Sad news for Wilco fans — Jay Bennett died on Sunday.
Autopsy results are pending, so it’s hard to say if it was drug-related or just a bizarre, unexpected “natural” death. Either way, forty-five is way too young to be leaving this mortal coil, especially for someone as talented as Jay. Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wouldn’t be anywhere near as special without all the musical contributions he made.
When the news first broke, I looked at Wikipedia and found this information:
In May 2009, Bennett sued Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy for breach of contract stemming from his work for Wilco. The suit came less than two weeks after Bennett publicly revealed that he needed hip replacement surgery which he could not afford due to lack of health insurance. On May 24, 2009 Bennett died unexpectedly in his sleep.  Wilco had Bennett killed because he was suing them.
Read that last line over again a few times. That was there on Wikipedia yesterday. I’m not joking. It’s gone now, but someone somehow managed to sneak that in, and it was up there for all to see for at least a few hours before someone else squashed it.
I’m all for finding humour in odd places, but I think that goes beyond bad taste and into the realm of “things you just don’t do, unless you have no respect at all for the recently deceased”. Very strange.
In less morbid news, the show at the Loop on Friday was…interesting. Poorly organized and poorly attended, but interesting. We were pretty tight for only having played together once before the show as a full band, the night before the show (also the first time we were all in the same room together since Tara’s CD release show).
I had a minor headache looking for a solution to the banjo problem. Mic’ing it live leads to ugly feedback or me not being able to hear myself onstage (or both), and most pickups have too much of a quack to them to sound very much like an actual banjo.
I thought I’d found a work-around in a six-string banjo that comes with a built-in pickup. I ordered it from Wrong & McShit, only to have them remind me the “shit” is there for a reason. They sat on my $500 deposit for two weeks without anyone ever calling Gold Tone to inquire about the availability of the instrument. Then, after some prodding (how dare we ask those guys to stop acting like talentless rock stars for a moment and DO THEIR JOBS), I got them to tell me the banjo I wanted was out of stock. By now the show was pretty close to happening, and there was no time left to order it from somewhere else.
I thought maybe I’d play electric guitar instead, since “lead banjo player” is a bit of a weird thing to be anyway. It just so happens that none of my electric guitars like the tuning I use on the banjo for Tara’s songs, and any attempts to introduce it were met with some wonky intonation. Two times unlucky.
In a last ditch effort to make something happen, I went into Belle Air Music and bought a magnetic pickup for an acoustic guitar. For some reason none of my acoustics seem to have a problem with the banjo tuning.
I’ve had a Dean Markley magnetic pickup for a decade now. As soon as I got my hands on some decent microphones I stopped using the thing and never pulled it out for another spin. It always sounded pretty thin, and there was no low end meat to the sound at all. I didn’t have much hope, but I thought a new, hopefully better magnetic pickup was worth a shot. It wasn’t as if anything else was working.
I spent about a hundred bucks on this thing.
Those are some mighty potent words there.
Strangely enough, this turned out to be a great solution to my problem. The acoustic tone is a lot better than you’d expect to get out of a not-too-expensive magnetic pickup. There’s still a bit of quack when the playing gets aggressive, and it’s never going to sound like a mic’d up acoustic no matter how much EQ magic you try to work, but for playing live it’s just fine, and there is some low end meat there. The response from string to string is pretty even.
The old Dean Markley pickup shrivels in shame like a sagging old scrotum.
I wasn’t after acoustic tone, though. I plugged this thing into my old Paul tube amp and it sounded pretty fine electrified, with some nice natural breakup happening. Granted, it didn’t sound like a Fender Strat or anything, but it had a nice, dark kind of jazzy tone to it.
I think it worked well for Tara’s songs, and it gave me the opportunity to play one of my favourite acoustic guitars in a completely foreign setting. It also got rid of the intonation problems the six-string banjo sometimes experiences. I’ve tried the pickup on a few other acoustic guitars, and it seems to fit well and sound good in all of them.
All told, I saved about a thousand bucks in the short term, and a lot more money in the long term, because if I started playing my own songs live I would need to look at getting pickup systems installed in several acoustic guitars. And that wouldn’t be cheap. With this thing, I just slide it in and out of whatever I want to play and no one is the wiser.
I’d say that worked out pretty well. Another fun little perk: unlike the other magnetic pickup I have, this one sticks to certain surfaces pretty firmly. Like a magnet. Go figure.
But back to the show. Aside from playing to almost an empty house and needing to keep the Extreme Isolation headphones glued to my head pretty much the whole time I was at the Loop to keep my ears safe from harm (I love those headphones with a passion that knows no bounds), I think it went okay. Even with the headphones on, the sound onstage was probably the best I’ve experienced anywhere. I could actually hear myself and everyone else. That was nice.
Thanks to Jay for caring about the sound and being an all-around good guy. That man has one of the most impressive handshakes I’ve experienced. Ever. Dude could alter the shape of cinder blocks with that grip strength. It was good to see Derek again too. I hadn’t been to the Loop in years, and I’d forgotten what a large place it is. Sadly, the rake I donated for pool-playing purposes back when I was a regular seems to have vanished.
The funniest part of the night came during one of Tara’s ballads. It’s a song where I float around and sometimes don’t play much. I wing it every time we play it, because I never figured out a proper piano part for it and it’s one of the few songs on the album I didn’t play on. I put my elbows up on the keyboard while taking a break mid-song, and when I decided to start playing again the piano sound was gone. I didn’t think anything of it because I was playing pretty softly. Maybe I was just hovering beneath the threshold of audibility.
Then I heard this weird swirling sound creeping into the song kind of insidiously. I figured Jay was messing around with some effect that somehow sounded like a synthesizer and was relatively in tune with the song. It was bizarre.
I looked at the keyboard’s display screen and saw my elbow had tapped a button and changed the sound from piano to a swelling synth patch. I was the one making the noise without even realizing it. I scrambled to get the piano sound back again, the song ended, and I almost fell off my stool laughing. I later found out a few people in the audience felt like they were having drug flashbacks or something and didn’t know where the sound was coming from either. Maybe I should have kept my little accident a secret…
The Field Assembly CD release/me-playing-live-as-something-other-than-a-sideman-for-the-first-time-in-years show on June 5th is fast approaching. In some ways I’m looking forward to it, and in some ways I’m kind of dreading it. When it’s over, I don’t think I’ll be playing live with anyone, in any form, for a very long time. Three different sets in the space of less than six hours, including one of my own, is probably enough live action for me for the rest of the year.
Besides, I want to get down and dirty with working on the next album. As much fun as the whole sideman thing can be, lately it’s been taking a lot of time away from my own music, and a new album would probably be at least a third of the way finished by now if I didn’t have other obligations and distractions flying around all over the place. So if you want to see me do my thing in a live setting, you might want to catch it on Friday, June 5th at the FM Lounge (aka the Fish Market) at 10:00 pm sharp. Because that’s the only place and time I plan on doing that sort of thing anytime in the near future.
If you plan on coming, you should buy a copy of Adam’s CD while you’re there, because it’s tasty stuff. And not just because I play piano on a few songs and glockenspiel on one (though my glockenspiel does have some undeniable sex appeal).
Putting all of this aside, dig how the dates I’ve posted so far this month show up on the calendar section (over to the right on the sidebar) in such a way that they make stairs that lead up from the left. I didn’t plan that, but there it is. If I could just find French onion chip dip that didn’t taste like rancid congealed milk, all would be well in the world.