Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Catching Up With Don Aliquo, Jr.

Photo by Rod McGaha

The Aliquo name is akin to jazz royalty in the city of Pittsburgh. Tenor saxophonist Don Aliquo Sr., has been a fixture in the city's jazz scene for more than half a century. Don Jr. followed in his dad's footsteps, also playing tenor. After studying at both Duquesne University and the Berklee School of Music (where his roommate was drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts), the younger Aliquo spent time back in the Steel City, playing with people like drummer Roger Humphries, before heading to Middle Tennessee State University (in Murfreesboro, just outside of Nashville) in 1999. 

Working at the college level hasn't slowed Aliquo's musical output in the least. In addition to traveling everywhere from Denver to China and Spain, he released several albums. Growth, the most recent, came out earlier this year. The eight originals on the album feature him in two different piano-less quartets, freeing up the harmonic setting of the music in a way that inspires both groups to engage in close interactions. Along with the edgy groove of "Woman Clothed In the Sun" and a hat-tip to Sonny Rollins in "Lower Broadway Rundown," the album also finds Aliquo playing bass clarinet, as a background voice ("Pedal Taverns") and as a dramatic lead ("For the Vulnerable"). 

Aliquo returns to Pittsburgh on Thursday, May 25 at Con Alma Downtown, at 7 p.m. In anticipation of his visit, we caught up by phone last week, talking about his teaching work, the new album and some of his travels.

Were you brought down MTSU to start the jazz studies program, or was it something that happened once you got there?

It ended up - running the program - was not why I was originally hired. I was hired by my buddy, [pianist] Dana Landry. He was one of the people that was on the committee that hired me. and I was to be the saxophone professor and the second full-time jazz teacher. When he took another gig, out in Colorado, I took over the program. I did it about 10 years then I stepped away from it, because I wanted to play more. I'm still at the university and I'm teaching jazz courses and saxophone primarily. I just stepped away as the director

What's it like setting something like that up? Are you the kind of guy who can envision the way you'd like a program to go? How much of a challenge was it?

It was a bit of a challenge because I wasn't typically that [kind of] person. I enjoy teaching for sure. But I don't always enjoy the logistics side of it, not to mention the administrative side of it. Those things require a lot of time, a lot of patience, sometimes. You're dealing with a lot of people, not to mention trying to get the students up and running, so to speak. But, really, that's your primary job. That was another reason I stepped away from it, because I like teaching. I wanted to play more. And I wanted to be a more effective teacher. That wasn't my thing but I did fine with it once I figured it out. I felt like we made some pretty good strides when I was running the program

I'm also curious to ask people who are instructors, how do you teach jazz? There's a lot that goes into it, so how do you approach students?

That's a great question. I certainly don't have a cookie cutter kind of mentality about how I teach, in particular, teaching jazz. There's the aspect of playing a musical instrument that you have to deal with, with students developing technique and developing sound on an instrument. You know, mastery of the computer, so to speak if you want to use that analogy. 

That has to happen. And depending on the students, some students come in  with a lot more work that needs to be done while you're trying to show them tools to improvise, so to speak. But that part of it has to happen. And then as far as teaching improvisation, or teaching jazz, I try to see what the strengths are with the students and guide them to what I feel like is going to be the most beneficial for them to study. That could be transcribing particular players who they're listening to, what tunes they're learning. Those are sort of the main things, I'm dealing with my students.

Now that so much music is readily available, do you find that students are pretty well versed in the classic stuff? Like, you could talk about a Sonny Rollins album and they would know East Broadway Rundown?

I wish that were true but I don't see that as being the case!. It's interesting because everything is available now. But that hasn't necessarily translated into increased knowledge, just because it's available. And then I suppose the other aspect of it is, with streaming - and it depends on the kid too - they don't go deeper beyond having listened to the track. If you ask them, "Who was the trumpet player on that," they have no idea. Shouldn't you want to know that? So, without liner notes or the credits on a particular recording, often they don't do that research to find out. You have to encourage that really, and encourage listening. I find that we do that a lot. We're always encouraging the students to keep listening. That's the main tool, right?

It is important to know who else is on the album because there might be other leaders in the band.

Sure, and [it's important] how those people in the band impact the artist whose name is on the recording. That's such a crucial thing. If you're a rhythm section person...I was thinking about this the other day. If you think about all those classic Blue Note Records, some of those Wayne Shorter records, half of Coltrane's rhythm section and half of Miles' rhythm section [might be on them]. "Oh, wow, McCoy Tyner played with Tony Williams on this record. That's amazing." You don't really think about that. I find myself surprised like that, at times.

Growth is a really great album. I enjoyed it. What inspired you to do an album with a pianoless group? 

Well, I've been playing that way quite a bit over the last, maybe year and a half to two years. I've been playing a lot of gigs in the trio format. There's one really good club here in Nashville now that is a really fun place to play. Often I will take the 11 pm to 1 am slot and I think trio is great for that slot. You can play whatever you want. It's open and it's loose. I just really enjoy playing in that context. So I wanted to try to capture that. I never did a recording with that concept so I definitely wanted to try it. That was the main inspiration behind it. I was doing it so much and I was starting to get comfortable with it.

My original intent was to capture even more different rhythm sections because I was moving it around. I had different guys I was playing with here around town. I just couldn't pull it off logistically. The more I got into it, the more I realized, well, logistically that is going to be difficult to do if you want to get this thing done in a timely manner!

The trumpet adds something to it and the guitar, in a way, can be chordal but it's kind of like a second horn in a way too

That's a really good point. The trumpet player (Rod McGaha), he's somebody I've played with quite a bit over the last 10 years. I played on his record and he does his own music quite a bit and I'm usually part of that. And he's a really creative person. He did the art and the photography (see above) for me as well. 

The guitarist (Steve Kovalchek) is a good friend of mine as well. He's originally from out here but he's now in the Denver area. He's playing with Jeff Hamilton in a trio right now. He's quite a musician too. But he knew what I was going for. Originally I didn't intend to have him on the project. He just happened to be in town so I said, man, you might as well play on this record! Because we've played together so often. We just played together last weekend because he was in town again. He's a fun guy to play with, real musical.

Were the tunes on there things that you worked out a lot in a club setting, and then you just transferred them over to a quartet in the studio?

Yes and no. (Laughs) Some of them were, some of them weren't. Some of them were conceived for the recording. Some of them were things that I had written and played a handful of times. "Woman Clothed In the Sun" I've played a bunch of times. "Salt and Light" I've played a bunch of times. "Naked Statues," I think was another I'd played. But other ones like "For The Vulnerable" and "Growth," those tunes were written for the recording project. So it was a little bit of both.

The bass clarinet - is that something that you've been using all along or is that a relatively new thing?

The answer is, as far as my use of the bass clarinet on the recording, it came almost as an afterthought, while I was in the process of recording, I kept thinking, man, the bass clarinet would probably really good doubled on some of this stuff. So the next day, I went back and brought it to the studio. I wasn't originally intending to play the bass clarinet on this record at all. I had no intention until we got into the middle of recording it. Then I realized it would probably work really well. 

I've played it. My dad started me out on the clarinet. That was sort of the old school way of grooming a saxophone player, starting on the clarinet or flute. But I'm really glad he did, to be quite honest with you. I got away from the clarinet for 20 years, maybe more than that. I would say in the last five to ten years, I will practice it a lot, off and on. Especially the soprano clarinet, I really think it's an amazing instrument and it's a significant challenge. I even took a lesson with Eddie Daniels maybe five years ago. It's kind of an ongoing thing for me. It wasn't hard for me to put it together. I've been playing the instrument a lot. But it wasn't my intent originally to do it. It just felt right. I'm glad I did it. 

Since you've done the album, have you brought the bass clarinet to gigs more often?

Nope! (Laughs)

Aw, man!

I should. I'm glad you said that. That gives me a little bit of a push. I'll tell you why. Sometimes it's difficult to have it miked appropriately so it has the same amount of presence as the tenor. That's a difficult thing for the bass clarinet in particular. Well, the soprano clarinet too. But I've played it a handful of times live. And you're right, I really should start bringing it out more. 

This might be me hearing similarities. But the bass clarinet in "Pedal Taverns" and the chord progression remind me a little of the Thelonious Monk song "Brilliant Corners." I wondered if that was in your mind at all, when you were coming up with that song.

No but I read that in your review [note: I reviewed Growth in JazzTimes] and I was pleased to see it. [Brilliant Corners] is such a great record and if anything I've written comes close to anything by Monk, I'm totally happy with that. I guess I'd been listening to... I had been listening to Monk but also some more open tenor recordings like some of the ones that Joe Henderson has done, the one with Alice Coltrane. I'm trying to think of some of the other things. East Broadway Rundown [by Sonny Rollins] was another one, just a little more open conceptually. 

Also, music that would allow for more interaction - that's what I was going for, really. Both of the drummers on the album, I feel like I have a really good hook-up with. Marcus Binney and Danny Gottlieb, they're both really musical. I've had some really good experiences with them live. Especially during the time of the recording, I was playing with both of them fairly often. I think Marcus is now playing with [vocalist] Kurt Elling to I haven't been able to play with him. He's been traveling a lot. 

I really like the way Marcus is pushing you along in "Woman Clothed In the Sun." But it's cool because it's not overplaying, it's just pushing you.

Yeah, that was the idea. He knew exactly what I wanted. An interesting aside to that is he was in the first graduating class when I started teaching here. He was a student. He was one of the most gifted drummers I've ever seen. Well, [there's] Jeff "Tain" Watts, but that's a whole other thing. Marcus, I've watched him grow. He came from the Memphis Black church environment. Some of it's pretty adventurous, especially for a rhythm section. So he came to school with a ridiculous amount of technique. I've watched him grow, and be able to swing and be able to play jazz at a really high level. It's been fun to watch. He's a great guy too.

You've traveled to Columbia and China to teach there. What was that like?

It was pre-COVID and I did go to Spain, post-COVID. I'm hoping to back there in March. There was a gentleman here that studied conducting, he's a really fine saxophonist and he's teaching at a conservatory in Valencia. That was really fun. I might go back to China. I have a five-year assistant professorship, which is hilarious! It's at a university in Wuhan, of all places. I was in Wuhan before the proverbial stuff hit the fan. The students there were hungry for the music. 

One of the funniest things that happened, the first time I went to China. We did a tour where we played in a bunch of different cities. One of our last gigs was in the city where [the late Pittsburgh drummer] George Heid was playing. He had a gig in a club in this city. The whole band was from Pittsburgh. So I just dropped in. He kind of knew that I'd be coming. because once I found out I was in teh same city, I called [Pittsburgh-based guitarist] Eric Suseoff and said, "Is this the same city that you guys were playing?" He said, "Yeah. George is playing there tonight!" I said, "Aw, man, we're definitely going!" It just totally floored him. I said, "I just wanted to come and check you out and see what you were up to." (Laughs) 

When you come to Pittsburgh, who is playing with you?

Eric's going to play, which is really great because Eric was on some of my earlier records. I love playing with Eric. I'll also have Jeff Grubbs (bass) and Thomas Wendt (drums). We'll do some of the music from the recording. I enjoy trying it out with different people because you get different insights. 

Anything else you'd like to add?

It's interesting because I've done a fair amount of recordings but I had never done a project here in Nashville with musicians here. I thought it was about time I did. So that was one of the goals. And most of the titles had Nashville thematic. Not all of them, but "Pedal Taverns," I don't know if you've ever seen a pedal tavern. [A long bar with stools and pedals that works like a group bicycle.] We could do without them here and I'd be totally happy. [The song title] was kind of a tongue-in-cheek way thing, making fun of it.

[Two other titles have regional references. "Naked Statues" refers to controversy of a statue in Music Row Roundabout that features nine nude figures. "Blues for Duffy and Doug" pays tribute to drummer Duffy Jackson and saxophonist Doug Moffitt, who both passed during the COVID epidemic.]

Monday, May 15, 2023

LP Reviews: The Relaunching of Original Jazz Classic albums (OJC, to you and me)

Miles Davis Quintet
Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet
(Prestige/Craft Recordings)

Thelonious Monk
With John Coltrane
(Jazzland/Craft Recordings) craftrecordings.com

The Original Jazz Classics (OJC) series that Fantasy Records first launched in the 1980s served as the perfect primer for someone like this then-teenage jazz fan, who was discovering classic music via community radio DJs who still owned original copies of these albums. OJCs culled releases from the Fantasy back catalog as well as labels like Prestige, Debut, Riverside, Contemporary and several others. 

Not only did the series recreate the albums' original cover art (something that is NOT being done with a lot of reissues I see regularly in stores, which makes me wonder about the legality of the actual issues, not to mention, what the hell?) and liner notes, thereby taking you back to the period when the album first hit the streets. Many albums back then weren't concerned with offering recording dates or even mentioning the year of release.  However, to make up for those informational shortcomings, OJCs came packaged with an OBI strip, much like Japanese reissues, that added some contextual information about where the album landed in the historical landscape. It often ended with a few critical ratings from magazines like downbeat. The back of the strip (which was later reduced to a sticker on the shrink wrap, also listed the myriad other releases in the OJC series, so you kept wanting more.

Since it was the early '80s and CDs were a bit in the offing, OJCs were extremely affordable. I believe they listed for a mere $4.99 each. The Record Recycler, the mostly used/somewhat new shop where I first discovered them, might have even sold them for $3.99. If that's revisionism and a foggy memory, I can say with authority that they didn't go higher than $5.99, which was typically the going rate for a new album at the time. 

And the titles! It was the best place to learn about Thelonious Monk since his Riverside years were his most fruitful in terms of quantity and new material. OJCs put the mandatory Iazz At Massey Hall back into circulation, so one didn't have to simply read about the Bird/Diz/Bud/Mingus/Max concert that was billed as The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever in an out-of-print reissue. Sure, one could find plenty of Miles Davis albums on Columbia brand new, but what of Miles Davis and Horns, an album that a cover drawn by Don Martin of Mad Magazine? These records took listeners back to a time when the concept of a long playing album was relatively new, as was the necessity for artwork that, presumably, would motivate people to lift it off the rack at the record store, examine it and take it home. If the OJC list on those OBIs could be believed, there were hundreds of albums competing for the consumer's attention.

It goes without saying at this point that the original pressings of albums from the '50s and '60s are now highly priced, highly coveted items, even when the condition is less than stellar. But what is also surprising is that OJCs now fetch a handsome price on the used market too. About a year ago, I passed on a mint copy of Cookin' With the Miles Davis Quintet because $30 just seemed a tad too steep, especially at a brick and mortar store. Surprisingly, a quick check of Discogs indicated that $30 is a pretty good deal for such an item. Of course, I snoozed and lost. 

That being said, Craft Recordings is in the process of bringing back the OJCs, retaining the original artwork, housing them in heavier , tip-on covers that ought to hold up better than the copies of the '80s, which first came in cardboard-backed sleeve and later thinner printed covers, both of which were susceptible to seam wear and ring wear, as my shelf will concur. The vinyl itself has been cut from the original master tapes and has pressed in 180-gram vinyl. Finally, they also arrive with an OBI strip, threaded on the cover beneath the shrink wrap. In theory, the cost of a first run OJC could cost about as much as a one of these new copies. If all this wasn't enticing enough, the look of the dark vinyl radiating through the Craft clear, anti-static inner sleeve looks pretty breathtaking too. Much like Blue Note's Tone Poet Series, Craft is making these albums extremely appealing.

It's hard to write about either of these classics without it feeling like a pile of recycled thoughts taken from myriad other write-ups of them. Of course, a little context is necessary. Workin' With the Miles Davis Quintet comes from a few marathon sessions for Prestige Records in 1956, recorded to fulfill the trumpeter's contract with the label and allow him to sign with Columbia. Along with Davis, the band includes John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, his first great quintet. The recording sessions were approached like a live set, which partially explains why both sides of Workin'  feature "The Theme," the end-of-the-set tag. 

If the opening track of Workin' was the only good number on the album, it would still be a mandatory listen. "It Never Entered My Mind" stands with some of the most definitive recordings in his canon, setting a scene deeply rendered in romance and lyricism. Over Garland's cascading piano arpeggios, Davis plays the melody through his Harmon mute and time stands still. While the tone of the Harmon could often sound rough and sharp, here it feels smooth.  Everything in the song fits tightly into place to create a mood. (The one exception is what sounds like Coltrane very softly playing two notes over the final chord, which sounds off key. That sound has always haunted me, especially since it never seems to be mentioned.)

But the rest of the album is equally stellar, making it arguably the strongest collection of the four Prestige albums (along with Cookin', Steamin' and Relaxin'). The upbeat "Four" comes next, followed by another Harmon-mute tune, this time Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way," which gets accented by Davis' legato delivery. The driving "Trane's Blues" and Garland's snaky run through "Ahmad's Blues" (penned by Mr. Jamal) are also mandatory listens.

Comparing the sound quality of new releases with previous ones usually makes my eyes roll when the topic shows up online. But I had the luck of finding an original, deep groove Prestige copy of Workin' years ago, so I had to do a comparison. I didn't do it track-by-track, preferring to listen to the new edition completely before dusting off my old copy. My ears might not be best for a detailed analysis about noise floors and the like but the comparison was favorable, perhaps leaning more towards Craft's work, which was mastered by Kevin Gray at Cohearant Audio.

The print of the front cover photo is another criteria that ranks highly in my book (hence the photo above). Although the new one has a slightly darker hue than the original blue-filtered cover, it doesn't look at all like a second or third generation print. (This benchmark came to me after coming across an original copy of Eric Dolphy's Far Cry whose cover shot looked like a crisp print, as compared to the slightly muddled shot on a 1989 OJC reissue.) 

Craft was savvy in releasing Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane hot on the heels of Workin'. Coltrane's brief tenure with Monk came in 1957, between his stints in the Miles quintet, when he kicked his heroin habit and devoted himself fully to his music. The pianist apparently had a lot to do with that work ethic, helping Coltrane to develop his "sheets of sound" style of playing. A perfect example of that comes in "Trinkle Tinkle," a rapid-fire melody that Monk had originally recorded in a piano trio. Coltrane not only digs into the manic triplets, Monk lays out as the tenor player takes off in a solo that doesn't even need the pianist to keep him grounded. The same thing occurs in "Nutty," an upbeat, jagged number in which Coltrane soars beneath Wilbur Ware's solid walking bass line.

The album is a bit of a hodge-podge, since the quartet with Coltrane only got to record three songs in the studio. (Shadow Wilson completed the lineup.) The saxophonist was under contract to Prestige at the time and, according to the Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley, Prestige owner Bob Weinstock refused to let Coltrane appear on another label unless Monk reciprocated. Monk left Prestige acrimoniously so he refused to help out Weinstock. 

To complete the record, it includes two alternate takes from Monk's Music, recorded a few months earlier with a band that included both Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins, as well as Gigi Gryce (alto saxophone) and Ray Copeland (trumpet), "Off Minor" and "Epistrophy." An alternate take of the solo piano blues, "Functional" completes the set. Rather than Riverside, Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane appeared on the off-shoot label Jazzland, and wasn't released until 1961, by which time Coltrane was recording for Impulse! and Monk was negotiating a contract with Columbia Records. 

Hastily assembled or not, the album captures both artists at high water marks in their respective careers. (It also creates a desire to hear Monk's Music too, for what that's worth.) The sound on this album is equally as impeccable as Workin'. Don Schlitten's often reproduced photo of the quartet in action at the Five Spot is reproduced with great clarity, as is the front cover painting by Richard "Prophet" Jennings.
With both records, Craft also replicated the labels of the original pressings (seen below), with the slight addition of some of their own information. You have to love when a label keeps to such details.


The only question that remains: To remove the shrink wrap and the OBI, or leave both intact? 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

CD Review: Greg Ward's Rogue Parade - Dion's Quest

Greg Ward's Rogue Parade
Dion's Quest

Some of the tracks on Dion's Quest, the second release by Greg Ward's Rogue Parade, were inspired by dark subject matter, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the 2020 elections. But before he gets to that, the alto saxophonist begins in an upbeat mood inspired by people he met on a visit to South Africa, whose kindness left an impression on him long after he returned home. "Crimson Clay" is a 6/4 jaunt with Ward and guitarist Matt Gold  in unison while guitarist Dave Miller plays a rhythmic countermelody before taking the first solo. The complexity of Ward's solo, put against the chord pattern different from the first half of the song, begins by sounding like a detailed, written part. But as he liberates himself from the rhythm section, it becomes clear that this is a spontaneous statement.

The mood that Rogue Parade establishes with that track, and the use of two guitars along with the alto, give the group a signature sound. It seems to gather elements from the trebly twang of spaghetti western guitars and intricate post-fusion picking. The former style comes into focus on "Noir Neauveux," where bassist Matt Ulery alternates bars of 5/8 and 6/8 and still keeps it catchy, while Gold and Miller create a high lonesome feel. Ward's long high notes and unison with Gold help set the sun-drenched scene. The bluesy coda wraps things up in a slinky feeling. (Anyone who remembers Wayne Horvitz's Bring Yr Camera album with the group The President will devour this mesh of styles.)

Ward is no stranger to intense subject matter, having been part of Mike Reed's excellent and underrecognized Flesh and Bone, inspired by Reed being trapped in the middle of a European white power rally while on tour. That being said, "Blues of the Earth" offers a musical statement on the Floyd murder and the 2020 elections that might not address either issue directly but it presents some barbed statements, from Ward's opening growls and pops to Miller's manic guitar solo. At the end, it goes into a "Mannish Boy" riff, so it does earn its blues moniker too.

After a few more thoughtful tracks (the harmonically-driven "Bravo Constatine" and "Porthole Dreams," a brief rumination inspired by isolation during the pandemic), "Beware of the Oh EEEs" begins with some guitar clatter that eventually straddles detailed post-rock picking with some wailing from the leader. After hearing the way James Brandon Lewis fit in so well with the Messthetics, this tracks proves Ward's Rogue Parade might be forging an equally righteous path, where visceral attack and sprawling melody lines converge. 

Drummer Quin Kirchner, who can often be heard playing in freer settings, exerts his authority here, playing a little more laidback but definitely driving the music along. At first, it sounds like he and Ulery sat out the closing "Ocean of Faith," leaving Ward, Gold and Miller to explore the rubato melody. But it becomes clear after awhile that bass and drums are there, gently but effectively pushing things along. Maybe its my ears always hearing a connection to some remote song, but a chord change toward the end of each "Ocean of Faith" chorus hints at the hook of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World," giving it a deeper connection to a message of hope that Ward had in mind. 

With that, Ward has created an album that ought to end up high on the Year End lists. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

A Little Bit of Me, A Lot of John Vanderslice

The second part of this blog post should have been written sometime last week, preferably at the start of the week. That was not to be, because of what I'm going to talk about first. 

This past Saturday was the double record release show for an album by my band the Harry Von Zells, and a split single by Creedmoors and Pink Gin Marimbas. The days leading up to the show were filled with rehearsals, when I wasn't working the closing shift. The latter two bands also made their performance debuts that night, since the songs on the single were the work of solo artists in their basement. Now they are real bands. 

The Harry Von Zells haven't played a show since October 2021, which is right around the time I started recording tracks for the album. As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, I was sort of at the end of my rope around that time, feeling like maybe it was time to stop trying to get band practices together and to stop booking shows, two things that didn't always reach their potential, with or without the looming pandemic. But I was determined to get some songs recorded so even if I never performed live again, the songs wouldn't just evaporate into the ether.

Turns out the songs sounded really strong. Further, when you make a record, it's a good idea to stage a release show so people will know about it. and maybe buy it. The Harry Von Zells got resurrected with a lineup that is still solidifying. But the original four of us also played together on Saturday too, and it felt good. 

Before we played, Creedmoors opened the show. The center stage guitarist, Joe Tarowsky, is the one responsible for the single, "Rosie Jean," and a few other cool songs that can be found on Bandcamp. Mike Athey is on bass. Erin Dawes (who played with me in the Love Letters) is on drums and Tammy Wallace is on guitar. (A link to the music is below.) They sounded really tight, and when all four of them sang it once, it felt like a choir. Beautiful stuff. The surprising thing is the band came together really quickly, in a space of about two months. 

Pink Gin Marimbas played next. I don't have an action shot because I'm part of the live version of the band. (In case you don't know, I'm the second from the left). I play drums for them, though it's not my usual instrument. Rob Rayshich (far right, guitar) did the recording and his adult kids Max (far left, guitar) and Charlie (keyboards, main vocals, second to right) round out the band in person. I too was wearing a pink shirt during our set, but switched out for the Harry Von Zells set. This photo was one of our candid, outtake shots, outside Government Center, the record store/live space/coffee shop/bar where we played. 

Creedmoors and Pink Gin Marimbas can be found here. Please give both of them a listen and maybe take a piece of us home with you.

I don't particularly feel like reporting on the Harry Von Zells set because it's my band. What I do feel comfortable saying is that the turnout at the show on Saturday really blew me away. Government Center isn't a huge place but it's not tiny either, and the place was packed, even before things started. It was so great to have so many people come out for the show, especially folks I didn't really know who were friends with the other bands and who hung around the whole night. That really felt good. 

While I don't want to talk get indulgent about the band itself, there is one song of ours that could use a little explanation and will act as a good segue into the second part of this post. Back in the early 2000s, John Vanderslice released his album Cellar Door and I listened to it constantly. Several years earlier, my band the Pundits opened for John's band MK Ultra, who I really liked. I had heard some of John's solo albums and thought they were good, but Cellar Door really blew me away. It was full of stories about people who were just on the brink or weren't tightly wound and the blend of lyrical plots and music was great. I still think it's one of his best albums. 

Somewhere around that time I decided to write a song about a guy who's obsessed with a musician, and I wanted it to sound like a John Vanderslice song. As I wrote it, I created something like a story arc in my lyric book. The first verse came pretty easily but I had to figure where it would go from there. And I also had a chorus ready, with the first line: "But now I'm cold/so cold from crying..." 

Nothing creepy happens in the song. It's more about building up expectations way too high about how things will go, only to see them fall apart. 

But, to be clever (at least in my mind), I titled it "Dear John." Even though the musician in the song could be anyone.

When John Vanderslice played a show in Pittsburgh recently, I pondered telling him about the song. I didn't have the records in hand yet, or else I would have given him one. But I couldn't do it. He was so warm and friendly to everyone that night, very appreciative that we were all there, so I couldn't jeopardize that good feeling. I mean, he told me loves me. And he wrote that on an album I bought from him. 

When Vanderslice tours, he doesn't play clubs anymore. Instead, he's part of a network of acts that play house shows. The last time he came to Pittsburgh, he played a house in Greenfield, a really residential 'hood very close to where I grew up, which is funny because the dudes in that area would've beaten up guys like John or me (we're the same age) if we looked at them. 

On April 22, he played at the Bantha Tea House which sometimes hosts shows, but the aura felt similar to a house show: a small (maybe 30 people) but attentive audience, who all seemed to know his songs. (It really sounded like people were singing along at various times.)

Storytelling was as much a part of the show as the songs. In fact there might have been more talk than rock. Before the set started, he asked the audience to submit questions on slips of paper, which he would answer throughout the night. But John is a great talker anyway so the heavy talk ratio didn't really matter. I would have preferred that he didn't ask the management to turn off the ceiling fan about 20 minutes into the set, because it got a bit stuffy after awhile. But not stifling. 

Bantha has a piano that is reasonably in tune, so the evening started with "Farewell Transmission," a tender ballad from the Pixel Revolt album. From there, he stuck to his acoustic guitar for the rest of the night, never needing a microphone. The set list spanned a wide gamut of songs, which makes sense because he's released a lot of albums (counting live albums and remixes, the number is around 13). 

Vanderslice only played one song from his newest album, Crystals 3.0 because, presumably, it's the only one that can be recreated with just an acoustic guitar. A lot of his work over the past 10 years has veered away from indie rock (if you can use that label for Vanderslice's songs) toward more electronica. Some of the stories he told between songs tackled that subject, pointing out how hip hop and electronica acts often release several things in the space of a year while indie bands take forever to make decisions and obsess over how much effect to put on their guitar in the studio. "Bands are in a stylistic prison," he said. He admitted that in 2013 when he was trying to work on a new album, he couldn't come up with anything when approaching the music as more straightahead rock (my term, not his). When he started using more electronics, things took shape. 

He also talked about being interviewed on the TrueAnon, a politics podcast, with a left-wing analysis, or as its creators put it, "a show about your enemies made by your friends." Vanderslice explained how, when being interviewed, it's easy to put your own spin on a story to keep it interesting, which gets spun even a little more when a producer shapes that interview into a story. 

Throughout the evening, Vanderslice came off as a guy who still gets excited about things on a regular basis. About a week before the show, someone broke into Tiny Telephone, the recording studio he runs in Oakland, California, and a lot of equipment was stolen. As he talked about it, Vanderslice focused less on the shock of the robbery and more on how touched he was that so many people rallied their support online to help the studio recover or try to find the equipment. That support seemed to give him the motivation to continue the tour and not go home to try and deal with the loss right away. (In the week since that show, Jack White alone donated $15,000 to a gofundme campaign for Tiny Telephone.) 

Vanderslice also seemed eternally grateful that we were there for his show. (Things were supposed to end after 75 minutes, but when he finally called it quits, he had been going for nearly two hours.) He tried to pass on his positive disposition too, espousing things like the pleasure of packing a peanut butter sandwich and a thermos of coffee and going on a 10-mile hike. 

And then there were the songs. "Exodus Damage," his first person tale about a fragile character who is caught up in 9/11 conspiracies and devoted to another such believer; "When It Hits My Blood," a tale of someone with bad habits; "Too Much Time," which always seemed like his closest shot at a pop hit. 

After the set, he worked the merch table, giving everyone time for chatting and pictures. I took two because I wanted make sure "I Love Cats" was legible in one of the pictures.