Thursday, August 21, 2014

1983 Westone Thunder III Version 1 Bass Guitar Review


I have had a decades-long love for vintage Japanese guitars and basses since I purchased my first Aria Pro II bass back in 1986, and since then I have owned and played more instruments from Japan than I would dare to admit. Well, today we are looking at really sweet one: a minty Westone Thunder III bass from 1983.

For those of you who have no been studying the history of Japanese guitar builders, here is a quick run-down on the brand. Matsumoku was a Japanese company that specialized in making guitars for many brands, including Aria, Epiphone, Vox and more. They built very good instruments, including copies of popular American instruments that caused some legal difficulties.

After building instruments for other companies for all of those years, in 1981 they decided to start their own brand and Westone was born. Their products were never a big hit and in 1987 Matsumoku sold the brand to a Korean company, and by 1991 the brand was gone. Not many of their guitars were imported to the US, and it seems like most of their products went to the UK.

If you look at this Thunder III, the most obvious thing is that this looks an awful lot like an Aria Pro II Super Bass. Of course those Super Basses looked a lot like the Alembics that they were copying, but that is a yet another bag of snakes. Anyway, it has a clear-finished laminated Canadian ash, maple and walnut body, rosewood fretboard, 2-on-a-side tuners, and a brass nut and bridge. This is not a coincidence, as Matsumoku built those Aria Super Basses too!

But, there are a few important differences. For starters, the Thunder III body has less extreme cutaways and it has 22 frets instead of 24. Also, the fret markers are cool little snowflakes, and the brass bridge has a more conventional design, which in my opinion looks better than the Aria bridges. But the big deal is the electronics package, which is really cool.

The Westone Thunder II Version 2 had optional PJ (HF600B and SA800B) pickups introduced in 1982, then in 1983 they renamed this PJ model as the Thunder III with no changes. These pickups are different than the humbucker(s) in the Super Basses, though they appear to use the identical 18-volt onboard preamplifier. The controls are not the same either. Instead of the 6-way control switch, the Westones got volume, active and passive tone controls as well as phase reverse, 'dual tone' (series/parallel) and active tone switches.

This one is kind of a time capsule, with no wear and just a few bumps and bruises and the frets and brass parts look like new. It is really a beautiful instrument, and it plays just as good as it looks. It has a 1 5/8-inch wide nut, and the neck profile is a comfy shallow C. One thing is that the body horns are so short that it makes the neck feels really long. It takes a little getting used to, but it sounds great in both the active and passive modes and it is worth the trouble. Having the P and J pickups gives it a lot more range than the Aria basses and it does a genuine Precision Bass tone as well as clean and edgy sounds. It can be a slap and pop monster too, if that is your thing.

I have only seen a few Westone Thunder III basses in the wild, and this one is still out in the studio if you are ready to get one for yourself. Drop me a line if you are interested, and we’ll see if we get it into your hands.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Album review: Clay Swafford – Rooster

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the July 25, 2013 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Clay Swafford – Rooster

Lost Cause Records

14 tracks / 48:56

I am a huge boogie-woogie fan, but also understand that this kind of blues music might not be everybody’s cup of tea. However, if you are a fan of the blues you are shortchanging yourself if you write off the genre completely, especially with artists like Clay Swafford out there. This young man is the real deal and the maturity, talent and emotion he displays with his performance on his debut album, Rooster, will make a believer out of you.

Clay Swafford was born in 1983, but this pianist is not new to the blues and boogie-woogie scene. Raised in rural Alabama, he discovered the blues at 15 (Otis Spann with Muddy Waters, no less), and by the time he was 16 he was on stage at the Pinetop Perkins Homecoming Celebration. At the age of 20 he was featured in the boogie-woogie piano documentary, Falsifyin, alongside established legends such as Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Both of these men recognized Swafford’s talent and were quite vocal about their respect for his talent. Since then he has played at festivals and clubs all over the south, both by himself and with established artists, such as the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

For Rooster, Swafford did things his own way, dragging an old upright piano into the studio and miking it well. There is no digital wizardry or overdubs, so everything you hear is exactly the way it sounded when he laid it down, with every rattle, overtone and pop caught on tape for posterity. And it is glorious! The first eleven tracks include five originals, and he is joined by the lovely Texan Diunna Greenleaf on five of the covers. No drums, bass or guitar, just a piano master and one of the best blues singers out there.

“Rooster’s Boogie” is a short warm-up track that gives a preview of what Clay is capable of, which includes wielding a left hand that is like the hammer of Thor and a right hand that moves so fast that it sounds like there are two guys sitting on the piano bench. Pinetop Perkins said of Swafford, “I have ten fingers; it looks like he has twenty! He’s tearing the keys down on that piano, man!”

From there he alternates original instrumentals with cover tunes that feature Greenleaf, the first of which is Big Joe Turner’s “29 Ways.” After Turner’s original, this is by far my favorite version of this classic. If you are not familiar with Diunna, it is time you made your acquaintance with this living legend. Her voice is amazingly powerful, and the raw recording style of this disc conveys her inflections and emotions beautifully.

The standout original track on Rooster is “Olympic Strut,” because Swafford is able to slow things down from the usual breakneck boogie-woogie tempo and the listener gets a chance to focus on the feel of his astounding right hand work. He also keeps the speed down for Willie Mae Thornton’s “Sometimes I Have a Heartache,” which Diunna just tears to pieces. The heart that she puts into her singing is a high mark that any up and coming blues singer should aspire to measure up to.

Rooster finishes up with three neat bonus tracks. Clay recorded the first two in Clarksdale, Mississippi with his buddy, singer/guitarist Bob Margolin. They laid down their own versions of Muddy Waters’ “Mean Disposition” and Elmore James’ “Fine Little Mama” that feature Margolin’s gorgeous slide guitar work and his well-weathered voice. The final track is a live cut of “Tin Pan Alley” with Swafford joining Bob Corritone and the All Stars from the Rhythm Room in Phoenix, Arizona. These tracks show how well Clay plays with others, and that he is not a one-trick pony.

Whether you are a boogie-woogie fan or not, if you enjoy the blues and/or slick piano playing there is something for you to like in Clay Swafford’s Rooster. By the way, if you do like what you hear and decide to buy the album, be sure to read the liner notes, as there are neat tidbits about all of the tracks. This is a fabulous first effort, and surely there will be great things to come for this prodigy!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Yamaha MG06X Mixing Console Review


I have tried out more than enough mixing boards over the years, and eventually settled into the Yamaha MG series of boards as they are reliable, easy to use, and relatively cheap. So I was understandably excited when Yamaha introduced new MG models with upmarket modern features. Today we are going to look at an all-new model, the analog MG06X. It is a nice piece of gear!

I have a few different mixing boards, depending on what job I am doing, and the MG06X is the smallest of the bunch. How small is it? It measures 6 x 8 x 2 1/2 inches, and it weighs only 2 pounds. It feels solid though, thanks to its metal chassis (the old series was plastic), and it seems like it will hold up well in the long run. One godsend is that they got rid of the terrible dedicated power cable with the huge transformer (that weighed as much as a mixer) and went to an onboard power supply. The new-style power cord has a small wall wart and can be replaced at an electronics store if you get in a jam.

This board is useful in situations where I need just a few microphones and/or want to run an iPad or CD player through my powered speakers. In my world it ends up being used for awards shows, picnics, school dances and karaoke parties -- it even makes for a nice headphone practice amp for my guitars and keyboards.

Most of the basics are there, such as EQ functions, a headphone out, switchable phantom power for two of the inputs (channel 1 and two are combination XLR/TRS), and balanced XLR and 1/4-inch stereo outs. Unfortunately a few things disappeared from the previous entry-level MG-series mixers, including the effects loop, compression, the monitor outs, and the mids for the EQ.

Like all Yamaha mixers, they play a little trickery with their specs. They call this a 6-channel unit, but is you look at it 4 of the channels are the 2 stereo inputs that are only controlled in pairs. Sounds like 4 channels to me, but since I have owned other Yamaha mixers, I knew this before I bought it. Also, these extra inputs are all unbalanced ¼-inch and there are no RCA jacks, but there are plenty of adapters out there (or it is time to buy new cables). Some dealers are advertising USB connectivity, but there is none. Always check with the manufacturer…

What sets the MG06X apart from the competition is its nice array of SPX effects. There are a total of six reverb and delay effects, and they all work pretty well. These are just the ticket for churching up coffee house or karaoke gigs. It almost makes it seem like untalented people can sing!

I have used it for a few parties and small gigs and have been happy with the sound. The two microphone channels have D-PRE class A microphone preamps, and they also have pad switches in case you need them. The op-amp has a very clear tone and does not color the sound at all. Also, if you do not go overboard with the effects they can be a nice supplement to your mix.

Extra bonus features for channels 1 and 2 include high pass filters to help tame muddiness from unwanted low frequencies, and pad switches to tone down loud inputs. This is handy for the drunk people that shriek into the microphones at karaoke parties.

It is a bummer to not have any options for monitor output, no compression, and no mid EQ controls, but if you need that much flexibility you are probably going to buy a bigger mixer anyway. Sliding faders and mutes switches also would have been nice, but at this price point I am happy enough with the knobs that they provided.

By the way, this mixers can be mounted to a microphone stand if you purchase the optional BMS-10A adapter kit. With its metal chassis you might be able to bang this around, and if you do not need a powered mixer, monitors, computer connectivity or a bazillion input channels, this would be a great mixer for the money.

The Yamaha MG06X has a list price of $159 and a street price of $119. This is a bit more than the slightly larger old-style MG102C that I still have, but having the effects and a sturdier chassis make it worth the price differential, especially for karaoke. If you are doing small shows, it is definitely the pick of the litter.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

2013 Kala KA-SMHT Tenor Ukulele Review


Over the past three years quite a few ukuleles have come through the studio, but not many of them stuck around. Some did not sound very good, and some were just physically unattractive. Two that made the cut were the Kala SMHS and SMHT, which are both great instruments and good values. So, when my wife needed a ukulele for a players' group / club, it made sense to pick up one of the newly designed Kala SMHT instruments.

The SMHT moniker is a good indicator of what you get with this ukulele. The SM means that this instrument is constructed of solid mahogany, not a laminate, which is a huge plus. The T stands for tenor size, and I have no idea what the H stands for. Maybe it means "hogany."

It is a classy-looking uke with a clear satin poly finish and faux tortoiseshell body binding and black & white purfling. This binding goes around both the top and back and it joins with another piece across the end seam of the body. I love that look! The purfling and rosette are new for this year.

The neck is also shaped from mahogany and it is capped with a nicely-grained rosewood fretboard. The craftsmanship of the 19 silver-nickel frets on this one is very good, but I have seen some newer Kala instruments with rough fret ends and damaged fretboards, so be sure you pick a good one. If you choose to buy online, make sure that there is a good return policy.

The most noticeable differences on these newer SMHT instruments are the slotted headstock and die-cast geared tuners. Not only do these changes make the uke look up-market, but the tuners also work very well. The inlaid bridge is made of rosewood and the saddle and nut are both made of synthetic bone.

This Kala is a well-made instrument, with an even finish, nice joints and a great action right out of the box. The routing for the newly-added purfling and headstock are flawless, which is nice to see at this low price point. And, I appreciate the fact that it looks like a classic uke, with no odd cutaways, inappropriate F-holes or bizarre features.

It also sounds very good! This solid wood tenor has a warm and full mid-range tone that is nothing like the tinny jangle that comes out of entry-level laminated instruments (I am very partial to mahogany ukes). If you are stepping up from a cheap uke, or even if you are just taking up the instrument, this is a great choice. You will only want something better if you are going pro or if you hit the lotto -- it is that good.

The best part about the new Kala SMHT is that it is a great value. It is dirt cheap (because it is imported), with an MSRP of $350, and a street price of around $250. Shop around online and you might even be able to get them to throw in a case and tuner for free. Try one and see what you think!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: Boston and Cheap Trick at the Forum in Inglewood, California


When I saw that the Boston tour was making a stop at the Forum in Inglewood, California, I had to go see them. There were no pre-conceived notions that this would be a super-great show, but I had never seen the band before and Cheap Trick was opening up for them, which is always worth the price of admission. Plenty of people think the same way, as this turned out to be a sold out show at the nicely-renovated facility.

To be honest, I did not even know that Boston was still together, nor that they had recorded a new album and were touring again. They band has pressed on after Brad Delp took his own life, having found Tommy DeCarlo on the internet to take on the singing chores and keyboard work, and he is pretty darned good. Of course, founding member and guitarist Tom Scholz still brought it to the stage, and the rest of the band was made up of guitarist Gary Pihl, Tracy Ferrie on bass, Kimberly Dahme on rhythm guitar, and god only know who was behind the drum kit. On guest vocals was American Idol finalist Siobhan Magnus, who also happens to be the niece of Ferrie.

Boston tore out a nearly two-hour set with over 20 songs, and it was actually pretty good. There were a few songs from their new album, Life, Love & Hope, but they mostly gave the crowd what they were looking for, which was all of their good stuff from the 1970s and 1980s. I do not know anybody who bought their newest album, do you?

Right out of the gate they hit it hard, starting off with “Rock and Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Feellin’ Satisfied.” Scholz still has his distinctive chops (can you believe he is 67?) and his harmonization with Pilz was classic Boston. The band was tight, the vocal harmonies were good and DeCarlo was in top form. I have no complaints about their musicianship or their stage show.

The show did drag on a bit, and the few songs they did from their new album were certifiable yawners, but they played almost everything from their got-to-have-it double album. Boston did not leave out their gems, including “Peace of Mind,” “It’s Been Such a Long Time,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Amanda,” “More Than a Feeling” and “Long Time.” This was fortunate and made up for the sometimes ponderous pace.

It turned out that Boston’s performance was actually worth the price of admission. So, Cheap Trick’s set was like icing on the cake. I have seen them quite a few times over the past 30 years as they performed with bands such as Night Ranger and Aerosmith, and they have never disappointed.

They have been doing the same act for so long that you would think they would tire of it, but they still bring plenty of energy to each show. Robin Zander sounded way better than he did last year with Aerosmith, and at 61 he is showing no signs of slowing down. Rick Nielsen is still a total goofball, and his guitar skills have not faded. Tom Petersson did a passable job on bass, though I wish he had left the solo out. And there was a surprise behind the drum kit as Bun E. Carlos has stomped off and is suing the band, so Nielsen’s son Daxx was on the skins, and it was immediately obvious that Carlos made a mistake. Daxx is a much better drummer, and Bun will not be missed. Hah!

Cheap Trick mostly focused on their hits during their one-hour set, and they really brought their A-game. They included crowd favorites such as “Ain’t that a Shame,” “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” and I Want you to Want Me.” Every new rock band that is hitting big should be required to see a Cheap Trick show, or better yet, have to take them on tour with them so they can teach them what a real rock show is all about.

So I have to call the evening a success. If you have the chance to see Boston, see them. If Cheap Trick is on the bill too, definitely go see them. Trust me!


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review: Bullets over Broadway, the Musical at the St. James Theatre in New York City


If you love musical theatre, you owe it to yourself to see at least one show on Broadway in your lifetime. No matter how good the shows are that you have seen, nothing compares to how tight of a performance you will see in New York City. This is the place that actors, dancers and musicians aspire to perform, and when roles are filled only the best are selected. Also, after a show had played for a few months, there are no silly mistakes and the sound is completely dialed in. It makes for a complete audio and visual experience.

Whenever I travel to the Tri-State area, I always make a point to get into the city to see a show, and last month I got to check out Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, the Musical at the St. James Theatre on 44th Street next to Sardi’s. This 1700-seat house opened in 1927, and it is an interesting place to see a show. The seats are tiny, and legroom is tight, and if you are in the balcony there are oodles of steps to walk up, and no elevator in sight. Luckily our show was not sold out, so we could spread out a little in the balcony. It is a cool theatre, though, with great acoustics and pretty good lines of sight, not to mention $18 cocktails.

Bullets over Broadway is based on Woody Allan’s 1994 film of the same name. The film had an all-star cast and was well-received, with seven Academy Award nominations (and Dianne Wiest winning for Best Supporting Actress), and positive critical reviews. I don’t think it did so hot at the box office, but that was not enough to keep Allan from seeing how well Mel Brooks did with The Producers, and taking a shot at making it a Broadway musical.

The show opened at the St. James in April of this year, and the plot follows fairly closely to that of the movie. The show is set in the late 1920s in New York City, and it is the story of a playwriter (David) who gets his show financed by agreeing to hire a gangster’s girlfriend (Olive) to be one of the leads, even though she cannot act. The show is terrible, but the woman’s bodyguard (Cheech) makes suggestions to improve the play and ends up rewriting the whole thing. This story has everything: dancing girls, adultery, violence, betrayal, substance abuse and eating disorders. What more could you ask for?

Woody wrote the movie and adapted it for the stage musical, and the production is directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and produced by Julian Schlossberg and Letty Aronson. They took the easy route on the score, and used popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Musical Supervisor Glen Kelly adapted these songs and added some lyrics here and there. Meh.

Almost everything is there for Bullets over Broadway, the Musical to be a hit. The Santo Loquasto sets are first rate, with a great rotation of elements that come up through the floor. William Ivey Lon’s costumes are gorgeous, and the lighting and sound are spot on. The audience can see and hear everything perfectly, unless they cannot see around the person in front of them, of course. They even had a dog and a Model A Ford that cruised around the stage!

There is a huge cast working on this show, including a 19-piece orchestra under the direction of Andy Einhorn, a 16 member ensemble, a 7 member chorus line and 22 credited cast members. God know how many crewmembers are behind the scenes.

They did not skimp on the cast, and they got Zach Braff to take the lead part of David Dhyne, and Vincent Pastore to play the gangster, Nick Valenti, and Nick Cordero to play Cheech. This is Braff’s Broadway debut and he did very well, with good acting skills and passable dancing and singing. Pastore’s acting was wooden and singing was terrible, but he was supposed to be a gangster, so he gets a pass. But Cordero’s portrayal of Cheech stole the show – he has stage presence galore and is on his way to bigger and better things. The female roles were more secondary, which is not surprising in a Woody Allan production, but all performed their parts flawlessly.

It was disappointing that they could not be bothered to write original music for a Broadway show, but that is the only criticism that I have. It is much faster-paced and more exciting than the movie, and I think the story translated well to the stage. It certainly is funny and entertaining, which is a nice outcome from an evening at the theatre!

I think it is worth your time to check it out Woody Allan’s Bullets over Broadway, The Musical if you are in the New York City area in the next month. It is supposed to close on August 24, and who knows what the future plans are for the show. It might be too big to take on tour....


Friday, August 8, 2014

Once at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California


I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see many musicals each year, and not all of them are winners, but many are very good and some are winners. We saw the touring production of Once at the Pantages Theatre on opening weekend, and it was one of the winners.

The Pantages is a real throwback and is one of the oldest theatres in the Los Angeles area. It opened in 1930, and survived the transition to a movie house and back to a regular theatre, and it got a full restoration about 10 years ago. This is a huge theatre, which plays a bit into how this show is received.

Once is a pretty new show that is based on a 2007 film of the same name. It is a story of unrequited love between two young musicians who have a lot of other stuff going on in their lives. Their relationship cannot go anywhere, but the true beauty of the story is in the caring they show for each other. Set in Dublin, there is an undercurrent of conflict due to diversity of the population, and this plays in to the story as well.

John Carney’s film was very good, but it did not have a big budget and did not get a lot of traction in its original release, but it did come away with an Academy Award for best song with “Falling Slowly.”. It Broadway incarnation got the full treatment under the direction of Diane Paulus, with a book by Edna Walsh and music by Glen Hansard and Marketa Iglova, and it went on to win 8 Tony Awards in 2012. Supposedly the story is based on the relationship between Hansard and Iglova (the stars if the film) – believe it or not.

I was warned ahead of time to show up early for the show and was a little gobsmacked to see a lot of the audience on the stage. The set is a bar, and the audience was invited up to buy drinks and be entertained by the musicians onstage. After the audience was shooed away the musicians remained, and it turned out that they were the actors and musicians for the show. By the way, the audience was invited up again at the intermission.

The bar set took up the entire stage and remained up for the who show. It has mirrors everywhere so the audience did not miss any of the action on the stage. Small scenic elements were brought on and off the stage to transform it into a home, a recording studio, and a bank. The actors were the musicians, and when they were not in the scene they would sit off to the sides and play the melodies as needed.

The cast was incredible, and they were all first rate singers and musicians, and they all had great stage presence. The leads were played by Stuart Ward (Guy) and Dani de Waal (girl), and they were convincing actors with tremendous voices (plus they played a mean guitar and piano, respectively). The other 11 members of the cast portrayed the girl’s family and the town’s people and they fleshed out the rest of the story nicely. John Tiffany directed this production with Martin Lowe as musical director and Steven Hoggett as choreographer.

The rest of the pieces all fell into place for this one. The costumes were simple, but worked, and the lighting from Natasha Katz was remarkable. The songs are all very solid and heartfelt, and for a change the sound in the house was very good. The Pantages is a huge hall that is tough to fill properly with sound, and this is the closest they have gotten in recent history. Once has a quiet and intimate feel, and it would really be better suited to a smaller venue.

Once is a charming show, and there is a good reason why it won all of those Tony awards -- it could be the best new musical of the decade. From the cast to the music to the staging they got everything right on this one, and you should make the time to see it if you get the opportunity.

Your chance to see Once at the Pantages in Hollywood is almost over, as it closes on August 10, but this is a touring company that has a lot of stops left (including San Diego and Costa Mesa for you locals) so you still have the chance to track it down and see it for yourself.