The Electrics: A Long-Winded Story in Three Acts

Act I: 2007

If it weren’t for Ben Mengden, I’d probably never hear any new music. Though I play with various musicians fairly often, I don’t actually turn on the radio and listen to new stuff very frequently at all. (I listened to nothing but The Beatles for about nine months in high school.) Fortunately, I have a few comrades who have both good taste and enthusiasm for sharing, Ben foremost among them.

On a Stupid Guy Trip about 10 years back, several of us were traveling from central Texas to Santa Fe. The drive was long, and we had ample opportunity to visit, to stop and pose with a giant roadrunner sculpture (thanks Stockton!), to play various games in dubious taste, to eat three pounds of beef jerky, and to dig deep into Ben’s CD collection.

“I’ve got a few bands you need to hear!” Ben exclaimed as he led us on a tour through his current listening. Among them were two that I immediately became a fan of: Bright Eyes’ “Balance Beam” instantly caught my attention with Conor’s breaking, nearly out-of-control vocals and the subtle ostinato of the hammered dulcimer — an instrument one almost never hears in popular music — woven subtly into the mix. 

The other was The Electrics.

I’d started playing some traditional Irish with Robert Leahey and Steve Johnson several years previous, with some later encouragement from Brandi Midkiff. Robert and I even went so far as to build some our own pennywhistles out of PVC pipe and wooden dowels. (My hideously ugly low E was still in service until very recently.) But The Electrics took those traditional sounds and added electric guitars, drums, and a whole load of energy and enthusiasm. They were my first introduction to Irish rock, and I loved it. I forced the other passengers to listen to the entirety of their “Livin’ It Up When I Die” album twice more on the trip, and then Ben, ever a generous soul (or possibly wanting to avoid yet another listening session), gave me the disc to take with me. I wore it out.

Act II: 2017

Kris and I got married at the end of April and decided that, since her dear friends Beki Hemingway and Randy Kerkman were living in Wexford, and because it’s a beautiful place to which neither of us had even been, we would go to Ireland for our honeymoon. We took two weeks to tour the Emerald Isle, visiting the Giant’s Causeway, enjoying Guinness and Bulmer’s, seeing the ravages of The Troubles in Belfast, listening to traditional music, flying hawks in Cong, befriending sheep, and hiking through an enchanted forest adjacent to Ashford Castle.

We spent the first days of the trip, however, in Wexford with Randy & Beki. One evening as we were returning from a day trip, Beki asked “Should be stop by and see Sammy and Kylie? They’re married friends of ours, musical missionaries who perform together as a couple. They’re terrific people, and great musicians. You guys should meet them!” A few quick texts verified that they were at home and up for company, so we stopped by.

We pulled up, piled out, and knocked. Sammy immediately answered the door and gave us the warmest welcome imaginable, introducing us to Kylie and regaling us with tales of Ireland and sharing his store of Plopp, the unfortunately-named but delicious Swedish candy. After about thirty minutes of spirited conversation, in the midst of telling us about some of the work that he and Kylie are doing together, Sammy mentioned in passing “my old band.” Wanting to be an engaged guest, I politely asked when the next pause in the conversation came, “What was your old band?”

“The Electrics.”

“WHAT?!?”

“The Electrics. Have you heard of us?”

“You’re freaking KIDDING me. I LOVE The Electrics. You guys were my introduction to Irish rock, and my gateway drug to The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, and that whole Boston Celtic punk scene. Holy Plopp, that’s fantastic!”

I fanboyed continuously at Sammy for about 5 minutes, after which he very graciously wiped off my enthusiastic spittle and gave us, not only the remaining Plopp, but also the CDs of the The Electrics that I didn’t already have and a thumb drive with all of his and Kylie’s music. The discs were a delight, and became the soundtrack for the rest of our honeymoon, both because of the kindness and generosity they represented, and because they’re some darn fine tunes.

Act III: 2018

A few months ago, back in Texas, I saw that Randy had posted on Facebook: “Just finished co-writing a worship song with Sammy, and I’m pretty excited about it.” Because I’m a believer in the “show, don’t tell” principle of writing, and because I like to give Randy a hard time, I responded with something like “MP3s or it didn’t happen!”

Randy, very appropriately, ignored my jibe. But Sammy messaged me privately and said “Here’s the rough draft we worked on. Pretty jazzed about it!” I gave it a listen, and really dug it. “Great stuff!” I responded with a few details about the things I appreciated about the music and the songwriting. I wrapped up with “Hey, if you need a pennywhistle track, let me know!” (This was, of course, one of those situations where you actually mean it, but realize you’re being a bit pushy and obnoxious and pass it off as a bit of a joke to give the other person a graceful way out.)

Sammy, being a frightfully decent human being, responded with a diplomatic “Well, Tim from The Electrics is coming to record all of the Celtic instruments in a few weeks, but you can have a go if you want.” (Bear in mind that at this point, Sammy and I have never played together, so the possibly imaginary subtext I read here was “Ok, fanboy, settle down and let the grownups do their thing.”)

But I was still excited about the prospect, so I pulled out my Blu mic, stuck it on a stand in my closet among all of the clothes on their hangers to get the driest signal I could (science!), fired up Garage Band, and threw down a few whistle tracks, doing several takes to get them as polished as I was able. I had a grand time working out the parts and recording them, so figured even if Sammy wasn’t keen on them at all, it was still time well spent. 

A couple days later, I got a note back from Sammy. “Hey, there’s some good stuff in here. I think we might be able to use this!” (Possibly imaginary subtext: “Well, maybe you’re not a complete ninny fanboy! Well, not _just_ a complete ninny fanboy!”)

We went through another iteration or two as the song got rewritten a bit, but finally wrapped up that exchange with Sammy telling me “This is great stuff. You’re an honorary Electric!”

My forwarding address for several days was Cloud Nine. Not only had I gotten to meet one my major musical influences, but now through a phenomenally serendipitous series of events had actually gotten to collaborate on a musical project with him from across the ocean. What a treat!

So, if you’re curious about this track, go check out Sammy’s kickstarter for the upcoming 2 disc project Worship Like a Celt. He’s brought a large collection of musicians together to explore the ancient Celtic influence on spirituality and worship. Sammy’s been working terrifically hard to make this a really solid project (as have Kylie, Beki, and Randy), and I’m excited to finally hear the finished product. 

And if you’re ever an hour south of Dublin, you might stop by and say hello. Just don’t forget the Plopp.

Kids’ Day Out: 2011(ish) Edition

Each Summer, while the kids are out of school, I arrange a full day out with each of them. Sometimes that means taking a day off of work; on other occasions we squeeze it in on a Saturday. Regardless of when it is, it’s one of the things I look forward to a ton each year (and seems to be a highlight for the young people too).

This year, the first adventure was with Liam. Thanks to Kevin Huffaker, a friend of mine from the university who is not only an amazing polymath but also a tremendously generous guy, we were able to start our day with a SCUBA primer. Neither Liam nor I had ever been before. We both love being in the water, and found the experience utterly delightful. While the river was running low and water conditions turned cloudy pretty quickly as people upstream swam around, we had a great time learning how to control our buoyancy and seeing a bit of the river from a new vantage point.

From there, we treated Kevin to lunch at Valentino’s, Liam’s favorite pizza place in San Marcos, and then caught the then-current Harry Potter movie. A trip to the Blazer Tag center up in Austin was next, where he and I emerged 1st and 2nd in our game with 30 other people. (All those video games do pay off!) The center in Austin is one of the best arenas I’ve been to, and was a ton of fun. We finished off the day with a visit to the Nazi Pirate at Peter Pan mini golf, where I was able to salvage a bit of my honor after the thumping Liam gave me at laser tag.

Next up was my day out with Maggie. She loves nothing more than to be in the water, so Schlitterbahn has been the natural destination for us for many years. Repeatedly voted best waterpark in the country, it’s only 20 minutes away from our house, and is a much more agreeable experience than many amusement parks these days. (Free parking, bring your own picnic, and new stuff every year.) We were a bit disappointed to see that Family Blaster, a ride that uses high-powered jets of water to shoot a raft containing up to 6 people up a hill, had been retired, but we did spend a delightful day climbing on floating crocodiles, navigating our tubes down 20-minute long tube chutes, and slipping down slides. We even invented a word game while we were waiting in line that’s become a standard in-car activity for our family.

I took Abigail out next. Our first stop was Tacodeli, a vegetarian-friendly taco joint that’s both delicious and a quintessentially Austin experience. After that, we wandered Barton Creek mall for a bit, and then went to see Cowboys & Aliens, which I’d been looking forward to since seeing the first preview. Our next stop was Mozart’s, a wonderful coffee shop on the banks of Town Lake. We got tasty beverages, I introduced Abby to cannoli (one of my favorite treats), and we both pulled out guitars and played and sang together down by the water while the turtles looked on appreciatively. When our fingers tired, we moved on to Pinballz (the best arcade I’ve ever visited) and played Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and other pinball classics. Our last stop for the day was at the Alamo Drafthouse for Abby’s first Master Pancake Theater show: Twilight! She was a fan of the books, and had been disappointed by the first movie, so I figured a lampooning would be the ideal way to enjoy the second. She agreed.

In addition to the goal of simply having a grand time, I also set Abby and I the task of both taking lots of photos along the way, and picking out our favorites along the way to edit and post on Facebook as a record of our day together. Here are the 8 shots we deemed best.

Unfortunately, I had a dreadful time coordinating Emily’s and my calendars, but in March of the next year, we finally managed to find a day we both had open. After hearing of Liam’s mini-adventure, Emily was keen to try SCUBA as well, so we rounded up Kevin again and my friend Jason and set off for a larger-scale run: near the headwaters of the San Marcos River down to the whitewater course at the other end of town. Since we’d finally had some rain after a tremendous drought, the water was running clear and fast, and we had beautiful visibility as we swam under waterfalls, through valleys of endangered Texas Wild Rice, and past a variety of water creatures. Emily filled a bag with treasures she found in the water, and I reveled in the opportunity to see the river as we never had before.

After our swim, we regrouped at the house while eating big Subway sandwiches, and then Emily and I went north for her first Master Pancake Theater show: Back to the Future. The lads did a terrific job with it, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and laughing our heads off. We even got the surprise treat of getting to overhear some of a Young the Giant show as we walked past — a favorite of Emily’s that she hadn’t even known was playing that night.

I had a terrific time getting to enjoy each of our kiddos individually, and treat them to some unique experiences they all enjoyed. Thanks, squirrels, for the great time. Now, let’s get cracking and plan this year’s adventures!

Jon Anderson Show

When I was growing up, I had musical tastes decidedly out of step with my peers. I went through a year or two of listening to nothing but The Beatles, then only gospel music for a while, and loved to blast early Andrew Lloyd Weber (on vinyl) and the Star Wars soundtrack (a much-loved gift from my folks) on our stereo. (I also enjoyed cranking up the car radio as loud as it would go to play “Puff the Magic Dragon”, though that was mostly to confuse the people we drove past.)

One of my very favorite albums, however, was Yes’ Close to the Edge. Since it was released when I was two years old, none of my friends had any affinity for it. I don’t recall ever trying to share it with anyone or convince others of its delights: it was my personal music space that I loved, a place to go to be alone and to enjoy that solitude. In a way, I think sharing it or finding someone else who loved that album might have ruined it for me.

Over the years, however, I haven’t kept up with the band or their goings-on. It was therefore with some astonishment and considerable delight that I read my friend Barry Brake was going to be conducting a choir that would be backing up Jon Anderson, the band’s distinctive vocalist, on Monday at the Majestic theater in San Antonio. I enthused with Barry, who is immensely gifted both as a musician and as a finder-of-interesting-opportunities, about his chance to meet and work with “one of the greats.” He reciprocated by offering to help us lay hands on tickets for the family to come down and see the show — largesse I was thrilled to accept.

To sweeten the deal even further, it turned out that Jon was being backed up not only by the choir, but also by the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, an excellent symphony orchestra with which I played as a teenager. Though none of the people associated with the group were the same as during my era, it was an added delight to see that group performing again. (And to observe that Orchestra Nerds still look the same 25 years later.)

So Monday night, we all trooped down to the delightful Majestic theater for the show. We arrived early enough for the curious to go roaming through the place, giving ourselves a tour of its baroque wonders as we waited for the music to start. Finally, the lights dimmed, YOSA played an introductory musical segment, and Anderson took the stage.

He was terrific. Even at age 66 after having dealt with some significant health issues, he has a great vocal instrument, and smoothly transitioned from soaring melodic lines to staccato percussive stylings with apparent ease. His trademark high-pitched range is intact, and carries over into his speech. He did a mix of songs he’d done with Yes and his solo work, and was backed up ably by the orchestra and choir. While he apparently performed solo at other points in his tour, I was glad for the additional musicians on stage with him. (After all, what’s “I’ve Seen All Good People” with only a single singer?)

While it was clear that, of our group, I was the one most enjoying the show, the evening as a whole worked out to be a delight for everyone. Maggie, while not much into the performance, enjoyed exploring the Majestic and picking out all of the decorative details. The Brakes’ company is always a delight and, since it was the start of Spring Break week for the young folks, we were able to all troop to Chacho’s for absurdly large piles of nachos and cheap margaritas afterwards.

So big thanks to Jon and Barry for the great start to our Spring Break week!

Another Chapter for Mom

This past Friday, I got to be a part of my Mom’s wedding.

It was a remarkable and beautiful occasion — beautiful for most of the usual reasons: two people pledging themselves to love and care for each other until their bodies fail them in the task, a community of loving and supportive friends, and the chance for all us married folks to reflect on our own vows along with the couple at the center of the event.

But there were wonderful, unusual aspects to the day as well: both my mother and her new husband, Bill Liles, had been married before, and had previous spouses on hand to cheer and support them. While Bill’s parents were unable to make it down from Pennsylvania to attend the event, the best man had a cell phone in hand for the entire ceremony so that they could listen in and be a part from their home. There were a wealth of children, step-children, and grandchildren of the couple on-hand and involved. The church choir in which they met was there in force both to affirm their union and to provide some great music for the event. (Oh Happy Day!) My mother was celebrating her wedding the day before she celebrated her 70th birthday.

But the best thing of all, to my mind, was that it was the most joyful and happy I have seen my mom in years. Possibly ever. (And, while I don’t have the same history with him, Bill seemed similarly giddy.)

In spite of the fact that just over a month elapsed between the time they decided to get married and the wedding, everything came together beautifully (though not without a certain amount of scrambling). Marti, my mom’s sister, did an amazing job of pulling together the necessary planning, organizing, and communication. Kathy whipped together a lovely program in Word the day of the wedding. (This was especially notable, as she and technology are normally mortal enemies.) And I was honored to get to sing Steven Curtis Chapman’s “I Will Be Here” during the lighting of the Unity candle. (I was wryly amused that the rendition during the ceremony was rougher than any of my practice sessions, and that my doppelgänger brother actually received more comments on it than I did.)

But in spite of the hurried preparations, the evening was terrific and really reflected the character and personality of the couple. Joy, humor, beauty, silliness, tenderness, authenticity, love, and the odd slightly off-color comment were all there in front of the altar with them, and were clearly welcome companions.

So, best wishes and prayers to you, Bill and Diane, as you launch into this next chapter of your lives together. We look forward to walking it alongside you, and are delighted at the joy you have found in each other. Big love to you both.

Star Trek: The Song

One of the reasons I enjoy my good friend Barry Brake so much is his penchant for wandering off into what one of his friends calls “Barryland”, a mental space characterized by enthusiasm for and serious contemplation of things that most people would gloss over. He recently recorded what may be the first rendering of the classic Alexander Courage Star Trek theme with the words that Gene Roddenberry wrote added back in. It’s terrific, and suits Barry’s voice and style to a T. Go and enjoy.

Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion Project

Kathy and I attended the Pat Metheny show in Austin last night. We’d never gotten to see him before, and were familiar with very little of his music, but I was crazy to see this show once Barry Brake brought it to our attention. Why? The Orchestrion!

What is the Orchestrion? It’s a huge assemblage of instruments played by mechanical means — a player piano taken to crazy extremes. I’ve long been interested in non-traditional instruments and especially ones that are driven by electronics and machines, so this show was irresistible to me.

The performance was amazing. Metheny’s virtuosity on a guitar, both the normal version and the various “enhanced” ones he played over the course of the evening, was remarkable. The mechanical instruments were varied, beautiful, and fascinating, and a pleasure to watch and try to figure out how he controlled them. The only downside? It turns out that neither of us particularly like Metheny’s music.

But first things first. The instruments — my goodness, the instruments! He opened with a hihat with two solenoid-driven drumsticks playing it, as well as a set of finger cymbals mounted on a similar actuator. He also had some very cool four-stringed instruments with robot “fingers” that rolled rapidly up and down the strings and revolving plectrums that set the strings vibrating. There was a big marimba on each side of the stage with a mallet for every bar that played under computer control as well.

After a few pieces with these instruments, he pulled up a curtain to reveal the rest of the Orchestrion. My first impression was that some enterprising high school biology student had taken a scalpel to Neal Peart’s drum kit, carefully dissected it, and then neatly pinned all its component bits to the wall. There was also a cabinet filled with jars containing varying amounts of water to produce different pitches when air was blown across the top, a bass and guitar that looked like they had been assimilated by the Borg, and a big collection of hand percussion being shaken by mechanical poltergeists. When they all got going at once (which they often did), it made for some wonderful mechanical musical madness!

Unfortunately, Metheny plays a flavor of music that, while technically amazing and probably fascinating to modern Jazz fans, didn’t do much for either of us. Melodies were rare, harmonic progressions often seemed a bit directionless, and we were left feeling a bit adrift in a sea of high-speed improvisations. We were, however, clearly in the minority, as the crowd was hugely enthusiastic and provided several standing ovations over the course of the evening.

But in spite of that, we found the show fascinating, enjoyed getting to see the Paramount for the first time, and had a great evening together.

Will o’ the Wisp

Now that I’ve found and started to get the hang of MuseScore, I’m catching up on a bit of music stuff that’s been lurking at the back of my to-do list for a while. Next up is Will o’ the Wisp, a little Irish Jig I wrote a couple of years back. It’s a trifle, but kind of fun, and is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license, so you’re free to perform, remix, and otherwise mess around with it if you wish.

Will 'o the Wisp

You can also grab it in PDF if you like.

Pretending to be Jason

My excellent friend Jason Young is deep into the part of his year where he writes and transcribes hundreds of pages of sheet music for Baylor University’s annual Sing event. Since he recently harassed me for not having posted anything to the weblog lately, I thought I’d take a stab at pretending to be him for half an hour and posting the results. Here they are:

For No OneThis is the solo from The Beatles “For No One”, which my dear horn-playing Abigail has been after me to transcribe for her for months. It is transposed here into what is (I think) an easy key for horn, and hopefully a comfortable range. (Jason, let me know if I’ve gotten that wrong!)

The big obstacle to doing this up to now has been notation software — I’ve been reluctant to shell out for the commercial packages, but all of the free/open-source stuff I’ve found has quickly made me crazy. But this morning I stumbled across MuseScore, an actively-developed, well thought-out application that allowed me to learn it well enough to knock out this simple score in about 30 minutes.

I’m really pleased with the program, and am looking forward to more easily be able to do some sheet music for O’Malarkey, the Irish band I’m playing with, as well. If you ever have occasion to write out music, take a look! (It handles scores, lyrics, and chord names as well.)

Pop Music and Vocal Range

This morning while walking the kids to school, I had Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York” running through my head and, since I have no filter between them, out of my mouth. As I reached for the low note at the end of a phrase, it occurred to me that the range of the song’s melody — an octave and a perfect fourth — seemed unusually large. That got me to thinking about vocal range in pop music and wondering whether Paul Simon is more ambitious than most in that regard.

While mulling this over and considering various examples, I decided it would be fun to enlist my musical friends to see what the most extreme examples of melodic range — both large and small — we could think of in popular music are. So, musical friends, let’s play! Here are the rules:

  1. Your entry can include a maximum range song and a minimum range song. (Figuring out the range is helpful, but not strictly required.)
  2. You can’t repeat a song someone else has already mentioned in the comment thread already.
  3. The song must be common enough that most people would have heard it. Thus, either major record labels or something with a comparable degree of exposure.
  4. Note to especially talented friends, and corollary to rule #3: you may not write a song just for this purpose.
  5. Multiple entries are encouraged.

I’ll throw my hat in the ring with an initial entry that should be easy to beat:

  • Large Range: Only Living Boy in New York, Simon & Garfunkel — an octave and a perfect fourth
  • Small Range: Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry — a perfect fifth

In order to make this a bit more interesting, I’ll buy the winner their album of choice in digital format. The winner will be determined entirely by me, and my decision is final. Anyone who disputes it will be beset by my army of trained flying monkeys.