Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Portnoy Complaint

Tonight I was supposed to be plugging away at the September issue of MapleBlues (available next week at your favourite blues club in TO), but I had to attend Mark Hummel’s Harmonica Blow-Out with Magic Dick, Lee Oskar, and the one I most looked forward to seeing, Jerry Portnoy.

One thing I couldn’t put off any longer was my Wholenote Column so I put that together and sent it off before heading out to the Silver Dollar. I didn’t expect an 8 o’clock show was going to start at precisely 8 o’clock so I didn’t think I would be too late, but as it turned out, I missed the first half which included Portnoy’s set. Argh!. It probably wasn’t as mind-blowing as Lee Oskar (absolutely phenomenal) but it wouyld have been “the real deal” the guy that played with Muddy on mamy of my favourite performances. Still I can see how his style might be more understated than the others. Maybe that’s why he was shying away when it came to the finale where many local harpmen got up a played a chorus with the big boys. Pickett, Rotudo, Carlos and Raoul all delivered the goods but what most impressed Hummell was Carlos playing his solo on a “A” harp while everyone else was playing in the key of “G”. Portnoy was lurk,ing in the back as these guys outdid each other and when called he stepped up a bit and blew a chorus. I only caught a peek of him and that chorus was all I heard of Jerry. That’s my Portnoy Complaint. When the band was called back for an encore and kicked into an impromptu jam, Jerry was visibly not into it. He was off the stage when Hummell called him back. He came back, blew into the harp but there might have been a problem with the gear, because this time he walked away and meant it. There would be no big group bow off the stage.

NOTE TO SELF: Find out who Hummel’s guitarist was.

As I was driving to the club I was beating myself up about not being enough of a full-time musician. I’m 60 years old and every day I can get an audience in front of me enriches my life and probably keeps me young. Not to mention what it would do for my guitar playing if I played every day. I don’t know what it’ll take to make music the top priority in my life, instead of the duties of my desktop publishing “empire”. I remember the first band I played with in Toronto fired me because I was missing rehearsals and could hardly make it on time for gigs. I could never be a “jobbing” musician because I don’t know the 3000 songs you have to know. (I know maybe 300 songs and most I wrote). The occasional times when I am invited up to the stage to sit in, I’m never prepared. At the House Full of Blues Festival in North Bay last week-end, organizer Sab Sabourin did make a point of including me in the big jam finale and even passed me his beloved white Les Paul. I believe that’s the first time I’ve played a Les Paul…and through a Marshall amp at that. I can check that one off my “To Do This Lifetime” list.

NOTE TO SELF: Get a blues standard (up tempo) to pull out on occasions like this.

I’m starting to think I have to stop expecting an audience to come to me and I need to go to them. If my music isn’t attracting ny audience, how do I get to them? If I wasn’t entirely confident that the music is good, I might get a little discouraged when I do a big email-blast to the blues lists (albeit at the last minute) get a spin on one blues radio show and a mention on the other and still not draw a single person. There was an audience, but I could account for every one of them and none came because they heard about it on the radio or saw it on the web. I was playing with Terry Wilkins the other day and he pointed out that my song “Blues Is Hurting” is not in a blues style. Nor are many other tunes I call blues, come to think of it. I think I use too many minor chords. That must be it. If I was going to be self-depracating (which I don’t do in public anymore – at the Sockman’s behest) I would say that I’ve been writing the same song for 30 or 40 years. It starts in E minor and changes to C at some point. It’s the same song…and I’m writing it on the same guitar. Right now I working on a New Orleans theme – maybe even try to incorporate a “second line” rhythm.

NOTE TO SELF: Send a copy of the a capella “Peacekeeper” tune to JSP.

Well last night I dropped in to see one of my favourite singers Dawn Tyler Watson (with an amazing guitarist, Paul Deslauriers) and then slipped up to Grossman’s where the Gary Kendall Band was playing. Gary invited me up to do a tune and (as usual) I was not prepared. Gary suggested Hi-Tech Blues because he plays on that track on my CD, but maybe that wasn’t the best tune to pull out in a jam situation like that, especially considering it modulates to a new key and changes tempo in the middle. Yikes. I thought it was a little rough but the audience seemed to enjoy it. The proverbial small but appreciative audience. Nobody had much of a crowd last night but what else is new…at the rate we’re going, pretty soon most clubs will have more people on stage that in the audience! We’ll see how I do on Thursday night at the Free Times. Last time I worked like hell to get some people out and this time I’ve done nothing… until this note to you, dear friend. So let me remind you now:

9PM THURSDAY AUG 10 Free Times CafĂ©, 320 College (I’ll have Terry Wilkins on bass) We have a little warm-up gig tomorrow at the Woodbine Racetrack, a good-paying nondescript kind of gig.

Home County Folk Festival: Even though I did play my share of festivals this summer, I hardly ever got to stay in a hotel room because they were all around town. I was cutting it close on arrival in London because my first duties were hosting the Open Stage at noon. I got there a little before noon and several people had signed up to perform (at specific time slots) and the stage was already filled with musicians from two London bluegrass societies. They had booked two fifteen-minute slots back to back. I played a tune to kick things off – “No More Meetings” (I’d like to play that one for the tireless festival organizers who I’m sure have too many meetings in their schedule). Both workshops I played got hit by rain but the audience was undeterred. My last tune on Sunday was “The Big Fire” which Bill & Sue had played at Home County the previous year and one couple had come up to me at another festival saying they came to see me play especially to hear that song. Well this time, a nice lady came up to me on the last night of the festival and had to share with me how much that song touched her. Well, that was the highlight of the whole week-end for me.

I haven’t been on the road long enough to hate hotels. In fact, I love the TV. I didn’t get much of a chance to get into it this time, but Roxanne Potvin told me she also has no TV at home so tends to take in a lot in hotel rooms. Roxanne did a workshop with me and Chris Whiteley and I was talking to Chris about his connection with Lonnie Johnson, and Roxy was amazed that the Whiteleys used to hang out with Lonnie (I found out about it when I complained to Chris about the high action on his guitar and he replied that it was Lonnie Johnson who told him to raise it up). On the subject of Lonnie Johnson, Jim Galloway was playing me an old blues record by Nellie Letcher (sp?) and casually mentioned that the song “My Mother’s Eyes” was probably the last tune that Lonnie played in public before he died – he had come by to sit in with Jim’s group, The Metro Stompers, and was back in the hospital a few days after that…

Beaches Jazz Festival: No, I wasn’t playing it but it’s so close to my house I can practically walk over. I wanted to see my label-mate Janiva Magness and she gave a great show. She looks smashing. You wouldn’t believe she’s a grandmother…and she flaunts it, shouting “give some love to the old lady!” and “I’ll sign CDs and anything else within reason.” Her keyboard player was Benny Yee who I saw playing with Coco Montoya and he is a monster player, though Coco seemed to let him cut loose a bit longer. In fact, Coco would often leave the stage while Benny took an extended solo. Anyway, I put my foot in my mouth when I asked Benny about Coco and he told me he’d been summarily fired after 15 years with Coco. He did not have happy thoughts about Coco. Meanwhile Janiva and Fred Litwin took off right after the show to visit Richard Bell in the Sunnybrook Hospital. Richard plays on both of Janiva’s NorthernBlues CDs (and mine too) and he is not in very good shape. Also my long standing organist Rod Phillips is also out of commission (with throat cancer). There was a huge benefit for him last Sunday and it was an amazing turnout – They raised lots of money for Rod’s treatment and expenses.
Also at the Beaches fest, I was knocked out by Jake Langley’s quartet with Robi Botos on organ. He kicked ass and when I complemented him afterwards he told me it was only the second time he played organ. Amazing.

Six String Nation: Yes, that’s the guitar the Jowi Taylor had constructed from different woods from across the country. I got to play it when he dropped by the Bob Snider CD launch and I must say it plays beautifully for a guitar that was made of an odd assortment of woods, regardless of their historical significance (an oar from Pierre Trudeau’s canoe, etc…). Even master luthier Grit Laskin, who was there, tried it and was suitably impressed. As the guitar was passed from one guitarist to another, Jowi whispered to me “notice how everybody starts with an E chord?” All until Shelley Coopersmith strummed a big C chord. Snider played a great set for the folks and the audience (mostly young women) was totally into it. I always thought I had something like Bob Snider’s approach and appeal, in fact it was upon hearing Bob’s album that I asked David Baxter to produce my record.

Birthdays: I’ve got a big one coming up on September 11th at the Silver Dollar. It’s the big 6-0. (Mark your calendars). But before I could start feeling old, I was celebrating Jim Galloway’s 70th – and what a party that was. Even a bagpiper to announce the birthday boy!

Weddings: Well, today I actually took a wedding gig. Never did that in my musical life, but I guess it’s never too late to try something different. Especially when weddings are traditionally the best paying gigs.