Sunday, May 10, 2009

On the Road with Joan Baez, pt. 2

The prospect of spending a few days in any unfamiliar square-state city tends to inspire thoughts of, oh, I don’t know, catching up on my sleep, or finishing whatever 800-page novel I happen to be reading. Last month, while on tour with Joan Baez, my schedule called for spending three days in Lawrence, Kansas. The only thing I knew about Lawrence was that it is the home of the University of Kansas and, well, that’s what I could remember about Lawrence. The first day was our arrival—mid-morning after an overnight bus trip from Madison, Wisconsin. The second day we’d play in Columbia, Missouri, but return after the show to our Lawrence hotel, and the third day was a performance at the Liberty Theater in Lawrence. After stumbling out of the bus the morning of our arrival, I was pleased to discover our deluxe accommodations at the historic, comfortably stylish Eldridge Hotel, across the street from which was both a very promising espresso cafĂ© and a suitably dusty used bookstore. OK, I thought, a few days in Lawrence could be quite pleasant.

What I’d forgotten was that Lawrence is home to Mass Street Music, one of the best guitar stores in the country. So, after a day of catching up on my sleep, and another filled with a bus ride, sound check, and another great show with Joan and company, etc., I finally remembered that when I’d met Mass Street Music owner Jim Baggett at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp a couple of years ago, he’d invited me to come by any time I was in Lawrence. So I walked the seven or eight blocks down the street through a crowd of college-age St. Patrick’s Day revelers and found Mass Street Music in a cozy residential district.

At first glance, Mass Street looks like many a successful, well-organized music store, with a couple of large rooms full of keyboards, electric guitars, accessories, and sound equipment downstairs, and an acoustic room upstairs with a good complement of Taylors, Collings, Eastmans, Martins, and Goodalls. But what really distinguishes Mass Street, at least for guitar junkies, is Jim Baggett’s vintage expertise. He’s been collecting guitars for decades and he moonlights as a vintage-guitar expert for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. Jim appeared while I was a making my way through a brace of very tasty Collings dreadnoughts, and after a few pleasantries, he said, “Wait here, I’ve got something to show you.” Believe me, any guitarist who hears Jim utter those words isn’t going anywhere.

Soon enough, Jim appeared with a couple of guitars from his personal collection—a luscious late-’30s D-18 that had the richest, fattest tone of any late-’30s D-18 I’d ever played and what he described as “the first D-28,” an amazing 12-fret, slot-head, rosewood dreadnought that sounded like nothing I’d ever played. Jim explained that it was actually the third D-28 ever made, but that the first two had never surfaced, so as far as anyone knew it was the first D-28 in existence, as close to the Holy Grail as any bluegrass-infused flatpicker like me is ever going to get. After playing it and the D-18 for as long as was seemly—I didn’t want to actually start drooling on the finish of these priceless gems—Jim showed me the rest of the repair shop, including a few more prewar dreads he was restoring and one of the cleanest early-’30s 000-28’s I’d ever seen. The back and sides looked liked they’d been hewn from the same log—not something Martin was all that particular about back then—and it was utterly pristine, as if it had rolled out of the Martin assembly room the day before. This wasn’t just a case of a kid in a candy store, but a chocoholic set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory.

So, yes, I now know exactly what there is to do in Lawrence, Kansas, thank you very much.

—Scott Nygaard

Photo (c) Anne Hamersky

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On the Road with Joan Baez, pt. 1

Around 2 AM on the morning, of March 7, Joan Baez’s tour bus oozed out of the muck in the parking lot of the Barangus bar, where I, along with the rest of the Joan Baez band (including Joan herself) had been listening and dancing (or more like wriggling, given the lack of space in the crowded roadhouse) to the All-American Hell Drivers, a loose aggregation of hippie country rockers whose repertoire included Hank Williams classics, New Orleans boogie blues, and even a Michael Jackson hit (a countrified “Billie Jean”). Joan had joined the band on a rockin’ “Long Black Veil” and JB band multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell had spent most of the evening at the piano.

Thus ended my first night playing guitar and mandolin and singing harmony with Joan Baez, filling in for guitarist John Doyle while he goes off to play a few Irish festivals that he’d booked before getting hired by Joan as musical director/guitarist last summer. The evening had started at the State Theatre in Ithaca, New York, where Joan’s first appearance onstage had elicited the first of many loud, enthusiastic, and adoring ovations from the crowd of 1,600 or so. Though it was the first time I’d played through the entire two-hour set with Joan and her band, it went better than I could ever have expected. Yes, I’d fumbled a few lyrics, missed a couple chords, and gotten a few tempos wrong, but all in all it was a great gig, and by the time we’d finished our funky encore of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” I was grinning from ear to ear.

I’d approached these gigs with mild trepidation. Even though I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble locking in with the rest of the band (Dirk on mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and piano and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass, both of whom I’d recorded and gigged with numerous times) I’d been a Joan Baez fan since high school and I didn’t want to let her down. I knew that John Doyle’s shoes would be tough ones to fill—his guitar can be a whole band by itself and his rhythm is as varied and exciting as any guitarist in any genre. I’d also have minimal rehearsal time, so I assiduously studied the gig tape John had sent me, realizing at the same time that the band’s arrangements and feel on that early-November gig may very well have changed by the early-March gigs I’d been hired for.

I arrived a couple days early, so we could rehearse on the band’s day off and I could observe one show with John in action. At the first rehearsal, which Joan shyly wandered into about halfway through, I discovered that some of my fears were well-founded. John led the rehearsal, though of course he wouldn’t be at the gigs I played, and his guitar was definitely the rhythmic heart of the band. In addition, some tempos had indeed changed and details that had seemed potentially spontaneous on the tape turned out to be essential parts of the arrangements. But everyone made me feel at ease and I knew I’d have another day to regroup and work things out. Joan was particularly gracious. After one song, where I’d kind of weakly warbled the harmony line and stumbled over a few chords, she suggested that since I had so much to learn, I didn’t necessarily need to sing on every song, but after another, she said, “You seem more comfortable with that one.” (The next morning, while she had breakfast on the bus, she told me that she’d liked what she heard and asked if there was anything she could do to help me.) The thing that ended up helping the most, actually, was sitting in the audience and listening to John play a show with the band. After all that study, I knew the songs pretty well, but watching the show, I found myself thinking “OK, I need to be more aggressive on that intro,” etc.

After the next day’s soundcheck, at which Jason Raboin, the band’s soundman outfitted my mandolin with one of the new DPA clip-on mics and pronounced my amplified guitar sound as “pretty good,” and at which Joan seemed happy and confident, I felt good and ready for the first show. At dinner, Stephanie Hudacek, Joan’s assistant, asked if I felt “nervous? excited?” and I said, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”
--to be continued

photo (c) Anne Hamersky