Sunday, December 09, 2012

It's a Bad Brains Christmas

I love a parody:

It's a Bad Brains Christmas, Charlie Brown!

Understand Music

When a musician or a composer talks about music, do you feel like they are talking a foreign language? Here's a short film that can help.

Understand Music on Vimeo.

The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles performs 'Chanukah in Santa Monica'

I've read that Tom Lehrer originally wrote this song in 1990 in order to remedy the lack of Hanukkah songs. (via Boing Boing):

I'm spending Hanukkah, in Santa Monica,
Wearing sandals lighting candles by the sea.
I spent Shavuos, in East St. Louis,
A charming spot but clearly not the spot for me.

Those eastern winters, I can't endure 'em,
So every year I pack my gear
And come out here to Purim.

Rosh Hashona, I spend in Arizona,
And Yom Kippa, way down in Mississippa.
But in Decemba, there's just one place for me.
'Mid the California flora,
I'll be lighting my menorah.
Every California maid'll
Find me playing with a dreidl.
Santa Monica, spending Hanukkah by the sea.
(c) 1990 Tom Lehrer

The Orchestrion

A fine article at Collector's Weekly details the history of the orchestrion, a mechanical contraption to make music.They describe it as "The iPod’s 4,000-Pound Grandfather", and I guess that is as good a description as any. Check out the article - it's full of pictures and video links.

The inside of a Hupfeld style A Phonoliszt-Violina,
featuring three violins accompanied by an expression piano.

Wrecking Crew Orchestra

OK, this is not really about music, but about awesomeness, and something I call EJW - Essential Japanese Weirdness. That's not a cultural put-down. Japanese culture produces some astoundingly weird (to us) artifacts, which I enjoy tremendously.

Here's a recent example - the Wrecking Crew Orchestra. Do you like Techno? Dig the movie Tron? Fan of locking & popping? Know what EL wire is? These guys have all the bases covered for you.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Arlington - by Lisa Nemzo

My friend and former employer Lisa Nemzo has done something remarkable, and I would like to share it with you, if you have not seen it yet. Please turn on your speakers or headphones, and watch this video.

I was thrilled beyond words to see this video. Lisa and I go way back; I played bass for her for several years in the mid-1970s, including a lot of gigs in and around LA, some recording, and some touring. Lisa is a tremendously talented singer and songwriter, as you can tell from this video. This video - directed by Mary Ann Skweres - was clearly a labor of love for Lisa on a number of levels. It was the last tune she co-wrote with her longtime collaborator and friend, Artie Colatrella, before his tragic and senseless death in 2011. It is also based on a true story.

In this video, Lisa shows herself to be quite a good actress, in addition to her other talents. In fact, it took me a few moments to realize that it was Lisa playing the 'mother' in the video. It also took me a while to recognize the bassist in the video - Freebo!

Lisa is asking for donations to some worthy causes - see the video's official website for details.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Carmina Burana Flash Mob

Yet another excellent flash mob from our friends in Germany!

Star Wars flash mob in Germany

I really love these musical flash mobs. They are getting more audacious all the time.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Changes to the blog

Well, actually...NO changes to this blog, really. But I've ended my "Musical Shares" column in the Oregon Mensa newsletter, so I've also discontinued updating the blog that was related to that column, and merged all of its content into this blog. That's why you'll see a lot of "new" posts, going back about a year.

There are several reasons I ended the Mensa column after a year of publication, but the basic reason is that almost nobody from Mensa was reading it (or the blog, if I can believe my traffic stats). I got very little feedback about it, and what I did get was negative (dull and not interesting were phrases I heard). It's kind of a shame, because the blog posts are full of links to what I think are cool things, but that was understandably hard to convey in a print publication. People would have had to retype long URLs or do their own Google searches.

So, I'll continue to post items of interest in this blog when I find them, and I ask for any comments or correspondence to be sent to

UPDATE: I've also migrated my posts from the old Fin de Mundo website, so now you'll see posts going back to 2003.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Younger and younger...

Is it my imagination, or are there more little blues phenoms around than ever before?

Found on Doonesbury

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Ox Cam: "Won't Get Fooled Again"

OK, this post is just possibly of interest only to my fellow bass players. Others may go back to what you were doing - nothing to see here, move along.

One of my favorite bassists is the late John Entwistle of the Who. He never moved around much on stage or did much to draw attention to himself. Frankly, who could compete with Daltrey, Townsend, and (for a while) Moon for sheer kineticism? No, Entwistle (known as "Ox" by many) just "stood there like a statue" (to borrow a well-worn lyric) and played his ass off.

Most folks don't think of the bass as an important part of a rock 'n' roll band's sound. Here's a bit of a rebuttal. An isolated camera on Ox, with his bass part isolated as well. The video is a bit degraded, but the audio thunders!

No, he's not playing a solo - that's just Ox laying down the bottom end of the tune!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Story Time: Welcome to Canada!

In the mid-1970s, I was touring with a band that was backing up a Vegas-style singer on the hotel/nightclub circuit. Robert York was a really sweet, guileless fellow who always paid us on time, and he had a lovely voice. Robert was perhaps not the brightest fellow I'd ever worked for, but that was part of his charm. As an example, he billed himself as "Robert York, the Singing Baritone." He couldn't understand why I giggled whenever he uttered that tautological tagline

At that time American bands had to post a bond on their instruments when they crossed into Canada to work. The amount of the bond was equal to one-third the retail value of all of your music equipment when it was new. This applied to all equipment that had not been manufactured in Canada, and supposedly was to ensure that we would not sell our filthy American gear in Canada . As you can imagine, this created quite a hardship for many touring entertainers, and you generally had to prearrange the bond with a Canadian bondsman (at a substantial fee) well before you got to the border.

We were just wrapping up an engagement in Idaho Falls, and our next venue was a two-week stint in Lethbridge, Alberta, to be followed by 3 or 4 months playing some of the nicest hotels in western Canada. I had heard from other touring musicians that there was one remote border crossing called Kingsgate where the guards—all long-haired music fans—were sympathetic about the bond problem to the point that they would let American bands cross without the bond. The only problem was, this crossing was nearly 300 miles out of our way, and so remote that if it wasn't true, we'd have to backtrack an additional 300 miles to go to another crossing. I managed to convince Robert and the other guys to take a chance and give it a try.

We got to the Kingsgate crossing about 6:00 in the evening. Sure enough, there were a couple of Canadian hippies in their official uniforms. They seemed really happy to see us. "Hey now! An American band, eh? Come on in and have some coffee, eh?" We started chatting with them, while Robert started filling out the considerable pile of paperwork involved in allowing us to work in Canada.

"Hey, you know we're supposed to have you guys put up a bond on your instruments, eh?" None of us said anything, but shot nervous glances at each other. We didn't have a back-up plan. The hippie guard went on, "But we think that's a bunch of political BS from those hosers over in Ottawa, eh? We never make the Yank bands do that; just don't spread it around, eh?" We silently relaxed, and went on chatting with the guards, letting them play with our instruments and listening to their self-deprecating, eh-punctuated jokes. Robert kept on filling out the immigration and work-visa forms for all of us.

After about an hour, all of the forms were filled out. The head hippie-guard said, "OK, then, all we need now is to see everybody's ID, and you can get on to your 'gig,' eh?" We all pulled out our driver's licenses and started showing them to him. Everything went smoothly until he got to Robert. The guard looked at Robert, looked at his ID, looked at him again, looked at his ID again, and said, "So… who the hell is Riley P. Farkas?"

Robert smiled in that sweet, clueless way we had seen many times before, and replied in his lovely singing-baritone voice, "Well, Riley P. Farkas is my legal name. Robert York is my stage name. See, it's printed on all of these 8x10 publicity pictures. Would you like one?" Our Canadian pals suddenly were not so friendly anymore. The head hippie-guard said, with barely controlled rage (an emotion I'd never seen before in a Canadian), "You stupid **** Yank! You wrote your **** stage name on all these official papers, eh? What do they teach you in school down there?" Then he grabbed the inch-thick pile of official papers—all duly signed by the fictitious Robert York—and tore them in half. "OK, start over; and this time, mister FARK-ASS, you put down your real, legal, honest-to-God, stupid Yank name, eh? Oh, and you better see about getting that bond arranged. Since we're gonna have to explain why we voided twenty-five official forms, we have to do this by the book, eh?"

Robert called his agent in Calgary, who found a bondsman the next day who was willing to drive the bond paperwork out to the lonely little Kingsgate border crossing. By the time we got across, we had been there for nearly 20 hours, through two shift changes, eating candy and the Canadian equivalent of Slim Jims from the vending machine, and had listened as each shift of Canadian hippie border guards told the story to the great amusement of the next crew of Canadian hippie border guards. We made it to Lethbridge just in time to set up and play our first set. On our first break, Robert said, "Gee, Steve, you sure were wrong about that border crossing. Those guys didn't seem friendly at all!"

Crooked Still

Here's a band with a big budget for rosin:

Seriously, isn't it cool to see a band like this with a cello player? I heard this group on the always interesting Montana Radio Cafe.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Beeb

On January 1, 1927, the British General Post Office created a new company for the purpose of radio broadcasting. The company was given the prosaic name, "the British Broadcasting Corporation" and adopted the motto, "Nation shall speak peace unto Nation."

Over the years since its creation, the BBC (or "The Beeb" as it is affectionately known) has grown into a world-wide cultural phenomenon. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the BBC is primarily funded through a mandatory fee on TV sets. If you own a TV in the UK, you have to pay an annual fee equivalent to about US$200 per year (they cut you a discount if your TV is black-and-white or if you are blind). BBC operates a number of television channels and radio stations throughout the UK, each serving a different audience.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, I had a cantankerous old short-wave receiver in my room, and I often stayed up late at night tuning in stations from around the world. As often as not, I'd hear the calm, measured tones of a BBC announcer though the static and squeal in my headphones.

In the modern era, the BBC has brought their incredibly diverse broadcast content online in a big way. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that whatever your taste in music is, The Beeb has you covered, and you can tune it all in on your PC! I'll just hit some highlights for you here, and encourage you to explore the BBC online to find your own favorites (or favourites).

A good place to start exploring is the BBC Radio "On Air Now" page. From there you can branch off to each of the fourteen individual BBC Radio channels. On each channel, you'll find a listing of all the 'programmes' on that channel, and each program can usually be streamed online for a week after its broadcast date, although some are available longer.

Radio 1 is the youth-oriented channel. You'll find pop and rock music there, with some live concerts and artist interviews. Radio 2 is more adult-oriented and diverse. A peculiar and very entertaining show on Radio 2 is the long running (since 1952!) "Friday Night is Music Night"  – a live concert featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra and singers from all genres; one week you might hear an operatic soprano, the next week, Alanis Morrisette might perform. The theme and playlist are never revealed ahead of the broadcast, which surprises and delights the live audience. Also on Radio 2 is Desmond Carrington's program "The Music Goes Round" which features a different theme each week, and music related to that theme from all eras, up to the present. A recent theme was "insects." Desmond always finds great tunes to fit the theme.

June has found some unexpected gems on BBC Radio. How about a Scottish jazz show? "The Jazz House" on Radio Scotland features very hip music and interviews, hosted by the knowledgeable Mr. Stephen Duffy. Radio Wales has "A String of Pearls" with Dewi Griffiths, featuring music from the 20s through the 50s.

It used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire. The same could certainly be said of BBC Radio. The BBC Asian Network features Desi music, interviews with Bollywood stars, Sikh devotional music and much more. I have heard Punjabi rap on that channel! The BBC World Service  exists in parallel with BBC Radio, with its own diverse selection on documentaries, discussions, and cultural programming. When I listen to one of these programs, and hear the calm, measured tones so typical of BBC presenters, I flash back to the days of my old shortwave radio (but now there is no static!).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Alabama Shakes

My new favorite group is the Alabama Shakes. Singer Brittany Howard gives me the same kind of thrill I used to get from Janis. Here they are at Bonnaroo:

Phillip Glass Flash Choir in NYC

June found this one, and it's really lovely. An ad hoc choir assembles in Times Square to perform a piece by Phillip Glass, led by Kent Tritle:

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Som Sabadell flashmob

If you have not seen this yet, please watch and share. We need fewer wars and more of this sort of thing, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Hammer of Fate

Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860. His musical talent was recognized early, and at the age of 18, he began his career as a conductor. Like the 20th-century conductor Leonard Bernstein, Mahler was also a composer, but had to focus most of his energy and time on his primary source of income – conducting.

Fate began dealing blows to Mahler early in his life. At key moments in his life, family members died, including two of his brothers; the youngest – Otto – by suicide. Mahler struggled against antisemitism most of his life, and even converted to Catholicism in order to secure a post as a Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1897. Ironically, this did little to quell the antisemitic attacks which continued throughout his life. Mahler's own health was poor, and in 1907, shortly after the death of his young daughter Maria from diphtheria, Mahler was diagnosed with an incurable heart condition; he died of a related infection in 1911.

Mahler did not have a huge compositional output. He completed nine symphonies and was at work on a tenth when he died. Like many restless composers, he continually revised and re-revised his works throughout his life.

One of the most unique of Mahler's symphonies is the Sixth, which has sometimes been called "The Tragic." This is a huge, rich composition in four movements. While the nominal key of the composition is A minor, there is frequent shifting from major to minor sonorities. Similarly, the textures shift from light to heavy, and from joy to grief throughout the symphony.

It is in the last of the four movements that Mahler lays bare his soul and his feelings about the blows fate has dealt him in his life. To make those blows explicit in a musical way, Mahler added a unique percussion part to the score, which was marked simply as, "Hammer." This, he wrote, should be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)."
The hammer in Mahler's sixth. Markings by L. Bernstein.

The hammer blows fall at just three places in the Finale. Mahler later removed the third, instead letting the music build and build, culminating in stark silence to represent the final blow.

But how to make such a sound? It is known that in Mahler's lifetime, he was never really satisfied with any of the contraptions invented to try to fulfill his wishes. To this day, orchestras struggle with how to create Mahler's "Hammer of Fate." Some orchestras use a large wooden box, struck with a hefty wooden maul. Others combine a large bass drum with other percussion devices to simulate the sound. It's the orchestral equivalent of cranking the amps up to "11" – the hammer blows should be felt in the chest, and should startle and thrill the listener.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra's hammer

I love watching symphonies perform the final movement. I wait with anticipation for the hammer blows, and delight in seeing a percussionist raise the huge mallet high above his or her head just before the triple-forte quarter-notes in the score.

Here is an excerpt from the Finale, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink. The first hammer blow is at about 3:07:

There are a number of performances of Mahler's Sixth Symphony available online. I highly recommend you seek out full recordings of all four movements.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More Bass!!!

Ok, here's a band I can really relate to:

Found at Boing Boing

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Five-octave thumb piano

The thumb piano, or mbira, is a musical instrument of African origin. It generally consists of a small wooden box which can be easily held in the hands to which metal tines of various lengths have been attached. A musician generally holds the mbira with both hands and plucks the tines with his or her thumbs.

There are many variants on the mbira, mostly produced by local craftsmen in the villages and townships. The instrument started being heard more outside of Africa in the 1970s (I think I still have one up in the attic somewhere).

Of course, anything can be taken to an extreme, and so I present, the five-octave thumb piano:

3D Ball Music Machine

I really like contraptions, and this one (even though it doesn't really exist) made me smile:

See all of Animusic's imaginative videos at

UPDATE:It appears that someone at Intel was inspired sufficiently to build a real-world version:

Friday, June 01, 2012

Story Time: Peggy DeCastro

How about a little change of pace? Here's a story from my own musical career.

In the mid-1970s, I was hired to play bass on a tour with Peggy DeCastro. Peggy was one of the famous DeCastro Sisters, who'd had a huge hit in 1954 with the song Teach Me Tonight. Peggy was very extroverted, so she took the role of the clown in the group. She eventually split from the group to go solo.

Peggy was a delight to work with, and was a real character. Her stage persona was a sort of Cuban version of Carmen Miranda (who was in fact, an early mentor of the DeCastro Sisters), full of cutely misunderstood or mis-pronounced words, often with a naughty double entendre. I have thought that the later-generation performer Charo must have copied at least some of Peggy's act, as well as a lot of Carmen's. To be fair, I do think Peggy sincerely had trouble with some English lyrics, particularly if they didn't make sense to her. For example, the song The Way We Were, includes the lines:

light the corners of my mind
misty watercolor memories...

With Peggy singing, this generally came out:

like the corners on my brain
missing colored watered memories...

Peggy was chronically late. For everything. It was just in her nature. Once, Bobby Darin had told her that the trick to being on time was to set her watch ahead fifteen minutes, so that when you think it's 8:00 and time to go onstage, and you're still putting on your makeup, it's really 7:45. Well, Peggy decided that if fifteen minutes worked for most people, she'd need to set her watch ahead by a full hour, because she was usually an hour or so late for things. And that's what she did. If it was 7:00, Peggy's watch said 8:00. The problem was, since she knew she'd set her watch ahead, she then mentally subtracted the hour. Many times, she'd look at her watch and say something like, “Ooh, looka the time! Eet's nine-fifteen already, which is really eight-fifteen. We gotta get movin'!” So, she was still always late.

We traveled the hotel/lounge circuit around the western U.S., and everywhere we went, people loved Peggy. She was open and loving with her band (her son played guitar in the group, too), and she regaled us with stories of the old days in Las Vegas (Peggy suggested to Bobby Darin that he record Mack the Knife, which at the time he considered to be just a novelty tune to fill out his nightclub act), being on Your Hit Parade with “Schnooky Lansing,” performing in the movie “Casablanca” with Carmen Miranda and Groucho Marx, and all about show-biz as it was back then. Apparently her sisters Cherie and Babette had eventually married fans and settled down to live the good life, while Peggy married her manager and worked every day for the rest of her life. She seemed to thrive on it, though.

It was with great sadness that I read of the death of Peggy in 2004 at age 82. I've worked with many singers and musicians in my career, but few that I remember with such fondness.

The Wikipedia entry for the  DeCastro Sisters is pretty accurate.

“Teach Me Tonight” on YouTube (audio only):

Here's a "soundie" of the tune Sun Sun Babae with Peggy doing some of her classic mugging and clowning:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Locals Only

One of the things I love about Portland and the Pacific Northwest is the abundance and variety of talented musical artists that call this place home (at least until they get successful and move away. Sigh.). This month I want to share some of my favorite local artists with you. Please check their websites and videos, and try to see them live if you can!

A few months ago, Eugene-area Mensan Ted (Theo) Czuk sent me a copy of his new CD, titled The Gamut. Ted is a very talented multi-instrumentalist and poet, and his new CD really showcases Ted's mastery of  many musical genres. Check out his website: and get on his mailing list for opportunities to hear him live!

Closer to home, you have probably noticed—as I have—ads in the Omen for performances by the Bach Cantata Choir, which has two Mensa members—Mary Forst and Barbara Lance. This group has a very interesting and ambitious mission: "to sing the entire set of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach over a period of 20 years." I'm looking forward to an opportunity to attend one of their concerts at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church in the near future. More details and schedule at:

One of the most exciting bands to come out of Portland in the past few years is the trio Gossip. They have a tight drums-and-bass sound, which they augment for live performances with guitar and keyboard. Singer Beth Ditto is a total delight to watch; she's powerful, sexy, and a total original. Sometimes I think she is simultaneously channeling Dolly Parton and Divine. You must watch at least a few of their videos at

Here's Gossip's video of "Pop Goes the World." Gotta love the sparkly skull epaulets:

The cello was my first instrument, so—as you might imagine—I have great affection for Portland Cello Project. I think we own all of their CDs, and they are always coming up with interesting music from many sources.  Check their website for videos and live performance schedule:

Here's a lovely video featuring music by the Portland Cello Project:

Jazz fans already know the name and voice of Portlander Nancy King. If you only know her from her recordings, you owe it to yourself to hear her live. She has a web page at Frequently backing Nancy King is trumpeter, singer, and harmonica player Robert Moore. I've had the pleasure of jamming with Robert a number of times and I can tell you that he is the real deal. He has a soulful, expressive singing voice, and he's also a top-tier jazz instrumentalist. Get on  his mailing list by going to: I consider both of these artists to be true treasures of the Portland jazz scene.

Here's Nancy King with Steve Christofferson doing Zanzibar by Dave Frishberg (who, by the way, is yet another Portland treasure):

Singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding  has moved beyond the hype surrounding her "Best New Artist" Grammy award (yes, kiddies, there actually is someone better than Beiber) and is proving that she is talented, soulful, original, and evolving as an artist. Her last two CDs—Chamber Music Society  and Radio Music Society showcase the depth of her talent. And she has an afro to die for.

Here's Essie doing one of her new tunes (and not playing upright bass quite so much any more):

What is in the water here that is making young women want to play the bass and sing? Kate Davis is a delightful young performer who is currently studying in NYC. She has a sweet, unaffected voice that sometimes reminds me of Blossom Dearie.

Here's dear little Kate walking her tail off on the jazz standard Just One of Those Things. If playing those fast walking lines on the string bass looks hard, let me assure you -- it is. If you're thinking it must cause blisters -- yes, it does:

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Global Jukebox

You may not know the name of Alan Lomax, but you have heard echoes of his work all your life. And now one of his greatest dreams is coming true – too late for him to see it himself, but for all the world to enjoy.

In the mid-1930s, Alan Lomax joined his father, John Lomax, in what was to become his lifelong quest to record, film, photograph, and catalog the folk music of the world, and especially of the United States. In 1937 he landed a gig at the the Library of Congress as the Archivist of Folk Songs. From this position he was able to travel and collect field recordings and interviews with American folk artists whose work might have been forgotten but for his efforts – people like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters and countless others.

The folk and blues revival in the United States in 1950s and 1960s, and the parallel emergence of the 'skiffle' musical style in England drew heavily on the material collected by Lomax, and led pretty directly to the rock revolution in both countries. Alan Lomax, the father of rock 'n' roll!

Here's one of my favorite music stories of all time: On October 25, 1937, Lomax recorded a Kentucky fiddler named William H. Stepp playing a tune called "Bonaparte's Retreat". In 1939, Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmother of Pete Seeger) transcribed the tune faithfully for a folk music publication, which came out in 1942, just as Aaron Copland was casting about for American folk melodies to include in the ballet "Rodeo". Copland lifted "Bonaparte's Retreat" nearly note-for-note to become the "Hoedown" theme in "Rodeo" (and that 'Beef – it's what's for dinner' ad you've heard a thousand times).

By some accounts, the Lomax collection amounts to over 5,000 hours of audio recordings in various formats, at least 400,000 feet of film, thousands of videotapes and photographs, and countless volumes of written material.

Lomax died in 2002. He dreamed (long before the internet) of creating something he called "the Global Jukebox" to make his collection available to everyone. His dream is finally coming true. The Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) is custodian of the Alan Lomax Archive, and has as its mission the publication, dissemination, and repatriation of the material in the collection. They have also fought for royalties due the original artists or their families.

Check out some of the incredible Alan Lomax Archives at the ACE website:

While we are in a folkie mood, June sends us a link to a great new streaming website called Folk Alley that shows us how the seeds planted by Alan Lomax have grown, cross-pollinated, and borne new fruit in generation after generation:

Please let your bootheels wander over to the Musical Shares Blog:, and leave comments if you like (of if you don't), and share your own favorite musical stories, web links, etc.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Japanese beatboxer Aibo

I'm not a huge fan of the musical form known as beatboxing, but this is pretty awesome:

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Josh Ritter's "Love Is Making Its Way Back Home"

Here is a very sweet video, done in a remarkably low-tech style:

For a little more background on the making of this video, go to the original article on the Atlantic's website.

Shared by June

Thursday, March 01, 2012


On January 8, 1931, Wolodia Grajonca was born in Berlin. His father died two days later. His family and friends called him Wolfgang. It was not a particularly good time to be a Jewish boy in Germany. After Kristallnacht, his mother sent Wolfgang to an orphanage to protect him. As the Nazis grew stronger and advanced, he was sent first to France, then to Casablanca, then to Dakar, and finally, to New York City, sleeping on the deck of an ocean liner for nearly three weeks. On the streets of New York City he worked hard to learn English and exchanged his German accent for a perfect New York accent. He also learned to hustle, to work the angles – he became the cliché of "street smart."

Young Wolfgang Grajonca found that Americans didn't much care for the name "Wolfgang" and couldn't pronounce "Grajonca." More or less at random, he changed his first name to "Bill" and picked the name "Graham" out of the phone book because it was close to "Grajonca" alphabetically.

After a stint in the army during the Korean War, Bill Graham drifted from job to job and back and forth between New York and California. He tried acting, but when he became the business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, he started on the path that would shape not only his own life , but those of a generation of musicians and performers.

When the Mime Troupe was busted for "obscenity", Bill put on a fund-raiser for their defense, featuring performers like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jefferson Airplane. This went so well that Bill did another fund-raiser for the Troupe, then started putting together more and bigger concerts at other venues, eventually owning the legendary Fillmore Auditorium. You hadn't really made it as a rock artist until you played the Fillmore. And they all did, from the Beach Boys to Frank Zappa and everyone in between. He treated the performers with respect – sometimes more than they deserved – and treated his concertgoers as valued guests.

Graham also gained a reputation as a fierce competitor, employing strong-arm tactics and engaging in business practices that bordered on monopolistic.

A classic Fillmore concert poster
Graham always insisted on having top-quality sound and lighting for his concerts. He hired budding psychedelic artists to create posters for his concerts (frequently overprinting them with an entrepreneurial eye to the future). Graham saved absolutely everything. He recorded nearly every concert given at his venues, using the best sound equipment available at the time. Unused posters were stashed away. Ephemera of every kind was locked away in storage lockers and vaults.

In 1991, Graham was flying home from a concert in his private helicopter when a sudden storm drove it into power lines, where it exploded, killing Graham, his girlfriend, and the pilot. An estimated 300,000 people attended a memorial concert for Graham in Golden Gate Park.

Oh, and all that stuff Graham saved? Through a series of deals and swaps and buyouts too complex to even begin to detail, it all ended up being owned by a fellow named Bill Sagan, who created a company called "Wolfgang's Vault" to curate and – unlimately – to merchandise the vast collection.

If you are a fan of rock'n'roll – particularly LIVE rock'n'roll, you must get on the Wolfgang's Vault mailing list! Every week brings new links to stream wonderfully recorded live performances of every significant rock artist from the '60s through the current era. Original posters and photos are available, too. Just browsing the samples brings back great memories.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Last Call

I have mixed feelings about this month's Omen column. I'm sad when I look back at 2011 and note the musical artists who have gone on to what Pink Floyd called the “great gig in the sky” during the past year. On the other hand, this occasion gives me a good reason to revisit the lives and work of some truly great artists -- those who lived fully in what Leonard Cohen calls "the tower of song."

You've read the big names in other publications: Amy Winehouse – a wonderful singer who often seemed to be channeling Janis Joplin in more ways than one – joined Janis in the “27 Club” in July. Clarence Clemons – often the most entertaining person at a Springsteen concert – split about the same time.

I don't have the space for a terribly long list here, but here are some of the people whose passing June and I noted this year:

Paul Motian was the drummer in the legendary jazz trio that included Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro. His playing was innovative, yet often so subtle and supportive, audiences didn't notice him. Unlike most drummers, he seldom took a solo. Paul had a long career with many of the most important figures in jazz: Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, Stan Getz, Monk. Here he is with Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden in 1972, including a rare Paul Motion drum solo:

Two very interesting and influential composers set down their pens for the last time in 2011: Milton Babbitt and Peter Lieberson.

Milton Babbitt's compositions are gloriously complex. He liked to call himself a “maximalist” to highlight the contrast between his music and that of minimalists like his contemporaries Phillip Glass and John Adams. His titles alone make fun reading: Septet, But Equal; The Joy of More Sextets; Sheer Pluck (a piece for guitar); Whirled Series. You may not find his brand of serialism to your taste, but you might enjoy this documentary about Babbitt:

Peter Lieberson was a student of Babbitt's and began his career as a composer in very much the same vein as Babbitt – highly structured, programmatic pieces which were highly regarded in the musical community. In the early 1970s he was drawn to Buddhism and studied under the tutelage of the eccentric Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. His Buddhist practice had a strong influence on his compositional techniques; his compositions became fresh and emotional, and far more accessible for most of us than those of his old mentor Babbitt. Lieberson wrote an article for Shambala Sun in 1977 which describes his journey: A nice remembrance of Lieberson – which includes a recording of a poignant performance of his "My love, if I die and you don't," performed by his wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who preceded him in death – is on Alex Ross's blog:

Other people we should have listened to more when we could:

Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, bassist and guitarist with Hall & Oates for 30 years. Here's a sweet tribute from H&O, where they simply intercut old video of Tom with a tune they are doing after his passing:

Montserrat Figueras, Soprano and co-founder (along with her husband Jordi Favall) of the Hesperion XX early-music ensemble:

Phoebe Snow, singer, who chose to care for her disabled daughter rather than pursue her career:

Gil Scott-Heron, poet and musician (was his funeral televised?):

Poly Styrene, punk diva:

Nickolas Ashford, songwriter (with Valerie Simpson) and singer, owner of the Sugar Bar in NY City:

Jerry Leiber, co-writer with Mike Stoller and others of some of your favorite songs, including "Kansas City", "Stand By Me", "On Broadway", and “Is That All There Is?”

George Shearing, pianist and composer of “Lullaby of Birdland”:

Pinetop Perkins, legendary blues pianist:

Ferlin Husky, singer:

Wilma Lee Cooper, singer who popularized “Big Midnight Special”:

Sunday, January 01, 2012

The War Tuba

No comment:

Exotic instruments: Serpent, Baryton, Mandobass, Marine Trumpet

Check out these videos of wonderful and exotic instruments: 

The serpent:

The baryton:

The mandolin family – including mandola, mandocello, and – oh, how I want one of thesemandobass:

Perhaps the most annoying musical instrument ever invented is the marine trumpet:

The Theorbo

I love big instruments that make low notes, so it is perhaps inevitable that I'd be attracted to the theorbo. This instrument is essentially a lute with a long extension to its neck to which is attached a number of bass strings. 

Here's a video of Daniel Zapico playing the theorbo in a trio setting:

The Kora

Probably my favorite African instrument is the kora - a west African harp-like instrument with 21 strings. Each kora player typically builds his own instrument from a calabash gourd (often decorated on the inside with magical incantations and formulas), wood, and fishing line for strings. A Malian kora player named Toumani Diabaté ( ) is considered by many to be the master of this beautiful instrument. 

Find out more about the kora at Kora Jaliya ( ).

The Organ

I love the pipe organ for its musical power and the sheer size and complexity of its workings (which can put the piano's 10,000 parts to shame). June found two organ-related shows that we now listen to every week: Pipe Dreams ( ) is a weekly two-hour show on many U.S. public radio stations, devoted to mostly classical pieces performed on “the king of instruments.” 

Popular music and interviews with organists (recently including Rick Wakeman of the bands Yes and The Strawbs) are the mainstays of the 30-minute program The Organist Entertains ( ) on BBC2. As always with BBC, the shows are only kept online for about a week.
Shared by June

The Piano

Are you a fan of the piano, that grand 88-keyed black and white monster that fills many a parlor and concert stage? Perhaps you'd enjoy a tour of the Steinway factory narrated by John Steinway himself:

Some of the footage in that video seems to have come from Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 ( ). It's good movie to rent or download; you'll meet the fascinating and diverse group of people who create the world's greatest pianos in an unassuming factory in New York City. Did you know that a full-sized grand piano can have up to 10,000 moving parts?

If you'd like to add some beautiful piano recordings to your iTunes library, Piano Society ( ) has an excellent website, with over 5,000 high-quality piano recordings available for free download.