Natalie is having her CD release show next saturday at the Windsor Beer Exchange. She’s dubbed her music “flock and roll”, which is almost too perfect. Greg Maxwell made the poster. That guy is one talented beast.
I’ll write more about the album once it’s out there in the world. For now I’ll just say this: along with the Tire Swing Co. albums, it’s the best, most rewarding work I’ve ever done as a pretending-to-be-a-producer person. If you’re going to record and play on songs that aren’t your own, Steven and Natalie are the people you want to do it with.
A couple weeks back, Steve asked if i could send him a WAV file of “I’d Name You Aubrey” from TIME AWAY because someone over at Ride the Tempo wanted to make it a featured track. I did that, kind of forgot about it, and then woke up a few days ago to discover the song made it all the way onto a compilation album called Weirdest Tuesday.
I feel like I’m trying to set a record for how many links I can drop into one paragraph. Look at me drop! Tremble in the presence of my dropping prowess!
I’ve had something I’ve recorded show up on a compilation exactly once in my life. That was about eleven years ago, and it was not a good experience. At all.
(Here comes the flashback sequence…)
This is going back to my days of being a semi-regular poster on a message board for a band I really liked. Another semi-regular poster who was also running a fan site got the idea to put together a compilation album sort of dedicated to and inspired by the band we were all fans of. Almost all of us who wrote there were musicians with access to recording equipment, so it made sense.
I sent along unmastered versions of a few tracks I thought might fit, along with a rough self-mastered version of each, just to give the mastering engineer an idea of what I was aiming for — dynamic, not super loud, not too different from the raw mix.
I was told which song of mine made the cut, and it turned out to be the one i liked best anyway. I was also told the guy who was mastering the collection said my song was the best-sounding thing that had been submitted, and he was using it as a reference for mastering all the other tracks. That felt pretty good, coming at a time when I didn’t have anything like the equipment I have now.
A few months later I got a box of CDs in the mail (that I had to pay a fair bit of money for, but whatever), popped one in to listen, and learned the mastering engineer had mastered the already-mastered version of the song i gave him instead of the unprocessed mix. Only, “mastering” isn’t the right word for what he did. He destroyed the song. There were no dynamics left. There was no life to the thing. It sounded like shit. And wouldn’t you know, it was the only song on the whole compilation that got hammered with anything close to that amount of compression. Lucky me!
If you’re a mastering engineer and you have any hope of the two of us ever being friends, don’t do that.
Had I known this Tire Swing Co. song was also going to end up on a compilation where someone was mastering it to try and lend some continuity to a lot of tracks recorded and mixed in a lot of different ways, I would have sent an unmastered WAV file instead of the self-mastered one I sent along when I thought it was just going up on the website. But I didn’t get the chance to do that. And I kind of feared for the worst.
I’m happy to say the guy sitting in the mastering booth this time was much less heavy-handed. The version of “Aubrey” on the compilation sounds about as good as you could ever hope for a song that’s technically been mastered twice to sound. It’s a tiny bit louder than the album version, and a little less dynamic, but not in any offensive way. Even when the synth sub bass kicks in, it keeps breathing just fine.
So thank you, Eric Hogg, even though you’ll probably never find yourself on this here blog. Thank you for not squashing the song I recorded. You done good.
In other news, the inaugural O-L West show at Taloola went well. We played nine songs off of the album we’ve been working on, Natalie played two of hers, and I threw in a bluesy song no one’s ever heard that will end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE when I finish that thing around 2089.
Here’s the set list (the bluesy song is missing because it was a bit of a last-minute addition, and “Dorsal Venous” got dropped from the set at the last minute):
A bunch of people who said they were coming didn’t show up, because a lot of people say they’re going to do stuff and then don’t do it, especially on Facebook. But the people who were there were good people. It’s always more comfortable for me to perform for a room of friends than it is to perform in front of a lot of unfamiliar faces. Not that I have anything against faces I haven’t seen before.
I’m in no hurry to play another show, so if you weren’t there, you missed out on hearing me bend a note on the harmonica for the first time ever. You may never get to experience that soul-stirring phenomenon again. I know you’ll be losing some sleep over that one.
About the compilation from way back when with one of my songs on it — you’ll be glad to know I chucked all the copies I bought in the basement and let them sit there for years, until i gutted most of them so I could use the clear jewel cases for my own albums. A handful of buttons have survived the years unscathed, though.
I’ve put out a few albums where I pushed the DIY mastering too far in an effort to get things as loud as I could (not a mistake I’ll make again), but even when some clipping was introduced, at least the dynamics were still there and I didn’t squash everything. This was really the only time I’ve ever been embarrassed to let anyone hear something I was a part of. I’m sure a handful of people did end up hearing the CD, but they didn’t get one from me.
And about the new compilation that inspires no such feelings of embarrassment — you can download it for free over yonder. Or you can stream it right here, if you’d like.
Steven’s album is now all packaged and ready to get physical, Olivia Newton-John style. Here’s the super cool poster Greg Maxwell made for the CD release show on February 7th. I think it’s a Friday. Middle Sister (who are releasing an EP of their own that night) and Leighton Bain will also be playing. There’s a facebook event page HERE. The Tire Swing Co. set will be a full band performance, and some person who looks like me will be making some piano and guitar-related sounds.
If you followed this blog back when I used to update it every few days (I now call that “the maniacal period”), you may remember a dude named Steven leaving a comment on a post in 2010 or 2011 saying some very nice things. Steven and James O-L are brothers. They’re also in a great local band called James O-L and the villains. They’re also two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. They’re also both capable of growing some great beards.
I made a bet with myself to see how many times I could start a sentence with the words “they’re also” before my left eye started twitching. I only made it to three. Shame on me.
Unexpected things have a way of materializing out of nowhere. To wit: I just finished recording an album with Steven, and it should get an official release (and an official CD release show) sometime before the end of the year. Tire Swing Co. is the band name. Steven wrote and sang the songs, James came by to lend some tasty electric guitar and bass to the opening song, Kaitlyn Kelly sang some gorgeous harmonies on two songs, and I did my one-man-band-of-session-musicians thing — something I haven’t done outside of my own music since OUTSIDE THE FACTORY GATES back in 2010.
Steven has a really interesting, unique voice. I like interesting, unique voices. If Nick Cave was more serene and laid-back, and less tremulous, he might sound a little like Steven. On Travis’s album, our vocal ranges are similar enough that if you don’t read the liner notes you might assume he’s singing all the harmonies himself. In this case there’s much more of a contrast, and I had a lot of fun playing with it. Out of the seventeen songs on the album, there’s only one that doesn’t have me singing on it somewhere in the background, and that’s because it’s an instrumental and no one’s singing on it anywhere. Unless you consider a banjo to be a voice.
Hey — some people do.
I’ve really only recorded something other than my own music twice in the last decade. Both were projects that kind of fell into my lap. Whatever is responsible for my musical lap-visitors, it has some good taste. There isn’t one song on the hour-long Tire Swing Co. album that feels like filler to me. This is stuff I would want to listen to even if I didn’t have the chance to play on it. For weeks, I couldn’t even pick a favourite song to pull out for one of those “hey, here’s what I’ve been working on” moments, because seven or eight immediately came to mind and whittling them down was like trying to amputate my legs with plastic child-proof scissors.
What can I tell you without telling too much before the album comes out? Steven played my 1951 Gibson LG-2 throughout, and I was reminded what a fantastic recording guitar that thing is. I played a lot of my newer Martin 000-15. I liked the way the different tones of those two axes played off of each another. The funky old Teisco wormed its way into a few songs. So did my long-neglected Epiphone Casino, which has been getting a little more love these days. I dropped my Kay Thin Twin into standard tuning for James when he was over, and I really like the clean sounds he got out of it. There’s even some ukulele in one song.
I think the whole thing sounds like a unified, organic piece of work, but at the same time there’s a lot of variety, and a lot of different sonic things happening, whether it’s a bit of delay coming in at the end of a piano solo or the African drums gluing a song together in the most unexpected way. That last one was Steven’s idea, and the sound works so well, in the last song I ever would have thought to use it, it’s insane. Sometimes I forget how useful it can be to have so many random noise-makers like that hanging around.
I was given a lot of creative leeway when we were recording. That was both a great compliment and a little unnerving. It’s a great feeling when someone trusts your creative judgement enough to say, “Here’s a song. Do whatever you like with it.” At the same time, you want to contribute whatever ideas you might have without derailing the songs or making it sound like they’re yours, so your musical brain has to pull out some different dance moves than the ones it might normally reach for.
I’m still not sure I could call myself a proper producer, but I had a lot of fun arranging songs that were not my own. I think I only really went off the deep end once. There was one song I had a whole mess of ideas for, so I ran with them, and when I stopped running I looked up and saw that I’d kind of altered the whole shape of the thing. Luckily Steven was happy with what I did, and that song’s on the album.
The song is called “The Maple Tree”, and it’s up there at the top of the post. Anything that sounds like a synthesizer is a Fender Strat played with a lot of reverb and manual volume swells. I couldn’t tell you where that guitar solo at the end came from. It was another one of those things that just happened, without any premeditation. I feel like it’s one of the best guitar solos I’ve played in my life. At the very least, it’s high on the list of my own personal favourite guitar moments. And it wouldn’t exist without the great song Steven wrote inspiring me to find that sequence of notes somewhere in the part of my brain that speaks to my fingers.
As for the video footage, it’s from some public domain silent kids’ film from 1960 called The Sky. I don’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was either horribly edited or the version I found is incomplete. There are long stretches of nothing but black screen breaking up the images of actual things. Nothing really happens onscreen, but I thought the imagery of sea and sky and dawn and dusk suited the music. I chopped it up, rearranged it, got rid of the kid (sorry kid), messed with the speed of some bits, and tried to assemble it all in a way that made emotional if not rational sense. There’s a gritty bit at the end of the smokestack footage, and I didn’t catch it until the video had already been rendered, but whaddayagonnado?
In keeping with the recent theme of talking about live shows after they’ve happened instead of before, I should tell you we played a Tire Swing Co. gig at Taloola just a week ago. Here’s the super cool poster Greg Maxwell made.
There was a good turnout, and people seemed to like what they heard. For me, it was fun to get the chance to do something different in a live setting.
Most of the time when I’m doing the sideman thing I’m playing piano, and that’s about it. This time I played no piano at all. It was all lead acoustic guitar, except for a few times when I picked up a ukulele or a banjo or a melodica. I’m probably always going to be a little more comfortable sitting at something that has black and white teeth, but I like the challenge of not having that to fall back on. And I enjoyed how Steven and I were both able to break out our vintage Gibson acoustics and let them chatter at each other like siblings meeting for the first time.
Maybe next time I’ll say something here before a show happens, not after. We’ll see.
More about the album as it inches closer to an official release.
I probably should have said something about the show I was playing with Travis on Friday at Green Bean before it actually happened, but my recent habit of being kind of lax in the blogging department continues. So that didn’t happen. The show did, though. Consider this your notice. Now just travel back in time a handful of days, and everything will even out.
Unlike the last two times we played together at Green Bean, this show featured a full band, with Eryk Myskow on bass and Caleb Farrugia holding it down behind the drums. I stuck to playing what I guess you would call “lead digital piano”. Local singer/songwriter Erin Britton was kind enough to let me use her keyboard, since for all the things with keys I have around here, a portable digital piano isn’t one of them, and taking the upright with me to a gig isn’t exactly practical.
Somehow it came out in print that this was a “Johnny West and Friends” show. Which is bizarre. It clearly said “Travis Reitsma & Johnny West” on all the posters and the Facebook event page, with his name above mine and in a larger font. Also, you’d think anyone who follows my music even a little bit would know I’m not going to be playing my own material live at this point in a venue that isn’t equipped with a real acoustic piano.
That’s not a knock against Green Bean. I really like the place. I should hang out there more often than I do. But I think it’s been established by now, here and elsewhere, that Mackenzie Hall is my place. If I am going to bother playing live in any capacity other than doing the occasional sideman thing, that’s where it’s going to happen.
Or I’ll play a show in someone’s closet. Hey, you’d be surprised how roomy some closets are. You can even fit a piano in some of ’em.
It was a non-issue, because there wasn’t a single person who showed up expecting to hear anything other than Travis’s songs with me playing a supporting role. I just think it’s sad when someone who’s still got a sore ass over not coming out on top in a war of words/music a few years ago will try to hit back at you long after the fact by defiling what little journalistic integrity they might have had left, printing things that aren’t true in an effort to screw something up. Impotence, thy name is…that guy.
The show itself was fun. At the same time, it reminded me why I hadn’t played live at all since September of 2011. There’s way too much anxiety wrapped up in live performance for me to put myself through it on anything more than an occasional basis.
With the exception of my experiences at Mackenzie Hall (and maybe the FM Lounge), anytime I hear my voice coming out of a monitor onstage it sounds wrong to me, I lose confidence in my ability to sing in tune, and I end up giving shitty vocal performances as a result, whether I’m singing lead or harmony. I tend to get a little busier on whatever instrument I’m playing to compensate for that and focus most of my energy in that direction.
I guess this works on some level, because I get people coming up to me after the show telling me how good they thought I was (and they seem to be sincere). Me, I kind of wish I had a large wooden trunk I could crawl into and lock from the inside.
Come to think of it, I think I could count the live performances I’ve come out of with significant good feelings on the fingers of one hand. It’s just not where I’m comfortable, and it hasn’t been for a long time. There was that surreal set at the FM Lounge with Max on upright bass where it felt like I could do no wrong, and there were the two Mackenzie Hall gigs, and then everything else tends to live in different ranges of “this could be worse” and “get me the fuck out of here”, even when it’s going well. That’s just my own personal thing.
Having said that, there was a good turnout, there were several professional dancers who just happened to be at Green Bean and busted out some choreographed moves to Travis’s musical craftsmanship, and I got to chew on a good sandwich. So those were a few definite points in the evening’s favour. One of them is a partial fabrication (it was more “random swaying” than “choreographed dancing”, really), but who’s keeping track?
To whoever was at the show the other day because they wanted to catch my set — sorry about that. If I had to grade my performance and how I felt about it, I think it would come in at around a C-minus.
Nothing about that show really felt right. Walking through mounds of mud…picnic tables smeared with dirt…people shovelling mulch (I first thought it was manure) in front of the stage while we were playing…and the audience being so far away they might as well have not even been there from the performer’s perspective, because between songs you couldn’t hear any applause at all. I was also led to believe I would be playing for hundreds of people. There couldn’t have been much more than twenty people there.
I thought that last thing would help take the pressure off. Instead, it threw me a little. I work off of the energy of an audience a little more than I thought I did. The more I talk, the more comfortable I get, and the looser I get with the performance. When you don’t feel there’s anyone there to talk to you don’t do so much talking, and things feel a little strange and disconnected.
But the thing that really threw me off my game was the sustain pedal for the rented keyboard not working. During soundcheck, when we were setting up, I noticed it was doing this strange thing where it just sustained endlessly whether my foot was on it or not. I tried turning the keyboard off, unplugging the pedal, and plugging it in again before turning the power back on (that tends to take care of any polarity issues). Still the same thing. Even resetting the keyboard and restoring it to the factory settings didn’t clear up the problem. No sustain pedal for me.
It didn’t hit me just how important that little pedal is to the way I play piano and how much i use it until it wasn’t there anymore. I knew I was going to lose a lot of sensitivity without a real piano, but after the sustain was gone too the keyboard felt completely one-dimensional. A song like “Do the Mountain Hop” needs that sustain in order to sound right. When it sounds wrong, everything I do feels wrong.
It was bad enough that it didn’t feel like my voice or my fingers were cooperating with me entirely onstage. Taking away an important tool at the keyboard fucked everything up for me. I had to rethink a lot of my playing on the fly in the middle of each song, because half of what I wanted to do wasn’t possible anymore. I do a lot of floating around the keyboard with both hands, building up chord clusters and letting things sustain, and then sometimes soloing on top. None of that was going to happen without a sustain pedal.
After a while I almost felt like I didn’t really know how to play the piano at all.
Liam and Dan were great as usual, grabbing onto every improvised tangent I threw out there. And the sound guy was great to work with, making sure everyone could hear what was going on without things getting too crazy loud. I just wasn’t happy with my performance at all and didn’t once feel comfortable on that stage. I even tried a scream in the middle of one song in an attempt at firing myself up — something I haven’t done in ten years now — but my vocal cords said to me, “What the hell are you doing, man? We don’t do that anymore, remember?”
After the show I realized I forgot to tell the audience who I was, aside from introducing myself as Avril Lavigne before the first song. I was kind of glad. I wouldn’t want anyone who didn’t know me to think that set was indicative of what I sound like when things are going my way.
The funny thing is, in the immediate aftermath of the last Mackenzie Hall show I didn’t feel that great about my performance either. Now, weighing it against this one, that show was an absolute masterpiece.
If nothing else, I can be thankful for that unexpected bit of perspective.
I guess I learned a few things, anyway. I learned something I didn’t know about the way I play piano. I learned a digital piano absolutely does not cut it for me anymore in any situation. And I learned if I do play live again at some point (and it’s a big “if” given the way I feel at the moment), it needs to be at Mackenzie Hall or a similar space where I can play a real piano with a working sustain pedal and have more control over the atmosphere. Otherwise way too many of the subtleties get lost, I don’t have a good time, and I end up remembering why I started avoiding live performances in the first place.
In happier news, I managed to find a great shelf for not much money through the magic of Kijiji. The shelf I’ve been using to store my vinyl records has pretty much been maxed out, and it was time to give it some assistance. The shelves I could find in stores that would be of any use to me ran several hundred dollars. That seemed absurd to me.
Then I found this shelf someone was selling on Kijiji for thirty bucks that was much more interesting-looking than anything I’d seen anywhere else. It looked pretty sturdy and maybe just the right size to hold records. It turned out to be both of those things. Now it’s hanging out in the sitting room, doing its job with gusto.
Kevin Kavanaugh was kind enough to take some pictures on Saturday. And by “some” I mean “many”.
It was almost like a collaborative dance, in a way…throughout the night he moved around taking pictures, just outside of the performance space. I rarely noticed he was there, because I was absorbed in singing and playing, but he was capturing all of the action as it unfolded from beginning to end. As he said, I ended up collaborating with another artist without even realizing it was happening.
Turns out he’s not just a really nice guy, but he also takes some seriously great pictures. Here are some of my favourites. Between these and the videos you should get a good idea of what the atmosphere was like. Click on any of ’em for a lot more detail. And notice how my hair gets progressively messier throughout the performance until I finally end up looking like the hairy beast I am.
Is it just me, or does Liam have the best beard ever? It can’t just be me.
For video highlights from the show and other relevant ramblings, head over HERE.
Also, GIFT FOR A SPIDER is at #1 on the CJAM charts right now. My albums tend to make it into the top ten at some point, but I don’t remember topping the charts in quite some time. Thanks to all the CJAM faithful for all the support.
What Josh Kolm rather brilliantly coined “Mackenzie Hall 2: Hall Harder” happened. It was an odd little two-headed beast of a show, but I think it went pretty well. Where to begin?
It was a different kind of show from the last one in a lot of ways. This time I had a band playing with me on some songs. This time there were cupcakes. This time the material was completely different. This time it was personal. But that’s always the goal, isn’t it?
The turnout wasn’t quite as insane as last time, and I think there were a few reasons for that. For one thing, if even half the people who said they were coming had bothered to show up, it would have been packed to the gills again. But there was a good crowd, and I don’t think I could have asked for a more attentive or receptive audience.
In a way, seeing some empty seats this time might have made it a more unique show. I’m not sure I would have been quite as loose or taken as many chances if the place was bulging at the seams. Maybe you feel a little more connected to an audience that’s a little smaller.
I went into it with a setlist I planned on sticking to. I ended up deviating from it at least as much as I did at last year’s show.
On paper it was supposed to play out like this.
What it turned into instead was this.
ONE BIG SET
I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress
Like a Lover Does
Umbrella (Rihanna cover)
He Was Saved by Poultry from the Shadow of Beef
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
Will Work for Food
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
Do the mountain hop
The Mind Is Blown When the Fight Is Thrown
Water to Town
Sweet Leaf (Black Sabbath cover; snippet)
An American Trilogy (Elvis Presley cover)
Tonight’s the Night (Neil Young cover; snippet)
To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free
Improv in E-flat
My sense of time got insanely skewed while I was playing. I knew what time it was when we got there to set up, and the start time was about 7:00, though I waited a good twenty minutes or so past that because I understand some people are going to be a little bit late. But somehow, somewhere in there, time melted away into an amorphous goo, and by the time we were playing the last song of the night I had it in my head it was the middle of the afternoon, as if we’d somehow gone backward in time. I even talked about the day as if there was a lot left of it in that final song. I was confident when everyone stepped outside after the music was over the sun would be shining, and a lot of us would probably want to grab dinner somewhere.
In the real world, it was past 9:00 at night. And though I felt like maybe I’d provided thirty minutes of music, it had really been more like ninety.
I still don’t know what happened there. I wasn’t overtired or anything. No one drugged my cupcake. Maybe it was the atmosphere in the room. Maybe it was just me.
This was the jazziest show I’ve ever played by some distance. Some of the solo pieces didn’t feel as strong as that side of things was the last time around, but the band stuff got pretty spicy, and we went some places I’ve never been able to even think about taking my music in a live setting before. At some point I think it stopped being my music and became our music, with the way we were improvising and playing off of one another.
I couldn’t want for a better rhythm section. If you told me even a year ago I would find a drummer and a bassist who would not only be able to go anywhere musically, but happy to twist things inside-out and never play a given song quite the same way twice, I would have rolled my eyes and told you those people didn’t exist, or if they did, they wouldn’t be interested in playing with me. And yet here we are.
Both of these guys can play the hell out of their instruments. But they’re always tasteful, and they always serve the song. Some of the things they’re doing are so subtle, you might not realize at first how complicated they are.
To give you just one example: “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” needs a kind of deep, rattling snare sound in order for it to work the way it should. This was easy enough to achieve at my place because of the size and depth of my snare drum. The kit Liam brought to the show had a smaller, higher-pitched snare. Instead of swapping out the snare, he altered his playing and rolled into every snare hit to get that rattling sound.
That, my friends, is a musician.
When Jackie came up for one song, I had to remind myself it was a prophetic breakup song I was singing and restrain myself from smiling through the whole thing. It’s surreal hearing a voice that beautiful harmonizing with you.
After almost a decade of going it alone, I finally found that feeling again of playing my own music with a band and having it pushed into places I would never be able to take it by myself (at least not live, because there’s only one of me). And I wasn’t even looking for it. It just happened because of who I ended up selling a cheap microphone to on Kijiji.
Funny how that works.
Big thanks go out to Liam, Dan, and Jackie for playing with me and letting their magic goodness pour out all over the place; Travis and Jay for taking care of the sound (and in Travis’s case lending some gear to the cause); Johnny Smith for being hostess/cameraman/CEO and the glue that glues the glue together; Tara for making so many amazing cupcakes (seriously, if you didn’t try one of those delicious things, you missed out); Sarah for recording some stuff with her magical little recording device and doing a post-show interview with me, which we’ll get to later; Josh, for putting in a herculean effort trying to find someone with professional equipment to film the show (in the end, the fates and Mel Gibson conspired against him); Crissi, who donated additional cupcakes to the cause even though she couldn’t make it to the show; and too many more friends to mention, like Pete, Angela, Dr. Sinclair, Beverley, Grace, Kaite, Samantha, Danny, Terry, Matt, Erik, Murad, Dalson (who took these pictures and got some great footage of a few songs he was kind enough to share with me), the extended CJAM family…I could go on. Everybody who was there played some part in making the show what it was.
I just need to remind myself when I play live and it isn’t a perfect, polished-to-death affair, that isn’t a bad thing. It’s what I do. And I guess I should expect that when I try to make it more of a well-oiled machine, I’m going to find myself instinctively tearing it down and making it more difficult for myself, because I think that makes it more interesting.
Angela told me it felt more like spending time in my living room listening to me play music than any kind of conventional show. For me that’s a lot more compelling than “performing” in the traditional sense. As with the last show, I got that feeling of hanging out with people as opposed to playing “for” them. The idea is to make it a more communal, intimate thing.
And it went there in a whole new way with the last song.
Instead of there being an intermission like last time, we just kept going. After a while, between the band stuff and the solo pieces I’d been playing for about an hour and-a-half. One of the guitars I meant to bring with me got lost in the shuffle (turns out I forgot it at home, though at the time I was convinced I brought it with me and someone must have stolen or misplaced it), making it impossible for me to play a few covers by the likes of Nick Drake and the Blue Nile that might have been show highlights if I’d been able to throw them in there. I was thinking about tossing in “Heaven” by the Talking Heads at some point too, but again, without that guitar it wasn’t happening.
By now I’d exhausted everything I wanted to play from my setlist, played a few unrehearsed requests and a kind of ludicrous take on one of my favourite Elvis Presley songs, and had no idea what more to do. There needed to be a definitive ending or comedown. “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” didn’t feel like it was climactic enough to do the job, as much as I like the song.
I asked Liam and Dan if they felt like jamming something out and seeing what happened. They were game. I suggested the key of E-flat, because it’s fun to play jazzy stuff using that as a key center, and off we went. They got a nice groove going. I noodled on top.
About a minute in, I knew I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to pull off an instrumental piece. I kind of played myself out with all the extended soloing that got jammed into a lot of the other songs. So I opened my mouth and started spinning a silly story, using my missing guitar as a jumping-off point.
Almost right away, the gravity of the situation hit me. What the fuck am I doing? I haven’t improvised an extended spoken word piece off the top of my head in probably a decade now. I used to do this all the time back in the Papa Ghostface days, but I’m way out of practice. And I never did it in front of an audience. Ever. What was I thinking? I have no ideas. This is going to be embarrassing. I just set myself a trap I won’t be able to get out of. Why did I have to open my mouth? Why?”
There was no turning back. I figured all I could do was follow it as far as it would go,and hope it didn’t turn into too much of a train-wreck.
Then an interesting thing happened. I don’t know if it was a case of some long-dormant machinery dusting itself off and sputtering to life again, but what started out as a tongue-in-cheek tale of potential imaginary romance turned into something a lot more personal. I started talking about myself, how I’d just made a breakup album overflowing with bitterness, and the struggle between wanting to connect with people but not enjoying being let down by so many of them so many times.
After a while the whole thing got even more reflexive, with me critiquing my own performance in the middle of the piece itself, hammering myself for getting lazy and using the word “like” as empty syntax. It turned into something like a stream-of-consciousness-pseudo-jazz confession. The deeper I got, the more words came pouring out, and Liam and Dan just kept playing with the groove in wicked-cool ways.
At some point it struck me that I’d probably lost the audience. It was almost a given. This wasn’t even a song anymore. It was more like me getting naked in front of a roomful of people while playing a piano and amplifying a few of my hang-ups and insecurities for them to examine. How entertaining could that be?
I don’t look at the audience much when I’m performing. I’m too busy concentrating on what I’m doing. So it’s hard to gauge how they’re responding to something while it’s happening. I could just feel in my gut that I’d gone too far off the map, and I was sure I’d look up from the piano to find maybe only ten or fifteen people left.
I looked up. Everyone was still there. That revelation became a part of my rant too.
It ended without any clear resolution, with me asking Dan where I was supposed to go next from where we’d ended up.
Somehow this ended up being the highlight of the show for some people. At the time I couldn’t understand why. It was some pretty scary shit for me. Like I said, I set myself a trap without thinking, and I had to find a way to wriggle out of it. I didn’t for a second anticipate delving into some amount of silly/serious self-examination in the process. That just happened. But the audience stayed with me, and they got into it.
It was only when I sat down and listened to it later on that I was able to understand how that could happen. I guess it’s a pretty unique thing for a live show. It belonged to that moment and those people in that room. We conjured it out of nothing. That collision of music and psyche had never happened before, and it’ll never happen again.
Now that I think of it, if I went to see someone play live and they did something like that, I might find it pretty cool too. But for me it was more like the ultimate test of my ability to create something out of nothing. And I was able to pull it off, with some help from my friends. It just worked out that everyone who was there got to watch it happen in real-time.
Another fun moment was when Grace and Kaite got up and literally did the Mountain Hop during “Do the Mountain Hop”, dancing the whole song through — even during the long improvised jazzy outro. And when a guy and a girl started singing the little scratchy percussion part that comes in for one brief part of “Water to Town”, in just the right place…I don’t know who they were, but I wanted to get up and hug them. Talk about really listening to the albums.
Who ever gets to hear two strangers in the audience singing their own percussion part to them in the middle of a song? That’s special stuff.
I’m not sure I want to put up video of the entire show this time. It would eat up server space like mad. But here are some of the highlights — in the order they were performed, except for the first video here, which I took out of sequence to put at the beginning.
I’ve always had a special fondness for this song as it appears on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, but I never thought it would be something I could pull off live, let alone something that would turn out to be a highlight of the show. If I had to pick one song to stand for the whole performance, it might be this one.
After the four-minute mark it’s all improvised. By this point I knew I wasn’t going to play my planned solo take on “I Put a Spell on You” (it was meant to be a delay-drenched electric guitar workout on Travis’s sexy Telecaster), so I dropped it in the middle of the jam instead. It fit in better than it had any right to. Dig Dan smiling when that happens. And check out how I go off on the piano and Liam and Dan respond immediately to every dynamic shift I throw out there.
As much as I loved having a band when I was full of rage and dreams of facial hair, this is at such a different level it’s kind of insane. One of the most exciting things about playing in a band, at least for me, is when the other musicians are so good they allow you to play to your full potential, and then beyond it, making you better than you thought you could be. That happened more than once back in the Guys with Dicks days. I feel like it happened here too.
I missed a line in the first verse, but you probably won’t notice unless you really know the song.
This was maybe a bit of an odd song to start with, but it seemed like a good way to warm up. Something stopped me from really digging in and improvising at the end like I planned to. I made up for that later on.
This was probably the biggest surprise for me. When we started rehearsing, I gave Liam and Dan a CD with about ten different songs I thought might be worth tackling. One was “Anthropomorphism Dance”, the closing track on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES. I only threw it in on a lark. It didn’t seem like a good candidate for a live three-piece, what with all the clattering percussion and layered sonic touches in the recording (electric guitar, ukulele, warped synth/organ) and two frenetic electric bass parts driving the whole thing.
At one rehearsal Dan surprised me when he said he’d been listening to it and he thought it was worth taking a crack at. I have no idea what I was playing on electric guitar on this song anymore, and it was more atmospheric guitar than anything. I didn’t think it would fill enough space. So I thought I’d try figuring it out on the piano. Within ten or fifteen minutes we were running through it for the first time. It sounded like the tenth time we’d played it. It was that tight already.
Of course, the one time I finally trip up — and not in a small way, but losing the beat altogether at the beginning of the song — is when we’re playing it in front of an audience. Figures. Lucky for me it happened right in the opening seconds, and I recovered pretty fast.
Liam’s drumming is really the star of the show here. He’s playing some really tasty polyrhythmic stuff. We took what was sort of a skittering borderline rock song (it’s always made me think of early 1990s experimental-period U2 for some reason) and turned it into some sort of Latin-tinged jazz-pop.
When I apologize for dropping the beat at the end of the song, Dan consoles me in the voice of John Travolta. You can’t ask for more than that.
The thing that’s wild to me is a song I thought would be impossible to translate live turns out to be one of the most fun to play. Even when I miss a line in the lyrics at the very beginning (again).
The album version of “Like a Lover Does” on GIFT FOR A SPIDER is much more languid and dreamy than this, with no percussion. Dan had the idea to twist it in a different direction and make it swing. I was supposed to play some slide guitar during my solo but forgot I stashed the slide in my left pants pocket — And I put it there so I wouldn’t forget where it was. D’oh.
I’ve yet to get comfortable enough with the weird new-ish tuning that twelve-string is in right now to solo with confidence. Every time we rehearsed I would hit some bum notes. The one time I played a really solid solo with no awkward moments was at the show when I just said to hell with it, improvised, and hoped my thumb landed on the right frets. And it did. Thanks, thumb.
It might have been an idea to go for a less “electric” guitar sound here, but the distortion felt appropriate to me at the time. Jackie’s magic is all over this one, and that last harmonized repetition of the title was a fun moment for me. Normally I would sing those last two words in a soft falsetto. Here I just belted them full-voice, Jackie wailed along with me without even knowing what I was going to do, and it was dead-on.
This felt like one of the stronger solo performances. I cooked up a version of the song that was very different and more mournful-sounding, owing quite a bit to the cover of the clash song “Bankrobber” I worked up for CJAM’s Joe Strummer day. At the last minute I decided to stick with the original arrangement, but I played it on the Martin 00-17 instead of the Regal I wrote the song on and recorded it with, half a step down.
I could hear a few people singing along to this one. People singing Johnny West songs in the audience is nuts. It’s almost like I’ve got “hits” or something.
I think some of my singing could be a little better here, but check out how it swings. And check out the dancing. How often do you see anyone dancing at a show to a song that’s in swinging 6/8 time?
My playing isn’t as busy in the jam here. Part of that’s because I was enjoying what Liam and Dan were playing so much I just wanted to listen to them swing it low. Part of it is because I know when I’m improvising in a key with this many accidentals scattered around the keyboard I’m going to hit some bad notes sooner or later, so I try to be a little cagier about where my fingers go. And part of it was just not being sure what to play there, because I was winging it.
This one might seem like an odd choice for a live track, but I thought it would be a good excuse to get some audience participation going on via call-and-response singing. The video doesn’t do justice to how great it sounded with that big mass of voices coming at me while I was singing back at them. I thought about making this a band song. It could have worked. I think it works just as well solo.
I felt like my performance of this one was a little dodgy at the time. Now I’m not sure what I was hearing, because aside from one or two duff notes on the piano it sounds fine to me. While the improv at the end is more restrained and subdued than what happened in some other places, I think it suits the song. And dig how Liam plays with the rhythm, underlining how the song isn’t as simple as it seems to be at first blush.
Here’s the potential train-wreck that turned into a weird highlight of the show against all the odds. In some ways it feels like a glimpse into what Guys with Dicks could have done if that adventure hadn’t ended when it did. It also stands apart from all of that, and it’s driven by a different kind of energy. In case you can’t make out all the words in the absence of more robust sound, I’ve transcribed them.
He was a hairy guy…with a missing guitar, which prevented him from being able to perform a Nick Drake song requested by his friend Travis Reitsma. He wondered if someone perhaps had taken his guitar hostage and was holding it for ransom at some undisclosed location. He waited patiently for the ransom note to arrive, at beautiful Mackenzie Hall, on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually the crowd had left and he was alone at the piano, crying in his long, sweaty hair, wondering whatever became of that guitar. Of course, conventional wisdom would dictate that he would just return to his home and find it sitting in his bedroom, mocking him and saying, “Ha-ha…if you had thought to take me with you, you could have played that song that you rehearsed with such half-assed passion.” But no. He just sat there, weeping in a disgusting, miserable way.
Then the light changed. There was a slight chill in the air, and a woman wearing a low-cut purple dress sat down beside him on the piano bench and said, “You seem troubled. Can I help to ease your weary mind?”
He said, “Well, I…I don’t hook up with strangers, you see. I’m not one of those…one of those alpha male types. I’m one of those nice guys who finishes last — you know, who always gets the sharp end of the popsicle stick rammed into his left cornea. And I just made a breakup album, for God’s sake…giving it away for free at this show. It’s got dirty words and vindictive bile on it. You’d think I would have learned by now. You’d think I would have got the message. But no. I keep on putting myself out there, I keep falling for the wrong people every single time, and I end up crying in my smelly, sweaty hair on a piano bench, pouring out my heart to some woman in a purple dress trying to proposition me for some meaningless fun, when I should have been taking up the girls who were propositioning me for meaningless fun back in high school. I mean, maybe…maybe I’d be living in a trailer park with leprosy. Maybe I’d have a couple kids who look a lot like me. Maybe I’d have nothing much to do but grieve.”
She said, “Man…you’re just a baby. What are you so bitter and cynical about? You got your whole life ahead of you. Your hair may be sweaty and stinky, but it’s pretty when you wash it — I can tell. And you can play that piano in a kinda okay way. And you can kinda sing, and people understand what you say. And…why you gotta be so down all the time? I don’t even know you and I’m getting turned off. I think I’m gonna leave before you start to shake and maybe make me feel bad about myself.”
Man, I blew that.
But you know, she was right. I mean, I got a lot of good friends, some of ’em playing up here with me onstage, some of ’em in the audience listening to me improvise this ridiculous spoken word piece where I’m suddenly kind of being honest about myself. What the hell is that shit about? But maybe there’s something therapeutic in that. I mean, maybe…maybe there’s some value in that. Maybe there’s something someone else will get from that — some kind of catharsis, or they’ll feel like they’re relating to a friend.
It’s good to have friends on whom you can rely. I think it’s better to have a couple friends you know you can really trust, as opposed to a large group of people who call themselves your friends but wouldn’t help you out if you really needed it. But you only learn through experience — by getting burned and putting yourself out there. If you’re too afraid to try, maybe you miss out on something really great, and of course it’s probably gonna go bad somewhere down the line…what did I say in that song? “Marriage is something that sick people do when they want to destroy something beautiful.” What about that “something beautiful” before that marriage comes? Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a woman and a man. It can be pouring out your guts to your favourite garbage can. Why did that rhyme? I don’t know. I don’t like to rhyme. Sometimes it feels right. Just this one time.
Look at me pretending I’m a jazz musician. I don’t…I can’t play that shit. I mean, I can’t do some Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson stuff. I ain’t got those kinda chops. But I got my own kinda thing going on, you know — like, “Plink-plonk, plink-plonk, plink-plonk”. And some people find some value in that. Man, I gotta get me another cat. They listen to what you have to say. And they’re so cute and furry and fun and friendly…except for when they don’t like you, because unlike dogs, sometimes they just don’t want to have anything to do with you. “Get away from me. Had a hard day being a cat. I don’t wanna hear your bullshit.” You just got them their favourite catnip, too. I mean, why they gotta be so cold?
But I mean, Pete’s here…I’ve been friends with Peter since the second grade. That’s a friend. We’ve been friends almost our whole lives. We’ve got history, man. It’s great to have that history with somebody. Just to…to have that connection never die. If you have one friend like that, I think — I would wish that for anybody. Anybody that I actually like, anyway. And the original Johnny West. The big JW. Always, always there when I need a helping hand. Always there when I need a brother man.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore. It turned into some, like, purging of my insides. Why am I doing this crazy “eyuh” going up with my voice? Sounds kinda stupid. I should just talk. Like, be conversational, and not say, “Like”, because I don’t like to say, “Like”. “Like” is a lazy word. It’s space, it’s noise, it’s pollution, it’s FILLER! I don’t like that stuff. I mean, learn to use the English language, Johnny West! That’s your currency! That’s what you use to get your point across. You don’t want to spit out some meaningless filler, dross…
Listen to Liam and Dan laying down that groove, man…that’s sweet.
I guess the point, if there is one, is that all the bad stuff that happens gives you some perspective — teaches you something about who you are or who you wanna be. Even if it hurts like hell. I mean…if you just lie down and let it slay you, then what the hell…what’s the use in that? To paraphrase a great man from a television show, “There’s a lot of pain and punishment in life. Stand it like a man — or a woman — and give some back.” So I’ll give some back.
How weird was that? I thought I would have cleared out half the place with that rap there. People are still here. That’s messed up! That’s what happens when you don’t look at the audience. You don’t…you don’t…you don’t see. But maybe you connect, by stripping away that stupid wall that usually stands between the performer and the audience. Talking to people. Taking off your shoes. Damnit, I forgot to take off my shoes! That’s the source of all my trouble. You gotta be in your bare feet or in your socks. You gotta get comfortable. What are shoes anyway? iI’s like a car for your feet, but the car don’t run. It needs an oil change. Wow, that was profound…
Where do I go with that?
Oh yeah — Sarah interviewed me after the show in a dressing room I didn’t even know was there. It was for the Windsor Scene program on CJAM, which is hosted by someone who isn’t Sara, who never plays my music and seems to have some strange unexplained contempt for me and what I do (but that’s another story for another time). Because you’re special, you can listen to it right here.
While my brain was a little frazzled after all of that music, I sort of managed to make some sense. It cracks me up that she chose to end with my ridiculous Elvis bit. And just to be clear, all my little hip-hop artist parody is meant to insinuate is that I find it amusing how many people working within that genre seem to enjoy asking if we know what they are saying, with an almost alarming frequency.
It’s true what I said about feeling less confident at this show than the last one in some ways. And still, I took more chances, I sang harder and with more energy than I have in a long time, and I went off on a number of potentially precarious improvised runs on whatever instrument I happened to be playing at the time, before we even got to that epic evening-ending improvisation.
I wonder why that is. I think playing live is just a nerve-wracking thing for me even at the best of times. I had a lot of fun, and I’m told I didn’t seem nervous, but the nerves were there from time to time. Whenever I play guitar live, for instance, I feel like half my skills go out the window and the piano says, “Come home to me. Let that wooden harlot fall from your hands.”
Instruments can be evil, messing with you like that.
Anyway, I hope everyone who came had a good time. I know I did. Maybe we’ll do it again in 2014 if the world doesn’t end next year when Justin Bieber marries Barbra Streisand.
As for the availability of the new album — I wasn’t kidding when I said you should come to the show if you wanted a copy. I need to fix the typo in the booklets before I start circulating it at the usual places. But I’d say by the end of this week or the beginning of the next one it should be out there for whoever wants it. I’ll keep you posted.
(For more pictures from the show, take a peak over HERE.)
I just got my hands on the footage Josh shot at Travis’s CD release show, and though some of what I remember being the best performances of the night weren’t filmed (I was really hoping to hear the version of “Wind Chimes Sing with Her” we did with me singing lead and Travis harmonizing, and the version of “Peculiar Love” with him singing instead of me, effectively swapping songs), this one was an interesting surprise.
At the time I wasn’t sure how successful it was. Felt like my voice wasn’t at its best, so I made a point of not singing as much backup as I normally would, and I wasn’t sure how much to go off on the piano. Hearing it now, it works a lot better than I thought it did, and I wish I’d thrown in more harmonies, because they sound better than I thought they did at the time too. Those are some pretty high notes without relying on falsetto to get there.
It’s not as climactic, layered, or mantric as the album version. That was going to be pretty impossible to duplicate. But for two guys playing live — one of them using a loop pedal he isn’t entirely comfortable with and the other playing a digital piano while wondering what makes Sammy run — I think it turned out pretty nice. Kind of wish I’d gone a little wilder on the keys, but hindsight is like a Welsh Corgi that enjoys licking your elbows just for something to do.
I was out of commission for several days thanks to ever-present sleep issues, but I’ve fixed that once again, for what must be about the nine hundredth time now. So, for the time being, I should return to my normal state of thuggery and occasional productiveness. You’ve been warned.
Bree sent me some pictures she took at the Mackenzie Hall show. Here are a few of my favourites.
Here you see a bit of the setlist I ended up shuffling and playing fast and loose with.
Elliott, in his role as piano-dwelling good luck charm, where he remained all night.
I ended up barely playing this guitar at all. Shame on me.
It ain’t a show without some bugle.
Water to the left of me, bugle to the right — here I am playing piano for you.
I’m always blown away by the pictures Bree takes. She makes it look so effortless when she’s snapping them, and then I see the images she ends up capturing, and I think, “How the hell did you do that?”
It also has to be said: Elliott is pretty photogenic. I think he’s gloating over it. I really, really like that first shot of my glasses and the harmonica holder Travis let me borrow resting on the piano bench. There’s something about the composition that just grabs me. The image has hands.
I still sound like a cross between Leonard Cohen’s illegitimate son and a bullhorn. It’s starting to get a little old now. I’d kind of like my old voice back, please…
On the bright side, writing that big thing about Harry Nilsson earlier in the week led me to pull out Nilsson Sings Newman for the first time in a very long time. I don’t think it ever quite hit me until now what a great album it really is. What Harry does with Randy Newman’s songs — the vocal nuances, the way he uses his voice as orchestration, and what he does with his own instrumental overdubs on organ, guitar, percussion, tack piano, and marimba — is nothing short of brilliant. They practically become new songs altogether in Harry’s hands.
That guy was something else. I read he added so many vocal tracks to some songs, five people had to work the mixing board simultaneously in order to get the right fader moves.
That’s ten hands. That’s nuts. That’s what life was like before Pro Tools.