7/7/7 Day Eight (yes, Day Eight): Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 8. Wait, what?
I needed a vehicle to recognize Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Film.

Any such list is bound to have a criminal omission on it. Mine, true to type, has at least three. At least: three of this magnitude:

Frank Zappa, “Drowning Witch”

How does one choose “a” Zappa piece? Which of the forty zillion musical ideas deserves the single highlight? I played in a trio whose repertoire included “Sleep Dirt”, so y’know, maybe that one. Or perhaps it’s a legendary composition like “The Black Page”. Or hell, why not go straight to the obnoxious–there’s plenty to choose from, after all.

I went with the tortured idea-mill otherwise known as “Drowning Witch”, partly because it seems to have a little of all of it. (This is the version from the third installment of the “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore” series.) But really, I just needed to recognize FZ as an influence, and as a genius of just as much depth as anyone may care to discover. (To paraphrase from the liner notes: “This is a hard song to play. How hard? The 1984 band *never* played it perfectly, and the 1982 band only came close on two occasions. This edit captures some of the best efforts of both.” Consider the musical caliber of FZ bands, against that statement.)

Béla Fleck, “System Seven”

Jeez, I could have picked any of a dozen Béla Fleck songs and been happy with the choice. In the end I went with a quiet, unflashy piece from the first “Tales from the Acoustic Planet” record, where by “backing band” what is really meant is “acoustic supergroup”. It makes the point as well as any: the man has been a wildly important figure in multiple musical genres, and it’s certainly hard to imagine my musical life without him. (For anyone looking for a delightful story, check out Fleck’s “Throw Down Your Heart” documentary.)

It sometimes seems strange that I have followed Sam Bush even more closely than Béla; knowing my usual preferences it would be easy to conclude I’d always gravitate toward Fleck first. This probably says more about Sam than about Béla, and make no mistake–on the recordings we used at all three of our kids’ births, only Sam appears more often than the Banjo Boy Wonder. There are times–a lot of them–when it seems that there is simply nothing he cannot do with a five-string banjo.

JS Bach, “Ciaccona”

As a composition, Bach’s “Ciaccona” / “Chaconne” is simply a monstrous, haunting masterpiece. I keep telling myself that some day I will actually get around to tackling that one in earnest…and I’ll have my hands full doing it. The version of it that really took my attention for the first time was an arrangement for guitar (in the Guitar Craft tuning) played by Bert Lams on the first California Guitar Trio record, “Yamanashi Blues”. Spine-chilling! On the other hand there is a tradition of playing it on the mandolin (hell, it was written for violin, which is tuned the same), and I can certainly say that just playing the main chord sequence, voiced as it is, just burrows right down where I live.

The YouTube clip above is the very definition of aggravating. Incomplete, with several random splits in the timeline,…grrrrh. Nonetheless, it is Mike Marshall playing…the same Mike Marshall that guys like Sam Bush go to for technical tips and help with the truly impossible passages. And he’s playing this ludicrously beautiful piece as well as you’ll hear it played.

Well, I fell better now, having found a way to include Zappa, Bela, and Bach. And I’ll call the project done.

For now.  🙂


7/7/7 Day Five: Sam Bush, ‘Stingray’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 5. Sam Bush, “Stingray”.

Put simply, Sam Bush is and probably always will be essential to my life. Along with Béla Fleck, he was part of the double-whammy (made possible by a friend’s prescient invite to two days of the 1994 Telluride Bluegrass Festival) that jolted me into awareness of both newgrass and bluegrass. He then introduced me to a legion of other musical giants I’d never heard of. He was all over the playlist at my wedding. All three of my kids were born to Sam tunes. He’s the reason I picked up the mandolin. And the marvelous SOB just seems to get better over time.

Sam’s humility in practice is inspiring. I can recall vividly one of his shows at Telluride (I didn’t miss a TBF for a dozen years, after that first one…if you ever listen to “Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride”, consider that I was in the audience for most of what’s on that record), at which he took pains to introduce his band’s outstanding new cover of John Hartford’s “On The Road” as a difficult song to play because of its 5/4 time signature. John, he said, wanted to capture the disorientation of life on the road, and chose the time deliberately…it really was a loving tribute, and the fans loved it. What Sam *didn’t* say anything about, however, was that the song they had just finished playing, “The Dolphin Dance”, was in 13/4 time with a 5/8 bridge section! Don’t know how many of us in the audience caught that, but I sure did.

Sam doesn’t write prolifically–most of his records are at least half covers–but when he does pen a piece, it is often musically innovative and challenging, whether harmonically, or with convoluted time, or simply with Sam’s signature rhythmic variations, which are just exciting. And there is such simple, sheer joy in the man’s playing…

That first year at Telluride–the first time I had ever heard anything at all from Sam–he led off his Saturday-night closing set with an absolutely blister-raising performance of “Stingray”. I had just been floored by seeing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones for the first time as well, so I was already staggering a bit, but I was just NOT braced for that.

I suppose it remains my favorite Sam tune. You know, if I had to do something horrible, like pick.  🙂

7/7/7, Day Three: John Hartford, ‘Gum Tree Canoe’.

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 3. John Hartford, “Gum Tree Canoe”.

Were it not for the influence of Sam Bush, I might never have discovered John Hartford. The irony, of course, is that according to Sam, without John there would be no “newgrass” music in the first place. (Thoughts like that are just weird to me.) And now I understand much better why it is so difficult to “describe” Hartford to someone who doesn’t already get it. He was the very definition of quirky, and sometimes you need all the context to understand just how powerful his reach is, and has been. In some ways, it’s like trying to explain the depth of Zeppelin beyond the context of “Whole Lotta Love” and “Stairway to Heaven”.

This song ain’t newgrass. “Gum Tree Canoe” is a folk song, done straight up. It’s lovely, especially under Hartford’s voice, and contains perhaps the most romantic metaphor for “partners in life and beyond” that I have heard. (When Cathy and I were planning our wedding, we didn’t really have an “our song” in the way some people do, so we had to go look for something to play for the first dance. In looking, I ran across Hartford’s 1984 recording, and one listen was enough to know I’d found exactly what I needed. Oh yeah!