Jun 10

Second Anniversary

Friday, June 25, 2010 is the second anniversary of my first electric guitar lesson with Jim Goelitz at Kagan and Gaines in Forest Park, IL.

When I began taking lessons, I had no idea what I was getting in to. In retrospect, I was very naive and seriously underestimated the length of the learning curve. In spite of the years I’d spent listening to blues, I didn’t realize how challenging it was to play blues. It’s not just a matter of learning a few chords. The most common 12-bar blues form is based on “only” three chords, which might sound simple, but then there are such matters as string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, riffs, rhythm and all the other things that contribute to the tone and sound of the blues. Putting all that together in an improvised solo is an even bigger challenge.

On the one hand, I thought initially that I would be “farther along” (whatever that means) than I am. On the other hand, I can clearly see that I have learned a lot and can now do things easily that were difficult or impossible before. One of the things that has kept me going is that I can tell that the more I play (practice, practice, practice), the better I get. Practice really does work. At the same time, I’m constantly reminded of how much I still need and want to learn.

Sometime in January, I started working on songs in Kenny Sultan’s book, Introduction to Acoustic Blues (2001). In spite of the word “introduction,” it’s not a book for beginners. I’m glad I didn’t attempt it any earlier, though I did learn the “Blues Shuffle in E,” “Single String Shuffle” (in E) and “Shuffle in A” in the early months of my lessons.

Since the first of this year, I’ve been practicing the first seven songs and still don’t feel like I’ve mastered them. I’ve definitely improved and can at times get through some of them without stumbling, but they all need more practice. There are a couple of songs (“Unknown Blues” and “The N-B Blues”) that have a few gnarly, knuckle-busting measures that may take months more to play reliably. However, I enjoy what I can play so far and look forward to improving.

One of the satisfactions of learning this country blues style of music is that the songs are intended as solo music (one plays both bass and melody), so they sound appealing without other musicians. I also want to learn what it takes to play with others, but practicing a bass line from a song isn’t as satisfying on its own.

At the moment my primary focus is learning these fingerstyle blues, but I’m also working on a parallel track of preparing for–someday–playing with other musicians. I continue to fantasize about performing both solo and as part of a group. On the fingerstyle solo track, my model is early John Lee Hooker. On the blues band track, my models are Albert Collins, Howlin’ Wolf and Magic Slim and the Teardrops. I can’t imagine playing at their level, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

Jun 10

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

The Turkish musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek performed with his ensemble at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago on Thursday, June 17, 2010. The music was lively and engaging and it was fascinating to see the mostly unfamiliar instruments being played.

Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Omar Faruk Tekbilek Ensemble at the Pritzker Pavilion

Tekbilek played several sizes of end-blown flutes [ney or nar, derived from the Persian nay. They are made of hollow cane and have six finger holes on the front and one on the back.]. For one song, he played a zurna, an instrument with a double reed mouthpiece and a bell-shaped end. (It’s similar to the duduk.) He also played a bağlama, a seven-stringed long-necked lute similar to an oud, but smaller and with an oval-shaped wooden body (shown in photo above). He sang the vocals in Turkish, so I had no idea what the songs were about, but it didn’t matter. In several songs, he begin with the ney, alternating with vocals and then switched to the bağlama.

The ensemble consisted of Tekbilek’s son, who play Turkish drums and others who played acoustic guitar, electric keyboard, drums and kanun, a type of zither that was played with metal picks on the fingertips.

Whenever I attend a concert like this, I always wish there was at least a brief overview of the instruments at some point. I’m always curious about what they’re called, how they produce sound or how they are played. It would save a lot of Google time trying to figure out what I saw.

I usually enjoy music more when the musicians seem to be having a good time, as this ensemble did. I think this is the first time I’ve heard Turkish music live and would definitely not miss an opportunity to see Omar Faruk Tekbilek again.

Jun 10

Rev. K.M. Williams

The Chicago Blues Festival is one of a number of free lakefront summer music events. The more well-known acts perform at the main stage, Petrillo Bandshell, while other groups perform at stages of various sizes. Because there are so many options, it’s a great way to discover musicians you’ve never heard of just by wandering from one stage to another.

I got to the Festival site early for a group that had been recommended, so I walked around. I saw a crowd at the small Roadhouse Stage. Rev. K.M. Williams, “The Texas Country Blues Preacher,” and the Amazing Trainreck (also known as Washboard Jackson) were playing. Williams played a First Act electric guitar that he said came from Wal-Mart. Trainreck played a washboard and a drum kit bare handed (he had thimbles or some kind of covering on his fingertips).

Rev. K.M. Williams at the Chicago Blues Festival, Saturday, June 12, 2010

Rev. K.M. Williams at the Chicago Blues Festival, Saturday, June 12, 2010

I just heard the end of their performance, perhaps three or four songs, but I enjoyed it a lot and the crowd was very enthusiastic. Williams played one-chord riffs while Trainreck tore up the drums. It was “primitive” but effective. Williams played one number on a cigar box guitar that looked like it had only two strings. He used a slide and got a lot of music out of it. I’d love to be able to do that. The performance was a highlight of the Festival for me.

Born in Clarksville, Texas on October 19, 1956 as Kelvin Mark Williams, he is an ordained minister, currently based in Dallas, Texas. He has recorded some 20 CDs.

Jun 10

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba (6/10/10)

Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba played at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on Thursday, 10 June 2010. Their music was exhilarating and thrilling. It continues to amaze me that they can get so much music out of such “primitive”-looking instruments as the ngoni.


As someone who is still learning to play a six-string fretted guitar, It’s hard to imagine how one can play a four-stringed unfretted instrument with such apparent ease and precision. They played their hypnotic music for a little over an hour.

As an introduction to the Chicago Blues Festival that began the following night,  Barry Dollins came on stage and announced the Howlin’ Wolf tribute (yesterday was the 100th anniversary of his birth). Otis Taylor came out with Eddie Shaw and Hubert Sumlin. They played a few Wolf tunes (“Spoonful,” “Back Door Man,” “Shake It”) with the Kouyate group. Taylor played a white Fender Telecaster, Shaw played sax and sang, and Sumlin played his well-worn Strat. He had his oxygen tank with him and had to sit, but he seemed to be having a good time.

The jam was a chaotic mess. Taylor mostly just played a rhythm line. Sumlin’s guitar was hard to hear whenever he got a chance to solo. I imagine they never rehearsed, but I’m surprised that they didn’t do it so everyone got a chance to be heard. Fortunately, I’d heard Otis Taylor and Hubert Sumlin before so I knew what they were capable of, but it wasn’t a good introduction for new listeners.


Jun 10

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Nancy and I went to Symphony Center at 6:30 for a pre-concert performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2 played by three members of the Orchestra, Qing Hou, violin, Lawrence Neuman, viola, and Brant Taylor, cello. I’m not a big fan of chamber music, but enjoyed this pretty well.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Joseph Karl Stieler (1781–1858): Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis (1820)

After the trio, Lawrence Rapchak, music director of the Northbrook Symphony gave a presentation on the evening’s program. He spent the most time on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 67, but also talked about the Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93 and the Overture to Fidelio. He went through the symphonies, talking about the musical elements and structure, playing themes on the piano or playing excerpts from orchestra performances. His delivery was quick, lively and very interesting. It was perhaps the best and most helpful talk I’ve ever heard about music, especially among the pre-concert talks. I would love to hear more by him.

Nancy and I enjoyed the program conducted by 81-year-old Bernard Haitink. I think my enjoyment and understanding were enhanced by the Rapchak presentation. I heard more and noticed more. It was a memorable evening.