I was in London Sunday through Tuesday at Gartner’s Project Portfolio Management and IT Governance Conference, and as usual I made a point to get to either the Sunday or Monday jam session at Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues. The Monday night jam in particular, which is run by blues master guitarist Davide Mazzantini, attracts a lot of great players. I had something to do on Sunday, so I went to the Monday jam. It turned out to be a good bet.

Prepping for the Show

When I fly, I prefer to carry everything I need in one bag that I carry on and off the plane with me, so I don’t have to wait in baggage claim and I’m sure nobody is messing with my stuff. When I go to a jam, I want something that gives me a reliably good-to-great sound (the greater the better, of course) that I can set up as instantly as possible. Put those together, and the gear I take with me should be compact, lightweight, battery-powered, easy to position on a stage and plug in, and good-sounding. Doesn’t hurt if it’s relatively inexpensive, too.

The ideal solution for me is an Audix Fireball V mic–which among other things is the most feedback-resistant mic I’ve ever encountered–plus an amp modeler, direct to the PA. That setup meets all the requirements. The part of the setup that I’ve kept experimenting with is the amp modeler. (I used to experiment with different mics, too, but I’ve learned not to experiment with more than one change in my rig at a time). The requirement for battery power means that I can’t use a Digitech RP loaded with my patch set, which of course would otherwise be my default choice.

I’ve tried the Tech21 Blonde V2 pedal, which does nice Fender amp emulations, but doesn’t have any other FX in the box (I always want delay, reverb, a pitch shifter, a rotary speaker or vibrato effect, and an autowah, in that order, and the Blonde doesn’t have any of those.) I had a not-so-good experience with the otherwise perfectly likeable Zoom G3 at Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues when I accidentally set the input to “active”, which made the signal to the PA way too hot; that’s easy enough to fix, but remembering to set that button is just one more complication that I don’t want at a jam.

The complete set of gear I took to the jam at ANTB.  Vox Stomplab IG in center.
The complete set of gear I took to the jam at ANTB. Vox Stomplab IG in center.

So the gear I took to this jam included the Vox Stomplab IG, an inexpensive ($70), extremely compact and lightweight, good-sounding amp modeler that includes all my want-to-have FX. I programmed some sounds into the Stomplab not long ago, and this seemed like a good opportunity to check them out in performance. If the whole thing went south, I’d still be able to use the club’s vocal mic, not an ideal solution to micing the harp (see my comments below) but a workable one.

Why am I here?

I arrived at ANBTB around 7:30 and put my name on the signup list, then said hello to some of the people I’d seen on earlier visits. I mentioned to Davide Mazzantini that I’d ideally be able to leave before 11 PM, and he said to hang out if I could–he wanted to get me onstage with a good crew.

As it happened, I did indeed have to wait, and it turned out to be worth it. I spent over three hours in the place before I played, some of it talking to musicians (including Phil Hughes, singer, saxophonist, and harmonica player, who I met for the first time that night), much of it sitting by myself and listening to the music that flowed from various collections of players on the stage. I was tired after a redeye arrival in London the day before, and I found myself wondering why I was hanging out in a bar in London, holding a bag full of gear, surrounded by strangers, yawning. I decided at last that it was because playing music with people who can play well is worth the effort it takes–and anyway, it’s the story of my life, and I ain’t stoppin’ the story. I didn’t think at the time, but do now, that memories of great musical performances are some of the best memories you can have. And like Jim Morrison said: you never know which performance will be your last. So there’s some urgency.

What I Heard

The music started at 8 PM with a set of about half a dozen blues from Mazzantini and the band (drums, bass, and second guitar), as usual for this crew played with a lot of depth, power, and precision. After that the jams began, with each assemblage of players taking two songs. Not everybody sounded great, or even blue. Mazzantini and his crew are pretty deep into 1955 Chicago, and their sound is very blue, casually virtuosic, and encyclopedic–they work a whole lot of the blues canon into their accompaniments and solos, and the textures are constantly changing. When you’ve just heard a half hour of that, it’s pretty clear that when somebody plays “Tutti Frutti” they’re not playing blues. A pair of guitarists who extended their blues towards rock–think Carlos Santana–fared much better. It wasn’t Chicago 1955, but it certainly had some craft and feeling behind it.

Overall the guitarists I heard ranged from good to great, which is a pretty good range for a jam session. The 3 harp players (besides me and Phil Hughes, who really knows his way around a blues harp) who showed up ranged from semi-competent to really annoying, which is much less good. In effect, those players are training the audience to expect incompetence from harp players. If you’re a harp player, don’t you really think that it’s a good idea to get your s— together before you throw it down in front of an audience? But of course–as 15 minutes spent looking at auditions for “American Idol” shows clearly–people who don’t have their s— together often can’t even tell the difference between good s— and bad s—. For their sakes and mine, I hope they figure it out before I see them at another jam.

Let’s Get Screechy

All of the harp players except me played harp through the house PA, using a vocal mic, which was part of the annoying-ness of their sound–when you play the harp with a screechy sound, it gets screechier through a vocal mic into a PA.

The setup worked well for Phil Hughes, who fronted the last act on vocals and harp before I went up to play. He sounded great on both, the latter played through the vocal mic with lines and tones similar to Sonny Boy Williamson II, in a performance that included a very nice take on Butterfield’s “Born In Chicago.” Phil told me before the performance that he took up singing so he could run the show onstage. The implication was that singing was secondary for him, so I was really surprised to hear how big, tough, and authentic his voice sounded. After the show, he told me that he had some confidence issues with his singing. “Get over it,” I told him. I think we should all save our performance anxieties for the areas where we have actual trouble performing, as opposed to the ones where we don’t…

One thing I can say for sure is that an amped harp sounds better with the kind of blues that was coming from this stage than an unamped harp coming through a PA. That’s why I use an amp modeler, even though so far it looks like it’s easier to get loud with a vocal mic through the PA in this club than with an amp modeler. No matter what you do, that vocal mic through the PA doesn’t have the weight and punch that a harp really needs for amped blues.

Around 11 PM, following Phil’s crew, I was called to the stage. The band included the excellent drummer from Mazzantini’s house band, a great bass player I’ve played with a few times, and Alex Miller, who I’ve played with before at ANBTB, a guitarist whose specialty is John Lee Hooker-style one-two-three chord blues. As per Davide’s comments to me, it was a great crew to play with.

Playing the Jam

It took about two minutes to take my gear out of my bag and set it up onstage. The first warmup notes I played sounded very good, but when I maxed the volume control on the Fireball V I heard feedback, and when the guitar kicked in I knew immediately that I could use more headroom. What that really means is that I have more work to do on the patches, starting with adjusting the gain downward. I might lose a little crunch that way, but there’ll still be plenty of amp warmth and body in the tone, and more volume usually works better for delivering the message than more crunch. I was just barely loud enough at this show; next time I’ll be louder and clearer. In fairness to me and the Stomplab, the PA at ANBTB isn’t the best I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t make the vocalists sound great either, and the speakers are located up and behind the stage, so any mic that’s on the stage is in front of the speakers, not tops for controlling feedback.

Alex Miller told me to play in E, and kicked off a medium-tempo one-chord blues oozing with fat, greasy swamp vib. I played a Seydel 1847 A harp in second position, sticking low on the harp with sustained chords, chunky rhythms, and fill lines. On the Stomplab, I mostly used a pretty conventional amped-blues tone with a slapback delay. I also tried a sound I developed that includes a rotary speaker effect, but I didn’t think the effect was very distinctive (or even audible in the mix), so I went back to the original amped-up tone before long.

I paid a lot of attention, as always in a jam, to what the other players were doing. I doubled Alex’s lines on the harp when I heard what sounded like a signature lick for the tune. I ranged up and down the harp in my solo, using the half-chromatic sorts of lines in the upper register that I first heard from Charlie Musselwhite four decades ago; if there’s one thing you learn from Charlie, it’s how to sound deeply, traditionally blue and otherwordly at the same time.

The crowd was clapping hard and cheering when we finished the tune. For the next number, Alex kicked off a faster one-chord shuffle in A. I used a Seydel Session Steel in D played in 2nd position for this piece, meaning that the piece was both faster and higher-pitched than the previous one, two prescriptions for increased excitement. The tune rocked the house from wall to wall, and when we finished, the place went completely berserk. Each band at the jam gets two tunes, but the crowd was screaming for another, so with the house’s blessing we played a three-chord (!) but non-traditionally-structured (!!) blues in E, with me playing 3rd position on the D harp this time. That’s another thing I learned from Charlie Musselwhite: when you’re playing diatonics all the time, you get a lot more variety in your sound by switching positions so the big notes are in different places in the scale.

My Next Steps for the Stomplab

The response from the crowd at this show was so overwhelmingly positive that it’s easy to forget that the Stomplab produced enough feedback to make it difficult for me to get the level I needed to match the guitar. In the heat of the moment–in fact right up until a moment before I wrote this–I forgot that the Stomplab offers realtime, front panel control over amp gain and amp level for every patch–it’s really a lot like moving the dials on a real amp. I could have done that at ANBTB if I had only remembered, then turned up the volume on the Fireball V to take advantage of the reduced gain or level. I’ll have to do it next time.

In reviewing my posts about previous sessions with various multiFX at ABNTB, I have no doubt that for me the Stomplab IG is better in many respects than the other battery-powered multiFX I’ve tried. It’s certainly smaller and cheaper, and it sounds as good as any (though with a much more limited set of options and FX than the Zoom G3). For gigs where I have time to set up, stage space, and access to AC power, my preferred device will always be a Digitech RP (and in particular an RP500 if at all possible). For situations where I’m working with two minutes, two square feet of stage space, and no AC, within which circumstances I need to set up to play two songs more or less immediately, a Stomplab looks pretty good to me right now.