Friday, April 14, 2017

Steel: The Pipers

Sileas: The Pipers


Over the course of our Steel theme, we have heard an awful lot of music played instruments which are variants of the guitar. This is not surprising, but there are other instruments which also fit. To most minds, the harp is probably not one of them. The harp, like the classical guitar, is usually played with nylon strings. Of course, nylon was only invented in 1935, but the mellow sound we think of for harp music was played instruments strung with gut strings before that. Steel strings are far more unusual in harp music. In fact, Mary MacMaster of the Scottish folk duo Sileas is the player I know of who plays a steel stringed harp. What difference does it make? I could try to explain, but Sileas gives the best possible explanation through their music. That’s because the other member of the group, Patsy Seddon, plays the more typical nylon strung harp. The Pipers is a tune that presents the contrast in the two sounds to great effect.

Seddon and MacMaster first came together in a group called Sprangeen, which stayed together for two years, and made their only album in 1984. By the following year, that group was done, and MacMaster and Seddon had become the duo Sileas. They would eventually be inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame, despite having only made four albums together as a duo. That’s because their other larger group, The Poozies, has proved to be far more stable than Sprangeen, accounting for another seven albums. Seddon and MacMaster are both also fine traditional singers in both English and Scots Gaelic. At least back when I first saw them in 1986, they were also wonderful live performers.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Steel: Leo Kotke

purchase [ Leo Kotke 6 & 12 String Guitar ]

The only 12-string guitars I have ever seen (or played) were steel stringed. Probably something about the tension/configuration. The one I owned had serious bridge problems - 12 strings of metal pulling against a wooden bridge had bowed the whole thing into contortions, making it almost impossible to fret/play.

It was back about the time I picked up this instrument that I was listening to Gordon Lightfoot, maybe a bit of Simon and Garfunkle, John Fahey and Leo Kotke.

There is a full-ness to the sound of a 12-string that - even with today's options of pedal effects and studio editing - is tough to replicate. The instrument rings like nothing else. (But, for some reason, brings to mind Doublemint gum - double the sound, double the effort) The richer sound comes about from the configuration of pairs of strings that are an octave apart: you're hitting an A, but there are two of them and they are an octave apart (one a higher/lower sound than the other). As a player, (if you are right handed) your left finger needs to depress both strings together and your right hand needs to figure out if you want to hit the higher or lower sound first. Maybe not quite as complex as a pedal steel style, but presenting more complexity than the standard 6-string version.

I came across Kotke's 1969 <6 and 12 String Guitar> album about the same time I found Lightfoot's <Sit Down Young Stranger>. They are both from about the same year (69/70). Lightfoot struck me as more romantic. Kotke as the more accomplished guitar player. (Check out his version of Bach's <Jesu>, which I still perform in my own variation.)

a selection of other Kotke performances:

(above 6 strings, but it's Allman Brothers!! Little Martha)
(above <8 Miles High>one of his signature tunes - but as he says :I haven't done this in a long time. However, it is fairly recent - showing that he still does his thing)
listen to the 12 strings on this version of Deep River Blues.

Steel: Steel Mill—He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)

[purchase Chapter and Verse]
[purchase Born to Run (the book)]

What would Lynryd Skynyrd have sounded like if it was fronted by a kid from Jersey named Springsteen? Check out “He’s Guilty” by Steel Mill, a band from 1969-70 featuring Bruce Springsteen on vocals and guitar, future E Street Band members Danny Federici on keyboards and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez on drums, and “Little” Vinny Roslin on bass.

Bruce’s first band was The Castiles. When that band broke up, he joined a hard rock band called Earth, then formed Child, which then became Steel Mill, when another band had already registered as Child. As Springsteen described Steel Mill in his excellent autobiography Born To Run:

It was blue-collar, heavy music with loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound. If you mixed it up with a little prog and all original songs, you had Steel Mill . . . you know, STEEL MILL . . .like LED ZEPPELIN… elemental-metal-based, bare-chested, primal rock. 

After becoming a big deal in Jersey, and somewhat surprisingly, in Richmond, Virginia, the band decided it needed to head to San Francisco and teach the hippies about rock n’ roll. Auditioning at the Matrix (the club co-founded by Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane) they got a gig opening for Boz Scaggs, Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite. Steel Mill was apparently good enough that a critic from the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “Never have I been so surprised by completely unknown talent.” Shades of Jon Landau’s famous quote from a few years later, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” You can hear a bootleg of one of the Matrix shows here.

Steel Mill got to play a few shows at the legendary Fillmore (where Bruce heard future band mate Nils Lofgren’s band Grin perform), and were well enough received that Bill Graham offered to record demos, one of which was “The Judge Song.” But nothing happened. Instead, they returned to New Jersey, where they could make a living.

Over the next few years, Steel Mill went through personnel changes (including a period with Steve van Zandt on bass). Springsteen explored different musical styles in bands named Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom (early- to mid-1971), the Sundance Blues Band (mid-1971), and the Bruce Springsteen Band (mid-1971 to mid-1972), before getting signed to Columbia Records and, ultimately forming the E Street Band.

“He’s Guilty” was never officially released until last year’s Chapter and Verse, the companion musical collection to the autobiography. The official version is edited down a little from the original, which can be found on some bootlegs, but I couldn’t find one online to post.

Steel: A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine

Back when I was in college, early to late 90s (I stuck around to take a few extra classes) there was a neo/retro-lounge music craze that kicked off. For me, the whole soft bubble keys and castanets movement started with Esquivel. Juan Garcia Esquivel was a Mexican bandleader, and his Esquivel! or Space-Age Bachelor Pad, re-released along with a lot of other music on Bar None, was the height of easy listening. Space age pop, exotica, lounge: it all meant the same thing.

The music goons and college DJs and bar band bums that made up my crew got into it, thought that sleazy lounge nostalgia pop made us sophisticates. We bought a bartender's book and learned how to mix fancy drinks. We hit up the Goodwill and bought the snazziest polyester duds we could and threw Lounge Lizard parties. Our first one was a smashing success. Some tools tried playing 80s music, nostalgia for the ‘80s becoming a real fad itself about that time. But, we insisted: lounge or nothing.

From there on it was Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Herb Alpert, Combustible Edison, Dezi Arnez, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Southern Culture on the Skids, the very Reverend Horton Heat, Les Baxter, Elvis movie soundtracks, Ennio Morricone, Stereolab, Paul Anka, Canada’s crown prince of the languid orchestral swing. Understand, we were making our own definition of lounge. It didn’t matter if we were throwing in Big Band, Rockabilly, or Barry Manilow: sweet and easy listening meant being silly chic and suave in a way that let us push the furniture against the wall, put on our dancing socks and glide sliverswift across the floor with the few girls we had convinced to come to our one of a kind Odd Ball.

It didn’t matter that we were mixing in multiple genres—Tarantino was making great soundtracks with AM radio gems that would never have been any one single radio programmer’s play list. And we took our inspiration from him and the record bins at the local CD shops (Vinyl was making a big comeback as as fad about this time, too). We made up our own playlists and bought even  better records at those same thrift stores.  We were chasing a kooked up, weirded-out vibe, where sound was blatantly old, odd, but fun, without any pretension, full spectrum color that came from a time we didn’t really know, but wish we had.

This was the early ‘90s, right? I said that? Nirvana was magic, but the spell hadn’t quite taken full effect. So flannel and Doc Martens hadn’t taken up so much room that those natty, mis-matched suits bought at the thrift store were  out of our wardrobes quite yet. Eventually, those two sartorial elements would merge together, and velvet jackets, ratty, off-labeled t’s and thick soled suede wingtips would all somehow look good together. That, a superior hair.

I miss dressing like that. I also miss those parties, where our social existence was an un-ironic Halloween bash every weekend, while we swilled well-vodka martinis and cruised, strutted and cut a rug like we were some variation of George Lazenby James Bonds, full of the kind of exuberant camp, quirk and whimsical bliss that space-age pop music, with all those Batman and Robin zings and zangs and zooms and booma boom booms sound effect graphics, brought to glorious, techni-color life. 

So, Paul Anka—I dubbed him the crown prince of Lounge, with a capital “L”. Today, I ask you to pull out your snazziest duds, get dolled up and hit the dance floor with your very best gal, and ring a ding ding to the glorious sound of  “A Steel Guitar and a Glass of Wine.” Dig it  and dance on, space traveler...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Steel: Steel Bodied Guitars

Colin James: National Steel


In 1927, the invention of the electric guitar was still many years away. This was a problem for players who wanted to use guitars in the dance music of the day. The guitar was a relatively quiet instrument, but you needed volume to play lead lines in the dance bands of the day. The invention of the National Steel Guitar was the first solution to that problem. The steel body and the resonator cones inside it gave it the volume needed to stand above the musical fray. The inventors of the instrument were thinking that white dance band musicians would be their main customers, and they also thought they might sell some in Hawaii. What they did not expect was that black blues musicians would also be great customers. Blues in those days was largely played solo or in very small groups. What the National Steel Guitar Company did not realize was that many of these artists played in juke joints. These were noisy places where the music had to cut through loud conversation and get people to dance. Today, the National Steel is generally thought of as a blues instrument. That has a lot to do with the work of early players such as Bukka White and the Reverend Gary Davis. Colin James features the sound of the National Steel in his song of that name, which is also a fine tribute to the power of the instrument.

Abbie Gardner: Honey on My Grave


The invention of the dobro followed in 1928, and was meant to address some of the same problems. But, as you can see, only part of the body of a dobro is steel. The dobro also has only one resonator cone where the National Steel has three. The result is an instrument that still stands out in a crowd, but has a mellower sound than the National Steel. This makes the instrument more versatile. Today, the dobro is mainly found in bluegrass and country music, but Abbie Gardner shows off the bluesy and soulful aspects of the instrument. Gardner would later record this song with her group Red Molly, and that version is well worth seeking out. But this solo version highlights the sound of the dobro better.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Steel: Gordon Lightfoot/Steel Rail Blues

purchase [Sit Down Young Stranger]

Steel strings on a guitar take a lot out of you: they're harder to depress and they end up putting calluses on the tips of your fingers. You need to keep at it on a daily basis. For this reason, I more or less  gave  up playing steel string guitars a few years back. It may be because I can't afford a decent guitar (better quality = less effort), but it may also be on account of all that metal - it cuts into your fingers something bad. I'm now a nylon man - with a lot of respect for thems that bend the steel around.

It looks like the only other time SMM has mentioned Gordon Lightfoot is back in 2008. Away back in 2008 Paul -no longer an active SMM contributor- included Lightfoot in a post about a <History> theme. 

Myself? Gordon Lightfoot's 1970 "Sit Down Young Stranger" was a favorite. No ... more: a starting point for a budding guitar player. Someone to emulate.  As I look back over the song list from the album after many years away, there isn't one that doesn’t bring back memories - a most powerful album (and his best-selling one). He's got Ry Cooder, John Sebastian, Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman with him on the album. The Wiki says that maybe Kris Kristofferson also contributed. Pretty impressive. 

I guess (among all the good ones) it is the title song, Sit Down Young Stranger, that rings best: the steel strings are obvious here. The story is poignant. The quality of the vocals fits Lightfoot's folk-rock style. I read somewhere that Dylan thought this was Lightfoot's best - there are certainly a number of parallels: guitar style, vocal style and - to some extent, the lyrical/poetic message.

But I have chosen a different Lightfoot song to more closely match our theme and it's from a different album - his 1966 "Lightfoot!". If you look closely at the "Steel Rails" clip, you'll see that he has picks on his fingers - perhaps the true sign of a steel string player - if you want to make the strings ring, you kind of have to add some additional steel. Oh, and he's doing a variation of the "Travis" pick I mentioned earlier.

The steel rails, as per the ticket the girl sends, are the railroad tracks - made of steel. A bit thicker than the strings on his guitar, but made of the same material, capable of singing their own song.

Steel: Guided By Voices,Lips of Steel

Purchase, Guided By Voice's Lips of Steel

To pinpoint one song in the vast pantheon that Guided By Voices has written and recorded over 30 years is a little like that proverbial needle that got lost in the haystack.

“Lips of Steel” comes from their second album, 1987’s Sandbox, and stands as the perfect introduction to GBV’s unique, and now singularly owned style and sound. At 1:33 playing time, the song is: lo-fi, guitar-driven, amped up and hook-laden power pop, recorded through a tape player and sounding as if being played at the world’s greatest underwater stadium, by an oddly unique version of every great arena-rock band you've ever fist pumped along to, who just happened to have bought their instruments at the toy store on their way to a Dungeon’s and Dragons tournament being held in the dingy backroom of a great ABC store. Beer soaked, impossible to truly define, led by a former middle school teacher, covering a vast and vastly odd exhibition of acid-trip, tongue-tied, four-eyed images and ideas, GBV is a puzzle in a maze in a cork-screw universe of every teenage boy’s tennis-racket guitar and hairbrush microphone bedroom fantasy concert. To see them live is to be a convert; to introduce them to the unbaptized makes one a beneficent saint.

Guided By Voices? 25 albums, 39 singles and EPs, 7 box sets. 2 books. 2,000 plus songs. A lovingly devoted following of numbers-obsessed statisticians/fans ( GBV occupies a universe of its own unique universe. Their just released August by Cake is lead singer Robert Pollard’s 100th studio album and the band’s first double album. Prolific is a failure of semantics. Not everything is great, nor could it be with this much material. But when GBV hits the mark, it’s electric. If you’ve never listened to GBV, start anywhere, work your way through in any order. You’ll find a least a few ear-worm favorites; you’ll recognize not a few rock clichés redone to perfection; you’ll discover a universe of music you never knew could happen. For the uninitiated, “Lips of Steel” is a great starting point. Happy traveling.