James Conway’s set of Irish music last night was really hot music. Conway performed with his regular Chicago-based band, consisting of Irish drums, fiddle, and guitar. Conway played harp, including some specially tuned instruments, guitar, and pennywhistle. The sound of the band was terrific–harmonica’s not exactly a traditional celtic instrument, but it sure sounded like one with this band. And they rocked. Conway used a spiral-tuned harp on one piece (a tuning where the adjacent blow or draw notes proceed in 3rds) to play a beautiful line in open 5ths, one of my favorite sounds on the harp. He also used a tuning of his own devising, which involves doubling the lowest blow note on the harp and TRIPLING the 5th (draw 2 on a normally tuned harp), to create amazing drones. I loved Conway’s debut CD, which was top notch product in every way, not just a great harp record but a perfect indie release, and this performance was on a par with that recording. I was also amazed by Conway’s stamina–there’s a lot of notes in that music, and not a lot of space between them.
Before Conway’s set, I had a nice conversation with Al Smith, whose roots are in the vaudeville era–not my favorite stuff, but it’s a genre with a big audience at SPAH. Al turns out to use the same software for recording that I use, and it was inspiring to see how he’s kept music in his life and grown his knowledge and abilities for decades. What else is there in life but our passions, and what more do we owe our passions than to plunge deeper into them?
Also before Conway, I heard Slim Heilpern play. He used a looping pedal to record guitar parts for fairly complex pieces (like “What’s Goin’ On” and some Brazilian standards, for example), then played chromatic harp over the looping part. His playing on both guitar and harp was certainly very good, but there was something missing for me. Maybe it’s that the format very quickly became predictable, and the basic sounds of the instruments didn’t change, even though the playing was fine. Overall, it seemed more like an interesting work in progress than a finished masterpiece. If I were Slim, I would think seriously about incorporating pre-recorded parts into the music. I’ve seen guys build much more complex layers with looping pedals than Slim did, but the other guys weren’t playing the kinds of pieces Slim played, where you have to go 32 bars to complete the form. You don’t want to wait 64 bars to hear somebody play the bass part, then the guitar part, etc. before the real action starts. Pre-recorded parts may be the answer.
After Conway, Joe Filisko brought out a bunch of people to play, including Alan Holmes and his wife, Jellyroll Johnson (who did a really cool, bluesy version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” solo–the groove was just great, the kind of subtly emphasized on-the-beat groove that Kim Wilson uses to such great effect), Dennis Gruenling, and others. I missed a lot of the performances. While it was going on, I had a conversation with Cara Cooke, a very strong bluegrass player, about instruments. She likes Hohners, she told me, because they’re kind of loose harps and she can hit them very hard as a result. I don’t like Hohners, because they’re kind of loose harps, and it’s more difficult to set them up for an even response across all the reeds. I’m glad there are at least two brands of harps in the world, or either Cara or I would be very upset. (Actually, when all I had available to me was Hohners, I was upset with my harps more or less all the time.)
My last stop for the day was the blues jam, which was very interesting. Standout players included some of the usual suspects like Michael Rubin, Michael Peloquin, Jason Ricci, and George Brooks, and some I hadn’t heard before like Warren (Bee) Bachman. LD Miller was there too, nice kid with nice parents, obviously listening carefully to the players around him, always a good sign in a musician. He played very fast, obviously much influenced by Popper. Young players tend to dig the really athletic stuff, so no surprise there. My own playing at the jam was very dissatisfying to me–I couldn’t seem to find a coherent thought and follow it–but one or two other players seemed to like it, so maybe it didn’t suck utterly.
Like I said, there are lots of hot players here now, so I’m looking forward to a good day. Today is the day Randy Singer and I deliver a seminar on working with effects. It’ll be interesting to see who shows up and what the questions are. I intend to start with the basics: this is your effects chain, which includes your mic and your amp. This is the order in which particular classes of effects are placed in the chain. This is why. Etc. Anyway, that’s the plan. We’ll see whether that’s the right thing for the audience. As with any performance, ultimately it’s the audience that determines what the right stuff is.