Ben Folds Five and … The Fraggles?

My kids never really got into The Fraggles, for some reason, but anything Henson is OK by me. Here, Ben Folds Five includes the Fraggle cast in a music video. The bigger idea is how the resurgent Henson Company is tapping the Muppets and their kin back into the pop culture discussion, after years on the outskirts (Thanks a lot, Disney). Plus, it’s Ben Folds. ‘Nuff said.

Peace (in the tune),


DVD Review: Rush – Beyond the Lighted Stage

“We were always overreaching.” — Geddy Lee

I can’t say that I grew up a huge Rush fan, but I had plenty of friends who were, and who would listen to 2112 religiously, and even had a bass playing friend who took on the task of learning as many Rush songs as possible. (It turned out … not too many … have you ever listened to Geddy Lee?) I am, however, a fan of rock and roll documentaries, so I took a chance on Beyond the Lighted Stage, which showcases the band through the years and how their individualism and musicianship stood them well in the face of a music industry that, as one band member say, “didn’t know what to do with us.”

There’s something to be said for bands that refuse to kowtow to a record label. I don’t know if there are enough of them anymore, although maybe the shakeup of the industry is finally leveling the field a bit. Maybe there are more bands that can tell a record company where to go when they say “we need a hit” and still survive by carving out an audience. I sure hope so.

After watching Beyond the Lighted Stage, you have come away with admiration for the three members of Rush (OK, so if you listen to them and think, that’s only three guys? That still remains an eye-opener for me. Or ear-opener.) Their musicianship remains impeccable, their ability to weave narrative and story into songs is a worthy goal (even if they do, in fact, overreach), and their friendship through the years is something that I find admirable. One storyline of drummer Neil Peart (who is sort of a god-like drummer to most of my drummer friends and also the main lyricist for the band) is particularly wrenching, as Peart loses his daughter and his wife within a short period of time, and in a bit of escapism from the world, hops on a motorcycle for a year of traveling and reflecting. The band came to a halt, as his bandmates worried about him. The movie shows Peart’s re-entry into the life, and into music, with the help of Rush.

Watching the documentary reminded me of a webcomic I created around a bass player in a band. The main character — Bassman — considers Geddy Lee to be a god, and starts a viral compaign to get Rush into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think that Geddy Lee reference comes from memories of my friends, and the fanatical view of Lee as a bassman extraordinaire.


Peace (in the bass and beyond),


So Long, Andrew Love (of the Memphis Horns)

It’s becoming a sad year for legendary saxophone players.

First, Clarence Clemons passed away last June. Now, it is Andrew Love.

If Clemons is more well-known to you as a name (for his work with Bruce and his larger-than-life stage presence), I’ll wager a bet that Love’s saxophone sound and arrangements are a sound you know all too well, even if you never realized it. As one half of The Memphis Horns section, Love and partner Wayne Jackson (on trumpet) created the wall of horns on most of the R&B tracks from Stax Studios and more that became the soundtrack to much of the 1960s and 1970s. Love passed away a few days ago, after battling Alzheimer’s.

The Memphis Horns even won themselves a Lifetime Grammy Award a few years ago.


So Long, Andrew Love. Your sounds will remain.

Peace (on the saxophone),


DVD Review: From the Sky Down (U2)

I still remember the first moment I put U2’s Achtung Baby CD on. I was in the midst of a deteriorating relationship and I needed escape. I popped the disc in, sat on the ground, put on some headphones, and leaned against the wall. The music was like the soundtrack I had been hearing in my head but could not express. It affected me deeply, through the lyrics, the sonic walls of sound and the passion that seemed to be underlying another story of a relationship about to break apart. Mine did, eventually, and Achtung Baby helped me cope. That’s what music can do, I think.

I was remembering that first time as I watched David Guggenheim’s documentary of the making of the album. From the Sky Down captures the moment when U2 was on the verge of either collapse (from the weight of The Joshua Tree‘s success and the disillusionment of Rattle & Hum) or something great. It seemed for much of the recording sessions that the band would not pull itself up.

What changed the entire recording was the emergence of the song, One. It’s interesting because the chords for that song — which anchored Achtung Baby and pushed the band in a new direction — was actually the bridge for an original version of Mysterious Ways (then called Sick Puppy). There’s this interesting moment in the film where Bono and Edge are listening to an early tape of Mysterious Ways and then, that bridge comes into play. They both go silent and you can see it in their eyes — that was the first moments of One being caught.

In the studio, the band “heard something” and quickly pulled those chord changes from Mysterious Ways and began to build an entirely new song out of it. Bono has no words, only melody, so he scats phrases and words over the chords. The producer — Brian Eno — encourages the band to move beyond expectations, adding in the changes at the end of the song that are key to it all — shifting the melody every so slightly. The words come. The song falls in place in a relatively short amount of time, and suddenly, the band — after being on the brink of falling apart — is together again. The music is magic. It’s pretty fascinating to watch.

And best of all, the rest of the album begins to finally emerge and the band remains together.

As a fan, I devoured the documentary. (I admit to loving the behind-the-scenes work of musicians, particularly as songs come together). As a writer, the film reminded me of the difficult journey many artists have when confronted with a blank canvas, and high expectations, and the need to create something meaningful. What U2 didn’t want to do was repeat The Joshua Tree. How they created Achtung Baby was through the development of ideas, from the ground up (or as the title suggests, from the sky down). It’s a great message for anyone trying to create something out of nothing but ideas.

Peace (in the songs),


Slice of Life: Ridin’ with the ‘Wrecking Ball’

My youngest son spent the weekend with my father, who lives about 90 minutes away. He regularly takes one of the three boys for an overnight visit, coming to get them from our house and then I go pick them up. Before I jumped in the car, I downloaded the new Bruce Springsteen album to my iPod. I figured this was the perfect time to give it a listen, in its entirety.

I hit the highway and hit the volume, and soon, I was cruising south down Interstate 91.

I’m a fan of Springsteen, although not one of those rabid ones who thinks he some sort of rock god. I often have mixed emotions on his albums. Most have one or two great tracks stuffed in with some fluff tracks. The one album of later Bruce that I hold in high regard is The Rising, which he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 and still chokes me up sometimes when I hear some of the tracks. His ability there to bring the listener into the lives of characters experiencing profound loss and sadness … and hope, even, is something often missing in modern songwriters.

Sprinsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, is another mixed affair. With Bruce returning to his tried and true themes of economic disparity and political corruption and the state of the American Dream (and using more studio work to layer his sound, echoing the Born to Run days), the album skewers the fat cats on Wall Street and mourns the loss of opportunity for the blue collar folks in our country. There’s a real Celtic edge to this album, too, which no doubt reflects some of the work he has done in recent years around the songs of Pete Seeger and that live disc recorded over in Ireland.

And Woody Guthrie’s words and voice seeps through the album, too. As does the saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons, whose sax part was engineered into the song,  Land of Hope and Dreams, after he had passed away from complications from his stroke. (Bruce gives an emotional interview about Clemons in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine, too. It’s touching the relationship and friendship that Bruce and Clarence had developed over the decades together.)

I didn’t skip any of the songs on the first listen, but on round two, I found myself centering on just four or five songs. While the song We Take Care of our Own is getting the spotlight because its a message that the song hammers into your head, I think the title track — Wrecking Ball — is the much better song. There’s a moment in the song where the band pulls back, and Bruce’s words come to the forefront. It’s a reminder of the power of a few lines, and the poetry of songwriting.

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go ….
Yeah, just to come again

By the time I got to my father’s house, I was immersed in Springsteen’s music and words. Sometimes being alone with music is the best way to spend your time alone.

Peace (with Bruce),


Writing a Rap Song: The Class of 2017 is in the House

I wrote last week of wanting to try out the writing of a collaborative rap song with my sixth graders. Now, listen, they are 12 and live in suburbia. They don’t have hiphop in their blood. But they listen to rap, and they love music, and it was an interesting experience to walk them through the writing of a song. Most years, I bring in all of rock and roll gear — electric guitar, drum machine, amplifiers, microphones, the works. But, heck, times change. I went with rap this year. And using Garageband, there was a whole lot less gear to carry (my back thanks me).

Here’s what we did:

  • I wrote and recorded the first verse, which celebrates my sixth graders as the class of 2017 — the year they will graduate high school.
  • We listened to the introduction and then reviewed our work around couplets, rhythmic beats and flow from poetry.
  • I gave them a simple handout sheet with my verse written out and some blank lines. Their job was to write at least one couplet that continued the theme and kept the model of the introduction.
  • As a class, we wrote the rap, with students volunteering their lines in a Google Doc and then, again as a class, we worked on the editing of the lines. (Ideally, we would have had more time for this).
  • Volunteers came up to the front of the room, where I had my nifty Snowball microphone set up, and they “sang” the rap for the class. This often took a couple of tries and honestly, another day of recording would have been better. But it is the end of the year and time is our enemy.
  • I then took all four raps from my four classes and spliced them together into one rap song, which I noticed this morning has been downloaded almost 50 times from our class site by my student. And BONUS: a few students apparently took the song and used it as a soundtrack for some video project they are going to give to me. Not sure what to expect …

Why the Collaborative Rap Song Writing Worked:

  • We used elements from our poetry unit
  • They have a high interest in music — particularly rap and hiphop
  • They wrote for a purpose
  • They wrote as a class in a collaborative environment
  • Music became part of our writing experience
  • Some students could take center stage as performers
  • We published to the world

I know you must be dying to hear what they came up with. Right? Here you go:

Introducing: The Class of 2017

Or you can listen here.

Peace (in the hip, in the hop, in the hippity hop),

Scenes from a Benefit Concert

I had some time yesterday to make a compilation montage video from our Benefit Concert which I am sharing at our class website and with our school community, and here. The kids who were on stage had some great talents.

Peace (in the rock and the roll),

Playing Saxophone in the New Band

We don’t quite have a name yet, since this formation of the band is really that new (the bass player just joined us two weeks ago), but this is a short video montage of us playing the Benefit Concert at our school earlier this week. It’s a rough cut for now.
That’s me on the saxophone, stage right.

Peace (in the music),

Sharing the Musical Stage with Students

rock concert in gazette
(a blurb in the local newspaper earlier this week)
Last night, we held our benefit rock concert to support the American Red Cross in the wake of tornadoes here in Western Massachusetts and in the South. It was extremely hot on the stage — the heat outside was in the 90s — and I wasn’t sure what the audience would look like. But it was OK — there were about 60 people or so, I think.

We raised more than $500 for the Red Cross, which is better than I expected and indicates a high level of generosity by the audience.

On stage, we had a mix of teacher and student acts, and I was so happy to be able to watch my current and former students shine in the spotlights on the stage as musicians and performers. I was up there, too, playing with my new configuration of our band, but it was watching my students that really made the night.

There were about a dozen student performers who performed everything from the Beatles to Kanye West to Lady Gaga to Green Day. It reminded me of my time in high school, when a band I was in took part in a talent show of bands, and although we were not all that great, I still remember that magical feeling of taking the stage and looking out, and playing before people.

Sure, our event (which was organized and run by a student of mine, with a little help) was designed to raise awareness and money for families hurt hard by the weather, but it was also a chance to turn the night over to the students, some of whom don’t shine in the classroom but do shine on the stage.

Peace (in the songs),

PS — I do have a video of the night and will work on a montage one of these days.