Saturday, September 19, 2009

Some New Motown Soul Sounds

I just watched a video clip from Music Fest NW (MFNW) -- another big Portland festival which I’m too lame (or old) to actually do. The huge list of performers and venues is just too damned overwhelming, especially when combined with the prospect of big crowds. Anyway, at the end of said clip was a snippet of Mayer Hawthorne, a geeky-looking, young white guy from Ann Arbor, MI. I liked the tiny bit I saw on the video so headed over the YouTube to see what I could find.

Mayer Hawthorne reportedly started out as a hip-hop aficionado and DJ before developing a neo-soul sound straight out of Motown. He writes and performs songs that sound like they’re right out of the 1960’s. I like it. Here's a fun video of his song, "Maybe So, Maybe No."

And here is the official video for "Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out."

Also, the founder of Mayer Hawthorne's label, Stones Throw Records, goes by the moniker "Peanut Butter Wolf." You gotta like that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fingerpickin' the Guitar

After four decades of playing the guitar, I think I've gotten pretty good at it. But then I listen the the really good players and am reminded that there is so much room to improve.

Yesterday morning, the Belmont Street Fair was kicked off with a set from Mary Flower, a fingerstyle guitar virtuoso who also plays a mean slide guitar and now resides in Portland. She teaches in Portland as well as through Skype, and has issued a few instructional DVDs. Here she is performing an original tune, "La Grippe."

After watching one of Mary Flower's lesson on ragtime guitar on YouTube, I wandered over to watch Chet Atkins play Black Mountain Rag using some form of open tuning:

After that, I have to end with the great Merle Travis playing "Cannonball Rag." Merle's playing has been a big influence on me (though I estimate I can only reach about 50% of his playing capacity, and that would be on a good day). If you're learning guitar, pay attention to the important part the thumb on the picking hand plays for all of theseplayers; the key to fingerstyle guitar is keeping a steady rhythm going on the bass strings. Also, check out how all three wrap their left thumbs over the top of the neck to fret bass notes. Merle Travis stands out by using his left thumb to fret several strings. Most standard guitar lessons don't teach the technique. Jimi Hendrix is another guitarist known for wrapping his thumb around the neck (though, in his case, it was the right thumb since he played left-handed).

I'll post more about Merle Travis in the future.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Celebrating Labor Day

For many of us, the first Monday of September signifies the end of summer and the start of another school year. We forget that the day was established to honor the contributions of hard-working folks. In the aftermath of the notorious 1884 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland hoped to encourage political rapprochement with Labor by pushing through legislation making Labor Day a national holiday. Another motivation for establishing Labor Day in September was to distance it from May Day, which had already become identified as “International Worker’s Day.” In the U.S., we turned May 1st into “Loyalty Day.” And if all of this is sounding as familiar to you as it is to me, it’s because I posted something about it back in May to accompany a video of Merle Haggard in honor of May Day.

To celebrating the people who put the "work" in "workmanlike," I selected a few of my favorite pro-labor tunes, starting with the man hisself, Mr. Pete Seeger (may he win a Nobel Prize someday) singing “Which Side are You On?”

Let's look at that one from another angle; this is Natalie Merchant’s haunting version, which starts off with Florence Reece who wrote the song in 1930.

Now, here's Woody Guthrie singing “All of You Fascists Are Bound to Lose.” That's Sonny Terry on harmonica and providing the accompanying whoops and hollers). I suppose it's not strictly a union song, but he does talk about folks organizing.

Then there's Billy Bragg with his interpretation of the Guthrie tune:

I'll close with The Strawbs singing “Part of the Union” in 1973. The Strawbs formed in England in 1964 as a bluegrass band known as the Strawberry Hill Boys. In their early days, they accompanied Sandy Denny who went on to become a member of Fairport Convention and Fotheringay.