Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I'm a cowboy....

It was with some trepidation that headed to Big Bear Lake for the Cowboy Gathering to play with the Stardust Cowboys. It's long drive from Sacramento, 470 hot dusty miles.

I am in no way a cowboy, I wasn't sure how I would fit in, would Iget my ass beat for not driving a pickup truck? I was told we had a 5 o'clock sound check, left home around 9:30. At 3 I am outside of Victorville and I get a call that the sound check was moved up to 4 and how soon could I get there? So I jammed the last 80 miles got there about 4:45. Walk into the venue, sound check stalled on crappy monitors. Beautiful state of the art theater, with a former Neil Diamond rotating stage set as part of the stage(gotta love Southern California), but two Kustom semi pro monitors. Eventually we do our sound check and I check into my room. Big Bear Lake is a big time resort for people from San Bernadino and LA. It reminds me of Tahoe(the town does, not the lake) an old resort town stretched out over miles of highway.

Vicki, the band co leader hands me a shirt and scarf, retro cowboy all the way. My cowboy duds weren't cowboy enough. I head back to the venue, the Performing Arts Center and we close the show with a 45 minute set. Next day we play one set outside and one set back at the PAC.

What I found out that this is not a rodeo, didn't see one horse, it's a cowboy poetry and music festival. The attendees were poets, history buffs, lovers of legend,story tellers mixed with some real working cowboys. very nice folks, thoughtful and soulful.

One of the other performers was the great Sourdough Slim, last of the Vaudeville Cowboys. Think of a mix of WC Fields and Will Rodgers, he plays the accordian, guitar, harmonica, sings, tells stories and does rope tricks sometimes at the same time.

Another guy I enjoyed was cowboy poet Russ Knox, a working cowboy. I really like his work.
All and all it was a very fun weekend, and I hope to back there with the Stardust Cowboys again next year.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jam Culture

When I was young, my buddies and i would call each other and say "let's jam today", meaning lets get together and play some music with no real goal other than playing. Later on when we said "jam" it meant improvising with no predetermined structure, as in "jam band".

Later on, when I started playing clubs there were after hours jams and Sunday jams at clubs. These often attracted top area players, and the Sunday music was often way better than what happened all week.

In the past 20 years we have witnessed a whole "blues jam" culture sprouting up. From maybe 2 a week at the old Torch Club we now have 10-20 a week just locally. What is cool is that it gives players who don't play gigs a chance to play regularly, gives pro payers a chance to hang out and play with people they don't normally work with, people get to network, hone their skills.
It's also a way to get a crowd any night of the week, a well run jam will draw players and listeners who get a multi act show for usually no cover. Some nights and Sunday days there might be 4 or 5 happening in town.

Each jam seems to have its own culture, it's own set of unwritten rules. The tone is set by the hosts, each one does it a little different. Hosting a jam is not an easy task, the jammers show up with high expectations of a great musical experience. For some it is there only chance to play and they got a lot invested in it.

The challenge for the hosts is to let everyone who signs up to get a chance to play and hopefully have a good time, while keeping the show rolling a long and the quality of the music high enough so people will come to listen. We need those listeners, they fill the seats and keep the till ringing.

It's a hard job, harder than it looks and you are never gonna satisfy everyone. It's like soup: you got to have the right mix. The jammers can be demanding, they want to play at this time with these people, and sometimes it gets ugly when people don't get their way.

At it's best a blues jam is a combination of the excitement of a big revue type show, a place to learn the art of playing in musical ensembles and fellowship akin to church.

Monday, August 9, 2010

It doesn't matter what they say about you.............

A few weeks ago my friend Kathleen McCoy Grover asked me if she could interview me for a column she writes in the Lincoln Messenger. She came down to the shop and talked to me for an hour or so, and whipped up this:

Folk music made a huge impact on Joe Lev
Behind the Bars column
Kathleen McCoy Grover Special to The News Messenger

If ever there was a musician’s musician, it would be Joe Lev.

He was born in 1952 into a family of musicians steeped in the controversial melting pot of Chicago’s folk-music community.

“My parents, Milt and Marge Lev, were part of the big folk-music scare of the late ’50s and early ’60s,” Joe said. “My mom studied guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago with Frank Hamilton, a replacement for Pete Seeger in the Weavers. I remember going backstage at a Frank show and seeing how entranced I was. He told my mom, ‘Get that boy a banjo.’”

His family moved to Sacramento in 1958, where his parents joined the newly formed Folk Music Society.

“My folks soon were officers. We went to concerts, workshops and hootenannies,” Joe said. “I remember my parents dressing me up in my little wool suit to hear people sing about sharecropping, gambling, drinking and women of ill repute. Sitting in the dark, I was captivated by the magic one person with a guitar, some stories and good song could weave.”

One milestone event was bringing the then blacklisted Pete Seeger to American River College. Joe may have just been 8 years old but the memories and the messages he heard made a huge impact on him.

Music surrounded Joe. His mother gave guitar lessons and classes; folk music was it for him until he was 12 when his older brother, Ben, brought home a Fender guitar and Silvertone amp.

Soon, bands were practicing in his garage every week and Joe traded his banjo for an electric guitar.

Music has been the one constant in Joe’s life, “a unifying thread, a fascination bordering on obsession.” Growing up in the north area of Sacramento near Carmichael, he and his friend, Paul Narloch, had a whole series of bands.

Just after graduating from high school, Joe and Paul were in his first “good band,” Buckwheat.

“We were Americana, 30 years too early,” Joe said. “We had a sparkle like the Flying Burrito Brothers. It was an idyllic time; I was out of school and still living with my parents. My friends lived nearby and we played a lot … just a bubble in time, hanging out with my friends, playing down by the river almost every day. We played a lot a hippie-type gigs and had a really good following.”

When he was 20, Joe met “Bongo Bob” Smith who introduced him to Oscar Robinson. Oscar ran a music school in Oak Park where Joe learned to play bass.

“I was like a musical monk, taking classes, practicing and playing for 10 hours a day for the whole year,” Joe said. “He taught me being a musician was a respectable profession. You have to be willing to do the hard work. It just depends on how much you’re willing to suffer.”

It was a new mindset for Joe and changed the path of his musical career.

Oscar put together a band called The Hustlers (1972 to 1974). “It was my debut as a bass player, which turned out to be the best decision I ever made.”

Since 1970, he has played on average 200 gigs annual in bands that cross over into nearly every genre of music.

He has been married to his best friend, visual artist T.J. Lev for 16 years. They make their home in downtown Sacramento.

Joe has played with Steve Foster and the Jokers, Bayou Boys, Jahari Sai Quartet, Frankie Lee, Wingnut Adams Funky Soul Brigade, Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers, The Bayou Boys Band and the Stardust Cowboys.

He teaches at The Guitar Workshop in Sacramento and volunteers with Blues in The Schools. He played at Dillian’s Bar and Grill with Two Tone Steiney and The Cadillacs, and currently hosts two weekly Blues Jams with along with The Jokers in Rocklin and the Jimmy Collazo Band in Roseville. Joe jams with Olen Dillingham, a Lincoln resident and member of Western Swing Hall of Fame.

Last spring, The Jokers played their Sun City Lincoln Hills debut concert to a full house.

”The harder we rocked,” Joe said, “the more they liked it. I witnessed the magic only music can create as boomers, octogenarians and better were transported to another space and time, through the music of their youth.”

Joe is not only a musician’s musician. He embodies the best parts of the ‘quintessential unrepentant hippie’ by bringing people together to celebrate life in joy and harmonious humanity.

For more on Joe, see http://morethanatouchofgray.blogspot.com

Friday, August 6, 2010

1012 views and counting!!!

Thank you all for checking out my random musings about my little life. Y'all must have too much time on your hands or something.

Now for my next trick I think I will continue the story of the origins of my secret identity, how I got to this place in life.

I sometimes ponder how incredibly lucky I am. Over and over I took the hand I was dealt and did my best to blow it up. So to be here with work I love and thrive on, owning a house(well the bank owns most of it) the love of a great woman, kids, grandkids and more friends than I can count I can only attribute to that old saying "angels protect fools"!!

Ah, it's good to be alive!!!!

What a long long time to be gone and a short time to be there!!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jerry Garcia (August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995) One Man Gone

This being Garcia Week (between his birthday and his yahrzeit (anniversary of his leaving) I figure this to be as good a time as any to ruminate on his meaning to the world and his meaning to me.

I didn't snap to the Dead as quick as my friends did, there was so much new music every week, they were just one out of many. I remember a photo spread in Look Magazine on the SF bands, and the Dead looked scary. I heard the first album, it was OK, Anthem and Aoxomoxoa kind of went over my head. In October of 69 we went to the KZAP(underground radio station) 1st birthday party at Cal Expo, in Building A, the amphitheater was years away and the Dead headlined. They had some technical difficulties, but certainly got my attention. Still got memories of an early Cumberland Blues, High Time, Pig Pen singing Good Morning Little School Girl and Weir telling the yellow dog story. Years later I was gifted with a tape of the second set, only High Times was on it from the memories. I was pretty blown away, it seemed like a three ring circus, all seven of them seemed to be doing something significant, who to watch???

Couple months later, night before New Years eve, Paul shows up at my door with a very early copy of Live Dead and some 60s style refreshment. At the proper time we put on Live Dead and I GOT IT!! never been the same since. I had been trying to play free improvised music with my friends for a couple years, it was always more miss than hit but occasionally amazing things happened, but these guys DID IT!!! The Dark Star on Live Dead still blows me away to this day. What a feat of collective improvisation!!

So I started listening to them all the time, went to shows at Winterland when I could. They touched me on so many levels, they seemed to be doing something different than all the other bands. It was like church!! It was so keyed into life and so renewing!

As the years went by I kept on listening and reading everything I could find. When I learned of Garcia's folkie roots a lot of threads of my life were tied together. I came to love them like big brothers I admired from afar and tried to emulate. They were rock stars but not, they seemed to bring their real selves onto the stage, and what a motley crew they were. I loved them all but it was Garcia that got my attention the most.

In early 71 I got a copy of American Beauty hot off the press. I was kind of let down, no more "machine eating" jams, it was a record of songs. As years went by I came to realize that it was a landmark work of art, art for the ages. It seems timeless, never gets old.

As my musical career progressed I pursued jazz and funk. The Dead became a sort of guilty pleasure, one I didn't let on about. I saw em in 74 and a few times in the 80s. I missed the whole Deadhead phenomenon, by the time people "toured" I was a night club musician with shiny shoes and a family to feed.

I remember being in SF in the 80s for my bass lesson and eating in a little cafe I read about Garcia's heroin bust. I was pretty flabbergasted, hard drugs seemed the antithesis of everything they meant to me.

A few years later I remember hearing a live broadcast of a solstice show and Garcia sounded quite awful, sometimes in the wrong key. Hmmmm?? What was happening?????

Later when my hippie reformation began I reconnected. I bought CDs of Anthem, Aoxomoxoa, and Live Dead. They became a soundtrack of what was happening to me. Went to a couple shows at Cal Expo, just loving the communion and fellowship.

Aug 9, 1995 TJ woke me up with a call. She said, please don't flip, but Jerry Garcia died last night. Man, I felt a piece of me die right then, like losing a family member. I went to the garage and brought in a big stack of speakers and my bass amp, turned on the radio and the rock stations were playing nothing but the Dead. I plugged it into my amp turned it up. Went across the street and I couldn't hear it so I went back and cranked it up even louder.

That night we went to a hastily organized vigil in Capitol Park. The radio station basically co-opted the event. I remember the DJ saying "don't bring drugs to the park, thats what jerry would have wanted" yeah right! When we got to the Rose Garden(how perfect) the station had set up a big mobile unit and insisted on playing a long interview from Bob Weir from sometime in the past and plenty commercials. I went looking for Bob Keller(great DJ) and told him how weak that was. But try as they might they couldn't contain the event. it turned into the biggest drum circle I ever saw, with hundreds of people, people dancing, people crying, dozens of people in the trees.

I went home and wrote a song, a blues song called:

One Man Gone

Woke up the other morning, didn't have the blues
Till my baby said "honey I got some real bad news
One more good one has bit the dust and there's nobody left that we can trust"
One man One Man Gone, left us here to sing this song

So I got a bunch of speakers from out of my shed
I didn't give a damn about what the neighbors said
Hooked em all up, turned it up to eleven
So they would know who was knocking on the doors of heaven
One man One Man Gone, left us here to sing this song

We went down to the park later that
From miles around, from left and right
Dance and drum, sing and shout
Till the heat came 'round and threw us out
One man One Man Gone, left us here to sing this song

Dark Star crashes on the Golden Road
I still don't know but I've been told
On the other hand I'm here to say
Don't let the music stop, we won't fade away
One man One Man Gone, left us here to sing this song

Rest in peace, and thanks for a lifetime of inspiration!!!

Let there be songs, to fill the air!!!!!