May 13

Ensemble Plays for Seniors (5/24/13)

Our Kagan & Gaines Music Co. ensemble played for an enthusiastic group of some 50 elders at Roosevelt Towers on Friday, 24 May 2013. We played through our entire set of fourteen R&B and blues songs: “It’s All Right,” “My Girl,” “Rainy Night in Georgia,” “Feel So Bad (Ballgame on a Rainy Day),” “Black Magic Woman,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “The Thrill is Gone,” “People Get Ready,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Baby What You Want Me to Do / Bright Lights Big City,” “Come Together,” “So In Love With You,” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Our set lasted just over an hour, the longest we’ve ever performed.

Mickey Johnson, Mike Estelle, Billy Smith shared vocals in various combinations. Our teacher and leader Jim Goelitz, Alex Scaramuzza and I played guitar, Lawrence Brown played bass, and Justin Young played drums. It was disappointing that our keyboard player, Vera Beilinson, didn’t join us. Jesse set up the sound system before hand and made sure we sounded our best.

The audience had a good time and enjoyed our playing. Mickey went all out on his James Brown rendition for “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” As at our church gig earlier this year, it was a perfect way to finish the set.

Practicing and playing music–both alone and in a group–offer many pleasures and satisfactions, but there’s nothing like performing–and playing well–for a receptive and enthusiastic audience. I think everyone in the group enjoyed it as much as the listeners. I appreciate Mickey Johnson’s arranging for our gig. I would love to do this more often.

May 13

It Takes as Long as It Takes

Years ago I worked for a magazine publishing company in St. Paul. After meeting with the graphic designer to discuss a new brochure or other advertising material, I would always ask how long it would take to see a design. His frequent response was: “It takes two minutes to cook a two-minute egg.”

I’m often reminded of that principle when I notice my impatience to achieve a certain result or goal. Learning music is often a test of patience. It can be frustrating to try to learn a new scale, riff, or set of chords if you feel like you “should” be able to master it–or at least get the hang of it–sooner.

Blues Lick in B

Blues Lick in B

It takes more than knowing on an intellectual level where your fingers are supposed to go. It’s like learning a new dance step. You “know” what your feet are supposed to do, but it takes a certain period of stumbling before the steps turn into the graceful and swinging movement of a dance.

Learning to play guitar (or any other musical instrument) takes a lot of repetition and a lot of practice. If you imagine you should have learned that song after practicing it twenty times, you’ll make yourself miserable, if it takes you 50 or 100 or 300 times.

It can be a challenge, but, as much as possible, I try to focus on playing it this time and then again and then again–and enjoy the process. Each time I play a chord, riff or song I get a little better at it. Practice always leads to improvement. We just have to accept that it takes as long as it takes to reach a level approaching “mastery.”




May 13

Buddy Guy: “When I Left Home: My Story” (2012)

Guy, Buddy - When I Left Home (2012) cover

If you’ve seen one of Buddy Guy’s full out, wild man blues performances, you might not expect the humility and modesty that underlies the life story he tells in When I Left Home. With David Ritz as co-author, Guy recounts key memories in his life, many of them involving meaningful encounters with blues musicians he admired. While I consider Buddy Guy one of the major blues performers alive today, he points humbly to such towering figures as Guitar Slim, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and B.B. King as the originals from whom he learned. B.B. is the only one of these bluesmen who are still living.

Buddy Guy was born George Guy on July 30, 1936 in Lettsworth, Louisiana. While today Guy is a highly successful performer, award-winning recording artist and blues club owner, much of his book details the struggles to eke out a living while performing and recording. For many years he drove a tow-truck in Chicago, because he couldn’t make enough from playing in clubs and as a sideman in Chess Records studio recordings. These struggles are typical of blues musicians of his generation who often earned little or nothing from their recordings and couldn’t earn a living from performing.

The style of the book captures Buddy Guy’s voice as he talks about his life and you can feel his presence. It’s a breezy and enjoyable read. This is by no means a complete autobiography, but rather highlights of a life. Guy deserves a more detailed biography that will fill in his rich history as a bluesman. Nevertheless, When I Left Home succeeds in giving us a flavor of this remarkable life.

Buddy Guy tells good stories, but the real story is in his high-energy guitar playing and singing. He’s at his best live–he’s a consummate showman, so don’t miss a chance to see him perform. You’d never guess from the intensity and enthusiasm of his performances that he was almost 77, but you never know when your “last chance” to see him might come.

Buddy Guy will play this summer on Saturday, June 15 at Blues on the Fox in Aurora, IL and at the Ravinia Festival on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Every January, he plays Thursday through Sunday at his club, Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago.