Category Archives: Music in the City

#WEEZERQUEST: A RIVERS RUNS THROUGH IT

Rivers, if you ever read this, I have to apologize. It seems like every article where you’re interviewed or discussed has an eye roll-inducing pun in the title and I just… I couldn’t resist. I promise I’m at least 30% more clever than this. [citation needed]

IMG_5783 - Version 2-impOur ragtag Weezer tribute band My Name Is Jonas Brothers played an absolutely kick-ass gig back on Black Friday, and the crowd was one of the best I’ve ever encountered. People were screaming lyrics, having a blast, and after the show I was told more than once that we sounded just like Weezer in the ‘90s, even that a few concertgoers had been “trying to see us” for some time. That felt special. Then I realized I’ve been slacking, and I know that perhaps tens of you are foaming at the mouth for more insight into our little labor of love.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

WHEN WE BEGAN talking about the idea that would later be #weezerquest (so coined by Instagram follower and frequent commenter Dan Murphy) the only stipulation we made was as follows: Unless we were willing to put in the effort to nail those tones, we may as well not even do it. Look, there are plenty of Weezer tribute acts out there, many of which are really good bands. (At the time of this publication, there are at least three other active tribute acts in Seattle alone) However, we weren’t interested in simply being good; our goal was authenticity.

This meant A LOT of research.

I’ve Got Electric Guitar

Ric's CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on "Say it Ain't So") and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

Ric’s CAR Jaguar (used mainly for cleans, most notably on “Say it Ain’t So”) and the Les Paul Special DC. Photo source: Weezerpedia

If there’s one thing Weezer is known for, it’s their towering, nigh-impenetrable wall of guitar, but you might be surprised to learn that the band’s first record (affectionately known as “Blue” by fans) did not rely on humbuckers to get that sound. P90s, actually.

Blue’s heavy sound is almost entirely made up of Rick Ocasek’s ’59 Les Paul Special DC run through Rivers’ distorted Mesa Mark I, as well as a Marshall SL-X for some other tracks. As much as I wanted to remain authentic, I chose early on to strike a balance between Weezer’s thick studio sound and their raw live and Pinkerton-era tones. So, instead of dropping ~$5k on a vintage guitar, I focused instead on the guitar I most associated with Weezer: Rivers’ iconic “Strat with the lightning strap.

Wearing mismatched pickups and a hardtail bridge, Rivers’ famous Blue Strat from the ’94-’01 era was the thing I idolized, so the chance to recreate it was what truly excited me in the first place. The Blue Strat isn’t a stock model, but rather an instrument purpose-built from using parts from Warmoth. It can be seen on the inside gatefold of the Blue album, and in just about every performance and promo shot of the band for 6 or so years. Having thought about that guitar for 20 years, I began collecting any images or notes I could find; there were brief excerpts from mid-‘90s interviews, disposable camera scans, and about 70 blurry screenshots from the “Say It Ain’t So” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” videos to help me nail down the parts I needed to find.

I may have gone completely overboard.

The Hundred Acre Woodshed

Over a very short period of time, I had amassed over 200 reference images. Sadly, other than the pickups, there really isn’t a lot of concrete info to go on, and working off of decades-old blurry photos isn’t an ideal way to view obscure parts. Full disclosure: I’m not bold enough to call up Weezer themselves and ask them if they would weezer BS EDITplease answer my particularly nerdy questions.

In a very short time, it became obvious that Rivers’ guitar isn’t just any Sonic Blue double fat Strat. What I had previously assumed to be a cobbling together of available parts seemed more to me like a completely intentional build, specific to Rivers’ Hair Metal-influenced technique and the perceived shortcomings of his previous instruments. Whether or not this is true is pure speculation, but in following the breadcrumb trail of his prior employs to this guitar, a methodology certainly emerged.

Thanks to the efforts of other Weezer-obsessed fans, and mainly to Weezer Historian and Tech Karl Koch, we are blessed with Weezerpedia, which has, among bios and background info on rare songs, a rather comprehensive equipment timeline for each member. Because of this, I was able to get a basic sketch of the guitar I was replicating.

X-Ray Specs

From photos, we know that The Blue Strat is a hardtail model with 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, with a tortoise shell pickguard mounted to its blue body. Thanks to Weezerpedia, we also know that Rivers’ chosen pickup combo is a black Seymour Duncan TB59 in the bridge and a creme DiMarzio Super II in the neck, both F-spaced. Watching Rivers switch pickups during televised performances confirmed my suspicions that his electronics were as simple as they could get: a three way switch and a master volume and tone. (Actually, it’s not a tone knob, but we’ll get to that in a bit)

Other parts were more difficult to discern. For one, I could only find one really good shot of the tuners, which only shows me the shape of the buttons, which I combined with a side shot from the “Say it Ain’t So” video to determine that they are Sperzels. A lack of reflections led me to believe they were finished in satin chrome.

Another brief mystery surrounded the control knobs, which I assumed were the usual black V/T combo, but to my surprise, they’re both marked VOLUME. Although I had two volumes on my guitar for a while, I ended up with a “MASTER” knob, which turned out to be from a late ‘70s Fender Starcaster. I thought that was more badass, so I deviated from authenticity there. Booooooooo.

However, one question held up my work longer than any other: “What the hell is that bridge?”

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Like I said, we know the guitar has a hard tail bridge, and photos of the back of the body clearly show string ferrules. Easy, right? Not at all, really. Compare this everyday hard tail bridge to a screen shot of Rivers playing The Blue Strat:

Bridge Comparison
Seriously, what the hell is that? That fat sustain block tells me it’s some kind of ‘70s/‘80s thing, but without ultra-clear shots, I really didn’t know where to start. In the end, this question stole over ten hours of my life.

I searched high and low for information about the particulars of this bridge, but found nothing. After hours leafing through photo after photo, I turned to Rivers’ metal roots for inspiration. While paging through old Charvel catalogs, I stumbled upon the Jake E. Lee model, which originally had a bridge eerily similar to the one on the Blue Strat, its visual negative twin. That led me to interviews with JEL, and finally, Charvel brass bridges.

Behold ST111: BrassParts
That’s the one there in the bottom right corner. In this shot, it’s unplated, but it has that unmistakable machined sustain block and elongated saddle design not found on any other aftermarket bridge.

Now that I knew what I was looking for, actually finding it was a fool’s errand. I searched over 10,000 eBay listings for multiple search terms like “brass Strat bridge”, “Charvel Jake E Lee” (to which it is similar) and even “hard tail guitar bridge”. Nada. Zip. Big fat goose egg.

IMG_4697I never actually found an exact duplicate of Rivers’ bridge, but thanks to Aaron Pinto from Tumblr, I was able to order a Japanese Allparts replica that was more than adequate for my needs. Though the string spacing is slimmer than on the original Charvel, not to mention that the black plating has already worn off, but it’s close enough in look and sounds unbelievably good.

Don’t worry, though, I’m still looking for that exact bridge.

Building a Mystery

When it came to things like nut width or fret size, I used my best judgment, making educated guessed and allowing personal bias to dictate spec choices.

IMG_4844-impNECK
-Stratocaster
-Maple
-Satin nitro finish
-Rosewood fingerboard
-1 11/16″ nut width
-10”-16” compound radius
-22 frets
-Pearl dot inlays
-Black Corian nut
-Sperzel locking tuners

BODY
-Stratocaster
-2 HB routing
-Sonic Blue finish
-Hardtail bridge option
-WD tort pickguard
-reissue Charvel Jake E. Lee style bridge

ELECTRONICS
-Seymour Duncan Trembucker ’59 F-Spaced (8.3kohms)
-DiMarzio Super II F-Spaced (8.7kohms)
-500k CTS Volume
-250k (275K, actually) tone
-On board distortion from two 1n34a ‘cat whisker’ diodes wired in reverse parallel and in place of a tone cap

Warmoth could not have done a better job with these parts. The body is the exact color I wanted (Sonic Blue can be hard to accurately reproduce in photos, and paint batches can vary in color as well) and the neck was beautifully finished in satin nitro. Surprisingly, they made it out of beautiful flamed maple, which was a nice surprise. The fit between body and neck was tight in the best way possible, and unlike some other companies I’ve worked with in the past, there was no need to modify the pickup routs or control cavities for the parts to be installed. I’ll say that the guard may be a bit too red, so maybe I’ll try for a darker, more brownish one in the future. All things considered, it’s otherwise dead-on!

Impressions:

Before I had even plugged in, I knew it was going to be an especially fun guitar to play. That bridge, though –– THAT was the real secret to nailing the classic Weezer sound.

That massive, heavy brass hard tail bridge makes the guitar sustain and ring out like no other Stratocaster I’ve ever played. Booming low end, snarly mids and loud, rich highs abound, while pinch harmonics just jump out of the thing. Strumming full chords feels totally metal, even when played acoustically. I’ve always preferred hard tail Strats to the trem-equipped variety, but I’ve never heard one quite like this. In Eb tuning, this guitar is beastly.

Plugged into the Fender Excelsior Pro at the shop, more elements of Rivers’ sound started to make more sense, too. Both pickups are a bit more polite than you might expect given Rivers’ wildly overdriven tone, the DiMarzio Super II measuring at 8.7k and the Duncan TB-59 at 8.3k. I was initially worried about the neck pickup being slightly hotter than the bridge, but they balance out surprisingly well in their positions.

With many modern players gravitating toward hot pickups, there is a tendency to default to louder models for thickened tones. I’d argue that there is sound logic in the choice of lower-output pickups when you’re looking to get heavy: muddying up a muddy, loud pickup results in – you guessed it – a muddier sound, but over-overdriving a really clear, not too hot pickup results in this crunchy, thick sound that takes me right back to the golden days of Weezer every time I plug in. Allowing the amp to do most of the heavy lifting really brings out the punchy nature of the guitar.

I’m already a fan of the Duncan ’59 pickup, but I was shocked by the usefulness of such a bright neck pickup. I mean, the Super II is a LOT brighter than I expected, but suddenly those big chords with the low 5th sounded bigger, and some of the solos I loved from Blue sounded more “right” than ever. When I finally plugged into my Marshall rig, this guitar positively shakes the Earth.

On Thin Ice

As mentioned on Weezerpedia, Rivers had a Black Ice module installed in his guitar, a passive overdrive that takes the place of a tone cap and creates a tweed-like drive. It was difficult for me to guess at just how important this feature was to the overall character of his sound.

The Black Ice module as it used to be is a pretty neat little device, but they’ve recently overhauled the design so that more gain is available in different wiring configurations. Originally, I had planned on buying the real thing, but because the old unit had only the one sound, I got lost in all of the wiring options. Then I found this Instructable and ordered some 1n34a “cat whisker” diodes and wired them as described. How does it sound? Unbelievably good! Listen for yourself:

That sounds great, right? I was really surprised at how much I liked it, and I’ve made good use of my secret weapon in subsequent non-Weezer gigs. When covering Weezer songs, I’m using the diode distortion in conjunction with an overdriven amp, thickening the guitar’s voice while slightly dampening the high end. If you’re curious about how it stacks with other gain sources, here’s a video of how the circuit performs when matched with my Crowther Hot Cake. And here’s how it sounds in a live setting!

Letterman Jacket

IMG_5741After our first show just a week after the Blue Album’s 20th anniversary, I decided to have some fun with the many electrical tape designs the guitar wore during Weezer’s touring cycles, thanks to Karl. I picked my favorite design –– specifically, the one seen in the “Say It Ain’t So” video and Weezer’s performance of that song on Late Night With David Letterman in 1995 –– and set about copying it as closely as possible.

I already had plenty of photos, but because of Rivers’ right arm positioning, I couldn’t quite make out what was going on with the black tape at the arm contour, so I traced the lines and their most probable paths. Thankfully, the Letterman performance had a few much-needed camera angles, allowing me to see what happens to the tape as it rounds the Stratocaster’s two horns. I couldn’t be more proud of the end result.IMG_5940

 

AMP RIG

Putting together the perfect amp rig for this was a bit easier than the guitar since not as many ambiguities exist on that side of the project. You can read about the many amp rigs of the band, but as I see it, there are two main amps of note:

As we know from Karl Koch recounting the early days, Blue and the shows and tours surrounding it relied on a Mesa Mark I amp head, one of the earlier ones with the rear-mounted presence knob. This amp is, sadly, long-lost at this point. Some months ago, we happened to take in a Mesa “Son of Boogie” amp that sounded really great, but I’ve just never been able to get on with Mesa amps personally, so I didn’t spring for it. It did sound incredibly close to that early Weezer sound, but I have a bias (amp joke) toward British amps.
imageDuring the ’95 tour and Pinkerton recording sessions, Rivers used a Marshall 30th Anniversary 6100LM head, an amp with three channels, pentode/triode switching, an effects loop and a host of other features that make it extremely versatile. Karl tells that Rivers “borrowed” one from the Cranberries for their Lettermen performance when his SL-X picked up a “horrible sounding hum” and purchased his own shortly thereafter. He gravitated toward channel two, which has three separate modes to cover the sounds of the JTM45, Superlead Plexi, and JCM800/900 era of Marshall sounds. This was his main amp both live and in-studio until 2001, when it was relegated to road use. If you look closely, you can tell that Rivers’ 6100LM is in fact the less-liked 5881/6L6 version.

Up to this point, my amp of choice is actually one that I already owned, my 1979 Marshall 2204 50 watt JMP. While not something Rivers seems to have used live, it has appeared both in-studio and in Brian’s amp rig so it’s definitely in the right wheelhouse. I’ll use it until I can track down the right 6100, but honestly, it sounds perfect for the application.

MOCK! YEAH!

If we’re talking about the Weezer sound, I might argue that Rivers’ towering “mock 8×10” Marshall cab is the real secret weapon. Rivers used a 1968 Marshall model 1990 8×10 sized cabinet that had an offset 4×12 baffle configuration, loaded with two black- and two green-back Celestion speakers. Slimmer side-to-side than the usual Marshall head, this distinctively large cab pushes a lot of air.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it's otherwise an exact replica. Oh, except for the stains.

I installed a medium Marshall logo to match my head, but it’s otherwise an exact replica. Minus the stains, I mean.

Unable to track down a real ’68 8×10/4×12 of my own, I ordered one custom from Florida’s Sourmash Guitar Cabs, a company that makes amazing Marshall-style cabs at insanely affordable prices. They were all too eager to do another 1990 cab, and once it arrived, I was in love. It’s hilariously tall, and with that size comes a LOT of sonic power. Wired up with the same speakers as Rivers’ cab and my 50-watt head, it’s loud and thunderous; a massive cab both in size and sound. It’s my favorite cab, ever.

It’s an intimidating setup, both for myself and the sound techs unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of me loading in before showtime. I’ve actually surprised a few sound engineers with this one, one of whom told me, “When I saw you come in here, I thought ‘Oh no, look at this asshole. He’s gonna blow me out of the room,’ but you actually sounded great!”

I guess we both got lucky that night.

PEDALS

For this project, I’m not relying on pedals the way I normally do, what with my gigantic board and all. For lead boosts, I’m currently using a modified BOSS DS-1 with one of the diodes pulled for more volume. Aside from a TU-2, the only other pedal I’m using in My Name Is Jonas Brothers is my trusty Z.Vex Fuzz Factory to nail the fuzzy, octave-up sounds from certain Pinkerton tracks, such as the breakdown in “Pink Triangle” or the slower post-solo section of “The Good Life”.

That’s it for me. Soon, I’ll take you on a tour through the rigs of Mike Ball (as Matt Sharp) and our guitar player CJ Stout, MNIJB’s Brian Bell!

Like My Name Is Jonas Brothers on Facebook for show updates and pictures of Mike’s dog. And do yourself a favor and check out Weezer’s new record, Everything Will Be Alright In The End. It’s damn good.

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#Weezerquest: The Story of ‘My Name Is Jonas Brothers’

IMG_5567-impIf you happen to follow us on our various social media platforms (Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook) then you’re probably already keyed into the fact that we LOVE Weezer. And it’s also true that we have a bit of an obsession with the band, from their sound and gear, to the lore and mystery surrounding the parts guitars, various amp heads and studio setups that make the records we love.

We’re particularly enamored with Weezer’s first two records, 1994’s self-titled debut –– affectionately known as ‘Blue’ to fans –– and 1996’s Pinkerton. Brilliantly crafted power-pop abounded within, with lyrics that require thought and inspection to decode further than the oft-used “geek rock” label, as well as some of the most massive guitar tones I’ve ever heard. And, much like finding newly-unearthed deleted scenes from Star Wars, Weezer’s unreleased B-sides were just as exciting.

As you can imagine, our daily conversations at the shop would often turn to deep, Weezer-related questions; we’d discuss the effect Matt Sharp’s raw, distorted tone on Pinkerton affected the feel of that record; how our minds were blown when we first realized Blue was recorded with an old Les Paul Special DC with P90s, rather than the Strat with humbuckers we see in concerts; how Weezer sounded different from most bands simply because they used low 5ths in their barre chords. Invariably, the question “Just how in the hell did they get that tone?” would turn into an hours-long debate, riddled with speculation and adult beverages.

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

An in-process shot of my Rivers Cuomo tribute Strat and mock 8×10 cab!

Over the years, we joked often about starting a Weezer cover band, of which there are many in Seattle. Once Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar started taking on a life of its own, it didn’t take long for us to start talking about that old idea in a serious tone. Finally in late 2013, we decided to really go for it, but with one major caveat: we didn’t want to just be another cover band. We wanted to go full-Weezer, replicating the gear responsible for some of our favorite rock tones.

Given the amount of guitars and amps that come through the shop, we decided to get absolutely manic, using our gear hunting skills and detail-oriented minds to deeply research all of the equipment the band used during those years, getting as close as possible to the look, sound and experience that made Weezer so formidable. We poured over the albums themselves, sought out live and studio photos from 1994-1998 (many of which were scans of developed film) and accumulated massive databases of screenshots and the like in order to nail down every last spec we could reasonably determine. We combed through interviews, Weezerpedia articles, forums… you name it.

It’s been a months-long process, but let me tell you: it’s been well-worth it. We’ve beautifully replicated the guitars, amp rigs and modifications that made Weezer sound like Weezer, and we’ve done so with fervor and conviction. We’ve even been lucky enough to gain the attention of the band themselves through the process! Former bassist Matt Sharp has even taken an interest in our attempts at recreating his iconic Jazz Bass, taunting us via social media to let us know when we missed something!

That’s my close-as-I-can-get-from-photos Matt Sharp Jazz Bass replica, worn by our good friend Leah, who used her attentive eye to recreate the ’96’ sticker found on the pickguard of the original bass. Matt Sharp posted the above photo on his Instagram account along with some extremely kind words, our contact info and a challenge to his followers:

…help me salute and celebrate these two lovely lunatics, go to Mike And Mike’s Guitar Bar and take a pic with this crazy, monstrosity of a bajo-doppelgänger and I’ll regram whomever posts the best pic.

The best part? I caught his message about us right after playing a killer first show with our Weezer tribute act, My Name Is Jonas Brothers. Great night or greatest night? What an incredible honor!

In the few weeks since our very first show, the response we’ve gotten from Weezer fans and aficionados has been, well, overwhelming. Even before we played a note, our Tumblr and Instagram followers and friends were cheering us on, and our equally-obsessive bandmates have spurred us on to a level of detail we never thought possible. And frequent Instagram commenter Dan Murphy even coined a hashtag just for us: #weezerquest. (Use it to follow along!)

So now, we’d like to take you on a tour through our journey to put together what we believe might just be the most badass Weezer cover band on the planet. Also, we feel it necessary to document not only our processes and instruments, but also whatever illness we might have that compels us to get so exacting with this band.

And if you didn’t notice, the photo at the beginning of the article isn’t the gatefold photo from 1994’s Blue album. THAT’S OUR GEAR!

#weezerquest is live!

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Concert Review: Father John Misty Bakes a Cake, Evidently.

After a casual glance over the reviews FJM is getting across the web, one thing’s clear: singer Josh Tillman is hot. We get it, teenage girls, no need to crygasm! OMG, SO DREAMY! HE’S A SEXUAL PANDALMATION!!! Don’t believe me? Do some Google sleuthing of your own; we’ll wait for you.

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I know, right? I mean, seriously! E-scream after e-scream about Josh’s good looks and swiveling hips. To be fair, J. Tillman is indeed a fit bloke, but somehow this all seems to be missing the point. Beyond Tillman’s boyish charms there is lyrical substance, a narrative voice that is intensely compelling. On my first  Misty’s single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, I found myself not only wrapped up in Tillman’s dark, often humorous prose, but that my mind had begun wandering through a cobalt forest, guided by the gentlemanly arm extended to me by Tillman’s voice. The song actually took me someplace other than the grey couch upon which I was perched, which impressed me, jaded as I am. Also, Aubrey Plaza is hot, which helps. Sue me. (Don’t.)

Backing up the verdant poetry is a solid musical foundation. Deeply rooted in ’50s and ’60s Country/Rock, Father John Misty succeeds in bringing a bespectacled smirk to these influences. Of course, it’s all the rage for indie musicians to curtly borrow the twang and swagger of Southern music, but even a cursory listen will dispel the myth that FJM is guilty of this sin as Tillman obviously has a deep love of his source material. While the sound is updated it is in earnest, as there is a reverence and respect that flows through the release that’s so often missing from those of some of his contemporaries. One is reminded of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings when taking in this album, with a dose of George Harrison thrown in the mix. This is especially evident once you actually get the chance to take in the down home country revival/hootenanny that is Father John Misty’s live show.

Touring in support of FJM’s debut album Fear Fun–Tillman has numerous self-titled releases under his belt–one finds this young band hungry and strong, already well honed and at the top of its musical game. I can’t imagine Tillman picking a better group of musicians, that rare combination of L.A. style and old Nashville chops.

To be clear, the show was great. Great vibe, great playing, great sound–just a stellar performance. What was so surprising about the show was how much FJM’s sound had expanded since the release of the record. When I attend a show, I wholeheartedly hope the band sounds better live than they do on the record. Where this album is more laid back and dreamy, Misty in the flesh was uproarious, raucous, and charismatic. The band not only sounds better live, but comes right out of the gate with more focused versions of the songs on the album, making it totally worth the drive from Seattle to Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo. With a tight-but-loose rhythm section working hard to anchor the songs, various keyboard textures and two guitarists creating the rest of the sound scape, Tillman’s vocals are perfectly framed in the mix.

The band opened with “Fun Times in Babylon”, a song that glimmers with the first rays of sunlight leaking through the window on a Saturday morning or the inaugural miles of a days-long road trip. The boys just kept ramping up the intensity after that, with a set list that was made up of pure magic. Though there’s only one record, the band made their way through each song in a way that made things far more exciting than just a rehashing of tunes. I was struck by how our favorite tracks off the record were well represented in concert, with highlights being the big single “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” with its kick-back cool verses and explosive breakdown section, and “I’m Writing a Novel”, a souped-up, guitar lick laden barn burner of a country/rock tune that drives hard from start to finish. And the crescendo-laden encore blend of John Lennon’s “Mind Games” with Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” was a brilliant closer in the spirit of an old fashioned drunken sing-a-long that got the whole house moving. Felt like New Year’s Eve.

Though Josh’s wit and humor make the show memorable, I have to admit that the most striking part of the show for me was Benji Lysaght (lead guitar) who was the icing on the cake, musically speaking. And I don’t just mean he was sugary frosting thrown carelessly on top; Benji’s precise bends and strident lead work was also held that velvety confection together, like a layer of chocolate mousse in the middle, simultaneously sweet and salty. He could also be strawberry or cherry filling, if you’re that kind. I’m done with this metaphor.

Taking in the performance that night, Benji (formerly of Ambulance LTD and Brandon Flowers’ solo record Flamingo) seems perfectly poised to become a guitar hero in his own right. Never over playing, Benji brought equal parts gristle and snarl to the table. I thought I was prepared for the concert having listened to the record beforehand, but I was honestly blown away by his deft execution of pedal steel licks, behind-the-nut bends, and fast-paced country runs. Dude knows his stuff. And his tone? Fantastic. Utilizing a host of pedals–including a silver box Klon Centaur and an Earthquaker Devices Rainbow Machine–and an older Tone King Meteor powered by a quartet of 6V6s, Benji culled some breath taking sounds out of his choice vintage guitars. He employed a 1951 two-pickup Fender Esquire, a quirky-cool late 50’s Guyatone LG-60 and a vintage Epiphone 12-string.

This band does a great job of melding the bravado of L.A. rock ‘n roll and the take-no-prisoners attitude of vintage country music. Add to it Tillman’s dark sarcasm and serious way of not taking himself too seriously, and you’ve got quite an evening on your hands. So, if you’re at all unfamiliar with Father John Misty’s music, or if you have the chance to catch them in concert, just do it; this band is a party you’ll want to attend.

-Michael James Adams

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This Land Part 2: Rehearsal/Opening

On September 6th, Strawberry Theater Workshop‘s production of This Land had its debut performance at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill, and it opened to standing ovations and uproarious applause. It was a momentous occasion, not only for the warm reception, but because it marked the fruition of a month’s hard work–and work we did.

From left: Rob Burgess, Kayla Walker, Sheila Daniels. These people are incredible.

The Show

The process of putting together a production like this is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s one thing to watch from the audience and take in a performance, but it’s quite another to be there as the show’s being created. At first, I had no idea what the final product was going to look as I was learning songs and working with the actors on vocal parts. Once Director Greg Carter started mixing live action with those songs, that’s when things got really interesting.

One-upsmanship at its finest. Sheila Daniels, Kat Stromberger and Bhama Roget perform “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done”.

I’ve struggled with describing this play to others, so I’ll do my best here: The play involves music, acting and puppetry–but Sesame Street it is not. These puppets are of the Bunraku tradition, seemingly carved out of single logs and possessing a charming yet grisled look that brings the puppets to life without the usual tropes we often associate with puppet shows. With these clever machines, the actors are able to create a theatrical experience that’s both tender and lively, and you’d swear the puppets are feeling every word spoken. Usually with this style of puppetry, the actors would be clad in black and hidden, but the decision to allow the audience to see the actors makes the experience more rich, more touching; it’s almost as if it’s easier to stomach the hard truths of life so long as the actors have a method of deflection, saying them through this human analogue. True to form, these puppets look like they’ve endured hardship after hardship, working long hours in coal mines or bumming around the country in train cars. They’re beautiful, and each one is an individual work of art.

“What is this, a stage for ANTS?!”

Being so involved in music, it would have been easy to miss a lot of what was going on around me. There are scenes where the puppets are dancing, washing down the bad taste of life with whiskey, attending funerals and going to sleep. The actors that control them–or more appropriately, the puppets inform the actors–are amazingly skilled at their craft, wringing more raw emotion out of these puppets than I ever dreamed. I’ve never been so moved!

If you come to the show, the first thing you’ll see is the sprawling, impressive stage setting. It’s the home of the whole show, and we’re using all of it. That’s something I really like about this show: the action is everywhere. There’s something to see no matter where you’re looking; we musicians are to your right, singing and laughing along while there are actors to your left, center stage and even on the wings of the seating area. I wish I could experience the show from that perspective, but alas, I have a pretty good seat already.

The Music

The rehearsal process was a great workout for me, both musically and vocally; it’s been some time since I’ve been so dedicated to purely acoustic music, and while I somewhat enjoy singing, it’s certainly not my main gig as far as making music goes. I’m usually much happier just being a guitarist and supporting a singer. However, when I was cast in This Land I knew I’d be doing some singing, and there was mention of a solo song or two being thrown my way. Thankfully, music director Edd Key helped me get up to par with plenty of warm-ups and tips during rehearsals. I’m really, really impressed with the results, and my voice has never been stronger or more controlled. I never knew I could sing like that!

Music director Edd Key and actor Rob Burgess during one of our music-focused rehearsals.

I don’t pretend to have the voice training one might expect from an actor cast in a musical, but then again, this isn’t your average musical. This Land is more akin to an old-school revue than your typical flashy, big-time musical theater production. We musicians are relegated to one part of the stage, but the action scenes happen all around us.  Of course, there’s acting and story interwoven with the music, with scenes going on while we’re performing the songs. The difference is that where other musicals would have material written specifically to advance the plot or describe what’s happening onstage, our source material is already there in the form of Woody’s brilliant works. Instead of revealing plot, the music that’s been chosen reveals mood and feeling, serving as a backdrop for what’s happening on stage. It’s kind of like scoring a film in that way.

Another challenge for me on the singing side of things was remembering lyrics. Like I said before, I’m not often the frontman, so I don’t spend a lot of time remembering words. In the play, I have 3 solo songs and numerous choral parts to memorize. This was all very intimidating, and Woody Guthrie having been so prolific wasn’t helping. For instance, while I love the song “Remember the Mountain Bed”, memorizing that one wasn’t an easy task. The song contains 9 verses, nearly all of which contain the words bed, mountain, leaves, trees, and people. Keeping that straight required a huge amount of devotion, and I’m pleased to say I’ve come out on the other side much better for it. Still, at the beginning of rehearsals, it might as well have been 90 verses. Beautiful song, though, and I’m so glad to be the one singing it.

 My playing abilities and endurance have been put to the test as well, which is a good thing! I’m not saying our arrangements are overly difficult, but it’s the combination of what we’re playing and how we’re playing it that’s such a workout for me. For instance, though I’ll list both acoustic and electric guitar as my main instrument, it’s been almost 8 years since I’ve had a purely acoustic gig–that is, acoustic only, without any amplification or miking of any sort. Being mainly an electric player, it was at first a great challenge to relearn how to play both loud and dynamically on my own, without losing the loud/quiet contrast I so dearly love. It’s easy when you’re plugged into an amp or sound system, but unplugged in a 200 seat theater, projection lies squarely on your shoulders.

It took a short time until I had once again become comfortable with this idea. Into the second week of rehearsals, I was still hoping there would be some kind of sound reinforcement. I was so acutely aware of the need for volume that it finally gave me the reason I needed to perform a neck reset on my J-45. In any case, I pressed on, spending a great deal of time practicing. I started by just strumming as loud as I could, then refining my technique and gently pulling back when the piece called for it. Just like riding a bike, all of those years of playing in bars and busking came back to me, and in no time I was flat- and finger- picking like nobody’s business. Luckily, this bit of schooling was also helped along by having the right instruments in hand. My stable is as follows:

A quick shot of my stage setup. Also noteworthy are the pedals: a VPJR volume pedal, a Boss TU-2 for quick tuning, a Smallsound/Bigsound FUCK Overdrive for a simulated scream and a Strymon Bluesky Reverberator. A solid-state Fender Princeton is hidden beneath the stage.

  • 1969 Gibson Hummingbird
  • 2003 Gibson J-45
  • c. 1950s Regal Resonator
  • 2008 Martin LX1 (Nashville Tuning!)
  • 2004 Fender Jazzmaster

I’m able to cover most of the bases with those five instruments, but I’m also fortunate enough to be playing upright bass and mandolin, both of which are provided by the endlessly talented Edd Key.

After all of the rehearsal, I was back in shape and ready for action. The show, which is around 2 hours and 45 minutes long, has a huge amount of music in it, and each and every show is a thrill for me. We’re doing a huge breadth of Woody’s material, and each night there’s something new that excites me. There’s also enough movement from one instrument to the next that I never feel stuck in one position: for one song, I’m using the Hummingbird in an E standard tuning with the 6th string dropped to C, and for the next I’m on mandolin. I have to say, though, that my favorite part of the show might just be when I switch to double bass for our performance of “California Stars”, a song Woody never got to record but was tackled by Wilco and Billy Bragg on their Mermaid Avenue sessions. So fun.

The Opening

I’m no stranger to stage fright. Usually I’ll get a bit jittery before I take the stage, but once I’m up there it’s the most relaxed place I can be. I’m actually more comfortable playing music on stage than hanging out with large groups of people; it’s just the way I am.

This Land, however, was a different story. I’ve been somewhat nervous throughout the preparation phase, presumably because this was my first endeavor in the the Theatrical world and I had no idea what I was in for, save that I’d be playing music. I wanted so badly to impress those around me (all of whom are not only incredibly gifted but also well-known in the world of Theater) that I was all business for the first few weeks of rehearsal. I made sure to learn the material, and I payed strict attention to everything going on around me. It’s a different world than the one I’m used to!

Rob Burgess and Margaret Savas performing “So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”. I won’t spoil the moment for you, but this is easily one of my favorite scenes in the whole show.

To say that opening night was frightening would be an understatement. This isn’t some rock show where I can show up and play loud music for 45 minutes, goofing off between songs. Instead of a set list, I have two acts of music and stage acting to remember. I had lyrics to remember, instruments to tune and change out, and minor acting to undertake. I was worried. As we waited in our pre-show positions, anticipating our cue to start the show, everything I’d learned up to this point zipped through and out of my mind, resulting in the dreaded “blank slate” we all fear. “Oh, no.”, I thought.

The moment we walked out on stage, my nerves largely vanished, and I found that muscle memory took over. Though my mind was racing, my hands remembered what to do. It was so much fun, and when I eventually shook off the fear, I found that I was back to my old self, laughing and joking and building friendships.

Now, in our third week of performances, I’m more comfortable than ever with the songs, the acting and my role in all of it. Even better is the fact that, some time last week, the entire cast really started loosening up and started having fun with the show. Now, we’re interacting more freely and taking part in the production like a good community should, cheering each other on and agreeing with one another like a big ol’ hootenanny. The fun even continues backstage, the whole cast being more tightly knit than ever. These aren’t just coworkers; these are friends that I’ve grown to trust and love like family. I want to do this forever!

I’ll be writing more about the individual instruments in the show later on. What’s important now is that you come to the show! It’s running through Oct. 6th at the Erickson Theater, and I can’t tell you how proud I am of this show! Tickets are going fast, and can be had here.

-Michael James Adams

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This Land: Rehearsals Part 1

A little inspiration. Maybe I’ll have a sticker printed up for my J45…

Ever since my musical outlets all sort of collapsed this spring, I’ve been listlessly pacing in my one bedroom apartment wondering exactly what the hell I’m supposed to do. To be sure, I love my job (guitar tech) and my wife (hot redhead), not to mention the music I’ve already made (good) and the amazing instruments I work on day-in, day-out. (lots) Still, with no band and no shows, something just isn’t right in me, as if there’s a spark missing from my mind or a spring from my step. I’m sure you can relate.

So, when I got a call from my good friend Edd Key about a certain project he was working on, I promised myself I’d say yes no matter what it was–I just needed to get out there! Lucky for me, this one was a total no-brainer.

Edd invited me to participate in This Land, a production that draws from the writings and music of Woody Guthrie to tell a story that’s as much about the characters he created and what he witnessed as it is about the man himself. Acting, puppetry and live music all combine to weave a tapestry of rambling railways, lonesome choruses and dust bowl depression. Trust me: this show is brilliant.

Under the direction of Greg Carter, the cast and crew of this show have already pooled their collective talents to produce something rife with both substance and beauty. We’re only in our second week of rehearsal, and I can honestly say that this show is going to be at once inspiring and heartbreaking.

As I mentioned earlier, my role in all of this is as a musician, backing up the vocalists on acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, lap steel and a few other instruments as well as leading a couple of songs on my own. In total, there’s a catalog of 30 songs I’m learning, every one of them a national treasure.

Our rehearsals usually run 4-6 hours a day, 5 days a week–an intense workout! The sessions usually start with vocal exercises and time for hashing out songs, and sometime during the second hour the actors get to explore their scenes with Edd and I providing the musical backdrop. Thankfully, these people make it easy to keep up, with plenty of laugh breaks thrown in for good measure.

Every one of these cast members is professional and talented, but what really moves me is their kindness and sincerity. There’s a camaraderie that runs through these rehearsals, with everyone throwing in their ideas and reactions. There’s also a deep respect for the source material, and many of our sessions either start with or break down into a discussion of where Woody was coming from when he wrote a song or a journal entry. To be honest, I’ve never worked in such an open and encouraging environment; it’s a safe space.

I’m already so proud of what we’ve accomplished in this short time, and I can’t wait for all of you to see and hear this labor of love.

We start at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway on September 6th! You do not want to miss this one.

-Michael James Adams

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