As my hand and shoulder are still a bit on the fritz, I’m going to be focussing as much as possible on cardio and core strength while they heal. In this evenings case, it means about 45 minutes on the eliptical machine, and a hundred sit-ups afterwards before I finally call it a night, head home and upload
However, before I go, there is a small story that I want to share. During his set, Henry mentioned the passing two years ago of the musician Vic Chesnutt, who took his own life on Christmas day. A few weeks prior to his passing, I headed downtown Ottawa, through ice-rain and bitter cold, along with some good friends, whom I promised would be in for a good show, and we saw Mr. Chessnutt, with a back-up band comprised of members from Fugazi, A Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You Black Emperor. Because the weather was so inhospitable, the show was sparsely attended, and began thinning out before Vic and his band had even hit the stage. What happened next, was a show that I’ll never forget. It was music, at it’s most brutally honest and profound. Standing in the audience, most of whom seemed as spellbound as I was that night, watching a man so visibly physically and emotionally suffering, exposing himself in a way that I could never dream of being able to do, I had the profound feeling that I was watching a type of art being created on a very different level than most other shows I’ve been to. There was something so real about that moment, so painful and gutting, but also so cathartic, and I walked around, somewhat in a daze over the next few days as I tried to process what I had seen. I didn’t know at the time, and perhaps it is hindsight that colours this somewhat, but there was something different about that night. When I found out a few weeks later, that he had taken his life, I wasn’t surprised, just saddened and understanding. I hoped that his pain had finally ended, and appreciated that, as Joe Henry said tonight, Vic Chesnutt built rooms with his songs, for other people to inhabit. It’s a better world, with those rooms out there to step into.
I know that some-day, we’ll all have to end the book. That’s the terrible beauty of life, and like a fight, it’s about going the distance as much as it’s about the knockouts that you throw along the way. It’s about learning to duck and roll with the punches and hardships, and to find the strength to overcome, and most importantly to transcend your situation to find a deeper meaning. It’s about love, and once you’ve taped up, and pushed yourself past pain and exhaustion, you get to a place where you understand that pain, is love. To love is to feel pain, as Patterson Hood said, there’s no way around it. I’ll finish this with two songs, because they should be heard together.
The Best In The World; or How must it feel to be Carlos del Junco and Kevin Breit?
There’s only really one way to be the best in the world. To be the best in the world you must do what you do the way that you do it and do that thing better than anyone could ever hope to imagine. It’s not a fine line, the distance between good and great is massive, and it seems, as an inverse form of Xeno’s paradox, that the difference and distance between great and The Best In The World is even bigger! To take whatever devices you use and own them to a degree where there is no divide between inspiration and execution is, to me, the real meaning of greatness. I’m am relating to this in a musical sense; in another case it could be a painterly sense or a writerly sense (I might not be able to get out of this without mentioning David Foster Wallace’s name at some point, fyi), or whatever, could be advertising or HR, doesn’t matter the discipline. Just be the best at what you do.
In the spirit of elucidation, what I should say by counter-example to my current thought about these guys, is that I know that I am not a best-in-the-world category player. I have not yet fully realized the freedom of expression in my playing that I am hoping to achieve at some point. That is my carrot, and it’s been bitten many times. I get so close but it’s not fully in my grasp yet. I feel myself bump into myself so to speak. My mind gets busy sometimes so I focus on quieting down the chatter, and aside from the melodic, contrapuntal and harmonic excavations I make every day in my practice routine, what I am most interested in is allowing myself to be myself and to use that voice. I have it, I know what it is, now I just need to get out of my own way consistently enough to feel good about every gig as much or as close to as much as the last best one as possible!
Which is as good a time as any to talk about Carlos del Junco and Kevin Breit. Now, I am not a blues fan of any kind of order. I love those people and the happy-joy bubble they live inside of every time a Texas shuffle fills the room. For me it is but another style of music that I can largely take or leave without experiencing pangs of yearning or withdrawal.
That’s kind of different where Carlos are Kevin are concerned. I find myself craving their sound, but I don’t think I am craving to hear The Blues, I think what I am craving is to soak up some of their impossibly unfettered access to the deepest regions of their own personal techniques, sounds and expressions! (Sounds lofty but I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s what moves a primal force in us, When I hear Pat Metheny I am in awe of all that he has given himself access to In Himself! Songwriter Laura Marling, pianists Stephen Hough and Thelonious Monk, drummers Jim Black, Ari Hoenig, Chris Daddy Dave, etc…the list is long. Greatness abounds.)
I first heard Carlos del Junco in ‘00 up in Yellowknife, NWT at the Folk on the Rocks festival where I was playing guitar with Leela Gilday, a recent Juno winning artist in her own right incidentally. (Notably present on the side-stages was a young Shane Koyczan, genius poet and spoken word artist of the highest order who is also making huge waves everywhere he goes, no pun intended Shane!)
So there’s Carlos on the stage and it’s a smallish side stage set on an oddly sandy beach area with the Great Bear Lake in the background, and he’s playing what sounds like a diatonic harmonica but, confusingly, I was hearing chromatic pedal tone lines, Jazz and Be-bopisms, chords with one note bending against static others and a solo Bach (or Bach-like) piece among other magnificent and dumbfounding sounds. I lost my mind that early-evening because what he was getting out of a diatonic harmonica just didn’t seem possible. Logical and musical beyond belief, deeply uninhibited groove, entertainment of the highest order, yes to all the above, but possible? I didn’t then and still don’t understand that level of control on that instrument.
I was recently reminded of how great Carlos is when I was listening to a harmonica amplifier demo and I said to my cohort, ‘that better f*#$ing be Carlos del Junco’ and he said, after silently acknowledging some muso chops of deep recognition and familiarity, ‘actually yeah it is’, and at that point I thanked the lords above that there was still only one person who has taken that instrument to that level. No sense cheapening Carlos’ level of achievement by making it seem attainable to the masses after all.
Then there’s Kevin Breit. Whereas del Junco is using a technique that can not be seen, only heard, Kevin’s own technical achievements are out in the plain wide open to wonder and drop jaws over. The man uses a slide, as many are wont to, but in a way that none else can do, save for possibly Sonny Landreth. Wearing the slide on his giant third finger he uses his first, second and sometimes even fourth finger to fret below and above the slide. This is a skill that very few can lay boast to, and his intonation and phrasing are each continuously (centrifugally?) sexier than the other. Also like del Junco, Breit possesses a technique whereby he will hold fretted notes in place while sliding the slide tunefully and soulfully away from his still-placed fingers. For anyone who knows anything about what this technique involves you might likely be looking around the room for where your sense of self worth just landed after it fled from your body, mind and soul—it is possibly one of the most technically challenging things I have ever witnessed on the instrument! It is a sound like the pedal steel but with an attack that can only come from a guitar. And it’s pretty radical. (Parenthetically there, that old Ibanez Roadstar body is an able companion for such toneful expressions!) With the jaws of the technical knowing already long agape there is then to be added the matter of feel and groove and swing and soul and well, damn folks, these kinds of things are only held in possession at this level by those with a total willingness to be themselves, to go for it and also of course to know where and what it is they’re going for…but the courage of our convictions doesn’t give a damn about our knowledge, it’s going to fire anyway, so arm that courage with the deep knowledge of an instrument and you’ve got yourself someone pretty damn fun to listen to.
When we see and hear this kind of playing it’s like we’re actually hearing an open channel to a muse, and I mean that not to align with the new-agers, but rather with the knowledge that ‘this guy in this moment seems to have access to anything he might want to do no matter how improbable that thing is, and when he does it, he’s going to hit it and make it sing and never lose a millisecond of the established groove’. The WOW factor of watching a performance so great and deeply affirming of the goodness of people and the things they can achieve is such that you will involuntarily utter some phoneme or another, at some volume or another, sometimes a quiet curse says it best. You might laugh, and some of us even weep for that which is so deeply true to someone that they can access it every time they pick up their axe. It’s pretty much always breathtaking.
(Gratuitous David Foster Wallace reference (GDFWR): I read the writings of DFW slowly, often so that I can more deeply experience the virtuosity of his abilities but also because I am simultaneously shaking my head in awe, laughing out loud about how good he says what he so entertainingly says and then also simultaneously having to experience the emotion (often melancholy) of the thing he is saying. This level of transmitted genius in the experiencing of arts and life, once tapped into, makes the experiencing of things that are not at this level rather banal and bathetic, so I tend mostly to want to go out and see–or stay in and read/do–things that I know are going to be top tier. Anything less just seems kind of frustrating.)
Seeing, reading or hearing the best in the world can be both devastating and inspiring as it shows what can be expressed and also affirms the limitations of one’s own ability to express that much, that freely and that joyfully. But fundamentally it’s a reminder to keep doing the thing that I/we choose to do and keep reaching for and pushing my/our own boundaries. No one can ever be good at being anything other than that which they most deeply allow themselves to be. And being reminded of that is, it would seem, the very heart of the word Inspiration.
A mixed bag of new releases, old favorites, and recent discoveries. In no particular order:
• Kevin Breit & the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra—Field Recording • Ann Peebles, Billy Preston, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint—I Believe to My Soul • Los Lobos—Kiko • Los Indios Tabajaras—Twin Guitars: In a Mood for Lovers • Duke Ellington—Piano Reflections • Leo Kottke—6- and 12-string Guitar
To be in a recording studio with guitar master Kevin Breit is akin to being in a laboratory with a mad scientist. Every conceivable string instrument is lined up in a manner to suggest there is an unexplained part in mind, even though Breit hasn’t even heard the track. There’s something wildly maniac and exciting in his confidence.
I’ve been blessed on a few occasions to share the stage with Kevin; in our Saturday Nite Fish Fry and Rockit 88 bands and in the studio