Sound Experiences, Memories & Preferences.
Building this website was a way to archive and reflect upon my visual art activity: ideas that manifested as ‘objects’ and venues where those objects were displayed. But, a couple of years ago, I resolved to cease object-making and devote energy, thought and time to audio: primarily playing guitar for my personal entertainment - a focus that was new for me.
I grew up with radio. Experience of sound was front and centre. The primary source was radio and what I remember most is the music. But at fifteen, dad bought me a guitar and taught me a few chords. So my passive participation in music became a little more active. Two tunes I recall that dad taught me were The Red River Valley and Up a Lazy River: the first a classic three-chords and the second, a more complex but still pretty simple structure. Both are in the key of C.
From then on I always owned at least one guitar but now, daily, regret how little priority I gave to learning to play them well. Essentially, guitars were a go-to when I needed to occupy my hands or claim time for myself. I never really practiced and was mostly content to work out how a tune went before moving on to something else. I dabbled and that was enough for me. Now, I like to think that I am more serious. Although aged brain and fingers don’t move fast or comfortably enough to make possible all that I would wish to accomplish. However, I still love the sound and feel of a guitar and appreciate the contribution made to my general well-being.
Even if all I am doing is tuning and tweaking, every day I try to spend some time with one or more of my instruments. At the moment, there happen to be seven guitars that require my attention. As with the various qualities of art-making materials, I appreciate that each guitar has its own voice and feel.
As mentioned earlier, creation of the web site took stock of the visual and, spending more time with audio has meant spending more time listening to and reading about music and musicians. On this count Youtube, as an audio (and visual) archive, has proven to be a cornucopia of sound that can hold my attention for hours.
Recently, after watching and listening to archived footage of John Lee Hooker and Furry Lewis, I thought it would be useful to take stock of the music and musicians have remained important to me across the years including those who I have been fortunate to see and hear play live.
Back at the beginning, all musical experiences were courtesy of BBC radio and the few records owned by my parents - no live music for me yet.
Dating from childhood and still at the top of my list are the songs of Hoagy Carmichael. I know that, for the most part, it was the music that he wrote with lyrics by collaborators. But, for me, he is the face, and often the voice, of music that continues to resonate. Moreover, in more recent years, I have come to appreciate that my contemporaries, such as Eric Clapton and George Harrison, have similar affection for Hoagy’s music. Clapton’s Rockin’ Chair and Harrison’s Baltimore Oriole are great examples of how good music can adapt to new instruments and voices.
At the same time as I was exposed to Hoagy, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway among others that were parental favourites: thus began my childhood exposure to music. My late teens became a time to tune in to Jazz. In particular were those playing New Orleans style: King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet,et al. Like for many of my peers, Skiffle was also high on the listening agenda: Lonnie Donegan, Ken Colyer and The Vipers come to mind, and I had also started to collect folk albums: Shirley Collins and Joan Baez were among the first to be purchased and played a lot.
It was with this background and these interests that I happened upon the Madhouse on Castle Street, a BBC television play that featured a very young Bob Dylan on set, sitting at the bottom of a staircase playing The Ballad of the Gliding Swan.
At the time, entertainment interludes on BBC news magazines, often included performers such as Big Bill Broonzy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Nana Mouskouri. But the insight and, perhaps, daring of director Philip Savile to fly an unknown Dylan to England was musically life-changing for a lot of us Brits. From that moment, Dylan became as important to me as Hoagy. But for the snowstorm of 1963 that brought much of the country to a standstill, I would have missed the Gliding Swan. On January 13, I should have been back at art school (Corsham) without access to television. When, by February, trains were running again, I returned to Corsham with a brand new copy of Dylan’s LP that proved to be the only one on campus (Beechfield House) so it got a lot of shared exposure.
In early 1964, Gill and I attended Dylan’s first concert at the Royal Festival Hall. We were in the balcony. The place was packed and, between songs, we could have heard a pin drop. After the intermission when Dylan returned to the stage, he found that somebody had filched his capo. Not to worry, there were so many guitars being carried by concert goers that several were offered and one accepted.
What a difference at the Royal Albert Hall in 1966. This time, we were in the stalls about half way back from the stage. As with the Festival Hall, the audience was silently engaged during the first half of the programme. But the second half when The Hawks (later The Band) appeared, the boos began. People walked out but we enjoyed every moment and was embarrassed for the audience. Maybe this would be the last time Dylan would cross the pond.
But, back at Beechfield, my hut-mate (Mike) had the only record player and he was a fan of big bands such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Compared to the relative simplicity of New Orleans jazz, I found the big bands hard to take. But, as happens with most things, repeated exposure and careful attention can change a mind… and it did mine. Some seven years later, Gill and I sat in the second row at a live concert about fifteen feet from the Count. Also, along the way I became, and still am, a fan of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross who sang Basie arrangements substituting their voices for instruments. Several years before the Basie concert in London, Ontario, in Portsmouth just before Gill and I emigrated to Canada, we attended a concert with Maynard Ferguson’s band accompanying John Hendricks and Annie Ross. Dave Lambert had died two years earlier. Also, courtesy of Mike and his big band albums, I learned to appreciate the artistry of Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins…. the list goes on. I was never fortunate enough to see any of them play live.
By contrast and in the State Rooms of Corsham Court, a young John Williams (guitar) and Jaqueline du Pre (cello) came to play for us. Gill and I also made a trip into Bath to the Pump Room to see Julian Bream (also guitar) in concert. In each case, it was pin-drop time again.
A couple of weeks after the Maynard Ferguson concert in Portsmouth and at the same venue, we saw John Lee Hooker who was touring with a British Blues band The Groundhogs. It seemed that we may have been the youngest members of the audience for Ferguson and the oldest for John Lee where the highlight of the concert was John Lee playing solo after the intermission. The Groundhogs were proficient enough but very loud. Being able to hear Hooker’s guitar and voice without accompaniment was a bonus.
Ironically, very shortly after we left for Canada, Dylan and the Band played the Isle of White - a short ferry-ride from Portsmouth. So much for the 1966 boos keeping him away from England. British fans had adapted to electricity.
In London, Ontario and in the same venue as we saw Count Basie, embracing Canadian culture we attended a concert by Stompin’ Tom Connors who was on the bill with Hank Snow and Wilf Carter. By far the most interesting was Wilf Carter and it was noticeable that there were particular audiences for each artist. By contrast to the large venue, the intimate settings of coffee houses provided a different experience. I happened upon a Gordon Lightfoot performance in London one lunchtime. And, of an afternoon at The Riverboat - Toronto's iconic Yorkville cafe - saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and, on another occasion, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: a blast from my teenage, BBC listening past.
I am not quite sure where or how to rate the experience of witnessing The Nihilist Spasm Band performing at the Brass Rail Tavern. As much as I may have thought that the Groundhogs were loud, the Nihilists were on another planet. Somehow, volume combined with a complete lack of harmony makes for volume that defies definition.
In 1971, for the opening of our group art exhibition Pie in the Sky in Toronto, we hired Downchild, a Toronto-based Blues band. Given the time and space involved, we were very much at the centre of their performance and they entertained for the best part of two hours.
In North Bay, we attended a Liona Boyd concert. Sadly, the experience paled in comparison with memories of Julian Bream and John Williams. Also around the same time, I was one three Canadore faculty who took a group of students to visit Toronto design studios. Coincidentally, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was playing at the Colonial. He was brilliant. But his aggressive, seemingly bad-tempered stage presence, was too much for the students. I hope they remember and grew into the experience.
After the move to Nova Scotia, I was taken to a John Prine concert. He was somebody that I hadn’t heard of but I quickly became a fan. There followed an early k.d. lang concert at the Lower Deck where k.d. was booked with her band The Reclines. k.d. has a hell of a voice and it was every bit as energetic and entertaining performance as we could have wished for. The Halifax Jazz festival also provided a number of memorable concerts with Bela Fleck coming to mind at the top of my personal list. But also jazz pianist Michael Kaeshammer at the Casino comes a close second. We were also fortunate enough to see the Chieftans, a concert that was being taped for the CBC and that introduced Inuit throat singing to us.
Tina Turner's energy level at a Halifax concert matched k.d. lang. But the difference between the experience of an arena and a small bar made us wish Tina was playing the bar. Guy Davis' appearance at the Chester Playhouse was another treat; an intimate setting with good acoustics that later treated us to a concert by the Irish American group Joanie Madden and Cherish the Ladies. Another great south shore musical experience occurred at a club near Boutilliers Point where we were treated to an incredible output of energy and talent by fiddler Ashley MacIsaac.
Bonnie Raitt was everything we hoped for other than that she was on very late in the evening and the unmarked seating was particularly uncomfortable. We had arrived early to be sure of our seats and, while the local blues acts held their own, they couldn’t make us forget the seating. Happily, the same could not be said of Bonnie's set. Magically, any and all discomfort went unnoticed.
To the best of my memory, this concludes the live record. But I know there are more and, at the time of writing, top of my wish list for whom I would liked to have heard play live would certainly include J.J. Cale and Joni Mitchell.
Having said at the outset that my primary pre-occupation is now with the guitar, I have to add a significant nod to the Artiphon Orba, a hand-held synth looper. This remarkable piece of equipment allows me to build on guitar recordings made in garageband by adding percussion, bass and keyboard each 'instrument' played one note at a time. It is a time-consuming way to work but is really where audio can serve as a replacement for a visual process. Albeit in a very amateur way, I can build sound that feels very much akin to creating a collage.
in alphabetical order:
performances & concerts attended
count basie, liona boyd, julian bream, wilf carter, stompin tom connors, john dankworth & cleo laine, guy davis, downchild,
jacqueline du pre, bob dylan (solo), bob dylan & the band,
'ramblin’ jack elliot, maynard ferguson, bela fleck, john hendricks,
john lee hooker, rahsaan roland kirk, k d lang & the reclines,
gordon lightfoot, joanie madden & cherish the ladies, brownie mcgee,
ashley macisaac, natalie macmaster, nihilist spasm band, john prine, bonnie raitt, annie ross, hank snow, the chieftains, the groundhogs, sonny terry, tina turner, john williams
a partial list of other performers, now gone, to whom I have paid particular attention and would like to have seen in concert
chet atkins, lennie breau, charlie byrd, j j cale, charlie christian,
miles davis, duke ellington, hank garland, stephane grappelli,
george harrison, b.b.king, dave lambert, wes montgomery, charlie parker, joe pass, les paul, tom petty, king pleasure, django reinhardt,
robbie robertson, doc watson, charlie watts
and those still performing who I'd still like to see - a list that is bound to expand with time
george benson, grace bowers, eric clapton, ry cooder, robert cray,
jerry douglas, tommy emmanuel, buddy guy, stanley jordan, carol kaye, marcus king, mark knopfler, alison krauss, megan lovell, rebecca lovell, willie nelson, santana, billy strings, susan tedeschi, derek trucks,
molly tuttle, dan tyminski, steve winwood