Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

February 05, 2015

Oh, Baby, I Got the Piedmont Blues

I've added another slice of exotica to my instrumental palette: the good old harmonica. I recently wrote a song that was begging for one, so I bought a Hohner Special 20 in the key of D, along with a cheap seven-piece Piedmont Blues set so I could experiment with different keys. For the curious, the set's keys are G, A, Bb, C, D, E and F. The Special 20 is a professional-grade instrument with a warm, reedy, classic sound and is truly a joy to play. The Piedmont Blues? Well, they're okay for goofing around or casual jam sessions, maybe, but I wouldn't record with them. When you blow you get too much air (some notes are especially wheezy) and the tuning is questionable in spots. That said, I'll use them for my live shows once I learn how to play guitar and harmonica together. If these things get battered and bruised, I can afford to replace them. By the way, you do gain a handsome case with the Piedmont set and from what I can gather, some enthusiasts buy the set for the case alone.

It's funny. I last tried a harmonica several years ago and was convinced I couldn't play it because I didn't know how to get single notes. All I could do was blurt out one monster chord on the exhale (blow) and another on the inhale (draw). The fact that I can't whistle at all led me to believe that I'd forever be harmonica-challenged. But with a little practice and a few online tips here I am, blowing and drawing one note at a time. I'm still very much a beginner who can't bend notes, but that's okay. I learned rather quickly that there are purveyors of blues harmonica—who are more than likely to call it a "harp"—and folk harmonica. Guess which camp I fall into? I lack the technique to play da blooze and fortunately, I also have zero interest in doing so. The vibe I'm after is more Bob Dylan-John Lennon-Neil Young, which was doable after a day of messing about.

In other news, I've begun to tackle the rather daunting fiddle part in my quasi-bluegrass number, "Year of No Tomorrow." Make that two parts, as I'm doing what a real player would call double stops (playing on two strings simultaneously) on separate tracks. Truth be told I still can't play the thing, at least not in a linear, real-time way. But I'm a world-beater if I go one or two notes at a time ... which is about all I'm able to do. Adding to my difficulty is the key of the song (Bb). No open strings here, kids. You can't really capo a violin—yes, I tried—and tuning it up a half-step you'd risk breaking a string or messing up the bridge. I didn't try slowing the whole song down a semitone and recording the part in A, as I was concerned I'd compromise the sonic integrity of the song and/or the fiddles once I sped it back up.

Ironically, I've just completed the high fiddle and it's pretty good, not at all scratchy. In fact, it's sounding a little too sweet for this setting and I might have to add some grit using EQ and other such trickery. But that's okay; if it were too scratchy, no processing known to humanity could make it sound sweeter. And in any event it sounds much better than the cheesy keyboard patch it's replacing.

Oh, and I'm still digging the Coltrane quote. You'll know what I mean when the song comes out—for now, just picture me sawing away at the opening bars of A Love Supreme in the midst of a knee-slappin' bluegrass tune. (Yes, really. Among other things this song features not one but two tracks of me slapping my knees. With reverb! Can't get more down-home than that, y'all.)

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February 01, 2015

Have They Lived Here? Like, in February?

So, The Economist recently proclaimed my humble little burg the best city in the world to live in.

I say it's Toronto's weather that puts us over the top. Why, as I write it's -10 with a -20 wind chill and we're under a winter storm warning, with 15 cm of snow on the way, probably double that in the western suburbs. The long-range says more snow on Wednesday, and at no time this week does the mercury even approach the freezing mark. Fast-forward six months and you're looking at 30 to 35 with humidex readings in the mid 40s, thunderstorms, and likely any combination of a tornado warning, heat advisory or smog alert.

I've spent my whole life here in paradise, so trust me when I tell you that for at least three months (January, February and mid-July to mid-August) the place is unfit for human habitation. Late October, November, December, March and all of April are iffy at best. That leaves May and June—which can be lovely, I admit—early July, late August, September and early October. That's four and a half decent months out of twelve.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed because I don't drive. Hopping from heated (or air-conditioned) home to heated car to heated office, one observes but is barely exposed to the elements. For these folks—one of whom must have written this article—I suppose it's not bad at all. Maybe this is paradise and I just don't get it. Though I'm quite sure there are far worse places to call home even in affluent North America, I fail to see what makes stuffy, complacent, frigid-or-sweltering Toronto much more than a junior-league New York.

I mean, seriously: Berlin, London, Melbourne, New York, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco—to name a few actual world-class cities—pale in comparison to the T-Dot? Count me as one Torontonian who'd gladly live in any of them for a year to find out.

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