Live Show Review: The Aristocrats Live

It’s hard to believe it had been 6 years since The Aristocrats last came to Florida. Previously they played at West End in Sanford, a little bar just north of Orlando, and it was almost a religious experience. The place held about 100 people, and I was able to stand just a few feet away from Guthrie, Marco and Bryan. This year, they came to a slightly larger venue downtown Orlando and blew the packed house away. I really don’t need to write much for the review, other than wow. If you have any interest in progressive, instrumental music you need to go see the band.

It’s not just the mind-boggling level of musicianship from every member; but the humor, the interaction with each other and the interaction with the crowd that made it special. Bryan Beller got the crowd going for every song: leading chants, clap-alongs, cheering. While this is an instrumental band, he basically filled the (necessary) role of front man.

You Know What?

Touring on support of their new album “You Know What?” they played a great mix of new and old material. Happily they played my favorite track from the new album, “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.” Bryan Beller went through a lengthy backstory for how the song came about. Part of what made the show so much fun was hearing the backstories behind many of the new songs.

The new album is fantastic, as expected

Plastic Farm Animals

Happily, the plastic pig and chicken made a return!

Bryan Beller and Rubber Chicken – making sweet sounds
Marco Minnemann shares the spotlight with Rubber Pig

Final Thoughts

I was pretty tired by the time the Aristocrats took the stage, but I’m so glad I made it out. The musicianship is incredible, of course, but the humor and audience interaction puts they in a class way above most instrumental rock/fusion/shred bands. Highly enjoyable, and absolutely worth going to see.

How Long Have You Been Playing?

I totally get a non-musician asking the question. It makes sense, it’s not offensive… it’s looking for a very general answer. It might give someone a sense of beginner or expert. That said “I’ve been playing guitar X years” is a pretty worthless answer.

The first three years I played guitar, I didn’t learn much. I took lessons, but didn’t practice. I could play a couple of riffs, but no full songs. I didn’t know how to improvise. I had a terrible ear. I just didn’t practice much in those first few years. Steve Vai probably put in more hours on the fretboard in his first three years than I put in over my first twenty. No joke.

A Word from Mister Vai

“I never thought I’d amount to anything in the grand scheme of things. I thought everything I could do, I’m sure everybody could do. But the one thing I didn’t realize is that I was spending 10, 15 hours a day learning how to do it.” – Steve Vai

Math Is Fun!

Let’s do some math, shall we? 1 hour/week x 50 weeks/year = 50 hours/year. That’s probably where I was for the first couple of years I played. However, 1 hour/day x 300d/year = 300 hours/year. 4 hours/day x 300d/year = 1200 hours/year. 8 hours/day x 300d/year = 2400 hours/year. If I kept at the “one hour a week” thing it would take me 24 years to get as much time on the fretboard as someone playing 4 h/day. 24 years. And according to every Vai interview I’ve seen, he put in a lot more than that (see above)… even as an average.

So “I’ve played guitar 5 years” could mean a lot of different things. You might very well be a complete beginner after 5 years… or you could be professionally gigging.

Deliberate Practice

It’s also about deliberate practice. It’s not just raw hours, it’s what you do with them It’s how focused you are on getting better with that time. See my post on “5 Ways To Get The Most of Limited Practice Time” for more on that. The book “Talent is Overrated” also talks a lot about deliberate practice, and the concept behind that. It’s a great read, highly recommended.

The general concept of Deliberate Practice comes down to a few things:

  1. It’s specifically designed to improve performance – who’s designing it, are they qualified?
  2. It can be repeated a lot – it’s in the “learning zone,” and improvement needs frequency
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available – this is tricky with things like rhythm practice, how do you really know if you’re off – in the moment?
  4. It’s highly mentally demanding – no “autopilot”
  5. It isn’t (inherently) much fun – “if it were, everyone would be a master.” I’ve found a way to find joy and fun in even mundane practice. Once you get to that state, you’re in a good spot to improve.

So you can sit down and noodle over the same diatonic chord progression you’ve jammed over for years, and do it for hours and days without getting much better. You need to have the mindset of “what can I learn today” not “how much time can I spent today.”

So, how long have you been playing?

I won’t get offended if you say “five years.” Just keep in mind it doesn’t mean a whole lot. It might be better, at least when talking to other musicians, to talk about what you can do – “good at improvising, can’t play metal, can read okay, good ear but bad timing, big repertoire of rock but don’t really improvise, etc.”

Time Capsule From 1995

Last week I was cleaning out a file cabinet and found a package I had mailed to myself many years ago. Based on the addresses, it must have been ~1995. I remember living in that apartment my senior year of college and the following summer.

At that time I was in an alternative/rock band called Huckleberry. In my humble opinion, we had a great mix of influences that blended nicely. We were firmly in the alternative rock category, but everyone brought something different and it was a lot of fun. Our name came from a line in the now-classic 1993 western Tombstone, where Val Kilmer’s character Doc Holiday replies to Johnny Ringo “I’m your huckleberry” and answers his challenge.

Huckleberry cira 1995

We played around Chicagoland for a year or two, often in classy places like Carmie’s Lounge, which we decided “had a two tooth minimum.” It was my first “real” band, outside of just jamming at parties with friends, and we had a blast. I sure learned a lot as well. Nothing but good memories.

Live From Somewhere In Chicago

Apparently I mailed a tape to my parents’ address to try to copyright the songs. Somehow I ended up with it and kept it with my files for all these years.

I completely forgot we ever did a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Still in Hollywood” and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and his version of “Killing Floor.” My next band (with Huckleberry drummer) did an instrumental version of Machine Gun, but I didn’t recall doing it this far back. I’m a little nervous to hear myself back then… especially doing bluesy stuff, since I didn’t really get into blues for a few more years. I’m sure it’s terrible, but that’s half the fun of going back in time…

Songlist…

The First Play

And while I haven’t imported the whole thing yet (I do have other Huckleberry recordings), I took a video of the first playing of the tape in almost 25 years. The song is “Latty Dadi” – enjoy!

More Huckleberry Pics

Another great band photo – grunge era in full effect

Victory!
The line… for reference

Live Show Review: Greta Van Fleet Live

Not a lot of bands have the balls to do a drum solo after the first song of the set. That kind of cool and unexpected event marked one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. On a beautiful, warm evening in May, Greta Van Fleet took to the Orlando Amphitheater with tons of energy and blew the place away.

The Music

I loved that Greta Van Fleet delivered what I love about live music – they went beyond just playing their songs as-is. If you do it just like the record, why go see it live? On a few numbers they really stretched out, rode on the energy of the crowd, and took some familiar tunes in new places. I want to see interplay between the musicians. I want to see some chances taken. For all the flack Greta Van Fleet gets for their Zeppelin-isms, they take a lot more chances on stage than you might expect. Of course, their more popular tunes were all represented: Highway Song; Lover, Leaver; When The Curtain Falls; etc. I’ve been a fan for a while, but I was surprised how well I knew their catalog.

The Band

Josh Kiszka belting it out

Props to the whole band, but I want to call out a couple things. First, the singer, Joshua Kiszka, is a freak plain and simple. How he can hit those notes all night, show after show, is beyond me. He’s got a pretty high voice, but there’s gravel there. The way a bluesy rock singer should sound. I don’t know if he’s going to have a voice left when he’s 50, but for now he was incredible to see live. He’s also a great front man, and had the crowd engaged all night.

I also dug that Sam Kiszka (bass) did a number of songs on the organ, in the vein of John Paul Jones. It was a cool bit of variety. He’s a great bassist in that he holds down the low end and doesn’t overplay, but adds movement to the songs when necessary. Some bassists in rock bands just pound out eighth notes all night. Sometimes that’s what the song calls for, but some times you need the bassist to walk up to the IV, you need them to add a riff at just the right spot. He did that.

Brothers Rockin’

Props to Jake Kiszka’s guitar tone, which was thick, chunky and perfect for the music. It was ROCK guitar tone. He’s not necessarily a flashy player, but he serves the song whether through riffs, solos or extended improv jams. He did the blues rock thing, he played some slide, and pulled out the acoustic for a couple of tunes. He played his SG for most of the set, and seems to be forming a signature sound and style.

I mentioned it at the top but Daniel Wagner’s drum solo after the first song was a nice, unexpected surprise. It wasn’t long, but it was cool. He’s similar to Jake in that he’s not really a flashy player, but absolutely solid and always served the song.

The Crowd

To some degree I expected it, but I was happy to see young and old, men and women all enjoying the show. I saw 20-something girls singing along. I stood next to a guy in his 50s that had seen Greta Van Fleet over 20 times. There were modern rock fans, classic rock fans, metal fans, blues fans, and people just going out for a show. It’s nice to see this type of blues-influenced rock have such a big, wide draw.

The crowd was really engaged all night, singing along, hands in the air. Cell phones weren’t *too* bad… although it helped to be outdoors. At one point someone threw a bouquet of roses at Josh (the singer), it hit him square in the face… kind of funny. He laughed it off, took one of the roses and put it in his pants for the rest of the night.

The Venue

I had never been to the Orlando Amphitheater before, and I feared the worst – crowded, dirty, terrible sound. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Greta Van Fleet had the best live sound I’ve heard in ages. Everything was clear, it was loud but not too loud. I was pretty close up front on the right side of the stage. Normally being right in front of the PA would be a deal breaker, but here it wasn’t too bad. I did switch from my 18db to 30db ear plugs partway through, but that’s average for me. Actually, better than average. Due to my worsening tinnitus, ear plugs are simply a must at every show.

Because it’s a large area, part of the Central Florida Fairground, there were tons of options for food and drinks as well.

If there was a downside, it was the $20 parking, but you’re right there in the fairgrounds, close to the entrace so I didn’t feel put out.

Ida Mae

Blues Duo Ida Mae

The opening band, Ida Mae, did a great set of basically straight up blues. It was so gratifying to see a big and diverse crowd getting down to blues in 2019. The (generally) acoustic duo did a mix of originals and covers, and weaved in some nice banter to engage the audience. I dug it, check them out!

Why I Dig Classic Rock – And Why It Rocks!

Classic rock gets a lot of flack these days, especially from the guitar community. To me it’s more of an era than a specific style. I consider classic rock to be rock music from the 60s through early-to-mid-80s. The thing that makes it so hard to pin down is exactly what I love about it: the diversity… the variety! I love classic rock because it isn’t just one thing. It’s more of a label than a genre, and the lines are blurred. It grew from the seeds of blues and early rock and roll to incorporate country, folk and jazz. It began sprouting branches into prog and metal. Yet all of these styles blend together into what we now consider “classic rock.” The blues had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll, and classic rock often keeps one foot in the blues. It’s a key influence, even if masked by others. I think that’s something you can hear as a dividing line between rock & metal, and between classic rock and 90s & 00s modern rock. Bands like Yes might not have much blues in them, there’s no hard and fast rule, but classic rock usually has a pretty clear connection to its roots. Distinct genres have tend to severed more ties with their past.

This diversity the reason I put on classic rock so often. If I’m in a laid back mood, it’s there. If I need a bolt of energy during a workout, there’s a ton of classic rock that fits the bill. If I’m trying to focus and think, I can get something more spacey and ambient. If I want to sit and listen deeply, there’s plenty. I often pick music to listen to based on what I want to get from it, and what I want to match to my current mood. Classic rock is so broad, there’s always something to fit. I love metal, but I’m not always in the mood for that. Same for country, jazz, blues… Because classic rock incorporates all of that, I can always find something to fit.

Lasting Appeal

The great classic rock bands endure because they wrote, recorded and performed great songs, for sure, but I don’t discount the nostalgia factor. Those were very relevant decades for a lot of us in and above our 40s. We grew up with those songs. Still, there was a lot of other music made in those decades that hasn’t endured, and hasn’t made the impact on our lives. I still see kids walking around with Hendrix and Zeppelin t-shirts. The songs resonate. The musicianship resonates. And no matter how your tastes lean, or when you were born, you’re likely to find a top-shelf band or two that appeals to you.

What Makes The Music Compelling

The melting pot mentality added a depth to the music. Guitar players didn’t just chug out 8th note barre chords for a rhythm part like you hear so often these days. The rhythm part had riffs, it swung… it had some garlic on it! You had bands comprised of blues guitarists, jazz drummers, rock bassists and classical keyboard players. The bands themselves were stylistic melting pots. That diversity manifested into interesting and diverse music. These days – as much variety as there is in music overall – it seems that individual bands seem to be a bit more compartmentalized. Bands need to be “one thing” to market themselves. I do think jam bands are a big exception, which is why I love them as well, but that’s another post.

It also has an organic quality, regardless whether it was leaning towards metal or prog or country. It wasn’t over processed, although that’s probably a result of the era in which it was recorded. Some classic rock might sound like it’s from outer space (Yes, Hendrix, etc) but it still sounds human.

Classic Rock Guitar

Let’s be honest, it was the era of the “guitar god,” and the guitar heroes of classic rock bands made a big impression on a lot of people. I must admit that as a guitar player, I also love the edge of a lot of classic rock. The rhythm gets me, but also the attack for the notes, the often overdriven tone, the wide vibrato and soaring, searing solos. They spent the time to make solo that endure and that were miniature compositions in and of themselves. They displayed the full range of the instrument, which is incredible. Acoustic, electric, clean, dirty, laid back, energetic. Even within a single band guitar players of classic rock bands ran the gamut. That’s what I aspire to. The music doesn’t get boring to me because it’s so broad.

Old, But New To Me

Another great thing about this period is that so much music was made, I’ve been just discovering bands and albums from half a century ago that blow me away. There are a lot of treasures to unearth! My recent infatuation with Soft Machine is a great example. About ten years ago I was reading a funny Cracked article on prog and it sparked an interest in Uriah Heep. I knew a couple of their hits from the radio (Easy Livin’, etc) but never dug deep. What a great band! I bought my son a drum magazine a couple of years ago, which had an article about the band Coliseum, who I had never heard of before. There’s just so much out there to discover. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll surely find a ton of A+ music that connects with you regardless how many decades have passed since it was recorded. I love finding music that’s “new to me.”

New Classic Rock

Thankfully for my ears, there are bands putting out great music in the style of classic rock. One foot in the blues, but melting in other influences and still staying “rock.” It’s totally understandable that people are burned out on “the hits.” With that in mind I’ve been creating a curated playlist of new classic, full of new songs that incorporate all the elements I love about classic rock. Some are relatively new bands, some are older bands putting out new music. Take a listen!

Five New Bands Carrying The Flag

While a lot of artists who were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s are still putting out great music, it’s heartening to see newer groups carrying the stylistic flag of classic rock.

  • Black Country Communion – a supergroup of sorts, comprised of veterans Glen Hughes, Joe Bonamassa, Derek Sherinian and Jason Bonham. They lean to the heavy side, and definitely bring the rock to new classic rock.
  • The Temperance Movement – this group brings more from Americana and blues influences, but they have an edge.
  • Rival Sons – on their 7th-ish album now, Rival Sons brings more sophisticated songwriting to bluesy hard rock.
  • Greta Van Fleet – say what you will, but in my opinion Greta Van Fleet has great songs mixed with a great vibe. They’ve stayed true to their vision and every time one of their tunes comes on I turn it up. What more do you want?
  • Blackberry Smoke – if you dig southern rock at all, you’ll dig Blackberry Smoke. Period. Great band all around, and constantly on the road so go check ’em out!

There’s a lot of overlap with newer artists typically labelled blues, prog, country and jam band. In my opinion, Joe Bonamassa’s and Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s best material lean more towards classic rock than straight blues. Jam bands like Moe could fit comfortably on a classic rock station. Some alt/country acts like the Zack Brown band put out material that I would say is closer to classic rock than Hank Williams Sr. What genre is it? Hard to say, but it fits in the spirit of classic rock.

Five Older Bands With Great New Music

These artists were in it during the heyday, and they’re still bringing it. If you haven’t kept up with their career lately, it’s worth your time.

  • Billy Gibbons – I caught ZZ Top frontman BFG and his Big Bad Blues band on tour last year, and it was one of the best shows I’d seen all year. If you’re a fan of the bluesier side of classic rock (like ZZ Top) definitely check out the Reverend’s new material like his Big Bad Blues album.
  • Robin Trower – psychadelic strat master Robin Trower is still on the road, and continues to put out great bluesy rock. His new album Coming Closer To The Day is fantastic.
  • Tom Keifer – frontman for the melodic hard rock (and bluesy) band Cinderella, Tom Keifer has put together a great solo career, which includes his recent and stellar album The Way Life Goes.
  • Uriah Heep – I actually discovered Uriah Heep’s classic catalog pretty late, but what a great band. 2018’s Living the Dream was another strong effort and as of this writing they’re on a rare US tour.
  • Jimi Hendrix – I have to throw one oddball out there. It never ceases to amaze me how much new Hendrix material gets released, even after reading “Ultimate Hendrix” which chronicles every live and recording date in extensive detail (hit: it’s a great read for the Hendrix fanatic). I suspect the well is drying up, but nonetheless, some of the recent releases like People, Hell and Angels and Both Sides of the Sky are really good. Not really in the “new music” category, literally speaking, but worth a mention.

Keeping Up

You can always google around to find a myriad “best of” lists, like this: https://bestclassicbands.com/2018-best-classic-rock-albums-11-25-18/ Vintage Guitar magazine is a great source for seeing what classic rock band guitarists are up to these days, which is often releasing excellent new material. Their album reviews and artist interviews are the best in the business. You can always check out Classic Rock Magazine or Ultimate Classic Rock as well.

Listening To: Metallica – Helping Hands… Live and Acoustic at the Masonic

Most of the time when I hear metal bands do acoustic versions of their songs, they just swap out the electric guitars for acoustic and call it a day. Same basic arrangement, only with a tone that doesn’t quite… fit. That’s why I was so impressed with Metallica’s recent All Within My Hands acoustic set. They totally rearranged the tunes to make them work in an acoustic arrangement, but they still keep the spirit of the song. They didn’t turn them into country or folk tunes, but they didn’t take the easy way out. Bottom line: it works.

Highlights

Highlights for me include the opener, Disposable Heroes, which took me a while to even recognize it’s so drastically different. It definitely sets the stage for what’s to come, though, and it works great. I was never a huge fan of the Black album to begin with, let alone how overplayed some of the songs are. If I never heard Enter Sandman” again it’d be fine. The acoustic arrangement on Helping Hands was a total breath of fresh air, though, and totally enjoyable. It takes a lot for me to enjoy that song, but I must admit I do! I also really dug hearing the Hardwired bonus disc track When A Blind Man Cries. It’s one of those bonus tracks that seemed “not quite finished.” Not as polished as the rest of the album, although the song had promise. In the acoustic setting, it felt more full. More complete. Finally I want to call out the bluesy version of Four Horsemen. It could have easily turned cheesy, but they pulled off turning a quintessential metal song into basically a blues. Hetfield’s voice carries it, as does the pounding rhythm section.

The Whole Album

If you’re a Metallica fan, or a music fan interested in how you take songs from one context and put them into another successfully and with independent musical merit, this is a great album.

There’s a killer vinyl version as well, which has great packaging. I’m tempted, although it’s pricey. https://www.metallica.com/news/2018-11-27-helping-hands-vinyl.html

Listening To: Conan the Barbarian (my favorite soundtrack)

I can’t count how many times I’ve watched the movie. As a teenager, I had the entire script memorized. I copied it onto VHS from a TBS broadcast. I bought the “official” VHS (which was different from what aired on TV). It was by far my favorite movie of all time, and as a fan of high fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons and all that – Conan fit right into my sweet spot. I also loved that as a character, Conan didn’t rely on magic, mutant powers, or high-tech toolbelts. He was just a man with an iron will. The Robert E. Howard books the movie draws from are also great, of course, and I’ve ready them all. Multiple times.

The soundtrack has absolutely stuck with me over the decades, and I still love it when Riders of Doom comes up on my random “workout” playlist. When I’m out running 10 miles, this is what I want. When I was a computer programmer for a living, I also loved to write code to the soundtrack when I was under pressure. Maybe it was the energy, maybe it was the drive and attitude, maybe it was just helping me embody the “one man versus the world” ethos… It’s powerful, dark, full of energy. The softer songs on the soundtrack are tender but mysterious. It really does evoke the feel of the world, which is what a good soundtrack should do.

My Favorite Soundtrack of All Time

Variations

I’ve found some interesting variations, like this album of the soundtrack transcribed for Organ on Spotify, and some nice covers.

Intersting version!
A nice acoustic cover of Theology/Civilization
Cool acoustic cover of The Orgy

The Recording Sessions

The music is well-documented on Wikipedia. The post is definitely worth a read, even for fans. Did you know Conan the Barbarian the last film released by a major studio with a mono soundtrack? Apparently Raffaella De Laurentiis balked at the cost ($30,000) of a stereo soundtrack and was worried over the paucity of theaters equipped with stereo sound systems

Thanks to youtube, I can finally see the actual recording sessions, which 16-year-old me would have loved back in the 80s

It’s amazing to see the recording sessions!

The Score

Amazingly, I also found the score online here, which is a great resource! I found out why the Anvil of Crom main theme tripped me up. The rhythm is a bar of 6:4 followed by a bar of 5:4. Pretty cool. Deceptively simple once you know what it’s actually doing, but my ear didn’t pick it up.

On The Blues In The 21st Century

Blues in 2019 – indeed for the last couple decades – has been in an odd spot. If the music strays too far from tradition it becomes its own genre – it’s not blues anymore. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. On the other hand, blues is accused of not evolving or keeping up with the times. Well, critics, you can’t have it both ways.

A vocal subsection of the blues community is to blame, though. There are traditionalists who have a very narrow definition of what blues is, and what blues should be. In my opinion, that’s counter to the history of the music. Blues evolved from field calls to acoustic troubadours, to full-on electric bands. Up until perhaps the 60s, blues melded with other genres like jazz and ragtime much more easily. Other genres influenced blues, and vice versa It had evolved. It was blue collar music for the people. It was spiritual. It was party music. It was a music of humanity, expressing a deep connection with the ups and downs of life. It was the soundtrack to both rural and urban life. It evolved with the changing times of 20th century America and the great migration of black folks from the rural south to the industrial north. Blues has enjoyed periodic resurgences in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. All that said, I do think blues has and does continue to evolve. There’s a lot of great, contemporary blues written both by melding in contemporary influences, as well as addressing modern-day themes.

New Blues

A lot of blues artists make music firmly in the traditionalist camp – there are still songs written about mules kicking in stalls. That’s fine, there’s a place for it. I still enjoy Muddy, the Wolf, T-Bone, Robert Johnson and all the godfathers of the genre and if someone really does a cover of one of those classic songs well then that’s wonderful. Blues has survived so long in part because the classic songs are timeless. The themes are as relevant today as they were in the 30s, 40s, 50s… That said, blues made in the 20th century blues was timely! Those artists were expressing their now. I’d like to see more of that, and that’s how blues stays relevant and vital in the 21st century.

Gary Clark Jr’s “This Land” is a great example of what I’d consider modern blues. It blends in some modern influences in the music, lyrically it tackles contemporary issues, but it still retains enough elements of blues to be an evolution not a complete departure.

Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land” – modern blues

One can also write new blues in a traditional style. The lyrics and approach can be very relevant and contemporary while retaining a more classic feel. There are lots of folks out there in the blues scene today doing it, but a great example is a song from Joe Bonamassa’s latest record titled “Just ‘Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should.” Let’s see more of this!

Traditional Style, Modern Approach and Lyrics

What Makes It Blues?

What makes a music “not blues” anymore? To me, blue is defined by rhythm more than anything else. There are a million I-IV-V rock songs, but they’re not blues due to the lack of swing, they’re played very straight on the beat. Of course, blues is more than shuffles, but there’s always a swing. I think a lot of people get hung up on the chord progressions. There’s more to it than that. There’s also a lot more variety in blues than just I-IV-V. Go listen to T-Bone Walker. Listen to BB. Listen to early blue where the overlap with ragtime and jazz was more pronounced. This is a deeper topic, and I’ll cover it more in the future. For now let’s just say it’s a gray area, open to personal interpretation.

So Blues Isn’t Dead…

The real issue clouding blues’ evolution is its place in popular culture. This is the case for lots of music and indeed lots of art and media. Is blues dead? Is jazz dead? Is classical? Is rock dead? Is the guitar dead? Are drums even more dead? If you think those are true, then what isn’t dead? As long a people are creating and listening to blues, it’s not dead. Of course it doesn’t hold the same share of public mindset that it used to, but that’s okay, nothing stays at the top forever. If you look at the nature of the music business in this decade – the era of streaming and Instagram – blues is doing as well as any other popular 20th century music. Look at the myriad blues festivals out there, small and large? Look at the use of blues in advertising and movie soundtracks? As noted above, if blues needs anything it’s more contemporary songs. It doesn’t need to turn into EDM or hip hop. Adding those influences to blues might be great if it’s done well, but it can stay true to its roots and still evolve.

Keeping Up With New Blues

If you’re on Spotify, their “In The Name of the Blues” playlist is a good mix

There’s also the weekly Smokestack Lightnin’ radio show, which broadcasts out of WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Fortunately they stream online. They tend towards more traditional blues, but still great to hear new stuff. They’ve been at it for a long time and it’s a real treasure.

If you’re hardcore, you might subscribe to one of the many blues-specific magazines out there like Blues Music Magazine, Living Blues, Blues Matters, Blues Blast, etc. Worth at least checking out an issue.

A simple google search will reveal a myriad blues festivals in every part of the country, all year long. There are a bunch of blues cruises. There are blues clubs, like my local Central Florida favorite, The Alley. There are lots of great, young blues artists out there. My message to them is: keep the spirit of the blues going strong by writing powerful, emotional and contemporary music that connects with people.

Listening To: Eric Gales “The Bookends”

Okay, I’ll admit it. I gave in to relentless marketing. The weekly emails of offers from Blues Music magazine finally me when they offered a year of the magazine and Eric Gales‘ new album “The Bookends” for $20. I’m glad I jumped on it, though, because the album is great.

I saw Eric Gales for the first time on an Experience Hendrix tour a few year ago, and he was one of the highlights. It got him on my radar, but I didn’t get a good sense of what he was all about until I saw him on tour about a year ago. I had been pretty burned out on blues/rock for a while, but he restored my faith. So much raw passion and energy! It was way more than some cool guitar playing, although there’s plenty of that. It was the energy that got me. I also liked the funkier direction of his band. LaDonna Gales playing percussion on top of the typical power trio adds a lot. He dips into heavier rock than some more traditionalist blues/rock players, but also has the funk. It’s a great combination.

If you’re not familiar with Eric Gales’ story, it’s worth checking out. I bet he’d write a fascinating autobiography some day. Child prodigy, family band, fell down a dark path, but rose again and came back stronger than ever. His gratitude for making it through life alive and all the first-hand awareness of the dark sides of modern life make for good writing and powerful performances.

So, The Bookends. I’m not big on long-winded album reviews. You can listen yourself, and you don’t need me to go in depth into every track. I’ll talk about a couple of highlights and some other things that stood out.

The Bookends

https://www.mascotlabelgroup.com/eric-gales-the-bookends-cd.html

1. Intro
2. Something’s Gotta Give (feat. B. Slade)
3. Whatcha Gon’ Do
4. It Just Beez That Way
5. How Do I Get You
6. Southpaw Serenade (feat. Doyle Bramhall II)
7. Reaching For A Change
8. Somebody Lied
9. With A Little Help From My Friends (feat. Beth Hart)
10. Resolution
11. Pedal To The Metal (feat. B. Slade) (Bonus Track – Remix)

My top three tracks are bolded above, but let’s talk about all the album highlights. The album kicks off with “Intro” – a bring-down-the-house, ripping-guitar instrumental. This is the kind of thing you’d play to get the crowd hyped up live. In this case, get the listener excited about the record. It sets the tone – a bit heavier than some prior records. “Watcha Gon’ Do” brings a heavy, funky riff to a song about pure lust. It’s hard to not move your body listening to it. The lyrics to “It Just Beez That Way” are poignant and honest, with a touch of humor. The tune is funky as all get out (I dig Eric calling out “that’s funky right there” at about 2:00), and it’s a little more upbeat and positive. “Somebody Lied” is one of the heaviest songs on the album, with lyrics that caught me by surprise. It’s a song I could hear Dug Pinnick doing with KXM or PGP (the “G” stands for Gales in that particular power trio). Heavy and heartfelt. “Resolution” is another instrumental, wide in scope, and to my ears may have been born from his jamming in “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in his live shows.

Of course, throughout the album Eric’s guitar playing is stellar. He also plays bass on “Something’s Gotta Give” and drums on “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Somebody Lied.” MonoNeon plays bass on most of the tracks, with Orlando Thompson on “Southpaw Serenade.” Aaron Haggerty lays down the drums, Dylan Wiggins is on Organ & Rhodes, and Vince Jones provides additional keys on “Somebody Lied.” LaDonna Gales adds backing vocals (which are great, by the way) and additional percussion. Another benefit of physical media, getting to read the liner notes. I had no idea who MonoNeon was, nor that Eric Gales played drums. Good to learn!

The mix is superb, and everything sound fat, warm and clear.

Finally, I want to call out the album artwork, with Eric in a bookstore or library. It’s a really cool visual, and the treatment to the photography gives it a warm, almost surreal look. Kudos to physical media.

Special Guests

I love reading liner notes. For instance, I learned MonoNeon played bass on most tracks, including the funky interlude at 1:50 into “Watcha Gon’ Do” which is probably my favorite bit on the album:

MonoNeon brings the funk to “Watcha Gon’ Do”

Beth Hart delivers her incredible and powerful vocals to “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Now there’s a package tour I would jump at. The similarity between their life stories make them a great pair. It’s not just knowing what the other has gone through, it’s coming out to a similar place after all that. They’ve done one-off collaborations at various events, but I’d love to see a tour. They’d kill.

Two of my favorite artists – let’s hope for a full tour!

More from Eric Gales

On Metronomes and Rhythm

Let me get right the the point: the value of a metronome is in helping you learn to feel subdivisions of notes in time at various tempos. What do 16th notes feel like at 100bpm? What do 8th note triplets feel like at 120bpm? How does it feel to play them on your instrument? What tempos give you trouble? What techniques cause your timing to slip? Where are your limits, and where do you feel your technique and tone changing to keep up? The value of a metronome is not in being a test to see how fast you can alternate pick a single note.

The value is in teaching you, not testing you.

It’s not a score card where higher is better. A metronome won’t magically give you great rhythm just because you play along with it. It can absolutely help, though, if you use it the right way.

Like any practice, it’s important to focus while using the metronome. You need to notice if you’re putting notes ahead the beat, behind the beat, or right on. If you don’t notice what you’re doing, you can’t control what you’re doing. That control is key to having good rhythm, in my opinion. You’ll just be playing notes on autopilot. if you tend to rush, you’ll keep rushing no matter what that part calls for.

Awareness leads to control.

Other Ways To Improve Your Rhythm

Since guitar is my primary instrument, I’ve tended to focus all of my coordination in my hands. Forcing myself to tap my foot while I play has helped internalize rhythm for me. It’s made rhythm a whole body thing. It’s forced me to put my attention on the one until that’s became somewhat automatic. It’s helped with my rhythmic deficiencies just as much as hours with the metronome.

For many years I was lazy and just relied on the drummer to keep time for me. I listened to the hi hat and snare, and of course I relied on the drummer to cue changes. What a missed opportunity! I never learned to keep track of the song as I played, so if I didn’t have those fills I’d miss changes. I never developed my own good timing. I think I was a decent rhythm player in terms of finding good parts to fit the song, finding good voicings that worked with the other instruments, and having a good sense of blues and swing… but that internal clock was never solid.

I started taking drum lessons in 2018, and even though I don’t put in as much time as I’d like I do practice consistently. Learning to play drums, even at a basic level, has helped me internalize the placement of notes. I hear them better. I can communicate them better. I have more awareness. I also have much better individual control over my hands and feet.

There’s no substitute for recording yourself and listening back. Think you’re spot on? Create some simple loops with, say, 2 bars of a 4:4 beat and 2 bars of silence. See how well you can come right back in on the 1. Then try 4 bars of rest. Then 8. I bet you’re not as solid as you thought. It’s tough! I’ve found my success with this exercise depends greatly on what I’m playing. If it’s just strumming a 4:4 rhythm, I’m pretty darn solid. If it’s improvising a solo with lots of complexity I’m rarely on, particularly after 4 or 8 measures. Some note in my phrases will throw me off a hair, but it’s shard to tell which.

I put a zip file with several drum loops (1-2 bars of 4:4 beat, 1-4 bars of rest) on dropbox. Feel free to download and enjoy!

Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation.

Finally, I think it’s important to put rhythm in its proper place in your playing: first. Every note can be the right note if it’s played at the right time, for the right duration, with the right articulation. It’s all about the rhythm. Clap “Happy Birthday” – most people will know what that is without the notes. So the next time you play, keep your mental focus on the rhythm and groove. Don’t worry about which notes you play, think about when you’re playing them. Do this enough and it will become part of how you play.

Bonus Videos

Late addition, but I wanted to share these random videos which I found contained some great exercises for improving your timing, feeling playing behind the beat and getting more control over placement. Definitely worth your time to watch.

He explains exactly what I’m trying to say as well, and has a good exercise.