Friday, November 02, 2012

Fables of the R.E.M. Ensemble - The Show 10/28/12

After 8 weeks of rehearsing songs from the R.E.M. catalog, the ensemble hit the stage at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Armitage location for an 8 song set.

We were given the prime slot in between the opener (The Replacements/Paul Westerberg Ensemble) and the headliner (David Bowie Ensemble). For the show, Bob gave me the green light to bring in some louder gear, and I couldn't have been more happy to oblige. A friend's boyfriend was more than kind to let me use his British made Vox AC15 amp in order to achieve pure Rickenbacker nirvana. This upgrade in the amp department allowed me the chance to finally put my only 2 effects pedals to good use; the Boss Super Chorus and the Fulltone Full-Drive 2 Mosfet. The show's setlist remained the same from last week's class:

"Finest Worksong"/"Gardening At Night"/"Cuyahoga"/"Can't Get There From Here"/"Fall On Me"/"Exhuming McCarthy"/"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"/"Strange"

This was my first time at the Armitage location. Hopefully one day I'll get to experience playing on the main stage at the Lincoln Avenue location. We were all pretty well packed on the Armitage stage, and I didn't do myself any favors by being the only one to show up with a partial effects panel. But, hey, I couldn't hold back at getting the right sound for the songs.

This was my first time back on a stage in 12 years, and it was my first time performing R.E.M. songs with a group of other musicians. It was a great 8 weeks of getting inside R.E.M.'s songs and really examining Peter Buck's guitar work during the early part of the catalog. Bob kept the class environment very loose but still maintained a good focus on the songs. Everyone in the class had a genuine respect of the music and had great fun tackling the arrangements we've all known as fans of the band. 

From the ringing intro of "Finest Worksong" to the reckless fun of "Strange," the set seemed to go by in a flash. For the most part, we played pretty well as a group, and the 8 weeks of practicing really came across in the performance. It wasn't a note-for-note perfect show, but we certainly held our own on stage. I got passed the mental block of singing and playing at the same time. Though my microphone was on during "Exhuming McCarthy," the sound engineer decided not to turn my mic back on for "Strange."

I thought our best moment was "Gardening At Night." Even though it came early in the set, the song really flowed with ease. Plus, the single note parts provided most of the show's jingle and jangle. It just all clicked. "Gardening At Night" is the quintessential R.E.M. song that stands shoulders above any Top-10 song the band scored during its 31 year career.

The song that could have been the potential musical car wreck was "Can't Get There From Here." Aside from a very small miscue after the first chorus, we quickly recovered and kept the song together. And I finally didn't screw up the bridge! All in all the show came off without any major bumps, and I can't wait for one more round with the class before the snow comes.

R.E.M. Ensemble - Can't Get There From Here (Live)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fables of the R.E.M. Ensemble - Weeks 4 to 8

After a trip to L.A., time spent with West Coast friends, 2 Wilco shows, Amoeba Records, a weekend in Newport Beach, CA, In-N-Out Burger, Billy Squire on the freeway, catching a cold just after returning from L.A. and a whole lotta silliness involving the White Sox blowing a chance at the post season, I finally have a moment to post about my R.E.M. adventures in low-fi.

With our class performance set for Sunday, October 28th at the Old Town School - Armitage location (5:45 PM), eight weeks of taking apart R.E.M. songs will finally leave the rehearsal room and hit the stage. So, what do I remember about the past 4 weeks?

Week 4 - 9/25/12

Songs practiced: "Can't Get There From Here" (that's the only new song I remember from that class!)

Random Notes:

"Can't Get There From Here" was the latest addition to our class songbook up to this point and the first song from Fables of the Reconstruction that we would attempt. The only thing I remember saying to myself after running through the song for the first time ever was, "What the fucking were they (R.E.M.) thinking?"

I was just lost in that song, and I know I wasn't the only one in class that played like someone lost in a maze. The song is by far the most ridiculously funky song ever attempted by the band at that point of its career, and it's the lone glimmer of sunshine on an album that barely leaves the shadows.

Week 5 - 10/2/12

Songs practiced: Missed class

Random Notes:

It's the day after I returned from L.A., and I'm feeling pretty exhausted from my trip. I knew ahead of time that "Exhuming McCarthy" was going to be the new song of the night, but I just knew I needed an evening where I did nothing. By the next day, a good ole cold began to kick my ass.

Week 6 - 10/9/12

Songs practiced: "Can't Get There From Here"/"Exhuming McCarthy" (all I remember)

Random Notes:

I made sure to do my homework ahead of time, especially for "Can't Get There From Here." Thanks to countless YouTube videos of old R.E.M. concert footage and some good guitar notes out in the worldwide web, I was able to finally piece together what Peter Buck was actually playing. So, when it came time to trying out the song again in class, I wasn't lost in the chord patterns.

"Exhuming McCarthy" was a lot of fun. The Mike Mills backing vocal parts weren't sorted out fully, but the song had plenty of kick to it that got the whole room feeling good.

Week 7 - 10/16/12

Songs practiced: "Finest Worksong"/"Exhuming McCarthy"/"Strange"/"Fall On Me"/"Cuyahoga"/"Can't Get There From Here"/"Gardening At Night"/"(Don't Go Back To) Rockville"

Random Notes:

One of my classmates called me "Mr. Rickenbacker" before class. Hi. I'm Mr. Rickenbacker.

The first attempt at putting together a setlist for the class performance begins to take shape. The last addition to the mix is "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" from Reckoning. There's some hesitation about "Fall On Me" making the final cut, which is why "Rockville" gets brought in as a possible alternate. My stumbles with the intro to "Fall On Me" have grown less and less; still not pulled off smoothly though. My sense is that Bob's 50/50 on whether the vocal parts can be tightened up by the rest of us. No one was adding Bill Berry's vocal part ("It's gonna fall") until I spoke up. Can't forget Bill! It sounds simple to take on the job of singing such a brief lyric but not so much when you're trying to keep track of chord changes coming from different directions.

Capo at the 2nd fret for "Rockville." Bob takes the lead vocals here. I was able to figure out Peter Buck's little guitar "lick" (if you want to call it that) that's played in between the chorus and verse. According to Bob, "Rockville" didn't make anyone's list of song selections before the class began. Personally, the song didn't make my list because I thought it was too obvious of a pick from the early R.E.M. catalog. If my only two Reckoning selections were "Rockville" or "Camera" (not a top favorite from the album for me), I would pick "Camera" just because it would have offered up a challenge and possibly open up a new appreciation for the song that I didn't have after past listens.

I was really hoping that our last song selection for class would have been written after 1987, which is funny to say since the album that changed my world was 1986's Life's Rich Pageant.

Week 8 - 10/23/12

Songs practiced: Same as previous week

Random Notes:

The running order of the setlist gets finalized (I hope). We run through the whole set nearly twice. I came to class slightly rusty. For whatever reason, my hands and my brain were not fully connecting on certain songs. The lead into the bridge in "Can't Get There From Here" tripped me up. I couldn't multitask singing backing vocals and playing my guitar parts on "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Fall On Me." It was a bad way to end the last class session. So, I've got some practicing ahead of me for the rest of this week.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fables of the R.E.M. Ensemble - Week 3

Rickenbacker favoritism! Rickenbacker favoritism! It was bound to come up in class sooner or later. Bob had to take a moment in class to let my fellow classmates know that they too could share in the wealth of Peter Buck guitar goods and that I wasn't the Peter Buck-sub of class because I was the only one with a Rickenbacker bringing the jingle jangle to each song we practiced in class. I had to laugh.

Bob's e-mail before class announced that the songs of the night would be "Gardening At Night" from Chronic Town, R.E.M.'s 1982 EP, and "Can't Get There From Here" from Fables of the Reconstruction. Both selections marked the first time we would visit those albums.

Week 3 - 9/18/12

Songs practiced: "Strange"/"Finest Worksong"/"Cuyahoga"/"Gardening At Night"

Random Notes:

No bass or drums tonight from the usual suspects. Bob sat in on drums for "Strange." I turned lead vocals over to a classmate that had a tough day and needed to let loose a little.

Bob brought in a slide and gave a classmate the duty to provide the slide parts to "Finest Worksong." Once the slide parts were worked out, we gave the song a full run through, twice, and the slide actually sounds pretty good in the mix. I'm still unsure how Buck does the chiming riff throughout the song. Most sheet music I've seen has the riff played at the 4th fret. I've seen footage on Tourfilm and other concert footage that shows him playing the intro up on the 7th fret. I've got a better handle on how he plays the verses and the bridge. But I can't quite get that magic chime. Hmmm.

"Cuyahoga" sounded rusty. Now, I play the Drop D parts automatically and just pick the notes for the rest of the song. We kind of all lose each other in the rhythm of the song whenever we hit the chorus. I don't know why that is; I feel like some of my classmates over complicate the rhythm for the chorus. It's not like we're trying to dissect Rush songs.

The remaining time was spent on taking apart "Gardening At Night," which I had never really studied closely. There's so many tiny pieces going on in that song that give it some clever twists and turns. I can understand why Buck has always cited the song as being the band's first real complete song in terms of structure, melody and lyrics. And it's really fast.

"Can't Get There From Here" got ditched due to time. Maybe next week.

As I write this now, I broke "Gardening At Night" down to its core parts on my acoustic. I need to put more work into the single note picking during the quiet parts in between the verses, but I found the correct chords for the intro. Of all the songs we've practiced, this song is definitely throwing down the gauntlet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fables of the R.E.M. Ensemble - Week 2

Tonight revisited material from Life's Rich Pageant and introduced songs from Document for the first time. After having done my homework from the last session, I felt a little more comfortable in the class and with my playing. This time we had the pleasure of having the drummer and keyboardist in the room. I think their presence definitely changed the overall vibe of the class and made the energy go up one notch from last week's session.

Week 2 - 9/11/12

Songs practiced: "Begin The Begin"/"Cuyahoga"/"Finest Worksong"/"Strange"

Random Notes:

Practice. Practice. Practice. And a touch of overdrive effect from the Vox. "Begin The Begin" sounded a lot better, and the intro riff is coming off a lot smoother for me.

Bob asked me to play in Drop D tuning for "Cuyahoga" and gave me a different part to play during the verses. The Drop D tuning also allowed me to play the intro to the song, which I had never tried before outside of standard tuning. I picked up on the intro pretty quickly, and the different tuning gave me a new approach to the song that was really nice.

The first new song sheet of the night turned out to be "Finest Worksong." I was ready for this one. It's always been a great, noisy song to blast in an empty house/apartment. The first run through was good. Bob fleshed out certain parts and worked with the bassist. We should all wear name tags or something just to help since we're a group of old and new members. But the bassist is really getting his parts down. It was great to finally learn some of the harmonic parts to the song on guitar.

The curve ball of the night turned out to be a classmate's request to try out R.E.M.'s cover of "Strange" by Wire. Granted that Wire hates R.E.M.'s cover, I wouldn't have found out about Wire if not for the cover. So, whatever.

Bob was just starting to brainstorm what song to play to end the night when "Strange" was requested. I immediately played the chord intro and smiled at Bob. He then left the room for a while, and I started to work out the chords with my classmates. It felt like Bob was gone for a good amount of time. I asked out loud, "Is Bob protesting 'Strange'?" After figuring out the correct chords to the chorus, Bob reappeared with song sheets for "Strange." The question of who was to sing soon followed. Feeling comfortable, I volunteered to step up to the microphone. I probably haven't been in front of a microphone since my cafe open-mic days over 12 years ago!

Needless to was so fun just to get lost in the song. 4 chords. Loud. Fast. And I got to sing "Do-Do" a lot. What's not to love?

Bob mentioned giving Collapse Into Now a listen recently. Fingers crossed "Discoverer" gets the call next week.


Friday, September 07, 2012

Fables of the R.E.M. Ensemble - Week 1

If the majority of people were allowed to define rock critic as a new entry in Webster's Dictionary, it would likely say, "One who is musically impaired; unable to produce a musical note worth listening to thus needs to critique those who can."

We know the jokes, but they are jokes that carry some truth to them. But if there's one thing that the punks of the late 70s reminded people was that anyone can sing into a microphone...anyone can pick up an instrument. For me, R.E.M. was the band that not only stood as an example of the "anyone can do it" punk ethos but also provided me with a compass to use on my own musical path.

Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe gave me a sense of direction at the age of 13 but never told me where to go; that part was up to me to decide, that was my choice. Life's Rich Pageant, my first CD, was my key to a treasure chest of music that I still find new discoveries. It was also the album that made me want to pick up a guitar. For one year, I played air guitar to those twelve songs until I received my first guitar when I turned 14, a classical acoustic from Mexico.

Now, I find myself picking up my Rickenbacker and sitting in with the R.E.M. Ensemble at the Old Town School of Folk Music for the next 7 weeks. The class has been on my radar for some time, and it was a now-or-never decision to finally jump in. At the end of this session, the ensemble performs at a venue to be named later. My understanding is that the ensemble performs a selection of R.E.M. songs that the students pick to be practiced during the overall 8 week class.

Leading the class is our instructor, Bob Goins, whom I met only once before at Old Town when he was a substitute teacher for my Guitar 1 class. In that class, I apparently threw him a curve ball by playing the A chord differently from the textbook version. To be fair to Bob, he was there for 1 class and didn't know that I had been playing since I was 14. I'd also forgotten that I've actually seen Bob perform with his Wilco Ensemble, which included Jeff Tweedy, for Old Town's 50th Anniversary show at the Auditorium Theatre in 2007.

Since I've been on such a long hiatus from covering music and doing the rock critic thing, I see this class as my way of refocusing my energy towards playing the music rather than reviewing it. So, I'll be posting little updates on the progress of the class and my experience being the 1 guy in class that is playing a Rickenbacker (you're welcome, Peter Buck).

Week 1 - 9/4/12

Songs practiced: "The One I Love"/"Begin The Begin"/"Cuyahoga"/"Fall On Me"

Random Notes:

Yeah, I really set myself up as being the only guitarist to show up to class with the same Rickenbacker model guitar that Peter Buck used for all of R.E.M.'s career. As Bob handed me the class packet of songs, he announced to everyone in the practice room, "It wouldn't be an R.E.M. class without a guy playing a Rickenbacker."

Most of the class was made up of other musicians that had taken previous sessions with Bob. 3 playing electrics (including myself), 4 playing acoustics (including Bob), and 1 playing electric bass. The bassist could have passed for Mike Mills circa 1982. The drummer didn't show up (somewhat fitting considering R.E.M.'s history with drummers). If the drummer shows up next week and has a unibrow, I'll take that as a sign that this will be a good class.

Warm-up song was "The One I Love." Straight performance, no solo. Then we took a few passes at "Begin The Begin" and "Cuyahoga." Some extra work done to tighten up the rhytym part to the chorus in "Cuyahoga."

Since I was the one in class with a Rickenbacker, I got assigned to take the Peter Buck parts for the songs (i.e. the intro/verse riff in "Begin The Begin"). Yup, I was the Peter Buck of the class; picking out the notes instead of strumming full chords. Funny and scary considering it was my first time playing R.E.M. songs with other people.

"Fall On Me" was the last song of the night. Once again, I had the role of Peter Buck and had to start the song. On my own, I had maybe only ever played "Fall On Me" about 5 times and always stuck to just playing the rhythm (not including the intro). After 3-4 quick attempts at the intro, I got it down, and the class jumped in. Must remind Bob that someone should do Berry's backing vocal part ("It's gonna fall").

Overall, everyone that took lead vocal duties did pretty well. The group's playing ability is strong and should get better week by week. Some of the songs I saw in the class packet were:

"Driver 8"/"Radio Free Europe"/"Oddfellows Local 151"/"Me In Honey"

Hopefully there will be some post-1992 material that comes up. We shall see...

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Extra! Extra!

The April issue of Chicago Innerview is now available online. In this month's issue, I contributed a write-up on Swervedriver.

Click the link below for the write-up:

Chicago Innerview - Swervedriver


Main Stage

JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound prove that a little soul can go a long way and putting a new spin on a landmark Wilco song will get a few more people talking.

But there's more going on with JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound than just the Wilco connection; there's a heart that want to wrap up everyone with its rhythm and sound. It's an infectious sound that thrives on the moment and setting up a mood where the senses get happily lost; it's a concept that either comes off genuinely or as an act.

Having left stages in a hot sweat for over five years, the group is riding a wave created by its second album Want More (Bloodshot Records). The group's homecoming at Metro will only reaffirm what some fans already know--JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound is Chicago's new bright star.

JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound perform at Metro on April 27th.

Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds @ Riviera Theatre (4/1/12)

Noel Gallagher issued his declaration of independence to the near capacity crowd at the Riviera Theatre by opening with the Oasis B-side "(It's Good) To Be Free." Having been written after his first major departure from the band during its inaugural tour of America in 1994, the song resonated even more as the 44-year-old singer/songwriter now commanded the center stage for the first time as a solo artist ever since leaving the Manchester group in 2009. Along with his new group, Gallagher shaped the evening around his debut solo album, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, and an Oasis backlog that proved to still have plenty of life even without its former lead vocalist sneering into the microphone. 

For Gallagher, there was simply nothing he had to prove to anyone inside the Riviera. Just down the street on West Lawrence Avenue was the Aragon Ballroom where Oasis performed in 1996 months before solidifying its claim to the throne as the biggest band in the world (even if most of the world wasn't keeping score). For all the criticism he amassed over his twenty year career for borrowing/stealing/rearranging the works of almost every band from the British Invasion (not to mention Stevie Wonder, The Doors, Neil Young, R.E.M.) to craft his songbook, Oasis still succeeded and had an impact on British rock music that no other group has ever come close to repeating.

Over the course of the hour and a half set, Gallagher showcased nearly the entire debut album (minus "Stop The Clocks") throughout the twenty song set while utilizing selected Oasis songs he had come to rely on when doing mini-acoustic sets during Oasis shows. Drummer Jeremy Stacey, wearing a bowler hat and white outfit resembling a droog from A Clockwork Orange, was the spitting image of John Bonham (in size and beard), who also occasionally wore the same outfit during Led Zeppelin's 1975 tour. From the outset of "Everybody's On The Run," Stacey made his presence known and felt as he delivered a steady stomp that was unrelenting. Gallagher clearly fed off his drummer, giving each strum of his guitar the same amount of force that Stacey was producing on his drum kit. The stomp turned into a brisk shuffle with "Dream On" as Gallagher weaved his vocals from a tease to a punch.

Joined by bassist Russ Pritchard (The Zutons), guitarist Tim Smith (The Producers, Sheryl Crow) and fill-in keyboardist Ben Leach (Mikey Rowe stepped down to rejoin his pregnant wife), Gallagher's High Flying Birds played within their strengths and didn't attempt to replicate the styles of Gallagher's former Oasis bandmates. The addition of Pritchard and Smith on backing vocals added a nice bit of depth to songs like "(I Wanna Live In A Dream In My) Record Machine" and "(Stranded On) The Wrong Beach."

The Oasis sound that fans had come to know in the last nine years of the band was wiped clean away. Gallagher avoided the bombastic arena staples like "Cigarettes & Alcohol," "Lyla" and "The Shock Of The Lightning." Instead, he opted for songs that were effortless in structure ("Half The World Away") and that recalled the optimism sometimes overlooked in Oasis songs ("Whatever"). A slowed down acoustic version of "Supersonic," the band's debut single off 1994's Definitely Maybe, still carried the bravado and fire as Gallagher sang the opening line, "I need to be myself."

Although Gallagher's first work beyond Oasis is filled with a new breath, there remained a musical vision that had been recycled time and time again. From the echoes of "Wonderwall" and "D'You Know What I Mean?" that can be heard in "If I Had A Gun..." to the nearly never ending variations of shuffling tempos that tie "Go Let It Out" to "The Hindu Times" to "Lyla" to practically all of 2008's Dig Out Your Soul up to now with the likes of "The Death Of You And Me."

Whether it's conscious or not, Gallagher's willingness for self-repetition somehow, someway almost always produces yet another hook that pulls you in or a sound that only Noel Gallagher can make. As "Don't Look Back In Anger" filled the Riviera, Gallagher turned the vocals over to the crowd as he almost always has since it became a pillar of Oasis shows. The power of the song, even outside an arena setting, was still evident as the crowd sang in unison, ready to join Gallagher the second the chorus came around. Noel Gallagher, the solo artist, may lack the electrifying voice that his younger brother Liam gave to Oasis for all those years, but he certainly has not lost the heart.

Photo By: Lawrence Watson

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Going Underground

Writing on hiatus...

Stepping away from the law firm world as of September 2nd...

Beginning September 6th, career path TBD...