with his classic, edgy strat tone. For $20 and a 10 minute drive, coupled with reasonably priced craft beers made for a really fun night of blues/rock.

Visit Popa Chubby to learn more, buy music, and keep up with him!

Popa Chubby on Spotify

Michael Angelo Batio

M.A.B. is somewhat of a legend in the shred guitar field. He played by himself, with backing tracks and big 50+ inch monitors behind him. That said, he had real amps and the sound was great. For twenty bucks and a 15 minute drive to the bar, it was a steal. What surprised me most was how incredibly entertaining he was. Every song had a great story leading to it, and it wasn’t just a million notes a second for two hours. Super fun. The Shovelhead Lounge in Longwood, FL is a local metal institution, and they’ve found a great niche. It’s 15 minutes door-to-door from my house, parking is easy, tickets are always cheap and the staff is friendly.

I wrote a detailed review of his show here.

Visit HandsWithoutShadows to learn more, buy music, and keep up with him! He does a lot of teaching on both Youtube and his entertaining Facebook page. Check them out as well! \m/ \m/

Michael Angelo Batio on Spotify

Real Life Van Stories

This a pretty interesting and entertaining read about the less glamorous side of van tours:

https://www.talkhouse.com/the-van-from-hell/

What Great Regional/Smaller Acts Have YOU Seen and Been Inspired By?

My Favorite Blues Records

I fell in love with the blues in the early-mid 90s, when a friend turned me on to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” Before then, I was really only into metal and classic rock. If it didn’t have pointy guitars and Marshall stacks, I wasn’t particularly interested… outside of a few bands like Pink Floyd and Hendrix, etc. I was aware of blues – through classic rock & radio – but not an active listener. In college my tastes expanded a little, but it was still more interested in the metal side of music. As I started to really get into guitar, my ears expanded, and “Texas Flood” hit me hard. What struck me was that it was so powerful, but not about doom and gloom. It was human, it was real life, it covered a range of emotion. It never connected with me that music could be so powerful and positive at the same time. So, that was my gateway. After that, I moved pretty quickly into blues and only blues, which also took years to get out of… but it was life changing. Blues is still at the core of my playing in part because I fell so hard for it right when I was developing as a player.

Here are some of my favorite and most impactful blues records… some are albums everyone (hopefully) has, some might be a bit off the beaten path. What are your favorites?

Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Pressure Cooker

I love this record because Gatemouth is such an eclectic player, and such a melting pot. He mixes up blues, jazz and country into his own unique style. Interestingly, I picked up a compilation of his earlier works and it’s very much in the style of T-Bone Walker. I was fortunate enough to get to see Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown do a live acoustic show in New Orleans at the LMNOP music conference around 1999. He was as great acoustic as he was electric, and it’s side of him I’d never heard before.

I also recommend “Blackjack.” If you want a bit more of his Louisiana style (and fiddle playing), check out “Gate’s On the Heat.”

BB King – Live In Japan

While BB is my favorite of the 3 Kings, and my favorite blues musician. Across his wide catalog of stutio and live albums, Live in Japan is my favorite. Perhaps my love of it is fueled in part by a memorable late nigh drive from Buffalo to Chicago in a snowstorm, BB’s incredible voice coming through the car stereo, the band cooking, pure love radiating out of our van’s speakers. I also love the adventurous nature of the record, with jams like “Hiraki #88” and “Jammin’ at Saneki hall” spicing things up from the array of hits and classics. His “Hummingbird” on this album also blows me away. If you’re only familiar with Completely Well or Live at the Regal, give this a serious listen.

Freddie King – Live at the Electric Ballroom

What is there to say about Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball, other than he’s one of the Three Kings. His tone is incredible, his phrasing is incredible, his voice is incredible. He’s pure blues, but funky and soulful. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is one of my all-time favorite blues songs. It’s a great overview of Freddie King, and an album everyone should have.

http://www.alltime-records.com/01-albums-0002/0002126.php

Muddy Waters – The Best of Muddy Waters

While I love pretty much everything Muddy has ever done, this was the album that opened my ears to acoustic blues, despite coming into the genre via electric guitar. Of course, Muddy was the guy that built that bridge across the country and blew the genre wide open. The Best of Muddy Waters is where you can hear the ache and cry of humanity, and for a suburban white kid from Wisconsin, get a glimpse into a completely different side of America. It’s a slice of history. It was raw, dirty, and dangerous… but also tender, loving, and soulful. This is the record that helped me understand where the music came from, and started my journey digging backwards in time.

Buddy Guy Live – The Real Deal with GE Smith and the SNL Band

Buddy Guy had quite a run of great albums in the 90s. This live album, captured at his club Legends, is a highlight to me. The interplay he has with the band is fantastic, and it’s fun to hear him go back and forth with GE Smith and Johnnie Johnson. He’s one of those performers who makes great records, but really shines live. The stories, the interaction with the audience… it all adds up to a great listen. His tone is classic 90s Buddy Guy and the band sounds fantastic. Their version of “My Time After A While” is the highlight.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood

For me, the record that started it all. This was the album that showed me powerful music didn’t have to be about demons and warfare. It could be about humanity, positivity, real life. It opened my eyes not just to blues, but to the rest of the world of music.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_Flood

Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings


There’s probably not much to say about this incredible compilation, other than everyone should own it. I learned so many of these songs. I want to call out that to me it’s not his amazing guitar playing, it’s his voice. That’s what’s so haunting. The edgy, provocative lyrics were also pretty mind-blowing. To think these were performed in the 1930s! That takes guts. Its’ a lot more risque than some guy dorpping F-bombs nowadays.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complete_Recordings_(Robert_Johnson_album)

Hal Galper Master Classes

These are mandatory, frequent listens… I discovered them about ten years ago, and come back to watch them all a couple of times every year. They changed my life. No matter what instrument or what genre, these are worth your time.

The Illusion of an Instrument

This was the first one I watched and it blew my mind. It was one of those moments of complete revelation, but also something I already had an internal feeling of. He articulated it, brought it to light, and changed the way I looked at music forever.

One of the best videos on youtube

Attitude is Everything

What I love about this is that it’s so completely applicable to all of life. It’s not just music he’s talking about.

True in music, true in life.

Technique

These are more music-specific than the above two, but definitely worth frequent review.

More on Hal Galper

Please visit halgalper.com for more information, music, lessons, touring, etc.

Here is his music on Spotify and Amazon.

He also wrote a very interesting-sounding book titled “Forward Motion.” I intend to check it out some time, but it’s one of those things I want to make sure I actually have time to dig into before buying.

Playlist

Youtuber Jazz Video Guy put a whole bunch of Hal’s masterclass videos in a convenient playlist.

Live Show Review: Michael Angela Batio

Thursday, January 30 I got to see Michael Angela Batio (heretofore referred to as MAB) perform at the Shovelhead Lounge in Casselberry (Orlando’s home for metal and shred, and a great place to see shows). I debated whether or not to go. I like shred in small doses, and I’ve had mixed experiences seeing shredders live. These days, between family and work, I have to pick and choose which concerts to go to very carefully. I also can’t be up until 2am and then get up at 6am… When the ticket said “7:30” I didn’t know if that meant the first of four opening bands started at 7:30 but MAB goes on at midnight… I messaged him on Facebook and he responded the same day that he expected to go on around 8:15. Fantastic! Before we get to the show itself, kudos to MAB for being so responsive and helpful to fans.

MAB – Shredder Extraordinaire

A Word on Shred

To me, “shred” is a genre – it’s guitar-driven, instrumental heavy metal. Musicians can shred – verb – on any instrument. It can be short for “woodshed” – to intensely practice. There are lots of guitar players considered shredders, whether they play instrumental music or not. Examples include Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Jeff Loomis and of course Michael Angelo Batio.

The Show

To put it simply, this was one of the best shred shows I’ve seen. He played solo, using backing tracks. The sound and mix were quite good – not too loud, but nothing got drown out. His tone was great. I had my mild ear plugs in, but didn’t need foam, and I never got ear fatigue. The Shovelhead is pretty small, so I was able to sit at the bar for about a third of the show, and up front for the rest. I never had a problem seeing or hearing clearly.

What made this show special is that before every song he told an entertaining and usually funny story to give the song context. Not only did it draw you into the music, and give you an insight into him as a person and musician, but it gave your ears a rest between songs that featured lots and lots of notes. The storytelling and humor made the show. I’ve seen other shredders just go up and play song after song with no break, and while I like the music, it’s hard to take in like that.

MAB is a great storyteller…

My wife made a comment at that it was like the folk and Americana acts we used to go see frequently – and that’s spot on. It was interesting how well between-song storytelling sets up this type of dense music, obviously very different from folk. He came across as such a nice, authentic, passionate, friendly and funny guy. You can’t help but have fun. His personality came across so well – it added a lot to balance and complement the technical nature of the music.

I also loved that he was so inspirational to listen to. He expressed over and over how grateful he was to be there, to have such a long career, and to have played with so many other great musicians. He exuded positive energy, and you coudn’t help but root for him. MAB was unapologetic about his musical direction (although many may not know he studied jazz and spent time writing jingles). I loved his attitude that you have to be yourself, do what you love and what you believe in, and don’t worry about the people that try to tear you down. You’ll never please them, anyways. I’ve heard a lot of other great musicians, including Steve Vai, express a similar viewpoint.

The Music

He kicked off the show with tributes to Dimebag Darrel and Randy Rhoads – both set up with great stories of his background with them. Later on he did a tribute to Metallica. Each one featured familiar riffs and vocal melodies played on guitar; some solos close to the original performer, some his own version. I thought it worked well.

I’m honestly not that familiar with MAB’s catalog, and with that in mind I was pleasantly surprised that he played two of my favorite songs of his: Rainforest and Hands Without Shadows.

Showmanship

MAB is known for playing super fast, and while his technique on the instrument is incredible he can craft a great melody. The barrage of notes is mixed with singable lines. Like the show overall, it makes everything more listenable than some others in the genre. All that said, seeing him perform live, and seeing how fast and clean he played, was pretty mind-blowing as a guitarist.

The Gear

I was surprised that he did not play his long-used Dean guitars, but instead relied on an array of Sawtooth guitars and amps. When he first warmed up I thought his tone was a little too saturated for my tastes, which sometimes happens with shred, but actually it worked great once he started going with the backing tracks. It emphasizes the concept that tone is in the hands (or probably more accurately, in the ears). Sawtooth isn’t an expensive, boutique brand of instruments. In the hands of a great player, they sounded great.

He had a small wall of Sawtooth amps, and for most of the show he played a double humbucker S-style, pulling out a LP-style as well. I was surprised to see he had a double-neck tele-style guitar (instead of his trademark metal-looking double neck). It was cool, and the crowd was psyched when he pulled it out and did all the fancy stuff.

Tapping on the Double Neck

Lots of fun, amazing technique, and great showmanship. That’s a MAB show. Go see him if you get a chance. Current tour dates here.

Listen More

MAB was fairly famous for his articles in Guitar World, as well as his Speed Kills instructional video. Check those out if you want to explore the genre of shred.

Follow and listen to MAB on Spotify here:

Listening To: Rick Wakeman

A few weeks ago I randomly picked up Rick Wakeman’s “Classic Tracks” at the Daytona Flea Market. I love going there, you never know what you’ll find. I knew the name Rick Wakeman, but couldn’t place that he was the keyboard player for Yes. I’d been listening to a lot of prog lately, and since it was in the $2 bin, it was worth a shot. What a great record! I’ve been listening nonstop for weeks.

Fantastic Cover Art

The Tracks

Journey to the Center of the Earth – a 31 minute epic musical journey through Jules Verne’s fantastic tale. Rick Wakemans’ musical retelling of the story is a masterpiece, but what really surprised me was the killer guitar solo by Jim Gentry. It’s atmospheric, grooving, heavy… the song captures everything.

Catherine Howard – from his album “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” has as much variety as you’d want. It starts with beautiful acoustic guitars and segues into bluegrass-flavored synths. Some of the keyboard tones capture a harpsichord feel as well, perhaps bringing the listener back to the Age of Kings.

Merlin the Magician – now this is prog… a mash-up of styles and genres, starting with a heavy bass groove. Keys drift on top, with their melody adding an air of mystery. The lyrics are supported crunchy heavy guitars and more killer keyboard solos. Halfway through the song shifts dramatically to a whimsical and fast section, followed by a return to the groove and lyrics.

The cool thing about Rick Wakeman’s solo albums – and the songs on “Classic Tracks” – is that it’s 100% prog rock, but also accessible. I find Yes to be more of an acquired taste. I really have to listen, and be in the mood. I can put on and enjoy Rick Wakeman’s stuff a lot more often. Check it out!

The Players

  • MUSICIANS
  • Rick Wakeman – keyboards
  • Michael Franklin – lead vocals, keyboards
  • Jim Gentry – guitars
  • Paul Parker – drums, percussion
  • Tim Franklin – bass, backing vocals
  • Tom Hook, Tess Franklin, The Full Sail Tabernacle Choir – additional vocals
  • PRODUCTION
  • Michael Franklin – producer
  • Don Oriolo – producer (exec.)
  • Stuart Sawney – recording engineer (Banjour Studio)
  • Gary Platt – engineer (Full Sail Platinum Post studio)
  • Ken Latchney, Nasser Sharif – assistants (Full Sail Platinum Post studio)
  • O. B. O’Brian, Phil Nicolo – engineers (Studio 4)
  • Jiff Hinger, Dirk Grobelny – assistants (Studio 4)
  • Jay Goodman – main tech
  • Tibor Kovalik – Artwork

Rick Wakeman’s Catalog

I’ve really enjoyed digging into his catalog, with this “greatest hits” type of album providing an effective gateway. I particularly liked “Best of the Bootleg Box”:

I also recommend 2000 A.D. Into the Future

Why CD & Vinyl Shopping Is So Fun

I’ve always enjoyed browsing flea markets, Goodwills and yard sales for CDs and records. As a music fan and a musician, there are tons of reason why. Here are a few of them.

Oh, The Things You’ll Learn (From Album Artwork)

Let’s start with the obvious one, although it’s not always about the artwork itself. It’s also about the writing on the back, or other “bonus” stuff. One of the cool finds I had recently ($2) was Uriah Heep’s Greatest Hits. It wasn’t the music, as I already had most of the songs, it was the chart on the back of the record that showed various members’ tenure with the group. What a cool find! Sure, I could probably find that on wikipedia if I searched, but why would I do that.. and when? This was one of those particularly nice bonuses to records you don’t get with mp3s or streaming.

You can’t get this from an mp3.
I love a good font

I’ll talk about it below, but I got a Rick Wakeman CD that I really love, Classic Tracks, and scanning the album notes I saw it has a connection to my home of Orlando, FL. How random! I was blown away by the guitar playing on this record, too, so it’s cool to be able to look it up and see who played on it. Sure I could search the internet, but I was listening to it with my kid in the kitchen. I didn’t want to – and didn’t have to – get up and go to the computer or pull out my phone. The liner notes were right there.

It’s not just the thrill of discovery of the music, but the things you learn from browsing the packaging.

It’s Economical!

To be honest, I’m not that into buying new vinyl at $30+ a pop. I do love finding records and CDs at garage sales, used shops and flea markets though. They’re CHEAP! I often find CDs at garage sales at 3-for-a-dollar prices. I get a lot of vinyl at flea markets or Goodwill for a few bucks. Even mp3s can’t compete with a $0.33 CD. I get that streaming services are a good deal for a lot of people, but personally I don’t want to be locked into $100+/year for a subscription, and if I ever decide to cancel the music is gone. I also don’t like being locked into having to be online. Sure, Spotify lets you download songs to play offline if you’re a paid subscriber, but you need to know ahead of time you want to download it… which kills the “discovery.” I think used CD & vinyl is a great deal.

Of course artists aren’t getting a cut of the used album sale, but they did get paid for the initial sale. I definitely do buy new music as well, and I support artists I love, but it’s not an either/or thing.

Incentive To Actually Listen

We’re so inundated with music these days, but I find I don’t listen to artists in any depth when on Spotify or Youtube. They’re great services for checking things out, but it’s always brief. Background. One and done. I have no incentive to listen to something over again and really get it. When you purchase a physical product – spend the money and hold the disc – it’s incentive to put it on and listen. If you spend money on something specific, even if it was $2, there’s an inherent desire to not waste that money. Even if it’s not an album I listen to very often, when I buy something, I always listen through at least once.

How many times have I heard Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” from Frampton Comes Alive? Hundreds? After all these years, I’d never sat down (or ran, or biked, or worked) and listened to the whole album. What a great record, top to bottom. The hits get overplayed, but the deep tracks get overlooked. I would never have bought this on iTunes or streamed on Youtube. But for $2, I figured the record was worth owning, and it absolutely was! Tracks like “Lines On My Face” are so good. I see now why the record earned so much respect. Without buying the vinyl, I never would have listened to it.

You Can’t Find That On Amazon… and Wouldn’t Think To

It opens you up to random music you wouldn’t otherwise hear. Browsing through bins of CDs or records sparks curiosity. Sure, you can find 95% of the music online, but would you know to even look for it? Would you take the time to listen to it? Even spending a few bucks and having the physical product is incentive to actually listen to new things.

Highly Recommended

For example, I knew the name Rick Wakeman (keyboardist in Yes), but never sought out his music. While I like Yes, I’d never even think to look up his solo work. It’s incredible! What a great album. I highly recommend it, and I got it for the low prices of ZERO. The flea market shop owner thew it in for me as I bought a bunch of other stuff.

I find so many things that catch my eye, CD and vinyl shopping has expanded my interests, knowledge of music, and my ear. Artists I’d heard of but never listened to; artists I love but hadn’t heard X album before; styles of music I wouldn’t go out of my way to find but fora $0.25 garage sale record – why not?

Be it garage sales, church sales, Goodwill or flea markets, there are oddball gems to be had…

I stumbled upon this Lord of the Rings concept album by Swedish multi-instrumentalist Bo Hansson. It’s very much in line with 70s prog, and very cool. I’d never find this on Amazon or iTunes

(Music Inspired By) The Lord of the Rings
Some Background Info…

Another time I bought a Paul Butterfield Blues Band record that had a newspaper clipping advertising a live show. Pretty cool bonus!

In Summary

Get out there and browse! Look at the artwork, read the packaging. Find something cool, new, old, unique… Streaming certainly has its place. Historically with music, convenience seems to win out in the market. It’s just not as much fun.

15th Anniversary of Zeyer

It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago! Stephanie and I headed into the studio in Summer 2014 to record a full album, which blended rock, blues, country and folk. I dubbed it a “tasty musical burrito,” stuffed with all those elements. Like the classic rock bands we grew up with, we wanted to mix our influences and interests into something unique. The songs had been polished up in both electric, full-band and acoustic duo versions over the preceding years so we only did a few rehearsals ahead of time.

Recording was done in just a few days, though it took a bit longer to mix. We moved from Chicago to Florida the day after our major sessions were done and had to make a few final tweaks by mail. Ah, the good ol’ days before dropbox…

As for gear, I used everything available – my SRV and 57 reissue strats were on most songs. My Dr. Z and Mesa combos were on most tracks. The studio had a full Marshall stack, which I cranked up for “Fire.” I also borrowed the studio Les Paul for a couple solos. I enjoyed the variety, and definitely wanted to make the record tonally varied and interesting. Hopefully that comes across.

The Music

You can read more about the project and album on the Zeyer page.

Fresh Perspective

After all this time, it’s a pleasant surprise to listen again and get a clean perspective. At the time you’re recording and gigging the material, it can be hard to be objective. In hindsight, we’d change a few things – more pronounced bass in “Ain’t Got Wings,” perhaps an organ solo in “3 O’Clock in the Morning.” Overall, though, I’m still proud of the record and I hope fans have enjoyed it.

My personal favorites are “Fire,” “3 O’Clock in the Morning,” and “God Fearing Woman.” Of course, being a blues fan, I gravitated towards those songs. What are your favorites? Let me know by sending me a message!

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It’s The Songs… Or Is It?

I hear over and over “it’s all about the songs” or “artist X is a good player, but he really needs betters songs.” Let me be clear, I don’t disagree that a good song is important. I appreciate the sentiment behind these statements – but what makes a good song is not easy to define. I’d argue that often the bar between a good song and terrible song is simply your personal preference. How much does the song connect with you? Ask 100 people what their favorite song on a classic album and you’ll likely find a lot of different answers. Ask 100 people if “popular song in genre X” is “good” and you’ll rarely get consensus.

Genre Preferences

If you listen to mostly metal, how much will a well-written country song appeal to you? Would you be able to say it’s a good song, even if you don’t like it? If you’re a big fan of prog rock, how much will you enjoy a well-written modern pop song? Lots of people – myself included – enjoy a wide variety of genres of music. That doesn’t mean I like everything, but even with genres or styles that don’t connect with me I can find something to appreciate. I suspect a lot of people have more narrow tastes, and they gauge the quality of the song itself against the context of their genre preferences.

I find this expressed a lot with blues. People say blue artist X is a good player, but they need better songs. It sure seems that I hear this from people that don’t listen to much blues, and don’t really like the genre. If you don’t think blues song X is good, what blues songs do you like? Is it really the song, or the performer? I tend to think that often it’s the latter – someone doesn’t really like the singer or guitar player or something, and it’s not really a lack in the song itself.

I grew up in the hayday of 80s hard rock and metal (Dokken, Def Leppard, Tesla, Ratt, etc). A lot of people have been disparaging that for decades. A lot of people say the songs are cringe-worthy. Lyrically, sure, there’s a lot to be desired in a lot of the material; but there are plenty of examples to the contrary. I’d also argue that a lot of those songs are really well-crafted. They have the pop craftsmanship and focus, with metal tone, attitude and musicianship. Great intros, hooks, nicely-placed bridges, mind-blowing solos… and they certainly resonated with a ton of people over many years.

How many people complain about the formulaic aspects of modern country and pop? To me, that’s a valid criticism. There is a lot of ‘formula’ writing. That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs with clever lyrics and great musicianship. They obviously appeal to a whole lot of people, and I must admit that from time to time I get modern pop songs stuck in my ear even though it’s not what I normally listen to and enjoy.

The Song or the Performer?

I had an interesting online discussion many, many years ago on a songwriter’s forum. We were talking about our favorite songs of all time, and one of the senior members made the clear distinction between the song and the performance. I hadn’t made that distinction before. I called out Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” as one of the greatest songs of all time, but truth be told, it’s really one of the greatest performances of all time (in rock, anyways). It’s not that it’s a bad song or anything. It’s amazing, it expresses and captures a feeling so incredibly well. I don’t know how well it stands on its own, though, if some other artist did a drastically different version. I often hear great performances that turn an unspectacular song into something really special, and it’s hard for me to draw the line. In my opinion, we can’t get too micro with music. Everything touches everything else, and trying to isolate individual aspects can lead you down an unending rabbit hole.

What Makes Good Songs

Then again, I hear a lot of mediocre stuff on blues radio: the lyrics are shallow and predictable, the music isn’t played with feeling and groove, and the arrangement is predictable and boring. I can’t always say with certainty what makes a given song connect, but here are a few things that make songs “good” to me regardless of genre:

  1. Interesting, well-crafted lyrics – for the love of God, please no more maxims and well-known phrases in song lyrics. If I never hear “rain fells like tears” or “cuts like a knife” again it will be too soon.
  2. Killer groove – rhythm is king! Period. If the song swings, drives or just grooves hard, that can get me moving and into it regardless of anything else.
  3. Great musicianship – could be a solo full of fire, an extension of amazing groove or a stunning voice.
  4. Melody – this one I put lower on the list because to me, melody is more important in some genres (pop, jazz) than others (blues, metal). A great melody sticks with you and brings you into the song even if you don’t understand the lyrics. It can completely define the song.
  5. Interesting changes – sometimes hanging on the I for 5 minutes totally works. It’s nice to have something to perk my ear, though. Does the song change at the right time and take you somewhere when it needs to? Does it have an intro that grabs you? Having a single chord progression loop from start to end – or maybe one verse progression and one chorus – isn’t always enough. Does the song lead you from one place to another or perk you up at the right time?

Bruce Forman’s “Mother Tunes”

If you haven’t checked it out yet, give a listen to the Guitar Wank podcast. It’s incredibly entertaining, funny and insightful. A while back – episode 99V – jazz guitarist extraordinaire and co-host of Guitar Wank conducted a special episode in which he walked through 10 “Mother Tunes” for folks learning jazz. What made this so special is that he explained exactly why each song was so important, and what it can teach you. It really sets the foundation to learn and play jazz well. He also touched a lot on how to learn songs effectively, how to solo, how to play these in every key, how to practice. In my opinion, it’s a must-listen discussion regardless which genres of music you like. If you’re a guitar player, you need to check it out.

My Journey

What’s interesting about this particular episode is that it mirrored my own experience. When I first got interested in playing jazz, I made a goal: “I’m going to learn to solo over Giant Steps!” Yeah… two months into that I figured I needed to take a step back and actually learn the building blocks of the genre. I opened up the Real Book and started learning some of the standards (including a few the Bruce calls out below). It was sooooo much more productive and fun. After learning a dozen or so standards, my ear started picking out ii-Vs, my reading improved, my ability to improve over slower, more basic changes improved. It gave me some kind of foundation to build on. It was absolutely the right approach, and I feel kind of silly jumping right from basically nothing into Giant Steps. Live and learn. Even though this was quite a few years ago, Bruce’s overview of these ten tunes has been really useful because of all the detail he goes into about why these tunes are valuable. What they can teach you. Just learning to play a song from the Real Book is one thing, but there’s so much more to learn from these songs than just being able to “get through them.” That’s why I loved this episode so much.

The Songs

All that said, let’s get to the songs. I’m going to summarize my takeaway from each, but please don’t stop at this. This is the Cliff Notes version at best. You’ll get a lot more out of actually listening to Bruce Foreman go through them in detail, and there’s a lot of side-information he covers. I’ll also call out little bits I personally want to practice with [Practice].

1. Summertime

It’s a minor blues, just a different form. The melody tells you what the chord needs to be. Learning that will make this and every other song make sense. There’s a little turnaround and relative major at the end of the form.

2. Honeysuckle Rose

It’s the best study of ii-Vs, and features an iconic melodic phrase (Charlie Parker used it all the time). [Practice] Try altering practicing that phrase over ii-Vs – come from below, come from above, etc. The bridge harmony is also iconic (AAB Form song). It goes to the key of the IV (ii – V I of the IV) | 2 Dom | 5 Dom. It’s a similar bridge to Take The A Train. Again, the key is always hearing the melody. Scrapple From The Apple = Honeysuckle Rose with the I Got Rhythm bridge.

3. Take The A-Train

The most obvious use of the II7 (2-Dom7 or V of the V). Other examples of the II7 – Girl from Ipanema, Jersey Bounce, etc. The note is actually the +11, the II7 doesn’t try to change keys, it just adds color. AABA, version of the Honeysuckle Rose bridge.

4. Autum Leaves

Teaches you and highlights the concept of Sequential Ideas. That’s what makes melodies work, and it makes solos work. [Practice] Your solos need to consider that every line should have some DNA from the line before. Learning the melody from Autumn Leaves should change the way you solo. [Practice] Learning in all 12 keys if you hear the melody intervallically! Practice finding these intervals with an easy tune (Happy Birthday). Play the melody all over the neck, using different fingers to start. Play the changes in zones (positions) – force yourself to find all the chords within those 3-5 frets. It’s the world’s best study of how relative minor and relative major live together. It ounces back and forth between major & minor (sounds bittersweet). 32 bar form, it gives you the impression of AAB, but B goes on…

5. All The Things You Are

Best study of the cycle of 5ths. All the melody notes are 3rds (note: 3rds are like the guitar player’s root, since the bassist usually covers the root). What a gift it is to really hear the 3rd of all those chords!

6. There Will Never Be Another You

Great example of backcycling / Bird-style changes. Similar to “Blues for Alice.” Just another way of playing the blues. Just a moving 5th. 8 bar A, 1st ending, 8 bar A, 2nd ending (A1 A2 tune). Goes to the IV, then 2dom, 5 dom, 1st ending, 2nd ending resolves. Most A1 A2 songs do this.

7. Just Friends

It starts on a IV chords – lots of songs do this. “Limehouse Blues,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” [Practice] strum the chords in 8th notes to really hear the motion – that motion is very common. Another A1 A2 song (note: A2 is where it resolves, but it needs to have a turnaround to set up the following chorus).

8. Green Dolphin Street

Introduces the “triadic shift” – could play it as a “bullfighter progression.” Parallel motion A1 A2 form. Miles Davis rewrote the 2nd A. A2 turnaround (36251 (E- A7 D- G7 C).

9. Ain’t Misbehaving / (Alternate: It Could Happen To You)

Both tunes teach the same thing. Ascends chromatically. [Practice] try this variation on chords (I learned it as D F#7 E-6 A7 instead of D D#dim, E-6 A7). They’re both fine, they’re interchangeable. Depends what kind of sound you wnat.

10. Stella By Starlight

Everybody plays it. In some ways, it’s a song that doesn’t make sense, but it works.

GuitarWank and Bruce Forman

I’ll repeat: this is a wonderful podcast, full of humor and wisdom. It’s not appropriate for kids, so language warning.

http://www.guitarwank.com

Here’s the page with Episode 99V: http://www.guitarwank.com/podcast?offset=1527480000157

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Please support Bruce as well, his records are awesome and he’s a blast live; http://www.bruceforman.com/