Putting Faces to Names, and Coverage on Performances: Baby Robot Media’s Set at Pianos

On Saturday, October 7th, I went to Pianos (on the Lower East Side) to meet the crew of Baby Robot Media, a media service agency that has been introducing me to new and independent artists and arranging interview opportunities. I had met the founder, Steve Albertson, John Graffo, the Director of Music Publicity, John Riccitelli, Director of Sales and Artist Relations, and a few others. Then, of course, I also went to Pianos to see the set that Baby Robot had put together with the help of their partnership with Glide Magazine for the city-wide event, Mondo NYC 2017.

The set was divided into two floors. I started watching the performance on the top floor. The first singer-songwriter I saw was Gabriel Mayers. Steve described Gabriel as a troubadour on guitar. After hearing this description, I made a parallel to Gypsy George, another troubadour. Traditionally, troubadours wrote songs about courtly love.

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Gabriel Mayers performs on acoustic guitar at Pianos, Oct. 2017

In one of his songs, “Cocoon,” Gabriel sings, “How much can your lover take, before it all comes crashing down?” This song is composed of 3-5 chords on the acoustic guitar. The melody includes a few embellishments such as hammer-ons and hammer-offs, the technique which adds the trills the listeners hear. His next song, “Philando,” did not resemble “Cocoon” lyrically. This song would take Gabriel out of that description of a troubadour, as it addressed the case of Philando Castile, a 32-year old civilian who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota last year.

Although I cannot decide whether the song “Philando” classifies Gabriel as a political artist, he did appear in the documentary How to let go of the world (and love all the things climate can’t change) directed by Oscar nominee, Josh Fox (gabrielmayers.com/about). I would suggest you read more about Gabriel on his website and check him out performing solo on acoustic guitar sometimes.

After Gabriel’s set, I went downstairs to see another artist, Ava Raiin, whose music was composed of a synthesizer, pre-recorded loops, and her voice. Ava’s first song easily stands out with a synthesized drum beat that sounds like a distorted heartbeat. When I was a student in high school, studying music theory, my teacher told me that Disco beats typically imitate heartbeats.

Ava’s rhythm in her first song though seems to deconstruct disco into something that you would not imagine your parents listening to if they were into that genre in the 1970’s (while it enjoyed its run). Her songs do not stick, and the lyrics do not seem to represent a story or create any imagery. She sings, “It is time to move the world/It is time to paint the world.” I did not get the name of this song.

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

Ava Raiin performing at Pianos, Oct. 2017

I am now trying to guess the name of Ava’s next song, and I believe it is “Eagle Eye.” In this song, the melody created by the vocalizations and the harmonies that cannot be classified as either major or minor. Based on what I have heard, Ava seems more interested creating space with sounds, even atmospheres, as they do not seem grounded in a structure that is detectable to a listener who does not spend too much time with the electronic music genre.

My concern with this artist is how much she showcases her voice, which comes in only for brief periods of time throughout her songs. I feel that within any performance that involves a vocalist and a synth player, the typical listener will be more likely to walk out of a performance commenting on the singer’s vocal abilities rather than the sound capabilities of a machine.

I want to talk about another band I would watch later in the day at 5 pm, Radiator King. The frontman, Adam met Steve of Baby Robot through a mutual friend who plays in another band. Adam took time to get acquainted with Steve before signing onto the company’s roster of musicians.

Adam prefers to write songs about historical events such as world wars, traditional American stories, especially ones about the underdog. Like many musicians, Adam never starts writing songs with a specific intent. The singer says that as a former history undergraduate, he approaches music by researching like a musicologist. During his years studying history, Adam has taken what he has investigated into his songwriting.

“You pick up certain things in a certain way, and put it into what you are imagining.” Adam would think, “I really like Jimmy Hendrix, I wonder who he liked?”

He continues, “Bob Dylan would listen to blues music from the south and try to recreate it. He played it like a boy from the mid-west, which he is, not like a poor man from the south. He listened to other artists and then replayed the songs in a way that made sense to him. It is very hard to find your own voice, but Dylan did.”

As I listened to Adam speak, I got the feeling that if he were to sing, he would have a range of a tenor, just based on his timbre. As I briefly spoke to Adam, it was only 3 pm. I would have some time before I would get the chance to hear Radiator King perform at 5 pm. I decided to continue my concert viewing downstairs.

On the stage on the first floor, the four-piece band, Oginalii started to play; the first rock band I had heard at the Baby Robot Media set. This group’s sound could have easily felt like a combination of Sound Garden and Stone Temple Pilots. If you are a rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast like I am, yes, Oginalii’s music is filled with riffs composed of power chords, and drumming that is perfectly synchronized with the guitars and the bass. According to John Riccitelli, the band is from Nashville, and they are alumni of Belmont University.

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Oginalii performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

One of Oginalii’s songs, “Red” sounds like a cross between “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age and “Black Math,” a track on the 2003 album Elephant by the White Stripes. If you should have the chance to see Oginalii live, do expect a sound of rock ‘n’ roll from the early 2000’s and amazing solos from the lead guitarist – something else I miss from today’s mainstream music. Expect a timbre from the frontwoman that reminds you of Gwen Stefani’s voice. If I could paint a clearer picture of this singer’s timbre, imagine Stefani getting stepping into a genre that was opposite the mellowness in the pop songs she has performed recently. Oginalii may be a refreshing group for those who are looking for new and exciting rock music from Nashville.

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Hayley Thompson-King performing at Pianos, Oct 2017

After Oginalii, came Hayley Thompson-King and her band. According to Riccitelli, Hayley is also an opera singer and she recently wrote a concept album. I will have to look back at a press release Riccitelli had sent me about this artist, because I was impressed with her energy on stage. The music Hayley plays resemble country, and she too is also based in Nashville.

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Radiator Kings (Adam, right), playing at Pianos, Oct 2017

Some singers sound very different when they perform versus when they talk, and I discovered that this was the case with the frontman of Radiator King, Adam. When he spoke to me, he sounded like a tenor. When he sang with his band, I heard a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but I felt that onstage, his timbre seems forced. Further, while Adam had explained to me that he (unintentionally) tells stories through songs, I could not hear the lyrics. The inaudible lyrics might have resulted from either the lack of volume in the microphone, an excessive degree in the Strat guitar Adam played, or both.

Trumpeteer playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

Trumpeter playing with Radiator Kings at Pianos, Oct 2017

In one song, “So Long Charlie,” Adam explained the story behind the song to the audience before playing. “This song is about the crazy characters you meet in your life. You don’t want them to be your roommates, but you don’t forget them.” For me, the most memorable part of this song was the guest trumpet player who performed a solo.

Baby Robot Media’s set finished at 6:00 pm. I appreciate the opportunity I got to review several performances in one location. I then recalled my first experience at Pianos, and had a brief flashback.

One evening in March 2012, I went to pianos to see Imagine Dragons play. That night, following their show, I met the band’s manager, and had told him that I was interested in writing a story about the band for my blog. I had a lot of competition from more established media channels in getting this band’s attention. New York media from all channels – television, radio, magazines – had been rushing up to the frontman, Daniel, hoping to get a story with the band. A few emails later with the band’s manager and the members of Imagine Dragons, I had a telephone interview scheduled with the bass player, Ben McKee. I consider myself lucky for the chance to talk to Ben. My interview with him is still one of the most popular articles on Music Historian.

Returning to the present, I realized that up until now, I had only seen Pianos at night, and I could not get a clear picture of the space like I did that day; it is beautiful. Most importantly, since Baby Robot Media arranged the performances, I felt so happy that I met the people whom I had been in contact with over the last few years. I saw the faces of this boutique music publicity firm and put them to names. I got to know the human beings behind the emails, press releases, and LinkedIn profiles.

I certainly hope to meet this crew again in person. I hope to continue the professional relationship and learn more about independent artists who might be writing gems that for the moment remain unnoticed by the mainstream, or maybe try their hand at showcasing their talent to various communities, or perhaps have a story to tell about their journey with music. Although I may not be interviewing as much, I will try to prioritize quality research and write about a few artists.

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Top 5 of 2015

Happy 2016! I should have published this post before December 31st. Please excuse my tardiness. Let’s go into the top five Music Historian blog posts in 2015!

No. 5 – The Naked and Famous

The Naked and Famous’ Next Chapter: An Interview with the band’s keyboardist Aaron Short

The Naked and Famous Press Photo I interviewed Aaron in 2014, just weeks before the New Zealand-native indietronica group would perform at The Governor’s Ball Music Festival. I had contacted about ten talent management organizations for interviews with some of the artists attending the festival. CRS Management, who at the time managed The Naked and Famous, was the only talent group that expressed any interest. The effort CRS put in to coordinate an interview between Aaron and I was worth the while.

 

No. 4 – A guest blog post about Holly Henry

The Flip Side of Holly Henry’s Music

The Orchard Cover Art The guest blogger and author of this post, Gary Reese, contributes postings, photos, videos, and interviews about musicians, including those who have appeared on “The Voice.” The “Holly Henry Fan Thread” on Idolforums and the “Holly Henry Fan Page” on The Voice Forums have received several page views. These pages have given Holly Henry the “third most viewed fan discussions of any contestant who as competed on “The Voice.”” I am happy to say that in 2015, Gary’s guest blog was the fourth most viewed article on Music Historian.

 

 

 

No. 3 – An artist who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes

Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist. My interview with George Mihalopoulos, also known by his stage name, Gypsy George, had opened doors to several themes: entrepreneurship; creativity in today’s music business; and being bicultural in America. I initially learned about this artist while researching the music roster for The Northside Festival. His name first grabbed my attention. When I asked the American-Greek artist how he decided to choose his stage name, and call his band – The Open Road Love Affair – I knew I was an for an interesting story. According to the numbers generated by the readership, I might have been on to something.

No. 2 – Lessons from a prolific slide-guitarist: Better to be a trendsetter than a ‘trend-follower’

Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Throughout his career as a professional slide-guitar player, Arlen performed on television, taught famous performers, and even acted as a director for a popular film. However; he never strayed away from his life as an artist and a teacher. Arlen says that showing an artist’s passion is what he is all about. Arlen’s stories of where he has been, his experiences and the lessons he has learned attracted many readers in 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

No. 1 – The story of how a Las Vegas band started their journey, even after they have made it “big,” remains a favorite

Opening Doors: Imagine Dragons’ Bassist, Ben McKee, talks about the band’s exciting journey

Imagine Dragon's Press Photo When I interviewed Ben McKee in 2012 for a story on Music Historian, I never imagined this story would attract so many readers, nor would I believe that someone would cite my article in their work! I continue to feel so grateful for this opportunity. Also, I feel humbled that so many readers continue to enjoy this post.

Although it is a few days late, I wish you, my loyal readers, a very Happy New Year! Thank you for your readership.

Embrace the Chaos, wherever you may wind up: Gypsy George discusses biculturalism, entrepreneurship and how music has brought him to Brooklyn

Gypsy George Press Shot. Published with Permission from the Artist.Like many bilingual professionals, Gypsy George, a Brooklyn-based musician whose real name is George Mihalopoulos, has learned to manage two lifestyles simultaneously. You might have guessed that his family is from Greece. Though he was born in the U.S., George says he is “firmly rooted in Greek culture.” He describes to me his every day.

“My day to day is quite active and busy. Recently, I’ve added importing olive oil from Greece with my Dad to the mix of things I do. A few years ago, he and I were trying to find ways to bring money back to Greece, due to the financial crisis. My grandfather used to press this fantastic olive oil in our hometown of Nafpaktos, and later, we discovered that everyone in the area just pressed their own oil and never sold it. We met with a local miller there, developed a relationship, and now we exclusively bottle our single varietal (Athinoelia) Premium ‘Agouraleio’ Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Nafpaktos under the brand name 10δεκα.

“So, that has been taking up most of my weekday mornings. After I finish with Olive Oil stuff, I usually move onto music-related matters – responding to emails, organizing shows and working in the studio. It varies from week to week but generally, my daily life has been ‘Olive Oil & Music.’”

Aside from participating in a business partnership with his father, George also founded a publishing company in 2003, Always Already.

“I started this company mainly so I could start receiving royalties on a movie I contributed music to, ‘The Maldonado Miracle’ produced and directed by Salma Hayek. From there, I started to build it around music licensing and composing. Today, I have expanded it to include a record label. It is a boutique music company that pretty much offers all music related services – recording, producing, publishing, licensing, composing, and more.”

He adds, “I run the company very grass roots, family-style, encouraging all the artists I’m producing to be as involved with their projects as possible. I do try to teach them about the business end of things, so they are better armed to tackle the ever-changing universe of music.”

Speaking of an “ever-changing universe,” an entrepreneur and musician who runs multiple businesses might describe the road to their success as unpredictable and messy. At least, that’s how I would describe it as I reflect on countless interviews with musicians, informal interviews with NYC student entrepreneurs, and my professional development.

Like many entrepreneurs, George has learned to ‘embrace the chaos.’ He also incorporates this motto into his definition of a gypsy: “One who lets life happen – the good and the bad – and welcomes it; who can adapt to their surroundings with ease and pleasure; who is unafraid to take risks, be self-critical and make changes.”

While I certainly find this definition of a gypsy inspiring in a creative and artistic sense, I know that in an ethnic and practical definition, it needs more refining. For George, Gypsy is his stage name, one he more or less picked up while being on the road, spontaneously traveling America’s mid-west for his musical inspiration and his identity. Further, George’s affinity to the open road also influenced the name of his band, Gypsy George and the Open Road Love Affair. The band creates what one might describe as Americana music with spurts of Greek flair. The band’s repertoire of music has opened doors to new projects and possibilities. Gypsy George shares his story right here on Music Historian.

Gypsy George Press Photo. Published with permission. Gypsy George received his name from his insatiable desire to randomly hop in a car – without a map – and travel the depths of America. The artist had mentioned that during this time, he was trying to figure out whether he was Greek or American (National Herald 2011). I asked him exactly what fueled this desire.

“A few things contributed to my desire for exploration and travel,” explained George. “Firstly, I moved around a lot when I was younger, eight times in the first six years of my life. So, that clearly laid the foundation. Secondly, it was my family origin. My sister, my cousins, and I are the first generation born in the states. The rest of my family was born in Greece, including my parents. I was raised bi-culturally. I frequently travel to Greece, and I am fluent in the language and culture.

“Initially, my drive to explore America was to experience all the regions that Blues artists had lived in or traveled. I wanted to find the places where Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, and Leadbelly had been before me. I wanted to see and feel what inspired them, and this led me up and down the Mississippi River for many years. Since I lived mostly in big cities and urban environments, it was mind blowing to see these places up close and play guitar on the banks of the mighty river. I fell in love with the countryside; it opened my eyes to the true beauty and freedom of this great experiment known as the United States.”

After some time, Gypsy George decided he was 50/50 Greek-American (National Herald 2011). Then, came my next question – where in his music does George’s Greek heritage shine most?

“My music is filled with my Greek heritage,” he begins. “I’ve always felt that my music truly is a culmination of American Blues and Greek music sprinkled with the Lennon’s and Dylan’s of the world. Some specific examples are the songs “Door County Nights”, a blues structure over a 9/8 Zeibekiko time signature; the ‘bouzouki’ style mandolin on “Everyday”; the solo section of “Maude On The Run”; and the list goes on.”

Door Country Nights” is the title track to Gypsy George’s 2003 debut. This album conveyed the artist’s stylistic versatility incorporating Americana, country, honky-tonk, and some funk. At the time this album was recorded (in Los Angeles), George worked as a music supervisor and composer at a music company that had recording studios. The owner encouraged the employees to use the studios and learn how to record during off hours.

“I figured, ‘if I’m going to learn how to record, I might as well record an album of my stuff.’ It was a learning experience, to say the least,” admits George. “It is always interesting when you record your first album; expectations are so high, yet your ability is in its infant stages. Additionally, I worked with an engineer who was even newer to recording than I was. That combination of hope mixed with a lack of experience can be an exciting, frightful adventure. We had a blast though, and I think we pulled it off – at least for our first effort.”

Another song on this debut, a honky-tonk, and a country-influenced number is titled “Open Road Love Affair.” I wondered whether this song inspired the name of Gypsy George’s group. I just happened to be right.

“The band name did, in fact, come from the song title. When I was trying to come up with a band name, I spent months bouncing around ideas. I wanted a name that would convey the ideology of the ‘Plastic Ono Band’[i] with the controlled chaos of a road trip. Also, I did not want it to sound forced. One day, I was barbecuing with some friends, and I complained about how hard it was to come up with a band name. Finally, my friend Stacy blurted, ‘why don’t you call it Open Road Love Affair?’ Everyone, instantaneously, had that moment of ‘uh, why didn’t I think of that?’ And that, folks, is how the band name came about.”

The song “Everyday” comes from his 2011 release The Loneliest Man in New York. In this track, Gypsy’s inner-Greek comes out on a mandolin that plays hints of tremolos. He says that when it comes to arrangements, he pushes the envelope. George explains “I like to take chances and treat instruments differently from their basic intended purpose. Sometimes, this fails. However, I’d rather go for broke than be conventional. With a song like “Everyday,” I was very influenced by Pet Sounds (an album by The Beach Boys); particularly the songs “That’s Not Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day.” The drum part,” which exaggerates the downbeats within the measures, “was me trying to be Brian Wilson.”

Gypsy George Press Shot published with Permission Lyrically, George is influenced by Lennon, Dylan, Beat poetry and Kazantzakis. Occasionally, he writes in an obscure referential way or inside jokes. “Sometimes, “I like to use words to create a feeling or imagery. Sometimes, I just like the way words fit together regardless of meaning. It depends on the moment, the mood.” One such song like this is “Couplet Gun” a song about love which starts with a very distinct verse – I find a little Marxist red war paint/ And, I don’t want to pray it/ I don’t want to say it/ I just want to step in right next to you. The second chorus includes this rhyme I shoot the stars with asphalt bars/ I creep along a familiar song/ I find a way to stick my nose in the dirt…

“‘A little Marxist red war paint’ was a strange way of me referring the lady of the song, who is a redhead. The second set of lyrics was written to convey the heavy, deep pain and loneliest I felt at the time, hence, trying to shoot starts with asphalt bars, sticking my nose in the dirt. I attempted to convey my truest, deepest thoughts and emotions at that very juncture in my life.”

The Loneliest Man in New York included a band of six musicians, including Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm on vocals, who also appeared on the 2014 album 30 Songs in 30 Days. Between these two albums, George experienced a professional and personal development that was initially brought on by an impulsive decision. When he started recording Loneliest Man, George had just moved to NYC without knowing a single person.

“I wound up in NYC by accident: I was fed up with L.A. and left town. I just started driving due East to get as far away from the West Coast as possible. I lived in various spots throughout the country; toyed with the idea of going back to Chicago (where he lived throughout most of his life). Eventually, I came to Brooklyn and figured I’d try it out.

“My girlfriend at the time abruptly ended things, and I thought she was THE ONE – at least at the time. Dealing with a deep heartache – combined with living in NYC without any friends – led me to the only therapist I knew – music. I spent a month and a half in my apartment – which at the time, had no furniture or music equipment and hefty bags filled with clothes – and just wrote songs after songs.

“When it was all said and done, I had written around 100 tunes. From there, I began tracking the album. As I went through this process, I met a bunch of musicians at Roots Café in South Slope on an open mic night. After that, I just immersed myself in music and met more talented folks. Eventually, I asked a few of these insanely gifted people to play on the record. What started as my ‘breakup album’ turned into this colossal musical effort.”

“I had a very ambitious plan with 30 Songs in 30 Days,” continues George. “Having accumulated a wealth of songs I had written, I finally decided to release a double album. I also wanted to tap into all the different styles of music that have influenced me over the course of my career. Initially, my plan was to recreate the Beatles’ White Album. Rather than interpret the album song by song, I wanted to capture the general feel and weirdness of the album. As I developed the concept, it turned into the one thing I detest in art – pretentiousness. I felt I was forcing songs on this sort of strict creative platform. What I then decided to do was release 30 songs in 30 days. For the month of October in 2014, I released a song a day for 30 days. It was a maddening, yet rewarding experience.

“A lot of the material I recorded [involved] mixing and mastering on the fly. It was a very curious project that lent to quick, creative decision making as opposed to past albums where I had all the time in the world to figure out whether I liked this, that or the other. It was a fun release and one I am proud of accomplishing. Although I did play the majority of the instruments on the album, I did have some outside vocalists and musicians.”

Aside from Jamey ‘Brother’ Hamm, the musicians who played with George on 30 Songs in 30 Days included Emily Trask and Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn. George says that while it is always difficult to gauge what people fundamentally think about his work, he was happy with the ‘all-over-the-map’ reaction from listeners.

“I like to add humor and silliness to my songs. At the end of the day, I just try to have fun and enjoy life. Obviously, there are serious moments, but I’d much rather poke fun at myself and not take it too seriously. I think that silly and loose atmosphere of my music is what people grab onto at first.”

“Charlton Heston” and “Maude On The Run” are some of the songs on 30 Songs in 30 Days that stood out the most to me. According to George, the political themes within these tracks were overlooked in the States but resonated more in Europe. Whether or not a listener can pick up on the political themes naturally is purely left up to opinion. I was curious as to how George incorporate politics into this song. A perfect example is his 2007 record, Joe’s Beginning, which he recorded while living in Los Angeles. George also recorded this album while in an interesting place in his life.

“I had ended a relationship, felt upset with the administration [at the time], and faced a crossroads with my career. I got my feelings out in music. I locked myself in the studio for six months recording the album, and it was the first record where I did everything, including the engineering.

“Thematically, I based the record on [the story of] “Romeo and Juliet.” I interpreted the couple’s fight for love as obstructed by socio-political circumstances as opposed to warring families. I chose [the title] ‘Joe’s Beginning’ as homage to the ‘Average Joe.’ I wanted to make a political statement without being pedantic. Whether I pulled that off with the album is a different story.”

My conversation with Gypsy George so far has helped me notice that emotional events like a heartache, an abrupt move, and the challenges of being your boss – which for this artist, involves getting songs out on schedule – drives him to create music. Also, he has managed to put his talent out in a robust artistic city. Although he has become known for getting up and moving from place to place, Gypsy George has lived in Brooklyn for seven years now. As far as I know, he has no leaving plans.

Gypsy George Press Photo published with permission “I love living in Brooklyn. I have lived in South Slope, and it has been a true home for me, a first for me in my adult life. Brooklyn and NYC have a great energy and a wonderful mix of gifted and talented artists. It is a city that lays the foundation for a creative atmosphere.

“Out in L.A., I felt that it was all about who you know or how you look, but the quality of the music did not matter [so much]. In NY, you have to be pretty good to survive in the music scene. Chicago has a great art and music scene, but it remains a bit more underground.”

This year will mark the second time Gypsy George has been invited to perform at the Northside Festival. He will perform as part of a lineup hosted by Whatever Blog at The Gutter in Williamsburg. Afterward George will return to producing his second record with Justin ‘That Moon’ Kilburn, with the hopes of releasing it in July. Also, George is in the process of remixing and re-mastering 30 Songs in 30 Days and officially release it as Politics, Ex-Girlfriends & the Ayn Rand Shuffle. He hopes to have this record out in the Fall. Finally, he is also the Music Director and Composer for South Brooklyn Shakespeare, a theater company founded by Paul and Dee-Byrd Molnar. This year, the company will perform “Much Ado About Nothing” on July 25th, August 1st, and August 15th.

Whether or not George chooses to stay in this city or relocate wherever his passion for the open road takes him, he will embrace the change, whatever it maybe, and channel it into his music. Whatever life throws his way, especially if it brings him into a rougher moment in his career, George will center his focus on the fact that he has felt blessed enough to continue doing music.

“My Dad told me a long time ago, that wherever you are, whatever you wind up doing in life, no one can ever take away your ability to create and play music. To me, every moment is a proud moment. I always view myself as an artist first and that everything I do is part of a larger dialog beyond myself.

“The music industry has turned a blind eye to creativity and has focused on profit. I mean [the need] has always been there, but I don’t believe a band like The Beatles could ever make it in today’s music business structure. This is why Independent Artists are more vital than ever. While I might sound critical, I am very hopeful for the future of music and where it will wind up.”

[i] Gypsy George says he “sort of stole a page from John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s concept for the ‘Plastic Ono Band.’ They had a philosophy that ‘anyone’ can be a member of the band, and were adamant that there was no ‘set’ lineup (G. Mihalopoulos, personal communications, June 9, 2015).”

Works Cited

“In the Spotlight: Gypsy George – Musician” (2011). National Herald. Retrieved from http://www.gypsygeorge.com/uploads/9/0/3/2/9032999/national_herald.pdf

 

Arlen Roth’s Slide Guitar Legacy: Everything from Robert Johnson, to The Blues Brothers, to Teaching Students and Major Artists

Arlen Roth, Head Shot Since the age of 17, guitarist Arlen Roth has been influencing the scene of rock music, film, and television with his slide guitar, dobro, guitar and pedal steel guitar-performing skills. His most recent album, The Slide Guitar Summit, brings together many great musicians Arlen admires, like Cindy Cashdollar, Sonny Landreth, Lee Roy Parnell, Jack Pearson, and Tom Hambridge and many more for a large concert and jam in Nashville. At the moment, magazines like Guitar Player and Vintage Guitar have planned interviews with the musician regarding his new work. Most importantly, somebody who knows Arlen personally and lives in my hometown within Huntington spoke highly of his new record. Arlen’s friend Billy said:

“The album I feel will be important to musicians interested in the bottleneck and slide formats. I don’t think any recordings have ever put the “cream of the crop” together in this way and just let them challenge and play off of each other.”

Arlen tells me, over a telephone conversation, “I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said “What should I do for this next project, what’s going on?” Simultaneously, we both said, “What about a slide guitar summit project?” Now, I am known as a guitar player, in general, who has influenced and taught many, but Slide guitar has always been a big part of what I do. In fact, there is a book about slide guitar I wrote when I was 19 years old. It is still the biggest slide guitar book in the world. This was 40 or so years ago. I don’t want to date myself too much, but that’s always been a big thing of mine – specializing in the slide guitar. I am sure you are aware of what slide guitar entails and what it means, and how different it is from other guitar playing, but it has also become the voice of American music these days.”

Slide guitar is a technique of guitar playing where the player presses down on the strings while wearing a piece of bar, brass or glass cylinder on one of their fingers. Arlen adds:

“In the old days, it used to be called Bottleneck guitar because players would take a piece of actual bottleneck and put it on their pinky or third finger, or whichever finger suited them. I prefer a heavy piece of brass. You can also alter the tuning of the guitar to an open chord – EBEG#BE for example – as opposed to standard tuning. There are some great standard tuning slide guitar players, but I prefer the open chords. This started to be common back in the ‘20’s with Delta Blue players like Robert Johnson and Son House.”

Arlen Playing Slide Guitar

If you listen to Q.1043, WBAB, or any rock station within and around New York City and the Tri-state area, you have heard slide guitar. Whether you listened to, The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song “My Friends,” The Black Crows’ “She Talks to Angels” (in which the guitar is tuned to the open chord), or the instrumental version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” (recreated by Arlen Roth), you heard slide guitar. Yes, I am thrilled that the first official interview article on the Music Historian for 2015 covers a guitar playing technique that has captivated all types of audiences. Rest assured; however, Arlen Roth will not pay a simple ode to the beauty and joy of playing guitar. Arlen shares his story about how he was at the forefront of bringing slide guitar into television and film. Most importantly, he talks about the importance of passing his passion of guitar to his students, family, colleagues and musicians who are gaining a new appreciation for American roots music. It is my pleasure to welcome Arlen to the Music Historian.

“When I was writing my slide guitar book at 19, I remember asking myself, “How do I know all of this stuff?” I have not even had time to learn it, but at that point, I had already been playing for nine years. I was deeply involved in the blues and in country music. So, at that time, I was the only person in New York City who was playing pedal steel guitar, dobro, and Hawaiian guitar, just because I loved that sound. I used to tune into the far off radio stations and listen to country music in Upstate New York. Whether I was listening to it from Pennsylvania or Wheeling, West Virginia or the famous WSM from Nashville. I picked up all of those stations, and I would pick up and fall in love with those sounds.

“When you say, you’re the Music Historian; that’s what we all are. We all fall in love with something like the Blues or Country, and we want to keep getting deeper and deeper into it, and it does not take very long. I can remember at 15 or 16 saying, “I love Mike Bloomfield, now I love B.B. King, now I love Buddy Guy, now I love Son House, now I love Robert Johnson.” Being so young and voracious for this material, and so you are learning ten-fold, and the speed at which you pick it all up can be amazing.”

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Arlen was 21 in 1974. In addition to writing his book about the slide guitar (also titled Slide Guitar), he went on tour with the Bee Gees across Canada. In 1975, he toured with John Prine, then between 1976 and 1978, he performed on an episode of Saturday Night Live with Art Garfunkel, taught guitar and recorded his first solo album. In 1983, he would tour with Simon and Garfunkel. However, Arlen assures that his road to success was not always rosy.

“I was in the opening act for the Bee Gees,” recalls Arlen. “They loved my steel guitar playing, so they would have me play on their song [Arlen sings] “I’m a-Goin’ back to Massachusetts.” This is like the real original Bee Gees, before they got into R&B and disco.

“We were touring Canada, and we had just done an album with a $100,000 budget. While we were on tour, we discovered the album was being shelved. It was not going to come out. Some of these things in the music business, you never know how much delay there is. The Slide Guitar Summit, I recorded two years ago. Almost, three years ago. Sometimes, that’s how long it takes to get things together.”

Arlen (middle) with (l-r) Sonny Landrith, Jack Pearson,  Lee Roy Parnell performing in Nashville to promote The Slide Guitar Summit, Jan. 2015

Aside from delays within record productions; Arlen also experienced plenty of challenges on large global tours, this time with Simon and Garfunkel.

“In 1983, I was teaching Paul Simon. I would also help and give him some pointers in some of his songs. Then, they asked me to do the world tour, the big Simon and Garfunkel tour. It was exciting to be on a tour that big, playing for 40,000 to 100,000 people a night.

“When you do a tour like that, the music connects with people, but more as part of an event. You are on the big screen, and one little move you make, gets 20,000 people to yell. It’s a whole different thing. I like it more when you are closer to the audience, and you have a closer rapport with the crowd.”

“True,” I said. “When you are on a global tour, you want to make a bigger event to get more money to pay back more of the expenses (operational). I’ve also noticed across the world, that in some countries, especially in Europe, music is made more for entertainment, and large events like that.”

“Yeah, it’s unbelievable,” responded Arlen. “It seems like they have festivals all the time, and these huge gatherings of people. I remember doing some of them with Simon and Garfunkel, and when the crowd got violent, there were riots and people getting hit over the head.

“We were playing “Scarborough Fair” and people are hitting each other over the head with bottles of Evian. Paul, when he saw that yelled, “Stop doing that. We will stop playing if you don’t stop hitting that guy!” People were getting crushed, running on stage and pulling your clothes; it was kind of scary.

“I also remember being in Boston, and [the crowd] getting unruly. People were hitting us in the face with glow sticks. I saw my niece in the front row, and she looked so worried because she was getting pushed from behind. Once the crowd starts pushing, they don’t stop. So, in the bigger events, try to be as safe as possible. But still, it’s exciting to be part of something on that scale.”

As I thought about having thousands of people watching every move a musician makes on stage, I recall reading about another major event in Arlen’s career where he performed for a large audience. This time, his guitar playing had caught the attention two actors on the set of Saturday Night Live – Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A jam warm-up session that night with Arlen transformed into the beginning of The Blues Brothers.

“That night in 1978, [on the set of Saturday Night Live] there was no “Blues Brothers” yet. Belushi comes up to me, puts on a hat and sunglasses and says, “Look, we are going to warm up the crowd. We’re going to put on these blues outfits, and we are going to be these blues guys.” We just warmed up the crowd with a song, which happens to be on this new album, “Rocket 88,” which I also did with Johnny Winter on the new album. John Belush (Left), SNL Host (Middle), and Arlen Roth (right) on the set of SNL, 1978

“What happens at Saturday Night Live, is you start on Wednesday, and by the time you hit Friday, you do the show over, and over. You have a rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal, then a live show. By the time you do it, you don’t even care anymore. You don’t even know it’s live, you are like blind. They keep cutting routines, changing them, and I remember I was backstage with Belushi.

“I wrote out the words for him, and he was very much an actor saying, “Quick, give me the information right now.” Then I remember Andy Kaufman was there, and everything was amazing. Then, we hit the stage and warmed up the crowd with “Rocket 88.” In fact, later that night, after the show, we all went to this bar afterward – because the party never ended with Saturday Night Live – and we were jamming and playing the blues. That’s what turned into the Blues Brothers.”

According to outside sources, The Blues Brothers became a musical sketch on SNL, then filming of the movie started in 1979 and then premiered in June of 1980. While it earned just under $5 Million on its opening weekend, it went on to gross $115.2 Million in theaters worldwide before its release on home video. The film has become a cult classic (en.wikipedia, 2015).

By the 1980’s, Arlen had taught Paul Simon, toured the world, and contributed to the beginning of The Blues Brothers. In 1986, his influence would later grab the interest of director Walter Hill, who had just started filming the film about the legendary Robert Johnson titled Crossroads. Walter invited Arlen on the set to be an authenticator for the film, to play much of the guitar in the movie and to coach Ralph Macchio on his playing, and the guitarist made sure to deliver.

“What happened in a scene – which included Robert Johnson in 1937 recording in a hotel room in San Antonio – I said, “Hey look, the guy has tuning pegs on his guitar from the 1980’s.” They [the pegs] were bright chrome, and I told them, “No, you can’t have that.” Walter had to shut everything down just because I said that. I told him, “We’ve got to get the right guitar. If I am hired here to make sure that all the guitar scenes go down right, even if the guitar is wrong. I am going to point it out.”

“The actor who came in said, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got it covered.” He didn’t have anything covered. He did not understand that the guitar had to be the right one for the era of the scene. So, we shot another scene instead and then, the following day; we shot the authentic and correct Robert Johnson session.

“Walter would sometimes let me sit in the director’s chair and direct the scene. He already had his camera angles set right and said, “Arlen, this whole scene is about the music, and I don’t know anything about it, and you do. So, I’m going to go in my trailer, and you be the director.” I thought, “Wow! Here I am in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field sitting in the director’s chair saying “cut.”” Everybody was looking at me like I was the director now. They did not even miss a beat. I personally think Walter did that to give me a little thrill.”

While Arlen acted as a director for a popular film, performed on television, and taught famous performers, he did not stray away from his life as a performer and a music teacher. He did not depend on these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for his living. Arlen claims that teaching and showing an artist’s innermost passion is what he is all about.

“Many years ago, I was one of the first people to ever document famous musicians teaching. I had started a company with my late wife Deborah called Hot Licks. We formed it in 1979, and it was as far back as 1973 that I knew I would start it one day. In ’79, I started recording my teaching on audio cassettes. I then found other peers of mine – guitar players, piano players, drummers, whoever might be – anyone who would be willing to do something like this. It was a very new idea – it was not something many players embraced – the concept of laying it out on the line and saying “This is what I am about.” I am self-taught, I never took lessons, I don’t read music, I only learned in real life, in front of real people!

“I thought audio recorded lessons was a great way for people to learn because, and till this day, I still encourage my students to tape their lessons. I teach privately, and I always tell them [students], please tape it [the lessons] because you will lose everything, you will miss a lot of what we say. One day, a student said to me, “I miss those lessons on tape.” That student moved out to Colorado, and I said, “Aha! Lessons on tape. That’s what I will do someday when I need to start another business.

“Music is up and down. I was touring off and on, in between teaching and recording. When I got to the point of doing [one of the earlier albums] Toolin’ Around, I had many folks who had done videos for me, like Brian Setzer, Albert Lee, Danny Gatton – who was a big fan and friend of mine – Duke Robillard, Jerry Douglas, the incredible dobro player who performs with Allison Krauss, played on the album with me. This [album] stretched from 1989 to 1992, and it came out with 8 or 9 artists on it with me.”

Arlen playing guitar at Building 24 in October 2014 Arlen now touches on an important point – the fluctuation in the music business. For many musicians, across the different generations, teaching had provided a stable endeavor for instrumentalists. He claims that this is why he stuck with teaching. In addition, teaching brought Arlen equity.

“I figured that no matter what, people would enjoy my playing and be interested in my playing because I would change the way people were learning the guitar. I had self-taught musicians, teaching everybody else to teach themselves.

“Many of the artists I recorded or filmed never actually sat down and ever had to explain what they did. I had Buddy Guy talk about the blues. Here is a guy who is my hero from when I was about 15 years old, telling me, “You’re the boss, tell me what to do!?” I said to him, “Buddy, just do it, just play.” All the people who I had admired for many years, some of them whom I really looked up to, suddenly there they are sitting in that chair, in front of those recording cameras for an instructional video, produced by ME!!

“I had directed more than 180 instructional videos with about 140 artists, over a 25-year span. It was quite something. We had 2 million students worldwide; we would make these documentary-type videos into films or box sets. The company that bought my business is still to this day converting things over to digital, DVDs and little snippets on the internet.”

Arlen also filmed about one thousand instructional lessons for Gibson.com, each being five or seven minutes long, but some over an hour in length. He describes them as “a meaningful vignette of an archetype, a certain aspect of guitar playing and music that is a little gem that someone might hook onto and say, “Wow. I never knew about that!””

The musician expresses, “there is a lesson to be learned in everything.” He also believes in “the timeless quality of passing all of that information onto people” and down to his family. Lexie, Arlen’s second daughter, picked up the bass guitar when she was eight years old and entered the world of performing within her teens. Now, in her mid-twenties, she is working on her third album. In the meantime, Lexie also works as a natural gourmet chef. Earlier this month, she starred in a commercial for the Food Network.

“She writes great songs,” says Arlen. “Many of them are very hard-hitting and she’s wonderful and incredible with lyrics. Give her a few chords to go with a guitar part, and before you know it, there is another song.”

Arlen’s first daughter Gillian, who had incredible poise, beauty, and dignity, learned to play the guitar, and started doing commercials at 11 years old. She also performed with Arlen at a concert when she was 12. She even received a contract to star in a television show, where she would be the main actor, guitar player, and singer. Sadly, in the late 1990’s Gillian passed away in a car accident at the age of 14, with her mother, Deborah just two days after she had recorded the theme for that show.

These talented girls learned guitar early from watching their father. Reflecting on the lessons Arlen gave students, adult performers, and his family, I wondered about the most important lesson Arlen learned from his lifetime in music. I asked, “If there were any advice you would give your younger self, what would that be?”

Arlen says, “Because I did start playing so young, I worked with many people who were much older than me. Looking back, I got the spotlight a lot, but people also took advantage. I think you have to be a little cautious about that; there are must as many predatory people out there [today] as there ever were. When you are young and happy to do anything for any money, people start to know you are not the kind of person to turn stuff down.

“Something good has always led to something else. If you do something great, the word spreads and you get called for something better the next time. For example, in my old days in New York, in the early ‘70’s, I would get called to do recording sessions. I really grew up listening to the music that came out of California, Chicago and Nashville. What made me stand out in New York at that time was, there were not too many people my age who played slide guitar, dobro or my unique string bending method. They could not even get a good sound on a guitar in New York.

“I came to New York [in the early ’70’s], into a recording session. I would hear myself play on the record what sounded like this little “chink, chink, chink” sound. I told them, “That’s not the sound I am giving you. I’m giving you this wonderful rich guitar sound,” but the guitar was not important. The guitar was secondary, and you always had to be careful of what you’d say to these folks.

“It [New York] was a horn town, where they wanted to hear strings, horns, piano and drums – jazz. Now, I think there is a wonderful movement in New York and Brooklyn where many people are embracing the roots of rock music, the blues, and the country sound again.”

Recalling this experience in New York during the 1970’s, I asked Arlen what he learned. He responded:

“[I thought], “what are they asking me to record here?” I am recording nothing on this guitar. They were so impressed with me; they saw me perform, they jumped out of their seats and the next thing I know, I am playing “chink, chink, chink” on a record. Then I realized, this is what it is [sometimes] to make a record, at least back then. In those days, it was about overdubbing, layering, getting different sounds, going for hours and hours, breaking for lunch, and then doing it again.

“It was a whole different experience that I never knew. You learn from everything you experience, and all that learning is beautiful.”

In addition to the openness to learn, and the need to protect oneself from being misled, Arlen thinks of another piece of advice he would like to give his younger self:

“Stay true, and learn from those lessons. I had recording gigs that were just nightmares. You walk out of there, and you feel like you aged ten years. The reason it was such torture is because I already had the direction I needed to go in, and they were trying to force me into another thing. That’s part of working as a session man or a musician. Sometimes you have to play backup, adhere to what they want, and be attentive to find the moments where you can shine, and be your creative best.

Slide Guitar Album Cover “You have to stay true to your music, stay ahead of the pack. Don’t try to be a trend follower, it is better to be a trendsetter. Pretty soon, people will come to you, and turn their heads to what you are saying. I think that’s a little bit of what’s happening now with The Slide Guitar Summit.”

From Hollywood films to recording studios in the south, and on television, slide guitar has become very prominent in soundtracks. Interestingly, the average layperson does not think they are listening to slide guitar. Therefore, Arlen decided The Slide Guitar Summit would help educate and seize a very special moment. He explains:

“I’ve got this wonderful breadth of people, great friends and greats who play various forms of slide guitar,” which includes Sonny Landreth, David Lindley, Rick Vito, Johnny Winter, Lee Roy Parnell, Greg Martin, Jimmy Vivino and more.

Arlen also asserts that when people think of slide, they think of blues. Slide Guitar Summit however, will expand into many different territories when it comes to slide guitar music. While listeners can expect the electric blues and Delta blues, they can also expect rock, southern rock, country, and Hawaiian. It is a little more challenging to categorize, but that is what makes it fun. Listeners can expect duets between the artists mentioned above and tributes to songs that have become classics within American music.

In his concluding words about The Slide Guitar Summit, Arlen says, “I wanted to do something that was going to catch people’s attention, and get them to appreciate it and love it. For me, I think of it as a legacy. To me, it is very much about what I am doing now. I loved getting together with these people. Some of the musicians, I had never met before or played with before, and some I had known quite a bit. So, we are going to get it all out there and make something new!”

Arlen Roth and his Slide Summit band will be in upstate New York on May 29th and 30th. Before that, he will probably hit New York City. To get the most updated information on concert dates, standby his website and Facebook.

I let Arlen take the reins of this conversation to share his amazing story. What many music listeners often forget is that music is cyclical. While the slide guitar tunes I learned when I took guitar lessons as a teenager are not the same tunes Arlen taught himself when he was a teenager; that technique transcended eras and continues to do so. What also transcends eras are the lessons musicians learn from being within the business.

Performers and recording artists continue to learn how to walk that fine line of staying open to new experiences within creating music while never losing focus on the sound and the style that makes them passionate. For Arlen, it was always about the playing and being self-taught. For other musicians, it may be about revitalizing a genre that made them happy growing up, or experimenting with various genres, or focusing on layering sounds within music, or simply about performing or collaboration. Whatever we stand for as professionals, we must never lose sight about what makes us who we are. Prosaic? Sure. Valuable though? Yes.

Works Cited

Wikipedia.org (2015 Feb 17). The Blues Brothers (Film). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blues_Brothers_(film)

Disclaimer: All Photos were published with permission