Thursday, August 20, 2009

Les Paul will live on

A special edition guitar named "Spirit of America." The guitar is made from 
materials that were removed from the Statue of Liberty during the 1986 
restoration. Photo by bridge used under Creative Commons license. 

With the news that Les Paul died last week at the age of 94, the world of music lost a great musician, futurist innovator and the creator of some of rock and roll’s greatest gear.

Born June 9, 1915, Paul learned several instruments in his youth and played in several country bands in his teens. In the 1930’s he set out with a vision to revolutionize the electric guitar.

He built the first electric guitar pickup in 1934 using spare radio parts. He built his first prototype solid body electric guitar 1941. It was different from the hollow body guitars existing at the time, which vibrated and resonated to produce a tone.

Nicknamed “the log,” Paul’s creation was more like a railroad tie with a guitar neck and strings than it was a guitar. The guitar produced a tone (or signal) from the strings vibrating above a magnetic pickup, and the guitar body did not resonate much at all.

The first Les Paul guitars and similar guitar designs from Leo Fender and Adolph Rickenbacker were produced in the early 1950’s.

Once the design was tweaked and perfected, the Les Paul would become a top choice for guitarists from many genres. Artists continue to use the legendary axe and span multiple decades, including Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Slash of Guns ‘n Roses, Bob Marley, George Harrison, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, Jimi Hendrix, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Frank Zappa, Randy Rhoads, Johnny Winter and Neil Young, to name a few.

The Les Paul guitar became a staple of famous rock and blues guitarists worldwide, and also a permanent fixture leaning in the corner of the living rooms of amateurs and enthusiasts everywhere.

In the 1940s, Paul built his first recording studio and began to pioneer some techniques that are still used today including microphone techniques, echo delay and multi-tracking. In the early ‘50s he built the first eight-track recorder, which allowed musicians to record sounds from several sources (simultaneously or one at a time) and mix them into a song, altering tone, volume and pan of each separate track. Multi-track recording is still widely used today and without it there would be no Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds or Dark Side of the Moon. Without Paul’s invention, the direction of the recording industry would be unknown.

His guitar playing was as unique as his guitar designs and Paul continued to play music up to the end of his career, putting out an album in 2008 and winning a Grammy in 2006 for “Les Paul and Friends: American Made World Played.” Throughout his career, Paul explored a few different genres, most notably country and jazz.

Upon learning of his death, many artists and musicians have spoken out to the news media about Les Paul’s influence and impact to the music world. Several bands have paid musical tribute by playing Paul’s tunes at their concerts.

The Les Paul guitar has come a long way from the prototype design, with hundreds of different models available. Gibson created several guitars in 2007 and 2008 such as the Robot Guitar and the Dark Fire that integrated computer systems into the Les Paul design. The advanced versions of the log allow for automatic computerized tuning of the tuning pegs and switching pickups and coils automatically while playing.

Recording systems have grown in complexity, but they are still just advanced versions of what Paul came up with in the 1950s.

So while Paul is now strumming with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, his ideas continue to be the backbone of a musical tradition that will never die.

Originally published in the Lovell Chronicle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Phish and a few bad mangoes

A variety of shirts for sale in the lot at the gorge in 2009. 
Angie and I left Thursday for the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington. Phish was playing a two-night stand in the middle of nowhere.

From Wyoming we drove west on I-90 through Bozeman and Missoula, stopping for sushi and picking up supplies as we drew closer to our destination. Having never been in the area, we both marveled at the tree covered rocky hillsides that surrounded the highway.

Rolling hills and farmland emerged as we pushed into Washington. We made it to the campground adjacent to the amphitheater and pulled in to a nice, centrally located spot.

We set up our tent and met our neighbors, students from Montana State University in Bozeman, who were excited for the weekend and had never seen Phish live before. I assured them they would have a great time during the concert and while soaking in the friendly atmosphere of the community of Phish fans.

Angie and I walked down to an improvised marketplace where a few vendors were set up alongside the campground path stretching for about a quarter mile. Dreadlocked entrepreneurs were selling everything from T-shirts to burritos and quartz stones to Pepcid AC. We bought some burritos and headed back to camp for the night.

We fell asleep like cats under the stars as a constant stream of cars trickled into the venue through the night. The next morning, we awoke to find ourselves entrenched in a sea of tents and RVs. Bustling activity was going on at 8 a.m. as the sun came out, heating the nylon domes and forcing campers to step outside to stay cool.

After some refreshments, we headed back out to mingle with the crowd and check out the marketplace. The fan-run marketplace had grown like mold overnight. The once laid-back trading center had become a flurry of commerce, with people shouting their wares for sale, pulling coolers out in front of walking crowds to sell cold drinks and a solid wall of display tents for about a half-mile.

A band with four keyboards, a leslie speaker and a drum set was getting ready to play, complete with a gas generator to power amps and equipment. Back at camp we chatted about the songs we wanted to hear the band play.

Ready for Phish.
Coincidentally, we brought mangoes to eat as did our neighbors. We enjoyed the exotic fruit as anticipation for the night’s show grew and show time became closer. The campsite came alive with people yelping and howling as they celebrated and prepared for the evening of music. Everyone was talkative as we made a mile-long trek to the venue, which is situated on the edge of a gorge overlooking the Columbia River.

Walking over the hill into the venue was astounding, and we watched the sun go down until the lights finally went out and Phish took the stage. The band busted out some of their best songs, exploring a gamut of musical textures while improvising over the grooves laid out in their original compositions. Along with a tour of their newest album, Phish threw the crowd a few pleasers, even nailing a great version of the technically challenging Fluffhead, a song they had stopped playing in 2000 and picked back up in 2009.

After the show, we walked like cattle back to our campsite with visions of sugar plumbs still dancing in our heads from the night of music. The next morning, it was nothing but relaxing until the next show. We hung out at the campsite with our neighbors, finding it impossible not to chuckle at the “new jazz” coming from a few campsites over, where a dreadlocked man rocked while blowing unrestricted melodies on a harmonica while an acoustic guitar played in an unrelated key. Every once in a while he would pause to yell obscenities at his friends.

People walked through our camp all day, some talking to themselves, others selling veggie burritos or giving away free hugs. We made a lot of friends just hanging out as people would drop by and talk about the previous night’s show or what they hoped for at the coming performance. With their first Phish experience under their belts, our campsite neighbors from Bozeman said they had a great time and even recognized a few songs.

We were all tired but looking forward to another great night. Eventually, show time rolled around and we headed to the grass hill to hear Phish once again.

We left camp late this time and as we crested the hill, the band began the first notes of another favorite – the Mango Song. We wondered if we had somehow triggered the song to be played with our unique snack choice earlier.

 They continued through an adventurous two sets of music, pulling out many hard rocking songs including an encore of Led Zeppelin’s Good Times, Bad Times. Again, we floated back to camp, thankful for the great experience we had that weekend. Everything went great and I was glad to be a part of the group of people nestled on the remote patch of grass for the weekend.

When our neighbors made it back to camp, they were still dancing to the music when they noticed their tent had been broken into and several valuable items were missing. Angie and I noticed our tent was unzipped, too, but no valuables were inside and nothing was taken.

As one of our neighbors slumped down in a camp chair, rightfully annoyed that her backpack, phone, GPS unit and other items were taken, a sobering mood fell upon our camp. We all enjoyed the free community feel of the concert, but now we were witnesses to the dark side of the community.

The shady characters who don’t have any interest in the music, but rather, are along for the scene or the money surrounding the tour. Though Angie and I left the venue unscathed, I couldn’t help but think what our neighbors were thinking about the group of fans that call themselves Phishheads. I hoped that the sour taste in their mouth wouldn’t over power the fun times they had over the weekend.

What was a quick buck for one thief destroyed the happy mood of the weekend for our group right away. To sum it up the moral seems a little bit obscure, but in a big group there are always a few bad mangoes no matter how good the bunch is. I will try not to let the experience bother me and continue to enjoy the community at concerts like this, but from now on I’ll be more careful and always lock my tent.

Originally published in the Lovell Chronicle, August 2009.