Saturday, May 23, 2015

2014 Gibson J-35 Acoustic Guitar Review


Over the years I have owned and played dozens of acoustic guitars from Martin and Taylor, as well as lesser known names, and many of them have been very good instruments. But I have never actually played a Gibson acoustic before – I do not know how this happened! Anyway, I recently came across a pretty nice Gibson J-35, and figured I would pass my thoughts along to my loyal readers.

The flattop J-35 has been around since before WWII, with the original being introduced in 1935 when it cost a whopping $35, which made it a fairly good deal in the Gibson line-up. This price point was a wise choice (the Great Depression, remember?), and it was a top seller for the Kalamazoo, Michigan company until the model was retired and the J-45 took its place. Never one to kick a winner (though they do beat a few to death), Gibson has re-issued the J-35, this time with its production based in Bozeman, Montana.

I have never played one of the pre-war J-35 guitars, so I have no idea how to compare the two. But chances are good that you never played one either, so I will stick with describing what I have in front of me, and this steel string round shoulder dreadnought is a cannon.

The J-35 is handmade of all good stuff, and woods are a good place to start. The back and sides are solid mahogany, and the top is solid Sitka spruce. No laminates are being used here, folks. The body is sprayed with nitrocellulose lacquer, so you do not get the strangling effect of a poly finish, and they did not stain the body dark, so it has a pale reddish color. It is kind of cool looking, I guess, and supposedly the originals were like this. The body measures about 16-inches wide, so it is big but not too huge. There is a bit of ornamentation to found, with multi-ply binding, a tasteful rosette, little MOP dots on the rosewood bridge and a kind of bizarre tiger-stripe pickguard. I am not totally sold on the latter.

The neck is also mahogany, and it has a rosewood fretboard. Why is it that Gibson has to use a goofy rosewood substitute on their Les Pauls, and the cheaper J-35 gets real rosewood? I don’t get it. Anyway, it is a 24.75-inch scale neck with a 1.725-inch wide nut and a 12-inch fretboard radius. There are dot inlays in that fretboard as well as 19 frets, 14 of which are free of the body. The fretboard is unbound, in case that makes a difference to you. At the headstock there are vintage-style nickel tuners, and at either end of the scale you will find a Tusq nut and compensated saddle.

Examining the J-35 as a whole, I have to say that Gibson got the vintage look right. It is simple, the color and shape are right, and it is just a cool-looking instrument. A nice touch is the “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” and old-style script Gibson logo on the headstock. I do not know if these were on the originals, but it sure looks cool and I would happy to be seen with this instrument on stage.

Gibson touts that this is handmade using vintage techniques, and this is true. Hide glue was used for the dovetail neck joint and everywhere else, apparently, because I see gooey trails of it all over the place inside the body cavity, mostly around the crudely cut braces and backstrap (ooh! Scalloped X-bracing!). If that is their idea of vintage techniques, I think I will go with the modern techniques instead, thanks. Their buddies in El Cajon and Nazareth do not have these kinds of problems. That being said, nothing is loose inside this guitar, and there probably never will be.

Let’s forget abut that for now and get on with what it is like to play this thing, and how it sounds…

The J-35 is a joy to hold, and it is very comfortable to play. The round shoulder profile makes It easy for most folks to hold, and it would be comfortable for extended sessions. The neck and heel profile is rounded, which is a departure from the pronounced V on many vintage re-issue acoustics. I like either the V or rounded profiles – I am not super-picky and there are advantages to both. This acoustic will not kill your wrists.

I got this guitar with the original Gibson light-gauge strings and set-up, and frankly I was not expecting much in the playability department. After years of trying brand-new Les Pauls with uneven frets and lumpy fretboards, I figured this one would not be any better. I was wrong, and this J-35 had a great set-up and intonation right out of the box, and it is an equally great strumming guitar of fingerpicking machine. It is truly a joy to play. Maybe there is a little something to the vintage construction techniques after all. Heaven forbid that Gibson ever sends the Les Paul-building robot to Montana.

The sound has got it going on too! It is ungodly loud, but it has a sweet and rich tone with a lot of cool harmonics. It has a lot of complexity that can be brought out by using different pick or pressures, and I really like it a lot. The volume was also quite even from string to string, which is a must-have for any acoustic that is going to stick around my studio for a while. This would be a great folk, country, or even blues acoustic, and it will only get better as the top ages and it opens up a little.

But that is not all, as you can also plug the Gibson J-35 in, which obviously was not an option on the factory originals. For the 2014 version they spec’d out an L.R. Baggs Element undersaddle pickup and preamplifier system with a small, soundhole-mounted volume control and a single nine-volt battery stuck to the neck block. This pickup reminds me of why mahogany acoustics are suck good recording guitars, as it does not come off as shrill when going into the mixing board, and just a tad of EQ tames that fat bottom. Running it through my Fender Acoustasonic combo amp was also a pleasurable experience, and this could be the perfect coffee house gig guitar.

By the way, if you play lefty you are out of luck. Gibson only makes the J-35 in a right-handed version. Sorry.

Compared to other acoustics in Gibson’s stable, the J-35 is still a good deal ($500 cheaper than a J-45), but it is not cheap. It has a list price of $2190, and a street price of $1699, which includes a sweet hard case. Though it is a good-sounding instrument, its ho-hum internal construction might make you consider Taylor and Martin’s catalogs, as they really have the art of guitar making figured out. So the answer is to go with the tone you like best, as all three makers have got it in spades, but they are all a little different. Compare them and see for yourself!


Friday, May 22, 2015

On Stage Desk DS7200B Microphone Stand Review


I have written about some pretty dull stuff on Rex and the Bass, and this post might be right up there with the worst of them, but I thought I had should say a few words about the On Stage desk microphone stand. Boring as it may be, if you are doing any PA announcing or are running a meeting where you need a desktop microphone, this thing is indispensible.

This stand is available in black or chrome, and is adjustable from 8 ½ to 13-inches tall. It is sturdy with a solid metal 6-inch diameter base so it has plenty of ground-hugging (table-hugging?) weight. The stand unscrews from the base, so it can be knocked down a little smaller for transport, but I usually leave mine assembled.

I have used this one with my Shure Beta SH55 and SM 58 microphones, but usually use it for my iPad holder that I use for DJ gigs. It does not get off balance, and the screw grip for adjusting the height stay rock solid once it is tightened down.

I have also used it for mic-ing speaker cabinets and it is nice that it has a smaller footprint than full-sized boom stands, so it is less likely to get knocked over on crowded stages. One thing for sure is that it provides a professional appearance and makes most any set-up look tidier.

If you do any live sound work, I recommend that you have one or two of these on hand. Most online sellers seem to carry the On Stage DS7200B desk microphone stands at most online everywhere, and the list price is $22.99 with a street price of around $12.95. You really can’t beat this value!


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review of Musical Theatre West’s Les Miserables


I have been a season subscriber to Musical Theatre West for a few years, and have almost always been impressed with what they have been able to put together for their fans. So, I was beside myself when I saw that Les Miserables, one of the most popular musicals of all time, was on the schedule for the 2014-2015 season. I had the chance to see it this time around and came away a little underwhelmed, unfortunately.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. And only two bathrooms...

Les Miserables is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo historical novel from 1862, and it is set in the early 19th century France, up until the 1835 June Rebellion in Paris. It is a heavy read, but it is a fascinating book that spends most of its text discussing French History. It is worth the effort to thumb through it.

The musical version was introduced in France in 1980, with the original Broadway run from 1987 to 1993. Since then it has had two Broadway revivals and numerous national tours, but very few local theatre companies have staged this show. Musical Theatre West certainly gave it a good shot, after 20 years of trying to get rights to the show.

I will skip the storyline, as you are probably familiar enough with it by now, but it is a tragic story of love, politics, and death.

It is probably best to start with the cast, and they landed a really big name, Davis Gaines (Phantom of the Opera on Broadway), to play Inspector Javert. He was joined by Michael Hunsaker at Jean Valjean, Madison Parks as the grown-up Cosette, Devin Archer as Marius, and Emily Martin as Eponine. Stand-out performances came from Norman Large as Thenardier and Ruth Williamson as his wife. There was a huge cast, with over 30 actors in the production.

They also put together a very good orchestra, with almost 20 musicians in the pit. Andrew Bryan was the musical director, and he did a great job of bringing Schonberg’s music to life. As always, it is disappointing to see that the musicians got no credit in the program. Shameful.

Cliff Simon’s sets were very good were very good, but Paul Black’s lighting was spectacular and really helped to set the mood of the show. Karen St. Pierre’s costumes were authentic, and nothing seemed out of place.

All of these elements set everything up for a very good production, but it really fell flat in real life, and for a lot of reasons. Maybe they should have called it “Meh Miserables.”

For starters, the show itself is a bit iffy (sorry, fans), and if everything is not done perfectly it is really a slog. It comes in at a running time of over 3 hours, and it is all singing and no dialogue. The chorus was not up to the complicated lyrics, and their timing and emphasis was off, which made it seem even longer

The sound was, quite simply, terrible. With that many singers and actors on stage, there are a lot of microphones to keep track of, and there were numerous times when microphones were not turned on when they were supposed to be. This was a major distraction, not to mention a killer of the storyline if the audience was not familiar with the show. Also, the sound was way too loud at times, and after 3 hours it can really wear you down. Keep in mind that I mostly review rock shows, so I am intimately familiar with what too loud is.

Les Miserables was just a bit too grand of a show for Musical Theatre West to pull off, and it was one of their very few mis-steps in a long history of putting on excellent shows. The show has closed, so you missed out this time around. Or maybe not. Anyway, it is time to start thinking about tickets for the last show of this season, Singin’ in the Rain, which will be playing from July 10th through 26th. Also, now is the time to make plans for next year’s season, which will include My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Sister Act. You can’t beat the value!


Friday, May 15, 2015

B.B. King: September 16, 1925 to May 14, 2015

Rest in peace, my friend. We will all miss you.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Blues Blast Magazine Album Review: Manhattan Blues Connection – Cadillac Blues

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the January 16, 2014 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at

Manhattan Blues Connection – Cadillac Blues

Self Release

11 tracks / 65:14

Manhattan Blues Connection out of Brooklyn is a relatively new band on the New York City scene, but do not think for a second that these guys are wet behind the ears, as all of the members are seasoned professionals with an uncanny feel for the blues. The band is led by its founder and drummer, Les Chalimon, and he is joined by Andy Story on vocals and guitar, Darius Reza on bass and Billy “Blue” Blend on keyboards and saxophone. Blend was also responsible for recording this disc at his Blendini Studios, and he mixed it alongside Reza, making this a truly home-brewed project.

Cadillac Blues is their first release, and after two original tracks that were written by Story and Reza, this quartet tears out nine traditional blues songs, all of them in a style that would make it easy to assume this album is a product of the south side of Chicago (though if you listen closely there is also a 1970s NYC influence in there too). It is guitar-heavy music with rich keyboards, smooth horns and a whiskey-voiced frontman that can hang with the best of them.

“Good Loving Woman” is the first track, and it definitely sticks with this theme. Andy Story wrote this one, and it perfectly suits his throaty voice and deft guitar licks. Billy Blend hammers the piano throughout, punctuating the mood with well-placed organ chords and riffs. “You Don’t Know” is the other original, this time penned by Darius Reza. This song has a catchy riff and, once again, Blend kept extra busy behind the mixing board adding multiple layers of sax and keyboards.

The cover tunes are a murderer’s row of blues classics, starting off with “The Things I Used to Do,” which was originally put into the limelight by Guitar Slim back in 1953. Manhattan Blues Connection’s take on it makes it one of the more laid-back versions of this song, with a decidedly smooth (almost jazz-like) vibe. It is fun to hear a more traditional version of this song after years of hearing the Hendrix and Stevie Ray renditions. The band also kicks out a funky version of “Black Cat Bone” that gives the Albert Collins/Robert Cray 1980s hit a good run for the money.

“Driving Wheel” is a straightforward 12-bar blues that highlights the rhythm section of Chalimon and Reza, which is possible due to the fine work that Blend did in recording and mixing Cadillac Blues. Sadly, the run time for this song is under three minutes, but you will not have to go far to find another good song, as there are no bad ones to be found on this disc. In fact, “Black Jack Game,” the next track up, features tasteful interplay between Blend’s honky-tonk piano and Story’s vocals and lead guitar noodling.

The three standout tracks are slow-burning blues songs: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening,” Jimmy Rogers’ “That’s Alright” and Jessie Mae Robinson’s “Cold, Cold Feeling.” Andy Story’s guitar is the star of these tunes and the listener can hear that he is more than the usual axe-slinger – he has a natural style and a genuine feel for the blues. Of course, it does not hurt that he is accompanied by a first-rate backline with rock solid-drums and bass.

Manhattan Blues Connection’s Cadillac Blues provides over an hour of traditional good-times Chicago blues, and the band’s respect for the history of the blues is evident in the collection of really cool songs that they put together for this project. They are gigging around NYC, so check them out if you are in town, and in the meantime we can only hope that they are back in the studio writing some new music as a follow-up to this solid debut!


Friday, May 8, 2015

John Weeks Band – John Weeks Band |Album Review

John Weeks Band – John Weeks Band |Album Review

Self Release

7 tracks / 31:21

The members of the John Weeks have far-flung roots, but still managed to come together a little over a year ago in beautiful Denver, Colorado. They recently put out their eponymous self-produced EP, and it is a pretty neat piece of work.

John Weeks grew up in Europe, and built up his vocal and guitar chops in the bars and clubs of Paris, mostly with his band, TNK, which played around 200 gigs per year. He is joined on this disc by Andras “AC” Csapo (who came to the U.S. from Hungary) on keys, harp and vocals, Curtis Hawkins on bass, and Tim “Chooch” Molinaro behind the drum kit. The rhythm section is from Illinois and Michigan, which is almost as cool as France and Hungary…

This is not a terribly long album, coming in a little over a half hour, but all seven of the tracks are originals that were written by the gentlemen referenced above. The first song is “All Night,” and despite the diversity of their backgrounds they somehow ended up with a Texas shuffle that features a bouncing bass line and crunchy guitars. There is no trace of Weeks’ French heritage in his vocals, and his voice has a pleasant Midwestern tenor twang. Though this is one of the shorter songs on the disc, Csapo finds time for a nifty organ solo, and he provides catchy vocal harmonies too.

The band takes things down a notch for “Devil in My House,” which features John on acoustic guitar and Andras on the harp. Though this is a more bare bones song (Delta with a hint of funk), it still has a full sound and Chooch’s drums have a wonderfully dry sound to them. This is followed up with a brief instrumental track, “Why Don’t We Sleep On It?” which is fun jump blues with doubled harmonica/guitar leads, not to mention a trick rolling bass line courtesy of Hawkins.

Most of their songs are about relationships, as any good blues album should be. “How Can You Love Me” has an early Led Zeppelin slow-rolling blues-rock feel to it, and the lyrics are true misery as the frustration of a soured love spills over. And, “You Never Say What You Mean” uses a Latin beat and tasteful organ work as the setting for a stormy love story. Weeks lays down an epic guitar solo with great nuance and feel, and this may be some of his best work on this release.

The album finishes up with “Moving On,” a funky song about deception, and it is one last example of some really good songwriting – these guys have a lot to say and do a good job of making it happen. The John Weeks Band did a really nice job on this debut CD, but its short duration left me wanting more. Hopefully they will pick up their pencils and write some more originals and head back to the studio soon. Looking at their website, they have a few new members, so we can expect a bigger and more complex sound in their future work. Let’s hope they keep their momentum, as this is really good stuff!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Peavey iPad Tablet Mounting System Review


When I do shows, I use a DJ program on my iPad to sequence songs, and have never been happy using it with the Apple case on my sound table. It is never at the right angle, and it slides around, not to mention that sometime it accidentally gets touched and completely screws up whatever is playing at the time. So, I set out to find a good iPad stand mount that would work with a tabletop mic stand, and settled on the Peavey tablet mounting system.

The Peavey mount is essentially a plastic plate that uses different inserts so that most iPads will fit. The kit I got came with adapters for the the original iPad, as well as the iPad 2 & 3, the iPad Air, and the Mini. After assembled, the mount can screw directly onto a standard microphone stand threads, or it comes with a mounting arm that attach it to a microphone stand post or boom.

I only have an iPad 2, and it snaps solidly into the Peavey mount, and it can be installed or removed with fairly little effort, but it does not seem like the tablet would be very likely to a fall out on its own. Once mounted, there is quite a bit of adjustment to the head, using a lever on the back of the mount to lock it down once find an angle that you like.

In the real work, it works very well. It is nice to get the iPad off the table and at an angle where I can see it better and compensate for glare and sunlight. I would not go to a gig without it, and as an added bonus, it makes for a lot more professional-looking DJ set-up!

Besides the fact that the Peavey tablet mounting system works like it is supposed to, the other thing that is great about it is its price: about 30 bucks from Amazon. It is much better than anything else out there that I have tried, so if you need something like this I recommend that you give it a try.