Monday, February 28, 2011

bass player

Next Saturday we have a fundraiser coming up for a wonderful songwriter named Robert Postel with a terrible disease called Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. Robert is undergoing an experimental treatment that shows great promise and even though his insurance will cover part, the side costs for pre and post-care are staggering. You can contribute here.

So, a bunch of local musicians are all kicking in and we're having a marathon concert Saturday evening at Center of the Heart in Santa Barbara, beginning at 5:00. Jamie, Bob, and I are playing a short set at 5:25.

I'm playing bass with about 4 different performers through the evening and I'm really excited. Yesterday, we did a rehearsal with me on bass and Grace Feldman on drums and percussion. It was a looonnngggg day but I actually sounded like a bass player and had a lot of fun.

So, if you're in the Santa Barbara area on Sat. evening stop by for a wonderful concert, help out with a great guy, and as an added bonus, get to hear me play bass!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why We Should Support Unions

OK... first the disclaimer. I know there have been and are corrupt union bosses. I know that unions take money from paychecks and sometimes use it in ways the individual worker might not choose. I now that there have been some contracts that were negotiated that seem a bit... much. But I am still pro-union. Here's why.

Historically, just about every positive movement forward for workers has come because of the work of unions. If you are an hourly worker and get overtime when you pass 40 hours a week... thank a union. If you had health insurance benefits at work... thank a union. If you work in a factory and look around and see that there are no children present... thank a union. If your employer gives you time for breaks, adequate safety gear,sick pay, etc... thank a union. You would be hard pressed to find anything positive that has happened for working people that did not come as a result of union blood, sweat, and tears. And they did it for all of us whether we were unionized or not. (See my earlier post where I share my experience in a blue collar family in a union city) I would not hesitate to say that it was the unions who built the middle class of America and it isn't a surprise that they're demise coincides with the decline of the middle class.

So, the argument then goes that the unions did wonderful things in the past but they have served their purpose. They are vestiges of a by-gone era and now we have evolved past the need for them. My answer to that is horse pucky.

Do you truly believe that any corporation out there truly has the interests of its employees at heart? Do you truly believe that without unions employers would honor the contracts they have with workers? All we need do is look at the state of Wisconsin and a number of other states who are trying to renege on contracts they made with workers and trying to remove the right of unions to collectively bargaining.

The other argument is that government can take on the role of watching corporations to ensure that they do not abuse employees. And this argument is often made by the same folk who want to shrink government until it is small enough to drown in the bathtub... the same people who want to remove all constraints on business and let the free market run, regardless of what that would do to people without capital or power. All we need do is look at Wisconsin to learn that a governor who is sponsored by corporate money will pay them back in kind.

I stand with the unions.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kora on guitar

At the Western Regional Folk Alliance conference a few months ago I heard some wonderful music. There were some songwriters who wrote stories that felt like they came straight from my heart only in ways that I could never express. There were voices that brought tears to my eyes. Still, I rarely hear something that just makes me shake my head and smile. Walter Strauss was one of those performers.

Every now and then there is a guitar player who does something completely unexpected. The greatest players of all time have done just that. Django did it in jazz. Jimi took electric rock guitar to new places. Michael did the same for fingerstyle acoustic. Now, I wouldn't put Walter Strauss in those same categories but he did something completely new to me that was just amazing. Walter is a wonderful player who does kora music on the guitar. A kora is a 21 string African harp. Now, there may be some other players out there who do kora on guitar, but if there are, I've never run into them. And I can't imagine anyone doing it better than Walter does.

This video is getting a bunch of play now as Acoustic Guitar magazine has an article on Walter's guitar and included this video. Wow!

If you get a chance to see him perform, I highly recommend it. Here's his current calendar.

These Cuts

I've been chomping at the bit here for weeks as I listen to politicians talk about cuts that need to be made in government programs and that all of us will need to share the pain. They're lying. And it is immoral.

Here's where are the cuts they're discussing - education, food safety, children's programs, programs to help the poor, international food aid, and the list continues in a similar vein. Most of the budget items are relatively small but they are symbolic. To the degree that a budget is a moral document that speaks to a nation's real priorities, these discussions clearly tell us that the most vulnerable in our society are on their own. These cuts won't fix any perceived problems but the mean spiritedness and short-sightedness of the proposed cuts really is amazing to me. Imagine the future if our educational system, already lagging behind much of the developed world in important ways, is defunded and pushed further down the list. Imagine the future in our cities if the poor safety nets we currently have are removed. As a further insult, I did see a report today that while discussion these small cuts, funding for one will continue - the Army will continue to purchase ad space on a NASCAR car to the tune of $7 million a year.

Which leads us to the big areas... First is the military, which depending on how you count it is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the entire government budget as we care for vets, support bases in over 150 different countries, and prosecute two wars that are rapidly approaching the longest wars we have ever engaged in. There is almost no discussion about the efficacy of the current military or the necessity of maintaining it as it is. Do those bases in 150 countries really contribute to our security? Or are there other ways to accomplish this? After spending nearly $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan, are we closer to lessening the threat of terror? And even if we are, might there have been better ways that would have cost less and caused less suffering? As long as military power is an unquestioned value for our country, we will never even investigate the possibilities.

Second is Social Security, the retirement income program. Discussions of cutting the two latter programs are taking place. Unfortunately, they haven't been honest. We hear that Social Security will be broke in X years... as the society ages and there are fewer workers paying in and more taking out of the system. While that piece is clearly true, the original intent was that the funds paid into Social Security were envisioned as being in a "lock box" as a trust fund, held for the time when they ould be needed. Whether that was ever a realistic plan or not is debatable, but beginning with Reagan, the fund was used to pay for other government programs, essentially moving it from a retirement investment program to just another tax used to fund the government.

Any changes made to Social Security will have far reaching implications for our society as it has become the primary income for many elderly folk, the very folk who built this nation. And many who are nearing retirement have planned their lives with that program as an essential part of their future. There are ways to make the program more viable. The tax is capped at a certain income level. If the funds were only used to cover the costs of Social Security, this might make sense but as they are used to fund other government programs, they become an incredible regressive tax. So raise the cap or remove it entirely. There is talk of raising the retirement age as people live longer. While this discussion has merit, it must also be noted that different slices of the population have very different life expectancies and some kinds of work simply cannot be extended. While a 70 year old may do fine behind a desk at a computer screen, climbing onto a roof to do manual labor is a very different issue. And finally there are those who look at the statistics and see the program as being viable, as it currently is, for a very long time.

Third is Medicare, the medical program for the elderly and disabled. Frankly, I don't know enough about Medicare to be ignorant enough to make stupid comments. I do know that it, as with Social Security, is a critical part of the system many people rely upon and that the problems in our heath care delivery system are systemic.

Fourth comes the other side of the equation - taxes. Our highest marginal rates are the lowest they've been for over 50 years. Surely it tells us something that as the tax rates went down, the deficit went up. The discussion has been framed by the right wing that taxes are always evil and should never be raised. While my bank account certainly appreciates that argument, my heart finds it terribly lacking. It takes money to provide essential services. In my mind, the role of government is to provide those essential services, especially the ones that cannot or will not be provided by private enterprise. To the degree that an individual receives the benefits of living in this society, that individual is responsible to pay back. That means taxes. It is clear that since the Reagan presidency, income has been redistributed upward (see the chart to the right which goes through '07, the trend has increased since then). The wealthiest 1% have by far received the most benefits of living in this society. They, and the rest of us, should pay our fair share to support this society.

OK, now for the theological part... it is simple. The scriptures again and again show God's expectations that a society must care for the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens. Sojourners Magazine is distributing What Would Jesus Cut bracelets... surely he would not cut the programs upon which the poor depend.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Rainy Day

We don't get lot of rain in Santa Barbara, CA. And the temperature doesn't change that much. Indeed, the first year I lived here I wondered why the news stations had weather people. I joked that they could come and tape one report and show it every day and still be as accurate as any other weathercasters in the nation - "Fog in the morning that will burn off by 10:30, then sunny with a high about 70." I did learn that the fog isn't usually year round, there is a slight variation in the temperature from season to season, and we do get rain occasionally.

This year has been particularly rainy... and today it is rainy and cold (at least cold for here). We've had a couple of rainy days in a row and the natives are complaining about being depressed (they don't have a clue as to what seasonal affective disorder really is). I have to admit, that the weather here turns you into a weather wimp very quickly and I feel these few cloudy days too.

I also see the results. Just a little water and everything comes to life. The mountains are green. Mustard flowers cover the hillsides in bright yellow. Other flowers will follow soon.

All of this had me thinking about a poem Cheryl read in a funeral service the other day that essentially said that without grief, one can never know the real beauty of life. Without rain, there are no flowers...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

a good song?

What makes a good song? I've been thinking about that question as I listen to the video of Tinashe playing mbira and singing Zambezi that is posted below.

I love the song - especially in this simple, stripped down version (he also has a full production version on Youtube). It begins like a simple love song... two people under a mango tree, enjoying one another and full of life. The musical tone doesn't change at all but the lyrics then carry us into a very different place as the soldiers come and the singer urges the beloved just to live. This gentle little song holds all of the joy and fear of life in three minutes.

So what makes a good song? It opens the heart in unexpected ways. It distills the important things of life into a few minutes. As a listener, I experience life in new ways. I may cry. I may be filled with joy. I will be a little richer and more whole because I have had a good song find its way into my life.


it's been a while since I posted a music video... this one moved me.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

learning a language - bass

A bilingual person is a person who speaks two languages. A trilingual person speaks three... so what do you call a person who only speaks one language? American.

OK, I'm not literally talking about languages here although I am truly an American. I'm talking about music. Each musical genre has its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax... its own language. Each musical instrument has its own dialect in that language as well.

Many guitar players think that because they understand a fretboard, they can play other fretted instruments - bass, mandolin, ukulele, banjo... So, they run out and buy whichever one of those instruments catches their imagination and fancy themselves banjo/mandolin/uke/bass players. It doesn't work. Believe me. I'm a pretty good guitar player and know a couple of different languages on guitar but even though I know where all of the notes are on each of those instruments... I'm not a banjo/mandolin/uke player... I am becoming a bass player.

While I've owned a bass guitar for years, I always sounded like a guitar player playing a bass rather than a real bass player. I never went so far as to get a good bass for that reason. I would use my cheap bass for recording and sounded, well, not like a bass player, but it was OK for my needs. Then about 6 months ago, we lost our bass player in the church band. I decided to get serious and learn another language just in case. So, I bought a good bass - a Peavey USA Cirrus (there on the right) - and a decent little bass amp - a GenzBenz 3.0-8T - and began to study bass. I know where the notes are. I know how chords and harmonies work. I know about voicings and how rhythms work in acoustic music, rock, and funk. I am learning how a real bass player fits into all of that. And frankly, I'm doing pretty well. I don't usually play bass at church as we have a teenager who is filling that slot but I'm always ready to fill in when he isn't there.

I'm really enjoying the bass and decided it would be a lot of fun if I can get some gigs playing bass with some of the local singer/songwriters. I'm not looking for a steady band but occasional things would be really cool. My bass is top notch and my amp is a good sounding amp if a little bit under-powered by modern standards but my speaker cabinet was way too small for any real gigs. So, I started researching different cabinets and the sound philosophies behind them. For electric guitar, the voicing of an amplifier and the speakers are as important to your sound as the guitar. For acoustic guitar, you want the amp to be as transparent as possible. For bass guitar, there is a discussion there with some companies making highly voiced gear and others being more hifi so that what you put it is pretty much what comes out, only louder. I decided to go the hifi direction and began to look for a cabinet called a B2 built by Acme Bass Cabinets. Acme's have a reputation of being very accurate and having among the lowest and biggest bottom ends of any cabs out there. Sounded like a cool idea to me... I found a used B2 and went to try it out - and here's the reason for the whole blog post. After playing it a bit and purchasing it, I told the seller, an accomplished bass player, that I am primarily an acoustic guitar player and that I'm trying to learn to play bass like a real bass player. He smiled and said, "you sound like a bass player to me." Alright!

So, for my musician friends... if you need a bass player for a project, you know where to find me.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Is This All? Hard question #2

It's been a while since I wrote about my friends 1st hard question... and to be honest, I've been avoiding the 2nd one. She asked me whether there is life after death or if this is all there is.

From a pastoral viewpoint, I would guess she's feeling some deep frustrations regarding the current direction of her life (or at least was the day she wrote me) and as a pastor, I would want to address those issues first. That said, the question still is an important one.

Unfortunately, there really isn't a great deal about life after death in the Bible. Many of the passages that are typically cited are either metaphor or parable and may or may not tell us anything about life after death. As a result some Jewish traditions have affirmed life after death while others have denied it. In the Christian church we have seen very different understandings of life after death ranging from a literal physical resurrection of the body to a spiritual existence, absent a body to a more eastern idea of becoming part of some more universal presence to no afterlife at all. I think you can find support for any f these ideas both in the texts and in the tradition.

So, what do I think? I don't know. Philosophically, I have difficulty understanding my existence separate from a body - after all this physical body with its attributes and failings has made me into the person I am. At the same time, the idea of a physical resurrection does seem a bit... unusual and raises a ton of other questions. I like the idea of continue conscious existence but i just don't know.

So what do I believe? First off, I believe in an inexhaustible and unquenchable love that never abandons us and never lets us go. I believe that in life and in death, God's yearnings for us are full of mercy and grace. I believe that even the smallest actions can have results that change the universe and that because I have been here, things will never be the same as if I hadn't. I believe that life - here and now - is good even if it is never easy or pain free. I believe that if I open my eyes and my heart, that I can experience eternal life, heaven, the kindom of God, today, wherever I am.

Here's what I'm sure I do not believe. I do not believe in a heaven or hell that is comprised of rewards or punishments. While I would not dare to speak for God, I can speak f my own experiences. I cannot imagine a situation where I would turn away from my children forever. There is nothing they could ever do or say that would make me, in my very finite humanity, abandon them. I could never subject them to endless suffering. If my love is bigger than that, I cannot imagine God's being smaller than mine. And if salvation involves the necessity of a person turning to God, then in spite of it being a very small action, it is still an action done by the individual and salvation is no longer a matter solely of grace. Whatever comes later is a gift of God's love. There is nothing I can do to deserve it and nothing I can do to deter it.

And we come back to the underlying question - what about here and now when life seems to be or certainly is less than it should be? I cannot dismiss the pain of another. Sometimes the psychic pain is more than we can bear. Sometimes our most wonderful dreams and deepest hopes are snatched away, never to be seen again. Some of us are broken by poverty that is almost unimaginable. Some of us find ourselves in circumstances where hopelessness is a reasonable response. All I can say is that in my experience, God is always there with us. At those times when the pain is deepest, we are not alone. When we find ourselves dwelling in the land of the shadow of death, in the darkness and anguish of Good Friday, there is always an Easter coming.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

cut capos - duh!

I've been playing with cut capos since they were really cut capos. Here's the concept... a capo is a little clamp that goes across the strings of a guitar - like an extra finger - normally used to change the key of a song to fit a voice or to make certain chords easier to play. A normal capo goes all the way across the fingerboard so the relationships between the open strings stay consistent with whatever tuning you're using. A cut capo is just what it sounds like - you take a hack saw and an art knife to a normal capo and suddenly it only pushes down on selected strings instead of all six, changing the intervals between open strings. The first ones that people made covered three of the interior strings creating an Esus4 chord when the strings were played open or one that just leaves one string uncovered for the equivalent of a drop D, two frets higher. Fingerings remain the same. So, you get an interesting hybrid between the normal tuning of a guitar and an open tuning which allows you to do some things impossible in either of the other situations.

If you look at the photo, the capo on the right is an actual cut capo. It began life as a normal Kyser capo and I cut it to cover three strings only... probably did that one in the early 90's. Since then, they've found more widespread use and a number of companies sell them already configured. The capo on the right is a Shubb partial that does the Esus4 thing and is available in many music stores. The Kyser version of the Esus4 is called the Short Cut. Both also market a version that covers 5 strings. Kyser even markets a series in 4 different configurations with a lever that makes it easier to play the strings that pass under the capo.

So, I've been using cut capos for a number of years. If you go to the player on the right, you can hear some - Call Down Thunder and Beautiful Day have one cut capo. Heartbeat has two cut capos. With Jamie Green, I use a whole capo and a cut capo with a lever on Like to Be with You which I play very differently than the player did on her CD. So... I've been using them a long time, but I stopped experimenting a long time ago too. I've been taking them for granted and haven't pushed them nearly as far as I could.

A few weeks ago I saw that my friend Greg Newlon was giving a seminar on using cut capos in the Bay area... got me thinking about them a bit... Then I was surfing around the other day and ended up at Harvey Reid's site. He is a big proponent of using partial capos and has been doing so since the 80's. Looking at his site, I realized how much more I could do with partial capos than I have been doing. So I dumped all of my capos on the bed (and there are a lot of them in various configurations) and started playing around. He has a book called Capo Voodoo that I ordered, hoping it might inspire me a bit (which it has). So I'm working at using them more and more of them. I'll likely buy a few more in different configurations or maybe cut a few more...

Here's a video of a guy named Trace Bundy playing a song called Hot Capo Stew with 5 capos on his guitar - 4 cut ones and a whole one. Notice how sometimes he plays between and behind the capos...

So if you're a guitar player, they do open up some new and interesting possibilities for chord voicings that aren't possible in any other way. I'll be working more with mine. Who knows, maybe I'll follow Greg's lead and offer a workshop in the Santa Barbara area. Let me know if you'd be interested.