Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nick Drake: June 19, 1948 to November 25, 1974


Lately I have been listening to Nick Drake songs from my collection, and started wondering what he was about. I mean, I was aware that he died young, but beyond that I knew nothing about the man. So I figured I would do a little research to find out what he was about, and maybe talk a little about his music.

If you have not heard of him before, he was an Englishman who wrote songs, played the guitar, and recorded some of the best music that you have never heard before. Well, you may have heard one of his songs on that Volkswagen commercial. He was not commercially successful in his lifetime, but posthumously inspired many popular musicians, including Kate Bush, Robert Smith, and Peter Buck.

Nick Drake was born in Rangoon, Burma after the war, and grew up in the country town of Warwickshire, England. Both parents were both musical people and wrote their own songs. Some of his mom’s old recordings were discovered later on, and her style was very similar to her son’s. He learned piano and began recording his own songs, before heading off into the usual collection of English boarding and prep schools. As he was musically inclined, he learned other instruments, and eventually the young man ended up at Cambridge. Music overcame his other academic interests, and Nick signed a contract with Island records and eventually left school after finishing his first album.

There were three albums released during his lifetime: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. None were terribly successful (less than 5,000 sold of each), most likely because he shunned live performance or promotional activities and interviews. This is why there is no known live footage of Drake performing, so you are out of luck if you decided to search for him on Youtube.

Nick Drake was afflicted with depression, and after he finished his third album, Pink Moon, he stopped performing and recording and went into seclusion at his parents’ home. A few years later he died of an overdose of his prescribed antidepressants. He was only 26.

His songs are guitar-based folk music, and you can hear influences from Bob Dylan and Josh White. Nick taught himself to play the guitar, and he used finger picking, open tunings and odd time signatures to achieve the sounds he was looking for. Crushing depression led to some rather gloomy lyrics, but I have to respect the honesty and willingness to let it all hang out and to provide the world with a glimpse into his heart and mind.

None of Nick Drake’s three original albums are terribly long, but they are all very good and are worth adding to your collection. Here they are, in chronological order:

I rank 1969’s Five Leaves Left as #1 on my list, as it seems to me that this was when his body, mind and creativity were at their best. There are beautiful melodies, and his guitar work is clear and innovative. The string arrangements are tastefully done, and the whole effort is very mature. The standout track for me is “Fruit Tree,” which might be the best song he ever recorded.

Bryter Layter from 1970 is a close #3 on my list. This sophomore effort was an effort to head more mainstream and pop, which is odd as there are three instrumental tracks that do not seem they ever would have been very commercially viable. My favorite track on this one is “Northern Sky,” which really puts all of the pieces together. The lyrics are heavy, and his voice combines with the score (and some nice piano work by John Cale) to give a picture of how talented Nick Drake really was.

Nick’s final complete studio album, Pink Moon, was completed in 1972. This one get second place, but only because it is not as pretty as his debut album. This effort shows the true character of Nick, with everything else stripped away. It comes in at less than a half hour, but that is probably just the right amount of time. This one just has Nick and his guitar (and a little piano on the opening track), and the songs are stark and his voice is raw and emotional. His depression shines through and there is a sense of his true depths here.

This only scratches the surface of Nick Drake, but hopefully I have piqued your interest. Download a couple of his tracks and let me know what you think…


Monday, January 28, 2013

Top 10 Things to Bring to Your Next Gig


I was cleaning out some of my road cases this weekend, and it occurred to me that there are certain things that I will not leave the house without whenever I do a sound/dj/karaoke gig. This might seem kind of basic, and surely your list will be different, but here goes:

1. My notebook and a few pens. My notebook is my gig bible, and it includes equipment lists, diagrams and notes from previous shows. Obviously I need a pen to keep notes, but the extra pens are for other people. You would be amazed at how many people (including the people in charge) never have a pen. Make sure one of them is a Sharpie.

2. A multitool with pliers and a knife. Need to cut a tie-wrap, a huge wad of tape or a guitar string? Need to get a screw or nut loose when you are in the middle of a huge park and your car is a mile away? Without a knife or a pair of pliers, life becomes much more difficult. I prefer the Leatherman or Gerber brand tools.

3. A compact flashlight. You would be surprised how often you need a flashlight, even in the daytime; the recesses of an equipment rack are awfully dark. They have nice compact LED flashlights everywhere nowadays, and they are dirt cheap. Check at Harbor Freight or Home Depot.

4. AA and 9V batteries. Not for my stuff, for other peoples’ stuff. It goes without saying that I will make sure I have spares for my tuner, flashlight and wireless equipment, and my wireless microphones ALWAYS gets new batteries before a gig. But guitarists and bass players never bring spares. Active bass = no sound with a dead battery and no spares in sight.

5. A schedule. This is a pipe dream, though. It amazes me that more than half the time, I am the one that has to put the event schedule together – after I get to the venue. Of course, I put together a darned nice schedule.

6. Playlists on my iPad. At every gig I have ever been to, the host will ask for me to play filler music between sets or background music while the guests are being seated, or are mingling or eating. It is not that hard to put together a bunch of two hour playlists that are appropriate for kids, adults, dance parties, holiday events and god knows what.

7. A change of clothes. Unless it is a shorts and t-shirt event I never plan to set up in the same clothes I will be wearing for the event. I don’t know about you, but I hate crawling around in the dust and dirt with my good trousers and shoes. Plus I tend to get kind of sweaty when hauling speakers and gear boxes into the venue. I have become an expert at changing in parking lots, and at my age I no longer care who sees my chonies.

8. A microphone and cable. No matter what the gig is, bring them. Even one of those $20 cheapies from Musician’s Friend is better than yelling at the top of your voice.

9. An Apple iPod/iPhone/iPad charger. When I do shows, about 90% of the music that dancers and performers show up with their music on an iPhone or iPod, and they never think to charge them ahead of time.

10. A direct box and a guitar cable. When was the last time you had a bass player show up for a gig with no amp or cable, figuring that he/she could just run straight into the sound board? I thought so.

So, let me have it – post some of the things you cannot live without!


Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fender TC72-70 Telecaster Custom Guitar Review

Como estas?

As far as I am concerned, Leo Fender figured out the perfect electric guitar 60 years ago, and since then everybody and their brother has been trying to make it better. Every tele I have ever owned played and sounded better than a strat, and I have always preferred them to Gibson products. I cannot remember a time over the past 20 years when I did not have at least one on hand, and right now I happen to have three of them (just for a day or two…). The one we are looking at today is a 1999 Japanese-built TC72-70, which is a nice re-issue of a 1972 Fender Telecaster Custom, but certainly not the most faithful reproduction.

The Telecaster Custom was originally built between 1972 and 1981, and came about as a reaction to the popularity of Gibson Les Pauls in rock and roll music. The two single-coil pickups in the original-style Telecasters do not provide the same earth-shattering kaboom that the humbucker-equipped Gibson do when overdriven through a Marshall stack. Many players had been modifying their Teles with a humbucker at the neck (i.e. Keith Richards), so it was not much of a stretch for Fender to do the same thing. By the way, it is important not to confuse the Telecaster Custom with the Custom Telecaster, which was a normal Tele with a bound body.

The 1972 Telecaster Custom used Fender’s first humbucking pickup which was designed by Seth Lover, who formerly designed pickups for Gibson. These pickups were also used in the Thinline and Deluxe model Telecasters, and are generally regarded as having greater dynamics than Lover’s Gibson pickups. The pickups were wired through two volume and two tone knobs and a three-way switch. These guitars are usually a couple of pounds heavier than the original Telecasters, as Fender chose denser woods to improve sustain and to get a heavier tone.

The Telecaster Custom was not popular during its original issue. Fender quality sucked during that period, these were heavy guitars, and they had the much-maligned three-bolt neck. Plus they were more expensive than regular Telecasters. So, they discontinued production in 1981.

These days the Telecaster Custom is more popular than ever thanks to the re-issues that are produced by Fender Japan and by Fender’s Ensenada Mexico plant. There are different humbuckers in these guitars, as the Japanese ones have ceramic pickups while the Mexican ones use Alnicos. By the way, the original models were equipped with CuNiFe (copper, nickel and iron) polepieces, so they sound a bit brighter than any of the reissues. You will find that almost all of the Telecaster Custom re-issues in the US are Mexican-made, as Fender Japan did not export these to the US.

What we are looking at today is my Japanese-made 1999 Fender Telecaster Custom that I imported last year. It is finished in black over an ash body, and I believe these were only made in black. I have heard rumors of sunburst Customs, but have not seen them in catalogs or in the real world, so I am putting them in the same category as unicorns for the time being. You may notice from the pictures that the body has a bit deeper upper cutaway than the original ones did. Look at the shape of that 3-ply BWB pickguard! It is one of my favorite designs, and its uniqueness sets this guitar apart from the masses for me.

The neck is a peach, and fortunately they eschewed the modern 9 ½- inch radius and stayed true to history with a comfy oval profile and 7 ¼-inch radius. They included the bold 1970’s type Telecaster logo on the headstock, and of course these only come with 21 frets and a maple fretboard with black plastic dot markers.

The chrome hardware is mostly true to original, with a 3-saddle bridge and the 1972 to 1977 style witch hat knobs. If you flip the guitar over and look at the back you will find a three-bolt neckplate, and will be horrified to see the sealed-back Gotoh tuners. These are fabulous tuners, but are too modern and look totally wrong on this guitar.

I discussed the electronics specs earlier, so I will not go through that again, and will just say that this guitar has it all. Fourteen years later it still is in terrific condition, and I must say that the Japanese craftsmen did a wonderful job of building this instrument. The frets are perfect, the finish is even and the neck fits the pocket like a glove. I have it set up with 10s, and with the vintage radius on the fretboard I find it pretty easy to get around. This is a much better instrument than any of the original series Telecaster Customs that I have played.

And it is much lighter than the originals, coming in at around 8 pounds, 7 ounces. This has not hurt sustain, and with the less bright sound of the re-issue humbucker this thing really can sound like a Les Paul. It does not upset me that it weighs three pounds less than my Les Paul, either.

I have played a few Mexican re-issues too, and think they are also good guitars, and are better than the originals as well. But, I think the Japanese quality is still a notch above the rest. As I said earlier, these were never imported to the US, so if you want one like this you will have to find one from a Japanese seller on eBay, or buy one of mine...


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review of Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, CA

Buenos dias, amigos!

When I got the Pantages Theatre season ticket order form for this season, I was happy to see that Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby was on the list. My son had never seen the stage show, and I’ not had the opportunity to see Cathy Rigby perform it before, so it seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone. Plus there would surely be a trip to Juicy Burger in it for me too!

As always, the Pantages is always a great place to see a musical show. Parking is easy (easy for Hollywood, anyway), and it is a beautifully restored Art Deco theatre. The theatre is laid out well, and there are really not any bad seats. Not surprisingly, this show drew a full house and oodles of children, but they were amazingly well-behaved and the auditorium was peaceful throughout the performance. Maybe there is hope for the future…

This version Peter Pan is based on Jerome Robbins’ 1954 adaptation, which was the first time that the play was effectively brought into a musical theatre format. Sir James Barrie’s original story is a classic, and watching this production was like seeing an old friend again.

The stage was set up with large wings so that the opening was a bit smaller than usual. Unfortunately that meant that the audience that was seated off to the sides could not see quite a bit of the stage. The sets were well-designed, but looked really old and a bit threadbare. It is time that this touring company put a bit of their money back into their production.

This Peter Pan tour travels with four full-time musicians, and it looks like they hired another ten or so to fill out the orchestra. The score had a nice arrangement of brass, woodwinds and strings, complemented by tasteful keyboards and percussion. The band and the singers were well-miked and mixed, which is a refreshing change from the last two shows I saw at the Pantages.

Cathy Rigby headlines the show, and as always there is the need to suspend disbelief that the eternal boy character is being played by a woman, and in this case a 60-year old woman. But she delivered the goods like she always has since she started playing this role in 1990. Her voice is strong, and she is still able to do the dance and acrobatic moves as well as ever. While we are overlooking gender, I might as well point out that John, Michael and some of the Indians and pirates were also played by women.

The rest of the cast did a fine job, too. The children were adorable, and the boys, pirates and indians played their roles well. The main characters were led by the strong performance of Brent Barrett as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, and the smoking-hot Jenna Wright as Tiger Lily and Jenna. My god that girl can dance! Also, Clark Roberts did a neat job as Nana the dog and as the crocodile, both of which were real crowd pleasers.

The dancing from everybody on the cast was very good, but I did not always understand the choreography. It seemed a lot more like gymnastics to me, but maybe I just did not understand what they were trying to accomplish. The folks in charge of the flying sequences really made them fast and thrilling and I watched in terror as Cathy soared about the stage narrowly missing set pieces. Of course they have done this countless times before, but it still looked awfully scary.

Anyway, as a whole this musical is very good, and you do not have to be a child to enjoy this timeless story. Seeing it live is a completely different experience than watching the Disney movie, by the way. As Peter Pan is a touring production it will continue its way around the country with stops in Chicago, Tulsa, Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Scranton, Detroit and Providence. It is a fun show and you owe it to yourself and your kids to see Cathy Rigby in this role!


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Peterson VS-F Stroboflip Tuner Review


I have tried oodles of electronic tuners over the years, and have settled down to mostly using my Boss tuners. But I have been impressed with Peterson’s products before, so I decided to try their VS-F Stroboflip. When I saw that they were selling for $235, I figured I had better check one out to see if they could possibly be worth that much money.

Old-school mechanical strobotuners use a spinning wheel that shows different octaves and the strobe effect of the tuner will make one row of the wheel appear to stop for the octave that is being played, while the overtones for other octaves will move about depending on how far they are out of whack. The advantages of this are incredible accuracy (within 0.1 cent), along with an intangible coolness factor. The Peterson VS-F Stroboflip simulates this effect with a nice bright LCD display that is a little simpler to look at and more complicated to use.

The tuner is compact, measuring 3½ by 3½ by 1½ inches, and it weighs in at a little more than ½ pound -- it is certainly a compact package. The plastic chassis is disappointing at this price point, but it does include a mount so you can attach it to a mic stand or music stand, a clip-on tuning pickup, batteries (3xAA), an AC adapter and a 40-page owner’s manual. Though it is plastic, it has a somewhat sturdy feel and Peterson backs it with a 1-year warranty, which surprises me because their other products have a 3-year warranty.

This tuner has ¼-inch input and output jacks, as well as a built-in microphone on the face. Unlike their newer tuners, there is no USB port for installing new presets.

Peterson has made this tuner much more complicated by adding 34 preset temperaments and sweeteners. These are specific profiles for specific on instruments such as guitar, violin and viola, as well as for instruments fitted with the Buzz Feiten Tuning System. These take into account the string deflection and unique harmonics of the instrument to make tuning as accurate as possible. I have no use for these presets and thinks Sweetened Tunings is a terrible name, but guys who have OCD about tuning probably love this stuff.

The specs of this unit look ok on paper, with a tuning range of 16Hz to 3600Hz. Accuracy is guaranteed to be within 0.1 cent, and A 440Hz is adjustable from 390Hz to 490Hz. As far as I can tell, the Stroboflip delivers on these promises, and it was easy for me to use for conventional tunings. It did not add noise to my signal chain when put in my effects loop, and when I tried the tuner pickup it worked well too. The display is bright enough for most any environment, and it was able to pick up and hold notes better than any conventional needle-type digital tuner I have used. It is a nice tuner, though guitarist may want something beefier and simpler for stage use.

the downsides of plastic construction, a short warranty and oodles of programs that I do not need are enough to make me not want to buy this tuner. Many guitar players would agree, though it might the extra features might be a bonus for other musicians. So, if you are a guitar player that really wants to buy a strobotuner, skip the Stroboflip and go straight to the Peterson VSS-C Stomp Classic Strobotuner. It is cheaper ( around $200), is much more durable, has a three-year warranty and can also be used as an active DI box.


Thursday, January 17, 2013

Alembic F-1X Bass and Keyboard Preamplifier Review


I guess it is time to do a write-up of my Alembic F-1X preamplifier, which has been a neat addition to my assortment of bass amplification products. It has been in the studio for about 6 months, and its simplicity and tone have really grown on me.

You have surely heard of Alembic, the Northern California guitar maker that has produced beautiful (and expensive) guitars and basses with innovative electronics for the likes of Jerry Garcia, Jack Casady and Stanley Clark. You might not be as familiar with their other electronic products, but they have made some truly amazing pre-amplifiers over the years, one of which is the F-1X. The F-1X is essentially a mono version of their popular F-2B preamp, and it has been designed to work best with bass or keyboard applications.

The F-1X is not a stand-alone unit, and you will need to use it with a power amplifier, and probably some sort of quality equalizer (more on the EQ in a bit). This pre-amp fits into a single standard-sized rack space and just oozes handmade quality. The case is made out of heavy gauge powder coated steel, and it has an impressive heft. All of the pots, jacks and switches are quality components and they are easily serviceable. The power cable socket is the heavy-duty removable IEC C-14 type, so different types of power cables can be used. It is switchable for the different voltages that are used overseas and a jumper lead inside the chassis will need to be moved to accomplish this.

It is not terribly complicated to use. On the front you will find two input jacks, a volume knob, three tone controls (bass, middle and treble), bright and deep switches, a direct out socket, direct out pre/post and ground switches, and crossover frequency and level controls. Alembic put the power switch, a full-range out, high and low crossover outs and effects loop jacks on the back. That’s it!

Using the F-1X is straightforward once you know what everything does. The two inputs are not the same, as input 1 is a regular input and input 2 is padded by 6dB. It would be nice if Alembic labeled these inputs to indicate this. The volume knob controls the level of the full range and crossover outs.

The tone controls can be a little confusing, as they a passive interactive type, so it is important to know how they are wired. When one knobs is moved, the other two will not remain the same. So, if you want more treble, you can accomplish this by turning treble up, or by reducing the bass and mids. There really is no “flat” setting, but Alembic says that setting the knobs to 2:00 (bass), 10:00 (middle) and 2:00 (treble) will get you the closest. Many users are unable to get as much EQ adjustment as they want, so they usually add a quality EQ to their rack system.

The bright switch boosts the extreme treble range, and is progressively less effective as volume is increased. The deep switch cuts the lower midrange and leaves the lower frequencies untouched. The deep switch really tightens up my tone, and I find that I rarely use the bright switch.

It is nice to have two output choices, you can have the option of running a bi-amped or running a simpler single amplifier system. I only have one power amp, so I have only used the full range out, but the crossover system seems simple enough. There are high pass and low pass outputs that are controlled by a crossover frequency knob that might not work like you think it would. It allows you to select a frequency at which: above the frequency, low pass output decreases 12dB per octave and below the frequency, high pass output decreases 12dB per octave. The high level knob can change high pass output by a range of +/- 10dB to obtain more equal speaker cabinets volumes.

All of these neat features don’t mean much if the unit does not sound good, but there is nothing to worry about in that department. I did not mention that this is a tube-driven unit, did I? The F-1X is loaded up with a 12AX7 tube to provide the pre-amplifier’s gain. This is situated before the volume control and is powered at 300 volts to allow plenty of headroom for large transients without distorting.

This preamp sounds incredibly warm, and goes a long ways towards attaining my perfect bass tone. The low end is very round, and very punchy mids can be dialed in. This kind of warmth and natural sound is hard to come by, but Alembic has put together a very good package. Don’t mistake the Alembic F-1X with the cheaper amps you have head with tube pre-amp stages. This is the real deal, and provides real tube tone and characteristics.

I have also had good luck using the F-1X as a DI box, and having the XLR out, ground lift and pre/post switch on the front are a godsend, particularly with a rack-mounted piece of equipment. On the other hand, having the power switch on the back of a rack mount unit is a pain in the butt, and I do not buy Alembic’s rationale that everybody uses power conditioners. I still want to be able to get to the power switch easily.

The Alembic F-1X pre-amplifier is built to last forever and sounds wonderful, and of course it is not cheap. The list price on these is $1375, and the cheapest price I found online for them was $1099. Not many retailers carry them, and they do not show up very often on the used market. But, if you crave a wonderful tube pre-amp there is no substitute. Happy hunting!


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro Headphones Review


I have used Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones for the past few years, and they are really very wonderful. But, I recently had the opportunity to try out a pair of HD 380 Pro cans, and if you know anything about their products, as the model number becomes higher the phones become more wonderful (and expensive).

Well, if you are going to spend twice the money you will want to notice a difference, and you will. The HD 380 Pro is a bit of an odd duck, as they are marketed as professional studio headphones, but they are slightly smaller than full-size and they fold up fairly compactly. This means that they are great for guys who are on the road and do not want to put up with the discomfort of in-ear monitors or crummy sound noise cancelling headphones. Plus they kick the living crap out of Beats while looking relatively normal.

Physically, they are around-the-ear closed-back phones, and weigh in at a sprightly ½ pound. They are nicely padded (replaceable earpads!) and adjustable, and are comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time but not so loose that they slip off. They include a replaceable coiled-type cord that stretches out to about 10 feet long. They come with a screw-on adapter so they can be plugged into ¼-inch or 1/8-inch jacks. As I said earlier they fold up, and the end product is fairly flat and compact. A nice zippered carry case is included.

The specifications provided by Sennheiser for the HD 380 Pros have no surprises. They have neodymium magnets and frequency response is supposed to be 8 to 27,000 Hz, with a total harmonic distortion is less than 0.1% (1kHz, 100dB SPL). These headphones can provide up to 32 dB of attenuation, which combined with a reasonable 54 Ω of resistance means that they can play loudly enough (with enough isolation) that they do not necessarily need a headphone amplifier when used with an iPod.

I tested these headphones with a variety of audio sources, including my home stereo, my iPods and iPad and directly from my laptop. I played the music with and without headphone amplifiers (solid state and tube type), and with my usual assortment of music. This includes mostly rock and blues, with a little country, classical and show tunes thrown in for good measure.

And these headphones perform very well. They are very sensitive and crisp with no distortion at all normal volume levels. The highs are clear, and do not seem to have any unnatural elements to it. The mid ranges are definitely boosted, mostly in the upper mids. This is not distracting, and I like the effect for rock and blues music. The bass is crisp and powerful, but is still well-balanced with the mids and highs.

In the real world, they sound great and provide perfect isolation (and no leakage) on airplanes and when working in crowded and/or noisy rooms. For my purposes, this more than makes up for any sound imperfections that come about from having closed-back cans. I like them a lot, but am too cheap to pony up for a pair of my own and will have to make do with my old headphones, which are still very good.

If audio perfection is your quest and you only have two hundred bucks to spend, these are probably your best value because there is enough difference in sound over the HD 280 Pro headphones to justify the extra cash. The HD Sennheiser 380 Pro headphones have a list price of $299.95 and a street price of $199.95, which includes a factory two-year warranty.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Chemako Album Review

Good day!

This CD review was originally published in the September 20, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Chemako – Chemako

Ultra Sound Records



11 tracks / 47:18

When I think of Italy it conjures up images of a rich history, beautiful architecture, fine food and wine, and the most desirable sports cars on the planet. But until recently I had never considered the country’s blues scene, which is also quite good. I have been listening to Chemako’s eponymous CD and have come away very impressed. This four-piece band has been working together in one form or another since 1993, and it is a shame that they did not get into the studio sooner. The core personnel of the band for this project are bassist Roberto Re, guitarist Gianfranco "French" Scala, drummer Stefano Bertolotti, and vocalist Marcello Milanese. There are at least a dozen featured guest artists, with many of them supplying vocal, harmonica or guitar support. For the Chemako CD they put together ten original songs, mostly from Scala and Gianni Rava, and a cover of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” In case you were wondering, the songs are all sung in English, and I could hear no traces of an Italian accent.

As far as describing their sound, I hate to pigeon-hole anybody and the guys in Chemako defy easy categorization anyway. Their songs vary between delta blues and more modern countrified blues, and all of it has a laid back vibe. This variation in styles is seen right from the first track, “Red Diamond Train,” which starts out with just some banjo picking and Milanese’s husky voice, and gets modern in a hurry as more layers are added. These layers include some very pretty and well-harmonized background vocals and plenty of neat slide and picked guitar. Scala and Rava also throw us some great lyrics here, including my favourite lines of the whole CD, “You know I liked long legged girls/cuties with big Bambi eyes/I just love to break their hearts/with lots of my disgusting lies.” I wish I had written that.

At this point it would be good to note that Chemako has not fallen into the same traps that many bands do when they are singing songs that are not in their original language. The lyrics all make sense on this album, and the vocals are phrased naturally with all of the breaks and emphasis placed correctly. They have done a very good job of making this sound like an American blues album. Going through all of the tracks, I am stuck with observation that they are all very good, which is refreshing in a world of CDs that maybe only have one or two good tracks, if you are lucky. Though all of the songs are more towards the easygoing side of things, the band managed to provide a variety in the music thanks to the all of the guest musicians that appears on the album.

“Maintenance Free” comes up next on Chemako, and this is the first of three songs that feature Angelica Depaoli on lead vocals. This song, as well as “Save the Moon” and “All Things Must Pass” shows that she has a strong voice with an impressive range. Angelica interacts well with the guitars and piano, and her voice is very pretty to listen to. The slow tempo of the songs she is featured on really plays to her strengths, showing that the producer (Scala) knew what he was doing when he put this project together. “Lost My Way” and “Falling Star” both have a distinct Dire Straits country rock feel to them. This is mostly due to the tasteful guitar work of Maurizio Fassino and Maurizio Glielmo. Also, both of these songs were sung by Marcello Milanese, and his one-of-a-kind raspy drawl makes the country mood feel genuine.

I like the placement of “Momma’s Words” as the final track, as it is cool to end an album on an uplifting note. Martell Walton takes care of the vocals on this song, and Gianni Rava takes a break from his song writing duties on this song and picks up his saxophone to honk out a few notes. After the song ends there is a hidden one-minute instrumental (guitar and accordion) jam to bring this work to a close.

Chemako is a really neat CD, and it would be well worth your time to track down a copy to add to your playlist. Hopefully they will not make us wait another twenty years before they record again!


Monday, January 14, 2013

1977 Yamaha SA-700 Super Axe Guitar Review


I have played quite a few Gibson ES-335 guitars and their clones over the years, and many of them were very good, a few were excellent, and there were a surprising number of clunkers. The 1977 Yamaha SA-700 we are looking at today is one of the best. It is called the Super Axe, and that is not just a clever name.

There were a lot of models in the Super Axe line, and their specs were all over the place. It was possible to get bare bones models, or high-dollar guitar with exotic woods and fancy electronics, so you could spend anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to pick one of these up. More accurately, you would be spending Yen, because not many of these were exported.

The SA-700 is the model that came closest to replicating the original 1958 Gibson ES-335. That was the first mass-produced semi-hollowbody guitar, and it has become a staple of the rock and roll diet.

This Super Axe is finished in transparent persimmon poly over its maple body and mahogany neck. The body has the traditional ES-335 shape, and has one of the chunkiest blocks of wood I have seen in one of these types of guitars. This reduces feedback, but puts on the weight, and this guitar weighs in at around 8 pounds 12 ounces, which makes it about a half pound heavier than other Japanese ES copies I have seen before. This one is in very good condition, and appears to be all original.

It has a plain top and the body is bound on the front and rear. The hardware and electronics are first-class, with Yamaha-branded sealed tuners (made by Gotoh) and two PAF-style humbucking pickups. The controls are the same as a Gibson: 2 volume, 2 tone and a 3-way switch. It has a non-trapeze bridge and tailpiece as used on Les Paul models, which is fortunate as all of the tone on these guitars is found behind the bridge.

The bound set neck has a rosewood fretboard and bound inlays, and it is quite a corker. Most 335s nowadays have slim taper necks, but this one has a chunky C shape to it. It is around 1 3/4-inches wide at the nut and 2 1/16-inches wide at the 12th fret. This is a real vintage-feeling baseball bat of a neck. The original frets are still in good shape, and I think the nut is original, though my guy had to do a little work on the nut to eliminate some buzz. This thing is 35 years old, you know.

I said earlier that the SA-700 Super Axe was one of the best ES-335s I have ever seen, and that is true because it plays very well and sounds even better. The fat neck is so comfortable to play, and it has a great natural resonance and a ton of sustain. The pickups have got the creamy PAF tone nailed with no unusual noises, and this would be a good jazz instrument or fantastic a fantastic rock guitar.

These guitars do not come up for sale often in the US, but there are plenty of Japanese sellers that are exporting them. Be prepared to pay $700 to $1000 to get a nice Super Axe, but it will be worth it. You will get a guitar that is better than the ones that Gibson is making today for a lot less bread. By the way, a new Gibson ES-355 has a list price of $4233, and a street price $2999. That is insane…


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Charles Walker Band Resouled! CD Review

This CD review was originally published in the September 13, 2012 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at thebluesblast.com

Charles Walker Band – Resouled!

Self Release


9 tracks / 56:09

Charles Walker is a man of many talents, and highlights of his skills include not only songwriting, but also expertise on the keyboards and saxophone, and he shows a real flair for improvisation on both instruments. Over the years he has recorded six CDs and has led the Milwaukee-based Charles Walker Band since 2004. Their impressive gig schedule has resulted in the production of Resouled!, their latest release. At its root this is blues and blues-based music, but as Charles says, “This CD reflects the band’s eight year evolution, blurring the styles of soul. I stopped worrying about the blues and focused on groove.” He is not joking, and in addition to the blues you will hear funk and jazz influences throughout this album.

Resouled! was recorded during two shows at the Hideaway Saloon in Louisville, Kentucky; it includes nine tracks, which are mostly originals with just one cover tune: Muddy Waters’ “Rock Me Baby.” The personnel for this effort include Porsche Carmon with the lead vocals (and congas), Charles Walker on keyboards and sax, Brad Karas on bass guitar, Demetris Vance on drums and special guest Dan Kennedy on the guitar. Besides his bass duties, Karas also took care of the sound and was in charge of mixing and mastering for this CD.

And this is truly a live CD, so it is raw and vibrant, and not nearly as slick as a studio-produced release. You will hear some 60-cycle hum here and there and a little of the banter from Porsche and Charles, as well as responses from the audience. I found that with the way this album was mixed I lose a lot of the bass and dynamics when I listen to it in my car (even though it has a very good audio system), but it sounds great through my home system or headphones. I guess I had to lose most of my background noise so all of the nuances could be heard.

The first track on Resouled! is “Used and Defiant,” which is also the song they used to kick off their set, and this funk tune really gets things moving in a hurry. As the vintage-sounding keys play over Karas’ popping bass and Vance’s rock-solid drumming, Carmon welcomes the Louisville audience and immediately lets them hear a sample of her vocal range and strong voice before turning things over to Walker for some impressive tenor saxophone improvisation. The band is very tight throughout, and they do marvelous job holding together the syncopated bridges after the solo.

There is a neat 1970s vibe on the next track, “Exquisite Soul,” thanks to the electric piano sound that Walker choses for his keys. This original song has a neat (but too short) guitar solo from Kennedy along with a very catchy melody and fun/sexy lyrics. And the sexy theme carries over to the next track, “Funky Sexy” which hearkens back to Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” the ultimate passion song. Of course Walker’s version takes its own direction, but this song is still sexy as anything…

“Rock Me Baby” lets Kennedy cut loose on the guitar and we get to hear a bit more of what Carmon can do with that fabulous voice of hers. Not to mention how cool it is to hear a woman sing this Muddy Waters classic, as this gives this song a whole new meaning to me. Walker gets in a good solo in on this one too, and Vance improves on the original backline with a little more aggressive drumming than usually is heard on this cover.

This project wraps up with a bang as the band hammers out “Crawlin Home,” a raucous saxophone-infused instrumental. This piece is a clinic on what a blues horn should sound like, and Charles has some fabulous interplay with the Kennedy. And you will find that this mixes well with the tasteful walking bass part and tons of crash cymbals. But this finale left me with one question: who is playing that thunderous Hammond while Walker is tending to the horn?

Resouled! is a great showcase of the Charles Walker Band’s live show, and it really emphasizes their enthusiasm and love for the music. Looking at their schedule, it appears that they mostly tour the Midwest, but they are making it a little further out west around New Year’s, so if they do get out your way it would be super cool to catch one of their shows. I am going to keep an eye on their schedule and hope they make it out to Southern California sometime soon.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review of 2004 Fender Precision Bass PB70-70US

Hi there!

I have been through a few of these basses over the years, and they have been consistently great instruments. The Fender PB70-70US Precision Bass is a very nice recreation of their 1970 model, and it built with pride in their Japanese factories.

The PB in the model designation designates this instrument as a Precision Bass, the first 70 shows that this is a 1970 model, and the second 70 indicates that the original price was 70,000 Yen. That was around $540 bucks back then, which was a heck of a deal. Oh yes, and the US at the end of the model name means that this bass shipped with US-made vintage style pickups.

This one is finished in a silky Olympic White, which has yellowed nicely over the years. I have heard that the body is supposed to be made of alder, but who really knows? The body shape has the classic contoured P bass shape, and the neck is attached with a four-bolt joint. As I said, there is a US-sourced pickup, with the normal volume and tone controls. The hardware is the usual Fender stuff, with a three-layer B-W-B pickguard, a chrome four-saddle bridge, and the correct large bass Fender vintage-style tuners. I hate the Japanese basses that come with the lame small-base tuners. Boo. I installed Fender OEM bridge and pickup covers because they just look so right.

The neck is not too huge, with a 1 5/8-inch wide nut and a comfortable shallow C profile to the back. The rosewood fretboard has white plastic fret markers, and a nut that might be a replacement. The neck is true and the truss rod works fine. The 20 original frets use vintage size wire, and are still nice and level with very little wear. To top it off, it has the correct big logo on the headstock, so this thing looks just right

It plays right, too. It is very well constructed, and the neck is very playable. I love the sound of it, and I do think the US pickups make a difference. I think that sometimes the Japanese pickups and pots are not quite up to snuff. One thing to note is that this one is about a pound heavier than these basses usually are, coming in at 9 pounds, 10 ounces on my digital scale. Still a couple pounds lighter than my Les Paul, though…

Anyway, it is a great bass, and if you are in the market for a new P Bass, these Japanese reissues cannot be beat for the price.