318 Cafe, Excelsior, Minnesota

Yesterday morning my mom texted me and said “You should blog about your tour like you used to blog when you were in Korea”.

I’ve been on tour with Chris Bell for a whole week now.  I believe we’ve played 9 shows in 7 days at this point.  Last night we played at the 318 Cafe in Excelsior, Minnesota.  You know it’s a great place when the servers who have the night off come in to hang out just because they like the place.  The interior is all made up of exposed rustic wood beams and wood floor, with perfect lighting.  As soon as I sat down with Chris, he said “This is really a place you should take your wife”, which I had just been thinking.  A local musician who goes by Ginger Bones shared the stage with us who played an incredible set with a violinist, and basically packed the place.  318 calls itself a “listening room” and that is actually what happens.  There was a dedicated sound guy, who did a great job running the quality sound system, and when we started playing, people started listening.  We have several songs where we solicit crowd participation (singing, stomping, clapping) and last night’s crowd did not disappoint.  The only unfortunate thing was that, before we got to the cafe, I had eaten a bunch of Chinese food and I had become ‘MSG-full’, a trend which continued for the rest of the night, and into the next morning.  I definitely plan on playing at this place again in the future, and next time will come ready to chow down on some excellent food.

Tonight we head to Green Bay, Wisconsin to play at the Lyric Room.

Learning How to Write Music – Using Tone Color

“What to Listen for in Music” is a book written by 20th century American composer ImageAaron Copland, originally published in 1939.  I read it 5 years ago and am now re-reading it and finding it extremely insightful for understanding more theory behind song writing.

Music has four essential elements: rhythm, melody, harmony, and tone color.  These four ingredients are the composer’s materials.  He works with them in the same way that any other artisan works with his materials.  From the standpoint of the lay listener they have only a limited value, for he is seldom conscious of hearing any one of them separately.  It is their combined effect – the seemingly inextricable web of sound that they form – with which listeners are concerned for the most part.

I like how he describes these four ingredients in concrete terms, ‘as any other artisan works with his materials’.  Music itself cannot be seen or touched, so it’s hard to think of writing music in concrete terms, and the process or writing or finishing a song can start to feel completely nebulous.

Taking the element of ‘tone color’ as an example – I might get an idea to play a “C” note on the piano in the background of a chorus.  if I’m writing a song in an abstract sense, I might get caught up in deciding simply whether to go with the “C” idea, or skip it.  Or maybe I would get distracted and start experimenting with what it might sound like to play a “D” or an “E” instead.

However, let’s think of the “C” as dab of yellow paint on a palette.  Does the painter only think “Should I use the yellow or not”?  No, the yellow can be used sparingly, liberally, can be mixed with any color, can be watered down, can be thickened, etc.

In the same way, the “C” note on the piano can be played loudly or softly.  On a full 88 key piano, you have the option of playing a C somewhere in the low, middle, or high register of the keyboard, each one creating a slightly different feel in the song.  You can play the C in quick 16th notes, quarter notes, or hit the C one time and let it ring for the whole chorus.  Already there are so many possible combinations, it would take hours just to try them all.  I think it’s important while writing music to maintain a frame of mind where I’m thinking of musical elements as organic materials

Sonnendeck – Dangast/Varel

Played a fun show last night at this vacation spot on a bay that leads out to the North Sea.

sonnendeck 1

There’s a little bar/restaurant right on this beach and I played on the deck for a couple hours.  Did an hour of covers and an hour of originals.  Got a request for “Leaving On A Jet Plane” which I butchered, but then redeemed myself with a segue into “Country Road”.  Sold 4 CDs.  The owner was really nice and kept trying to give me more food…even after I ate a whole pizza.  Whew, I need to go for a run.

Maximilian, Big Buttinsky, De Nul, Lambooijhuis

My first show was on Friday night at a restaurant/bar called Maximilian.  I played on one end of a large patio area, and since the weather was perfect everyone was sitting outside.  I played two forty-minute sets with about a 50/50 mix of covers and originals.  Overall people seemed to be enjoying it, but a few people at the table closest to me were really into it.  After I finished they bought CDs, we hung out for about an hour, and they’re going to host a house concert later in the tour.  While we were chatting they told me “In northern Germany, we usually do not show enjoyment with dancing.  We may seem to look stern, but we are dancing in our minds.”

Saturday was my first night playing with JeConte and the Mali All-Stars.  (The previous night we were scheduled for separate venues).  I have to say I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with them, listening to their music, and they even let me come up on stage and jam with them during their set.  (Videos to come later).  Through their songs they seek to speak peace into the current turmoil in Mali (read more here).  They have a new album available on itunes which you should really check out.

We played at a venue called “Big Buttinsky”.  When we arrived we had a hard time finding the venue because it was right inside a movie theater, located directly across from the ticket booth.  It isn’t owned by or affiliated with the cinema, it’s just a really cool venue that happens to be in a movie theater.  For that and many other reasons, I found this venue to be fascinating.  They treated us extremely well, even giving us a place to stay for the night.  But the thing I was curious about from the first time I perused the list of venues was “Why are they called ‘Big Buttinsky?'”  I had a chance to ask Carson, one of the owners, and he told me that 6 years ago when they started the venue and were trying to think of a name which would give them the number one spot on any Google search in any language.  Somehow they came across the word “buttinsky” which means “A person who habitually butts in; an intruder or meddler.”  So after trying different words and combinations of words on Google searches, they found that “Big Buttinsky” did the trick.  

jcmas big buttinsky

Sunday we headed for the Netherlands and played at a Venue called De Nul.  Very cool venue and staff who are establishing a place for independent musicians to play.  They gave us all t-shirts before we left.  I would love to play there again.  After we left De Nul we went a few blocks away to another ‘optional gig’ at a place called Lambooijhuis, where we had dinner, played for about an hour, and called it a night.

joebubadenul

Now we’re back in Bremen and have a show in town tonight.  One thing I’ve wanted to accomplish during this tour is to really develop my original songs for live performance and I think that is definitely starting to happen.  I’ll post some video soon, stay tuned.

Songs with Limitations

Yesterday I finished my song of the week, “I Had a Thought of You” (click above to listen).

I had two main ‘rules’ or ‘limitations’ when I wrote this song:

1) The bass notes for the song had to be descending and chromatic, within an octave, from the high C to the low C.  (The chords did not need to be the same as the bass note, but they needed to work around the chromatic, descending bass line.)

2) The lyrics of the song were limited to a short, 8 line lyrical idea I had.

I broke both of these rules:

1)  In the middle of the song, the bass not goes back up (not descending) from F# to G before continuing it’s downward descent.

2)  I made slight changes to the lyrics the second time through the song

Overall, though, I stuck to the rules and I like the result.  The song is lyrically simple but the second time forced me to change the melody a bit to keep it from getting boring.  The fact that I had to use EVERY NOTE in the bass forced me to come up with some chords that I definitely would not have normally thought of.   The most difficult was figuring out how to smoothly resolve from C# down to C.  That took me a while.

In future songs I’d like to continue with the limitation idea.  If you have any suggestions please let me know!

I also used a new microphone for this song which I’ll talk more about in the next post.