Friday, October 29, 2010


Guitar players talk about an affliction called GAS - Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. It stems from this belief that if only I can finally find the right guitar, the perfect guitar, then my playing will be incredible and the music of the spheres will find its release through my fingers. Two other ideas feed it - the first is that we live in the golden age of guitar building. There are literally hundreds of incredible builders who, in spite of the growing scarcity of the best wood, are building better guitars in more designs than have ever been done in history. This excellence trickles down even to the larger factory companies like Martin and Taylor building as many as 400 guitars a day and to the least expensive guitars built in Asian factories at numbers dwarfing the American factories. The second idea goes back to the Summer of Love. Back in the hippie days, consumerism was frowned upon and owning more than you needed was a serious no no... except when it came to musical instruments, especially guitars. Somehow, it was still OK to have very expensive guitars.

The three ideas come together and many guitar players go through instruments like candy. If you look at the classifieds on any guitar forum, you'll see significant numbers of hand built instruments for sale with prices nearing 5 figures or passing that barrier. Wherever you see a gathering of guitar players with their instruments, you're likely to see some serious and beautiful guitars.

I'm not as susceptible to GAS as I once was because I'm pretty happy with my Lowden which is pictured above. When my previous Lowden was stolen in Philadelphia in '99, the folk at Lowden were amazing to me and built me a very special guitar. George himself carved the bracing in my guitar. I've been playing Lowdens since about '87 and the sound fits me. So, even though I deeply appreciate the art and beauty of lots of what I see out there, it is difficult to imagine finding something that I really want instead of my Lowden.

was one of the largest gatherings of guitar players I've attended so it was fun to see what instruments the performers had and what accessories they were using (also included under the general malady of GAS). I didn't count anything so these are just guesstimates... but fun for me none the less. It seemed that the single most popular make of guitar was Martin. That surprised me. I thought Martin had been dethroned by Taylor... which seemed to be the second most popular company. I wasn't surprised that neither one was a majority. I saw lots of smaller company guitars and a number of high end single luthier built instruments. I know how much money guitar players make so that part does surprise me... There was a very small number of Asian built guitars and one or two Larrivees, a quality Canadian factory built guitar that also has a factory in California.

Among the small shop guitars I saw a number from Santa Cruz Guitar Company who build Martin inspired guitars of very high quality and a few from James Goodall who builds a more modern style of guitar. I didn't see any Lowdens, Collings, or Bourgeois. I didn't see all of the players so I may have missed one or more of any of these companies. Then, I saw a number of the single luthier guitars... I saw one each of a Greenfield, a Sexhauer, a Wingert, and an Olson. All of those guitars pushed me towards a bout with GAS - beautiful sound, immaculate craftsmanship, sublime materials - although my wallet is nowhere near fat enough to even consider one. Then there were a few guitars that I didn't recognize which were likely built by other single luthiers without the same degree of recognition, at least to me.

Accessories were also interesting... I participate on the Acoustic Guitar Forum where a regular discussion comes up about cases vs. gig bags. It feels almost like my teen years when you were either a Ford or a Chevy person. There are a variety of different ways to carry and protect an instrument from high cost, extremely protective,low weight carbon fiber cases to cheap gig bags that are little more than a nylon grocery bag which do nothing more than keep the dust off. There are lots in the middle. Again, no counting, but from what I saw people carrying around, about 1/3 seemed to have Caltons. These are relatively expensive (around $800), very heavy fiberglass touring cases. If you're going to hand a $10K guitar to a baggage handler... they are a good idea but because of weight and size, don't ever expect to carry one onto a plane and figure that if you have to carry it very far, your arms will stretch to orangutan length. I had one for a while and appreciated the protectiveness of it, but it was far too heavy and bulky for me so I sold it. Another 1/3 had high quality gig bags. These usually run from about $150-$350 and are made of heavy nylon or leather with thick foam padding. They are much smaller and lighter than the Caltons and usually have some system of straps to wear them on your back. The argument for them is that because of the smaller size and weight, it is easier to keep your guitar in your hands or on your back and safe. FWIW, all of my guitars live in quality gig bags including a wonderful custom leather bag for my Lowden made by Glenn Cronkhite. The rest were in factory hard cases - the kind that usually come with a guitar when you purchase it and cost from about $80-200 on the aftermarket depending on the quality and company. I didn't see any carbon fiber cases even with the most expensive guitars. GAS for me... but I got very, very close to catching it again.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


In earlier posts - here and here, I've talked about the Cambridge Drive Concert Series. We have our second show coming up next week, Novemeber 5, with a wonderful performer named Anna Coogan for our headliner and Christina Grimm opening. More about that in a post to come...

Last week I was able to attend most of FAR-West, the western regional convention of the Folk Alliance International. The Folk Alliance is a professional organization dedicated to improving the ecology of folk music, building stronger artists, presenters, and audiences. How that plays out at the conventions is that there are workshops aimed at helping artists and presenters do what they do better and lots and lots and lots of performances.

I went as a presenter and so was there to learn things that would help us improve our concert series and to hear some acts for possible bookings. Both things happened.

The biggest learning for me was one which had to do with which artists I should book. Some of the more experienced presenters said that it is clear that the best concerts happen when the presenter truly likes the performer but that the audience should be the primary consideration. The performer must fit with the audience the venue has cultivated. So... a performer who fits the audience and whom the presenter likes is the best case scenario. Second comes a performer who fits the audience but isn't a favorite of the presenter. Last is an act that is a fav of the presenter but doesn't fit the audience. Given this, the mantra for presenters is, "know your audience."

We aren't there yet at the Cambridge Drive Concerts. We haven't yet developed our audience. Still, I need to be careful and book performers who I think will fit... and as I make these early booking decisions, I will likely shape the audience we will have in the future.

To the performers, the lesson here was that when a presenter does or does not book you, you know little about whether they like your music. It may be that you are their favorite among everything they've heard, but for some reason you don't work for their audience. Or - and this piece was a surprise to me - they may love you but just don't have a slot for you. Most of the presenters were booked at least a year out and some were booked multiple years out. One festival presenter said he sometimes is thinking 3 or 4 years down the road. That is astounding to me. I can't wrap my head around planning that far in advance. Who knows what wonderful new performers will appear between now and then... or whether some favorite will decide to give up the life of a traveling musician... My gut tells me not to book any more than a year out - ever - but I wonder whether that will preclude me from booking some acts that I would really like to present. Time will tell. For what it's worth, right now we're booked about 5 months out for the headliners and I'm waiting to hear back from one or two others so within a few days I could have my headline acts booked through May of 2011.

The performances are mind boggling. There are official "Premier Showcases," each giving half hour slots to 7 performers on Friday and 6 on Saturday in three rooms, chosen by a panel... so 21 Premiere Showcase performances took place on Friday and 18 on Saturday. Then there were two "Featured Performers" who also performed at the same time in two different rooms on Friday evening and one on Saturday. So, you listen for a song or two and then off to the next room to hear another performer for a song or two... Beside this, there is serious craziness - Guerrilla Showcases. A performer rents a hotel room, pushes the beds up against the wall and adds a few chairs and maybe some mood lighting and snacks and then books performers, usually in half hour slots, sometimes from late afternoon but certainly after the Premiere showcases ave ended at 10:00 until the wee hours of the morning. There were 25 Guerrilla Showcase rooms all on one floor of the hotel. Imagine the cacophony... and the difficulty when an acapella Celtic singer is performing in a room across the hall from a bluegrass band. Still, it was a great way to get little tastes of a LOT of music in a short time. The currency of the conference are 3X5 cards with a photo of the performer and name on one side and their schedule of Guerrilla Showcases on the other side.

I heard some wonderful music that I am working to book... and some wonderful music that may not work for our series. We've already booked James Hurley for January and Cindy Kalmenson for March and I'm talking with a number of other possibilities.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

still an important election

I was talking with a friend about the upcoming election the other day who sincerely remarked - "Throw the bums out!" There clearly are some "bums" in office. The folk in power have not addressed the serious issues we face as well as they could have and they've done an even poorer job of capitalizing on the good things they have done. The result is legitimate anger and frustration. I understand, "throw the bums out." The question is whether or not the alternative is a good one.

On Sunday, Dick Polman, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer posted a column with a quiz regarding some things said by candidates for office this year and political statements by others in the news. Seriously, you need to take the quiz.

Think about the quotes... and ask whether these are really the kind of people you want elected? Whether these are the kind of people you want framing our political discourse? And they are not running for local dog catcher, these are folk running on major party tickets for the House, the Senate, for governor of states. These are people who get interviewed on television on the national news Then realize that only one of the people being quoted is currently in office. The rest are all trying to capitalize on "throw the bums out" either as candidates or in building political influence for themselves and their friends.

I have to say that these folk frighten me. They are riding a legitimate reasonable wave of frustration and anger but if they actually win positions of influence, things will get much, much worse. The issues are difficult and complicated. The solutions are neither simple nor free. Our nation does not have consensus regarding the solutions and anything that is done will require serious public relations work. And finally, at least the Republican Party has demonstrated no desire to work with those across the aisle. Add that all together and electing a bunch of ignorant crazies cannot but make things worse.

The only positive is that comedians already have an abundance of new material. I saw this parody of a political campaign ad. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so true.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

the future of music

Digital musical instruments have been around for a while. I remember back in the 80's when a friend of mine who was a studio musician purchased the first sampling synthesizer in Philly - a ridiculously expensive Fairlight
- and the first serious computerized drum machine - the Linndrum. Watching Herbie Hancock play a Fairlight on Sesame Street and listening to Peter Gabriel's ground breaking work with one was inspiring. The hardware allowed a musician to make and manipulate sounds in ways that couldn't even be imagined prior and those performers did just that, creating new sounds and textures. Still, the equipment couldn't begin to capture the subtleties of an actual acoustic instrument. A real pianist was never happy with a digital piano... and digital strings were not up to snuff when compared with real bows and resin scraped across real strings in the hands of someone who knew how to make a violin sing.

The technology has improved exponentially and the samples sound more and more realistic as shear computing power allows the machine to reproduce the incredible complexity of an acoustic instrument's sound. Add to that the ease of using a model and their popularity is understandable. Any keyboard player who used to carry a Hammond B3 and a Leslie to gigs deeply appreciates the possibility of using a sample controlled by a midi keyboard that weighs 20 pounds. A musician in her home studio can have an orchestra playing in the background for a minimal price for software and a controller. It doesn't sound exactly like the London Philharmonic, but it is a lot cheaper and less complicated. Some electric guitar players are thrilled to be able to use a Fractal Audio Axe-Fx to produce the sound of hundreds of different amplifiers and effects units while others say they still can hear and feel the difference between the "real thing" and a digital model. Digital models have even made it into the acoustic music world where acoustic guitar players use digital modeling to improve their live sound. Again, others say the models just sound like... imitations.

Theoretically, the models will get better and better and it will be possible to use one controller of a type that the player likes, whether it is a keyboard, a fretboard, or a wind controller, to reproduce the sound of any instrument ever played and numberless ones that have never existed before. And the price will get lower and lower if Moore's Law continues to hold true. Who knows... this may actually be the future of music. It is pretty cool... but I hope not.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tax Exempt Status & Separation of Church & State

Over the past few years there has been a good deal of discussion regarding the tax exempt status of churches. The question came to the forefront when a number of conservative churches decided to challenge current law and publicly endorse candidates in both the '08 and '10 elections. They are framing the argument as a constitutional one. They are correct and they should win the argument.

I've heard many people argue that tax exemption is a benefit given by the government and the price for that benefit is the inability to make official endorsement of candidates or to lobby in a substantive way. Jim Evans in Ethics Daily goes on to argue that the genesis of tax exempt status of churches goes back to the days when churches were part of the state and it made sense that a municipality would not tax its own property. He sees this as an argument that the benefit is just that and that in order to enjoy the exemption, churches must "play by the rules." That this argument is irrelevant seems obvious to me. However the practice began, we have not had state sponsored or owned churches since the founding of the country. So what happened? At the adoption of the Bill of Rights, they forgot to tax the newly emancipated properties? Sorry, there must be some other justification that the tax exempt status was retained.

Then, there is the prohibition itself. Churches were allowed to endorse candidates until 1954. In that year, then senator Lyndon Johnson introduced a law prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing political candidates. At the height of the McCarthy era, he was trying to silence some of his critics as he ran for office. It was only by coincidence that churches were silenced as they fell under the same IRS code as his nonprofit enemies.

While it is accurate that churches receive their tax exempt status under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue code, I would argue that churches are not the same as other nonprofit organizations and in the end cannot be treated the same way. Other non-profits receive tax benefits because they provide needed services to the community. The issue is clearly seen as one of public benefit. It is a quid pro quo... the nonprofit provides services so the state helps it by removing the burden of taxes and provides that contributions are deductible on the giver's taxes. Nonprofits do not appear in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. On the other hand, religious institutions fall under the First Amendment and the relationship between the state and religion is clearly and uniquely defined. The government does not give benefits to a religious group. There would be no constitutional justification for an act like that. They are tax exempt because they are religious organizations. period. The first amendment provides that the government will neither establish nor prohibit the free exercise of any religion.

Here is where the question of taxes comes in. The power to tax is the power to control. If the government can levy taxes on religious institutions and decide what those taxes will be, they can decide which institutions will be viable. Frankly, if the little church I serve had to pay property taxes, we would likely close. How can that not be prohibiting free exercise? And isn't telling a congregation that it cannot speak on any issue defining its ministry for it, again prohibiting free exercise? To allow that a church can say whatever it wants so long as it is willing to give up its tax exempt status establishes a multi-tiered system for religious institutions with some being able to speak and others not, this time based on their financial ability to pay taxes. Again, we are seeing free exercise attacked.

We must not forget that taxes and tax benefits have often been used as tools of influence by the state. How often does a municipality give tax benefits to entice a company to re-locate? To use this part of the IRS code to silence religious organizations from speaking on issues that they clearly see as part of their call is an example of the state using the tax code to prohibit free exercise of religion. What would stop a community from using taxes, if it were allowed to tax religious organizations, to keep a mosque from being constructed? Or a religious building of any sort that was seen as offensive to the powers that be?

There is no argument for taxing religious institutions or for prohibiting them from speaking on any issue in any way they believe their faith calls them to speak that does not conflict with the First Amendment. The government has no right to tax churches and therefor tax exemption is not a benefit the government can bestow or withdraw. That some religious organization will speak out in ways that you or I don't appreciate on political issues is part of the price we pay for religious freedom.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

new physics & church meetings

I never took physics in high school or college so I know next to nothing about it. I do understand that there have been lots of counter-intuitive findings of late including the idea that a particle can be in two different places at the same time. I want to do that.

Coming up in June, there are two conferences that I want to attend that are happening at the same time. They are very different and the rewards would be completely different from one to the other.

Every two years, my denomination, The American Baptist Churches, USA has a big meeting. It is a time for connecting with friends I only see every two years, a time of reinforcing my identity as a Baptist, and usually a time of reclaiming that word - Baptist - that has been defaced by the Southern Baptist Convention as they have swung into exclusivist fundamentalism. I have to admit though, that our biennial meetings have been less than inspirational for a long time... but it is my "family" and I really don't want to give up on the ABCUSA. And many of my friends have either given up on the ABC or cannot afford to attend so many of them will not be present. The event is taking place in Puerto Rico, a place I love and a people I love. I'd get to tack on a bit of vacation either before or after. tempting...

Then there is The Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. Modeled after Greenbelt in the UK, this promises to be a really exciting time. Planned and staffed by some very bright and committed folk whom I deeply respect, this event would challenge and stretch me and could even play a role in the re-shaping of the Church that is going on now as it contributes to the formation of the next generation of leaders. The median age will probably be literally 1/2 that of the ABC biennial, a fact that is thrilling in itself. The big downside is that it includes camping. I've only camped once in my life and I will forever associate it with the kidney stone I passed in the rain in rural Pennsylvania.

As far as I know, nobody has been able to replicate that one particle in two places at once thing in human beings so I'll have to choose and I need to choose soon. What would you do?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

inspiration & showing up

I didn't read the book - Eat, Pray, Love. I did see the movie and other than the first scene in India, which rang soooo true to our first moments in Inida, didn't find it particularly engaging. So, I likely would never have watched Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk.

My daughter, Alexis, put it up on her blog so I was obligated to watch it. It is a wonderful talk about the creative process. I was particularly struck by Gilbert's admonition to just show up and do your job. It got me thinking that showing up and doing your job is at the core of everything, not just creativity. Whether it be caring about the homeless guy at the corner, voting in an election, playing in the church band, being there for a grieving friend, whatever... it doesn't matter whether we are successful, whether we change the world, whether we make a difference that anyone else can see... what matters is whether or not we are (and here's the theological word) faithful.

So show up. Do your job or your part. And leave the results to God.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

an important election

first, some disclaimers

Obama was not my first choice in the Democratic primary. He wasn't even my second one. He was and is too centrist for me. Still, there was no Republican that I would have even considered voting for over any of the Democratic candidates and given the practicalities of our current system, I would not have considered a third party candidate.

I am terribly disappointed in the current congress. They wasted so many opportunities to do what really needed to be done and what they said they would do.

Even when I find the Republican party disgusting (which is much of the time), I admire the way they work together, if not to accomplish something, then to keep something they don't want from being accomplished.

The current administration has accomplished some significant things. True, we don't know what would have happened without the bailouts, but the non-partisan folk who study such things tell us again and again that things would be much much worse. We are sort of out of Iraq. There is a time table for Afghanistan. There are proposals to right the biggest economic divide in this country since the Great Depression (and it isn't a coincidence that the economy fell apart when the divide got that big again).

Historically, the times when there has been the most economic growth and income growth for all people have been under democratic administrations (check it out).

I will vote a straight Democratic ticket and, as much as is possible in any election, do that happily and proudly.

Now for the non-partisan part. This is a very important election. If the Democrats retain control of congress, we will see more of the change that Obama promised enacted. Maybe not all of it, but more of it. If any more Supreme Court Justices are chosen, there is a chance that Obama's choices would balance a very right wing leaning court. If you want that change, then you must vote for the Democratic candidates. If you do not vote, remember that the other side is highly energized and the far right will likely vote in droves so not voting is like voting for the following...

If you are against the change that Obama promises to continue and want to see the changes we have seen be repealed, vote for the Republican candidates. They are clearly calling for a return to the Bush era economic policies and more, including privatizing Social Security and cutting many of the safety net programs. Some/many of the Tea Party candidates are also calling for dismantling current government agencies like the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, even the Food and Drug Administration and others. A woman's right to choose could also be challenged. If a Supreme Court Justice position opened a Republican congress would ensure that the person be as centrist as possible. While there are some Tea Party candidates who are against the Republican establishment which they see as equally part of the problem, most who have won primaries have already turned color and become part of the Republican establishment (see Tea and Crackers in Rolling Stone for some examples).

The differences could not be more clear and there is no excuse for anyone, anywhere on the political spectrum not to vote and to do so intelligently. It is a critical election which will impact our lives for years to come.