Monday, September 21, 2009

Call of the Milkmen

A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to witness something truly unique. Have you ever even heard of a trio composed of a banjo player, a bass player and a tabla player? Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussein played the second show of their tour at UT and it really was something special. They have a recording out but it is with an orchestra so I'm not sure how it is but it couldn't possibly be bad.

Seeing that show reminded me that so far a key area of my musical interest has gone unmentioned. One might refer to it as bluegrass but I find that label to be far too broad. There is quite a bit of bluegrass that I am not into. First off, eliminate any bluegrass vocals. I have already mentioned I am partial to instrumental music in general and when it comes to bluegrass I have yet to find the exception to that rule. Instead of trying find some esoteric term that captures the exact subset of bluegrass that interests me let’s try and for some basic notion of it through example.

Even back in the late 90’s I had heard the name Bela Fleck but I really don’t think it was until the 21st century that I realized he was not some female vocalist but instead a mind blowing banjo player that a few people recommended checking out. I had heard some bits and pieces here and there but until I had seen the first Bonnaroo dvd I was still in the dark. Some of my friends had made the cross country road trip to attend and when the dvd came out I was treated to many viewings. The first scene shown is the traffic jam to get into the concert. The voice over says something about nature taking its course and sure enough there is a shirtless cowboy hat wearing concert go-er pissing in the woods off the gridlocked country highway. He is a friend of mine and I wish him much more screen success in the future.

The other and far more germane scene is a live performance of a piece entitled “B Song” performed by Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. On first viewing my jaw dropped. Never before had I any clue that a banjo and bass could come together and create such a masterpiece. I haven’t ever been able to find a recording of the song. For some reason it’s not included on the Bonnaroo 2 disc music collection. In order to listen to it over and over and over, as I do with all music I love, I took an male-male 1/8” cable, plugged one end into my headphone out and the other into the mic in jack and used the basic record to create a .wav file complete with and AIM door opening sound somewhere in the middle. Not too high tech but it worked. A whole new realm of music had been opened to me.

Not long after my first viewing, the live dvd of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones became a viewing staple amongst several of my college roommate and me. While I have seen it a thousand times there is still something new to love on every viewing. The first track with the wah pedal on the banjo as well as the other instruments is probably my favorite. There is one banjo lick that is just so perfect and the bassoon with a wah. Gimme a break. Incredible. Actually though maybe “Big Country” is really my favorite. But then again I can’t leave out at least an honorable mention of Victor Wooten’s rendition of “Amazing Grace”. Regardless, the dvd is a highly recommended purchase. A couple years later I was fortunate enough to see the Flecktones in concert, another highly recommended musical experience. While I did miss the steel pans player from the dvd I found Future Man’s “drum” solo to be far more compelling.

With Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer as my in I began searching for more “bluegrass”. I am fully aware that the music described so far is hardly traditional bluegrass and that is exactly my point. I don’t know what to call what I like but whatever it is, it’s great. Naturally it wasn’t long until I came upon “The Telluride Sessions” by Strength in Numbers. Strength in Numbers was a group of virtuosic bluegrass musicians, including Bela and Edgar, that got together in the early 90’s and recorded one album. The group is rounded out by Jerry Douglas (dobro), of Union Station as in Allison Krauss and Union Station fame, Sam Bush(fiddle/mandolin) and Mark O'Conner(fiddle/guitar/madolin). To hear these gods of their instruments dance around eachother with blistering speed is to understand the true meaning of the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The album is simply awe inspiring and belongs in my list of albums fundamental to my love of music. “Slopes” is hands down my favorite piece of the album and has my favorite guitar solo of all time. Just the other day I learned that this supergroup performed on Austin City Limits. I have seen some YouTube videos of the early 90s recording but I would love to get my hands on a decent quality recording of the entire show, or any show they did not just ACL for that matter. If you have any leads let me know.

Another song I stumbled upon in the early part of the decade that opened another path into bluegrass for me was “The Smoothie Song” by Nickel Creek. When I first found it I listened to it over and over again. Try as I might though I could never really get into any other Nickel Creek song. Again, the singing really killed it for me. Either way, this was a welcome introduction to the mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. His disc "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" is probably second only to "The Telluride Sessions" for me but then again maybe I like it better. Really depends on the day. He features lots of other musicians on it. The track with Bela is awesome and the one with the sax player, while it took me a while to get into, now I love it.

You can imagine then how stoked I was to learn that Chris Thile was coming to town (this is when I lived in LA) to play at the Walt Disney Concert Hall (see images 1 and 2 if you're not familiar) with none other than Edgar Meyer. Even Nabakov wouldn't have the adjectives necessary to begin to capture how incredible that performance was. The only bad thing about it was that they didn't have a cd to sell. We saw it and that was it. That was maybe 5 years ago. Last year they finally released a recording and I like it but it wasn't like the show. If you can get the limited edition one though that comes with the performance dvd, or maybe they sell it separately now, it is well worth it. The video of the two of them working together is almost as great as the performance. Actually, that's not true at all but it is good. It's so cool because Chris Thile grew up listening to and being inspired by Edgar Meyer and now he gets to collaborate and even inspire one of his role models. That must be one of the best feelings one can have in life.

So most of that was in the past. What has "bluegrass" done for me lately? Well, last Friday morning, I was listening to NPR on the radio as always and KUT, the local affiliate, had their segment, The Austin Music Minute (part of their Texas Music Matters thing where in 20 seconds or so they tell you about some band playing locally that night. Friday was probably the first time I have ever even thought about checking out the recommended band but 20 seconds of Milkdrive was all it took. By 9am I had sent out the emails inviting friends and come 8:30pm I was at the Cactus Cafe with the 30 or 40 other people in the know. The opening band, The Marshall Ford band was a solid jazz swing band with some male and some female vocals. It was good enough but Milkdrive was terrific. I bought the cd and it is equally terrific. The only song name I can remember right now is "Call of the Milkmen". Really like that one. No clue why they are called Milkdrive but whatever. They play a ton in Austin ( and I can't wait to see them again.

One final note, a friend that couldn't make the show recommended Devil Makes Three as another group I might like. Haven't heard them yet but worth checkin out.

Editor's Note: There is no editor. There is no proof reading. I understand a blog to be an unpolished work completed in the most expedient manner possible that still gets the message across. Comments and recommendations are greatly appreciated.

No comments: