Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Of All Places to Hear It. . .

I was skipping through the stations on the car radio this morning when I happened to catch a song by a Newfoundland group called the Masterless Men. The announcer said, "Newfoundland," (a word you hear regrettably little on the music stations) and I woke up a bit, expecting something vaguely maritime. When they started in with the banjo, it was unexpected, but who's going to complain about a nice, laid-back sounding bluegrass band? To add to the confusion, I came home and looked them up, and their recordings really are in the Newfoundland/Irish folk genre, not bluegrass; they had just picked the double whammy of a bluegrass-style tune and some nice banjo work for that particular piece. All in all, something far above what a cynic like me normally expects to find on the radio.

Anyway, here is the Masterless Men's version of "The Bramble and the Rose" which was what I heard this morning. It was written by one Barbara Keith, and has evidently been recorded several times in the past, though it was new to me. Though the recording quality here isn't all it could be. . .here it is.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Just Plain Rambling

I figured tonight would be slow at work (and I was right!) so I took along a notebook for writing in the quiet moments. Unfortunately, even then I did not come up with anything complete enough to be posted here. Though I don't want to overdo the photos, I don't want the blog to atrophy too much either (and what cataclysm might occur if it did sit quiet for a week? I haven't the slightest.), so here are my last couple of Balclutha pictures.
The first being a study of a muchly-spliced rope:
And the second, rigging so high that it blocks out the sun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

New and Different

I fulfilled a lifelong ambition today and attended an Irish session. I've always wondered how different from an American-style jam they were and how well I would stay afloat in one. The answer to the first is: very; the answer to the second is: not well. It was a smashin' time, though, in a very comfortable pub downtown, and a great opportunity to take in some fantastic fiddling. The turn-out this evening was scarce on variety, consisting entirely of fiddlers and bodhran players (three of each, not counting me). The effect was pretty neat, especially since the bodran players did a good deal more than just keep the rhythm (which they did beautifully); they were much given to an almost melodic style of playing which chuckled through tight, treble phrases, plunging deliberately into dramatic low tones which one of the players admitted rather gleefully had something of a cannon shot about them.

In one of these sessions, unlike in American fiddle jams, nobody takes turns. Or, to be more precise, they take turns picking tunes, but not playing them. The leader (that is, whoever picked the tune) might start in by himself, but as the tune gathers momentum and the rest of the musicians recognize where it is going, they start coming in, and the music blossoms out, thick and rich. Each fiddler, of course, has a slightly different take on a piece, all of which generally complement each other when played together, but when you add in the drive of the bodhrans, whew! it is moving along! It was. . .big, almost a force of nature, like a wind blowing uninhibited across an ocean--or the ocean itself. The rolling wave of music might curl and crash, suddenly, hissing into a whispered sheen of foam as the leader changed tunes and the other players quieted to listen, but still it moved forward, and once more another tentative bow would feel out the tune, a bodhran player would carefully tap out the rhythm on his thigh, and bit by bit all the force would creep back in and the music would flow in full spate.

For myself, my bowing is going to take a lot of work to keep up in a setting like this, and the repitoire definitely needs a transfusion! I heard a lot of great new tunes, and wrote down the names to several I particularly liked. These were, as luck would have it, a collection which I am having small luck in tracking down so far, but here's a small taste, albeit not on fiddle. I liked this "Return to Milltown," for the drastic differences between the first part and the second, and have been able to find a very creditable accordion version here ("Return to Milltown" is the first tune, which lasts to about 1:05 of this set; the other two pieces are "Mulhaire's Reel" and "Golden Keyboard.")

Probably my favorite of the evening was "Myra's Jig," which you can hear on the MySpace page of an English trio called XYZ. I found out in trying to track it down that it is actually a Scottish tune, rather than Irish one, which is, perhaps an anticlimatic addendum after my intentions for adding variety to the repitoire. . .but it is awfully catchy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bluegrass, Etc...Etc.

For months I've been trying to come up with some sort of show-and-tell on the band Bluegrass, Etc. Their website is informative regarding the careers of the individual musicians, John Moore, Dennis Caplinger, and Bill Bryson, and you can listen to a few clips from their CD's (though believe you me, you are missing out not to be able to hear their rendition of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring;" it is not a complicated piece, and they don't complicate it, but it is a mighty nice arrangement). The Etc. is part of what makes this band such a kick to listen to--for example, you might not have guessed that all these years you have been sorely missing banjo accompaniment to "Jamaica Farewell;" once you get a taste of it, you might consider that the definitive arrangement. The rest of what makes the band slightly addictive is that they're just plain good musicians. I take that back. Not plain good. Crazy good.

There aren't many videos available of Bluegrass, Etc. and of the few existing, the sound quality does not do them justice. Here's a taste of an instrumental, however. Dennis Caplinger on banjo, and John Moore on guitar play "Don't Try This at Home."

John and Dennis are currently involved with another project as well, a group called Greenbroke, (MySpace page here) which includes John Cowan on bass and Brad Davis on guitar and vocals. From what I have been able to hear of them, they are on average a little more bluegrass than Etc, in this case, but likewise insanely musical. Here (despite what I just said about them being "more bluegrass") they toe the line of Texas Swing with "Panhandle Rag," John Moore on mandolin, this time.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I've been listening to a bit of Vivaldi lately and thereby took a notion to dig around and find some classical mandolin playing. The search came to a screeching halt at Evan Marshall's website although I later realized that my idea of classical mandolin was laid-back Baroque melody lines, which this most certainly is not, for the most part. This is a whole new idea, not only is it more strictly classical, (Rossini, and the like) if you read the description on Marshall's homepage, you are told that he plays all the harmonies and whatnot. Good on him, you say. He does it all at exactly the same time. Impressive, you say. Then you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and "click to listen while you surf," and hear him play the, "Ave Maria." Impossible, you say. Yet he does it. Very well.

The site did include a video, or rather a sound clip set to pictures, of a true duet--really two mandolins this time, on nothing less than Vivaldi's Mandolin Concerto in C-Major, so there's a bit of the Baroque after all.

Oh, and in the course of writing this post, I found the page on his site that offers a video of him playing "Ave Maria". So now I can see it, but I still can't for the life of me figure out how he does it!

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I said I'd try to dig up a translation of Golagros and Gawain to match the Middle Scots version I mentioned last week. Well, no luck on that, but if you can get your hands on The Knightly Tales of Sir Gawain, with translations by Louis B. Hall, there's a decent prose rendition in that. Some of the more flowery passages are considerably paraphrased, but it does follow the poem reasonably well.
Re: yesterday's post, it wasn't Bobby Hicks who wrote "Cheyenne." It was Bill Monroe. Yes, the Bill Monroe.
I mention the Gaelic singer James Graham every once in a while (here, f'r instance), but I think I've neglected to mention his website so far.. He has a few short clips from his albums up there; this is an excellent chance to get a taste of one of his very best pieces, a cover of Capercaillie's "Breisleach".

Now in Full Color. . .

And what, pray tell, do the pictures in this hodge-podge have in common with each other? They were all taken in northern California, and they are, for a bit of a change, not in black and white; in fact, the colors are the point of this lot.

First, some classic planes from the Capitol City Airshow. And this, boys and girls, is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a little foggy, so there was nothing to distract from the bright cables--as long as they could be seen at all.
This is the bridge from a thoughtful distance. I quite liked this picture and was disappointed that it came out a bit on the fuzzy side. The red roofs and the orange-red bridge were a bit more obvious in real life. That whisp of white off to the right of the bridge's foundation is a sailboat. I edited the contrast in this picture a wee bit; it was from the set I took at the Hyde Street dock, also in San Francisco, and it was too close to noon for taking good pictures, especially of bright yellow boats. But I couldn't pass it up, I've been intrigued by feluccas ever since I saw that one at the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year.
Further inland, and more muted, here is the inside of the dome at the State Capitol in downtown Sacramento.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Video Overdose

One thing I neglected to mention about Sunday's jam--I happened to catch a wee bit of another jam that was happening over on the porch, and it was, without exaggeration, one of the most amazing things I have ever heard. The group was quite small; it consisted of a fiddler, a rhythm guitarist/singer, and a third fellow who was strictly rhythm guitar. I had the luck to be passing by at the moment when they decided to play "Wayfaring Stranger." Oh, man. The singer had a very deep, clear baritone, which would have stood out extraordinarily, to begin with, but one note from the fiddler to top it off, and you were absolutley paralyzed. The man turned the tune inside-out, and upside-down, and coaxed sad, low notes off of the C (on top of being a man of wonderful taste in improvisation, he was playing a 5-string) or drew thin, wailing, heartbroken notes off of the E. Just when I thought it couldn't possibly get any better, a second fiddler came wandering out the door, and pretty soon the two of them were winding phrases one over another, warp and weft of musical weaving, while the the baritone, his rich voice as much an instrument as the violins, laid in the solid anchoring threads of song. It was one of those moments, like the perfect sunset, that was all the more beautiful because there was no way to capture it. Also, it made one feel rather humble: "What did I ever do to deserve to be here and be one of only three spectators who is hearing this at all?"

I had no hopes of finding a video that would even begin to convey exactly what I heard on Sunday, and I was right in that. You did have to be there. But for those of you who don't know the tune already, here is a very nice introduction by the Byron Berline Band.

And here's somthing else neat--another take of the same tune with both fiddle and vocals by a very young Allison Krauss, ca. 1987.

Though we really didn't play that much bluegrass at the jam, the other folks talked about it enough to where I had a rekindled interest in the subject. It was mainly that delicious minor-to-major flavour of "Wayfaring Stranger," however, that inspired me to try to find a video of the bluegrass classic "Cheyenne." I think this might have been written by Bobby Hicks, (anyway, I know he made it famous), but who should I find playing it but Aubrey Haynie (of the Time Jumpers)!

Which led me to find this video, which has absolutely nothing to do with any of the preceding (except that it is Aubrey Haynie again), being a good deal more Texas style than bluegrass, but it's another fine rendition of a classic. Eee, I do like those double stops.

That is enough rambling for one day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Wet North

It was just a gorgeous day! Now I say that, who did not have to be out driving in it; over three inches of rain fell in Sacramento, and the winds were extraordinary. It has been a definite fall here for the last week or so, cooler temperatures, turning leaves and all, but the heavy hand of the storm was in no mood for sorting leaves--probably a good half of what ended up on the ground this afternoon was still green. I went up to the park in search of the ideal puddle.
And returned to discover that the best puddle in the neighborhood was right outside the parking awning at the apartment.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fine Lines

Here is an interesting and informative website that was set up to supplement a (now past) exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The focus is drawings from medieval manuscripts. I thought this one was particularly intriguing in that the illustrations do not attempt to be anything more than line drawings, and yet they are in colour. The characters are a bit mysterious, but I am quite certain I would not like to get on their bad side. This one is my favorite, though it was probably utilitarian; speculation labels it as a plan for a cathedral facade.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Fiddler

Today was an official day off; not only did I not have to work, but I got to spend the afternoon actually playing music. Definitely a great case study for "time flies" and all that. There was a healthy mixture of tastes in the group, but basically everybody there knew more bluegrass than I did, and I knew more Scottish music than they did, and we all met in the middle when it came to country. You can all probably guess how this sort of thing would go, if you haven't attended a jam (or a thousand) already, but the musicians are set up in a circle, and each person, in turn, picks a tune, and then the living daylights is played out of said tune, with each musician taking a solo or two. We did a few old-timey pieces, like "Blackberry Blossom," (the dobro player had a neat lick for that, which I fully intend to steal) and "Nine-Pound Hammer," and a lot of old-timey country. One of the singer/guitar players caught my attention with a song called "Colleen Malone." He sang it slowly and sadly as behooved the subject matter. In this setting, the tune let me to believe it was a fairly old song (traditional, I mean), but the singer told me afterwards that it was written by Tim O'Brien. Here is the bluegrass group Hot Rize, of which the composer is a member (in fact, I believe that is him singing lead) with their rendition of the tune:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hit the Nail Right on the Head

Not long ago, I was over visiting some relatives, and the radio, which was playing in the background, was snarled around a very large snag of opera. The tenor had something discordant to say. The baritone had something even more discordant to add to that, and the soprano seemed to be telling off both of them, just as discordantly, but in a higher register. The tune wandered about, turning in and over unpleasantly upon itself like a Slinky that had met with an unfortunate accident and which was now tangled beyond all hope of regaining its original form or purpose. I wondered who would go and write something like that, and why. The answer to who turned out to be Richard Wagner, and I still have no idea why.

The pain was still fresh in my mind some days later when somebody handed me a book with a generous admission by Mark Twain regarding the same composer:

"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Continued Adventures Of--

One of my favorite pieces of literature is the Middle English "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." The hero is depicted so realistically that one is never sure that all will end well; he is, like the rest of us, a human being, all too capable of falling or failing. This is all the more reason why the story sustains its interest. The enumeration of Gawain's trials does not come across as a distant, predictable catalog of obligatory events, like an obstacle course far beneath the skill of a runner, but as a set of very real problems. And even while such real problems as the threat of a beheading seem to be glossed over lightly enough in many of the old romances, the unknown talent which gave us this poem took the time to draw a human being, afraid of death, conscious of sin, aware of his own weaknesses. The real chance of failure makes his successes all the more glorious.

I thought to improve my mind some weeks ago (it has yet to actually improve) so I checked out an armload of poetry books from the library (I have yet to give them much serious consideration). The Oxford Book of Scottish Poetry did get a cursory flip-through, however, and there, much to my amazement, was a selection from another poem about Gawain, this time, not in Middle English, but in Middle Scots. It is called The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane. To my unsuspecting self, perhaps the most amazing part is, it was written in exactly the same style as the Green Knight--alliterative stanzas, each ending with a rhyming bob-and-wheel. I haven't read enough Medieval pieces to confirm that this was the latest rage at the time; I suspect that must have been a fairly popular format, as it does leave a writer enough freedom to spin a good yarn, while maintaining a bit of a poem's structure. Still, it is interesting to speculate on the popularity of the Green Knight poem, which is supposed to have been written in northern England. Did the Scot who wrote Golagros and Gawane some years later hear or read it? Aside from the structure, the poem, though not of such a reflective tone as the Green Knight, treats strongly of the virtue of courtesy. I suspect this was an expected attribute in the non-Frenchified, non-Maloryized version of Gawain, but given its central place in Golagros and Gawane, the poem, though not permitting such an intimate view of the knight's mind, does seem to continue the same likable hero of the Green Knight.

Below is the entire poem in Middle Scots with commentary that will likely answer most of my questions when I get around to reading it. I'll see if there is a modern translation floating around too (I haven't tried it all the way through in Scots yet--I borrowed a translation from the library), but I picked a bad time for this post. I need to run to work.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


When my old roomie came to visit a few weeks ago, we took a day and rode the train to San Francisco. Technically speaking, we took the train to Emeryville, and caught a bus there for the waterfront. The bus nosed through the financial district and I quickly realized that all my previous ideas of a "big" city had been rather small-scale. There is a lot of San Francisco, vertically, as well as horizontally; the open views of the waterfront would have come as a relief if they were only a fraction as beautiful as they are. The Hyde Street Dock, however, is a sight for sore eyes to beat even the comfort of fog on the Pacific; clustered around it are the vessels belonging to the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, most notably the Balclutha.
She is a fairly old ship, built in Glasgow in 1886, built for work, and certainly did it, as you can read at the site above.
Above, faintly on the lower left--yes, that does say "Ghiradelli". In the picture below you can get a glimpse of a few of the other vessels there, including a steamboat.
It was just after noon when we reached the dock, which tended to wash out the pictures a bit, and, as in the purple spot below, put manifestations in which were not there in real life.
Again, rather washed out, but there is the Balclutha in her entirety. (That spot between the two buoys in the middle is an intrepid swimmer braving the sea lion attacks, which were described in a warning poster on the shore, in case you were wondering). The two masts on the left of the Balclutha belong to a very lovely old schooner, the name of which I don't recall and which was docked in a location which made getting a good picture impossible (unless you wanted to swim out with the sea lions to get it.) Further to the left is the famous Alcatraz Island enshrouded in famous fog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hidden Talents

I just happened to stop by the library yesterday, and picked up a book on the background of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde "because it was there." The most interesting information I came away with was extremely by-the-by, and had nothing whatsoever to do with the writing of the aforementioned novella; Robert Louis Stevenson played the tin whistle, the piano, and something called the flageolet. It is going to take more reading than I have done to figure out exactly how a flageolet works; by most indications, it has largely been replaced by the tin whistle, so the fingering must be generally straightforward, however RLS describes taking his apart for cleaning, "into seventeen separate members," which would indicate a construction much more complicated than that of a whistle.

Here is a page from a flageolet website which lets the author speak for himself on the subject. Just as intriguing is the mention of tunes he wrote, some of which are in mothballs (or whatever you put valuable, generally unread manuscripts in) in Monterey. I wonder what it takes to have a peek. It might be too much to expect the musical equivalent of Kidnapped, but to say I am curious would be an understatement.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hands. . .Err, Feet-On Pentatonic

Here's an oddly fascinating video. I don't think I'm going to even try to explain it. Just have a look, eh? If indeed the people in that audience can be considered a reasonable sampling of people in general. . .well, people are a lot more musical than they give themselves credit for!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. There is so much one could say about the man, especially after reading Chesterton's perceptive biography (which is more perceptive than biography). My original post for the day was going to be quite predictable--a quote from the aforesaid book, but an attempt to choose a theme, or an aspect of the saint's life set the gears in my head to working overtime.

Admittedly, I always feel just a wee bit sorry for St. Francis, whose image graces a hundred thousand bird feeders, as if his mission in life were to go about singing, "Feed the Birds," in a pale glow of insipid tolerance for all things. I'm not objecting to the bird feeders themselves, it is just that after a body sees a few hundred of them, St. Francis can fade away into a plaster shadow of a man, placid, passive, who sat and smiled dreamily and let the world rush by him while he nodded, oblivious in his impractical corner.

Chesterton's vision of St. Francis, on the other hand, is that of a man, if possible, more alive than other men. The journalist gives the saint fiery dark eyes, underlines the not-so-subtle results of his mission with words like "explosion." But most of all, Chesterton's St. Francis is overflowing with a sense of very real joy--not merely a plaster smile of toleration--a joy so intense as to be almost as visible and solid as a mountain. Chesterton was also the man who said that only the humble man is truly happy (I think it was somewhere in Orthodoxy, but a few forays into the same have proved fruitless, and I have to begin thinking of bed in the interest of work in the morning). So, by way of brushing a few of the cobwebs off of St. Francis, while letting the birds have their proper attention, here is a quote that is not from the biography at all and which Chesterton wrote in The Defendant, not necessarily thinking of the saint. Still it fits mighty well in suggesting why a man like Francis might be the furthest thing from passive; he might be better said to be caught up in a lifelong state of pleasant surprise:

In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, it is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are--of immeasurable stature. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other. Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are--the gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars--all this colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just A-Swingin'

I had a very pleasant shock at work yesterday. It was quiet and we were fishing for subjects to talk about when one of my co-workers brought up this neat band he'd recently seen on a DVD at a friend's house. It was a style of music that was new to him, though quite musical, he said. "They're called the Time Jumpers." It was a revelation to discover that there was anyone left in the world who hadn't heard of Western Swing before; I grew up so near Bakersfield that I guess I was unconsciously convinced that, not only did everyone know the style, but that everybody harboured a not-so-secret desire to be a piano player in a band like that (not that the Time Jumpers actually have a piano player). The chord progressions tend to be a good deal more complex than what you find in most country-ish music, but even better, Western Swing is very music-oriented. The vocalists do get their share of attention, but the musicians are given a good deal more to do than is usual in many other styles, and, oh, do they do it well, whether it's filling out a chorus with an breathless run of backup fiddle that spans most of the instrument's range, or wandering through a nice-and-easy steel solo where every note is carefully placed.

Anyway, here are a couple of clips from the Time Jumpers DVD, and by all means go over to their website, where you can read about them (some mighty impressive bios, there) and hear plenty more clips from their CD's.

Friday, October 2, 2009

As Pretty As. . .Many Pictures

Love from Prague is a mighty fine blog if you like photography. You can, in some ways, compare painting to fiction, where an artist is free to make his own world, as close to, or as far from the real world as he likes. Through this means, through making something different, he throws the world, as his audience knows it, into a new light. There is something quite exceptional about those people who can take their art directly from the world as it is, and still make you see it differently, which is exactly what the photos on Love from Prague do. No fancy retouching, just a startling new look at something that you might otherwise pass by every day.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


My highly scientific poll on the past tense of "strive" finished today.

One person claimed that "strived" is the way to go, and one rallied round for "strove." The clincher--I asked my grandmother what she would say, and she gave me an odd look and said, "Strived." She should know. So if people want to write things like, "Music of this period strived to be more noble," evidently they are welcome to it. But if you should catch me writing "strove," tread gently because you tread upon my dreams.

Da Slockit Light (Revisited)

I've mentioned Tom Anderson's lovely air "Da Slockit Light" a couple of times in the past (here and here, to be exact), but here is a long overdue video of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas themselves performing it, with a riot of Shetland reels following after. I've always been very keen on the dynamics of this particular fiddler, and a lovely, slow tune like this one is ideal for showing off his talent for putting a good deal of heart into his music. It seems safe to say that Natalie Haas is rewriting general perceptions of the cello--she certainly has for me, anyway! Nothing can touch the variety of expression and rhythm and out and out musicality that this particular fiddle/cello combination produces. When we saw these folks back in March, I think the show ran close to two hours--nothing but the two musicians and a bit of entertaining talk--and never a dull moment in the lot of it.