Monthly Archives: June 2020

Yet More Live Gonzos, part 1: Running on Empty – Jackson Browne

There’s a moment early in Jackson Browne’s 1977 album Running on Empty that isn’t merely an impressive production coup, although it is that. It functions as a thesis statement for the record, and simultaneously elevates it above any similar album in the rock ‘n’ roll canon.

Essentially a concept piece about a life spent touring, with new songs by Browne augmented by a number of co-writes and covers, Running on Empty was recorded entirely outside the traditional studio environment. Some of the tracks were recorded live in concert; others were cut backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus itself (a Continental Silver Eagle, since you ask).

The Road, the second track, initially sounds like a moment of pensive, quiet introspection after the adrenaline-fuelled high of the opening title track. Browne sings the song quietly, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and David Lindley’s smoky fiddle. The liner notes tell us it was tracked in Room 301 of the Cross Keys Inn, Columbia, MD *. The verses rest upon the tension created by moving back and forth between G major and a G augmented, a tension that isn’t fully released until just before the end of the chorus, where a chord is held and the singer pauses long enough for us to hear the night-time sounds of crickets through an open window. “It’s just another town along the road,” Browne concludes over a descending sequence that takes us back to G major and the start of the next verse.

The song is a meditation on the cost of a life spent always on the move, losing contact with people you care about, taking drugs you oughtn’t to, and making only superficial connections with the people you meet. It’s a cover of a song by Danny O’Keefe, but Browne sings it as if it is his own, inhabiting every note convincingly. But then, after the second chorus, as the major 7th chord fades, the crickets are replaced by cheers from an audience, and we crossfade into a live-in-concert performance of the song. It’s done so subtly that the first time you hear it, you probably won’t hear the join or realise what’s happening until it’s happened.

That cross-fade from motel room to concert hall may have been a relatively simple matter for audio engineer Greg Ladanyi (the album’s unsung hero), but the emotional effect of it, the dramatic change it causes to the song’s meaning, is huge. Yes, the song says, the life of a touring musician – boring when it’s not bacchanalian, and harmful to the soul when it is – takes a great deal from you, but it’s a price worth paying to get to play for people for an hour or two a night. It would be one thing to write a song that contained that message. Plenty of people have, including Jackson Browne. But with this song, he found a way to illustrate it, to show without telling. It’s this that I find so impressive, and this that makes the album probably the best of its type.

That said, there aren’t many live albums of its type*. Live records are more usually recorded at one show to document a set that contains at least some old material, and over the years have been so routinely touched up in the studio, or in extreme cases re-recorded so extensively, that calling them live albums might be a bit of a stretch. What we have with Running on Empty, if we take the sleeve notes at face value (and I’m inclined to, having watched the bass player on the tour, Lee Sklar, talk about Running on Empty on his YouTube channel – the guy has had such a storied career that he has no reason to embellish the truth where this one record is concerned), is very different. This is more akin to a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a rock band on the road, in which concert footage is juxtaposed with jam sessions on the tour bus and songs being rehearsed backstage.

Even if you don’t know the album, you may well know the title track, which was one of Browne’s biggest hits. It’s played so cleanly that during its running time we may well forget that it’s a live recording (from a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion), but there’s an edge to it, a power, that Jackson Browne’s studio records sometimes lack. The Section  – Russ Kunkel on drums, Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on keys and Danny Kortchmar on guitar – are in fiery form, with Sklar and Kunkel a thrilling blend of power and agility, while David Lindley’s scorching lap steel guitar eggs Browne on to really let go in his vocal performance; when he cries out “I don’t know about anyone but me” halfway through the track, there’s an edge, a grain, to his voice that feels raw and genuine, as if he’s just being carried away by the music.

The other famous moment from the record is the medley of Browne’s The Load Out and a cover of Maurice Williams’s Stay, during which backing singer Rosemary Butler (who along with Doug Haywood does yeoman work throughout) takes a verse, before David Lindley does likewise, bringing the house down with his best doo-wop falsetto.

It’s easy to forget about The Load Out, to enjoy it just as a prelude to the warm, funny climax of the record, but it’s one of the record’s most important songs. The Load Out (and Rosie from earlier in the album) is as concerned with the roadie’s experience of the touring life as that the musician’s, and it has an eye for detail (“I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs and that’s a sound they’ll never know”) that raises it above the many, many road songs that got written in the seventies. So many of those songs talk only of the alienation of life on tour. The Load Out acknowledges the loneliness, the endless time to fill, but is ultimately about the camaraderie between musicians and crew, which is why when it segues into Stay and Browne sings that they want to play just one more song, it works so perfectly.

Jackson Browne himself produced Running on Empty, and what makes it successful, apart from that crucial decision to record outside the concert venue as well as in it, is his choice of material. Browne wrote only two of the songs by himself, unusually for him, and included four covers (The Road and Stay, and also Danny Kortchmar’s R&B-flavoured Shaky Town and a version of Cocaine with new lyrics by Browne and Glenn Frey).

Browne is an excellent writer. These Days, Jamaica Say You Will, Late for the Sky, Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty and many more all stand as testament to that. But his decision to forgo his own material and bring in work by other writers that fit the album in mood and subject, like The Road and Shaky Town, was astute and refreshingly free of ego. Better to have 10 songs that belong together and form a musical and conceptual unity, whoever wrote them, than to have 10 disparate songs that all feature solo writing credits for the artist. Likewise the co-writes, particularly the gorgeous Love Needs a Heart (by Browne, Valerie Carter and Little Feat’s Lowell George), and The Load Out (by Browne and Bryan Garofalo) are crucial to the album’s success.

I’d never completely dug Jackson Browne at album length until getting familiar with Running On Empty. Previously, I figured that Browne’s greatest hits would suffice for me, having not been impressed by much on Late for the Sky other than the title track. There’s something, and I don’t use the word lightly, magical about Running on Empty, though. As a document of a truly special band whose greatness is as apparent during a casual post-show jam as it is in front of 20,000 people at an outdoor arena, there’s simply nothing like it. The songs are, perhaps with the exception of You Love the Thunder, all first rate, and Browne is on great vocal form throughout. If you’ve never really heard his albums, start here.

RoE2
Browne and Danny Kortchmar, recording Nothing But Time aboard the Silver Eagle bus

*That is, albums of new material recorded live rather than in the studio. I’ll be writing about a couple over the next few weeks. Maybe not sequentially though. I might break things up with some shorter posts. The next one, when it comes, might be lengthy, as I’ve got some rather cool stuff to put in it.

 

 

 

 

Building a pedalboard

At the end of last year, I decided it really was time I put a pedalboard together, as I seemed to be absolutely the last guitarist in the world not to have one, and it was getting to be a little bit embarrasing being that guy at soundcheck taking precious minutes to plug all his pedals in.

I grew up in a time when pedalboards were still a rarity among non-pro guitarists. No one I knew used one – mainly because as teenagers we didn’t have the money for enough pedals to require a board. In fact, in my high school band, we didn’t even have a tuner pedal between us – just a distortion pedal each. (Our tuning was, naturally, rather approximate, but we were plenty distorted.) Then, for a while in the late 1990s, those early digital multi-effects pedals by Digitech and Zoom* were the big thing – again, no board required if a multi-effect unit is your only pedal.

Since most of the gigs I’ve done in the last few years have been playing guitar for James McKean, though, it made sense to have a small, lightweight and portable pedalboard for gigging, rather than carrying four or five pedals in a rucksack along with sundry cables, patch leads and a power supply, and then having to faff around with them between soundcheck and showtime.

Little did I know then that we’d only get to play one gig all year because of Covid-19. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have available, I suppose.

Anyway…

I settled on one of the smaller Pedaltrain boards, the Metro 20, as I decided I’d limit myself to five or six pedals: a tuner, a distortion or two, echo, modulation and reverb. For added portability and flexibility at gigs, I decided to go with Pedaltrain’s Volto rechargeable battery pack, which supplies more than enough current for six pedals, easily lasts the length of a long rehearsal and mounts on the underside of the board, saving space up top. It uses a USB charging cable but it comes with a wall adaptor, too – extra points for flexibility.

I also picked up some new pedals as I was lacking a reverb unit and a satisfactory compact distortion. I also just felt like freshening things up and having some new gear to get me excited about creating the pedalboard. Some of the pedals I settled on have been on the market a few years, and others are recent-ish releases.

First up, I needed reverb. My original choice was:

TC Electronic Skysurfer
This is a budget option I bought without trying out, thinking it would probably do well enough for live applications, since for recording I either use the spring reverb on my Vox AC15 or add reverb in the box when mixing. Unfortunately, the Skysurfer wasn’t the pedal for me. Even dialled right back, the reverb sounds were still over the top, with a clangy, metallic tail even on room settings – what’s the room made out of? Tin?

So, I decided to write that one off and replace with:

Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Neo
The EHX Holy Grail family of reverb pedals is extensive, but I decided to go with one of the nano-sized pedals, as they have such a small footprint, yet contain a lot of features.

It came down to a choice between the Holy Grail Nano and the Holy Grail Neo. The difference is that the Nano has hall, spring and Flerb settings, while the Neo ditches the Flerb and replaces it with plate reverb setting. Flerb is a flanged reverb – quite a cool sound, but not one you’d need often, so the Neo won the day for me. The sounds are very musical and refined, with the plate and spring ‘verbs sounding particularly good to my ear. I tend to use reverb subtly most of the time, so the hall setting probably won’t get much use, but in all it’s a really usable, good-sounding bit of kit.

I also needed some distortion. I used to get dirty sounds from a 120-watt all-valve Peavey head turned up loud, but sold that amp when I moved into a flat in London and replaced it with the AC15 I mentioned earlier. At that point, I bought a Blackstar HT Dual pedal for high-gain stuff, as even with the preamp and power sections dimed, you’ll barely get an AC15 into Keith Richards territory, let alone Jerry Cantrell land. Also, you’ll be completely deafened and find yourself beseiged by angry neighbours with pitchforks and flaming torches; for a 15-watter, the AC can go mighty loud when provoked.

The HT Dual is a fun, versatile pedal that sounds quite amp-like, and the dual-channel thing makes switching between crunchy overdrive and high-gain, super-saturated lead stuff easy peasy. Unfortunately, it weighs a metric ton, is the size of at least two ordinary pedals and needs a dedicated 22v supply. Its absence from the pedalboard left me needing two new pedals: an overdrive and a higher-gain distortion. The solutions I chose also came from Electro-Harmonix, as I’d been won over by the small footprint of their nano pedals. I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Soul Food
The Soul Food is, EHX tell us, an emulation of the Klon Centaur overdrive, an example of which can easily set you back a couple of grand on reverb.com. Whether the Soul Food is that close to a Centaur, I’m not qualified to judge as I’ve never used one, but the economics are compelling: the Soul Food is around £70 new, which is not a lot for a very good overdrive. It’s refined enough with the drive turned down below midday that you can use it as an always-on tone shaper, it’s really responsive to dynamic playing, and if you turn the gain up full it will spit and snarl convincingly in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It allows the tone of the amp and guitar to shine through, so it feels surprisingly close to amp drive.

It is quite low gain, though, and won’t take you into proper distortion. For that I went with:

Electro-Harmonix Flatiron Fuzz
Sitting halfway between a fuzz and distortion, the Flatiron Fuzz is, EHX say, their take on the good old Proco Rat 2. To my ears, it’s not as throaty as a Rat, with more high end on tap if that’s what you’re after, but it’s a really fun, quite versatile pedal for ’90s-style rock guitar sounds. It’s also smaller and ligbter than a Proco Rat 2. Electro-Harmonix’s demo video has their dudes comparing it to the Rat (while of course saying they prefer the Flatiron), and showing it off by playing the riffs from Song 2, What’s the Frequency Kenneth? and Foo Fighters’ Weenie Beenie, which pretty much sums up what this pedal does. Also, it has the Flatiron Building on it, so it’s the prettiest thing on my pedalboard by a distance.

I love a good modulation pedal, and fancied having something a bit unusual in the toolbox for the right occasion. I settled on:

TC Electronic Vibraclone
This is a take on the Fender Vibratone, a speaker cabinet from the late sixties that was essentially a Leslie 16 redesigned as a guitar cab; it had a guitar speaker and Leslie rotor rather than a horn and woofer with twin rotors, like the organ unit.

I’ve never heard a pedal that really nails that whooshy Leslie speaker thing; there’s something about the way the rotors disperse sound that’s hard to replicate when you’re playing through standard drivers. However, the Vibraclone is absurdly cheap (approximately £40) and while the sound is not particularly adaptable (there’s no depth/intensity control; just drive and speed), it’s a sound I happen to like very much. When I first sat down with it, I came up with the main riff for my song You Won’t Need to Cry, and it’s all over a bunch of songs from the upcoming Yo Zushi album I’m producing at the moment. For most gigs, I’d probably leave it off the board and sub in my old Marshall tremolo pedal, which is a lot more flexible, but it’s a fun one to have at home. One small negative: the TC boxes are rather big – bigger than a Boss pedal chassis.

So in full the pedalboard is: Boss TU-3, EHX Soul Food, EHX Flatiron Fuzz, Marshall EH1 Echohead Delay, TC Electronic Vibraclone and EHX Holy Grail Nano. At some point I might look to upgrade the delay to something more comprehensive, with a dotted eighth note setting in case I ever want to play Run Like Hell or Where the Streets Have No Name.

This post is not sponsored by Electro-Harmonix, and neither am I. I am open to offers, though, if they’re reading this.

*I still have somewhere in my cupboard of random audio crap a Zoom 509 – a late-1990s digital multi-effect pedal, with chorus, phasing, flanging, harmonising, ring modulation and a simple doubling effect, like a slowish slapback. The presets were all, of course, unusably heavy handed except for two: a relatively useful octave-down effect and a combination phaser and tremolo effect that I used to use on a few songs I played in old bands. Seemed pretty cool at the time, but I imagine it would make me cringe now.

Spirited Away – James McKean and the Blueberry Moon

Over the last few years, the majority of live shows I’ve played have been as a guitar player in James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.

I’ve written about James before, but to save you reading an old piece, we met at university some 20 years ago, and we’ve been playing music together more or less ever since. After his old band, the ‘A’ Train, broke up, James began making solo albums, and I’ve been helping him to do it: recording, mixing, playing instruments, co-producing and generally lending a hand wherever I could.

The last James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album was recorded over a number of separate sessions at my flat, James’s flat, my dad’s house and One Cat studio in London (operated by Jon Clayton of Hurtling), with the personnel different on every song. It hangs together remarkably well as an album, but this time, James wanted to record all the basic tracks live at One Cat as a five-piece live band, with Jon engineering, and keep overdubbing to a minimum. The idea was that we’d then have a unified sound throughout the whole record (mission successful), which could be more or less replicated live (mission successful), and get the whole thing done quickly (mission less successful).

The band was/is a really good one (even though I was in it). On drums we had Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) and on bass Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union), while ace singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic and sang.

On most songs, that’s the entire instrumental palette, but we also had Basia Bartz of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band playing violin on two songs, while Nick Frater helped us out with some brass sounds on another couple of songs. James and I handled most of the backing vocals on the record, but we also had extensive contributions from my partner Melanie, as well as Matt and Chris from the band, James’s brother Dan McKean and north London singer-songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Despite being a five-piece band with two lead electric guitarists and a fair amount of harmonies, the results don’t sound very much at all like the Eagles, which given that band’s critical and cultural standing these days, most will take as good news.

While the basic tracks all sounded good and James and I slowly worked on getting lead vocals, harmonies and extra things like synth and violin parts recorded, progress on final mixes was slow until the coronavirus crisis. After I was furloughed by my company, I had more time to work on musical projects than I’d had in the seven years or so since I started my job. I was really able to focus, cranking out a mix or two per day and sending them to James for notes.

The album is now completely mixed, and is being mastered as we speak. Before it comes out, though, James is releasing a four-song EP based around one of its tracks, Spirited Away.

Spirited Away is one of my favourites on the album. I felt at the time we recorded it that it had the best basic track of all the songs on the album. Given the relative complexity of the song (it’s in the guitar-unfriendly key of Bb and has a fair number of changes), I was very happy with how we played it. It had good feel and good tempo.

James sang an excellent lead vocal and worked up a great backing vocal arrangement (I added some voices to his to make the backing vox thicker and wider), and Basia’s violin, largely scored by James, adds a huge amount to it. We recorded her parts at my house on the morning after Super Bowl LIII, and it was somewhat challenging. Not because I was hungover, you understand; I’d been poorly all week and was feverish during the game itself, sitting under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably while drinking coffee. The next morning, sleep deprived and generally feeling terrible, I was not at the top of my game, but the tracking went well, luckily!

The EP’s three other tracks are largely James’s work, recorded and mixed by himself at his home. Don’t Have Far to Go has had a long life, having originally been recorded by the ‘A’ Train. In this incarnation, it’s a Dylan-esque acoustic strummer with a verse/refrain structure. I think I like this version better than any previous take on the song, and a line James wrote somewhere around twelve years ago – “In this age of documentary are there stories left to tell?” – seems so appropriate to our times it’s as if he wrote it yesterday.

The Falls is, I think, a super-charming old-timey song inspired by the film Up, sung from the point of view of the elderly Carl. Matt plays double bass on this one, and James’s finger-picking acoustic part with all the right jazzy passing chords is great. The final track is James’s version of one of my songs, Nothing Means More, for which he reused and remixed my backing track, adding his own lead and backing vocals. At the time I wrote it, I thought it sounded more like one of his songs than the kind of thing I usually do, and I was really honoured he wanted to record it. He’s done a cracking job with it, and it’s great to hear a proper singer have a go at something I wrote for my little voice to sing.

Spirited Away is available to stream and download from Bandcamp, along with James’s other releases.

More news on the release date for the full album soon.

 

 

 

 

So here we are

Silence means consent. Silence is complicity. Silence is violence. These words ring in my ears, castigating me, every day. I imagine many of us have felt that way this week.

It may sound trite, or just a cop out, but this week I’ve not wanted to post anything here. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with protests and riots still happening across the US, and with solidarity protests also taking place in Europe, writing about old music – or even offering my own take on what’s going on, like anyone needs a lecture on race from a white British guy – has seemed utterly inappropriate. I’ve rather preferred to read, learn and reflect on what is happening (the protests, the riots and the responses to them both), but without drawing attention to myself.

I understand the wish to demonstrate which side you’re on – and I’m most assuredly on the side of the protesters – but much of what I’ve seen on social media this week, from both white individials and corporations looking to score PR points, has a performativity to it that could be dismissed as merely silly if it weren’t actively unhelpful. These are serious times; we can’t afford silliness. When hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk congregating and protesting together in public during the middle of a pandemic that’s so far claimed 380,000 lives globally because this racist police murder is just one damn murder too many, when news coverage is filled with police battering peaceful protesters and leaving them bleeding on the ground; ramming SUVs into barriers behind which stand unarmed, innocent people; and marching through city streets like Imperial Stormtroopers while the president agitates to deploy the armed forces against the citizens they exist to protect, the times could scarcely be more serious.

The response we have seen from the police, elected officials and above all from the White House is deeply concerning. That peaceful protesters have too often been met with violently disproportionate policing tactics is not deniable, unless you believe that any level of protest automatically warrants being beaten with sticks or violently shoved to the ground and left there to bleed. If that is your view, I doubt anything I can say can change your mind or that there’s anything we ever could agree on – including, I should say, the worth of the music I usually write about here.

This president has always sought to govern by division, by portraying any criticism of him as evidence of a conspiracy, and any critic of him as undemocratic – un-American, even. He revels in creating division, then whipping his side up with inflammatory rhetoric. To have a president behave that way may be offensive and indecorous, but it’s not on its own enough to make his governance illegitimate and incompatible with American democracy.

But by tear-gassing peaceful protesters to clear the way for a photo op in which he posed with a Bible he hasn’t read in front of a church he doesn’t attend; by hiding in a bunker at the first sign of trouble; by fortifying the White House so it resembles the palace of a dictator; by threatening to have the army shoot looters on sight; by allowing – encouraging – police chiefs to double down on violent suppression of peaceful protest, Trump has crossed several lines. These tactics have been used many times before, and when deployed elsewhere, we wouldn’t hesitate to call them fascist. The US has gone to war with other nations because their leaders have treated their citizens thus.

Fascism is of course not a word to use lightly, but I think we’re at the point now where it’s becoming undeniable. Trump’s racial prejudices are visceral and well documented, but whether they are evidence of genuinely fascist leanings would only truly be seen in how he reacted to having his authority challenged by a significant number of people. In the last week, we’ve seen his reaction: restricting press freedoms, pressuring politicians at state level to restrict the rights of people to peacefully assemble, and signalling a willingness to use the army against the people. In so doing, he has shown what he truly is. In Trump’s world, black lives do not matter. But really, in Trump’s world nothing matters except for whatever benefits him.

Who knows where this will end now – with the army marching down the streets of Manhattan and Minneapolis? Will the wall around the White House stay there permanently? If Trump loses in November, would he even leave office without a protracted, ugly battle played out in the courts, on Twitter, in the right-wing media and, God forbid, on the streets? These are unprecedented times, and nothing seems impossible.

All of this is is why posting about music this week has seemed inappropriate. I had thought I’d wait until the moment was less febrile, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. So I guess I’ll be back with something musical in a couple of days. In the meantime, I do recommend this podcast about police funding. It gave me a lot to think about. Stay safe, everyone.