I was contacted earlier this year by Mike Corso, who like me works at Gartner, Inc. to ask me if I’d like to play with a (mostly) Gartner employee band in the Inc. Magazine Battle of the Corporate Bands. Mike, who is a frontman in the mold of Peter Wolf–I actually like his voice better than Wolf’s–also recruited Ira Langstein to play guitar, Steve Danyko for drums, and fellow Gartnerite Bill Burkhardt for bass. We played the regional semifinal competition in Washington DC today (May 30, 2015), and we’re one of two bands from this regional competition (the other is Detached Retina) going through to the finals on September 12 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
So I’m going to play the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cool.
Before the gig
I rehearsed with this band for months before we played this gig, which went down in 20 minutes total from first note to last. I made the decision before our first rehearsal to use the Digitech RP500 and my patchset, front-ended with a Digitech iStomp running the Swing Shift multiphonic pitch shifter (which I programmed to double the original pitch an octave down and a perfect 5th up).
Over the course of our rehearsals and a test gig at the Seaside Tavern in Stamford, CT, I made a lot of decisions about the sounds I wanted to use for the five songs in the set, and I set the RP500 up so that I could easily switch from the patch(es) for one song to the patch(es) for another–in other words, I laid the patches out side by side on the RP in the order I intended to use them. (And of course, I backed up the whole setup to my computer, so if the RP500 goes south I can load my set into the backup.)
Setting up at the venue
When I arrived at the venue, Gypsy Sally’s on K Street in Washington DC, I made it a priority to speak to the sound tech as soon as possible. I introduced myself, told him who I was playing with, and told him what I tell every sound tech I work with: my setup is nothing like anything he’s done with a harp player before, and since I’m coming to the board via a direct line from an amp modeler like a POD (not all techs know that Digitech makes amp modelers, but they all know Line 6 does), they should treat me the way they’d treat a lead guitar in the mix. No sound tech has ever failed to thank me for providing that information, and I have never failed to get good results from a sound tech that I have so advised. That was the case at this show too. I had a great, big, fat sound in the monitors and the mains, and I could do a lot of stuff with my tone and hear every detail. I also had a very extensive set of sounds at my disposal, which I could do with only two pieces of gear because one of the pieces is an RP500. I had a total of five minutes to set up, and it was certainly doable with this rig. Consider the alternatives: no way is it even remotely possible to drop your own amp into the backline and get it mic’d up and ready to go, soundcheck included, in less than 5 minutes. The amps supplied by the venue were decent amps, of course, but they certainly were not amps designed for harp players. In a situation like this, an amp modeling device in the signal path is just about the only way you’re going to get exactly the sound you want in 5 minutes or less.
As usual, I used an Audix Fireball V mic for every piece in the set.
Playing the set
We began the set with a rave-up on a few chords, including G, E, and D, in that order, before we launched into a slightly modified version of the J. Geils Band’s arrangement of “First I Look at the Purse.” Mike Corso, the frontman, is a great performer, and he also has a great sense for how to tie songs together into a seamless flow. We barely stopped playing for a moment in this set–the party just kept on going.
I played the extended intro and the song that followed on a Suzuki Manji F harp in second position, as Magic Dick did (though he used a Hohner harp, not a Manji, of course–Manjis didn’t exist in 1970). I used the “GA40” patch from my RP500 set, which consists of Gibson GA40 amp and cabinet models plus a slapback analog delay; the patch sounds much like a Fender Champ amp with more heft and power. I added the Swing Shift to beef up the horn-ishness of the riff Dick used on the original to drive the rhythm section on the verses. I started my solo with a direct quote from Magic Dick’s solo on the original J. Geils Band album (released in the fall of 1970), using the GA40 patch without the Swing Shift, which sounded much like Magic Dick’s original amped-up tone. What can I say? The original recorded solo was my introduction to Magic Dick, a very powerful moment in my understanding of the harmonica’s potential, and I ain’t lettin’ go of it yet.
The next tune, “Oh Well” (“Don’t ask me what I think of you, I might not say what you want me to”), is a hard-rockin’ tune with a big guitar lick kicking it off, and lots of punchy riffs after that, and I needed a harp sound that included some heavy modulation to emphasize the rock-ishness. I chose the TD_VBP patch for this song, a tweed deluxe amp model paired with a Vibropan effect, which rapidly moves the sound back and forth from left to right in the stereo field. It makes the harp sound like a psycho organ; it cuts and it’s beefy at the same time, perfect for heavy rock. I really think that sound is what makes the harmonica work on this song–when the guitars are really heavy, you’d better have some heavy of your own going on. It’s also very cool for someone who already knows the original version to hear how the vibrating harp sound extends the emotional context of the piece. I used a Seydel Session Steel harp in A, which I played in 2nd position. I had my Seydel 1847 in A with me, but in the heat of the moment I forgot to take it out of the case…
That piece flowed right into a 30-second or so harp solo showpiece (using the same harp) that I performed over a drum beat after a brief spoken introduction from Mike. I switched back to the GA40 patch with the Swing Shift front end for this one, because I wanted an amped blues tone with more depth and some low-end grind–like an amped blues sound, only much bigger. I might add modulation of some sort to parts of that solo at some point, but it’s also nice to just lean into the harp and hear it roar without the sound being shaken and stirred by a modulation effect.
As the harp feature ended, we went right into the Black Crowes’s arrangement of “Hard to Handle.” I played like a horn section on this one, using the GA40 patch with the Swing Shift engaged, a sound with a lot of punch in the low-mid-midrange. I took the second solo, after the guitar, using the same sound. I used a Session Steel harp in C, played in second position.
“Hard to Handle” was followed by the Band’s “Cripple Creek,” and for this piece I used the TW_ROT patch from my RP500 patch set, sometimes augmenting it with the Swing Shift. The patch has a clean, bright Fender Twin Reverb amp model coupled with a rotary speaker effect, and with that engaged I can do a pretty good imitation of a Hammond organ. (Yes, I know: Garth Hudson used a Lowry organ, not a Hammond.) I played the piece with a Session Steel D harp in second position.
We closed the set with a very loud, raucous version of Neil Young’s “Mister Soul,” originally recorded by the Buffalo Springfield about 50 years ago. This song is psychedelic, hard-driving, and spooky, and I love the vib. Check out these lyrics:
In a while
With the smile
On my face
Turned to plaster
While the clown
Who is sick
Does the trick of disaster
That’s some pretty tricky wordsmithing there, with a lot of internal rhyming going on, innit? Lately I’m very much enamored of psychedelic lyrics; “In a white room, with black curtains, is a station…”
I tried the patch called “Tenor Sax Wah” (which has a low octave double and a wah-wah on it), but it didn’t cut through the heavy guitars, so I switched to my original choice for this song–a patch called TD8DW, which has a Tweed Deluxe amp model, a low octave double, and a wah wah. It’s probably the single most brutally heavy patch I’ve ever created. Sometimes when I’m working the expression pedal a lot on that patch, the RP starts putting out this high-pitched whine, as if it’s begging for mercy. Anyway, I don’t care what’s going on around it, that patch makes an angry roar you can hear through a pile of guitars, and I love the way it gets all weirdly vocal when I work the wah pedal slowly. I played this piece on Session Steel A and Bb harps.
When the show was over, I made a point of thanking the sound tech. That closes the loop on the relationship, and ensures that we’re going to get along the next time we meet. Anyway, that’s basic etiquette: when someone does a great job, especially when it’s essential to your own job, you thank them.
For more on the band, check out our website at http://www.gartnerinthecloud.com/, and stop by here every once in a while too. See you in Cleveland on September 12.