Month: August 2011

Cab City Combo

“We’re a Novelty Band!”

The most offbeat and longest-running musical project of my career(!) was with the New York Novelty Rock band, Cab City Combo. Although we’ve never actually broken up, it’s been years since anything new has been recorded and released. The Combo was the brainchild of Paul Rubin and over the years many friends and acquaintances played sessions with the band. The project was strictly a recording affair; no gigs were ever played and for that reason I always looked at the group (especially in the early days) as if it were The Beatles during the Magical Mystery Tour period. Cab City didn’t have to concern itself with the limitations of the stage and was therefore able to use people, instruments, noises, and studio tricks that worked as a one-off in the studio, but would’ve been hard to reproduce live. Unlike many of my other musical projects I was restrained by a guy functioning as the producer of his own music so I had to come up with cool little parts and riffs (if they weren’t already part of the song) and function as part of an ensemble. It was a continuously fun and interesting challenge and I’m ALL about the challenge! It also afforded more trips to the recording studio and I’ve have always LOVED being in the studio. I can’t remember ever having a bad time recording back in those days. We were lucky because we worked with 3 very sympathetic engineers over the span of our career: Jim Fourniadis, Greg Talenfeld, and Gary Knox. They always went the extra mile to indulge Paul’s whims and offered invaluable assistance to get the production to really POP. It certainly helped that they are all boss musicians in addition to being studio wizards. Jim was actually a member of the Combo for the first couple of sessions.

Cab City Combo's Cabbie Road CD

When I was a kid,  The Dr. Demento show was on the radio every Sunday night and for 2-3 hours he would play a dazzling assortment of weird and funny stuff. (Kind of sounds like 1930s but we’re talking early 70s) I used to do homework while well-known, goofy gems like They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Transfusion, Lil Red Riding Hood and Shaving Cream, the song that won many of the top 10 countdowns on the show in those days, played in the background. I think the family bought 1 or 2 KTEL novelty compilations but I don’t remember them getting a lot of attention. Not only was I also discovering rock and roll and more interested in that, but there was something cool about hearing the funny stuff in the context of a radio format. The songs seemed to lose some of their zip on an LP because I knew what was coming. I didn’t think about the whole concept of Novelty again until the early 90s when I was asked by friends if I wanted to play guitar in the Cab City project. I didn’t know Paul at that point, but we did the first session and it was a whole lot of fun. Since Paul was doing Novelty Rock I didn’t think of it as a huge departure from what any of us were playing anyhow and historically this has always been true.  Sam the Sham and the Pharohs are considered by many to be a fine rock n’ roll band as are a host of other bands who recorded songs that are considered novelty-esque,  like The Champs with Tequila and The Kingsmen with Louie Louie. Cab City was kind of carrying on in the same tradition, but Paul’s influences included people like Martin Mull, The Bonzo Dog Band, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin and other twisted luminaries from the 1970s, while Cab City was always a Novelty Project, that definition could be pretty broad at times. Even though the line-up changed for the next session a year or two later, I stayed on and kept doing it…for eleven years. Paul and I had a pretty good working relationship and as time went on our approach to the project changed to something more like Tommy Tedesco or The Wrecking Crew because Rotgutter, the power trio band I was in at the time, became the core of Cab City. As a band we were already super-tight and that allowed all of the Combo recordings to proceed very quickly and smoothly. Dr. Demento actually played the Combo on his show a few times and Paul had a map going on how many people in how many of the US states bought the CDs. While Cab City was never a threat to Weird Al‘s popularity, it was a nice little project and over the years I was able to put down some really cool and varied guitar on a wide range of music. The sessions were totally fun and part of an era that is rapidly disappearing. Today musicians can avoid recording studios and put their music together on laptops and hardly anyone works with tape. Most of the studios we recorded in over the years are gone now, but it was always an education and a blast to be in that environment putting a project together with like-minded people and friends.

The Combo did get some love over the years, including a nice letter and encouragement from Jello Biafra, punk icon and leader of the Dead Kennedys. Because there was always a veneer of punk rock music and sensibilities in Cab City I was convinced that Paul had aspirations to be a punk rock star! Because most of the musicians in the Combo were capable and comfortable doing that and because punk rock is usually humorously irreverent, the combination worked and it appealed to fans of both styles of music. Even when the music didn’t sound like punk, there was usually a twisted, misanthropic attitude to the lyrics that sounded like PUNK ROCK or NEW YORK. The SUV Song is a good example — musically it’s such a pleasant-sounding song and I was going for a very Caribbean guitar thing. Lyrically it was a different story and that juxtaposition and the sing-a-long chorus made it one of the Combo’s more accessible numbers. Two kids in England liked it so much they made a video for the song.

Some of my other favorite Cab City tracks in the above player illustrate the range of different styles involved in the band and what I did guitar-wise. Paul wasn’t a taskmaster by any stretch of the imagination; he actually let the band have quite a bit of room to come up with their own stuff. But he did have certain ideas about what he wanted and didn’t like. This kind of relationship was good for me as it always forced me to focus and try to see outside my own musical parameters. All of the musicians involved had played with each other in some capacity or knew each other so that made it easy to get the music together and record it quickly. Songs like Monkey King, High Entropy and Insulin were pretty close to being POP numbers. Monkey King always felt like a Broadway show tune meets the aforementioned Beatles Magical Mystery Tour-era to me, I don’t know why. Insulin has a phased kind of George Harrison/Eric Clapton “Badge” era thing going on and I do remember Paul having a lot of input into how that solo sounded. What’s funny is that although I was playing through an MXR Phase 90, I didn’t have it turned on, but it sounds like it was. I’m also playing a Rickenbacker 6-string for the strumming part, which is the only time I’ve ever used a Rickenbacker guitar in my life. I’ve never owned one and the one I used (which was really boss!) belonged to the guy who owned the studio. After You Alphonse, which is the comedy gag of more than 1 person trying to get through the door simultaneously, is probably Cab City’s most obvious punk number. Less than a minute long, the guitar approach is: Just PLAY FAST. High Entropy reminds me of Chris Spedding and the couple of years of hanging out with him certainly influenced the cool, laid back riffing on this song, which was sung by Marti J. Cooney, a lady who contributed many fine vocalizations to the Combo over the years. So did Laurie Kilmartin and Maddie Horstman, who does the lead vocals on the next song, Santa Klutz, which was typical of the goofy fun we had making these songs. 4 of us huffed helium out of balloons to make the elf voices and I can still remember us standing around the mic trying to get it right without making each other crack up. Same was true of Lake Pennsylvania, which was a real biatch to record, especially THE SINGING NIXONS vocal parts. The music was real easy and there was also a steel drum added by Jamila Cowie. Cab City usually had special guests come in and contribute and they always performed well. Banned by the Man was surely one of the finest guitar moments of my Novelty career. I took Jimmy Page’s DADGAD tuning and used it on an acoustic and couple of electrics to create an Indo/Persian feel for Paul’s rant on copyright laws. Since The Beatles figure heavily in the rant, I felt that the almost sitar-esque quality of the music worked well. I forget if we planned that or not. I also played bass on the track and used an Echoplex to get the delay/echo effect. Later on I developed this piece further and I think it will show up in it’s entirety on this blog someday. If you wish you can download other CAB CITY stuff HERE.

Cab City Combo released two full-length CDs; compilations of all of the sessions we did over the years and they are STILL FOR SALE! It’s interesting how during the band’s career and since it was shelved, so much of the music business and New York City has changed. In that way listening to these songs for me is a snapshot of a special time in my life. I’m not a fan of any modern novelty music and probably never will be and the fact that I wasn’t a fan even when we were recording allowed me the freedom to just come up with ideas that would fit the songs and vision Paul was trying to put across. All of the other people involved in the core band over the years were total pros, and many are still involved in the music business in some capacity. My first attempt at a jazz song occurred with the Combo and it’s kind of funny that is where I am now — playing music that I originally did as a parody for a Novelty band. The Combo’s parody stuff was really brilliant and someday maybe it will find it’s way on here. If you want to know why it isn’t, listen to Banned By the Man. Perhaps the Combo will do another session in the future, but even if it doesn’t, there is a bunch of great stuff I was happy to be a part of and am pleasantly surprised when I hear it now. I’m not one of those people who dwells on the past or listens to all the music I’ve done on a regular basis, but every once it awhile it’s a nice trip down memory lane and a way of measuring where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going.

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Jimi Play the Cave

Well, not really. But this is a super cool bobble-head doll from FUNKO (sounds like RONCO or TELCO or K-TEL doesn’t it?) They have a whole line of toys and bobble-heads including Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Ramone, Tupac and many more, like the Wonder Woman computer sitter. Grrrrrrowlll! They even have a Ronald Reagan doll but I can’t imagine that someone who would buy one of those would be that much fun to hang out with. It looks like the Jimi Doll has been discontinued…or maybe it’s sold out! But Elvis is still there!

Jimi Hendrix was a huge influence on me…and, of course many other people. Over the years I’ve tried to cop his vibe on a whole lot of things as you can tell from the short film clip, which features music from one of my favorite projects of all time. The guitar lead was played on my Strat taking a lot from the Master of the Stratocaster himself and maybe it also came from listening to another Jimmy (Jimmy Page) but it’s hard to tell where one influence stops and another starts. (The studio where this was recorded in July of ’99 was so hot the A/C was being rationed and plugs were literally melting in the electrical sockets. Every track sounds like it’s on fire. The week I did overdubs was one of the hottest on record until it was topped this year…FUN WEATHER FACT!) I also still get the occasional jolt out of listening to Jimi’s music. It is interesting to watch as different media shows up all over the web from all of those years ago. Some of it is downright killin’ and other stuff, not so much. I’ve never liked the Isle of Wight concert because Jimi looked really tired, burnt and pissed off. The version of Red House from that show is almost painful to watch. But there is other stuff from those later days scattered about the web that is actually really good. I haven’t checked out any of these official releases…but since Jimi’s family regained some kind of control over his music after so many years, I have heard that this stuff is a treat. While they don’t have any video, Wolfgang’s Vault has a ton of streaming concert audio from Berkeley, Winterland, and both Fillmores (west and east). I’ve listened to most of this stuff and a fair amount is Jimi at the top of his live game. Definitely grrrrrreat! Except for the Band of Gypsies shows, Mitch Mitchell was always part of Jimi’s experience and he has to rank as one of the greatest drummers ever. Together they were a very explosive and innovative team.

Speaking of great, here is Chris Squire, famed bass player for YES telling a fantastically funny tale about opening for Jimi at one of his legendary early London performances (The Marquee Club). Dessert!

Django and Harry

Django Reinhardt and Harry Volpe NY 1946Back in the old days of this blog I mentioned in THIS post on Django Reinhardt that I’d found some cool pics and information about Django’s time in New York City in 1946. This period coincided with Django leaving his acoustic-based sound and moving to electric guitar, which thanks to Charlie Christian, had become a viable tool guitarists could use in performance and recording. This was a time of transition for Django and while, in my opinion, he weathered it brilliantly, there are many people, Stephane Grappelli (his partner for many years) and Les Paul included, who believe he never really adapted to the electric format and should’ve stuck with what he had. However, Bebop swept the post-war world and all of the swing bands were no longer the HOT thing and for a guitar pioneer of Django’s stature it couldn’t have been easy to be thought of as “old hat.” When the chance to tour America with Duke Ellington (a chance that was offered to his whole band) Django jumped at it. Alone. He arrived in the USA thinking that the country would roll out the red carpet for him and luthiers and guitar makers would be waiting to hand him the best of what they had. He couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time Django returned to Europe many illusions of his international stature were shattered, but I think that says more about unrealistic expectations than anything else. Had he brought his band they might’ve done very well. What did happen was he met some very interesting players and returned to France an electric, bebop-influenced guitarist. There would only be a few more sessions where he would play acoustic before ditching it altogether in favor of an electrified sound. In the end, I think he got a really good electric thing going. It must have been a thrill for him to have VOLUME and AMPLIFICATION at his disposal — two qualities every guitar player in the West takes completely for granted in this day and age.

One fella that Django met in the United States was Harry Volpe. Harry was almost as much a guitar pioneer as Django and was a well-known figure at the time as a performer and teacher. He had his own music store/studio and teaching academy and in time would count Joe Pass, Johnny Smith and Sal Salvador as some of his students. He was the first guitar player to be on the staff at Radio City Music Hall. I couldn’t find any of his own performances to link to but there are some good players do interpretations HERE, HERE, and HERE. If you have heard any of Django’s solo guitar material it’s easy to see similarities between his and Harry’s styles. Obviously they got along very well musically and personally, as the pictures from their jam sessions show. Aside from the fact that it’s cool to have all the information available on Django’s only trip to the United States, the pictures and info give a nice little snapshot into that period of New York City, which is very interesting to me. A funny thing, for some reason, Downbeat, the jazz magazine of the day, seemed to think Django was a Brooklyn Bum, meaning he was born there! Not really sure where they got that idea.

Harry Volpe’s studio was in Jackson Heights, Queens and this was the scene of a memorable all night jam session he had with Django in 1946. I believe it would have been in November of that year as the Ellington band (with Django) appeared at the New York Aquarium. This is where some of the most famous pictures of Django with a smoke and a guitar were taken. After the Ellington tour Django stayed in New York until he eventually returned to France in February of 1947. A semi-famous silent home movie shows him getting ready to leave and once again, Harry is on the scene. Supposedly there were other movies of them eating spaghetti and jamming, but I don’t think those two films have ever surfaced.

Another thing that was interesting to me, especially as a Gretsch player, was that Harry Volpe endorsed Gretsch guitars, which probably meant a lot to Gretsch at the time because they were trying to compete with Gibson and Epiphone for the arch-top market. While they didn’t succeed both Django and Harry are playing Gretsch guitars at these jam sessions, which amuses me to no end. You don’t see many people trying to play jazz on a Gretsch these days or ever…Chet Atkins might come to mind. Brian Setzer doing his rockabilly/swing thing maybe. George Harrison. But in the picture below Django is playing of the Harry Volpe-endorsed Gretsch Synchromatic 400 Guitar (the same one from the above ad?) while Harry is playing a Gretsch Special.

I thought that the Gretsch would have a nice amplified Django sound and I’ve already tried to show that HERE. In the fall I play some on the Gretsch through my Schertler David amp because that sound is just TOO COOL. I didn’t buy the guitar specifically for that purpose, it was a matter of using what I had, which was the same in Django’s case. He played electric before he came to America, a fact that was established by the good folks at the Hotclub UK site HERE. This is one of only a few movies of Django playing and it is on YouTube. But don’t get too excited — the clip is only 10 seconds long.

During his tour of the US with Ellington Django used a Gibson ES-300. This picture was taken at the Pla Mor Ballroom in either Kansas City or Lincoln Nebraska (there were two ballrooms with that name). He was notorious for not having a Gearhead mentality for equipment and obviously was capable of playing pretty much anything he was handed. He did remark however, once he was back in France, that nothing beat his long-used and trusty Selmer, which he quickly outfitted with the new Stimer pickup system and used (as far as anyone can tell) for all of his recorded electric work until his death in 1953. Harry went on to endorse Epiphone in the 1950s and I have to repeat something I mentioned in my first pass at this topic. Was he the first guy with an endorsement deal? (No! As was kindly pointed out by MAC below in the comments, a fella by the name of Nick Lucas had a deal with Gibson in the mid-20s) Nowadays having a guitar named in your honor is as common as a cheese sandwich, but given Harry’s reputation and the fact that he was also teaching students and running a store makes me wonder if he was the first. Who else would qualify?

Django with his amplified Selmer guitar Django and Harry were able to get their sound on many different guitars, electric or acoustic, because they had really great technique and understood how important great hand work is to playing guitar. There are so many things one can do, a fact I just highlighted in the Fingerpicking Good post, with or without a pick that affects how the instrument will sound. Gypsy-Jazz picking is very forceful and powerful and I’m sure Django had to adapt a bit in order to play some of those creamy-smooth modern jazz lines one can find on his recordings from the 1950s. He could also make the instrument bark if the situation required, but ballads are usually the measure of how well a player translates emotion into pure sound. (One of my best achievements last year was a version of Nuages played on my Gretsch through the Schertler amp at a gig. It was BRAVO) Django and Harry Volpe both excelled at this type of playing, which is why I’m sure they enjoyed the short time they were able to play together. Although Django didn’t do as well as he expected on that US tour, he must have had some fun times because pictures seem to demonstrate that he found a few Americans to be kindred spirits and he was a person who loved life. There was another go at this country in the works when he died and had he been able to come over in the mid-50s and blow his electric brand of music, I believe he would’ve enjoyed a much better reception.

Harry Volpe Epiphone AdHarry Volpe lived for over 40 years after Django passed away and enjoyed some great successes, including the music production of The Time of the Cuckoo at the Empire Theater on Broadway, teaching at the Frost Conservatory and performances with his trio on coast-to-coast broadcasts of early television pioneer Arthur Godfrey’s show. He isn’t a name guy even though he lived into the 1990s, but he was definitely an important guy in the development of guitar, as an instructor to some of the best guitar players ever, and as the creator of some very beautiful music.

Thanks to the folks at the Paul Vernon Chester website for sharing their materials. There is a lot more info there!

John Jorgenson

John Jorgenson is one of the hottest  purveyors of Gypsy-Jazz in the USA. He has had a long-standing love affair with Django Reinhard going back to the days when he played at Disneyland as a youngster. The guy is a monster, not only on guitar, but also 8 or 9 other instruments. I had the pleasure of seeing his Gypsy quintet a few years ago in NYC and they were great! It was really cool to be sitting 6 feet away and watching John because I’ve heard his playing and back in the day I read about his complete command of the guitar in magazines. He did not disappoint at this show and he is also a really cool dude. A gentleman. Also, he was playing his signature Gitane DG-320 Modele John Jorgenson, which is the gypsy-style Selmer I have (and I love my DG-320!!). It was awesome to watch him tear it up on that guitar and also great that he was using something he endorsed. Not everyone does that you know?  Here is an online lesson he did with Acoustic Guitar.com and below is one of the songs from the show, Ghost Dance.

John has been a guitar hero for a long time and last week while I was spending a few hours on Youtube (I LOVE THE TUBE) I remembered when I first heard about him with The Desert Rose Band and The Hellecasters. Both of these bands and John won so many awards he probably has a room in his house set aside for trophies and accolades. I was always a fan of The Byrds and would definitely list them as one of the best and most influential American bands ever. Chris Hillman, who was the bass player/vocalist in The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, formed the The Desert Rose Band with John and Herb Pederson in 1985 and a string of hits and rave reviews followed. The DRB is what I think Country Music should sound like as I’ve always partial to what people in the 1960s — The Byrds, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons, Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and many others did with country to get it out of the Opry and merge it with blues and rock and roll. The Desert Rose Band have that kind of vibe and manage to avoid the excesses that turned modern Country Music into… I don’t know what. Of course, one thing all of the above bands had or have in common — great guitar picking! The DRB had two great pickers, JJ and steel player JayDee Maness, who is easily one of the best in the business.

The Hellecasters were also astounding and I remember reading guitar mags in the early/mid 80s and they won every category not won by Eddie Van Halen or Stevie Ray Vaughan during those years. John, Will Ray and Jerry Donahue actually got together because Michael Nesmith (yes that Michael Nesmith) wanted them to do an album as a gag. Nesmith actually released their first two records on his label and guitar players everywhere were like WTF? John was in his REALLY BIG HAIR period here and looks like a total rock star. Of course he rocks the hell out of his caster, as they all do, hence, the name.

John has also played for a lot of really big stars like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams Jr., Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti and many others. As I said earlier, he can play a whole ton of instruments, is a REALLY NICE guy and tells really cool stories. When I saw him he played Benny Goodman style clarinet on a song he had recorded with Peter Frampton called Souvenirs de nos Peres. That is the first of the final two videos below (it’s a little hard to watch because it’s sideways). But John gets a nice sound on the clarinet and it’s a really cool song courtesy of Peter Frampton. The second video is John with Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty sometime in the 1990s playing Mr. Tambourine Man. John is obviously an in-demand guy and a player at home in just about any situation. He has certainly produced a TON of great music over the years and is very generous about sharing his knowledge with other players. Obviously Gypsy Jazz is a really big part of what he does now and if you have a chance to see his band, I recommend going. He brings in a lot of other music and influences, but manages to retain the fun, swinging vibe that is the essence of the music.  Also, follow that link above for a Gypsy Jazz lesson or search for some of his other stuff and GET YOUR SWING ON!

Fingerpicking Good!

Here is a collection of great guitar players doing their thing without the standard flat-pick that many people use. Most of these players should be familiar to any guitarist and all of these players have had an impact on guitar playing. Personally, I love playing without a pick sometimes and one the best things a player can develop is the ability to play either with or without. There are many reasons for playing this way including:

• The ability to play complicated patterns and contrapunctal lines
• Greater control for attack
• A wide variety of tones from using different parts of the hand
• Greater control for damping (especially slide players)

Of course some players reach a level of mastery or that makes the pick completely unnecessary. Other players would have a really hard time even approaching what they do if they had to worry about holding on to anything. What’s great about the following videos is many of them have close-up views so you can really get a good look at what’s going on. YouTube really is a GREAT learning device. Plus all this music is pretty brill don’t you think?

Chet Atkins*

Michael Hedges

Bonnie Raitt*

Wes Montgomery

Jeff Beck

Kaki King

The Allman Brothers (Derek Trucks / Warren Hayes*)

* Chet Atkins and Bonnie Raitt are both using thumbpicks, but they are also using their fingers and Warren Hayes is switching back and forth between using a standard pick and just using his fingers.

The crab picture I shot myself in Mexico a few years ago. I’m not sure what kind it is and it looked pretty ferocious in person but was really shy. It came out from under the porch of the bungalow one night while I was playing guitar.