April 14, 2019
It has been four months since my last blog post about music (December 7), so before we begin the main narrative about my current alphabetical "fixation" below, let's first get caught up with my public performances during the holiday season. All but one of those performances (January 15) were at the Wednesday night open mic event at Queen City Brewing, hosted by Fritz Horisk. On December 19 I played a random assortment of songs, two of which were ones I had recently learned, and just one with an explicit Christmas theme. (I need to learn more.) With a low turnout of musicians, we each got to do two extra songs, so I chose "Hummingbird" to call attention to the rare Rufous Hummingbird that had recently appeared in Stuarts Draft, and "Luckenbach, Texas," as a tribute to Ed Lawler, a good friend of mine in the Augusta Bird Club who was a Waylon Jennings fan. Ed passed away in November.
# : with harmonica
* : first time in public
(These notations apply throughout this post.)
On the day after New Year's Day, January 2, I played three songs by the Three Dog Night for the first time. I cleverly introduced the first song as if it were a Christmas carol. The other two songs were likewise "first-timers" for me, making five altogether. They all sounded just fine, and it helped me rebuild my confidence, since I had missed a few weeks late in 2018. It's funny how you can lose the knack for public performing so quickly.
[ NOTE: I originally written "So Far Away" rather than "I Feel the Earth Move," but I had already done that one in December. ]
On January 15, for the first time, I joined Kimball Swanson, Doug Boxley, and Gerry Choate at the Valley Mission, a local shelter for homeless people and folks who are temporarily down on their luck. Those guys have been entertaining the residents roughly once a month for at least a couple years, I believe, and I have to say it was about as rewarding as any other public performance I have done. The folks were extremely appreciative, and some of the kids came up and talked to us after we were done playing. I hope to go back there again later this month. I played along with the other guys and then led them in four of my favorite songs by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils:
A is for America: On January 23, I began my weekly series going in alphabetical order more or less by accident. Early in January, Daryl Dragon, "The Captain" in the pop duo "Captain and Tennille" (along with the singer whom he later married, Toni Tennille) passed away. Everybody knows them for the song "Love Will Keep Us Together," but as a sort of tribute to Mr. Dragon, I played a song they did which had previously been recorded by the group America: "Muskrat Love." With an odd rhythm, that song is tougher to play than you might think. Then I played three other America songs, the latter two of which I had done before. They sounded much better this this time.
B is for Beatles: As I prepared for the open mic event on January 30, I started thinking seriously for the first time about going through the entire 26-letter alphabet week by week. There wasn't much doubt that I was going to do the Beatles, although Bob Dylan was a plausible alternative. All four songs were "first-timers" for me, or at least I think so. I may have done "Strawberry Fields Forever" previously, but if so, I didn't make note of it. All four songs came across very well, and host Fritz Horisk (who is a big Beatles fan) was impressed. His opinion carries a lot of weight with me.
C is for Chicago While introducing my songs on February 6, I put more emphasis on the alphabetical progression. It was hard not to do songs by Chicago, since I had just learned most of them during the late summer and fall, and I always enjoy doing songs that are still "fresh" in my mind. My friend from the bird club, Peter Van Acker was there, and I think I did pretty well for the most part. "Beginnings" is quite challenging, and I probably came up a little short on that one.
D is for Doobie Brothers: On March 6, I went with the Doobie Brothers; David Bowie was the only other real choice, and his material is probably too offbeat even for me. The guitar sounded good on all four songs, but I missed a few notes on the harmonica while playing the lead part on "China Grove." The fact that it was Ash Wednesday made the second song all the more appropriate. I had done "Long Train Runnin'" a few times before, and I have it down. The final song was not bad, but didn't elicit as much audience response as I had hoped.
E is for Eagles: There was no doubt about it on March 13: the Eagles are probably my favorite group of all time, and I play over three dozen of their songs. Now a "normal" musician would play some of the Eagles' best-known hit tunes such as "Take It Easy" -- but not me! I felt compelled to probe into the lesser-known "deep cuts" such as "Nightingale" and "Take the Devil," which were from the first Eagles album. (I only learned them recently, in fact.) Then came "Witchy Woman" (the only hit song I played that night) to show off my harmonica playing, and finally the mellow "Love Will Keep Us Alive." That got warm applause.
Also that night, another guy played Tom Petty's "Last Dance With Mary Jane," which I also do, so I accomanied him on the harmonica (while remaining seated in the back) at the appropriate points in the song. That got knowing smiles.
F is for Fleetwood Mac: March 20 marked the first time I had been to the Queen City Brewing open mic night for three consecutive weeks for several months. I chose Fleetwood Mac, and again, there really wasn't much in the way of alternatives. It's perhaps odd that I haven't played as many Fleetwood Mac songs in public previously, because they used to be (and probably still are) one of my top four or five groups. Three of the songs I played for the first time in public, and two of them ("Gold Dust Woman" and "Go Your Own Way") I played with a capo, which I had only done recently with those particular songs. I barely even needed to [use the] lyric sheets, since all the songs are so familiar to me. They all came across very well, and I got a big round of applause at the end.
G is for Grateful Dead: This past week (April 10) was the letter "G," which opened several possibilities: On multiple occasions I have played songs by the Gin Blossoms, the Goo Goo Dolls, Gordon Lightfoot, and the Guess Who. But instead, I broke new ground by covering the Grateful Dead. When I played at Shenandoah Brewing last year, somebody suggested that I play some of their songs, which at the time seemed rather far-fetched for me. For one thing, I'm not exactly a "dead-head" in terms of lifestyle, and trying to adopt the necessary attitude or persona to do those songs seemed to be quite a stretch. But, as I told the audience, if there is one consistent trait with me in doing music, it is my utter disregard for convention and expectation. So why the hell not? Earlier this year I started learning Grateful Dead songs, and to my amazement, got pretty good at some of them. I started off with their classic, "Truckin'," and I nailed it without any hitch except for a garbled lyric or two. (I never realized it before, but one consistent characteristic of Dead songs is that they are chock full of words sung a a rapid clip.) Apparently Robert Hunter wrote the lyrics to almost all of their songs, and Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir (and perhaps other late-comers) contributed varying amounts of music to each of them. The next two songs went pretty well, but on the final one ("Touch Of Grey") I had to start over switching from a Bb to a C harmonica. (That really adds to the sound of the song, which features a bit more melody than most Grateful Dead songs.) I also messed up a chord at one point and had to start the second verse over again, to my annoyance, but otherwise it sounded great, and once again I got great response from the audience.
This coming week (or else the next week) will be the letter "H," which opens just three possibilities (among groups or artists that I actually play): Heart, Harry Chapin, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Then comes the letter "I," for which the possibilities are very scant indeed.
I was saddened and rather stunned to learn last month that a local musician passed away: Bill Harlow, one of the two main organizers (along with Bob Brydges) of the open mic events at Barrenridge Vineyards every Thursday night. I played there several times last year, but have been putting it off for the past several months, partly because it's harder for me to get to. Bill played guitar and bass guitar, often in a duo with Bob Brydges, and sometimes with larger groups. Bill was a great musician with a real passion for his craft, and he was always very friendly to me, often inviting me to join the musical fun at Barrenridge. I'm sorry that I didn't do so more often, and I will try to do so in the future.