Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blues Event; Harpfest San Diego

The day after the church gig, Saturday, I had to do some work in the morning. People had called to tell me about the big harmonica blues event in LaMesa and I guess that finally made the difference in my decision.

Originally, I thought I wouldn't go, but I was already far from home working so I decided to swing by the park in LaMesa and check it out. I was curious to see other harmonica players around here in action anyway.

To my surprise the place was teeming with people and they had a rather high level on bands lined up to play. The thing ran from noon until six. I arrived at a little before one, I guess.

These were some very good blues type bands. Some were almost like swing or big band in a way, even though they weren't big bands. Several chromatic harmonica players in the mix. It is definitely a different sound, and they were good. I prefer to play a different sound than that but I see why they might like to take the approach they do.

At some point in the festival there is a competition. The band plays what seemed like only an 8 bar blues, and each harmonica player gets just one time through. They had two mics, and when one guy was done, and the mc literally pushes him off stage, the next guy who is already poised at the other mic plays his one time through while the next was has already been positioned at the other mic. And so it goes.

I'd seen this sort of routine before one time and knew I was not going to participate--especially because they charge each one $10, which goes to some charity, allegedly. Also, the way they judge it is to line them all up at the end and decide who gets the most applause when they single out each one. There were maybe twenty of them, and most of them were not at all good.

I'd go so far as to say I thought none of them were very good. Many had "the look". The blues beard, of course some sort of hat that looks like a musician or bluesman, and the attitude, like, "look at me, I am sooo damned bad and kickass. Best harpman going!" Didn't fool me.

I knew when they 12 year old kid came up that he'd win and he did. Someday he may be a good player, but he is not any good yet. There was a pretty good prize package with lots of music stuff and gift certificates from stores, so it ought to go to the person who actually plays the best.

As they went through the players, I kept track. It is easy to do. No one played better than the fourth or fifth guy. I did not even think it was close enough that I any doubt. The sound man was texting so didn't do him justice, but still, it wasn't hard to know. But, the guy had no pretend blues costume, and no obnoxious attitude.

The crowd voted for their friends and who looked like they ought to be able to play and the run off was between the kid and a couple of jerks who weren't anything but pushy. Of course the kid won because he was little and they thought he was cute. I thought he looked like the typical TV kid who is a brat. I'm mean.

I did tell the guy who should have won that he was the best player up there. He probably has no idea that I am a good source.

Then, to my surprise, Jason Ricci played. He was there with a guitar player that I think is a friend in the area. The rhythm section was from one of the local bands that played. I was glad that Jason has put on weight, was dressed nicely and no longer looked like a junkie nearing death.

They did a great set. He and that guitar player had a blast trading licks and smoking cigarettes in an SD county park where it is illegal. I do not condone smoking but I do love scofflaws when the laws being scoffed are over the top. The did not litter.

That guitar player, something Mateo, maybe Jimmy or Gene, it sounded different every time I heard the name, was as good a blues guitar as I've heard in some time. He knew how to play stuff that you enjoy hearing, not just the kind of stuff where you think it must be hard to play. Lots of players fall into that trap. They play cliche licks that are hard and that other players think are hard, but no one is really that thrilled at the over all music involved. Harp players do it big time, too.

Jason played superbly, as always, and it was a big crowd pleaser. He gave the guitar at least as much time as himself and it worked out very well. Jason's vocals have improved 100%. I used to listen and just want the singing to stop so I could hear the harp. This time I enjoyed the songs in their entirety because he actually sounded pretty good. Not sure what his current band status is, but I'd like to see someone who is that good make a decent living and gain recognition outside blues and harmonica circles. He's a great jazz/blues. rock and beyond player.

After Ricci's set I took off. They had other good players coming up but I'd got what I came for--to assess where I think I stand as far as a player, and whether the locals who would hit the jam part would put me to shame. Not much threat on the latter, that's for sure. But I can see that fronting a blues band is not what I'd want to do. I like being a sideman who is often featured, and I like not being stuck with the idea that diatonic harmonica must be used solely for the purpose of trying to copy Little Walter's licks.

There are great Chicago style blues players and all that, but so much of it is the same. Even the hacks in the competition almost all got up and attempted very close to the same thing. I couldn't believe it. It was an easy kind of run they were all after but they didn't know how to get from here to there without going to a place that did not match the right chord on their way.

I shouldn't be so critical. Anyway, I went to Valley Music open mic, and I was hot to play. I played a set with mountain friend Cliff, and another guy. Then later I played with a guy named Z. I don't know. Just Z. He's asked me to play before when I am there.

Both sets were much fun. It seems I was pumped from the festival and felt in a very confident mood. I'm pretty sure it went over as well as it felt. Cliff's set seemed like it got the most enthusiastic crowd response. There were some very capable people playing this time, too. But, once again, it is obvious that what is the most difficult, or the best example of virtuosity, does not always please people or connect with them the most.

There was a variety of good stuff. One guy plays a very unusual, almost classical or flamenco, but not, guitar. A lot of tapping strings and slapping the guitar. It was pleasant and complex and flawlessly executed. I could listen to that while driving or whatever. The guy is a bit hard to take for me, personality wise, but his music is great. As much as I hated to boost his ego, I let him know. He was probably the best musician there, but not the one the crowd enjoyed the most. That's how it works.

It might help if he just played instead of dropping names and basically telling you how wonderful he is before playing a tune.

Performance of any kind has various elements to it that are not always recognized by the performer. I'm observing and paying attention to that more than ever these days. I think the Valley Music open mic has more to offer than I first realized. It doesn't hurt that people now clap before I hit the stage when they see I'm going to sit in with someone.

But they also clap for people who can't carry a tune. They are generous and supportive like that. But I'm meeting some good players and decent people there, so even if bad quality is not shunned because people are polite, there is good quality in abundance.

I applaud everyone too. I've started to simply appreciate the happiness people get out of being there. It's free so why rain on someone's parade. You never know what goes on in their lives and this may be what keeps them going.

I didn't record any of it, but may be able to get the video which the venue ran. They video every open mic, and I think I knw how to get it.

Oh. A friend from there who writes and sings his own stuff, semi-John Prine type thing, is heading to Texas for a month or two just to hit places and try to sell his CD. He might do OK in various venues. So, keep an eye out for Don Phelps and be nice to him if you cross paths.

He told me that I could hit open mics in Austin and probably end up with gigs every night of the week. I never put any stock in open mics but now I see it is how a lot of people get stuff going. And some just travel and hit them as they go. I should have listened more and prejudged less. Maybe next road trip I'll do that.

That reminds me, I've heard some women there who are good, but I don't think I've better than what I heard from Sally and her daughter awhile back. And she hadn't played in forever. Now that's a case of a really good performer flying way under the radar.

Tennis Bra, and The Aftermath

So, there I was in the candle-lit sanctuary, standing in front of a microphone (actually, it was own Audix Fireball on a stand), located by the piano and organ, and by the mic solo singers used during the service. The whole kit and kabootle was located at the rear of the church, as was the choir. Unlike the stuff I've mostly seen on TV, this outfit has the musicians and singers in the back and not the front.

There music director bounced back and forth between piano and organ; as needed for the program -I'm assuming. The are arranged back to back and such that their long sides are parallel to the main aisle. I guess it allows him to look to one side and brow beat the choir, and to the other to see what the pastor is up to.

When the holy men and entourage began their journey from the back of the chapel to the front, I guess they stopped nearby and I was cued to play the blues. All was silent and very dimly lit. Harmonica is one instrument in which lighting is not relevant, as long as you have it right side up with the business edge facing you. I managed to have that covered.

What was weird, and unsettling, was that when I was about three quarters of the way through my part, I hit a note and had no recall of playing the previous section leading to it. It was like my mind had taken a vacation when I began playing, and I was off in lala land somewhere. My sudden return to the then and there caused me to wonder which way to go.

It was a note that comes off another, then you go back to the other, then back to the one I was on. I found myself going back to that first note, by thinking maybe I'd already done that back and forth.

Maybe I did and maybe I didn't. I think I did, which means I played it wrong. In any case I just kept going, sliding down the final phrase at probably the right time. If you manage to come in on the one, and go out on time, you can often get away with screwing up the in between.

I was feeling one of those full body blushes. The kind of thing you might feel if you publicly told someone they needed to stand on their own two feet, only to discover the object of your lecture was a double amputee. Then, when three different people each sang their verse, it was time for me to play my final part. This part was much shorter. We decided at last minute that it would have more impact in context of the thing.

So, I play this and the same thing happened. I'm playing note and suddenly wonder what I already played and if I am totally queering the deal. I smoothly enough managed to conclude, holding the last note and achieving that kind of hollow resonate sound that playing and cupping your hands just right can produce.

Now I was so embarrassed I thought they might break their promise and tack me up on that cross they'd been toting around through all this. Fortunately, at this point I could sit down for the rest of the affair. I must say, at the end after they snuffed the last candle so the place was dark, that book slam made me jump a good half foot out of my chair, even though I knew it was coming.

K claims I did not screw up, and he has a good ear. He taught me what to to play , so I guess he knows. I would have sworn I didn't do it right. I really had this thing down. I'd played it countless times and would only stop a practice session when I had played it through thre or four times in a row without any glitches. But I was not in a coma while practicing.

So, that was a very strange thing. The people there liked it alot from what I could tell, and they most graciously thanked me. Say what one will about holy places and people, this crowd is very nice.

I'm sure my take on the whole rite is a bit different than most, but that is life. It was somewhat of a spiritual experience and educational. It still puzzles me that people don't see how the innocent are still figuratively, at least crucified, and how mobs and the state still tend to condemn rather than prove guilt. Guilty until proven innocent is still very popular, even in the USA.

Perhaps the connection between this story and things all around us is not seen as I see it by many. It is what it is.

The event left me realizing that you do what you do, and being a part of a thing like this can challenge your ego if you slip in and out of a coma. Also, the most important thing to know is that it was not about me. The music director, the solo singers, the choir, the holy men, everyone who had some form of performance part might be every bit as concerned with doing well as I was. All could be as ego driven and self centered to the point of the body blush if they chose.

I sat there for half the service just wanting to make a public apology and then run away. I rode with K and L, and wasn't quite driven enough to want to walk 25 miles or so at night, so I got over it.

Then there is the part about them telling me it was so haunting and effective; soothing my pride.

I played a church gig which was all holy and somber, and in some ways slightly macabre. That is not a thing I'd have ever predicted. Now I don't know where I put that new Lee Oskar D harp. It may be in my car, or in K's. I know I had it on the way home. What a ballistic tour of a life I live.

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Ballistic Mountain, CA, United States
Like spring on a summer's day


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