Archive for the ‘Rock’ Category

The “Watchtower Bass”


If you are a cellist or bassist, the concept of “purgatory” has a real-world example in the eight-note ostinato ground bass of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  If you play bass in a rock or blues band, your equivalent is the three-chord bass line for “All Along The Watchtower,” by the folk-rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.  In both cases, it is the same, mind-numbingly repeating pattern through the entire song.

If you are a bassist with an IQ of at least 95, you know that “All Along the Watchtower” is five minutes of your day that you will never get back—longer if your lead guitarist is particularly greedy “inspired.”  But if you’re stuck on stage during a performance of “Watchtower,” and you want to make better use of your time, I humbly recommend that you arrive at the gig armed with a “Watchtower Bass.”

Like most of my ideas (well, except the solar-powered night-vision goggles), the concept is both elegant and simple:

If you don’t happen to have a second bass guitar, simply buy any crappy old used 4-string bass guitar; nobody will notice the difference.  Equip your extra bass with three strings.  Since my band (Elephant In The Room) plays the song in A, the bottom string would be an E-string tuned to F (F1).  The second string would be another E-string tuned to G (G1), and then the third string would be an A-string tuned to A (A1).  The fourth string is utterly unnecessary and can be discarded.
Before the set begins, arrange with your food server to deliver a cheeseburger and soda pop just before the band plays “All Along the Watchtower.”

Once the song begins, simply begin playing the three notes on your three open strings. Your left hand is now available for holding your cheeseburger and/or glass of soda pop.


“Hmmm.. I wonder when Mitch is done with his guitar solo?”  Urrrrrrrp!

The longer the band plays the song, the longer you have to savor your food and beverage without having to worry about annoying little details like fingering notes on your neck.  And since the bass line contains only three notes, playing a wrong note is virtually impossible.

By the time the band has finished playing the song, the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and drummer will have gotten their jollies. Meanwhile, you have had time to savor some food and a refreshing beverage without having expended an ounce of worry or effort for a bass line nobody cares about, anyway.

Bassists of the world, you are welcome.

Dissonant Creatures with The Swallows, May 27, 1010


Cellist Aaron Kerr is like some musicians in that he has several projects going these days.  His own group, Dissonant Creatures, was paired with collaborator Jeff Crandall’s band, The Swallows at a slightly unusual venue — Station 4 (previously known as Ryan’s) in downtown Saint Paul on Thursday evening, May 27, 2010.

Make no mistake, Kerr’s musical background is solidly classical, but his music with Dissonant Creatures’ could be described as ‘atmospheric’ jazz and features some interesting work from his five-stringed electric cello, equipped with a low F string — and Kerr really knows how to make his instrument sing here.  The first of four songs the group performed was “Head Down Slowly Onward,” in which Kerr made his cello really sing and guitarist Jeff Crandall channelled The Edge (guitarist Dave Evans of U2) with his rhythm playing.  “Born Bad” is a 6/8 piece with bassist Matt Kanive pulsing underneath, subliminally urging on Aaron’s pizzicato melody, which was colored one octave above by Tyson Allison on synth.  “Scorpio Rising” is a C minor tune in 7/8 time featuring an ostinato bassline from Kanive; after Crandall’s guitar solo Kerr used his cello to signal some distant ‘lightning strikes’ while drummer Justin Deleon echoed him with a few blasts of thunder on his toms using mallets instead of standard drumsticks.

While the group’s music could have served well as the audio soundtrack to some of NASA’s Apollo documentary films, the sound definitely feels more rootsy than jazzy.  That said, Kerr and his group provided a few pleasant echoes of the seminal jazz-fusion group Weather Report, spiced with some tasty rhythm guitar from Crandall.

Kerr and Crandall’s group, The Swallows, took the stage for the evening’s final set and immediately showed how much of the group’s music is eminently airworthy.  They opened with “Clear Sky Relapse,” a C major tune in which Kerr straddled the line between being playing the bass line and providing some of the melody on electric cello.  In “Hardball,” Kerr really muscled the low end while drummer Ben Steen went with him stride-for-stride, getting people moving on the dance floor with his drums and open hi-hat.  Crandall provided nice vocals and Allison, by now playing guitar, provided solid backup vocals in “Bottom Feeder,” which featured a nice cello solo by Kerr.  The fact that there was no bass line underneath his solo helped the song, rather than hurt it.  Likewise, Mike Nordby provided nice texture behind Kerr with his mandolin.

After “The Devil’s Hole,” which featured some excellent Hammond B3-flavored keyboards from Allison, Kerr’s nicely pensive bass line provided the structure for “I Won’t Let You Down,” which featured some excellent drumming from Steen, who delivered some thoughtfully-placed snare drum flams to spice up the rhythm and enhance the organic, rootsy flavor.

Four of the group’s best songs closed the evening: “Witchin ‘n’ Divinnin” has a subtle flavor of a lullaby and featured Crandall on steel-string acoustic guitar, which works beautifully over Kerr’s electric cello.  (Extra points to Nordby for his mandolin part that underpins Allison’s xylophone lines.)  “Long Long Shadow” found Allison on melodica, Nordby punctuating the song with some high Ds from his mandolin, and Ben Steen powerfully driving the song with an almost tribal feel, courtesy of his intelligent use of mallets.

In “Home,” Crandall delivered a Springsteen-esque vocal riding on top of Kerr’s double-stop cello, while Allison provided dollops and dashes of harmonica in-between B3-style keyboards and solid backup vocals, with Nordby accenting the overall sound, this time on percussion.  The Swallows closed with two other strong compositions, “Rattle Them Bones” and “Roam”, both of which could easily fly on radio.

The Swallows’ appeal is more than just that Kerr replaces the traditional bass guitar; his electric 5-string cello vaults back-and-forth from a cello lead to bass underneath.  With more than just well-written and eminently listenable music, The Swallows also deliver solid musicianship, which makes this group more enjoyable than quite a few others in the Twin Cities area.

Super Bowl 44 halftime show


A review (in haiku) of The Who’s halftime performance at Super Bowl 44 (CBS-TV) on Sunday, February 7, 2010:

Marketing research?
halftime stuck in classic rock
What is hip, Goodell?

Uneven playing
drummer missed the closing chord
find two marching bands

KISS on Late Show with David Letterman (CBS)


A review, presented in Haiku, of KISS’ appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, October 7, 2010 (CBS-TV).

Thirty-five years on
still can’t play decent music
freaking loud paint job