Friday, September 21, 2012


As promised, part two of David Bielank (of Marah's) post. Hope Dave does noit mind me reprinting it.....


Again, I only write for those technically interested in recording music, making records, etc...and mostly to organize my own thoughts...

Yesterday, we recorded an ancient song called "Ten Cents At The Gate" for our upcoming Mountain Minstrelsy album. 12 people played on the basic track. I was playing my black acoustic guitar into a borrowed microphone. On the other side of the wall the piano was playing while two young ladies tap danced on an old table top. There were also 2 drummers, a bass, a banjo, the fiddle, a mandolin, a shaker and a washboard. Together we made a huge, old fashioned sound.

Our record is in mono. The old Studer tape machine holds all the cards now, at any moment she could turn on us and put an end to our fun, but she doesn't...our racket must be amusing to the old robot. Press "RECORD & PLAY," we play our song, press REWIND, press STOP, press PLAY, musica rock n roll. The church shakes.

The tension in the room surrounding the old technology is hard on me, it's hard on Christine too...we bow down to the 1969 Swiss electronic god...others don't sense it maybe, we try to mask our concern, but surely they must see our worried glances once in a while, hear us whisper stuff about the way the tape is spooling...don't think about it, don't think about it, hold your the tape is moving at 400 mph in reverse, it's engine could easily pull a rusty Pontiac out of a mud hole if we had a chain. It could remove your arm like a harvester.

Slap, slap, slap...silent sigh, thank god! Another day, the song goes back to sleep safely in its box.

Another day. Our work is constant.

We have no back up, no copies, we are slaves building a road in the dark.

It's also tremendous fun. The sound is huge and wild.

Gus's younger brother Huck played the washboard with us yesterday. Before the first take I told Huck it'd be cool if he screamed in the outro. He said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, I'll let you know when. I'll say, now Huck NOW!"

TAKE 1: I counted off 1-2-3-4, the drummers began, then the whole lot piled on as we shifted down to the minor key. Now it's all business, concentrate, think about it, think about it...visual cues, eye contact, NOW, verses and choruses flying by like birds outside the Red Baron's little tin plane. Huck is deeply involved in the monkey dance...finally we pass the last challenging move and release into the outro, Christine's piano makes homage to "all the girls in France do a belly dance" ditty, it's a musical celebration, we are home free, we got this...I give Huck the cue, it's go time, "Now, Huck!" His trance suddenly breaks, his eyes roll back down. He remembers our deal, his face seeming to imply that even at 6 years old he is concerned with the cost of the tape that our music is occupying at the rate of 15 inches per second...he's a musician and doesn't wanna blow it. "Yeah, Huck, just do it! It'll'll sound amazing!" With this his expression changed again, game face now. Then the dreamy tranquil period between pulling a grenade pin and all hell breaking loose.


I miss my old friend Bruce Langfeld. He played all the steel guitar and some mandolin on our first record "Let's Cut The Crap..." He died. He would have loved this record we are making now.

Today I drove to a local Amish greenhouse to buy some plants, and on the drive back I spotted "LCTC" on the dashboard of the van, so I popped it in and skipped ahead to "Phantom Eyes." It sounded magical. it was the very first thing we tape recorded for that first record. Bruce Langfeld took it to a level we couldn't have reached on our own. He was older than us and more accomplished at playing stuff, but mostly he was a big fan of what we were up to.

I remember sitting with him in the Morning Glory Diner in South Philly after completing the album and he was going on and on about how my brother and I couldn't possibly understand our own unique chemistry and our ability to get other players to follow our vision and create eclectic, original R&R music...he was right (about that being lost on us.) At the time I thought I must be high or something. At the time we felt far from "good." We felt sloppy and out of tune and inconsequential...that's just how you feel when you begin anything new.

Later Bruce and us toured together a lot. Those were fun days...we did our best and learned fast. We played the support slot on Southern tours for a band called Blue Mountain. Blue Mountain kicked our asses so very badly night after night that we got way better FAST. The only other option was humiliation. Night after night playing in crowded sweaty clubs in Baton Rouge, Austin, Birmingham, Jackson...night after night Blue Mountain destroyed the rooms and took us to Rock School. From backstage their music was like rolling thunder, they were very tightly rehearsed. Cary & Laurie's voices wove together like old blues, Frank Couch played dervish drum fills, stopped on dimes, hit drums very hard. The Les Paul, the Fender bass and simple classic rock n roll drum set. Trio, hard as nails. After each show we'd end up at some motel party together and drink until the sun appeared. We'd sleep a few hours and roll out leaving a real disaster behind for some poor maid to deal with.
We meant no harm but everything just happened so fast back then.

Blue Mountain drug the state of Mississippi all over the USA that summer. Our mutual friend the late, great Larry Brown (who consequently is one of the best writers that ever lived) wrote eloquently about the way Blue Mountain music embodied the north Mississippi countryside. We learned "sense of 'place" from them...amongst other things. When we got home we started writing seriously about Philadelphia.

Ok, rambling now. Mountain Minstrelsy record is shaping up. It's a rock & roll record now, it just happened. We got 8 songs recorded, there are hang-ups...but we wait 'em out, keep hacking away, chopping away, very proud. Gonna record a new song this Friday night. Hang in there.

Thanks for reading,


UPDATE JULY 23rd 2012:

This weekend we hosted two open house recording sessions - one Friday night and the other Sunday afternoon. Me & Gus pulled the rope and rang the old church bell and the pews filled up with all sorts of folks: ex-congregation members, young music fans, curious neighbors, a man in a dress, kids, old was a real impressive turn out and a fascinating mix of people. We made some recordings and we played some songs to illustrate what's been happening in that great old building this summer.
Between those two "open houses" we managed to nail two more Mountain Minstrelsy songs - a great old banjo/fiddle stomp called "The Falling of the Pine" AND "Harry Bell."

"Harry Bell" is a story song about a boy who finds work in a shingle mill and winds up getting himself killed, damn near cut in two by an industrial saw. Gus wrote the music. Somehow he instinctually knew that this song could only work in the old "major chord/minor theme" tradition...somehow Gus knows a lot of stuff that takes other people lifetimes to figure out. He stepped up to the microphone with his banjo and simply laid it down. Christine was engineer. Gus's eyes stayed fixed on the VU meter pins as they bounced on the tape machine. He missed no chords, he fumbled no words, and two and a half minutes later there was a new song in the world. The world suddenly became a slightly more livable place. He resurrected a dead old thing and brought it back to life in real time.

That night me and Christine transferred the song onto an old cassette we found in a Sunday school classroom behind the altar and went home and played it a couple of thousand times. Listening to the recording it would be impossible to know if "Harry Bell" was cut that Saturday evening or on a Saturday evening in 1931. I'm pretty sure it will always stand as one of the coolest, realest, most badass songs we will ever have had the privilege to cut. A real moment in time. An honest to god photograph. I wonder if it will reach someone a hundred years from now. I think it could. I hope it does.

Thanks! More later...


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