Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kaiser Chiefs: Ruby

In going back and picking up some of the songs I’ve featured on Facebook starting on August 15, 2009, this is the first song that I used – The Kaiser Chiefs and "Ruby." I stumbled on this song when I was searching for recordings of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and found an acoustic version of this song by the Chiefs with UOofGB (see below).

From Leeds in West Yorkshire, England the band was named for a South African soccer team - the Kaizer Chiefs. I had never heard this tune before August, despite the fact it was a number 1 hit in the UK, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and on the Eurochart 100. In the US, it had limited success and only charted on the Alternative Music charts where it peaked at 14.

It has such a great hook:

"Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah;
Do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya; ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah;
What you do, you do it, do it to me; ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah;
Ruby, Ruby, Ruby, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah;"

It really has hit potential. The reason it never crossed over to the Top 40 charts in the US is beyond me, but it may deal with poor promotion to radio here. Sometimes the record business shoots itself in the foot.

Here's a live acoustic version featuring the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and David Allen. Watch how the audience reacts. Not as heavy, but just as good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sinéad O'Connor: She Moves Through the Fair

It is Traditional Tuesday and today’s feature comes from the shores of Ireland. Due to some of her public actions, displays, and opinions, I have not been the biggest fan of Ms. O’Connor; however, when I stumbled on her live rendition of "She Moves through the Fair" – I had to use it as she really does this song justice.  As Oscar Levant once said, "There is a fine line between genius and insanity."

Note that the video has some problems towards the end, but this does not affect the audio.  Additionally, she cleans up quite nicely when sporting a coiffure.

O'Connor also appears on the soundtrack for the movie, Michael Collins.  This version is more instrumentally involved and I include it as well.

"She Moves through the Fair" is one of those gems in the realm of folk/traditional music. Nearly every folksinger worth his or her salt has performed this Irish tune that can be traced back to County Donegal. It is often mistakenly credited as an English folk song because the song was first published in London. My first experience with this song was Sandy Denny's rendition with Fairport Convention. It is found on FC's second album, named "What We Did on our Holidays" in the UK, and confusingly named in the US by A&M Records as "Fairport Convention" (their first LP was also named "Fairport Convention" - released in the US on Cotillion).

If you search You Tube, you will find numerous recordings of this tune and some are rather well done. I picked today’s version by virtue of its simple arrangement and the fact that Sinéad O’Connor’s voice is quite lovely here. It really showcases her Irish accent and, because it is sparse, it allows for the emotion to flow through her treatment.

Many artists have recorded this song from Charlotte Church to Rory Gallagher to Alan Stivell (in English no less) and I am sure I will feature another version or two of this classic folk song in the future. As a side note, an instrumental version of this song metamorphosed into Jimmy Page’s "White Summer," and it appears on the hard to find "Live Yardbirds" album from 1968. "White Summer" eventually evolved into Led Zeppelin’s "Over the Hills and Far Away" from "Houses of the Holy."

Alert - Non musicians - stop reading here.

(musicians only - "Abandon all hope for ye that enter here").

Some of the more recent renditions of this song use a modal guitar tuning as this song was written in the Mixolydian modality. Most musicians may be unaware of the modes found in all western music.  Named with Grecian names, even simple scales are represented by a corresponding mode.  For example, the major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) is the Ionian mode.  The minor scale (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C) is the Aeolian mode. The Dorian mode is also found in many songs. My synopsis of the 7 modes of western music are listed below.

As stated, "She Moves through the Fair" is in the Mixolydian mode and it is generally played in the key of D.  D Mixolydian consists of the following notes: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C-D.  The difference between the D major or Ionian mode and the D Mixolydian mode is one note – the seventh.  In the major scale there is a C#; in Mixolydian it is replaced with a C.

The modal tuning that many guitarists use on this song is tuned from low to high D-A-D-G-A-D, which is commonly referred to as DAD GAD based on the tuning arrangement.  It is said that folksinger Davey Graham invented this tuning and many use it for this song and others like it. If you play guitar, try DAD GAD. It is a little awkward at first but the G really provides a nice effect (making a Dsus4 chord D-G-A) when F# would be the note of resolve to construct a D major chord D-F#-A as found in Vestapol tuning (D-A-D-F#-A-D).

Here’s master guitarist John Renbourn, formerly of Pentangle, providing some lessons on DAD GAD with the song "Sandwood Down to Kyle" which is an example of a song in Dm using this tuning.

I first became acquainted with modes from an article in either Contemporary Keyboard or Frets in the mid to late 1970s.  The way it is usually presented is from the aspect of the same set of notes. For example the notes of a C major scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C can be viewed from the various starting points and thus the modes can be constructed based on the starting note's key.  Lost, I can relate.   Here's what happens:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C is C Ionian

D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D is D Dorian

E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E is E Phrygian

F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F is F Lydian

G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G is G Mixolydian

A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A is A Aeolian 

B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B is B Locrian 

Note that every scale has the exact same notes, albeit they start at a different point along the continuum. While that can be helpful in terms at looking at one set of notes, I found it more useful to look at a specific key and then understand the modes as they relate to a song's key rather than basing it upon one set of notes.  It really is the same thing, but I have an easier time looking at it from this angle.

To keep it simple, the modes can be thought of as a scale from another key that contains the root note of your song and the scale starts on that root note. For example, the Dorian scale in C is really a Bb (or Gm) scale that starts on the second note, which is C. Confused? It is not really that difficult to comprehend, but it does seem a little daunting at first.

A Bb major scale is (Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb). The same notes are used for a C Dorian scale, however, the starting note is a C (C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C). This could also be compared to the G minor scale which has the same notes, but starts on G.

The C minor scale or Aeolian mode is really an Eb (Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb) scale that starts with C (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C).

There are only seven modes – these all correspond to the root note (C in our case) found within another scale.

The major scales that contain C are C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, and Bb. Minor scales containing C are Cm, Dm, Em, G, Am, and Bbm. Remember a key and its relative minor have the same notes; however, the scale starts with a different note. In the above list F and Dm have the same notes in a scale - the same with G and Em.

All the modes are in order below. The Ionian is not based on notes of any other scale (it is the root scale) and the Aeolian mode does not have an additional minor scale with which to compare as it is a minor scale in its own right.

C Ionian (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C) or C major scale.

C Dorian (C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C) compare with the Bb major scale (Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb) or Gm scale (G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G).

C Phrygian (C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C) compare with the Ab major scale (Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab) or an F minor scale (F-G-Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb-F).

C Lydian (C-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C) compare with a G major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G) or an E minor scale (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D-E).

C Mixolydian (C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C) compare with an F major scale (F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F) or a D minor scale (D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D).

C Aeolian (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C) or the C minor scale; compare with the Eb major scale (Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb)

C Locrian (C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C) compare with a Db major scale (Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C-Db) or a Bb minor scale (Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb).

Try these out on the piano – some are quite fun as the Dorian, Lydian, and Mixolydian tend to be relatively common. Others, as the Locrian, can appear somewhat bizarre.

That’s your lesson today, and as my undergraduate speech professor Andy Dale used to say, "That’s a little extra that won’t cost you anything."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jake Shimabukuro: While My Guitar Gently Weeps

It's another Monday and I normally feature cover songs on this day of the week because I dread getting out from under the covers to haul myself back to the work grind. Today's cover artist was introduced to me by a colleague and friend, Rob McDole, who came into my office two years ago and had me look up this particular recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Jake Shimbakuro. I would have never believed that this George Harrison composition, which featured lead guitar by Eric Clapton, could be mastered on any other instrument, by any other person, and to any great degree of success; however, I was wrong. Jake Shimabakuro proves that even guitar greats like Eric Clapton and the late George Harrison are not the only ones who are associated with the iconography of this Beatles' tune. You can find the original recording on the Beatles' While Album and a live version on the Concert for Bangladesh CD by George Harrison and Eric Clapton. 

Shimbakuro, aged 33, has been playing ukulele since he was four years old and he has mastered an instrument that many have discarded as a novelty. Some would at best treat it as a nostalgic sound from a bygone era that also featured the singing strings of the Hawaiian guitar. This view conjures up images of beautiful Polynesian girls in grass skirts wearing leis and echos the strains of Aloha Oe melded with the infamous static from an archaic vacuum tube radio. Ah yes, where's the Wizard of the Strings, Roy Smeck, when you need him.

With Smeck, a virtuoso from an earlier era, aside - Jake takes the uke in new directions and shows what can be accomplished on an instrument that, by the virtue of its size, has a limited range. In the hands of the maestro, the instrument traverses boundaries and has boldly gone where no ukulele has gone before. No one will ever consider the ukulele as being a novelty again.

My Dog Has Fleas

Jake plays a custom made Kamaka tenor ukulele (valued at $5,000) - a tenor uke is is the largest of the three stadard uke sizes; the others are the soprano and concert sizes. All are tuned one fourth higher than a guitar and the 4th string is an octave higher (g'-c'-e'-a'). A fourth style of uke is the baritone (made famous by Arthur Godfrey) and it is much larger and tuned exactly like the top four highest guitar strings. He also does not use a pick, although he played with one until his late teens. Jake feels that that by using his fingers and thumb as the plectrums of choice he has more control over the instrument's dynamics - this is obvious when you listen to him play.

Better Living Through Plastics

My own introduction to the uke came at an early age with a plastic soprano "Diamond Head" ukulele under the Fin-Der brand from the early 1950s. My Dad bought it probably before I was born and I now have it as part of my instrument collection. The tuning keys are shot, but I can jimmy them to get them to stay in tune. When I was a kid, the instrument had its original colored strings that matched the tuning keys. Fin-Der described the colors as "red hibiscus," "blue iris," "green fern," and "orange ginger." These flowery identifications I suppose were to conjure up the imagery of the islands. The uke also had an instruction book called "The Beach Boy Method" - a name used by the Fin-Der Company a decade before the Wilson brothers, Mike Love, and Al Jardine cut their first recording.

Fin-Der ukes were built similarly to Maccaferri plastic guitars of the same era. Maccaferris were considered serious instruments and are sought after by collectors today. Apparently, the Fin-Der ukuleles have also appreciated in value as a mint Fin-Der with original strings now fetches several hundred bucks. I had a chance to buy a mint one with the original strings in an original box back in 1989 at a flea market in Ripley, WV. The price was $25. I passed it over to buy a 1920s era zither for which I paid $40. I wish I would have bought the Fin-Der - the zither was a piece of junk. After I replaced the strings, it lasted a couple of weeks before the soundboard warped rendering it unplayable. Anyone want to buy a used zither?

The plastic Fin-Der Diamond Head Uke

By the way, I always thought that the Fin-Der brand was a deceitful play on the Fender Guitar Company name that was gaining in popularity during the same time the Fin-Ders were being sold. I was wrong. The Fin-Der name came from the designer of the instrument, George A. Finder. I am guessing the hyphen was to aid in the correct pronunciation of Mr. Finder's name as Fin-der and not Find-er.

Besides the Fin-Der, I also have an English-made banjo-uke I bought in the late 1970s at a flea market in North Versailles, PA for $25.00, but that is another story for another time.

Since my wife Pam disapproves of high pitched "plunky plunky" (as she calls them) instruments, I am doomed to playing my mandolins, balalaika, banjos, and ukes when she is in bed, or if I happen to escape to the basement where I may play my eclectic collection in solitude out of the hearing range of the better half.

By the way, any one who plays the guitar can play the ukulele as the chords are the same only a fourth higher. Few will master this sub-compact instrument preferring its larger Spanish cousin — the guitar. Despite my obvious lack of natural virtuosic talent, I will never master the ukulele. I will be content, however, to listen to the current champion of this much maligned instrument. Thanks Jake Shimabukuro for creating some mainstream interest in the ukulele.

A Ukulele Extra from Kermit the Frog

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Needtobreathe: Lay 'Em Down

A few weeks ago, one of the teenagers at church approached me and said she had heard this song on the local contemporary Christian radio station and she wanted me to sing it the next time I did a special. The group is Needtobreathe and the song is "Lay 'em Down."

I looked up the song, and upon first listen, I thought - ah, that's really not me - I'm not sure I even liked the song. I decided to give it a few more listens and it grew on me (thankfully, not like fungus). I think what turned me off initially was the intro, while not exactly the same, it reminded me of Queen's "We Will Rock You." The difference in the two is that Lay 'Em Down's beat is STOMP CLAP, STOMP CLAP, STOMP CLAP - which to me seems to be 4/4, while the Queen tune is STOMP STOMP CLAP, STOMP STOMP CLAP, STOMP STOMP CLAP and is 3/4 or some variation of waltz time. While I do not have anything against the rock anthem We Will Rock You, I am initially skeptical of any song that seems familiar to something else. The Rinehart brothers, however, actually trace this simple form of percussion to the music of Johnny Cash - which makes sense concerning their heritage.

To understand Needtobreathe's musical culture, I did a little research and found out that the band was formed in Possum Kingdom (no joke), South Carolina by two brothers (sons of an Assembly of God minister) and two of their childhood friends. The name Possum Kingdom intrigued me and when Googling it, I found that Texas also has a Possum Kingdom. I'm not sure this is a Southern thing or not as my native Pennsylvania has plenty of places with names just as unusual.

Locality name aside, Needtobreathe has that earthy sound that comes from a mélange of country, blues, and rock that has characterized many of the bands from this region. This is especially true of those that gained popularity in the 1970s, which is definitely a Southern thing. With the songs I have delved into, Needtobreathe appear to be more acoustically oriented than other Southern bands (à la Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Stillwater, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop, and others) - but cut from the same cloth.

The song itself, as I discovered, is played in the slack-key guitar tuning of "C." Tuned (low to high) as CGCGCE, I had played around with this tuning back in the late 70s, but never pursued it seriously having preferred more common alternate tunings (Spanish, Vestapol, Dropped D, and Double D). The other night, I tried "C" Tuning and, while it requires me to rethink what I need to do, the low C really gives the song a nice flavor. I'm sure I could pull this off in standard tuning, but will do it in open "C" to retain the sound of the recording.

The only problem I see with me doing this tune is replicating the vocal as Bear Rinehart's voice has that edge that makes his singing interesting. Unfortunately, I don't naturally have that edge. Having spent 20 years in broadcasting, I worked on keeping my voice as clear as possible. Some of the best rock vocalists, however, have this tonality that gives their singing more character. Think of people such as Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, and others for example. My daughter and I talked about this a couple a weeks ago while listening to the radio - some singers are just more appealing than others. As for current recordings, I put Caleb Followill of the Kings of Leon in this category.

Additionally, Needtobreathe is between genres - not totally a rock band and not totally a contemporary Christian band. Some of their songs are not of a spiritual nature and some that are could be played on secular radio with no difficulty. They bridge both audiences by having contracts with two record companies that provide Needtobreathe the opportunity to promote their music to both audiences.

I think I am going to listen to more of Needtobreathe in the very near future.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rory Gallagher: A Million Miles Away

It is a rainy day in my home base of the bustling metropolis of Beckley, WV and I am feeling a little distant. For my first blog commentary, I'm featuring a little Irish blues from the late Rory Gallagher: "A Million Miles Away."

In 1976, I had the opportunity to buy a fellow student’s (Steve Jerles) entire album collection of 120 or so items for what I considered a bargain price of $100. Of the recordings he amassed was an album that features this very same recording – Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour '74. It was my introduction to one of the lesser known guitar greats: Rory Gallagher.

Gallagher is immediately recognizable by lamb-chop sideburns (which seem passé in 2009), the typical garment of choice (although not shown in this video) – a flannel shirt buttoned above the forearms, and a beat-up Fender Stratocaster that reportedly was the first of its kind imported into Ireland.

If you love the blues and this song strikes a chord with you, I would suggest as an introduction to the guitar playing of Messr. Gallagher to buy this CD posthaste. The albums "Tattoo" and "The Story so Far" are also recommended.

As for Rory, his battle with alcoholism resulted in a liver transplant in 1995. While the transplant was generally considered a success, a MRSA infection developed which resulted in his death on June 14, 1995 in London. Having no progeny to carry on his legacy, his brother Donal has consistently kept Rory’s memory alive.

Long live this Irish guitar great.

As a side note, this song also features a keyboard solo by Lou Martin. Martin's instrument of choice was an RMI Electrapiano, which was used by many British artists in the '60s and '70s.  While this was not my favorite electric piano (I owned a Wurlitzer that I beat to death), it did have some interesting sounds.  I only had the opportunity to play an RMI once.  It was owned by the keyboardist of the Pittsburgh based "Brick Alley."  "Brick Alley" later changed their name to the "Iron City Houserockers" when they signed to MCA Records.

The name "Brick Alley," by the way, is infamously associated with my hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. If you are curious, search "Brick Alley" and McKeesport and you'll find the story of one of the Tube City's worst claims to fame.


A little over a month ago, I began sharing various videos from You Tube on my Facebook page.  I received positive comments (mostly) from my friends, so began offering this as a daily feature.  After the first week, daily themes began to develop.  These are as follows:
  • Spiritual Sundays - songs of a spiritual nature.
  • Covers Monday - since everyone hates getting out from under the covers on Monday, I decided to feature covers of songs made famous by others.
  • Traditional Tuesdays - songs that are either traditional or were influenced by traditional styles.  These influences could be from a variety of traditional genres including the blues, Celtic, English folk music, Zydeco, and ect.
  • Wednesdays - no specific theme exists for this day.
  • TV Thursdays - songs that have been featured as TV themes or themes to TV commercials.
  • Fun Fridays - the wacky, strange, and unusual.
  • Saturdays - like Wednesdays, anything goes
Because the character governor in Facebook did not allow me to post my my complete comments on the music I had chosen, I have decided to create this blog to allow me to expound more fully on the findings.

If you happen to stumble upon this blog, my hope is that  you will enjoy the music I have rediscovered and recently discovered.

Since some may wonder what expertise I have in this area, I will state that I have 20 years experience as a radio programmer; play about a dozen musical instruments (adequately - I'm no virtuoso); played in bands; worked as a session musician; placed among the winners in five national "pick the hits" competitions; and have been awarded 7 platinum albums, 3 gold albums, 1 platinum single, 3 gold singles, and an international sales award from various record companies for contributing to the success of these recordings.  While none of this really qualifies me for anything, I hope it will provide a perspective on the music that you will appreciate.

Enjoy - Jim Owston.