Democratic Axe – A Review of Guitar Man

guitarman.jpgAlong with being iconic, the guitar is also music’s most egalitarian instrument. Anyone with enough patience to learn three or four chords can, in theory, create a decent song. Armed with this premise, British writer Will Hodgkinson gave himself six months to acquire sufficieint skills to play for a live audience.

The result, “Guitar Man,” follows his search for guitar prowess. This rollicking, readable journey touches upon nearly every style of the twentieth century, from British folk masters Davey Graham and the tragic Jackson C. Frank, to garage punk madman Sky Saxon of the Seeds.

The writer enlists nearly everyone he knows in his quest to unlock the magic lurking inside his $300 guitar. The applicability of what he learns is best summed up by the vague guidance he gets from one of his friends:

“Sing the song in your head,” says Doyle. “You just have to feel it.”

“Has it ever occurred to you,” Will snaps back, “that you have to work out where your fingers go for a song before you can ‘feel’ it?”

Hodgkinson is a journalist who’s written for Mojo, Vogue and other publications, which allowed him access to several musical luminaries. Bert Jansch, who played the most well-known version of a song Will desperately wants to learn, Davey Graham’s “Angie,” teaches him hammer-on techniques. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr is also an encouraging tutor, but seems more interested in demonstrating his chops than in helping his student acquire some of his own.

An encounter with Chan Marshall is fruitless but comical. The Cat Power chanteuse has a lot to say about relationships – both with men and guitars – but offers nothing mechanical. Worse still is a brief meeting with guitar legend Les Paul, who plays a forgettable set at his New York nightclub, and then forces Hodgkinson to stand in a queue with fans for a chance to speak with him.

Seeing Les Paul, who built the popular solid body guitar that bears his name and is a touchstone for generations of players, was supposed to be the centerpiece of Will’s trip to the United States. All he gets is some terse advice (“Practice,” Paul tells him. “Learn from a good teacher.”), and an irritated admonition to keep the line moving.

He fares better on his American journey to the Deep South, where he learns 12-string techniques from Roger McGuinn. The ex-Byrd tells him the origins of “Eight Miles High” as Hurricane Jeanne bears down on his Orlando, Florida mansion.

Except for a brief stop at the Gibson guitar factory, he doesn’t find much in Nashville. It’s Sunday, and everyone’s in church. He tours the dowdy remnants of Sun Studios in Memphis with legendary sideman Roland James, and in Greenville, Mississippi receives a brief lesson from late-blooming blues man T Model Ford, who took up the guitar at age 58 and is still going strong at 83.

When he rings up James Williamson, the ex-Stooge hasn’t played in 20 years. His son calls his dusty instruments “the coffins in the corner.” Williamson, now a Silicon Valley executive, is reticent to even talk to Hodgkinson. “What makes you qualified to write about guitarists?” he asks in a letter.

Their conversations eventually led Williamson to revisit his guitar, but the wisdom he imparts to the aspiring guitarist isn’t much different from what Will’s friend Doyle has been telling him:

“Have fun with it,” says James. “In the end, that’s all there is.”

Ultimately that advice – and a few hours spent learning from a more patient (and less famous) teacher, is enough to ready Hodgkinson for his big debut with the quickly-assembled and barely-rehearsed Double Fantasy, a band consisting of Will and a friend on guitar, a singer borrowed from medieval folkies Circulus, and Doyle playing bass.

The gig goes well. His friends buy him drinks after, and the girls all flirt with him – especially his wife, who has over seven months watched Will go from mangling “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to mastering “Angie.”

Though Double Fantasy broke up immediately after their one appearance, Hodgkinson was so intoxicated by the experience that he wrote a second book. “Song Man,” tracks Will’s attempts to get his original songs placed. That experience laid the groundwork for a third book in the trilogy – “Record Man.”

Because what else can a frustrated guitar hero do when the music business turns a deaf ear to his artistic vision? Of course – start an indie label.

If only the guitar were harder to play…

Local Rhythms – Killing Internet Radio

head-in-sand.jpgLast fall, I wrote about web sites like Last.fm, Pandora and Mercora, that were shaking up the music world by offering thousands of niche channels and creating social networks for fans. Suddenly, it’s possible to discover artists who are laboring outside of the mainstream.

That could end soon. In early March, the Copyright Review Board, a government entity that’s almost completely controlled by the recording industry, made a decision that is, says Congressman Ed Markey, “a body blow to many nascent Internet broadcasters.”

The CRB ruling, retroactive to last year, triples the amount of money most web stations will be required to pay to record companies to use their products. This fee will not, it should be noted, go to the artists who made the music – that’s a separate payment. Worse, it exclusively targets Internet radio stations.

Regular radio outlets aren’t even required to pay the royalty, created 12 years ago. In 1995, a compliant Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a law that’s spawned nothing but greed and stupidity in its wake.

Since then, the best way into the business is Berkeley Law School, not the Berklee School of Music. Litigators have replaced lead guitarists, and record executives have started to think they’re rock stars.

All the while, the industry has tried to crush any and all technologies that might improve the fate of music in a world of declining CD sales.

It’s not hyperbole to say that if the ruling stands, most legitimate web stations will go out of business. The money CRB is demanding represents two to three times their annual gross revenue. Pirates don’t pay royalties, so they won’t miss a step. But an excellent chance to create a legal oasis for digital music will be delayed, if not destroyed.

When will these guys learn to get out their own way? In rural New England there’s a handful of music stations on terrestrial radio, but many are also online. Two of my favorites, the Point and WEQX-FM, are fuzzy in the car but come in loud and clear on the Net. That would end with the CRB decision.

These are the babies about to be thrown out with this ruling’s bathwater. Several web sites are following this developing story – the best is the Radio and Internet Newsletter.

Write your representative if you believe, like I do, that it’s time to stop this insanity. In the meantime, here are my live music picks for the coming weekend:

Thursday: Spring Savories, Claremont Opera House – A little music and lot of good food, as the State Liquor Commission and several area restaurants get together to show off their wares. Bistro Nouveau, Hullabaloo, Sophie & Zeke’s, Teal Lantern, North Country Smokehouse and the Java Cup, plus six wine vendors will participate in the event. John Lovejoy’s always a pleasure to listen to, especially when he’s tickling the ivories of the Opera House’s vintage piano.

Friday: Kid Pinky & His Restless Knights, La Dolce Vita – New London’s newest dining spot welcomes this fun-loving blues band. Bow-based Kid Pinky plays a smooth harmonica and is an ace piano player. This early evening (6:30 start) set should be long on sultry songs like Jimmy Reed’s “Hush Hush” the smoking original “Watchin’ You” – both of which can also be heard on “Blues That’ll Knock You Out,” the band’s latest CD.

Saturday: All Ages Metal Show, Hot Spot – This is a new nightclub located at the Everyday Inn in Rockingham, located just a little south of Exit 6 on Route 5. Saturday’s afternoon show features Jennings, Otumshank, Chapter 50, …And Then There Were Three and the Jonah Veil. The power trio Stonewall plays their own separately ticketed show at 9. It’s a welcome addition to the southern Vermont scene.

Sunday: Shawnn Monteiro, Center at Eastman – Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon continues with this fine vocalist, backed the JOSA Ensemble and bandleader Bill Wightman. Monteiro draws comparisons to Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughn. Her set includes “Great American Songbook” standards from Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.

Monday: Live Free Or Die, Claremont Cinema – Not a musical event, but after a seemingly endless wait, the indie film about bumbling criminals shot two years ago in Claremont has finally found a distributor. It gets its local premiere Monday, and opens to general release at several theatres on Friday. There’s an after-party, appropriately enough, at Hullabaloo.

Tuesday: Carbon Leaf, Iron Horse – After gaining exposure opening for Dave Matthews, John Mayer and Counting Crows, this rootsy band went into the studio last year and made “Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat.” It’s a record with the rootsy feel of 2003’s “Indian Summer,” but with more sheen, polish and punch. It has lots of layered harmonies, percussive spice and muscular grooves.