My Bowl Runneth Over

imageI think of myself as a musician first. I’m a studio guy and teacher because I’m a musician. February 9, 1964 was the day I realized how important music was to me. I was five years old, and a sensational band from England was making their first appearance on the popular TV variety program “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The band was the Beatles, and they were the most amazing thing I had seen or heard. It would take years and some false starts before I really got going playing music, but I knew from that day where I was headed. One of my favorite sayings is “you don’t choose music, it chooses you”.

New Year’s Resolutions aren’t usually my thing, but in January I resolved to see more live music and seek out musicians who are new to me. On a recent weekend I went to three concerts in 3 days and it was good for my soul.

The first show was on a Friday night, singer/songwriter Barbara Cohen at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. I wasn’t at all familiar with her, but was invited by my friends Steve and Kathy and hey, I’m seeking out new music. Bryant Lake is a funky urban nightspot, with a bar, bowling lanes, and a small concert space that seats 150 or so. From what I understand, Barbara Cohen is a Twin Cities native who was in some significant local bands before moving to California a decade ago. She had a recording contract at that time but when her performing career began to sputter, Barbara turned her focus to film soundtrack work. A bike accident resulted in an epiphany that returned her desire to perform, and here she was, back on stage after an 8 year hiatus. The show had rough edges, as Barbara and her quickly assembled trio of backing musicians felt their way through the songs. At one point she consulted with guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker to confirm the first chord of the next tune, but still the show was joyous, spontaneous, and she sang beautifully. Keep returning to the stage Barbara Cohen. I look forward to seeing you again.

The next afternoon, Sandy and I were at White Bear Lake United Methodist church for a fundraising event called Empty Bowls, to benefit a Native American food shelf. Besides a delicious wild rice soup, Empty Bowls featured a concert by Peter Ostroushko and Dean Magraw. I’ve been playing music regularly at this church for 14 years, and the previous Sunday I had made a big deal of what fabulous musicians these guys are. Perhaps because of this, I was asked to introduce them at the concert. They came on stage, and with hardly a word to each other began a stunning display of musicianship. Peter is simply one of the finest mandolin/fiddle players in the world and Dean a stellar guitarist. They seemed to sense right away the excellent acoustics for their instruments and the quiet attention of the audience. Sometimes on a gig you have to fight your way through a bad room or noisy background. On this day they were free to play with delicacy, finesse, and a wide dynamic range. The thing that struck me most was the level of nonverbal communication between them. Without a set list or a net, one or the other would launch a tune, and a brief look or nod was all they needed to negotiate the arrangements. Between songs we were treated to dry humor and an hour passed quickly watching two masters at work.

Sunday evening found me in a nearby suburb for a show by the Tune Jerks at the Hope Christian Church Concert series. The Hope series just finished it 13th season of presenting concerts ranging from bluegrass to folk, jazz, and beyond. I just found out about it, but this is a great service to the community. Good music at a reasonable price and at intermission, pie and coffee! I think the series is curated by Bob Douglas, and the Tune Jerks are a trio he formed some years ago. The Jerks play old time string band music, Celtic fiddle tunes, and even ragtime and early jazz on various combinations of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and claw hammer banjo, along with fine singing. They played with relaxed skill and finished each other’s sentences with good humored jabs. Twice during the show they were joined by clogger Julie Young, whose percussive tap dancing was like adding a drummer to the sound.

Three good shows, and I plan to keep getting out to support and be inspired by musicians of all sorts. I also hope to return the favor and move and inspire others when I perform.

You don’t know what you don’t know

Last week Sandy and I took a trip to Arizona to visit my mom and enjoy some warmth and sun. We spent an afternoon at the Musical Instrument Museum (mim.org) in Scottsdale and they practically had to kick us out at closing time. MIM is mainly a collection of 15,000 instruments from around the world. One of the first things you see is this huge standup bass, one of only 3 made in the 19th century.ImageYou don’t finger it. There are levers on one side that clamp on your chosen note and the idea is to bow long low notes. This mondo bass didn’t catch on, clearly because it won’t fit in a minivan.

From here you go into a series of large rooms, divided up by continent. We started with Africa. They have displays for each country and you wear a headset that plays music samples automatically when you approach. As we worked our way through Asia, the Pacific rim, and South America, a couple of things struck me. One is that people make instruments out of whatever they have in their corner of the globe. Check out this South American drum with an alligator skin head:Image

Another impression I had is how instruments reflect your culture, like this Mongolian bowed lute with carved horse head:Image

There are many styles and streams of music around the world that I know almost nothing about. A group of Tibetan instruments:Image

A gamelan orchestra setup from southeast Asia:Image

Ah, some familiar turf. Buck Owens’ guitar and outfit:Image

The piano John Lennon used to compose Imagine:Image

The MIM is a great place to remember why I love music. There was more to the trip, like the sunburn I got on a 3 hour bike ride, but that’s another story.

Thanks Dad

My father passed away February 5, 2012 at the age of 79. I’ve been thinking about him often this winter. A few months ago I read the book “Visiting Tom” by Michael Perry, and Tom Hartwig, the book’s namesake, reminded me so much of my dad. Perry is a writer who lives about two hours away from me in Wisconsin and I describe his books loosely as memoirs filled with humor, philosophy, and interesting characters. Simply put, I relate to what he writes.

Dad’s name was Delmar Gildersleeve. Pronounced “Delmer”, not “Del-Mar” and certainly not “Del”. The unique name fit him. He was a compact man, strong, with face and arms permanently tanned by a life spent outdoors. A farmer in his working life, and an all around handy guy. He could do all kinds of mechanical stuff, plus welding, carpentry, construction, painting. Dad took good care of his animals and fields and in return got the best from them. He was curious, studied the world around him, and with my Mom traveled far and wide. The last dozen years of his life they spent winters in Arizona. He took care of the yard, walked, explored the area on his motor scooter, and got really involved with radio controlled cars and airplanes.

Dad was born in central Iowa and grew up during the Depression and World War II. He was a wiry farm kid who had a driver’s license at 14 (there were no school buses yet) and graduated from high school at 16, just short of his 17th birthday. These facts impressed me.
In 1950 he joined the army and spent a year in Korea, where he was twice seriously injured. He had little to say about the war other than that a year of living in a tent cured him of any desire to go camping later in life, but we have learned that his unit saw intense fighting. The balance of his service was spent as a military policeman in Kentucky, and after being discharged Dad returned home and started farming. He met my mom, they married in 1955, and in 1959, a year after I was born, we moved to southwest Wisconsin, where I grew up.

Except for his stint in the army, Dad was his own boss. He saw what needed doing and got it done. As kids, we were an important part of the farm labor force and he would often say we needed to “hit the ground running”if there was hay to be made or corn to harvest. Our pay came when he would sell a batch of pigs and he would designate us kids as owners of a pig each. I bought my first guitar by selling a pig! Dad was a fair boss in that he would never ask you to do a crappy job without pitching in himself. If you had to stand shin deep in manure, he was right next to you. In retrospect I see that he was also good at figuring out what chores we preferred and assigning us those tasks. As teenagers we had our battles with our parents, but they were remarkably trusting and supportive.

As an adult I’ve been lucky enough to find my way and become my own boss. Visits with my folks would usually include a long talk with Dad, solving the world’s problems, debating politics, catching up on life. At the end of 1995, Sandy and I moved into our house and in January of ’96 Dad came to stay with us for a few weeks and was the primary builder of my studio. I had books, diagrams, and a plan, but he made it a reality. A guy who knew very little about music, Dad caught my vision and built the place that has served me so well all these years. There have been revisions and updates, but the bones of the studio are all him.

Thanks Dad, rest in peace.