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Bluegrass Music

Today’s Live Sound Engineering Ain’t What It Used To Be (Or Am I Just Getting Old?)

This past Thursday, my buddy Ken and I went to see Bela Fleck and his My Bluegrass Heart touring band at the Detroit Opera House. Bela is a living legend on the banjo, and his touring band is the cream of the crop as well, with Sierra Hull on mandolin, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar among others. Special guests who warmed up for the show were dobro master Jerry Douglas and mandolin god Sam Bush.

First, the good parts. Having Douglas and Bush warm up with their respective touring bands was phenomenal! Both are beyond professionals as far as musicians, and know how to talk to their audiences. Bush always looks like he’s having fun on stage, and has no problem making light of bad situations, such as when his fiddle was feeding back too much to play properly. Both he and Douglas were on their game as far as soloing, and their band members were just as supportive.

The same can be said about all of the members in Fleck’s troupe. No screw-ups during solos, and everyone worked with each other. One of the personal highlights for me was when Fleck pulled out John Hartford’s banjo to play on a beautiful song. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a John Hartford fanatic, and his banjo has a very distinctive bassy tone that I have never heard from any other five-string.

Now comes my disappointments with the show:

  • Way too long on a weeknight. I’m getting old, and probably 3/4 of the crowd there was hovering around my age as well. The show started just after 7:30 pm, but Ken and I left at 10:30 barely able to keep our eyes open, so we missed the all-star jam at the end with Douglas and Bush joining the band. Those who stayed surely got their money’s worth, but I just cannot sty up late any more on a weeknight, knowing that I have a rough day at work the next morning.
  • Lousy sound mix. I am not sure that the Detroit Opera House is meant for that type of music. Douglas’ and Bush’s bands were mic’d as well as running direct into either amps or the mixing board. Fleck’s band all just used microphones. Either way, everything sounded muddy and awash. The electric guitar in Douglas’ band sounded like a blanket was covering the amp. When Fleck and his band came on stage, the mix was horrible! It was like the sound engineer did not have a clue. Now granted, Ken and I were in the upper balcony, and it could have been mixed for the main floor seating, but there was no clear distinction between soloists and backup playing. I was watching Sutton and Hull, and both of them had the smarts to back off from the mic when not soloing. Still, it was getting stressful to listen to!

Both Ken and I used to do live sound work for bands years ago, back when you manually adjusted volume and EQ by sliding or turning knobs on a mixing board. Most live shows today use computer tablets to adjust levels, which I have find to be a terrible alternative to the ear. Good sound engineers have certain “touch” to the sliders that work. Moreover, many times I feel that the engineers don’t adjust to the rooms. During a soundcheck, the room is usually empty, save the musicians and engineer. However, once the room fills up for the show, the crowd makes the room acoustics totally different. The bodies soak up a lot of the high end of the sound, and reverberations are a scramble from the main floor to the reflections near the ceiling. I truly think that today’s sound engineers do not study the science of acoustics, and just go for one sound, hoping that nothing feeds back.

My ears got burned out years ago doing live sound, and I quit as soon as I realized that all bands sounded the same to me. I would occasionally help out my friends at Rock City Eatery when they had a band play at their restaurant, but that was as a favor and not as a job. Plus, as Ken commented to me at the show, I do not miss doing the roadie work of winding cables and pulling up duct tape from the stage. I know that live sound engineering is not an easy job, but to be good at it, a person has to study it and practice just like a musician has to practice his/her instrument.

Her is a clip from that show someone in the audience recorded (which, by the way, they asked people not to do).

Chew on it and comment.

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Categories
Bluegrass Music

Where is the Next Bluegrass Generation?

This weekend I attended a meeting for the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (http://www.smbluegrass.org/). While discussing elections of new board members, we talked about the age relevance of the membership. Of those attending, I was one of the youngest at the meeting, and I’m 55 years old!

Why aren’t younger music fans attracted to bluegrass? There are a lot of negative factors, I suppose. It is not like there are not enough young bluegrass players making names for themselves. Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings and Sierra Hull are three of many that come to mind. However, it also matters how the older crowd reacts to them as well as how they are promoted within the community. The three above can easily perform any bluegrass standard asked of them, but they also look outside of the box, performing more progressive forms of bluegrass, which traditionalists tend to shun. A tree that is not allowed to grow will eventually die.

I have mentioned the Junior Appalachian Musician program (www.jamkids.org) in an earlier blog, and I must say, this program has its ear to the ground! Right now, JAM has satellite programs throughout the Tennessee/Virginia/South Carolina/North Carolina area. However, programs like this need to be in other areas of the country where bluegrass is popular (Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northeast, California). Young students would truly appreciate people who take the time to teach them music as well as encourage them to learn about their culture.

It could be that bluegrass still has that stigma of being “old folks music.” The stigma is heightened usually by these older people turning a cold shoulder to the younger crowd. I used to see it a lot when I attended a monthly jam session in Flint, Michigan years ago. I haven’t been there in years, and hopefully the attitude has changed. But in all honesty, I don’t see much of that “transfer of knowledge” from older generations to the next. I am always reminded of that scene from Fahrenheit 451 in which an older man on his deathbed is reciting the book that he memorized to a child so that the child can continue the book’s importance.

How many older bluegrass musicians are actually sitting down with a youngster to show him/her the beauty of the bluegrass sound on a guitar, banjo, or mandolin? Does apathy live in the senior, the youngster, or both? One can learn to play an instrument from hundreds of videos, either purchased or on YouTube. There are thousands of teachers at music stores. Of course, that costs money, and are you getting a bluegrass guitar teacher or one that teaches rock, jazz, blues, classical and other genres? Whatever happened to the joy of seeing a student successfully learn and play an old folk or bluegrass song and that serving as payment received?

With the Coronavirus pandemic still hanging above our heads, festivals that include workshops are pretty much cancelled for the summer and into the fall. Social distancing is another thorn in the side as far as teaching music. We cannot let these evils kill any enthusiasm that may come from an interested youngster with bluegrass music. We need to do what we can to encourage the younger generation that appreciates bluegrass music. It could be free basic lessons, free performances, showing them a bluegrass documentary and helping with references, setting up jam sessions just for kids, but mainly, showing how great the music really is.

It is rare that these youngsters will actively search out bluegrass mentors. They have that comfort zone of sitting in a basement and playing video games when not in school. We as the mentors have to be the active ones! Make yourself available, look for ways to get their attention (flyers posted at music stores or strip mall bulletin boards), reward those kids that DO show an interest and improve on themselves. These kids will decide the future of bluegrass music.

With that said, I want you to see this video of my friend Brittany Haas, along with Lauren Rioux, showcasing a young fiddler named Claire.

Chew on it and comment.