Sunday, August 2, 2020

On the writing side of life, Fahrenheit Press has reprinted the second book in my Crime Fighting Bluesmen series. The Devil's Blues hit the market again and hopefully it'll find new readers that missed it the first time around. Mitty Andersen and Pete Bolden are back trying to corral the evil entities bent on bringing Christianity to its knees.

Back in May, I decided to buy a small amp chassis that would give me the tone I wanted at a low volume. I have a Kalamazoo and Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 that I have used at a couple of gigs we do and have to turn them down to the point that their tone drops out to a dull level. I've used my Lone Wolf Reverb, LW Delay and LW Harp Octave pedals to recover some of that. It not an optimal solution, but I've made it work with the LW Harp Train.

So, this leads me back to my previous post about David Barrett's website where he reviewed a lot of small amps. One of the small amps that impressed him (along with Gary Smith) was the Windy City Plus from Sonic Pipe Amplifiers. I listened to the review video/audio clips more than a few times and listened to his take on the merits of the amp. It all sounded exactly what I was looking for, but I was conflicted about buying another amp. And, I wasn't sure whether it would work in the way that I wanted.

I visited the Sonic Pipe website. The company has some amazing stuff going on which is outside the box. Check 'em out.  They listed the Windy City Plus with the 10" speaker and the Windy City with the 8" speaker as sold out, but....the chassis that sets within those amps was available and was what I had in mind. I figured that it would make a great Father's Day gift and since the wife agreed, I ordered it. I reckoned that I could knock out some kind of enclosure for it.

They admit up front that the amps begin life in China and it give them a platform for experimenting with the tone stack and capacitors and such. That seems to be pretty common with quite a few small amps on the market. My Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 is part and parcel Chinese.  I suppose that I could have ordered some such base amp from over there and swapped out components to my satisfaction, but it would have taken more brain power and labor than I was willing to spare.

The next day I received an e-mail from the owner, Tom Fleissner, stating that the pandemic situation had affected their supply chain and he wouldn't be able to fill my order and he refunded my credit card. I wasn't devastated by the news. It's not like I had to have another amp. BUT, then the wife said "what now?" for a Father's Day gift. Well....I didn't really need another microphone either, but my curiosity had been stirred up in regards to the new Hohner harp mic. I got the okay for that and placed an order with the Rockin' Ron, the best source for all things harmonica. Website stated that it was back ordered for couple of weeks and wouldn't make it by FD, but that was of little matter.

About a week later, Ron called and said the back order was likely closer to mid-July and wanted to know if I wanted to stick it out. I did. Then, the next day, Tom Fleissner e-mailed and said he had the material to build the chassis and did I still want one and that he would ship for free. So...I told him carry on. Just had to tell the wife that, "Oh, by the way..."

The chassis made it to my house. My son, who was visiting, and I unpacked it and installed the tubes, but it really didn't fire up properly. I e-mailed Tom and he said send it back and he'd check it out. I did. He did. I got it back in fine shape and went to work. While I waited for the return trip, I slapped together a crude enclosure for its new home out of materials that I had on hand. I had an old Sears 5watt amplifier that I worked over and never really had much going for it, other than it would send 110 volts of electricity through the body if something shorted out. I had stuck a Weber Sig 8 alnico speaker in it when I had hopes for it. I had already removed the chassis and it made a reasonable, light weight extension speaker cab, and it was perfect for the Windy City chassis.

I wasn't going to stick a picture on here since it is a rather crude thang right now, but I figured it would break up this long winded post somewhat with a visual.


So, here it is warts and all. The picture makes the speaker cab appear way larger than it is. The amp came with a 5881wxt and Ruby 6v6 gtstr for power tubes, a 6z4 rectifier tube (which is kind of a Chinese 6x4), and a 6sj7 preamp tube. Being able to swap from a 6l6 type tube to a 6v6 makes for a useable tonal option. The swap can add/subtract the amount of grit, grind or crunch one wants in a given situation. A bias switch to go between the two can also be switched wrong to provide a mismatch for additional tonal choices. The bright switch throws down some mo' mojo with which to experiment. And, experiment I did.

The amp is sorta like a Champ 5c1, which also used the 6sj7 preamp tube. That tube has a lot to do with classic tone of the amp. We're talking early 50's. So, if you're familiar with that Champ's tone, then you would be close...but the other little options make it more that a one trick pony. It's also comparable to the lower wattage Mascos, circuit wise.

I plugged in the 6v6 first and it spat out a classic harp tone. Nice, crunchy distortion which was far from being harsh. The bias switch mismatch added a bit more crunch, which was not necessary. I found the bright switch very useful when swapping to a mic that needed a bit more treble, like the Astatic shell with the Greg Heumann element that is bassier. The amp didn't see a mic that it didn't like. I do believe, though, that he imputs are set up to favor crystal/ceramic mics. The two examples I have just seemed to have a fuller tone to them. My Shure Bullet with a controlled reluctance element has been my go to mic for a long time because it sounds a bit better with my amps, but the JT30 crystal edges it out with the Windy City.

The 5881 gave the amp a little less distortion and a little more low end tone. The amp's not going to do clean, but this power tube does mellow the distortion somewhat if that's your cup of tea. The mismatch bias did bring more crunch, but not as much as the 6v6. I find all this very intriguing, especially when you get the amp out in a live situation. All rooms and stages are so variable when it comes to trying replicate the tone you want. I doubt that I would show up with a tube swap in mind, but flipping switches certainly can get more satisfaction going.

The Windy City amplifiers started life at Sonic Pipes with a Weber Sig 8" 8ohm speaker, but they also  offered it with an Eminence for a choice...or whatever the customer wanted. The Windy City Plus contains a 10" speaker choice. As I mentioned, the repurposed Sears amp cab has the Sig 8 and the speaker sounds perfect for this amp. The amp gives up the tone I'm looking for, so I'm not about to head off on a 'what if' speaker hunt. I did plug the chassis into my Harp Train 10 speaker (Weber Sig 10 Ceramic) and my Kalamazoo's Jensen 10" ceramic. Not a whole lot of tonal differences, just a touch louder...and as I said at the beginning of this post, I wasn't searching for louder, but an amp that achieved a decent low volume. The Windy City's does the do in that regards.

And I've spent a couple of taste test sessions comparing the Harp Train 10 and the Kalamazoo with the Windy City. First, I set the HT 10 up the way I have to when playing at a low volume gig. The tone is gutted at that volume. To compensate, I stick the aforementioned pedals in front of it and it does okay. I set up without pedals and sat Windy City an a comparable volume (used a sound meter to match them up). The HT10 just sounded dull and lifeless, but the WC had the tonal spark I was looking for at that volume. I started with the 6v6 tube and thought it would be the one that work the best, but found the 5881 a better choice, with the matched bias. Surprised me really.

Tonally, the Kalamazoo comes really close to the WC. At a more cranked volume, they sound very close, but I give the edge to the WC. Once the Zoo's volume is dropped do the low the volume I need, then the tone flattens. and drops out.  So, I had all three going back forth and sideways. Swapping mics, different harp keys, etc...The Windy City just can do low volume without the tone crapping out much better. I broke out my 68 Custom Princeton Reverb just to make sure I wasn't missing something, but knew where it like to be played best...but I had a blast blasting away, because I did crank them all up. At some point the Windy City doesn't get louder, just distorts more. That's fine with me, because that will not be its job.

Oh, and the Hohner mic? Ron e-mail me to say that it looked like the end of August before Hohner honored his orders. So, I bowed out at that news. Someday, I might grab it check it out. But for now, I've got to blow some more Windy City--'Nuff for Now.





Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Rolling On

This is sorta kinda a continuation of my thought threads from yesterday, so I'm just rolling on. I was going to pull up the post and simply edit and add, but I do have enough swirling around the brain to just do the do again today.

I failed to mention that a few friends from my school days in Brazoria came into town expressly to watch our band play at the Brewery last Friday. My brother and his wife played host while we tried our best to entertain them. It made for a very special night for me. Word is that they'll return at some point down the road.

Let me add a link to David Barrett's marvelous website here. Lots of folks just aren't going to fork over the $17 a month for harmonica related stuff and search out similar free online offers. I balked at doing it for a long time until I decided that I wanted to see his reviews of the numerous small amplifiers and stayed a couple of months. And that's the deal. One can pay out for a year or month to month and cancel anytime. As I said in yesterday's post, I'm back to wandering around the site and finding plenty of value as I go, such as the aforementioned tube rolling vids on the Princeton. That in itself was worth a month's fee.

Barrett interviews a slew of harmonica pros and those are super. Since I re-signed up on the site to glean a bit more info to polish my tongue blocking a bit more, I went through the vid interviews just clicking on each player's responses to Barrett's question on tongue blocking and some on their preferred equipment. What I'm saying is that I haven't viewed each interview in their entirety, so I'm looking forward to watching them. At the time, I just wanted to hear what master blasters like Gary Primich, Kim Wilson, Rod Piazza, Gary Smith, etc...had to say about TBing the harmonica.

Now, and I mentioned somewhere in the history of this blog, that I curl my tongue (or UBlock) to get a single hole. Just the way I found it easier. For many years, I really thought I was an odd duck out of water, because I knew of no one else that did such. Everyone puckered or tongue blocked. UNTIL I bought an instructional video from Norton Buffalo who played harp for Steve Miller. Right off the bat he mentioned that he curled his tongue. Anyway, I felt validated. Soon, from online discussion groups such as Harp-L, I found others mentioning they did the same thing. We were rare, but there and maybe even Little Walter did a bit of it.

CUTTING to the chase as to why I'm rehashing all this is the Barrett interviews. One of my favorite present day harmonica players is John Nemeth. Immaculate vocals and his harp tone is wonderful and he said he strictly UBlocks his notes, of course except for playing octaves (which of course, takes tongue blocking to get the split notes). Said it was the way he learned and has never seen a reason to do otherwise and ain't gonna try and change now. Epiphany for me. From there, another one of my favorites, Mark Ford, said he did the same thing and can even manage slapped notes with the embouchure. Steve Guyger even said that he's trying it out, because he was told by a reliable source that Little Walter did employ the method from time to time. SO I was surprised and felt additionally validated and not quite so hell bent to perfect tongue blocking.

BACK to discussing Shoji Naito. I first became aware of Shoji during a trip to Chicago (it's documented in the archives here) and he was playing guitar with harp man Morry Sochat and the Special 20s at the seafood restaurant. They were fabulous, by the way. I later learned that he was also a great harmonica player and I had heard good things about the backing tracks he offered on his website for us harp players. I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I did download a few of those and they are wonderful. Anyway, he has been putting out a few videos on youtube during the pandemic stay at home time period and I caught quite  few of those. He plays both tasty guitar and harmonica. His tribute to Eddy 'The Chief' Clearwater, who he played with for fourteen or so years until Eddy passed in 2014, caught my eye and then my ears after I downloaded it.

Westmont to Chicago is a solid unadulterated Chi-town blues release with guest performances by several musicians well known on the Chicago blues scene. Not going to get into an extensive review (mentioned that I've moved away from doing so), but this recording is certainly notable for some of Eddy Clearwater's last recordings and reveal a veteran bluesman that hasn't lost a step, vocally or on guitar. Shoji shines on slide guitar on Ogden Avenue and lays down some tuneful harp on a few cuts, his best while conjuring the memory of James Cotton on Like The Creeper. Great release honoring one of Chicago's great bluesmen. If you lack yourself some of The Chief's stuff, go grab something from his catalogue. Anyway--'Nuff For Now.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Back In The Saddle

Might as well start off with how sweet it was to play a gig once more. Rob Moorman and Company jumped back into action at the Brazos Valley Brewery here in Brenham to a very responsive and appreciative crowd. Very apparent that people are more than ready to get out of the house and support the live music scene again. The venue limited the tables available and customers to a table and had employees wiping down chairs and table tops. Hand sanitizer sat by the entrance. Lots of people sat at picnic tables just outside the entrance. Very, very few people wore masks. Just the absolute joy of playing our music again overcame any trepidation I felt at the beginning of the night. If the virus doesn't sneak up on me, we'll do it again at one of our frequently played venues, Home Sweet Farm, this coming Friday (June 12). And, by the way, our bass player, Andy Chiles' and his wife Sandy's band Tailgate Poets with Charlie Kelm on guitar will at the Brewery on Sunday.

We christened the Brewery's new Tap Room, where they keep something like 15 or 20 of their brews on tap behind the bar. The room seems to be about 40 feet long (maybe) and 20 feet wide and a 15 foot or higher ceiling. We sat up at one end with a rolling glass door at our back and another one stage right. I assume they'll open those up during nicer weather than the 90+ degrees hitting us. Such a situation could pose a problem acoustically, but I think the sound was surprisingly good. Rob's Bose p.a. system has yet to meet a room it can't whip. The same for Jason Moorman's guitar rig. He can adjust it to slay any situation and Andy Chiles has a new bass rig that is absolutely killer, weighs less than my Princeton and has a righteous thump. We kicked butt, if I do say so myself.

For my harp buddies: I took a chance and took my 68 Custom Princeton Reverb, hoping I could turn it up to a decent tonal volume. It was perfect for the room. I made some tube swaps that seemed to give the amp a creamier tone and a little more sag. Nothing wrong with my set up before, just a bit smoother. Not that anyone but me notices.

I might have mentioned before that I bought the amp a couple of years ago based on David Barrett's review of it on his website. I paid the subscription price just to read his review of small amps, which was worth the money for the couple of months that I decided to utilize it. The tons of information that one of the most knowledgeable harp instructors lays down is amazing. Anyway, after getting the amp I swapped tubes around quite a bit and settled on some of his review suggestions. The one that bothered me was swapping a 5u4 rectifier for the 5ar4 rectifier that the amp came with, given the 5u4 draws more current and could be detrimental to the transformer. I did try it, but it seem to gut the tone, so I kept the 5ar4 in. I settled on a 12at7 in the V1 preamp position and left everything else stock. Played many a gig with this setup. The amp seemed to really bloom once the speaker broke in, which seem to take longer than I expected.

NOW...back to David Barrett. I spent a couple of months combing through his website back then and then decided to cancel. THEN...during this quarantine period, I decided to polish my tongue blocking skills a bit more and no one teaches it better than Barrett, so I resubscribed and began delving a little deeper into what was available. Gary Smith, who taught Barrett a thing or two early on about tongue blocking and has tone to die for, is one of the contributors. I clicked on his contributions, which are extensive, and noticed several vid links regarding tube swapping. Clicking on a link revealed that they were using the 68 Custom Princeton Reverb on which to experiment with rectifiers, preamp, and power tubes. At the end, a 5u4 rectifier, a 12au7 in the phase inverter slot and a 5751 in V1 impressed them the most.

As I mentioned earlier, I was not impressed with the 5u4 rectifier and actually bought a Weber Copper Cap version to keep current draw in line to try out. Still didn't like it until I tried the combo Gary and David used mentioned above. Suddenly, the amp tone that they were illustrating, with a bit more sag and slightly smoother sound, came through in my amp. My thinking is that it all lies in the phase inverter tube being swapped from 12ax7 to 12au7 allowed the different rectifier to perform better than before and without the gutless tone I heard prior. I do not know how lowering that tube did that trick, but I do like the sound. I'd tried a 5751 in V1 before that seemed to gainy for me and I think the phase inverter swap is key to that tube working sweeter also. THAT said, I can see where going back with the 5ar7 in a louder band environment might be necessary. That's not us, though. Next gig will be outdoors, and I'll see how well the current setup will work.

Alright. I have more on my mind. I've said enough. I'll get back to Shoji Naito's Westmount to Chicago cd next time. Maybe. In the mean time, maybe I'll see you at Home Sweet Farm on Friday. 'Nuff for Now.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Meanwhile...

Still haven't been motivated enough to generate much in the way of writing. The Muse sort of left the barn, so I'm just kind of using the old blog here just to get some sort of juices going. I mentioned that last time out and have not progressed very well on that count. Not that I expect much in the way of anyone showing some sort of interest in the direction my brain flows.

Oh, let's see. This Corona Pandemic thing has been hanging us up for a coupla months now. Governor Abbott of our great state of Texas has been declaring what can and cannot reopen and what we should or should not do. Restaurants, barber shops, nail salons have all been open a couple of weeks with capacity restrictions. Pretty sure he's upping those limits on Monday May 18th and also allowing gyms and such to join the businesses allowed to open, of course with restrictions. Don't know if he's ready to open the bar business yet, so I'm still not sure when it'll be possible to get back to gigging and listening to live music. Might weird times.

Been doing a lot of homesteading at the wife's direction. My daughter came out on Mother's Day with a load of dirt. Yeah, dirt for Mother's Day. They know what the other wants. So son-in-law, daughter and grandkids spread dirt around the place. The plus was getting to see the three grandkids (at some point we'll get to see the two in New Orleans). This week the wife and I planted a ton of caladium bulbs that'll brighten things up down the road. We put up four quarts of  pickles yesterday and have plans for more later this next week. Rain last night and earlier in the week helped matters along those lines.

I was invited to a picking circle last week by Jill Evans. Been knowing Jill for a long time. She's a premier Spoons musician and can tap out a rhythm to most any genre of music. She began hosting the circle a bit before the virus reared its contagious head at a place here called Pioneer, which is part church, part bbq joint, part bar and was in the business category allowed to re-open the first round. As much as I'm itching to get back at it, I wasn't quite ready to dip my toes back into the fray just yet. Soon, though, soon.

We were booked to play Nathan's BBQ on May 29th before it all hit the fan. They shut down for a couple of weeks, but are back to doing take-out meals with plans to open the dining room soon. Maybe they'll resume live music by then and maybe they'll resume with Rob Moorman and Company providing the tunes. If we still have to wear masks, I'm going have be really creative making that work with a harmonica in my mouth.

Might as well reveal what I've been up to musically since the last blog post and add to the excitement on display here. Lots of blues. I'm still breaking out the old harp to keep the old chops sharp. Old seems to be a dominant adjective these days. Ran through about 25 Jimmy Reed tunes yesterday and I've been listening to Darrell Nulisch's The Bigtone Sessions Vol. 1. Nulisch has always been one of my favorite vocalist, especially when he jumps onto Old School blues and sings it with such deep conviction that rivals the originals. He's also a fantastic harp player, but doesn't stick it in his mouth often enough for a harp nerd like me, but when he does do the do it's tasty and toneful, even if it's acoustic and not the greasy amplified stuff I prefer. I put him, Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson and John Nemeth in the same bag as far as unparalleled singers.  They all swing from soul blues/rhythm and blues to down in the alley straight to the heart blues. The latter is my cup of tea and Nulisch doesn't disappoint on this outing. The production here comes from Big Jon Atkinson's Bigtone Records and has been released by Charlie Lange's Bluebeat Music Label. Big Jon's a throw back to the old style of recording analog live to tape and his tasty guitar work reflects the way things were. Atkinson has been one of those 'go to' musicians in the studio, his own and others recently much in the same vein as Kid Andersen has been at Greaseland. Big Jon can nail a great harp tone of his own to the wall. Of course I've mentioned Charlie Lange's Blue Beat Music website and THE bestest place to find any blues recording one could possibly need.

Getting carried away here, but who cares? No one's reading this any longer anyway. Once I found Nulisch's disc, Big Boy Boogie California Sessions Vol 1 on the Blue Beat site, a CD by Peter Nande caught my eye. It was recorded back in 2006 at Nathan James' House and produced along with James Harman. Those names alone are enough to peak my interest. I had heard some of Nande's harp work in the past, but had never listened to an album by him. I've heard enough cats from overseas play the blues the way it's supposed to be played (according to my taste), but it always surprises me how well Scandinavians like Peter Nande get it done with blues harp and vocals. He's definitely the triple threat musical athlete having written or co-written a thirteen song disc of solid blues while blowing the reeds out of his harmonica and singing with authority. Nande is a professed James Harman fan guy and the humor in his lyrics and vocal inflection reflect such. Harman's name on the production made me curious enough to add it to the Nulisch order. His acoustic harp tunes outweigh his amped ones, but his tone on both are stellar...and he didn't check with me for my preference, so I'll let it go. And it doesn't hurt that one of my favorite all time guitar slingers, Junior Watson, plays on a few of the cuts, not that I don't love Nathan James excellent fret work along with Ronni Busack-Boysen. Harman does throw down vocals on a co-written Kiss Me Now. Good stuff all the way around on this release and I'll check out this fellow more down the road.

I have been working more on tongue blocking better (harp stuff for any harp people, who for whatever reason are still reading) just to add to my tonal palette. I mainly U-Block (curled tongue method) because that's how I learned, but have alway TBd to achieve octave notes and do a bit of tongue slapping. Ordered some new backing jam tracks for Shoji Naito's website and worked out on them. He's offering them free now, but I couldn't help but donate to a musician who has lost gigging money. They are excellent practice tracks. I also grabbed a copy of his tribute to Eddie 'The Chief' Clearwater called Westmont to Chicago. I speak about it at some point. 'Nuff for Now.


Sunday, April 5, 2020

Stay At Home Blues

Might as well document some of this stay at home Covid-19 scenario stuff for historical posterity, or whatever, but also just to get the writing juices back to flowing. It's not like I don't have time on my hands to get my ass in gear and get creative with new stories or push my harmonica tone and lick vocabulary to deeper levels. Motivation has moved like molasses lately.

I did break out my harps yesterday and tried my hand at keeping up with some of what a cat named Andrew Alli is spitting out on his Hard Workin' Man cd from Eller Soul Records. I wasn't familiar with this young black bluesman before reading a bit about him in an online interview...I think from Blues Blast, but maybe not. Intrigued me enough to seek out his stuff. Seems that a few young black musicians (pardon me for not using African American or such, but no disrespect meant) are pursuing the path of the blues in recent years, which does my old heart good. Alli follows the traditional road paved by Big and Little Walter, both Sonny Boy Williamsons, George Harmonica Smith, etc...as a blues harp student should. He's got it. Good harp tone, lick selection, variable technique employment. Nine out of twelve tunes are well written originals and stay close to the Chi-town Blues vest. Alli's vocals chops aren't far removed from Little Walter's or John Lee Williamson's in the tenor range. Anyway--spent the better part of an hour getting some licks in with the young man just to keep my chops up until I can gig with the band again.

I have a couple of more blues cds on the way. Sort of did a little binge buying last week. It's not like I don't have a thousand recordings stacked around the house, just felt a need for something new. I'll report back on those.

Speaking of the band. The last gig that Rob Moorman and Company played was on March 10 at the Brazos Valley Brewery here in Brenham. They are getting serious about providing live music and have a tap room being completed for entertainment. Until then, we set up amongst the beer vats and machinery. I used the Princeton Reverb, which I was able to crank a bit more than usual and the tone rocked. The crowd was great. Cajun Cowgirl's food truck had the crawfish boiling and it was just a shame it all had to come to a screeching halt. It was pretty close to the last gig anyone played due to bars being forced to close down the following Friday. We had two more gigs scheduled for March and three for the month of April. Just hoping our venues can out survive the virus hiatus. So totally unreal and none of us knows what the post-virus scenario will look like.

And...I'm hoping this little ditty I'm writing today breaks the log jam and loosens things for some kind of flow for the ideas that are bouncing around. I have been reading some FB advice from one of my favorite authors, Joe Lansdale. I sure feel that we are kindred souls that think alike as far as the method to our madness. He just gets it and gets after it and I need to follow suit. He definitely is a motivator. Another is Gabino Iglesias. I'm such a slacker right now and I actually fear that Gabino will show up at my house any day now and whip my ass for not writing like I should.

And along those lines. Fahrenheit Press saved River Bottom Blues from oblivion and reprinted it a couple of weeks ago. They gave it a great round of publicity...then the pandemic panic crap hit the fan. We'll see. They'll put out The Devil's Blues and Howling Mountain Blues on a staggered schedule. My newest manuscript, The Removal, also sits in their house. Anyway--'Nuff for Now.