Having A Friend Like Michael Dawson…

I met my friend Michael, in a thing called a “record store” called “off the record” which was located on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, California, when I was about 20 years old – I am guessing – it was a long time ago, I can tell you that!
I don’t know what year it was, I really don’t – perhaps Michael knows.  But it was a long, long time ago, and Michael is one of the very, very few people that I have known continuously during that entire timespan.  For the record then, (not, off the record lol) that’s at least 35 years, probably a bit more.
I was buying, or re-buying rather, a few records that I was hoping would have less surface noise, and fewer clicks and pops, than the copies of them that I already had at home – I was trying to get a better sounding version by re-buying LPs that I already owned – sometimes, had owned more than once already.  This was one of the problems with vinyl – it was scratchy!  Surface noise, clicks and pops and other soul-destroying sounds damaging the precious music, which should be pure and pristine – it was still a long way to the age of compact discs.
Anyway, among other newer releases, I was holding prog rock classics by Genesis and I am not sure who else – and this tall, very skinny person, with a short, tidy beard and distinctly reddish hair, who was standing nearby as I was checking out, who spoke with an unforgettable, deep voice full of character “those (he said, nodding towards the albums that I was holding) “are  three of my favourite albums of all time”.
So that started a conversation, that has been going on, off and on, on and off, ever since – and a friendship that just grew organically out of that first meeting.  I’d seen Michael in the store before, it was a favourite haunt of both of ours, but this was the first time he’d ever spoken to me, and it turned out, we did share a lot of artists in common that we both really, really loved – and he just couldn’t help himself saying so when he saw some of HIS favourite records in my sweaty grip 🙂
It started out then, first by sharing our love of music, I can remember many a trip over to Michael’s, to listen to records (and he had a LOT of records back then, I mean – a lot of records!) and he introduced me to a lot of things with which I was then unfamiliar – for example, Marillion, who I had never heard of, who were actually playing prog in the middle of the very un-prog-friendly 1980s – so that must have been in about 1985 that he played me parts of “Script For A Jester’s Tear” and “Fugazi” – which I found to be quite remarkable, and of course, I started collecting Marillion albums myself then.
The story gets a bit blurry here, but since I’d found out that Michael was a fellow musician, it only followed that we should at some point, sit down and play some music together.  Michael was (at that time) primarily a bassist, which suited me perfectly as I was, as always, a lead guitarist; but he also played a lot of other instruments, including flute and saxophone, to name but two.  I can remember inviting Michael over to my place, and also, visiting him where he lived, and we did start a band, whose name I cannot recall – it was a trio, of myself on guitar, Michael on bass, and a friend of Michael’s whose name I do not remember (I am definitely getting old lol!!), on drums.
What did we play?  I can remember a couple of the titles:
Roxy Music “Love Is The Drug”
Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”
and an original piece in 5 that I couldn’t really master (composed by Michael, I believe).
At that time, pre-Fripp, I was strictly a 4/4 kind of rock and roll wannabe prog guitarist, and playing in anything but 4 was mostly, beyond me.  It wasn’t until I started going to Guitar Craft, starting just a few years later, that I actually was able to play in the odd meters – 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 etc.
I think we also wanted to learn “Crying Wolf” by Peter Hammill, but we didn’t get far with that one.  We were trying to play music that we loved, rather than resort to playing the popular music of the day – we wanted to play GOOD music, hence the selections we made.  I don’t really know why, but this band never really amounted to anything – we rehearsed, and then I think the drummer lost interest and left, and we couldn’t replace him – so I moved on, and that was the end of our attempt at being in a band together.  We never played even one gig, which always makes me a bit sad – a lot of good rehearsals, a huge potential – and then, for whatever  the reasons – it just never comes to fruition.
But – I am proud to say, to this day, that I was in a band with Michael Dawson !  It was great fun, because it was one of the first times that I got to play music I really loved in a band, instead of the dreaded “covers” – so that was fantastic.  I can remember really enjoying playing Phil Manzanera‘s chord sequence on “Love Is The Drug” – it’s a really nice piece of guitaring.
Michael is a very good bassist, and he had a quality bass, a Rickenbacker, which I wasn’t used to – most of the bassists I had played with up till then, had played Fenders or other basses like Music Man or whatever – but he had a real Rickenbacker, and it sounded amazing. That was really a great selling point for me, having a truly prog “bass” in the band – that’s the way it should be.  There wasn’t much else “prog” about us, we didn’t have a lead singer or a keyboard player, although I seem to remember that I did sing the songs off mike just as a reference (not the first time, or the last time, I was called upon to become the de facto lead vocalist in a band – I will say that!).  But that is another story for another time…
After that band broke up, life went on – I still saw Michael down at Off The Record, and we remained friends – to this day.  Not too many years after this, Michael moved up north, to Northern California, where he got the day job that I believe, he still works at to this day.
I remained in Southern California, but, we still occasionally got together – most often, to go see live concerts together, I can remember giving him a lift to some concert in the back of my pickup truck, which was not a good experience for Michael – but at least we got to the concert.  Not sure who we were going to see – it could have been just about anyone.
One of the nicest things about Michael is his incredible kindness and his infallible generosity, of which I will speak in a moment.  He is a remarkably kind and gentle person, and I was glad to have such an intelligent and well-read friend – he had, and has, far more culture and education than I ever did!  He was also an artist, I remember he was always painting, which was something I did not even approach until I was much, much older.
He has often “turned me on” to new artists that I knew little or nothing about; one of those would be the indomitable Richard Thompson – I remember that Michael was the one who first played Richard Thompson albums for me, and got me hooked on his amazing guitar playing – to the point where, alongside collecting his many solo albums, I then went to see him play multiple times at multiple gigs, including one very, very small, intimate acoustic gig (in a restaurant, no less) and once, I managed to see him with full electric band – and that was amazing.    I became a big, big fan for quite a number of years, and I still love and respect his music to this day.
I would have done none of those things – if it weren’t for Michael P. Dawson.  I would have no Marillion, and no Richard Thompson in my musical life.   He also introduced me to Gryphon, based on our shared love of Gentle Giant – so that added yet another brilliant branch of prog to my ever-expanding experience of progressive rock music.  He also introduced me to the music of Bi Kyo Ran, remarkable King-Crimson-cover-band-turned-professional-prog-band from Japan.
So even for adding those four amazing musicians / groups to my musical repertoire and experience (and it was many, many more than just those four!), just for that, I am forever in Michael’s debt.  He always knew the kind of thing that I would like, and he was always, forever saying “listen to THIS, listen to this guitar solo, here…” and I would be hooked once again, on a new musician that up until I’d met Michael, I knew nothing about.  He was a great friend in that way, he genuinely did not want me to miss out on these incredible listening experiences that he was having, he wanted to share the music, not keep it to himself – and for that, I am very grateful indeed – indebted!
I mentioned that Michael was generous.  One day, about 20 years ago, I was sitting at my day job, when a VERY large cardboard box arrived for me – and I was not expecting anything that I had ordered, so it was completely out of the blue – and upon opening it, I discovered that is was a Washburn Bass guitar – that Michael had just SENT to me, gratis – he was going to get rid of it, and rather than sell it; he’d remembered me saying that I wished I owned a bass – so he thought of me, and he very, very generously gave me his old bass!  I could not BELIEVE that – I had never had a friend, or known anyone as generous as that – he could have made money off of it, he could have sold it for cash – but instead, he remembered his old friend Dave – and Dave not ever having a bass guitar of any kind – and he just mailed it to me one day.
I didn’t expect it, and I had no way to reciprocate, all I could do was send an astonished THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU note to Michael, and try to express what it meant to me to have a real bass to record with and play.  Many years later, when I was recording multi-track progressive rock tracks, I actually used “Michael’s Old Bass” as I call it, in the recording of several tracks – one of which is “Wettonizer” (a tribute to the late, great John Wetton) which was recorded back in about 2008 or 2009).  It’s actually, a really nice bass to play, and it’s short scale and easy to play neck really inspired me when it came to do the distorted bass solos in”Wettonizer” – and really, that song and the others that included the bass, possibly would not have been made, if it weren’t for the fact that Michael provided me with a bass to use and play. when he knew I did not have one.
That was such an incredibly surprising and generous act, which I never, ever forgot, and to this day, I have to smile when I look at that bass sitting in the corner of my studio – I do tend to use sampled basses now just for the speed and convenience, and also so I can get classic Fender or Rickenbacker tones – but if I wanted to do any real bass tracks – I would still absolutely, happily record them on “Michael’s Old Bass” – I mean, can you believe it – he just put it in a box, and sent it to me, from San Jose, California, to San Diego, where I lived back then.  And it then traveled with me, all the way to Scotland – where it lives now.
How often in your life, do you get a Bass Guitar in the mail?  If you have a friend like Michael Dawson, then the answer is, surprisingly – once.
[Meanwhile, back in the present day for a moment:]  Imagine my total surprise then, when, just a few days ago, a parcel arrived for me at home – and I recognised the handwriting on it immediately, and said to my wife – “that’s from Michael Dawson” and wondered aloud, what on earth has he sent me?? (even while, my brain was telling me “effects pedal, effects pedal…”) and in fact, what it was, indeed, was and is, an effects pedal – a lovely, mint condition, Earthquaker Devices Organizer pedal.
A week previously, on a Sunday, I had published my recent blog about watching guitar effect pedal demonstration videos.  In California, Michael read that blog of mine on a Sunday, and on the following Monday, packed up and shipped this effect pedal to me, and on the following Saturday, five days later – it arrived with the mail here in Scotland.
Now, I was utterly blown away when he gave me the Washburn bass, and no one else has ever just given me a musical instrument before.  But to receive what is basically, a brand new effects pedal (which when queried, he said he wasn’t using it, and he wanted someone to own it who would make good use of it – me) which is just the nicest thing – but it absolutely blows me away, that he would read an article about me lusting after these effects, and just to make me happy, just so I could then own an Earthquaker Devices-manufactured pedal – he pulls one out of thin air and ships it half-way around the world to me!!  That is so thoughtful, so good – I wish I were that generous and that thoughtful!
Unbelievable generosity, and an unbelievable kindness in the thought that “Dave would like this pedal – he could do something good with this” – that just blows me away, and, it’s not like we have been close of recent years, we exchange emails only occasionally, and as happens, we have led pretty separate lives – although we have always remained friends, and we have never fallen out – we’ve always been friends.  I would say, it had probably been a year or more since we had emailed, when this EQD pedal appeared again, totally out of the blue – which absolutely shocked me to the core – what a nice thing to do, what an amazing friend – what a great and kind act – to indulge my desire for endless effects pedals – wow, that is truly amazing.
But I don’t have any other friends that are that astonishingly generous, Michael is the only one who has consistently blown me away with his kindness, thoughtfulness, and his good, good heart – he’s just a good man, a nice chap, and I am proud to know him, proud to call him my friend, proud of him as a fellow musician – he’s a brilliant player – and I would also say, you should absolutely check out some of his music – he’s been sharing his own albums with me from early on, and he makes the most incredible music you have ever heard – you really must try it – it’s amazingly cool.  It’s mostly beyond my comprehension, Michael is a serious composer when compared to me, I just mess about with songs, and improvs, but Michael writes real music, serious music, and I have a huge respect for that.
A few years back, I released a live improv on the internet, which I believe featured energy bow guitar and music created with Brian Eno’s “Scape” application for the ipad. A few days after I released it, Michael released a video of himself, overdubbing a live flute solo and flute part, onto, on top of, my improv !!!
I was then able to share this with people as a collaborative effort (our first, since that attempt at a band – way, way back when) and I was and am, incredibly proud of that little improvised number – and to be honest, I absolutely prefer Michael’s version – to my own. The flute parts and solos that he plays, are just perfect for the improv, and I was so surprised and really pleased that Michael had done this.
That was yet another very kind thing, that he has done – the ultimate compliment, he must have liked the piece quite well if it inspired him to play the flute along with it, so by adding his live flute overdub, he was taking a decent piece of mine, and elevating it to a much, much higher level – I think it succeeds far better with his parts added, than it ever did by itself.  That is the power of Michael Dawson – adaptable, and very adept with a multitude of instruments – I wish I could play half as many different instruments as he does.
I would say that like so many musicians, that Michael is a “musician’s musician” – and I would encourage any of you that are musicians (or not, artists, or anyone, really!), to have a listen to any of Michael’s existing published works – he is a brilliant and intelligent composer, and he creates albums celebrating creatures and features of the natural world that have to be heard to be believed – he excels when it comes to synthesizers, which he often employs in his compositions, but he plays all manner of instruments, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, flute, saxophone (in at least two different flavours) and a multitude of others too numerous to mention.
He is a remarkable and talented musician – and I believe, you can also hear him play live on the sort of “jam night” scene near where he lives – I believe he now sits in on saxophone or flute at these live, impromptu musical events.  I envy him that – I am currently not performing – so he is really fortunate to have that musical outlet available to him.
He is also a very creative person, I remember he played one of his new songs (and by that, I mean, what was a “new song”, thirty years ago 🙂 ) for me, and it had a most unusual sounding lead instrument, it sounded slightly Indian or eastern in some way, but I just could not place it, so I said “Michael, what is that instrument that you are playing the main melody with?” and he then revealed what it was – it was his flute – but played through extreme distortion – he’d played it through a fuzz box and it sounded truly out of this world.  So there is really no limit to the creativity that he employs when he creates his solo works, they are full of surprises and I don’t think you can find a more original, progressive, modern composer around – and if that isn’t enough, his love of the music of the late, great Frank Zappa is more than apparent when you hear many of Michael’s pieces – Zappa being the only artist that I could really comfortably compare Michael’s work too – he sounds like he listens to a lot of Zappa.
And that is probably, because he does.  I have always loved the music of Frank Zappa, but I have only ever put my toe into the water, whereas Michael jumped headfirst into the Zappa pool many, many years ago.  And that has paid off, and rubbed off, on the styles of music that he has created over the years – and you couldn’t really ask for a better influence – I’d love to be compared to, or even audibly / heavily influenced by,  Frank Zappa !
Michael turned me on to a whole world of new music, and that changed my life in a good way, and we shared a lot of musical experiences together, everything from just chilling and listening to records, or later, compact discs, to going to the occasional concert together.  His influence on me musically, over the last 35 years or so, has been immense, and I am grateful to him for enriching my musical life by sharing so openly from his vast library of recorded music.  In so very many ways, Michael is a really, really good friend to have – and good friends, they say, are hard to find, and I would imagine – even harder to keep, which is why I feel so blessed and fortunate to have a friend like Michael Dawson – he is one of a kind, a true gentleman, and I am proud to be able to say once again, “my good friend Michael Dawson” as I so often seem to find myself saying whenever I sit down to write about music.
I felt it was high time that he got the recognition he deserves, and this blog is a very public “thank you” to a true gentleman and musical scholar, Mr. Michael P. Dawson. Long may he reign over the flute solo in “Girl From Ipanema”; and any other pieces that he attempts, live or studio, on any instrument – just keep on jamming, Michael !!!
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the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.