For a few years, Cameron Crowe was on top of the world. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Say Anything" were respectable teen comedies. Then "Singles," "Jerry Maguire," and "Almost Famous."
A particular skill Crowe had was in finding the right song for the right moment. Before the Eltonnaissance, in "Almost Famouse" Crowe pulled a great song for a quiet scene on a bus of touring rock musicians. This Led Zeppelin-like hard rock band had just crashed a suburban party. For all the hedonistic excitement, they also just seemed like a-holes. I didn't want to hang out with them any more. Did they even really like music? This scene on the tour bus wins back the audience and established that the relationships between the characters are all founded on a mutual love of music.
Similarly, there's a scene in "Jerry Maguire" where Tom Cruise's eponymous character finally scores his first victory, signing a high school football phenom. And then he's looking for a song on the radio. The lyrics don't really matter, what he needs is an anthem, something he can feel good belting out. He finds Tom Petty.
Who cares what the song is about? It's got that relaxed beat, the phrase that ends in a long ee sound and it's the perfect range for a tenor to belt. When I hear the chorus to "Free Fallin'" I think of this scene.
In this scene, Crowe is saying a lot about the character Jerry Maguire and his circumstances, but I feel like he also captures something about Tom Petty's songwriting. It's power is in a particular kind of accessibility. You don't need a crazy sense of rhythm, or an opera star's range. He's writing for an ordinary voice, but giving it an extraordinary place to go. At the risk of plagiarism and/or sounding overly lofty, Tom Petty's greatest hits could be called Fanfare for the Common Man.
Fleetwood Mac is a crazy cast of characters and I tried to figure them out. Following the individual members is like a tour of 20th century rock. You could play the Kevin Bacon game with Fleetwood Mac and you wouldn’t need to go more than 2-3 degrees to anyone in popular music.
Jon Mayall. Jon Mayall is not, and has never been, a member of Fleetwood Mac. What he is, is the namesake of Jon Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, a seminal 1960s and 1970s English blues band. Mayall employed a number of musicians in his bands who went on to great acclaim, including Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor (of the Rolling Stones), Jack Bruce (of Cream), and others. At one point his band consisted of a guitarist named Peter Green and a rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass.
Peter Green. Mayall gave Peter Green some studio recording time and Green brought McVie and Fleetwood with him to record a few songs. One of them was an instrumental named after the drummer and bass player, “Fleetwood Mac.” Soon after, Green and Fleetwood wanted to form their own band and named the band Fleetwood Mac in part to entice McVie to join them, which he eventually did. Green took a bit too much LSD and ended up in a sanitarium. Before he left the band, Peter Green wrote a little ditty called “Black Magic Woman” (you’re probably more familiar with the Santana version).
Mick Fleetwood. Mick Fleetwood is the drummer, original member and by all accounts, the glue that has held the band together. His first wife was Jenny Boyd (whose sister, Pattie, married two famous best friends: George Harrison and Eric Clapton and inspired the songs "Something," "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla"). Fleetwood cheated on Jenny with Stevie Nicks.
John McVie. John McVie is a bassist, apparently relatively shy. He’s one of the founders of Fleetwood Mac. On early tours with Fleetwood Mac, they had opening act called Chicken Shack that featured a singer and keyboardist named Christine Perfect, whom he married.
Christine McVie. Christine McVie was a guest musician on the second Fleetwood Mac album, and then joined the band officially. She is one of the main songwriters and vocalists for the group. After divorcing John McVie, she had a relationship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and then married Eddy Quintela, a keyboardist which whom she wrote “Little Lies.” In 2017, she released an album with Lindsey Buckingham, which featured the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section; in other words, everyone but Stevie Nicks, who was on a solo tour.
Random musicians. For a while, after Peter Green left, Fleetwood Mac continued on with various guitarists and vocalists. At some point, the band’s manager even took the band's name and toured a completely different group as Fleetwood Mac (he told them Mick Fleetwood would join them on the tour). The real band’s touring manager hid the equipment from Alt Fleetwood and the tour was shortened and abandoned. Members of "the other" Fleetwood Mac ended up playing with Alan Parsons Project, a Deep Purple offshoot and Robert Plant.
Two of the members of Alt Fleetwood Mac ended up in a band called Stretch and wrote a song about their experience about the tour SNAFU:
Lindsey Buckingham. Lindsey Buckingham is a particular kind of guitar hero. He can shred, yes, but his skills are perhaps best realized in the recording studio with crazy layering of instruments. When Mick Fleetwood heard his playing, Buckingham was invited to join Fleetwood Mac as a singer-songwriter guitarist. Buckingham had one condition: they let his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, join, too. If you listen to Buckingham talk about Stevie Nicks, and their eventual break-up, he’s a pretty sympathetic character. If you listen to the rest of the band talk about him mucking around in the studio without their input, he seems… less sympathetic. He released an album with Christine McVie that was pretty much a Nicks-less Fleetwood Mac album in 2017. On their most recent tour, Buckingham was fired from the band and replaced by Neil Finn and Mike Campbell (it says something about his contributions that it takes two guys to replace him).
Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks was the bonus that Fleetwood Mac got when they recruited American musicians to the previously British band. Her distinctive vocals, songwriting and fashion sense made her an instant standout. She broke up with Buckingham and they both wrote songs about it. She has had the most successful solo career of anyone associated with Fleetwood Mac and is cited by musicians like Courtney Love as an icon and role model. In the Tom Petty documentary “Running Down a Dream” Nicks says the only band she wanted to join was Petty's Heartbreakers.
Jimmy Iovine. Stevie Nicks recorded her first solo album with Jimmy Iovine who arranged for her to record the duet “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” with Petty. Iovine has worked in the studio with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Meatloaf, U2, The Pretenders and Dire Straits. He’s also the founder of Interscope records and recorded hip hop stars like Tupac Shakur, 50 Cent and Eminem. Plus, he created Beats headphones with Dr Dre.
Neil Finn. Neil Finn is the main songwriter and leader of Crowded House. His brother Tim founded Split Enz which Neil co-led for a while before they broke up.
Mike Campbell. Mike Campbell was the lead guitarist of the Heartbreakers and co-wrote many of Tom Petty’s most memorable hits. The Heartbreakers were the backing band for a Bob Dylan world tour, and for Johnny Cash’s late albums. Campbell has also played with everyone from Bad Religion to Tracy Chapman to the Dandy Warhols to Warren Zevon.
I skipped a lot, including the breakups in the 1990s. Rolling Stone has their own Fleetwood Mac member breakdown.
Okay, wait. There are limits to what a blog post can accomplish. James Taylor is an amazing guitarist. As I'm trying to figure out how to play some of his songs, I thought I'd point out some tendencies he has as a performer and songwriter.
Taylor tunes his guitar better than we mere mortals do compensating for the even temperment of modern musical instruments and the tendencies of the thickness of strings to ring sharp (here's James Taylor's tuning method and here's a video where a guitarist plays both tunings for your comparison). Basically, he tunes each string a bit flat, allowing for the sharpness that happens when they are struck. To sum up by string:
If you listen to the comparison video, you'll probably notice very little, suggesting how much our ears will compensate. But, if you do notice anything, I felt like the Taylor tuning was a bit warmer, possibly because of more/better harmonics between strings.
Taylor loves his hammerings on and pulling off. He does a lot of it by forming his D and A shaped chords in a "backwards" (his word) way, allowing his index finger to manipulate the 3rd of the chord. He also apparently hates the open B string when playing his open G chord and barres the B and e strings with his fourth finger to play what's sometimes annotated as a G5. He explains his chord shapes about 44 seconds into this lesson on how to play "Carolina in My Mind."
I'm not actually sure that "movement chords" is a phrase, but what I mean is that he likes using odd chords that add a bit of tension that get resolved in the next chord. This is the province of diminished 7th chords (minor third stacked on minor third, stacked on minor third) which George Harrison did a lot. The dim7 chords are super interesting but also not something you want to stay on for too long, and used mostly as passing chords.
But the ultimate James Taylor chords is the 7th with suspended 4th, i.e. X7sus4. As a fingerpicking genius Taylor plays a lot of open chords and so his 7sus4 chords tend to be D7sus4, A7sus4 and E7sus4; sometimes capoed to another key, but those are the main shapes.
A7sus4 comes into play in "Shower the People" over the verse lyrics "broken heart" -- immediately followed by an Adim7 -- double passing chords! -- before resolving to the Bm D G that is pretty familiar from a more standard pop song. E7sus4 is the shape that hangs over the space before the chorus in "Everybody Has the Blues."
The D7sus4 chord is the one that sounds most "James Taylor-ish" to me. Just strum it (xx0213) a few times and you can't help singing the next line: "You just call out my name..."
Okay, just a few things to think about when trying to master these tunes. Have fun!
Two local institutions are working together to bring music — and food — to Newton residents.
On Sunday May 6, at Pine Manor College, the Newton Family Singers (NFS), a local chorus of 75 singers from kindergarten to retirement age will be performing In the Name of Love, a concert of music by the Irish rock band U2.
“Bono has one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, and our musical director Chris Eastburn has done a wonderful job arranging the songs in four part [vocal] harmony,” said Stephanie Cogen, co-founder of the group. “And of course we always encourage our audience to sing along with us.” A four piece rock band will accompany the singers.
In the spirit of U2, Newton Family Singers is supporting a local charity, the Newton Food Pantry. “We’re asking our audience members to bring non-perishable food items and other household goods to the concert,” says Emily Prenner, of NFS. Donated items can be exchanged for raffle tickets, and all the donations and any cash proceeds from the raffle will be given to the food pantry.
Newton Food Pantry Vice President Regina Wu said, “The Newton Food Pantry is grateful for the support, and for the opportunity to increase awareness in our neighborhood about food insecurity.” Residents who need food assistance, as well as donors and volunteers, can find more information on the Newton Food Pantry website, newtonfoodpantry.org.
This is not the first fundraiser Newton Family Singers has held. In 2017 they raised over $9,000 for Best Buddies. In 2014 they raised over $10,000 for two local organizations that support individuals with autism and their families.
More information and tickets can be found at newtonfamilysingers.org/events
I have a confession to make: I'm not a big U2 fan.
I mean, I like a lot of their songs, and they've been a constant in my life, but the only album I bought was Achtung Baby (and I think I bought at least two copies after one disappeared).
After playing and listening to their songs intensely for a few weeks, I've had time to think about why the band hadn't really appealed to me -- and why I've come to change my mind.
First, I'm generally not a huge fan of over-processed music. I like playing music, and I like hearing how things are played. The Edge's reliance on delays and other effects pedals (and the subsequent martial beat required of Larry Mullen to keep steady with the electronics) impressed me but never won me over because it was all hidden in a metaphoric black box.
After spending some time with our lead guitarist Chip and Gary Backstrom (formerly Jiggle the Handle, now of the Gary Backstrom Band and the Family Folk Chorale), they helped decipher some of the techniques and I've come to appreciate the simplicity of the playing under the barrage of notes. Lots of new ways to add a 4th to a chord or arpeggio! The chording that opens "Pride" is really clever.
And to be honest, even though I still don't totally understand it, I've always loved that crazy guitar sound that starts "Mysterious Ways," so maybe I was kidding myself about over-processed sounds.
Second, early on I dismissed Bono's lyrics as stridently political. And as much as I appreciated the power of politics, it wasn't something I wanted to sing about. Crowds chanting anthems always kind of freak me out, even when they are chanting something I believe in. That's why I love Achtung Baby -- I can get behind songs of love pretty easily.
I recently found this excellent fan site, atU2, that has a list of all their songs (including minor lyric alterations in recorded live shows) and a published quote from the band (mostly Bono) about what they were writing about. And it turns out Bono and I share the same opinion about some of these lyrics -- heavily emotional and hung on subjects somewhat haphazardly:
"'Pride' started out as an ecstatic rant. We looked for a subject big enough to demand this level of emotion that was coming out. ... There was a lot of emotion there, but to be honest with you, as a lyric it's daft. No, not daft. It's just not deft. It's a missed opportunity. I even get the time of Dr. King's assassination wrong. I said, 'Early morning-April four.' It was early evening." - Bono, Rolling Stone 2005
That site also pointed out to me that "One," which was I always thought was a break-up song, was written about a different kind of relationship: a gay man coming out to his father. That really turns my head around and I've come to appreciate the lyrics even more.
Third, U2 has at times seemed like Bono's band. That's sort of ridiculous since The Edge pretty much defines the sound, but Bono's strong personality and seeming ubiquity can make it seem like a one man show.
This is where Chris Eastburn changed my mind. As usual, Chris did a wonderful job choosing and arranging the songs we are singing, and in doing so he's transformed how I think about the songs. I truly believe that these are some of the best vocal arrangements our group has sung. It may be related to the open, arpeggiated musical backgrounds that they are laid over. It certainly has to do with the songs that hit that pop sweet spot: the balance between simplicity and repetition versus complexity and a sense of the new. Maybe it's because the chorus knows and loves these songs. In any case, hearing fifty voices harmonizing on "40" or "In God's Country" can sound like a church choir.
So, three reasons that kept me from embracing the band are now dismissed. Somehow these very particular songs from particular decades and from a specific European island have become universal sing alongs to me. They really are fun to sing along to and I hope lots of people come out to sing with us on May 6, 2018. Should be a good one.
We hope you enjoyed our Bob Marley show as much as we did. I know around my house the random whistling you hear is often the melody to One Love.
Well, for our next show, we're changing the melody but maybe not the lyrics.
As a special "thank you" to the group, Terry Chen and Joseph Rothchild treated the Newton Family Singers to an afternoon of square dancing!
Beth Parkes from dancecallers.com got us all moving around in circles and squares, dosey-doe-ing and generally having a great time. The various American and English folk dances took a minute to get used to, but Beth was terrific at reading the crowd and giving us each a new step to learn once we mastered the last. Plus, her calls were like ad lib singing over the music.
The event was crowned by the Virginia Reel -- a real crowd-pleaser.
Then Beth flipped her sound system over to a playlist of popular dance songs from the 70s to today -- including a few that we've sung in concert! Much boogeying was had by all.
Thank you, Joseph and Terry!
We were on TV!
Local filmmaker and singer-songwriter, Deb Todd Wheeler, filmed our Happiness Is the Truth show from December 2016 and made a concert/documentary that aired on NewTV, the public cable access channel of our hometown of Newton, MA.
It's a 30 minute film and you can see it here.
Deb did a fantastic job getting great sound and images, and then recombining them in a way that is at turns funny, entertaining, and inspiring. Worth a look.
From the Waban Improvement Society newsletter:
On April 9, 2017, two young but established Waban institutions joined up at the Greater Boston JCC to create an afternoon of music and fun and to raise some money for a good cause. Newton Family Singers’ spring concert, One Voice, was a benefit in collaboration with Team Believe for Best Buddies, an organization that helps our neighbors and family members with developmental and intellectual disabilities find employment and build lasting friendships. Through sponsorships, tickets, raffles and concessions, they raised over $9,000!
Chris Eastburn, musical director of Newton Family Singers, chose a great setlist for the show -- although he claims little credit. “People suggested lots of great songs with themes of friendship, community and self-esteem and it was just a matter of choosing some that would sound good in four-part harmony.”
The show opened with “One Day,” a song co-written by Matisyahu, the Jewish-American reggae singer, which has a sentiment like John Lennon’s “Imagine”: looking forward to a world in peace. There were plenty of familiar songs that people sang along to, by the likes of Carole King, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Katy Perry, U2 and the Four Tops.
Scott Leung surprised the audience -- and even some of his partners on stage -- when he extemporized at the end of “You’ve Got a Friend,” singing “Here we are at the JCC / where it feels so good to have a Best Buddy” to laughter and applause.
Another highlight was Nejma Reza (11) leading the group in Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder.” That song, with its lyrics celebrating the blessings of an unnamed child whose condition baffles doctors, inspired RJ Palaccio’s terrific novel Wonder (available at the Waban Library Center)! Our rendition also featured a solo by Ben Chelminsky, a young man with Autism who has sung with Newton Family Singers since 2012. “People see me/ I’m a challenge to your balance / I’m over your heads how I confound you and astound you,” he sang. Ben’s mother Daphne Romanoff says that singing in harmony with Newton Family Singers is one of Ben’s favorite activities each week.
Appropriately for Team Believe, the concert ended with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” featuring a string quartet arrangement by Eastburn. That finale featured some special guests -- members of Team Believe on stage singing along, including long-time Waban residents Josh, Alex, Marianne and Steve Yood, Matthew, Christopher and Theresa Fitzpatrick and Ava Harder.
When the concert ended, the band played an instrumental to walk people off the stage… but no one wanted to leave! The combination of good music, good will and a good cause was too potent to let go. “A few years ago we had a fundraiser for the Asperger/Autism Network,” said Monique Byrne. “The concerts where we’re raising money for a charity that is particularly meaningful to us really add something special to the atmosphere.”
If you’d like to hear a selection of songs from that concert, make sure to come out to hear the Newton Family Singers on Waban Village Day!
After this Spring's concert, we will probably have a social gathering and people will say nice things about lots of people, including me as the director of the band. I will do my best to smile graciously and deflect, but really, if I had the time and the presence of mind, I would say something nice about the band. I would probably say something like this:
I've told people this before, but my family joining Newton Family Singers was motivated by a conversation I had with a friend. "How do I get better at playing guitar?" I asked him. His answer: Play with other people.
I suspect a lot of people are bedroom guitarists, like I was. That is, happy to sit at home strumming away to myself. But, emboldened by my friend's advice, I struck up a conversation at the local elementary school with a guy who played bass. We got together to play a couple of times, and I instantly understood what my friend meant. To play with other people requires you to focus, to pay more attention to tempo and pitch and just be more in the moment.
A month or so later when I heard there was a musical group forming at the Waban Library, I convinced my wife to join and bring the kids.
I've played with a lot of people in the NFS band since then, and I've gotten a lot better on my instrument. (Still room for improvement!)
Another way to say that is that I've learned a lot with everyone who's been in the band, especially Andy Rogovin (a natural and patient teacher) and Neil Johnson (now playing around Boston in his band Beyond the Blur). And I want to salute all the musicians who come in for a song or two each concert, like Joseph Rothschild among others. And of course, Quinn Eastburn is his own force of nature.
However, I wanted to take this moment to just heap some praise on the current, core NFS band, which has remained essentially the same since 2015.
Bernie Bernstein is the bassist I met at the elementary school years ago. Bass players are often quiet personalities who anchor a band without being flashy or showing off. Bernie is a quintessential bass player -- he is always playing exactly what the music needs. I suspect a lot of people don't actively listen to what Bernie is playing but can nonetheless sense when he's there, holding us all together. He's got a terrific ear for melody and rhythm and it's amazing how quickly he can learn a part for a small group, five minutes after being asked to join them.
Mike Klein is a super solid drummer. Let's be frank, keeping time for our group can be ... tough. In a rock band, they set the tempo and go from beginning to end. With NFS, we're conducted with a lot of skill and musicality by Chris Eastburn so the tempos may shift or suspend here and there to accommodate singers and convey emotional intentions. Mike is essentially keeping a shifting tempo -- which is an oxymoron. On top of that, he plays with a lot of color and emotion. I don't tend to think of drumming as emotional, but I find myself moved by subtle dynamic changes or fills that Mike adds to our songs.
Our lead guitarist Chip Highfield is the hardest working member of NFS. Seriously. I know you all practice at home (right?) and maybe you put in a few extra hours in a week singing to the cd or picking notes out at a piano. Chip and I get together regularly (always at his insistence) throughout a session, with Bernie and Mike if they have time. And while it's impressive when Chris suddenly asks Chip to play 16 bars extemporaneously, it's equally amazing that Chip learns guitar solos from the bands we're covering. He learns John Fogerty's part on "Proud Mary," he can play all the Jen Turner fills on "Wonder." Think about how much work goes into learning a vocal part in one song -- a part that someone has written out for you. Now imagine learning the part yourself and essentially being a soloist on every song! That's not just instinct; that's hours and hours of listening, and then even more hours of playing along. I get emails from Chip about what might seem like minutiae -- he's just been listening to a live version of some song and the chord change they use is a bit different from what we've been playing: should we try it? Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, but I'm always just astounded at the amount of research that goes into everything Chip plays. And of course, once he starts going, he plays fluidly; Chip never sounds like he's playing an etude, he's always playing an aria. .
I feel very lucky to be standing among these players and hearing Mike add a happy reggae fill to a song, or hear Bernie jump up a couple octaves to play a wind instrument part, or Chip play a weird little note that I once noticed on the recording.
There are a few people in NFS that I know can sing their own part while listening to everything the band is doing. (In contrast, I have no idea what people are singing when I'm just trying to play along to some songs.) I know who they are because they look over and smile and make eye contact when someone plays something new and pleasing. Chris Eastburn occasionally makes comments like, "Chip, you added a 6th on the second to last measure, that was kind of cool."
More likely, you're one of the majority of people who isn't sure exactly what the band members are doing, just that they sound pretty great.
I agree, whole-heartedly.