Sunday, March 22, 2009

Arrogance @ 40, Carolina Theater, Durham NC 3/21/09

Don Dixon's been a fixture and a mentor in my life since I was a kid. His band with Robert Kirkland, Arrogance, is one of the most revered institutions in North Carolina rock history, tearing it up since 1969 when I first saw them shaking the stage at Ardmore Methodist Church coffeehouse.

When he asked me and Chris to be a part of Arrogance's fortieth anniversary show, it was flattering and humbling. When he asked if I'd play organ on their debut single "Black Death", possibly the heaviest record to come out of Winston-Salem, it blew my mind.

This would be the first time that the original Arrogance band would have taken the stage together since 1971. Lead guitarist Michael Greer and primal drummer Jim (formerly Jimmy) Glasgow practiced with Dixon and Kirkland, and everyone was buzzed about how great it sounded.

I realized that I'd never met Glasgow, as improbable as that seemed, so Greer was eager to fix that. Jim and I and Smart Wife (we got a sitter !) chatted under the familiar scrawl of Will Rigby, emblazoned on the wall when he'd played there with Steve Earle some years before.

Other celebrants included Debra Demilo from the Fabulous Knobs, Parthenon Huxley, Mitch Easter and Shalini Chatterjee, all of whom were on the side of the stage when Greer and Glasgow joined Dixon and Kirkland.

In the finest tradition of dB's equipment failure, I couldn't get the organ audible so I plugged into Rod's Fender amp so the song could start. And I gamely played along, although I have absolutely no idea whether I was audible or playing the right notes.

But it hardly mattered; I was transfixed, watching Greer, one of Winston-Salem's legendary lead guitarists, running up and down the neck, making the best guitar faces ever. I looked over at Jim Glasgow, now bald like me and Dixon, wailing away on the drums like no time had passed at all since I'd seen them. Dixon was big and threatening sounding on the voice and Robert Kirkland sewed it all together with his guitar. It was a definite time warp for me and for a few of us who grew up watching, listening to and loving Arrogance as kids.

I left the band onstage and they lit into "Race With the Devil" by Gun, a cover they'd popularized in Winston-Salem and one of the earliest recordings Arrogance did at Crescent City Sound Studio in Greensboro. They tagged it with a bit of "N.I.B." by Black Sabbath; this was significant as Arrogance got ahold of the first Sabbath album at least six months before it was released in the US, and they'd learned it front to back and played it to the adoring crowds, many of whom undoubtedly thought they were hearing original songs by the local band!

We had to leave after the first set concluded with the original band; the rest of the evening, people joined the more enduring, less heavy and better known version of Arrogance in their celebration. (After Greer and Glasgow left the band, Marty Stout joined on keys, followed by Scott Davison on drums and Rod Abernethy on guitar--this version of the band made a few albums and became far better known in the Chapel Hill area. In fact, they had Rittenhouse Square open for them in 1971 or 1972 at a gig at the Fire Station, one of R2's few out of town gigs.)

But I can only say that sharing the stage with the original Arrogance is the single most exciting musical event I've gotten to participate in this year. I hope it's not the last time those four guys play together, and it sounded so good and so right, I don't think it will be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tennessee Road Trip, pt. XIII (Postlude)

I borrowed my mother's car and drove to Lebanon yesterday to empty out the Eurovan.

After we put a bunch of money into the timing chain and water pump and their 'accessories', it was obvious that an engine replacement was the only alternative if we planned to keep the van running. I felt that perhaps the Eurovan was slightly more delicate than I'd thought it would be. It was big as a van, but little shit broke on it all the time. I'd had to develop a new method of driving where I could coax some revs from the accelerator as I drifted to any stop; otherwise, it would sputter and die, often mid-turn taking the power steering with it. Harrowing for passengers, although I'd become inured to it. Then there was my creasing the passenger side on a boulder at Chris' studio. It wanted for attention that a Real Van wouldn't require of me. It was only sixteen years old, old for a dog but not a hauler, and the problems seemed to outweigh the groovy stereo that made it more fun to drive.

So we thought and thought about what should we do with it. The mechanic gave me the number of a guy who bought junk cars, thought he might give me $500 for it (brand new timing chain and water pump be damned, I thought, that cost more than what he's offering!) but he declined and gave me two more numbers of local wrecking yards. Apparently, the van would drive but it had severe valve failure and would overheat if it was driven any length of time, which was determined to be around ten minutes. I talked to Mark at the first number who offered $200. Mark was in Lebanon, so maybe I could drive there? Maybe not. I asked him about towing, and he said he didn't tow, but of course he knew someone who would tow the Eurovan for $50. The money was looking less and less like a concern. I could trade it for magic beans at that point. We ended up donating it to NPR. I hope it keeps Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on for a couple minutes more.

I made a mix of all sorts of music for the ride across NC and Tennessee. Very uneventful ride, the kind I am most used to. I'd had to delay my trip by a day, but it was worth it to get my mother's Oldsmobile's wheels aligned
Around five CST, I arrived at Accelerated Automotive to find the Eurovan sitting in front of the building. I pulled up next to it, opened the Olds' passenger window and got out my screwdrivers, pliers and hammer. The hammer was for last resorts.

FIrst order of business was announcing to the folks I was there, so as not to be taken as a potential larcenist.

I tried to clean the interior up while sorting through what I should bring home. There was obvious stuff, like the camping stove, mattress and blanket that had to go. But there were books and toys and incomplete kid things that might need to come back with me too. Lots of straw wrappers and a dead kite (with a lot of string, bring it). The requisite $.18. I grabbed the window screens Smart Wife made with magnetic tape, a battery operated fan and a camp air conditioner. 'Lots of bits and things' as Mr. Bean would say.

When I opened the door to the passenger side, I looked under the seat at a black unit that I'd never seen before, in the year-plus we owned the van. It was a VW six-disc changer! We'd replaced the locked VW stereo with the Sony I was to remove today, but I had thought the stock one was a single-disc player! Who knew! Too late now! I disconnected it and took it out.

The Sony was easily extracted, and I took a length of the radio cable to attach to our other car's stereo as well.

I put the middle jump seats I'd hauled to Tennessee back into the spacious interior, but I couldn't get them to reattach to the backs of the front seats, so they lay on the floor, awaiting their next owner.

I rolled the windows back up, and the little Euro tri-tone played forlornly for a few rounds before I pulled out the key. Big hole in the dashboard where the stereo was, was now a frame of a couple unattached cable looms. I left the Christmas sprig where it lay, wedged into the defroster ducts, too spiky and dry to touch anymore.

Leaning against the Olds, I drank in the Eurovan for the last time. The jerry-rigged driver's side mirror, with its dried lava flow of SuperGlue from countless attempts to reattach it. The fine addition of the new metal plates and screws which had made the mirror as permanent as it was going to get, but it was all moot now. I had found the broken window locks and pieces of the snapped cupholders, and I'd even returned a nearly-new cupholder replacement. I'd never washed the poor thing; grossly dirty roof with streaks down the corners. Very sad, really, and I teared up for a second before I realized what I was doing. Once the license plate was removed, I could do no more.

I felt as though I'd stripped the Eurovan like a Thanksgiving turkey, but whoever is the recipient when it gets towed to them will truly have that honor.

It was a fun ride, as will its replacement ride be, I hope. They all are, at least part of the way.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The dB's Now (Finally) on iTunes!

Well, it happened.

You can get three dB's albums, Stands for Decibels, Repercussion and The Sound of Music plus a new collection called Best of the IRS Years on iTunes.

I realize that about 90% of the people who read this blog have owned the first three releases at some point in their lives, maybe via an old boyfriend's mixtape or an import they'd brought in to play on their college station shift.

On the off chance your cassette deck sounds wobbly or you need a new needle, and you just have to hear "Change With the Changing Times" or "Bonneville" for the first time in over twenty years, this new digital transfer service is just the thing for you!

Or, if you're just tuning in... happy landings!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rock-It Science, Pt. 2

L to R: Dee Snider, Tim Sommer, Joseph Shireman, me (no idea what to do with my hands)

As I sit in the glare of morning coming through the windows of LaGuardia airport, I'll try to reconstruct the somewhat surreal aspects of the Rock-it Science show last night while it's still fairly fresh in my bleary mind. This nice cup of Au Bon Pain coffee should help (I think).

I cabbed from the Park Central Hotel to the Highline Ballroom on the far west part of 16th Street. There was a lot of crosstown traffic (cue Hendrix) and took a lot longer to get there than I'd expected. I arrived with my NORD and my little Les Paul at around 2:30pm and marched up the stairs to the ballroom proper, which was actually more of a club with no perceptible dance floor. It was already a small ruckus of activity. I saw Tim Sommer there, probably nearing the height of his anxiety about this show he was putting on for the conference of eminent scientists.

Then Pete Kennedy and I spied each other and hugged, having not seen each other for several years. Pete and his wife Maura are a rockin' duo I have known for quite a while; I played on their album Life is Large, an all-star affair that came out in 1996. Maura was deep in iPod concentration under noise-cancelling headphones at a table nearby. I did the Rick Neilsen/Mark Bryan pick fling at her, connecting after four attempts. They invited me and Stuart, the house band bassist, to play on a few songs including their take on "Matty Groves" (Fairport Convention arrangement, minus the furious fiddle tune that abuts it on Liege and Lief) and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows". They wanted to draft Linda, our drummer, as well, but she had not arrived by then.

Maura and I went to a deli in the Chelsea Market to get coffee for me and lunch for her and Pete. We passed the directory to the building and realized that EMI Music Publishing, who own songs by both me and the Kennedys, was on an upper floor of the building. She told me that the English division had arranged for them to visit Abbey Road studios when they were in England; I couldn't think of anything EMI did for me, apart from an advance that kept me alive for a year in 1992 and held a dozen songs from my catalog for perpetuity (I did swipe a flat steel bottle opener from them once at a Hootie acoustic performance).

When we got back to the venue, Linda was at work setting up the drums. Will, the house sound man, was trying to find out what amps were to go where; they were set up in a row along stage left, looking like the bars of service in a Verizon ad. Daddy, Mama and Baby Amps. I chose a Fender Deville, but quickly handed it off to Lenny Kaye when the little Ampeg J20's came out. I'm a sucker for an Ampeg guitar amp, having owned an ancient Jet and a less ancient VT22 over the years. The J20 solved a potential cord problem I was confronting. It has a very usable tremolo which allowed me to use a small patch cord for the volume pedal on the NORD.

Alex Maiolo had come up from Chapel Hill to stage manage the show, at Tim's request. Smart move, as Alex was already making lists and taking requests for mics and monitors.

Everyone in the house band was finally up and ready to check. We were already running late, despite our best efforts to stay on top of things; such is the way these big crazy multi-artist shows, I guess. I'll let you know how it stacks up against Carnegie Hall next week.

It was suggested that we do a verse and chorus of a Steve song, my song and Lenny's version of "Gloria". Steve had set up the other J20 in front of the acoustic piano that Rufus Wainwright would be using later. Linda was trying to get some of Steve's guitar in her monitor, but the monitor engineer had not realized that there were two Ampegs up there by then. He had my guitar cranked up to an intolerable level, so when I hit the first notes of the signature lick of "Tell Me When It's Over", Linda threw down her sticks and grabbed her ears in pain. I felt horrible for her, as I was the guy playing said lick, even though I was not technically responsible for the situation (although I realized later, in a moment of clarity, that I was not to blame).

We got things straightened out and managed to get through that uncomfortable time, even working on the songs for Rock Of Ages and the Dee Snider tunes. Gary Lucas and Dan Levitin came up and we had the five guitar army going for Dan's instrumental. Everything seemed to be working fine after the blast to Linda's ears.

Anna Copa Cabanna and her troupe of dancers were hauling in bags of costumes and props. Ana was our hostess for the show, equipped with her small, pink-lighted, xylophone-ready podium. She is a tiny woman with an energy that belies her size. She said there were sixteen costume changes for her and her posse that night.

It became evident after a while that we wouldn't be backing up the Kennedys, unfortunately. That just meant I got to watch them play, which is always a fine experience.

Gary Lucas told me a tale of meeting Peter Green, the former Fleetwood Mac founder, and getting him to sign his copy of Then Play On after asking "am I on this?" We agreed that TPO features some of the most wonderful guitar tone ever committed to tape, both from Green as well as Danny Kirwan.

I drank lots and lots of the coffee in the dressing room. We were instructed that the small, internal room was Rufus' and that we should clear out of there when he arrived. Oh boy. Were we not to make eye contact with him, either? Naw, Rufus showed up and was very nice. Anna and her group had their costumes all over the little room, and he made no fuss whatsoever.

The whole shebang: L-R: me, Steve Wynn, Rufus Wainwright, Lenny Kaye, Gary Lucas (back row) the Amygdaloids (front row)

The show began with Coles Whalen, a wonderful Nashville singer-songwriter. Her voice and songs are contemporary and compelling, and the audience agreed.

I did spend a lot of time up in the dressing room, looking at the charts for the Rock of Ages songs and trying to remember all the cues to all the other tunes as well. It was busy up there. Three steam tables held chicken parmesan, some fish dish, steamed vegetables and, my favorite, couscous. I had a scoop of couscous and more coffee and was set. Did a little internet time as well, and I watched people drift in an out of the room.

The Kennedys ended up changing their set a little. They did "Matty Groves" (Linda and I were singing along on the side of the stage) and they steamrolled through "Eight Miles High". It was great to see and hear them again, and they bolted after their short set, having spent the better part of the day at the Highline.

Rufus did a forty-minute solo set, alternating between grand piano and acoustic guitar. I was thrilled to get to hear him live. His performance was sterling. He did a couple songs from Poses, my favorite of his records. I couldn't stay to watch the whole show, but I'm glad I got to see as much as I did.

The house band guitarists were summoned to the balcony to meet Dee Snider. Tim was undoubtedly pulling my chain when he said that reportedly Dee had enquired as to whether it was "THE Peter Holsapple from the dBs" but frankly, I have my doubts that that actually happened. Nonetheless, Joseph and I went up, met Dee and sorted out keys and endings (the YouTube video I'd seen of "We're Not Gonna Take It" was in E flat, but Dee assured us that E was fine too). I thanked him for testifying in Congress, and he remarked that he felt he took flak for it, like Zappa ("No one ever said a bad word about John Denver, though.")

Returning to the dressing room, Tim once again summoned us with acoustic guitars to rehearse with Constantine in the alley. In the alley? It's freezing cold out there, so whatever guitars were going to get taken out there were going to go to hell tuning-wise. Plus I didn't have an acoustic so Dr. Joseph LeDoux, the guy who came up with this concept in the first place, loaned me his Guild, and I led the chorus line downstairs, through the crowd to the door. There, I found Constantine and his Broadway buddies talking with Tim, saying "Well, it'd be better to go back upstairs to do it." About face. To the rear, march.

We got out the guitars, and Lenny, Joseph and I played the two songs from Rock of Ages, and the stars sang along. I stood right next to Constantine, and boy that guy projects--he projected right into my left ear a lot. There was much high-fiving between him and his co-stars, and Coles was tapped to join in on the NORD. Which meant I also was tapped to write her another chart for the two songs right before we took the stage.

House band in place, Anna did her intro thing and we were off. There, in all his six-foot-one glory, ran Dee Snider, and we started "We're Not Gonna Take It" like we'd played it all our lives. It was still amazing me to look to my left and see Lenny Kaye shredding. Linda said the expression on my face during Dee's songs was priceless, which I take to mean 'slack-jawed'. Dee was dragging us out to the front to rock out with him, and I went willingly. "I Wanna Rock" was also flawless, and it's got to have been the strangest backing band Dee's ever sung over. I didn't get to say goodbye, as he also split while we were onstage, but I hope he had as good a time as we all did up there.

Next up were the Rock of Ages folks. We started with "High Enough" which we executed well, I'd say. It was a drag to have to play acoustic guitar through the little Ampeg, but time got tight and we didn't really want to assault the sound crew much more than we already had. Then the Bon Jovi song, which was okay with a small flub toward the third verse when the singer didn't count the drum break correctly. Oh well, he'll have weeks, months, years to perfect that on B'way. More high-fiving and they were gone like a cool breeze.

Onward into "Gloria". Lenny was great. He made the breakdown section into a small science/romance lecture before the crowd found itself spelling her name again.

Steve's songs were huge fun for me to play. I remarked to him that I finally found myself occupying the same role as Karl Precoda, Paul B. Cutler and Robert Mache had defined over the years. Hope I was as happening as those guys, because it was a gas to wail loudly with Steve and Linda. I cranked the tremolo for "Amphetamine" and tried to find a suitably irritating setting on the Turbo Overdrive, hoping all the while that I wasn't compounding any auditory damage to Linda.

We stormed through "Neverland", my bright shining moment in the spotlight. People were drifting out by then, as it was getting sort of late in the evening.

Dan and Gary got up, and we did "B.O.C." and the "Wicked Game" parody. That was also big fun and way loud, especially with Dan, Gary, Lenny, Steve and me all on electric guitars.

We left the stage to the Amygdaloids, Joe LaDoux's band of scientists. It was geting very late by now. But we hadn't done "Hot Child in the City" and Anna was not pleased with the concept of cutting the song. Alex ran interference, and we in the house band were informed that we had to jump up onstage the second the Amygdaloids were done or we'd face an ugly and violent revolt from the house sound crew.

As we headed back down the stairs to the stage, I had to stop. Linda and I watched Anna in her bikini festooned with Australian flags as she grooved along to the band. It was a fittingly strange and lovely moment to end a thoroughly weird night.

Anna and her troupe danced a final dance as she sang the Nick Gilder song and we were done.

I headed back to the hotel after lots of hugs and business cards were exchanged.

I'd given one to Dee Snider, saying "I have absolutely no idea what you might need this for," thinking perhaps he could floss his teeth or fold it to even out some table legs with it, to which he responded "Well, you never know." No, Dee, you're right, you never do.

Postscript: when I got back to the hotel, I turned on the television to wind down. There, on the Jimmy Fallon show, was Jon Bonjovi himself, enjoying a karaoke version of "Wanted: Dead or Alive". I admit having been completely ignorant of the song until days ago, and now I sense its ubiquity. Now if I can just get that ubiquitous chorus out of my head....

L to R - Constantine Maroulis, me (again, with the hand issues), Tim Sommer, Lenny Kaye

Rock-It Science, Pt. 1

I am part of the house band for a show in New York called Rock-it Science, a part of the Sensation to Emotion Conference. What, pray tell, have I gotten myself into this time?

Headed up by my old friend Tim Sommer, who has provided me with more opportunities in the music business than I can even recall now, we will be backing up the legendary Dee Snider (Twisted Sister's lead vocalist who testified with Frank Zappa and John Denver in the US Congress years ago against the Parents' Music Resource Group's attempt to label content on albums--go, Dee!) and some of the cast of the new Broadway musical Rock of Ages, including American Idol heartthrob Constantine Maroulis. Plus we'll have noted physicist/Blue Oyster Cult associate Dan Levitin, cabaret star Anna Copa Cabanna and former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas on board.

The house band is me, Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith Group and compiler of Nuggets), Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate and old friend) and Joseph Shireman on guitars--yeah, yeah, that's a lotta guitars, but some of the songs require that kind of overkill; Stuart Chatwood (from Canada's The Tea Party) on lefty bass; and Linda Pitmon (from Steve's band and Zuzu's Petals) on drums.

There will be other acts: a few of the scientists participating in the convention here have their own bands. My old pals, the Kennedys will be here which will be great; hope Maura Kennedy brought her uke and hula-hoop. Rufus Wainwright will top the bill, and that's very exciting for me as a long-time fan of his.

We had a rehearsal last night. I was late arriving because the snowstorm had pushed everyone's flights back almost three hours. We landed and taxied in on what looked like a big sheet of ice. My guitar and keyboard came out almost immediately, and I was hustled from LaGuardia over to Ultrasound Studio on the West Side of Manhattan.

The band was going through "I Wanna Rock" with Ana doing stunt lead vocals. The room had a wall of combo guitar amps to choose from, so I plugged into a '59 Bassman reissue, tuned up and joined in. I had missed the Broadway music director leading the band through Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" and Damn Yankees' "High Enough", two songs I never anticipated having to hear, much less learn to play (Smart Wife was chuckling as I learned the arpeggiated intro to the Bon Jovi song under headphones in our living room a few nights before, knowing that those two songs fall outside my regular realm of eccentric taste.)

We tackled the Nick Gilder classic "Hot Child in the City" with Ana; I used to love that song, but I'd never learned it until last night.

Dan and Gary arrived, and we worked on Dan's instrumental "B.O.C", which stands for... Dan, Gary and Lenny all played the harmony lead with Steve and me holding down the rhythm, although everyone got a few bars to shred on. Dan is also playing a version of "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak with brain-surgery parody lyrics, for which I switched to electric piano.

Steve came up to the mic, and we did a couple Dream Syndicate songs which I remembered from our tour together in 1997. We also did "Amphetamine", a searing revved-up travelogue that I got to pummel some lead guitar on.

We backed Lenny on "Gloria" which he wanted "more Shadows of Knight and less Patti", so we endeavored to achieve that end.

We'd talked about me doing a couple songs with the house band, but I've been reduced to just one, "Neverland" which is fine. That's a song Steve insisted that we do on the 1997 tour together as well, so Linda already knew it and Lenny had it charted. Stuart is a fast study, so he had it down by the end of the song, too.

I'm a good leader and a good follower, and on this show, I'm happy to follow. There's plenty enough for me to do here as it is.

We couldn't convince Tim to join the combo, but it was probably because the only bass in the room was Stuart's left handed Jazz. Still holding out hope for him to do "Farmer John" by the Premiers

Joseph, toward the end of rehearsal, walked me through the parts I was to play on the Bon Jovi and Damn Yankees songs. It was lucky for me that he's a reader, since my lack of ability to navigate a page of sheet music gives rise to the old guitar player joke (Q: How do you shut a lead guitar player up? A: Stick a piece of sheet music in front of him.). Everything was fairly easy to manage, and then we went through the Twisted Sister tunes again to end the night.

There was a lot of "this is so weird, I can't believe this is happening, no one will believe this is happening" going on in all of our minds, I think, as it's not necessarily the cast of characters one would visualize playing some of these songs; Lenny, smartly, put it in the perspective that it was good for us to do things like this, to keep our brains poised and to stretch our boundaries. I went to bed a couple hours later, still singing "I'm a cowboy..." Oh my.