The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus Review: Tom Waits On Screen

Yes, I am aware its called I Blog What I Hear, but I see things as well as hear them, so this is going to blur the party line a bit, ok?  Jesus, relax already.  Christmas is an interesting time for those of us in the Jewish faith, “The Chosen People” as some call it.  There is NOTHING to do.  I don’t know how to express this is any other way.  Imagine going out, and EVERYTHING is closed.  You can’t get food, other than Chinese, you can’t buy anything, trains are empty, everything is just plain quiet.  Its an eerie feeling.  I greatly dislike it, and it has always been this way.

As is the tradition, I woke up Christmas Day with nothing to do, and decided this is the year to go with tradition.  This is the year, not to break the mold, but to fit into it!  Ladies and Gentlemen, I saw a movie.  After calling every person I could imagine would not be involved in family shenanigans, it was determined that I would be braving the streets solo.  I’ve only seen one other solo movie in my life, this was while living in LA.  I drove to a sketchy part of downtown, to a weird looking mildly abandoned theater to see the Moog Movie.  I was one of 3 people in the theater, and it was fantastic.  IF you have never seen this movie, netflix that up.  Bob Moog truly believed in what he did, and made an interesting spiritual connection with the electronic instruments he built.  Anyway, this was an overall positive experience, So I was ready for round 2.  So on Christmas Day, I braved the rain and disgusting slush, and went to see The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus.

Much mythology has surrounded Parnassus long before it was ever released.  This was Heath Ledger’s last film, he died halfway though the filming.  With nowhere else to go, and the money quickly running in the other direction, director Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame)  called upon his friends Johnny Depp, Collin Farrell, and Jude Law to fill in for the role, with only minor rewrites.  But all this is just Hollywood trivia.  What I was concerned with was the role of The Devil.  Not A Devil….The Devil.  Played by none other than Tom Waits.  Up until now, Waits has had a few minor film roles.  He played Renfield in Braham Stoker’s Dracula, Had a walk on in The Fisher King, another cameo in Wristcutters, and probably a few others, what am I, IMDB?  But this is by far his most significant.
EXCLUSIVE:  Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Still Shooting
The first thing I noticed about this film was Gilliams Python style animation.  It was the soft focus style of drawing (think the giant foot in Holy Grail) that most defined his signature style.  His films have a unifying look as well.  He does this one camera move in every film.  Its kind of like a shakey wrap around shot, he uses it in the hotel check in scene of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (one of the greatest films ever made) as well as all over 12 Monkeys.  Visually, Gilliam never fails to disappoint.  Its no Baron Munchausen (one of the other greatest films ever created) but it certainly is exciting to look at.  His fantasy sequences have the look of the greatest and most psychedelic school play you could ever imagine.  The sets are incredibly detailed and real.  My least favorite thing about the films of the last 10 years is the heavy reliance on CG.  Gilliam embraces this, yet details the sets with enough actual substance to fully bring you in, rather than just admire some shit done with computers.

But you don’t come here to listen to that type of talk, no.  We all knew this post would really be about the greatest man to grace the earth and beyond, Tom Waits.  Now, my undying love for Waits aside, he OWNS this role.  There was no better choice for the mythical devil role, named Mr. Nick,  than Tom Waits.  Every step is a little dance, he puts soul into every word.  Every scene he acts in is like hearing a spoken word Waits piece.  Have you heard “What’s He Building In There?”  off Mule Variations?  It’s just like that. Of all the great stage performers, Waits may be among the most believable.  It seems he never breaks character.  One advantage a musician has over a stage or film actor, is that everyone believes the persona they adapt.  Not for one moment would you question the fact that Keith Richards is a heroin addled vampire, but what if that was just some persona he adapted?  Whereas looking at Brad Pitt in Fight Club, you can kind of tell he’s putting it on a bit.

Lets talk specific scenes.  By far, the best, is the dance sequence.  The basic theme of Waits’ character, is that he’s always there to make a bet with Parnassus, ready to take advantage of him in his weakest moments.  When it looks like he will inevitably win one of these bets midway through the film, he takes Parnassus’ daughter by the hand and says “Dance with me baby!”  and they go into a surreal ballroom sequence.  Its like the dream sequence of Big Lebowski.  They display serious moves, old school tango style.  The runner up would be, the first introduction of Waits, where he visits Dr Parnassus hundreds of years ago when he is a monk in an ancient temple.  Waits enters with a cigarette holder and a clarinet type contraption, and proceeds to suck the voice out of every monk chanting an ancient tale, in an attempt to prove that the world continues, even if no one tells its story.  Amazing.  A bird then shits on his hat, but that is neither here nor there.

My only complaint is that Waits had no songs on the soundtrack.  Come on, how cool would a musical sequence be, with The Devil on lead vocals and piano? I sight Shrek 2, when the used “Little Drop Of Poison” for the bar sequence, and Captain Hook sings the Waits parts.  Overall, the movie was not the best I have ever seen. The story did drag a little bit, and it felt a bit long, despite the powerful cast and beautiful imagery.  But lets hope Gilliam gets some ideas from this, and casts Waits in the lead for his next project?  Lets hope so.


D’Angelico Excel: Very Serious, Very Gone.

So there are several theories on instruments vs talent.  The bottom line I feel is this:   The greatest player in the world will sound fantastic on a 25 Dollar Wal Mart Guitar.  You can’t prevent that.  To the other end, a shitty player will sound better on a multi thousand dollar Les Paul than the aforementioned Wal Mart ax, but still, they will not sound good.  I believe there was a Nike or something commercial back in the day which said something like “Talent will only get you so far, you need the right tools”  And this too is true.  Now take that great player, remove the Wal Mart instrument, insert the multi thousand dollar instrument, and to borrow a phrase,  its business time.

I’ve been part of many theoretical discussions on price vs quality when it comes to instruments (as may be evidenced by my previous post on NY guitar stores).  Lets say the breaking point is $1000.  Anything for that price should have reasonable quality control, have solid components, and was at some point touched by human hands during the building process.  You can certainly get some badass stuff for less, but you would have to do serious research, and try the exact instrument you are purchasing (since quality varies greatly on less expensive instruments).  But once you get up into the crazy price ranges, it starts to get a little iffy.  What really is the difference between a $1000 guitar and a $3000?  As price increases, quality increase becomes more marginal.  I’m sure there is some economic term in there, anybody know it?

I bring this up for a reason, not just to talk about guitars more.  Come on, who do you think I am?   The point is, I have recently returned an instrument to it’s owner which was on loan to me for many months, and my life feels a little more empty.  It was a 1930’s D’Angelico Excel Archtop.  These guitars are pretty much mythical in the instrument world.  John D’Angelico built every instrument by hand, in a small shop at 40 Kenmore St in Manhattan.  He had very few employees, and made at most 35 Instruments per year.  He made maybe 1500 instruments total.  As you could imagine, the value of these is around that of a small Honda.  Its worth more than my Honda Fit, look up the MSRP, homes.

Playing an instrument like this changes your whole approach.  It plays a game of chess, or Uno, with you every time you pick it up.  It puts weird ideas in your head, it challenges you to do things differently.  Its like “Come on man, stop playing major bar chords, you’re holding  half a years tuition at an Ivy League College, turn it up!”  and you go “Ok, lifeless piece of wood and other components, I will listen to what you have to say”  and it says things!  Obviously I’m getting slightly philosophical here, but only slightly.  An instrument like this carries some history, it lived through WWII, The Jazz Age, Jimi Hendrix, Hair Metal, Everything!  These factors cant help but play some mind games with you.  All you can do is fight back, and hope to not pull out any lame ass jazz shit.

There are no words to explain how a well made instrument performs, though I will attempt to translate.  Maybe its like driving a sports car, I dont know, I don’t like cars.  Maybe its like eating a fantastic meal over and over?  But food changes every time, so that’s not completely accurate.  It’s probably all science, but not an exact science.  The combination of wood, lacquer, paint, and whatnot, can have amazing results.  Some claim, the thinner the finish, the more a guitar can breathe and the more sustain it will have.  Is that true?  If you can tell me the difference between a guitar with paint and a guitar with thin nitro cellulose lacquer on it purely by sound…then dear friend, I owe you a cheesesteak.  But back to the matter at hand.
Upon returning this instrument, I missed it dearly.  Maybe its the mythology I associate with it, but nothing I have played before or since has replicated it.  Well, I haven’t played much since, but you get the idea.  While the band has been recording several tracks, I relied on the D’Angelico heavily.  It sat perfectly in a mix.  A traditional acoustic can sometimes have too much bottom end, and just not work.  But the archtop is the secret weapon which I will use from here on out.  I guess it’s not really so much of a secret now, but I trust you to keep this just between us.

Instruments have a “Vibe”.  You can’t deny this.  A 1950’s Telecaster plays differently than a 2009 Telecaster.  They just feel different.  Its the years of playing which impacts the instrument not just physically, but lets call it “spiritually”  It makes you play different and appreciate different sounds.  This particular guitar made me feel like I was wearing a tuxedo, sitting behind a big band podium, comping some chords behind some tenor sax.  I don’t think you could get this feeling from an ESP Screaming Skull.  So now, the quest begins for a replacement.  It will be a long arduous road, but we, dear reader, will persevere together!  OK, here we go.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy @ The Highline Ballroom

First off, lets start with a plug.   This year on New Years Eve, forget about cursing the 5 boroughs from a rooftop and hugging the toilet the remainder of the evening.  Relax with a beverage and a recipe Matt Shampine posts on, and listen to NPR.  I was fortunate enough to be on the NY crew for their Toast Of The Nation broadcast and I’m very excited.  I’m looking forward to a relaxing night of music and recording related fun, rather than spending an obscene amount of money in a bar I don’t want to hang out in, and feeling hungover the next day.  Am I getting old?  Possiblimente….but I digress.  They’ll be broadcasting The Bad Plus, one of my favorite bands, live from The Village Vanguard in NY, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy live from LA later on in the evening.  My first ever professional post college job was for the Toast Of The Nation broadcast in 2004.  I had recently returned from LA, and assisted in the days leading up to the broadcast from Lincoln Center, but opted instead on new years eve to see Wilco and The Flaming Lips at Madison Square Garden, quite the mistake.  But we will perhaps do a new years specific post next week or early January, recounting musical events past and present.

The Only Guy Who Can Pull Of The Zoot Suit.
The Only Guy Who Can Pull Of The Zoot Suit.

My point is, I got to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Highline Ballroom as an advance public radio scout.  I’d like to think I was undercover, scoping it out, causing trouble. In truth, I was sadly not causing trouble.  No swing dancers were tripped, no douchebags snapping had drinks spilled on them from above.  I merely hung out and enjoyed what I could.  Its an odd phenomenon, that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  Back in the day, anyone aware of popular music remembers the brief swing craze.  Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Voodoo Daddy, all that.  We’d like to think it stemmed from the also brief popularity of Ska, and took on a strange little revival.   If you think about it though, that’s really the only time since the Ellington and Basie era in which big band music was a part of main stream popular culture.  The difference being, this really seemed like a gimmick…i guess because it was?  Really dudes, no one wears a zoot suit and says “daddy-o” and means it.  You probably have a job, where they do not let you wear your zoot suit, and if you start a riot, you will be arrested.

Big Bad Voodoo
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy @ The Highline

But lets talk about this show for a minute, then maybe we’ll get all theoretical up in here.  The band was highly proficient, if not too rehearsed.  Yes, the horn section was adequate but they were certainly no Dap Kings.  They played WAY too much Christmas music, the singer even alluded to the fact that he was well over it.  Their stage banter seemed very scripted, as did the singers dancing, I don’t know, I just wasn’t buying it.  They did play the hits, which were very entertaining to hear.  Its kind of funny, as soon as they went into that “bottle makes 3 song”  you could really tell why they gained such popularity at their height.  Its a catchy tune, you can always remember the lyrics, the music is happy, everyone has a good time.  But the rest of the set really did feel like filler.

Earlier in the week I had dinner with the iblog empire, and a few hundred people, and we briefly discussed the rise and fall of popular music featuring horn players in the late 90’s.  Well, mostly Web Master Eric and I did, while Matt Shampine was too busy blogging what he was eating and got sauce all over his iphone.  Anyway, it brought up some dilemmas.  We all know the story of the One Hit Wonder, but what happens when you have a mild hit in a somewhat gimmicky style, and you’re stuck in that gimmick for the rest of your foreseeable career?  Basically, what happens after the popularity dies down, and you’re left holding a baritone sax?

4202375838_b53ee3c39dHaving a band with horns is no easy task.  Lets start out all business.  Its an economic nightmare.  You have a standard rock band, guitar, bass, drums, vocals.  4 People, 1 extra to hang out and help, traveling to a show.  You can get away with traveling in a van or large SUV.  You don’t get paid for the show, but hopefully you can cover gas money, if life is awesome, you can but 5 beverages.  Add 3 horn players to the mix.  You have another car to take to the show, god forbid they have girlfriends (which lets be honest, is unlikely) So now not only does no one get a beverage at the show, you are in the hole as far as transportation expenses go.  At the height of our youth inspired shenanigans, we were part of a 9 person ska band.  One night while playing Maxwells in Hoboken, the soundman said to me “so, after what you guys get paid is divided, you cant even buy 1 drink, right?”  Yes Maxwells dude, this is true.  But whatever, you’re 20, who cares.  Once you start getting into real life territory…that gets a little more sketchy.  Lets say a band like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or Reel Big Fish, or any of those guys, maintains a career, these days strictly off of touring.  When it is your actual livelihood, transportation expenses are serious business.  That’s extra hotel rooms, food, space in the van or bus or whatever, any number of things.  Obviously I have no numbers to back this up since my accounting knowledge begins and ends with that fact that Oscar Kevin and Angela run The Office accounting department.  At that point…hiring a keyboard player or something starts to make a lot more sense.

Lets talk about egos, shall we?  A band is like having 4 girlfriends, with none of the positive aspects.  A band with horns is like having 9 girlfriends.  And while we all think Polygamy is totally awesome in theory, we’re also all aware that its just not practical, man.  Same concept applies.  How to keep a band together is a mystery to everyone.  I believe along the way, nearly every one of these popular bands which once included horn players, has either fired said horns, or hired studio musicians to tour when necessary.  Its impossible to quantify the contribution a specific instrument makes to a song, many a tambourine has completed a record, but if you have players only putting in a few notes here and there on a rock song…you could imagine some situations where problems could arise.

I don’t want to insult anyone’s livelihood, I have great respect for any touring band, especially one who has survived for many years.  I just wonder what their career related discussions are like. Is it like “ok dudes, lets do another swing era big band album!”  In truth, they’ve probably been a band longer than the actual swing era lasted.  Its like those Beatles cover bands who have been around far longer than the actual Beatles were.  Reel Big Fish did in fact write a song called “Don’t Start A Band”  and I really think its the most depressing song I have ever seen (i dont even want to listen, I’ve just seen the lyrics)  Here’s a little lyrical snippet:

And if you that the joy of playing
Will keep you going through the years
Wait till you poor and frustrated
And the fun just disappears
Nobody cares what you have to say
And noes gonna listen anyways

Rock and roll will bring you down
And it will kick you while your on the ground

Don’t start a band
Don’t even try you will regret it yea
Don’t start a band
You’ll be so disappointed that it was nothing like you planned
Don’t start a band
Oh yea yea yea

Damn dudes, really?  Anyway.   Having a large band seems tough not only for career oriented reasons, but simply for the creative process.  Its nore difficult to get things done quickly with more people involved.  Lets keep the process streamlined.  If you can’t go solo, go duo, and so forth. And if you feel like hanging up the zoot suit, for the love of all that is holy, please do so.

Best Music Stores In New York: Take 1

30th Street Guitars
30th Street Guitars

New York is home to several superlatives, many of them musical.  Once some of the finest studios in the world resided here.  Some of the finest places to hear music still do.  If you want to hear Jazz, it’s the center of the universe.  There is a fantastic talent pool of musicians of all genres, its a very serious place.  One controversial member of this list is music stores.  Even through economic hard times, NY has managed to maintain a respectable roster of instrument stores.  The downside being, like everything else, they are expensive as hell.  Blame it on real estate, also like everything else.  With the advent of ebay, stores of all kinds took a hit.  For a long time, that was the only place to go to pick up some used or boutique gear, it just plain had the widest selection.  But I believe in recent times, ebay might have jumped the shark.  There are too many people involved, everyone knows (or thinks they know) everything there is to know about equipment, so the prices shoot up right away.  Along with this, people try to pass off gear as something its not…undisclosed repairs or damage…its full of holes.  So today, we’re going to discuss some of New York’s finest brick and mortar music stores.  You will need a Metrocard, an EZ Pass, a packed lunch, and a toothbrush.  Here we go.

Back in the day, musicians from all over the world, from Jimmy Hendrix to The Beatles, would flock to Manny’s on 48th street to pick up a guitar.  Manny’s is still there, they have the pictures on the wall to prove it, but something has certainly been lost over time.  48th street is really not what it used to be.  The block is still lined with a few stores- Manny’s, Sam Ash, and Rudy’s, but it feels like walking into Wal Mart, Target, and Best Buy.  Well, Rudy’s is not really Best Buy, lets call them a Mercedes dealership.  They certainly have the pompousness.  The most characteristic trait of 48th st is the attitude all around.  Sam Ash and Manny’s are full of mass produced, average gear.  If they do have any vintage or boutique equipment, they’re so far out of anyones price range that it might as well be a museum.  Its not uncommon to hear “Well, are you gonna buy it, or do you just wanna play it?”  when asking to try something expensive.  Seriously, fuck that.  I have bought 2 great pieces of drum gear at Manny’s, but that is only because a friend of a friend worked in the department.  I once bought a vintage MXR Phaser at Rudy’s, but I don’t remember much of the experience, I was like 12.  But any guitar worth playing is encased in glass, and I cant even imagine asking to play one.

If you venture below 48th street, there are a few gems to investigate.  Lets start uptown, go down, then to the outer boroughs.  Way at the top of the list, is 30th Street Guitars…on 30th street.  In about 1996 I saved up every dollar I had from sweeping floors and painting walls in a warehouse all summer, and strutted into Manhattan to blow it all.  (by strutted, I mean driven by my dad)  I dont know how he knew about 30th st guitars, I think he parked in a lot across the street once, and told me about it.  But I walked in, and my 13 year old mind completely exploded.  I didn’t leave for hours.  And so much to their credit, the employees put up with me.  I must have played 100 guitars.  Eventually, I narrowed it down to 2.  An original 1971 Telecaster with a factory Bigsby, which was white and beaten completely to hell….and an early 90’s Les Paul classic in a dark sunburst.  They were both about $1200, which do you think I picked?  This was the biggest mistake of my life.  I can’t believe I bought the generic ass les paul.  I have no idea why.  I think the tele had a buzz or something, as is common in single coil pickups, and it looked too beat up.  God damnit, I cant even continue to talk about it, it hurts too much.  The moral is, consistently, 30th street has the best selection of vintage guitars in the city, hands down.

Dan's Chelsea Guitars

A little further downtown on the west side, is Dan’s Chelsea Guitars on 23rd street.  Like 30th st, the staff is very cool, not much attitude.  This place may have the coolest window display of any store in manhattan (not just music stores, ANY store).  Since it’s so small, that’s where most of its inventory resides.  Amazing old Fenders and Gibsons taunt you next to the Chelsea Hotel, you wonder who went in there and sold some gear after being strung out.  One of those musicians was Ryan Adams.  I went on an annual guitar store tour with my friend Dave a few years back, looking for an old Gibson Acoustic- no easy task anywhere.  We wandered into Chelsea Guitars, and checked out their selection behind an old velvet rope, in a broken down wooden corrale type of situation.  I asked about a 60’s Square Shoulder Gibson Country-Western, and the owner said “yeah, we got that from Ryan Adams”  I picked it up, and the thing just sang.  Even with the old strings on it, it sounded perfect, big full sound.  I believe Adams used it in the New York New York video, which I can no longer watch, since I passed on the guitar.  It was $3500.  I just couldn’t pull it off, I didn’t even want to go visit it, because I knew after a few times, I would sell a kidney or something to obtain it.

Lets skip over Guitar Center on 14th st, their Vintage selection will just piss you off…its so completely amazing and so preposterously overpriced, that you will want to burn the store to the ground just so the ibankers (who are the only people who could afford the gear) will never get a chance to play it.  Lets travel south east to Ludlow St Guitars on….Ludlow st. Although their selection is not as immense as 30th st, and not nearly as vintage, this one may be my current favorite Manhattan guitar store.  The place where Ludlow really shines, is Boutique Amplifiers.  Ludlow really tears it up in this department, and its not just because David Lee Roth used to have an apartment in the building above it.  I was looking for a Swart 6v6 Spacetone amp for a long time, and finally Ludlow became the only dealer in NY.  This is a badass little fender champ reproduction.  They had 1 left in stock on a sunday, and I rushed from work in the afternoon to check it out.  As I walked in, another guy walked in directly behind me, also asking to check it out, but I was in fact there first.  The amp was fantastic, it lit the store on fire.  Being the nice guy I am, I let the other patron try it out, but said I was buying it.  He proceeded to act like a dick, and play it for way too long.  The dude behind the counter quietly said to me “just give me the sign when you need to go, and I’ll put an end to it.”  I have felt a kinship ever since.  They’ve got some badass Carr and Victoria gear, and where else in NY are you going to find that?  NOWHERE that’s where.

The Music Inn
The Music Inn

At this point, lets take a break from guitars, and move to the world of percussion.  There is one hidden gem, which I am amazed has not become legendary among drummers of all kinds. On West 4th st, right by 6th avenue, there is a broken down little store called “The Music Inn”  It looks like it’s never open, and the windows are piled with ancient sitars and various unidentifiable instruments.  Its been there forever, I found an ad for it in a Fillmore East program from the mid 60’s belonging to my dad.  I think my mom and I discovered it many years back, when she took my around the city one day in my early childhood.  You sometimes knock on the door, sometimes it’s open, they sometimes ask you “What Do You Want?”  they sometimes just let you explore.  I hadn’t been in years, but recently I was on the hunt for a channuka present for my sister, and the Music Inn came to mind.  I hate to ask to take pictures in a store, so luckily there was no one in there when i opened the door, I think the guy was downstairs teaching a music lesson.  The place is PACKED with amazing stuff, not really organized, more piled up.  You need a brazilian bird call?  They probably have it. A brass bell from an ancient Himalayan temple?  I’m sure I saw several.  Sitar?  Pandiero?  Metal National Ukulele?  Udu?  They were all there, packed into a space no bigger than 20×20.  I sifted through various shelves and piles, to find a weird rusted block of sleigh bells, a Brazilian Caxixi shaker, and some weird African poly rhythmic contraption which is basically 2 shakers tied together with string.  Their stuff is by no means cheap, but it is very authentic, and the place as a whole is just an amazing experience.

Music Inn 2

Music Inn 3

Music Inn 4
To get really crazy now, you have to cross some type of river.  There is Main Drag in Brooklyn, which may be the best kept secret in the entire world. Their prices are not bad at all (to make up for my terrible tele mistake of 96, I bought a chopped to hell 1973 Tele Deluxe with a p90 drilled into the bridge for a reasonable price) and they have a great selection of amps as well, their inventory is nearly all vintage.  You won’t find a pristine 1959 Les Paul which you will never afford, but you can get some modified 70’s fender or Gibson which you will likely be able to play without fear of being kidnapped and having the guitar demanded as ransom.  I also got a great little 1950’s Danelectro amp, with purple tolex, which sounds like an old Silvertone, it’s now my main squeeze.

Main Drag Music In Brooklyn
Main Drag Music In Brooklyn

Now, we’ve covered a good amount of Manhattan, even taken a subway or two.  Are you ready to just get fucking whacky?  ARE YOU SURE???! Ok, get in the car, we’re going to Staten Island.  “WHAT?  STATEN ISLAND!?” you say?  Oh yes, Staten Island.  Home of the world renown Mandolin Bros.  No, thats not “Bro” Like you hear on The Jersey Shore, but brothers.  Its home to the finest acoustic instrument selection on earth, and the finest repair facility in the universe.  Paul McCartney sends his Beatle Bass here when it needs a fixin.  I’ve seen their repair work firsthand on a 1930’s D’Angelico, and it was stunning.  They brought it back to life in such detail I could never imagine.  The head repair luthier Leroy, re-etched the original inlays by hand based on drawings he found in a historical book.  You seriously do not find dedication like that anywhere.  Their policy with playing instruments is “just play it!”  you don’t even have to ask.  There is one room where you do have to ask…but that is full of the actual 1959 Les Paul’s and 1930’s Martins.  While they were taking a look at the D’angelico, I had to kill an hour or two…very difficult task.  I played a Koa J-45, several SJ 200’s, a B-25, a Santa Cruz, several Martins, I completely lost track. They crew there was so nice, you feel like you’re at someones house, just kickin it, with a few million dollars in guitars surrounding you.

Well, we’ve taken quite a journey together, I’ve gotta get back to Jersey City, it’s getting late.  This could easily turn into a several volume list, we missed Southside guitars in williamsburg, Matt Umanov, Steve Maxwell Drums, Drummers World, Lark Street in Teaneck NJ, can anyone think of any others?  I’m open to suggestions.

Dan Bern @ Naked Soul at The Rubin Museum Of Art

Who among us has not had their heart broken by a favorite musician.  A failed concept album, a sub par performance, a duet gone horribly wrong, its happened to all of us.  We hold music we love and those who create it to such a high standard, that it is an inevitability, we will be let down.  Once such case where I have experienced the dramatic highs and lows is with singer songwriter Dan Bern.

Bern may not have gained great notoriety, but in his craft, he is one of the best.  Early on he briefly carried the “next Dylan” torch as so many do, and surprise, did not be come Bob 2.0.  I cant really say he has any hits, but his greatest songs capture emotions and situations in such an ironic way, its kind of like as much Larry David as it is Bob Dylan.  He has songs about being the messiah, about aliens mating with monkeys to create the human race, about breaking into Bruce Springsteens house and pretending he is an ailing Woody Guthrie.  Not all songs are purely humorous, there are some beautiful ballads and various love songs in there, but they always approach the subject with a certain twist.  He’s a true original.

I was first introduced to Bern through a family friend, who took us all to see him at the college where she worked.  It was not a mind blowing performance, but I was intrigued by the lyrical content. And at this point in life, I really didnt listen to lyrics.  I was more of a Turn It Up and Shred type of kid, ya know?  But I cared enough to pick up some music, and go to see him when he swung through Boston while I was in school.  He played The Middle East in Cambridge, and the whole game changed.  My mind was blown.  It felt like I was seeing a young Dylan (i know that’s not a light statement)  He would jump between styles, with a fantastic full band, playing newly written ballads about 9/11 (this was in early 2002) classic acoustic audience participation songs, telling stories, it was beautiful.  It was so good that I braved the New England winter a second night in a row, and strained my broke ass college bank account to see him again, and he delivered.  I met him briefly before the show, he seemed spacey, I expected nothing less.  I saw him at the bar and said “Hey Dan”  and asked about some album related stuff, a girl walked up and said “are you the infamous Dan Bern?”  he replied “Sometimes?”  “well what are you other times”  “Lots of things?”.  It was perfect.
Dan Bern 3
Over the next few years he returned several times, and I never missed a show.  I sat outside for the first set at Club Passim, only having a ticket for the second, figuring the later one would be more relaxed.  In the middle of the show, he said “do you guys mind if I unplug?”  then left the stage, and sat in the middle of the crowd, playing whatever anyone wanted to hear, asking everyone to sing where appropriate.  It was the only night in my years in Boston, where I did not care about missing the 12:30 cut off of the T (or subway as anyone else would call it).  I saw him in LA during the 04 Bush Kerry election, and he got straight up political.  Playing some heavy Woody Guthrie tunes from the heart, it was like an old school battle cry…though we all know how that turned out.

He wrote the book Quitting Science, a first person account of the life of scientist Cunliffe Merriweather, who tours around the world “Doing Science”.  Its a beautiful novel, I’ve read it several times.  He uses science as a metaphor for music (never mentioning music once)  but all the same problems come up- his team gives him trouble, his tours are not going well, his experiments fail.  I highly recommend it to anyone, musician, scientist, whatever.  It’s one of my favorite books of all time.

But then it seemed something happened.  He took a turn for the worse.  His live shows became sloppy, he would forget lyrics, he definitely performed a little too drunk.  I left a few shows early, its like watching the last few Mohamed Ali fights, you just don’t want to see it.  He would have moments of brilliance, but overall, it was pretty dull.  It hurt.  But still, I tried to see him every time he passed through, hoping for a return of the champion.

No mics, but a big projection screen behind him.
No mics, but a big projection screen behind him.

Well, it was announced not too long ago that Bern would be playing the Naked Soul series at the Ruben Museum of Art.  This is an entirely acoustic evening….there’s not even a PA. There are no microphones in the room.  I LOVE this concept.  There is nothing at all to hide behind, it truly separates a good musician from the rest.  I figured if there were any venue for Bern to shine in, this would be it. Lets bring it back to the days of the Club Passim and whatnot.

The stage at the Rubin,  notice the absence of mics.
The stage at the Rubin, notice the absence of mics.

So the Ruben museum is a very cool place, its a Himalayan art museum, designed in a very cool way, not at all stuffy, lots of great colors.  They gave Bern quite an introduction, saying they asked him to think of the cosmos while preparing his performance. I figured, whatevs man, just play me some good jams.  He took the stage and seemed excited right away.  He made a few comments like “this is how ALL shows were 100 years ago, we’ve just accepted that amplified stuff is the norm these days, Woody had it easy!”  The room truly sounded amazing, the acoustics were some of the best I’ve ever heard.  My favorite part of all, is that the crowd had to be completely silent, since we were as loud as the sound coming from the stage.  Best Collaboration Of 2009.

Some great hits were busted out.  Lots off of New American Language (the only album of Berns which feels like a complete thought) and some classics like Jerusalem.  All in all, he was not in top form, but he was certainly back on track.  Like an athlete just back from an injury (whats with the 2 sports references so far, who am I?)  He was on his way, but not there yet.  He did explain that he just had a baby girl, which changed his life.  Previously he planned to move to a fishing village in Bolivia and paint pictures of the fishermen all day, until he realized bolivia is landlocked.  I don’t doubt that’s what happened. Maybe thats just what we needed from Bern.  Some sort of life changing event to bring him back into the picture.  Maybe he can work with Rick Rubin or T Bone Burnett on his next album, and create that Time Out Of Mind we’ve all been waiting for.

So I don’t know whats going to happen, I’ll still see Bern every time he passes through, each time hoping for greatness, trying not to hold it against him if he produces anything less.  In the meantime, read Quitting Science, it will make you feel good.