November, 2009:

Don McLean at Birchmere

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Don McLean is one of the greatest songwriters of modern times. In addition to his songs being recognized as great when they first came out, they remain timeless today.

The only time I saw him perform live was in the 70’s at the Bottom Line Cabaret. It was a magical night, one that I can envision as clearly today as I did the next morning. The opportunity to see him perform last night was something both Lois and I looked forward to with tremendous anticipation.

Back then Don appeared solo with an acoustic guitar (and banjo) as his only accompaniment. He needed nothing other than his songs, voice and guitar to captivate.

Last night he proved that this formula is still true, but he’s no longer sticking strictly to that format. He had a four-piece band backing him up on roughly 65% of the numbers. They were all top professionals who added value every time they played.

As much as I enjoyed their play, and the fullness of the sound on those songs, for me personally, I still prefer Don all alone. Thankfully, he gave us plenty of that last night as well. Best of both worlds I guess.

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Don continues to create new music, putting out a CD in 2009 (we bought it last night and he signed it after the show).

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He also sang more covers than I expected, opening the show with two Buddy Holly songs and later playing a Beatles cover and a Jazz number with the word Weekend in the title.

I loved the show. I was pleased and surprised at how much the evening moved Lois. Every song transported her instantly back to her youth. I know the feeling, and it’s a great one, so I was glad to share that with her.

Backing him up, left-to-right on the stage:

Tony Migliore on keyboards (grand piano and electric). He was excellent all night. On the Jazz number he was the only person playing as Don just sang.

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Jerry Kroon played drums. Superb and tight the entire set. (sorry about the photo, Jerry was obscured by the large cymbal most of the evening.)

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Ralph Childs played the bass and sang harmony on a few numbers. He was superb on the bass all night and sang very well. A real pro. Couldn’t find a good link to him, so I linked his name to Don’s musicians page. That page also covers Tony and Jerry, but neither of the two guitarists listed there played last night.

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Vip Vipperman on electric guitar. Vip played extremely well all night long. He didn’t take any long leads, but those that he took were tasteful and interesting. Another complete pro.

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Don didn’t talk all that much, but when he did, he was personable and quite funny. I get the sense that he has a slight discomfort communicating with the audience because he understands that he’s an icon to most of them, and it’s hard to live up to that kind of billing.

He was on stage for 80 minutes before saying goodnight, closing the show with American Pie. After non-stop deafening applause, he came back out and played one of the longest encores I’ve seen in a while in these smaller venues, about 25 additional minutes!

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Birchmere holds 650 people and from what we could see it was completely sold out. In these times, that’s a neat trick, and Don was gracious to note that and thank everyone for spending their hard-earned money to come see him. From all of us Don, we were glad to do it! 🙂

We’ve enjoyed many opening acts the past few years, including some that have become favorites of ours causing us to stalk them now that they headline as well (The Paper Raincoat comes to mind). For the most part, if an opening act is pleasant, I consider it a win.

Last night we saw Kitty Donohoe open for Don McLean. In word, fantastic!

Kitty writes excellent songs (a wide variety). She played an acoustic guitar and cittern (a first for me). She was really good on both. She sings beautifully as well, and is completely captivating when telling stories to the audience.

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At intermission, Lois popped out to the Birchmere store and purchased three of Kitty’s CDs and got her to sign one. Another one that she played a few songs from was sold out the night before when Kitty performed at the Kennedy Center. We’ll download that one and continue following Kitty now that we’ve discovered her talent!

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Rounding out our day: we spent most of it with our Leesburg friends, bowling late morning with the boys, lunch with the entire family, and then Lois and I took the three kids to see Astro Boy. A long but terrific day all around.

Tonight Show Tribute Song

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For those who don’t like to read my long posts (or anything longer than a Tweet), here’s the bottom line (don’t forget, you can make the video play full screen!):

You can also share the link with others (right click it and choose copy).

The overwhelming majority of posts on this blog are about music. We attend a lot of live shows and we do more than our fair share to support bands that we believe have something special to share with the world.

As a side-effect of our passion for music, we started a micro business (not really launched yet) called Songs and Jingles, LLC. This post isn’t about that business, though Songs and Jingles produced the tribute that this post is about, and the place to view the resulting video is on the YouTube Songs and Jingles Channel.

I have been watching the Tonight Show enthusiastically since 1968. Johnny Carson was an amazing host for 30 years. Jay Leno continued the tradition as well as anyone could have hoped for. I believe that Conan O’Brien will continue to do the legacy proud.

In an attempt to honor the changing of the guard at the Tonight Show, and help one of our favorite bands get wider promotion, I came up with what I thought was a clever idea: write a custom tribute song for the Tonight Show, and get this band to perform it on the air (Conan closes most shows with five minutes of live music from top bands).

We chose one of the band’s songs for the tribute’s music and I wrote the lyrics. Since we’re friendly with the band, pitching the idea to them was easy. After serious consideration they decided to pass. Fair enough.

I liked my lyrics (humble, I know), but more importantly, I really liked the whole concept of honoring the Tonight Show and promoting talented artists. I decided to turn it into a YouTube project instead, like the successful Birthday Tribute songs we’ve already produced at Songs and Jingles.

Through an online search, I discovered the amazing musical talent, Ben Schwartz, who had YouTube songs of himself performing the Jay Leno theme and the Conan theme.

I contacted Ben, asking what motivated someone so young to record this type of music. He said he’d been a big Tonight Show fan for a long time. Since I started before I was officially a teenager, I understood and knew that I’d found the right collaborator.

Ben asked for my lyrics which I told him I’d willing to rewrite if he couldn’t find the right melody to fit them. I needn’t have worried! Within two days, Ben had a first cut song to match my lyrics. It was incredible but didn’t have the tempo I’d hoped for. Ben agreed, and two days later delivered another version: perfection!

The song is wonderfully complex musically but difficult to sing. My original plan to sing it myself was shaky considering that I was straining to hit the notes on both ends.

Serendipity strikes again! While fully immersed in this project, we met Amy Rivard, with her spectacular voice, as strong as it is beautiful. I’ve written about her a number of times (we’ve seen her perform live twice). I asked if she would be willing to record our Tonight Show Tribute Song. She agreed.

I culled photos from the various incarnations of the Tonight Show, along with a few choice pictures from around the net that complemented the lyrics, and put together a video slideshow to go along with the song.

If you didn’t view the result above, please do it now!

Ben’s music and Amy’s voice are spectacular. With their talent and generous personalities they’ve made this project a joy for me to be a part of. The original goals of honoring my love of the Tonight Show while promoting talented up-and-coming artists has been achieved!

I hope that anyone who comes across this will enjoy it enough to share with their friends so more people will discover the amazing Ben Schwartz and Amy Rivard.

If you also tune in to the Tonight Show more often than you otherwise would have, that will be a nice bonus. 🙂

Spyro Gyra at Blue Note

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I’ve been listening to Smooth Jazz for 30 years. I own nearly all of the CDs/LPs from my favorite performers. Until a few years ago, the only two that I had seen live were Earl Klugh, who I saw in 1981 in Carnegie Hall, and Chuck Mangione at Radio City Music Hall around the same time.

I’ve corrected that by catching shows with Bob James, Acoustic Alchemy, Dave Koz, and others. A few were still missing. At the top of that list were Spyro Gyra and The Rippingtons. I scratched Spyro Gyra off that list last night!

Spyro Gyra played 12 shows on six consecutive nights at the Blue Note Jazz Club in NYC, with the last two shows performed last night. We invited three friends along and the five of us had a fantastic meal at the club before the show.

Spyro Gyra consists of five outstanding musicians, each of whom can carry a show on their own. Their fearless leader is the great Jay Beckenstein, one of the great saxophone players of our time. I also own a solo CD of Jay’s and it too is awesome.

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Julio Fernandez played the guitar and sang a bit (Spyro Gyra is mostly an instrumental group). He was incredible on the guitar, and quite good singing.

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Bobby B played the drums, sang a bit and scatted a bit. While I’m writing this, the link to his bio is blank, but I’ll leave the link in, in case they ever update the page. He was unreal last night. Aside from superb drumming the entire evening, he was a real showman, cracking the crowd up and keeping people on their toes.

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He sang harmony with Julio on one number (gorgeous), and sang solo and scatted on another. He played one entire song solo (the other four guys left the stage) and he enthralled the crowd with one of the longest drum solos (plus some commentary and scatting) I’ve seen in a long while. Simply fantastic.

Scott Ambush played the electric bass. He was great all night. In the second number, he took a brief solo, and I was extremely impressed. I should have waited to gauge him though. A few numbers later, they played the title cut from their newest album Down the Wire (which I don’t own yet, but will shortly!). Scott wrote the song.

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It starts off with an amazing bass solo. Even that wasn’t the peak of Scott’s talent. Late in the song, after all of the other guys have their incredible solos, Scott takes over again, and he just smokes the house down. Seriously, this is one awesome bass player. Totally captivating.

Tom Schuman played electric keyboards. Tom was excellent the entire set and took a number of extraordinary solos. He and Scott are the glue that keeps the background going for Jay and Julio to wail their leads on.

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All together, they were magic, and any nervousness I had in advance of seeing them live for the first time was completely misplaced. They were and are awesome in every respect. They were on stage for exactly 80 minutes. Not the longest set in history, but every note picture perfect.

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CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub

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Last night was our 12th CMA Songwriters Series show at Joe’s Pub. We look forward to all of them (and buy our tickets the minute the shows are announced).

We were even more excited about last night’s show when our friend in Nashville told us that Jessi Alexander was very special. Since this is the same friend who recommended we see Jeffrey Steele live, we knew not to take her opinion lightly. 🙂

I’m going to bury the headline down below, just because I don’t want to take away from the wonderful talented people who sang their hearts out and kept us entertained all evening with their stories. So, if you want the big news, you’ll have to keep reading, or skim/skip a ways down…

Sitting left to right on the stage:

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Bob DiPiero was left-most this time (first time that he wasn’t in the middle in all 12 of our shows!). He’s always entertaining (musically, as MC and as comedian), but he was even more on last night. I think it was a combination of a few reasons, all of them positive, but one of them would ruin my headline surprise, so I’ll leave it at that.

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Jessi Alexander sang and played acoustic guitar. Jessi sings beautifully and writes superb songs. She is a co-writer on Miley Cyrus’ huge hit The Climb.

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I confess to knowing very few of Miley’s songs. I’ve never watched Hannah Montana, etc. However, we do watch a few hours of GAC (Great American Country) TV most weekends, and catch a number of the top videos of the week. The very first time I saw Miley’s The Climb video, I fell in love with the song. When Lois came back into the room I told her how shocked I was that I reacted so strongly to it.

Ironically, Miley’s movements in the video are distracting, so there’s nothing about the video that made me like the song. In fact, overcoming her overacting to fall in love with the song is what made me realize what an excellent song it was. So, it was a very nice treat to see/hear Jessi do it last night. I still love Miley’s version sonically. 🙂

Jon Randall sang and played acoustic guitar (all forms, rhythm, flat picking, finger picking, etc.). Let’s get the bottom line out of the way first: he’s amazing!

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Jon has a great voice (absolutely star performer quality). He writes great songs (you’ve probably seen/heard Whiskey Lullaby, cut by Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss). He is one of the best guitar players that we’ve seen at a CMA show.

Jon happens to be married to Jessi Alexander. That may be one of the reasons that Bob sat on an end last night instead of the middle, so that Jessi and Jon could sit near each other. Jon accompanied Jessi on every one of her songs, and they sang harmony together on both of their numbers, beautifully.

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Mark Sanders sang and played acoustic guitar. I couldn’t find a link to a web site or MySpace page devoted to him, so I linked his name to an old article (1997) that might give you a good background on Mark.

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He’s an incredible songwriter. Don’t take it from me, he was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of fame (Bob DiPiero is an inductee as well). He has written quite a number of smash hits, including one of our all-time favorites, I Hope You Dance (cut by Lee Ann Womack).

Mark is not much of a singer, and he pointed that fact out all night (in extremely funny fashion). He praised Jon over and over, and boy, is he right about that.

None of that matters. He writes extraordinary songs, plays the guitar well enough, and delivers the emotion associated with the person who actually conceived of and wrote the song, which is precisely what we love to hear!

In fact, all of the above would be enough for us to have been thrilled to see Mark last night. But wait, there’s more! If you order now… 😉

Mark is one of the funniest, natural, spontaneous people we’ve seen (not just at a CMA show, but in general). He kept us in stitches all night. Mark has also written a lot with Bob (including some smash hits), so they know each other well.

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We believe that one of the of factors that made Bob a bit different (and better!) last night was their shared history, love of having a good time together, and knowing that Mark would make fun of anything Bob said that might sound serious. 😉

We got to hear the story behind Daddy’s Money (a song we’ve heard Bob sing more than 10 times) and it was awesome! The inspiration behind the songs is fascinating to us.

Their banter was so funny that Jessi commented that she and Jon had to sit between them to keep them separated. 🙂

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OK, finally, the buried headline.

About 1/2 way through the show, Bob announced that we had a superstar in the audience, and with some encouragement, he was likely to agree to come on stage. No extra prodding was necessary.

A minute later, rising from the second level was none other than Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry. He walked through the crowd and climbed on to the stage. He performed two songs (singing and playing acoustic guitar), both written by Bob DiPiero. The first was Montgomery Gentry’s first #1 hit, If You Ever Stop Loving Me. He followed that with the crowd favorite Gone (which the crowd begs Bob to sing at every show!).

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He was awesome. He commented that he hasn’t played an acoustic set in a very long time, and he was nervous, because he’s usually surrounded by the giant sound of a large electric band. Troy, no need to worry, we’ll be thrilled to welcome you back onto the small stage any time. You owned it! 🙂

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Another great CMA night at Joe’s Pub. The next one is expected to be in March 2010, no specific date set yet. Barring an unmovable scheduling conflict (and there might indeed be one if the CMA is near March 12th), we’ll be there!