Sean McCann – Life after GREAT BIG SEA

Just a few years back (1993 to 2013) GREAT BIG SEA was an almost unstoppable force in Canadian East Coast music. Over a twenty year period they dominated the scene with their mix of Newfoundland traditional music and rock and roll sensibilities. A founding member, and key performer, in the group was Sean McCann. Sean is very up front about his motivation to perform. It was about “booze, sex and rock and roll”. But every thing has a price and by 2013 he knew, for his health and family situation, he needed to get off the “Party Bus”. He quit the band and relocated to Ottowa – “That’s where all our tax money goes, so why not.”  On his retirement from the band he noted he had been on the road with Great Big Sea  for 20 years….. He was 46 years old and it was time to make a change. Great Big Sea struggled on for a while but it was not the same . The band is now in happy retirement. The two key performers, Alan Doyle and Sean McCann, while still tipping the hat to the “Great Big Sea Repertoire”,  have gone onto solo careers.

For this evening, Sean kicked off the night in true Newfoundland fashion with an acapella sea song and followed that up with a collection varied material from his own stock of original songs and a few Great Big Sea staples thrown into the mix. Like all good singer/song writers Sean is essentially a story teller and the dialogue in, and between the songs wove the evening into a tapestry of his life so far. For the most part of that life he has traveled with his favorite guitar “Brownie”. A beat up old Takamine Dreadnought that shows the many scars of a hard life on the road . It is emblazoned on the deck with Sean’s mantra “Help Your Self”. To round out the team there was his second DADGAD guitar, a Takamine Jumbo, and his Bodhan (an Irish Frame drum). Part of the tapestry of the evening included the drinking song Red Wine and Whiskey and his recovery song Doing Fine. On the later there was some especially fine finger picking on the DADGAD guitar. Here are some images of a fine, intimate evening of story telling…….   @@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Amos Garrett and Julian Kerr at Studio 64

Amos Garrett and Julian Kerr at Studio 64; March 24, 2018 8pm: This is the first concert of the Spring 2018 concert Series

Amos Garrett is an “in between sort of guy”. He has been on the Canadian and American music scene for “a million years”. He not a Classic Rocker in the strutting long- hair mode, nor a true blue down home country blues player. Although he cites the trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke and pianists Jerry Roll Morton, Fats Waller and the elegant Teddy Wilson as musical influences he isn’t really a classic Jazz player either. As I said he is an “in between guy”. He is a musician who cements all these varied influences into a personal style that can only be Amos Garrett. Apart from his solo ventures he has performed and recorded with over 150 major artists including Stevie Wonder, Todd Rundgren, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Martin Hull, Paul Butterfield and Pearls Before Swine. He was on Anne Murray’s classic recording Snowbird and performed as a founding member of Ian Tyson’s band The Great Speckled Bird He currently resides in Calgary where he performs with a number of outfits including gigs with keyboard playing neighbor Julian Kerr.  At 77 years of age he no longer does “the big tours”. The last big tour of Japan he recalls with great affection for the country and the people of that nation. After touring there he wondered about who actually won the last war. Japan has prospered with peaceful cites and an admirable life style while the North American landscape is littered with crime and violence and inner cities in decline.

Julian Kerr is a professional Calgary musician and is one of Amos’ favorite keyboard players. Julian plays and teaches, bass, and guitar and for over 30 years he has played with many notable musicians including Bo Diddley .

The concert kicked off with Otis Rush’s  My Baby is Such a Good One followed by a Curtis Mayfield classic tune, Boz Scaggs Running Blue, and the 1966 soul-jazz classic Mercy Mercy by the Adderley Brothers (Nat and Julian).  They then slipped back in time to the early part of the last century for Jelly Roll Morton’s Michigan Waters Blues (“Michigan water tastes like Sherry Wine and the Mississippi water tastes turpentine”). Now Jelly Roll Morton was a schooled Creole musician from New Orleans who claimed to have invented Jazz. Not true of course, but he was a pivotal musician in the transition of ragtime to what we now know as jazz. From the repertoire of Toronto’s Whitely Brothers we were introduced to their jug band style tune Perfume and Tobacco.

Although I lived through the era I pretty well missed out on hearing the Texas band  The  Jazz Crusaders in the 1970s. I only discovered them last year in a box set of CDs published by Mosiac Records. To hear Amos working on the Larry Carlton guitar parts was a treat. It must have also been a treat for Julian Kerr to dip into the music of pianist/keyboard player Joe Sample who was a co-leader of the band. The Jazz Crusaders eventually dropped Jazz from their name and went onto an even longer career as The Crusaders. Julian dropped some rocking piano into Bob Dylan’s Takes a Train to Cry. Amos performed his signature version of Sleepwalk and entertained us with lots of anecdotal  stories  from his long career. My favorite was the tale of the Mounties Breakfast – Steak and Beer. For the encore Julian took us home with Booker T and the MGs  Green Onions and some lovely “fluffy organ tones” that probably outshone those present on the original recording. As always this was another highly enjoyable concert in the ongoing Blues and Jazz concert series at Studio 64. Thanks must go to the organizers, volunteers and sponsors that make this series such a joy.

Here are some more images from the evening:

         

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YouTube Pick (#24) – A Clawhammer Banjo Tune

I am not so sure about banjos. I don’t care too much for the mechanical five string Bluegrass styles. To my ear they don’t sound very musical, and yet, in the hands of a master like Bela Fleck I am forced to re-evaluate that statement. When he steps outside the Bluegrass box his music is sublime. On another note (pun intended) the Irish adopted the banjo and, being Irish, they changed it by getting rid of the fifth string, tuning it like a mandolin and playing it with a pick. The Irish Tenor Banjo sounds great in Celtic ensembles where it adds punch and drive to the melody line but to hear it practiced solo in one’s basement it sounds frightful. Then there is the the open backed Clawhammer Banjo with the melody floating atop of nice chunking rhythms. It is capable of producing the very best in banjo music. Despite the subversive activities of the Irish the banjo is still the most American of musical instruments. It’s origins may be African but in practice it is absolutely American with a solidly American repertoire. I am so attracted to the sound of the Clawhammer Banjo that I own two and I always have the hope and ambition to one day actually play a tune in the appropriate style.  The only thing that puts me off is that I have no real desire to play American tunes. The world does not need another stumbling musician trying to play Old Joe Clark, Cripple Creek or any of the many other standard banjo tunes. So it was nice to come across a video of an Irish tune played on the Clawhammer Banjo. It is a tune composed by Thurlough O’Carolan .  For those who don’t  know of O’Carolan or his music he was a blind traditional Irish Harper living way back in the late 1600’s. He was a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach and he left us with a legacy of many wonderful tunes. They may not have the contrapuntal complexities of a Bach composition but they have a melodic strength that has kept them very much in circulation right up to present times. Acoustic guitar players love O’Carolan tunes and with the introduction of the DADGAD tuning system on the guitar they have adopted O’Carolan tunes with a vengeance. So here it is, Thurlough O’Carolan’s  tune Morgan Magan (Morgan Megan) played on the Clawhammer Banjo.

For those who maybe interested here is the melody for the tune.

I haven’t yet managed to get to grips with playing the tune on the Clawhammer banjo but I suspect it will sit well on a banjo tuned ADADE. It’s another one of those things on my ever lengthening wish list. It just might be that one elusive tune that I am destined to play on the banjo.

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YouTube Picks (#23) – The Cavaquinho

The Cavaquinho – It looks like a Ukulele and so it should. The Cavaquinho is a Portuguese instrument that has, in one form or another spread around the world. In the hands of Portuguese immigrants it traveled to Hawaii in the nineteenth century and under went some changes. With the adoption of gut (nylon) strings and tuning systems peculiar to the islands it became part of a whole new genre of music – Hawaiian music.  The sound of the Ukulele instantly conjures up images of the islands – trade winds, surf, palm trees, grass shirts and hula girls. Of course since that time the instrument has traveled back across the world and, in recent years, has undergone a resurgence in popular interest. In the meantime the original Cavaquinho has remained popular in Portugal, Brazil and the Cape Verde islands. Although Portugal had colonies in Angola and Mozambique the Cavaquinho doesn’t seem to have become part of their folkloric traditions. But it is in Brazilian Choro  that the instrument has it’s most noticeable impact. Choro is the most Brazilian of all musical styles and it grew out of the European Salon music tradition imported into Brazil and spiced up with local samba style rhythms. In one form or other the style has been around for a hundred or more years. In that genre of music the Cavaquinho, the Pandiero (Brazilian tambourine), the Seven String Guitar and the Bandolin (5 course mandolin) create music that is very melodic, rhythmic and harmonically sophisticated and somewhat uniquely Brazilian.

Although the instrument is not in common use in Canada, Godin Guitars in Quebec manufactures a unique version of the instrument that can hold its own in the company of the more traditional instruments. It is a hybrid steel strung instrument tuned Brazilian style D G B D. Basically, that is an an open G tuning,  a octave higher but almost identical, to the top four strings of the acoustic guitar. The difference is that the top  string on the Cavaquinho is tuned down  to D. Speaking from experience it was tempting to just tune the guitar like a Cavaquinho and play it as such. It was good idea at the time but basically it doesn’t work.  The Cavaquinho has a very short scale length and the normal Cavaquinho Choro stretches from the 1st  and 2nd to  seventh fret are dam near impossible on the guitar. Beside it does not have the nice high traditional Cavaquinho sound. D’Addario manufactures stainless steel ball end strings (EJ93, gauges 11-13-23w-28w) specifically for the Cavaquinho and are available from a number of on line sites. It is unlikely you will find them in your local music store.  The Godin instrument is equipped with their signature on-board electronics that is virtually free of feed back. In that regard, and in  other manufacturing details, the Godin Cavaquinho is similar to their acoustic and semi-acoustic  Nylon Classical, Multi Oud  and Seven String Guitars.

So, that’s the background so now for the sounds. The first three videos below demonstrate, for me, the attraction of the Cavaquinho and Brazilian music in general. These young musicians look like they are having fun. The guitar in the first and third videos are obviously Godins. In the third video the guitarist is throwing in some very interesting chord progressions. All three tunes are pretty well classics in the Brazilian Choro repertoire.

There a lots of Cavaquinho tutorials on YouTube and the approach they use to teach the tunes has, for me, a lot of appeal. The first tutorial, Garota de Ipanema is better known as the The Girl from Ipanema, by the well known Brazilian composer Tom Jobim. The tune is probably the most recorded composition on the planet. I have lost count of the number of Cavaquinho and Brazilian Guitar tutorials that are available on YouTube so there is plenty out there to explore.

I know local musicians aren’t likely to stumble on or acquire a Cavaquinho but the above videos might just attract some interest in the instrument  or also in that very rich and varied world of Brazilian music. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

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YouTube Picks (#21) – Another way to play Mandolin (4): The Near East

In lots of ways Israel is the center of everything. It is a hot bed of violence and political conflict; a place of monumental religious clashes; a cultural cross road for thousands of years; a place where east meets west. It also the birthplace and incubator of some phenomenal musical talents and one in particular is the Israeli mandolinist Avi Avitar (born 19 October 1978). He is expanding the boundaries of the mandolin. He is best known for his renditions of well-known Baroque and folk music, much of which was originally written for other instruments. He has been nominated for a Grammy award (Best Instrumental Soloist with Ensemble). Here are a couple YouTube performances where East meets West.They are a  couple of Turkish and Bulgarian tunes that are guaranteed to clean the wax out of your ears and free up you mind for musical possibilities outside the ordinary.The music is performed by Avi Avital on mandolin and Itamar Doari on percussion.

Now I have to come clean. The mandolin playing is outstanding but my real reason for sharing the videos is the out standing hand percussion.

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Deja Vu all over again

From the get go, it was a full night of rock and roll and reggae. Even the poster had a 1968 vibe. The first band up was The Choice,  featuring James Neve – guitars and lead vocals; Rick Parsons – back up vocals and multiple keyboards and Brian Hamilton – drums and back up vocals. They served up a full platter of rock and roll favorites and in the process punched a lot of nostalgia buttons in the audience. James Neve is probably better known as a singer / song writer and was a key member of the band 60 Hertz. He also masquerades as a wayward solo performer known as Lonesome Jim. I get the impression that for this night James was living the dream of a 1968 rock and roll musician. He looked so happy………  Rick is also a well known local musician who just loves to hammer away at the keyboards. That gutsy, funky organ sound is no longer a feature of modern rock and roll and the scene is the poorer for it. It’s nice to have it back in the sonic arena and hear it bouncing off a dance hall wall. Who needs a bass player when you can have a full throttle organ doing the job?  Brian Hamilton is just back in the area and rounds out the band with his “in your face drumming”. For just a trio this band generates a lot of music and a lot of excitement.

  

The Choice traded off one hour sets with the Reggae band The Meditations. The band featured the young Moroccan musician Mehdi Makraz on lead guitar and vocals. Mehdi has been in the area for a while and at a recent Summer Sounds concert in Cranbrook he played electric bass with The Dark Fire Cloud and Lightning Band. The back up vocalist Syama Mama was also featured with that band. The drummer with the mandatory dreadlocks was Morgan and along with the well known local musician Peter Warland on electric bass locked down the rhythm section. Randy Tapp is a local musician and dance instructor and he played Alto and Tenor Saxes. Normally the band has a keyboard player (Landon) but he was not available for this performance.

  

At the intermission, if that’s the right word, the catering crew from the Green Door dished out Tacos for the dance patrons. After that it was back to the music. More vintage rock and reggae spiced up with some original compositions from Mehdi and his band mates. Here are some more images from the evening.

            

The only thing missing from the evening was a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, but as James Neve explained, there were so many great tunes and so little time that with much regret the CCR tune had to fall on the cutting floor. Better luck next time.

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SWEET ALIBI – House Concert

SWEET ALIBI HOUSE CONCERT Wednesday November 15, 2017, 7:30pm at 5768 Haha Creek Road, Wardner.

With the possible exception of Classical Chamber Music, small group truly acoustic performances are pretty rare these days. Even “folk” musicians “plug in”. The expectation of audiences, regardless of the music genre  or the performance venue is for the music to be amplified. The Sweet Alibi  house concert at Van and Shelagh Redecop’s place on Wednesday night is about as close as one can get to an acoustic performance.

The opening act, Mismatched Socks,  was 100% acoustic. No one plugged in and none of the vocalists were “miked”. This local family band  of related siblings and cousins have been performing around the area for a couple of years now and features Grace Cleland on mandolin; Rachel Cleland  on upright bass; Jason Cleland  on violin;  cousins and fellow siblings Rachel and Meaghan Gaudet on percussion and guitar. All musicians double up on vocals. This was the perfect venue to hear the sweet harmonies of the vocalists against the soft musical back drop of the accompanying instruments. They did a short set that included Rip Tide, Muddy Waters, Phillip Phillips  Home,  and the Lumineers  Hey Ho.

        

On the other hand Sweet Alibi did “plug in” their guitars but the vocals were 100% acoustic and the balance between the instruments and the vocals was absolutely perfect. The vocal harmonies were to die for. Having performed in the area last April this is their second concert at Van and Shelagh’s place. The band of Amber Rose – guitar, vocals and percussion; Michelle Anderson – banjo, vocals and guitar; Jess Rae Ayre  – guitar, vocals, percussion and harmonica were joined by bass guitarist Alistair Dunlop (It is rumored that Alistair first met the ladies in a Winnipeg North prison). The band performed  selections from their numerous recordings and it included their wonderful version of Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody and their tribute to the undefeated rodeo bull  Bodacious.

Here are some more images from the evening.

            

Thanks should go to the musicians of Sweet Alibi who spend so much time on the road touring to entertain such small, but welcoming audiences. Thanks to the “Cleland Clan” for coming out on a school night to perform  and thanks also to Shelagh and Van for hosting the concert, housing the musicians and providing the wine and delicious snacks.

We should do this again some time……..

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YouTube Pick (#17) – Anouar Brahem

Anouar Brahem performing ASTRAKAN CAFE

Jazz record labels tend to have a specific persona and ethos that is consistent during their successful years. Verve Records was the brain child of jazz impresario Norman Granz and the recordings the company released in the early years bore his imprimatur. Similarly, the ethos of BlueNote records reflects the founder Alfred Lyons’ view of the jazz soundscape and, along with the masterful sound engineering of Rudy Van Gelder, created the BlueNote sound. On the other side of the Atlantic in Munich, Germany  Manfred Eicher founded the ECM label (Edition of Contemporary Music) that, like Verve and BlueNote, created a specific persona and sound. In this case it was unmistakably a creation of the founder Manfred Eischer. The ECM catalogue is filled with unique and interesting musicians and music. The label marketed, and continues to market, an incredible collection of some of the most significant jazz musicians of the day including Keith Jarret, Ralph Towner, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, etc.   Although,mostly a jazz recording label, it has explored many alternative approaches to music. Most notably in the recordings of Jan Gabarek, L. Shankar,  Steve Tibbetts and, of course the music of the Tunisian Oud player Anouar Brahem. My first encounter with this musician was the ECM recording Astrakan Cafe that, along with the Oud playing of Anauor, also featured the percussion of Lassad Hosni (bendir and darbuka) and the clarinet of Turkish musician Barbaros Erkose. First of all, Anauor Brahem plays the Arab Oud, an instrument that is the ancestor of all guitar like instruments. His approach is a little different from the classic Arab musician in that as well as the folkloric repertoire he explores a number of eclectic musical offerings within a number of unique musical configurations. As mentioned in Wikipedia his playing style is often compared to  the Lebanese musician Rabih Abou-Khalil who is well known for fusing traditional  Arab music with Jazz, European Classical music  and other styles. Anouar’s compositions are considered to be more mellow and spare and this he achieves by utilizing ensembles of three or four musicians and unusual combination of instruments. A quick glance at his ECM discography gives you some idea of his musical approach.

  • Barzakh ECM 1432 (1991) with fellow Tunisian musicians Bechir Selmi on violin and Lassad Hosni on percussion.
  • Conte de L’Incroyable ECM 1457 (1992) with Barbaros Erkose (Turkish) on clarinet, Kudsi Erguner (Turkish) on the Ney Flute and Lassad Hosni (Tunisian) on percussion.
  • The Silences of the Palaces (1994) Film music for the Tunisian movie of the same name.
  • Khomsa ECM 1561 (1995) with Richard Galliano  (French) on accordion; Francois Couturier (? French) on piano and synthesizer; Jean Marc Larche (?) on soprano sax; Bechir Selmi (Tunisian) on violin; Palle Danielsson  (Swedish jazz musician) on double bass; Jon Christensen (Norwegian jazz musician) on drums. The album was recorded in Oslo. Norway 
  • Thimar ECM 1641 (1998) with John Surman (British jazz musician) on soprano sax and bass clarinet; Dave Holland (British jazz musician) on double bass. Also recorded in Oslo, Norway
  • Astrakan Cafe ECM 1718 (2000) with Barbaros Erkose (Turkish) on clarinet and Lassad Hosni (Tunisian) on percussion. Recorded in a monastery in Austria.
  • Le Pas du Chat Noir ECM 1792 (2002) with Francois Couturier (? French) on piano and  Jean-Louis Matinier (French) on accordion recorded in Zurich.
  • Le Voyage de Sahar ECM 1915 (2006) with Francois Couturier (? French) on piano and  Jean-Louis Matinier (French) recorded in Lugano, Switzerland.
  • The Astounding Eyes of Rita ECM 2075 (2009) with Klaus Gesing: bass clarinet; Björn Meyer: bass; Khaled Yassine: darbouka, bendir. Recorded in Udine, Italy.
  • Souvenance  ECM 2423/24 – 2 CDs (2014) with Francois Couturier on piano; Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and soprano sax; Björn Meyer (Swedish) on double bass; and Orchestra della Svizzera italiana / Pietro Mianiti: conductor. Recorded in Lugano, Switzerland

I have been, and still are, completely captivated by ethereal sound of the Astrakan Cafe ECM 1718 (2000) recording and the title track is one of my all time favorite pieces of music. So much so that I got my hands on a Godin MultiOud. This is an instrument manufactured in Quebec and for want of a better description it is a recent attempt to emulate the traditional Oud for a guitar friendly clientele. It is a fret less nylon strung instrument with a single bass string and the remaining 10 strings as 5 courses of unison strings. The strings  can be tuned in a number of traditional systems (Turkish, Turkish/Armenian, Arabic, Syrian or Egyptian). Godin, the manufacturer of the instrument, suggests using the Syrian  system – F A D G C F (low string to high). I believe this is the system Anouar Brahem uses. Because I play a number of other similar instruments I have chose to use a modified Syrian system – D A D G F C). Like the traditional Oud the MultiOud is played with a unique plectrum called a mezraab/mizrap in Farsi and Turkish and Reesha in Arabic. While purists are probably not convinced that the MultiOud is a valid vehicle for authentic Oud music it is, to my ear, pretty convincing. It has a number of advantages over the traditional Oud. The friction tuning pegs have been replaced with the more conventional guitar tuners. The flat backed body is more comfortable for a performer. The cut away body makes it easier to reach higher positions on the neck. The built in Fishman Tuner and pickup has a number of variable parameters to  allow the performer to sculpt a preferable sound. For guitarists one of the major hurdles to playing the Oud or the MultiOud is getting used to the fret less fingerboard. I am still struggling with the MultiOud but my ambition is to one day play a credible version of the Astrakan Cafe.  Check the above link to see and hear the tune in all its glory and revel in the incredible sound and ambience of the music and marvel at Anouar’s snappy syncopation and improvisations.

Below are a couple more links of Anouar in small ensemble environments.

Of the three, the last one Stopover at Djibouti, is my favorite.  I particularly like Björn Meyer tapping five string bass part  and Khaled Yassine adroit combination of of the Turkish darbouka and the bendir (frame drum). I believe the bass clarinet is played by Klaus Gesing. When you stop and think about it. It is an unusual combination of “instruments in the basement”, bass clarinet, electric bass and Oud all way down there with the darbouka and bendir flitting around to provide sonic relief and rhythmic integration. All in all it is very interesting stuff.

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HOME ROUTES HOUSE CONCERT – Sweet Alibi

Saturday April 8, 2017, 7:30pm – SWEET ALIBI at 5768 Haha Creek Road, Wardner. This is the last concert of this season’s Home Routes House Concerts.

It seems that Winnipeg is possibly the geographical center of Canada and at the same time it is the center of Canada’s musical universe. Maybe it is the cold winters that drives everybody indoors to play and appreciate music. Over the years the quality of musicians that have  come out of this city has proven to be exceptional. For this last concert, the trio Sweet Alibi –  Amber Rose – vocals, guitar, ukulele and a little percussion on the side; Michelle Anderson – vocals, banjo and guitar; Jess Rae Ayre – vocals, guitar, harmonica and a little percussion on the side has once again demonstrated that musicians from Winnipeg are top draw. Most of the music presented was original material written by the trio with an  occasional cover of lesser known songs such as Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody (it was a new song to me but it maybe better known by everybody else)

Gotta Serve Somebody

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You might be a rock ’n’ roll addict prancing on the stage

You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage

You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
 They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
 
etc…………………………..
Also there was Khari Wendell McClelland’s Song of the Agitator. It is a song that remembers the Underground Railway of African Americans fleeing from the USA in the mid 1800s.  It is a song that, with the current Moslem immigrants illegally crossing the border into Manitoba had some sense of deju vu . “Every thing changes but some things seem to just stay the same”. As per their website – ” The appeal of Sweet Alibi’s sound hinges on their ability to mix elements of folk, roots, and country, then present it in the context of a tightly-structured pop song.” I think that is true. Their vocal harmonies are strong and their spartan accompaniments take the music way outside the narrow confines of current pop/rock music. The mix of the banjo and the heavy vibrato of the electric guitar provides a unique background to their songs and takes them even further away from run of the mill pop music. Three songs that had great appeal where Dark Train, Walking in the Dark and Bodacious (a famous rodeo bull forced to retire because he was way to dangerous for cowboys to try and ride). Here are some images from the evening:

Amber Rose

Jess Rae Ayre           Jess Rae Ayre                                           Michelle Anderson

       

So ends the marvelous musical series for this past winter. The musicians and the venues were were exceptional and the weather, at times, was a little bit of a challenge but that comes with living in the back blocks of Canada. I wish to thank the hosts, Van, Shelagh, Patricia and Gordon for opening their homes for these wonderfully intimate musical concerts and for providing the wine and treats. I am looking forward to next winter and, hopefully, another Home Routes Concert Series.

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Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki?

Recently I had some discussions with friends about Octave Mandolins and Irish Bouzoukis. Here are some points that were kicked around.

Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki?

They are very similar but in reality with either instrument you end up with a different sound. If you are a fiddle player or mandolin player you might lean in the direction of an Octave Mandolin. As the name implies the Octave Mandolin is tuned like a mandolin (G D A E  low to high unison strings) but an octave lower. The neck length (scale length) is way shorter (maybe around 22″ depending on the builder) than the Irish Bouzouki and that gives the instrument the tight punchy sound of a mandolin. Now, possibly, with strings you have two options on the Octave Mandolin. Mandolins, Mandolas and Banjos tend to use loop end strings that are in my opinion  (1) are fiddly and a pain in the ass when changing strings and (2) loop ends limit options in the choice of strings you may want to use. So if you can find an Octave Mandolin that uses ball end strings like a steel string guitar that would be a wiser choice. I would avoid loop end strings like poison. Ball end strings gives you a greater choice in the availability and variety of strings you may want to use.  Of course there are other considerations with custom instruments that are dependent  on how much you actually want to spend. Do you want a flat top or carved top? what tone woods are you looking for, etc?. You are more likely to find an off the shelf Octave Mandolin than an Irish Bouzouki. Octave Mandolins have some favor with bluegrass musicians so in North America you may have a better chance of finding one.

Irish Bouzouki

There are lots of options for Irish Bouzoukis as well. The scale length is usually around the 24-25″ but again that depends on the builder. The longer scale length tends to give a “looser” sound that an octave mandolin. A really long scale length adds a significant amount of sustain to the sound. There are more tuning options that can be used (eg. GDAE, GDAD, ADAD low to high).  The bouzouki can be strung in unison like the mandolin or the bass strings can be tuned in octaves like a 12 string guitar. That is just personal choice. With the octave strings (my preference) you can get a nice droning effect that is particularly suited to Celtic tunes. The disadvantage with octave strings is a compensated bridge to take into account the different gauges of strings  is pretty well a must to achieve good intonation. Particularly when using a capo. Of course ball end strings is the way to go. Also do you want flat top? carved top? and what tone woods would you want to select?

The Greek Bouzouki is in a completely different bag with wildly different construction methods,  tuning, playing style etc. Still there are some Celtic musicians, Alec Fin comes to mind,  who uses the Greek instrument.

Although I play an arch top Fylde from Britain you don’t have to go all that way to get a good bouzouki. Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island builds superb instruments that he ships all over the world. His instruments will cost significant dollars (around $4000 +) but it is the old story – you get what you pay for. http://www.nyberginstruments.com/    check out his excellent web site for images, options and sound bites. I can recommend Lawrence without any reservations. He is very professional in his approach and his products are top class. I had him build me a five string Cittern (tuned DGDAD) with a Headway bridge pickup installed (in retrospect I would stick with K&K contact pickups). After some initial discussions about the specifications I wanted I placed a deposit in August of the year. He contacted me in February the following year for some additional funds and I paid it out at the end of May and the instrument it was in my hands in early June. A couple of years later I had a problem with the bridge and after very brief discussions with Lawrence I had a luthier up in the Crows Nest pass build me a new bridge and invoice Lawrence for the cost of the replacement. There  was no hassle or problems. The job was done and Lawrence absorbed the cost. If I had the funds I would get Lawrence to build me an Irish Bouzouki with octave bass strings. It was a pleasure to deal with some one who was so thoroughly professional and I would do it again in a heart beat.

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