Tag Archives: pedal steel

Carolina in My Mind – James Taylor

We’re back in the musical multiverse this week – that place where two or more recordings of well known songs exist, each throwing light upon the other. This time, we’re going to Carolina. In our minds, natch.

The Beatles had a record label, Apple, and probably every young artist in the world wanted to be on it in 1968. The first eager young musician who actually was signed by Apple was James Taylor. Taylor and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher) had a mutual friend, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and he gave a tape of Taylor’s music to Asher, who was Apple’s head of A&R. Asher liked it, played it to McCartney and George Harrison, who also liked it, and Taylor was signed to Apple, with Asher overseeing the sessions for what would become his 1968 solo debut, James Taylor.

It’s a bit of a mess, a callow approximation of The Beatles’ psychedelic sound made just at the point that they’d started to move away from it. Among the songs on the record were two that became Taylor standards: Something in the Way She Moves and Carolina in My Mind, both quite different recordings to the ones you’re likely to hear on the radio.

Something in the Way She Moves is the more successful of the two. It has a rather pointless pseudo-Baroque harpsichord intro, but once that’s out the way, it’s a fairly straight rendition, with Taylor’s guitar panned left and his voice in the centre, mixed loud and dry. The rather airless mix does expose how limited a singer he was at this point, but it’s a much better record than the original Carolina in My Mind, which takes an excellent song, puts two Beatles on the recording (McCartney on bass, Harrison among the backing singers), and somehow makes a stinker. Taylor’s vocal performance can’t take the weight of the overstuffed arrangement, the chipmunk backing vocals are way too loud and irritatingly persistent in the mix, and even the tempo is off, the song taken too quickly to give Taylor any chance to do anything with the phrasing.

In 1976, Taylor re-recorded both songs for a retrospective compilation, Greatest Hits. It’s often said that this was due to rights problems with the originals, but given how much the new versions improved on the 1968 versions, highlighting Taylor’s improvement both as a singer and guitar player over the eight intervening years, it seems just as likely that Taylor was glad of the chance to take another stab at them.

Carolina in My Mind, particularly, was revealed as a masterpiece in its new incarnation. The best arrangemental idea from the original – McCartney’s bass part – was copied more or less exactly for the new version, but this time was played by Lee Sklar, who was joined by Russ Kunkel on drums, Byron Berline on fiddle, Andrew Gold on harmonium, Clarence McDonald on piano and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel – exactly the guys, in other words, you’d expect to do a great job on a song like this. All of the unnecessary fripperies of the first version, meanwhile, were excised. In the producer’s chair again was Peter Asher, and you wonder how much he felt relieved to be given a second chance to do right by the song.

The 1976 re-recording is, well, very 1976, and it contains little of the darkness and confusion and humanity that makes Fire & Rain the only other James Taylor song I really have much use for, but it’s impossible to pick an argument with a song with such a beautiful melody line, and an arrangement so perfectly realised.

James Taylor

 

 

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Woodstock – Matthews Southern Comfort

This week we’re talking about a song written in New York City by a Canadian, about an event that took place in upstate New York that she didn’t attend, recorded in California, then covered by a man from England and turned into British folk rock’s biggest hit single and (I think) only UK number one single.

The song is Woodstock, as recorded by Matthews Southern Comfort.

Iain Matthews was Fairport Convention’s male lead singer during the band’s early years, alongside Judy Dyble and (later) Sandy Denny. He left during 1969 as the band readied the material that would be on Liege & Lief, a record that is for most the band’s finest achievement and for which Matthews’s essentially pop-schooled voice was replaced by Richard Thompson’s rougher, more folk-influenced delivery. By Matthews’s account, the prime movers behind his ousting were Joe Boyd and Ashley Hutchings.

Possibly to make amends for sacking him, most of Fairport appear on Matthews’s first record with his new band, Matthews Southern Comfort (called Matthews’ Southern Comfort – the record has an apostrophe; the band, at this stage, didn’t). The line-up, in fact, was stellar, including Thompson, Simon Nicol and Ashley Hutchings from Fairport, Gerry Conway (Fotheringay, later Fairport), Dolly Collins (sister of Shirley), Gordon Huntley (steel-playing session man) and Roger Coulam (of Blue Mink) on piano.

Woodstock, the song, has been interpreted a bunch of different ways. Joni Mitchell’s original is spare and thoughtful, just her on electric piano. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who unlike Joni and Matthews were actually at Woodstock, turned in a bombastic performance, in which the implicit dread of the lyric (but what if we can’t get back to the garden?) is entirely absent. Of Déjà Vu‘s many missteps and miscalculations, Stephen Stills’s misreading of Woodstock (caused, it seems, by an inability to discern subtext) was the most glaring.

Matthews found a middle ground between CSNY’s and Mitchell’s two approaches. His slightly tremulous delivery acknowledges that a return to the garden may just be a dream, but the beautiful harmony singing always seems to suggest that the hope is still there. Rooted by its steady-bottomed rhythm section but carried upward by those gorgeous harmonies and Gordon Huntley’s pedal steel, Matthews Southern Comfort’s Woodstock seems to me to be the best possible recording of the song, a classic of countrified British folk-rock.

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Matthews Southern Comfort (Iain Matthews at left)

Talking in Your Sleep – Crystal Gayle

My mum was a Crystal Gayle fan and I’ve got a nostalgic soft spot for her music. Heard at the right moment, in the right mood, her music – her voice, more specifically – can plug directly into something in me. I think she’s an amazing ballad singer who would be much more highly thought of if so many of her records weren’t quite so slick-sounding.

To appreciate her oeuvre you’ll have to be OK with a little corn, but frankly, corniness is almost the defining quality of seventies country-pop. Perhaps it’s the defining quality of country music generally. Maybe it’s only the rawness of the delivery of a Hank Williams loves song that makes certain music fans hear it as something fundamentally different to a Crystal Gayle song. Talking in Your Sleep (from the 1978 album When I Dream) is certainly a lyric that Hank would have understood.

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that as the records in Nashville began to lose all their rough edges, they started to speak more loudly of opulence and expenses not being spared than of the emotion. It’s a well-worn story, but Chet Atkins, when asked what the Nashville sound was, would jingle the loose change in his pocket, with a clear implication. And for sure, the records that he (and other producers such as Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill) made with artists such as Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline in the 1950s through to the 1960s played down roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel, and replaced them with massed choruses and orchestras. But they are positively skeletal compared to Crystal Gayle’s ballads in 1970s and early 1980s. (That Gayle’s oldest sister is country queen Loretta Lynn, an exponent of a much rootsier style, only makes Gayle’s place in the history and tradition of this music more fascinating.)

A song like Talking in Your Sleep, then, represents on one level the Hollywoodisation of country music. While the song reaches back into country tradition lyrically (singer lies awake watching sleeping partner, wonders if partner is in love with someone else – as I said, any worthwhile country singer from any era could sell that idea), its arrangement and production – which begins with just Gayle’s voice and string section and ends with harp glissandi – was specifically designed to cross over to a pop audience and capitalise on the success of the jazzified Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue from the previous year’s We Must Believe in Magic. Which it did, with ruthless, targeted efficiency.

That it succeeded so well is down to Gayle’s vocal and the quality of the writing. Talking in Your Sleep may be corn, but it’s very cunningly written corn, by transplanted Bristolian Roger Cook, who also wrote I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and the peerless Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart (if you’ve never Gene Pitney’s original recording, you must; it’s astonishing, melodramatic, over the top, and absolutely awesome). Producer Allen Reynolds, meanwhile, certainly knows how to cross over to the mainstream; he produced every Garth Brooks studio album from his debut up to the baffling Garth Brooks… In the Life of Chris Gaines (which was helmed by Don Was – though he probably hopes we’d forgotten that).

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Crystal Gayle, before her hair reached the floor

Live music, part one

Since I was able to get my hands on a 4-track recorder as an 18-year-old, I’ve preferred recording to playing live, and I’m sure I always will do. I like playing live when it goes well, but there are so many factors you can’t control that make it stressful, from the size of the audience that will show up to technical problems striking right at the moment when you’re on stage and can’t do anything to solve them. At one gig I played once, at 93 Feet East in London, the power went out on Brick Lane from Whitechapel High Street up to Shoreditch, about half an hour before doors. We had little choice but to play the whole gig completely unamplified, in a big room, lit only by emergency lights and candles.

Recording sessions can be stressful, but things seldom absolutely need to be got right in this one particular moment. You can always do another take, you can always come back another day. Being a recording musician is less stressful than being a performing musician; being a recording engineer is less stressful than being a front of house engineer. And I’ve been all these things at one time or another.

As my love of recording grew, my enthusiasm for live music waned. Partly this was a matter of simple economics. I was not well off at the time (as in, didn’t know from week to week if I was going to earn any money, or get paid for the work I had been already completed), so what spare money I could amass had to go on recording equipment and instruments worth recording. But it was also a matter of not being enthused by the idea of live music any more. I was so passionate about the possibilities offered by recording that there wasn’t much room left in my life for any other interest. My devotion to learning the craft bordered on the pathological. When I wasn’t actively engaged in a recording project, I was thinking about it. Theorising. Reading. Studying. Listening. Especially listening.

I made a playlist of songs culled from every significant rock record I could think of from the late eighties to the present day and I listened to them all over and again. Listening for sounds, for trends, for techniques. For months, I didn’t listen to songs; I listened to drum sounds. For weeks within those months, I didn’t listen to drum sounds; I listened to snare sounds. I listened to how much close mic was being used as opposed to overheads, or whole-kit stereo mics or room mics. I listened to how quick the compressor’s attack was set, and how long its release was. After a while, where a normal person would hear a drum, which they may or may not be able to identify as a snare, I could hear a snare that went ‘blap’ or ‘wap’ depending how much the attack had been blunted by compression. I could hear how whether it was tight and dry, or big and ambient. I could hear how long the echo was, and make a decent guess at whether it was real room ambience or a digital simulation. I could sometimes hear a shift in snare sound in the midst of a quick whole-kit fill, suggesting the use of noise gating on the tom-toms. I got hung up on whether panning drums from the audience’s perspective was more satisfying than panning from the drummer’s.

Recording engineers care about this stuff. It became my life for a couple of years.

The dedication required to learn all this – the stuff you’ll need to learn if you’re searching for timeless, emotional perfection in the studio – automatically led to less interest in live performance, as a player and a fan. For years, I hardly went to gigs unless I or a good friend was playing one.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to go to more. I’ve got enough disposable income that I can, for one thing, but also I had an experience at a gig coming up for a year ago that was something of a revelation. Early on in my relationship with Mel, we went to see Hem play at the Union Chapel, which we’d both been to a couple of times before and both loved. It’s a gothic-revival church in Islington, North London: stone, marble, high ceilings, wooden pews – it sounds great for the right kind of show, for sit-down, acoustic music-type gigs, and of course the fact that it’s so beautiful just adds to the atmosphere.

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. Hem’s music has been well described by Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell:

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly.

This Union Chapel show, as I said in the post linked to above, was one of the best experiences of my life: an incredible performance in a beautiful space of a group of wonderful songs. Just witnessing it with each other brought Mel and me closer together; I could feel it happening during the show. And it reawakened me to the power of live music. Since then I’ve seen several more gigs, some good, some great; some with Mel, some with friends. Midlake at Shepherd’s Bush with Mel, where we ran into Kit Joliffe with whom I play in various people’s bands. Jon Auer at the Islington with Kristina (aka Sumner, whose band I play drums in). Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Roundhouse in Camden with my friend (and boss) Sara. I’ve seen Mel play her first open mics. She’s seen me sing my songs on stage, and play bass, drums and guitar with other people, too. Before the year’s out, I’ll see Spoon, Throwing Muses and Sebadoh; new favourites and old favourites. Live music is, rather to my surprise at this point, quite a big part of my life again. Once again it feels like a powerful, potentially transformative force.

Hem live

Hem, live at the Union Chapel, October 2013
Photo by Christina at All About Hem

Pacific Street – Hem (repost)

Hi there. This is a rewritten version of a post from last spring, one that in retrospect I was really unhappy with, that didn’t capture much of what I like about this song and the band who performed it, and instead got bogged down in a discussion about genre names. This version contains much more of what I wanted to say.

I heard quite a lot of country music as a child, on Music for Pleasure compilations my parents had on cassette. My mother was a Crystal Gayle fan too. Those two names will probably tell you what sort of country we’re talking about: orchestrated Nashville country, 1970s pop country, records that play in the space between countrypolitan and chamber pop, in the space between sophisticated and cheesy. It’s a difficult area to work in. You can come off precious, or bland, or bloodless. It takes a good song, a sensitive singer and skilled arrangers to pull it off. Even then, what sounds wonderful in a single-song dosage can sound unambitious — rote, even — if turned into a formula, the way Billy Sherrill did with Tammy Wynette in the late 1960s and 1970s. As good as those records are (and the best of them — Till I Get it Right, You and Me — are magnificent), there’s something disquieting about listening to them in sequence. It’s the sound of an artist being squeezed into a mould and losing their original form in the process.

Anyhow, this kind of music doesn’t get made in Nashville anymore. And as there were a great many country fans who didn’t much like it in the first place — thinking it too polished, too restrained, too produced, too far away from how Hank had done it — many don’t really care.

I like it, though. It pushes all kinds of buttons in me. And so I like Hem. A lot. Seeing them at the Union Chapel last year with Mel was one of the best experiences of my life.

Hem are a band from Brooklyn who play acoustic, orchestrated music that’s pretty clearly derived from the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly, they seem slightly loath to admit it – Dan Messe, the group’s principal songwriter, recently said Hem are at heart a folk band, which seems odd since their first two albums (the beautiful Rabbit Songs and the even lusher Eveningland) are their most countrypolitan.

Countrypolitan, as exemplified in, say, the recordings Glen Campbell made of Jimmy Webb’s songs, is characterised by its smoothness, downplaying (but not excising) the traditional roots-country instruments such as fiddles and pedal steel and using instead full orchestra or large string section, brushed drums (not always, but the drums are never emphasised in the mix no matter how they’re played), fingerpicked acoustic guitar, and a gentler, more intimate vocal style than could ever be deployed in honky-tonk country music. That’s the kind of music Hem make, and no singer is gentler or more intimate than Sally Elyson. Unlike, Wynette or Patsy Cline, there’s no hint of vocal power held in reserve. Elyson sings gentle always, sometimes in a near whisper.

I’ve banged on plenty in the last year or so about sound quality a lot. Probably too much. It is important to me though. I spend a good amount of my waking hours thinking about it. Few people currently working make records that sound as good as Hem’s. Their records are engineered and mixed in ways that buck most of the current trends: they record to tape, they don’t use extravagant equalisation or heavy compression. They focus on space, balance and attention to detail. Messe, Steve Curtis and Gary Maurer are skilled players (as are their collaborators, such as Heather Zimmerman (Messe’s sister) and double bassist George Rush), but their playing is unshowy but empathetic. This music, and their approach to, is disciplined.

That maybe makes them sound blander than they are; their restraint in no way signifies a lack of passion. When making Rabbit Songs, Dan Messe sold his apartment and most of his things to pay to work with an orchestra because he wanted to get the album right. Eveningland drove the band to bankruptcy. The group and their collaborators (a large team of players, arrangers, engineers, assistants and mixers are credited on their records) clearly understand what a remarkable singer Elyson is, and so they give her voice the space it deserves, and they don’t stint when building the tracks that support it.

Pacific Street is the penultimate track from their 2004 album Eveningland. It’s less representative of their early sound than something like Carry Me Home (not a Gloworm cover) or Receiver from the same album, or Lazy Eye or Sailor from Rabbit Songs — it lacks the acoustic guitars, fiddle and the pedal steel that create so much of the mood of those records — but in its intimacy, its focus on the small moments in life and relationships, it’s wholly characteristic. And as ever, it’s beautifully performed and arranged, Catherine Popper (a former member of Ryan Adams’ band the Cardinals, and the rather less subtle Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) doing especially great work on double bass.

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Hem, current line-up (l-r Steve Curtis, Gary Maurer, Sally Elyson, Dan Messe). Publicity shot, © Walden

 

Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

Amarillo Highway – Terry Allen

Terry Allen is a conceptual artist and country singer. This isn’t an unheard-of combination of pursuits. One thinks of Dolly Parton.
Allen has flown under the mainstream radar for pretty much all his musical career and remains little known to this day, but he is beloved of many rock critics and Lubbock (On Everything) is frequently cited by those few who have heard it as one of the finest country albums ever made, and a forerunner of the last two decades’ alt.country. He is patently not a tough guy, like Waylon Jennings. He’s no mystic hippie like Willie Nelson. There is a kinship with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely (who played harmonica on Lubbock) – they all come from Lubbock and have all tapped into the strange vibes of a seemingly singular place. But still, Allen’s hard to pin down.
If Glen Campbell’s reading of Allen Toussaint’s Southern Nights found country music coming to a kind of rhythmic accommodation with disco, Amarillo Highway’s ramshackle swagger puts a hi-hat figure straight out of New York, played with a woozy looseness you would never get in Lower Manhattan, to work on a hard-ass down-home road song that skewers the genre of hard-ass down-home road songs. It’s the album’s signature groove, recurring on several songs. It’s topped by the wonderful pedal-steel playing of Lloyd Maines, another local legend (and father of Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks) and benefits from the engineering of Don Caldwell, at whose studio Lubbock (On Everything) was recorded. The album’s production is credited to ‘Everyone on this record’, and that’s the way Don Caldwell tells it in Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air (‘everybody on the album put in their two cents, a very co-operative effort), but he’s probably being a little generous: he knew more about making a record than anyone else in the room (Maines was his protégé) and that the sessions held together at all must have been in large part because of his steadying influence.
But the great playing, arrangements and engineering wouldn’t mean much if they weren’t backed up by quality songs from Allen. And yes, the shufflin’ drums and sun-baked pedal steel are just adornments to the lyric and Allen’s canny performance: the singer’s inability to quite hit the low notes at the end of the verses undercuts his protestations of unreconstructed Texan masculinity, which in any case veer between banality and near-nonsensicality. In its affectionate parody of a certain kind of southern manhood, it’s reminiscent of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys (The Great Joe Bob – fallen high-school football icon – is a character Newman is still probably kicking himself for not coming up with first), and Amarillo Highway, in common with so many of Newman’s songs, contains a lyric and a vocal that only the author could deliver properly.
Yeah, that’s a better comparison than any other country singer: Terry Allen, a Panhandling, manhandling Randy Newman.

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Terry Allen (seated right). Jo Harvey Allen (actress and artist) is seated to his left. Al Ruppersberg is standing back row, left.