Category Archives: rock music

Vox in a Box

Paranoid VoxoidFirst, the bad news: the real thing will set you back at least $1,600 new. At the low end. A true, working, vintage model will cost considerably more. Much more. And there’s nothing like the real thing.

The good news: you can fake it for considerably less.

We’re talking about the Vox AC30 amplifier, particularly the Top Boost model. In a field that seems dominated by Fender, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie (the sort of holy trinity of clean, crunch, and gonzo) and their “inspirations,” Vox amps kind of sit off to the side. Which is funny because if you run an AC30 light, you get the lovely, clear, chimey midrange and sparking treble associated with the amp. Turn it up, and you get a rich, soulful crunch. Crank it over, and you get this fantastic, singing overdrive. The trinity, all in one. And none of it sounds like anything else.

That’s where it gets tricky: what exactly is that Vox sound? You’d think you could nail it by listening to AC30 players, but the amp’s versatility and quirkiness complicates that. This is an amp serving the Beatles, the Shadows, the Stones (in the Decca years), Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Ray Davies, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Thom Yorke), Matt Bellamy, Dave Grohl, Braid Paisley, Tom Verlaine, the Yardbirds, and Brian May.

If one player serves as a Rosetta stone, it’s The Edge. Famously he’s said to have played a battered, 1964-era AC30 (in a Seventies cabinet) on every U2 album and concert. Not every cut, of course. At this point, The Edge can pretty much own any amp made, and he’s known to use Fender Deluxes, Fender Blues Juniors, Roland JC120s (like that’s a surprise), and a 50-watt Marshall. But, if you say his name to a guitar freak, an AC30 comes to mind. And there’s probably no better example of the classic AC30 sound as “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There’s the delay, of course—part of The Edge’s signature. I believe he’s playing a Fender Stratocaster: those single-coil pickups add to the chirp. But it wouldn’t have quite the same…shimmer without the Vox. Chime, jangle, ring—whatever you want to call it: it’s more than just a clear treble. There’s a fullness and a warmth to a sound that otherwise could prove piercing. Somewhere, there’s a piano hiding inside that box.

That broad, balanced clarity carries through to AC30 players who run their amps hot. Brian May runs a whole backline of them, and obviously he cranks the hell out of them for that overdriven, “violin-like” sound, but, despite the gain, you can still hear the notes. You have to work pretty hard, slathering on the effects, to blur the AC30’s crystalline qualities (that’s you I’m looking at, Kevin Shields…even though even Shields dirties it up with Marshalls).

And maybe it’s no surprise that “effects” and “AC30” go together: there’s something the amp loves about delays, tremolo, reverb, and other modulation effects. A touch goes a long ways, but the amp holds its sonic fingerprint even…if you’re The Edge.

The amp also weighs about 50 pounds and can get seriously loud—very likely more than you’ll need in smaller venues. So it’s not really the amp for open mic night.

The good news is that the modelers and pedal designers have long had their eyes/ears on the AC30, and digital approximations have been built into many multieffects units—high and low end. Ersatz, perhaps, but it’s a start, and the technology continues to improve.

A better option, especially if you already have a tube amp, is to set it up to run as clean as possible and add a stompbox dedicated to replicating an AC30. Tech 21 make a well-regarded Liverpool box, and similar boxes include: the Martin AC-tone , the Menatone Top Boost in a Can  (come on, that’s a great name), the Xotic AC Booster, the Catalinbread CB30  (note: one of many gifted Portland guitar effects companies), and the Joyo AC (which only runs about $40…Joyo’s a whole story in itself).

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. They seem to have bottled a bit of the AC30 mojo in a unit that rolls from sparkle to roar (with a sweet crunch in the middle), and I think I hear just a bit of compression to add a tube dynamic, because AC30s are known for their responsiveness. It works okay by itself or with a solid state amp, but pair it with a clean, neutral tube amp, and you might find yourself wandering down Abbey Road. For a couple of hours. This video from guitarist Pete Thorn lays it out quite nicely: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nJZUU_ZJHzc (Hint: crank it up.)

Plus, you know, it’s hard to toss an AC30 in your gig bag. Your ears may be a little bummed, but your back will thank you.


Why Write for the Stage?

photoFor a change, money is not the answer.

Oh, one can make a buck or two writing plays, and there’s a refreshing point in one’s career where the contracts rise to the four- or five-digit level. And, if you write a hot play that does well at the Humana Festival and becomes a favorite among the regional theatres and you get a write-up in American Theatre magazine and make a dozen other perfect bank shots…you could see a pretty good year or two. Until the next flavor comes along. Winning a Pulitzer helps. Maybe.

But even the folks ostensibly making it usually have to supplant their incomes, often through teaching or, lately, writing for television…which is one reason why the writing quality for non-broadcast programs has increased so…well, dramatically.

What do you have left if you take money out of the picture? Control. And love.

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Three Sheets to the Wind

I make my daily bread as a technical editor, hammering the words of economists and engineers into business English. It’s a good gig for a creative writer: you get to work with words all day, but you don’t have to invent them, which taxes the writing gland (and which is why I gave up journalism, for all its pleasures).

I’ve found, however, that I can’t edit while listening to music with lyrics (unlike creative writing, where I often use music to key off the words, putting me in a particular mood, or bringing me back at the beginning of a writing session).
That kind of leaves you with jazz, which I love—but it can be a bit too complex for sustained listening, and classical, which I also love—but it can become a little too relaxing after a long day of fixing punctuation. Sometimes, you need a little…juice.
Thus, I rediscovered instrumental rock, particularly featuring guitar. That is to say: Jeff Beck, who’s probably my favorite living electric guitarist (Hendrix still reigns supreme). Besides having unbelievable chops, Beck’s playing’s so smart, expressive, sometimes funny, and inventive that’s it’s a pleasure to revisit again and again. And, if you’re losing altitude in the afternoon, there’s nothing like a little “Big Block” to step on the accelerator.

But, let’s face it, a steady diet of the same dishes, even by the world greatest chefs, can get a little stale. Thus, of late, I’ve been exploring a bit, getting into some of the “fusion” players, the straight-up, wondrous weirdness of Eric Johnson and Steve Vai (don’t get help, guys…just keep playing), and, just recently, one Mr. Joe Satriani.

I had my reservations. I kind of associate Satriani with metal and shredding, neither of which particularly speak to me, as much as one might admire the players’ technique. There’s a sameness, a formula, to much of what I’ve heard from the metal guys that just doesn’t click with me: what difference does it make if you can spit out a jillion notes per bar if they’re the same ones used by a hundred other players? And the “I’ve got Big Balls” lyrics get old. Apparently, I lack the metal receptors.

I’d heard good stuff about Satriani, though, and I found him immensely personable in interviews; so I went all the way back to his album “Surfing with the Alien”—the source, so to speak—and, somewhere in there, I began to hear something different. Some great playing, of course, but also a sense of adventure that started to resonate with me. And, as I listened to more of his work, I heard an artist pushing himself—and writing some damn catchy melodies, in with all the whammy bar acrobatics, wah pedal workouts, and flying harmonics. That and something he seems to share with Beck—a sense of humor, which goes a long ways in adding to the likeability factor.

So there I was, feeling some genuine excitement when picking up his brand new album, “Unstoppable Momentum” at Music Millennium: I’d caught up with his contemporary music, and here I was, picking it up hot from the lathe.

It didn’t disappoint. The cuts had the energy and fun, mixed in with serious intent, that I heard from his best stuff, and I thought: cool…I have a new editing soundtrack.

Until I got to “Three Sheets to the Wind,” the album’s fourth cut, and everything…stopped. I went from rocking to listening. Not only did it sound different from the other songs, it was different. A mix of old and modern music, searching for something new—looking both back and forward. And, by the time, the big Marshall amp guitar sound roars in at the climax, I felt the bottom drop out, like wheels leaving the tarmac, and that bird took flight.

Art—good art—is tremendously difficult to pull off, no matter what medium you’re working in. But, when it does, there’s simply nothing to beat it. We may be weird monkeys, with too much gray matter for our own good, but we do make strange and sometimes wonderful things. And, just once in awhile, we get it so right that we transcend ourselves. Which I suppose is why we keep doing it—because it’s such a damn rush when we take that extra step.

So…props to Joe Satriani, and congratulations for succeeding (the rest of the album’s also quite good). Now, of course, he has to start over and do it again. Without repeating himself. Which is why being an artist, in addition to its thrills and straight-up terror, can be such a bitch.

[Editor’s note: So, if you’re a professional editor, pal, how come your blog has so many grammatical glitches and left out words? Because it’s almost impossible to proofread your own writing. Your brain knows how it’s supposed to go; so, naturally, it just fills in the blanks, and you end up recklessly dangling participles, mixing metaphors, repeating words repetitively, or even sometimes leaving out whole.]


Seeing Around Corners


The unmistakable clean, sharp cutting guitar tone, with just a little hair on it. Enough to catch. Hook. The sound of Robbie Robertson’s new album, “How to Become Clairvoyant.”

A very cryptic title, that one. Honestly, I didn’t care for it when I first heard of it. It sounded just a little…corny. The title song, it turns out, is stone brilliant, and you don’t get to it until the next-to-last song. Robertson doesn’t give it up just like that. Like a good writer, he knows to make you wait.

The last song is a tribute to Django Reinhardt, who, along with Robert Johnson, seems to vie for the ultimate guitarist’s guitarist (even Les Paul bowed to him). This song bears close listening, particularly the end. And no, I’m not telling why.

I’ve liked all of Robertson’s post-Band albums, some more than others, as with all artists. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and “Skinwalker” are among Robertson’s best songs–a very high bar when you consider what he’s written.

This album, though, reflects a mature artist both living in the present and looking back with clear eyes. He never was The Band’s strongest singer–then again, the other guys were some of the best singers in popular music–but he has his own, distinctive tone and phrasing, and here he’s comfortable with what he can and can’t do, using his strenghts. Eric Clapton plays on about half the tracks (and co-wrote a couple, plus one instrumental’s all his writing), and Robertson seems to bring out the best in Clapton, who’s an artist who seems to thrive when collaborating.

A couple songs slip into cliches lyrically, but Robertson, like Bob Dylan, seems keenly aware of those cliches, and uses them as tools rather than crutches. There are enough songs full of original writing that there’s no fear Robertson’s slacking. Rather, he’s having fun. If you take those songs that way, you will too.

Besides the title cut, some of the killers here are “He Don’t Live Here No More,” “Won’t Be Back,” and, especially, “This is Where I Get Off.” The latter reflects the end of The Band, which, over the years, has prompted some resentments toward Robertson, particularly in Levon Helm’s very good autobiography.

It’s tough when you separate from an artistic collaborators. Close artistic partners usually have to become friends just to survive together, much less accomplish anything. You spend substantial time with them, sometimes under great pressure, and you learn their strengths and weaknesses, which you rely on or compensate for (as they do with you), resulting in a unique, complex affection. You can hear that tenderness–and pain through severance–in Robertson’s vocal. I think it’s fair to assume he misses what The Band could do as much as his listeners, but he knows it belongs to the past, especially as Richard Manuel and Rick Danko have passed on.

There’s a hint, though, of Manuel’s ghost in “This is Where I Get Off.” The album’s strong backup singers, particularly on that cut, echo The Band’s great harmonies without imitating them, including a haunting falsetto counterpoint to Robertson that recalls Manuel’s gorgeous voice, which could pull off a falsetto as well as the best Motown singers. It doesn’t come in until that song’s powerful, final chorus, and Robertson’s too careful and smart an artist for it to be coincidence. It’s heard but briefly, leaving Robertson to finish the song alone.

As it should be.


The Thousand-Yard Stare

This weekend, I saw “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ film about Bob Dylan. Portland has a couple notable filmmakers. Haynes is one of them. He’s made a beautiful film, the kind you walk out of thinking: I wish I’d made that. If you’re out there, Mr. Haynes, thank you.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Dylan. Knew who he was. Knew “Like a Rolling Stone,” of course. Everybody knew that, along with a handful of the protest songs, maybe “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He just never quite clicked. The Stones fit so much better with all the testosterone I was dealing with.

It was when I got to college and ran into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for an intro to poetry class that I went: hmm. This is interesting. A friend’s girlfriend (who I was secretly in love with) loaned me “Bringing It All Back Home,” and, wham! I had to hear everything he’d done. Right now.

And I pretty much have. Dylan’s work is hard to like. You have to be flexible. Work on faith. I don’t think he even delights in confounding us–he just keeps moving, following his instincts, and we come along or not. I think he’s had to, so many people trying to fit him in a frame, hang him on a wall. “Poet” is a pretty hard brand to market. Almost as tough as selling poetry.

Other musicians, I like their sound or lyrics or the mood or time they take me to. I like some songs from almost every genre. A few bands–the Stones, the Airplane, the Doors, the Clash, REM, Nirvana, U2–are inextricably woven into places and events of my life. But I think only Dylan’s work has gone as deep, reached down and become one with my personal history.

“Blind Willie McTell” says pretty much everything I feel about America: bountiful, damned, mysterious. Haunted.

A lone tree in an empty field erupts in flame. Burns. Silently falls to the group. Smoke rises through dusk. Then all is dark, save a red moon rising.


Eagles Attack America: Film at 11:00

Falling into the category beyond prima facie absurd, right-wingers have drawn themselves all the way up on two legs and have pronounced the new Eagles album “Long Road Out of Eden” as an attack on America:

http://newsbusters.org/blogs/warner-todd-huston/2007/11/05/eagles-new-album-slamming-america-throughout

Which should have anyone who loves rock’n’roll flat on their backs, laughing hysterically–no, no, let me catch my breath–going, “Well, yeah, they’re The Eagles!” They hate you so much they put out a double-album! And from most reviews, they still sound like The Eagles, which means they’ll likely be carpet-bombing an FM “classic rock” station near you very shortly.

But no, these folks are objecting to The Eagles writing melodic, moody, country-tinged tunes about global warming as some kind of a Clockwork Orange rape of American sensibilities. So much for peaceful, easy feelings. Don Henley doesn’t dig you, America. He hates your SUVs, your way of life. He’s against freedom, and he thinks all the troops are baby-killing psychopaths. He wants you, take a deep breath, to feel guilty.

Yeah, dude. Uh-huh. When all indications are that The Eagles are still idling on the corner of Winslow, Arizona, watching the tequila sunrise, and trying to finally check the hell out of the Hotel California. Ah well…one of these nights. I knew Glenn Frey has a little bit of that weird jihad flame in his eyes….


But…Joe Walsh? Plays a mean slide, but, as we all know, he can’t find the door and they took away his license so now he can’t drive and he spends his day bowling and picking up dog doo (hope that it’s hard, woof-woof).

Joe Walsh can’t buckle his pants, much less affix a suicide bomber’s belt.

So–and really, I never thought I would ever, ever say this–but, fellow desperados, go buy the new Eagles album. You don’t have to play it. Just buy the bastard. Besides, the cover art’s pretty. Make it a movement. And while you’re at it, let’s bring back Quaaludes, Panama Red, and decent blow that hasn’t been stepped on with baby laxative. Talking about loving our true way of life.

But please. No flare pants.

My God. What if the Bay City Rollers have become Muslim extremists? Now I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight.