Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Memoriam: Mike Auldridge

[purchase solo works from Mike Auldridge here]

Like most players of the resophonic guitar - popularly called the Dobro, though as with Kleenex and Band-Aid, the term technically refers to a trademarked brand, originally coined by the instrument's inventor in 1928, and now produced exclusively by the Gibson corporation - Mike Auldridge got his start as a guitar player.

And to be honest, if he had remained a guitar player, we'd probably never have heard of him.

But while many who play the instrument treat it as an extension of their other fretwork, or treat it like a kind of overly-expensive slide guitar with high-tech acoustic innards (and play it that way), Auldridge saw something both unique and potent in the potential of the instrument as a lead voice, rather than just a session supplement. After Brother Oswald, who rescued the Dobro from obscurity with his work with Roy Acuff in the '40s and '50s, and after Auldridge's mentor Josh Graves came along and took the thing to another level as a bluegrass mainstay, Auldridge's subsequent pursuit of Dobro mastery, and his prodigious output on it both as a solo musician and as an integral part of the rising newgrass scene, with its fusion of bluegrass with jazz, folk and rock, brought the instrument to a new prominence in and beyond the bluegrass and country worlds.

In this, Auldridge joins a quite small group of musicians and craftspersons who almost single-handedly pushed their chosen instrument into a wholly new level of cultural and musical relevance. To say he made a huge splash as a musician in the last third of the 20th century is therefore both accurate, and a serious understatement of his impact on music.

That Auldridge's path to greatness - for himself, and for the Dobro - was so painstakingly slow is a tribute to his patience and his talent. For such recognition was neither easy nor instantaneous; indeed, although he was born in 1938, and was already playing the instrument by the fifties, Auldridge worked as a graphic designer full-time until well into the seventies, when his work with seminal newgrass group the Seldom Scene - a band which he co-founded in 1971 in the Maryland basement of banjo-player and mathematician Ben Eldridge - became popular enough to support full-time touring and recording.

Later, he would be a featured musician on albums by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Patty Loveless, and found newgrass offshoot Chesapeake with several other Seldom Scene members when it became clear that the collaborative nature of the group would always be subservient to the leadership of John Duffey. He recorded numerous solo cuts and albums designed as instructional showpieces for the instrument, each of which sports great beauty and clarity while demonstrating the potential of the resophonic guitar as a lead instrument and voice. He won a Grammy for his work on The Dobro Sessions, and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow in 2012. But although his solo work, as heard above, is quite beautiful, it is his work with The Seldom Scene for which he is best remembered, and as such, it is one of my favorite Seldom Scene songs which I have posted below in his honor today - check it out before we keep going, for both a clear shot at Duffey's camera-hogging approach to performance, and for Aldridge's solo, a wild ride which starts at 2:26, and lasts a full minute.

[purchase the Seldom Scene studio album of the same name]

Although choosing to stay in and around his native Maryland surely had some impact on his ability to spread the gospel of the Dobro, Auldridge famously never moved to Nashville, preferring even in his strongest decades to wait for others to invite him to tour and play on their records. But when he passed away just yesterday, he left a legacy nonetheless: one in which his own songs and sounds stand firm as a testament to greatness, and in which - thanks to his own work, and to his mentorship of other, younger masters of the instrument, such as Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes - his chosen Dobro has become a core component of contemporary acoustic music, both as a central element of the bluegrass sound, and as a familiar staple in other related genres, from folk to country rock.

In Memoriam: Davy Jones

YouTube copy of the "Official" video for the Monkees' "I'm A Believer"

In the mid to late 60s, I had a transistor radio (about the size of a fat iPhone) that received short wave frequencies. One of the stations I could pick up (it came and went/faded so that it sounded like a sine wave) was Radio Luxemburg – I was able to hear about ½ of any song. I have since learned that it was a “pirate” station: a ship stationed off-shore of England that broadcast its playlist “illegally”. Many years later (think” Jimi Hendrix”), I found it difficult to admit that I actually liked the Monkees. However, 40 years down the line, as I look back and research the times/history, I realize that I shouldn’t feel so bad: I am one of millions who propelled their music to the top of the charts.


The story behind the Monkees is unique. Originally intended as a TV show, they ended up surprising everyone. They were initially not permitted to play their own music/instruments. They were shuffled around various instrumental roles by management trying to maximize revenue. Dolnez, the lead vocalist of this piece, was not a drummer until his “handlers” decreed so. In the clip, Mike Nesmith plays the guitar. The February 2012 deceased who this post pays respect to is Davy Jones, dead at the relatively early age of 66. In the video clip above, Jones does backup vocals and tambourine. In many other Monkees’ hits, he did the lead vocals.

In Memoriam: Michael Dunford

Renaissance: Mr. Pine


When I looked at the list of musicians who died in 2012, there were a number of famous names from  diverse genres, many of whose talents I appreciated, but none of them jumped out at me. Then I was reminded that Michael Dunford, best known for his work with Renaissance, had recently died. Coincidently, I had recently downloaded a number of early Renaissance songs, and had delved into the very complicated history of that great and often overlooked prog-rock band.

The (somewhat) short version is that a band called Renaissance was formed by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, two of the members of The Yardbirds who didn’t later become guitar legends. That band also included Relf’s sister Jane on vocals, and it released a self-titled album in 1969. That album is a fusion of rock, folk and classical music. Over the next couple of years, the band went through a whirlwind of changes while touring and working on a second album.

During this period, Michael Dunford joined the band as a guitarist and songwriter, and ultimately, a second album, Illusion, was released. Dunford contributed “Mr. Pine” to that album, which is usually referred to as the least known in the band’s discography. Frankly, if you are reading this blog, I expect that you are interested in lesser known music—if you want to read about the late Whitney Houston, there are probably lots of places to look. The lead singer on this song is Terry Crowe, and Jane Relf (who has a beautiful voice, if not as spectacular as that of her better-known successor) sings backup. It isn’t a bad song, with three sections, and a nice keyboard solo by guest Don Shinn. Dunford used a theme from “Mr. Pine” in a later, more well-known song, “Running Hard.”

The revolving door continued for Renaissance, with Dunford as one of the few constants. In 1971, the band’s manager, Miles Copeland (probably better known for starting the new wave label I.R.S. Records and for being the brother of The Police’s drummer) reorganized the band around virtuoso singer Annie Haslam, who had joined the touring band earlier that year and had split vocals with Crowe, who was booted, and pianist John Tout. Dunford was replaced as guitarist, and focused on composing. The resulting album, Prologue, has the sound that I think most people identify as Renaissance, and is often confusingly referred to as the band’s first album (even by members of the band and on its website). Dunford rejoined Renaissance as a musician for the next album, Ashes Are Burning, and was a part of the group through their period of greatest popularity (including when I saw them back when I was in high school).

Like many of their contemporaries, when faced with the changes in the musical landscape of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Renaissance tried to strip down their sound, but unlike, say, Genesis, their attempts were commercially unsuccessful, leading to another revolving door and disbanding. At one point, both Haslam and Dunford had bands called Renaissance, and a drummer, Terry Sullivan, had a band called Renaissant. Starting in the late 90’s, Dunford and Haslam toured (mostly together) with various lineups under the Renaissance name. And to make things even more confusing, during the late 70’s, members of the original Renaissance re-formed as Illusion, releasing a few albums, including one called Illusion, that was different from the album Illusion released by Renaissance, and in 2001 released an album as Renaissance Illusion. Got that?

A new Renaissance album featuring both Haslam and Dunford, entitled Grandine il Vento, was funded through Kickstarter and should be released in 2013. Dunford’s songs for the “classic” Renaissance lineup were fusions of rock, folk, jazz and classical music which some might find a bit over the top. But to those of us who appreciate the ambition of prog-rock, they were remarkable and memorable.

In Memoriam: Ravi Shankar

[purchase this for a good introduction to Ravi Shankar‘s music]

The headline in the New York Times read, “Ravi Shankar, Sitarist Who Introduced Indian Music to the West, Dies at 92”. All perfectly true. Shankar blasted away musical boundaries, working with classical, jazz, and pop musicians in the West, and also engaging all kinds of audiences. I could go on about his importance, but I think a personal anecdote will cover it nicely.

It was the late sixties. I was the youngest of three brothers who were firm in our devotion to rock music. In particular, my oldest brother, at that age, was sure that he was going to be the next Eric Clapton. My parents had us when they were older than most parents in those days especially. So the generation gap was in full force in my family, when it came to music. My parents were amateur classical musicians. My father also remembered the western swing he grew up hearing on the radio in Oklahoma, while my mother grew up on the big band music that was everywhere in her native New York City.

So I have no idea where my father got the idea to take us boys to see Ravi Shankar. It was in New York City, at Carnegie Hall. So that gave it some legitimacy in my father‘s eyes. My oldest brother probably knew of the Beatles connection, so he was OK with it too. I, however, had no idea what I was doing there. Still, I went. I remember the concert as being something like the video I have chosen for this post. I don‘t think there was a video component, but the group was the small one shown, and the sound was the same. The four of us were spellbound. I don‘t remember any of us squirming, or talking, or anything but listening to this amazing new, (to us), music. For a brief interval, there was no generation gap in my family.

For me, that one concert has led to a lifelong fascination with music of the world. In his career, Shankar often worked with East-West fusions of various kinds, but that concert had a purity to it that has been my standard ever since for what world music should be. As I write this, it also occurs to me that that music probably helped me years later when I decided to learn to meditate. I credit Ravi Shankar and his music with all of that, and I can think of no better tribute.