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August 2007

The Remains

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The Remains were one of the most promising rock bands in the mid 1960s and inspired dozens if not hundreds of others in garages around the country.  Not only were they hugely popular in their Boston hometown, they were signed to Epic records, appeared on Ed Sullivan and opened for The Beatles on their final US tour in 1966.  Despite a promising audition for Capitol, The Remains never broke out nationally and disbanded, losing faith in their prospects of a successful recording career.  We can only wonder what might have been...

Luckily, their Capitol session is available on CD as "A Session with the Remains."  This recording is arguably better than their album issued on Epic, capturing more of the raw power of their live recordings.  Lead singer and guitarist Barry Tashian rips through covers of "Hang on Sloopy," "Like a Rolling Stone," "All Day and All of the Night" as well as their own hit single "Why Do I Cry?"  Most, if not all, of the songs are as powerful today as they were 40 years ago.

The Remains reformed in 2002 and recorded a long awaited follow up called "Movin' On" with a few good songs.  They have also periodically toured Europe and the US.  Sony has now re-issued the original The Remains album with several bonus tracks. Check out the clip from YouTube of their appearance on Ed Sullivan.


Los Lobos at Montalvo

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Los Lobos played an excellent gig at Montalvo Arts Center in Los Gatos at their outdoor garden theater last weekend.  The opening act was a local bay area band, Will Bernard, whose band played a nice jazz / funk / fusion set which was at its best was melodic and inspiring and at its worst made me think of a porn soundtrack loop that had gone awry.  At any rate, no matter how good an opening act, people were there for one reason: Los Lobos.

If you're stilling asking yourself "Aren't those the guys who did La Bamba 25 years ago?" yes, you're right.  In fact the band has been playing, touring and recording for 30 years with their original line up and continues to put out great new material.  From their first album "Will the Wolf Survive?" to their most recent "The Town and the City" they've pushed the boundaries of latin rock and subtly evolved their sound to keep it relevant.  In short, there's a lot more to Los Lobos than La Bamba.

The band came on about quarter after 8:00 pm and continued for just under two hours with a mix of traditional mexican folk music, roots Rock 'n' Roll, and some new songs from their latest CD. Highlights for me included the salsa-styled "Chuca's Cumbia" and the haunting "The Valley"with Dave Hildago's growling Telecaster nicely offset by Louie's gently rising rhythm guitar.  (See the video below from YouTube for a live rendition.) They also played a nice Grateful Dead style cover of "Not Fade Away / Bertha" which was much appreciated by the audience.

It was also good to see Louie Perez step from behind the drums to add a third guitar along with Cesar Rosas for much of the show.  The result was a richer, more textured sound that worked equally well for traditional Mexican folk songs as well as the newer material.  The band has gotten tighter over the years, if a little wider in physique, but they sure can rock.  Cesar Rosas remains the coolest guy to ever where shades and say "Right on, brother."  The vocals were excellent, primarily shared by Dave and Cesar, who also traded off lead guitar. 

My only disappointment was the selection of Neil Young's Cinammon Girl as the encore.  Short of Neil Young coming on stage, I would have much rather heard more Los Lobos material, like Mas Y Mas.  The band is continuing to tour throughout the summer. If you get a chance, check it out.  It's a great show, even if they don't play La Bamba anymore. 


Six Pack with Phil Neal of Lapstick

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A few months back, I took a look at the Lapstick, which I called the ultimate travel guitar.  In Amsterdam, I spent several jet-lagged hours speaking with Phil Neal (above), the mad Dutch designer (by way of Canada) behind the Lapstick.  We talked about his background, his inspiration and what drove him to build an electric guitar that packs so much sound into  20 inches and weighing in at just over a pound.  After much delay, here is my "six pack" of interview questions with Phil.

If you're looking for a guitar that will challenge your playing and get you more practice hours while on the road, check out the Lapstick.  It's not for everyone, but it's a definitely a one of-a-kind electric guitar from a one-of-a-kind designer.  Phil has also created a number of custom modifications for customers including a Lapstick-style bass, humbucker-equipped Lapsticks and so on.

Q: How did you get started with the Lapstick?

Phil: When I turned pro, I had less time to practice.  It's the old cliche.  The pros never have time to practice and can't afford the best gear, either.  You're so busy on the phone getting gigs and travelling.  And if you don't work on technique, it rusts on you.  The guitar is a bitch of an instrument!  You need to practice all the time, two, three hours a day. 

Back in 1992, I was travelling to Spain a lot and I had a lot of downtime getting to and from gigs.  There was nothing in the market to do what I wanted.  So I took the elements I liked from a Telecaster and cut away everything I didn't need.  There's lots of wasted space on a standard electric guitar. 

The first version had a conventional headstock, but the machine heads got knocked out of tune all the time.  It was an octave higher and not a lot of fun to play.  So then I eliminated the headstock.  That got me another four more frets to work with.

I've continued to refine it so that there's no wasted space.  Sometimes I have to give a milimeter here or there, but I'm tough on myself.   I've toyed with the idea of adding a couple of extra inches.  But if you go to full scale, you can't play in a car!  I measured the space and you have just half a meter to work with in a car seat.  In some sense, I failed since the Lapstick is actually 51 centimeters long.

Q: How do you think the Lapstick compares to other travel guitars?

Phil: I approached things from a different point of view.  If I'm arrogant, I would say that the Lapstick is the only travel guitar.  It's not just a portable guitar.  I wanted something I could actually play on a train, in a plane, in the backseat of a car. The dutch trains are quite compact and I didn't want to be bumping into the passenger next to me!

I also wanted something that would make me a better player. When you're in the waiting lounge for a flight, you can strap on headphones and start playing.  With the Lapstick I improved my playing style.  I started venturing into the higher frets.  I did a few gigs after playing the Lapstick and the guys were like "Phil, you were on fire tonight!  What happened?"   And it's because the Lapstick made me more confident and precise in my playing.

Q: Tell me about the hardware you chose.

Phil: The hardware is custom made from a firm in Germany and it's top of the line.  It has an EMG Select humbucker pickup.  A single coil would give you too much interference. It has a tiny pre-amp housed in the back.  Everyone told me you couldn't get a pre-amp into a guitar. But I made it work. It's got built-in clean, distortion and overdrive settings and runs on a standard 9V battery for around 60 hours.  So you can just plug in a pair of headphones directly. And it's got a regular 1/8 inch jack for plugging into a standard amp which requires no battery power.

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The Select is a very quiet pickup, it's perfect for this type of guitar.  It's also used on the Steinberger.  I'm a great fan of Ned Steinberger, Steve Klein.  I met Steve Klein and I can't praise him enough.  I played one of his acoustics. It was an unbelievable instrument.  Steinberger's also great if you want something that's full scale but still somewhat portable.

Q: What music most interests you these days? 

Phil: My great love is blues and R&B.  I play some jazz. I listen to a lot of Miles Davis. I love classical music.  You can play Bach on a Lapstick.  No one said it would be easy.  It's work.  But when you go back to a full scale guitar, then it's easy.  Things you fight for and struggle with on the Lapstick then become much easier on a regular guitar.

I have a band is called Phil James and the Flames and we do a few gigs a month. When I was in bands, I got tired of having guys not show up to gigs, so I figured I may as well be in charge.  My son has been to a few gigs and that's a lot of fun for both of us.

Q. How did you start selling the Lapstick?

Initially I sold through a few shops, like Andy's on Denmark Street in London.  I had worked there as a guitar tech in the late 70's and 80s.  That was a crazy time.  Andy's was a who's who of the guitar industry.  I remember one time Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols came in and sold his Fender Twin reverb amp.  But then their manager came in later and wanted it back!  But selling through retail is a tough business, even for a shop like Andy's.  (Note: Andy's has since closed.)

Mostly now sales are online over the web. It's amazing that you can build a business like this on the Internet.  The first Lapstick I sold online went to a guy in Moscow.  It was on September 7, my birthday, which I took as a good omen.  He had a lot of faith to send the money just reading about it on the Internet!  But he's a crazy guy.  He tuned it to E, which I thought couldn't be done.  Most people tune it to A, some to G.  You could put a set of 9 strings on it and tune it to B if you wanted.  The tension on the strings has to feel right. 

Nowadays, most of the Lapsticks ship to the US, but I have a surprising number of customers from the UK. 

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Q: Who is a typical Lapstick customer? 

Phil: I thought originally the Lapstick would appeal to pro musicians who travel a lot, since that's where I was coming from.  That's about half of the sales.  The other half is from inventive musicians who use it on stage.  I'm not sure I would use it for a live gig.  With the Lapstick, there's nothing to hide behind!  You're really exposed on stage!  The other class of users are beginners.  It's good for kids.  It teaches you to be more precise.  Some folks use it and don't want to go back to a regular guitar.

The Lapstick is like having a kid.  It starts with a night of passion and it takes on a life of its own.  I strarted making two or three and now have built over a hundred.  As a builder, you never know what people will do with an instrument.  I see people out gigging with it, which is something I would probably never do.  But that's the cool thing about it.  It's a little different at first, but everyone who has bought one has gotten used to it and become a better player.  People tell me they have a lot of fun with it.  So to me the project has been a success.

You can find more information about the Lapstick at www.lapstick.com.  There's also a new online forums and videos on YouTube that give you a feel for what it's like to play the Lapstick.  Also, look for new announcements from Phil later this year.


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Upcoming Gigs in the Bay Area

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I was planning on seeing Hugh Cornwell playing at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco tonight.  In fact I wanted tickets for Hugh Cornwell for a long time.  But unfortunately, his west coast tour appears to have been postponed until September.  Now I'm debating whether to get tickets for Los Lobos (Villa Montalvo) or the Cowboy Junkies (Mountain Winery) later in July.  Both are nice small venues and should be well worth the price compared to the summer's expensive stadium shows.  I might just wait to see what last minute tickets cost on Craigslist to decide... Or if anyone has an extra ticket cheap, let me know.


Slim Devices SqueezeBox

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I finally got around to installing a SlimDevices SqueezeBox at home. The installation was fairly simple, though if you have a secure wireless network, you may need to enter in an encryption key in hexadecimal.  You can use this link to convert a WEP key into hex.

All tolled it took about 15 minutes, including messing with the cabinets while balancing a receiver from it's cables.  I didn't even have to reboot anything. Now I've got living room stereo access to all my MP3 songs from my desktop as well as Internet Radio, Pandora and the Squeezenetwork. It also supports most other unprotected audio formats including WMA, FLAC, AAC, Ogg Vorbis and WAV files.  I'm currently listening to a lot of Los Lobos, Hugh Cornwell (ex-Stranglers front man), Pink Floyd and legendary sixties garage rockers The Remains.

While Squeezebox is not the only way to get your MP3's onto a home stereo (I could have just plugged in my iPod), it works well, it's got a good display and the sound is excellent. 

If you're so inclined you can download the software for Windows, Mac, Linux, and check it out before buying a SqueezeBox. 


Two New Gadgets from Line 6

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The hardware modelling wizards over at Line 6 have introduced two new electronic gadgets: the Pocket POD and TonePort GX.  Both are slimmed down, portable versions of exisiting products. If you already have a POD or TonePort, these might be useful for travel, but mostly I think these gadgets get the price down close to or below $100 in order to make them an impulse purchase for new customers, or as an add-on when someone buys a more expensive Variax or Spider III amp.

The Pocket POD includes 300 preset tones from many current guitar gods as well as classic tones from the 50's through the 90's. It also has 16 built-in effects (chorus, delay, flanger, reverb) and 32 amp and cabinet models (Fender Reverb, Champ, Bassman, Marshall Plexi, Mesa Boogie, Vox) so you get all the expected Line 6 goodness.  The only problem is that with so many possibilities, you can easily get distracted customizing things instead of playing.

The TonePort line of products is designed for recording and also includes a range of 18 amp models, 24 speaker cabinets, 29 stompbox effects, but with just 1 input, compared to the other members of the TonePort family, the UX1, UX2 and KB 37, which have additional inputs, nobs, meters and the like. 

Since Line 6 earlier this year hired a new VP Marketing David Froker, perhaps this is part of a strategy to get broader retail distribution.  But at some point, I'm hoping they'll announce some new Variax products that go beyond even Fender's Stratocaster VG.  Coming up with minor tweaks to existing product lines is good, but I think they also need to be looking for more ways to innovate. 


Live Earth July 7

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Live Earth, a huge mega charity concert to raise awareness on global warming, will be held on July 7 in eight cities including New York, London, Rio, Sydney, Tokyo, Shamghai, Johannesberg and Hamburg.  The concert is organized by fromer US Vice President Al Gore and Kevin Wall, who helped with the Bob Geldof's original Live Aid concert as well as last year's Live 8.  Over 100 bands will be participating including The Police, AFI, Bon Jovi, Dave Matthews Band, Roger Waters, Smashing Pumpkins in the US, Black Eyed Peas, Duran Duran, Foo Fighters, Genesis, Madonna, Metalica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Spinal Tap in the UK.

The event will be broadcast over 120 different networks worldwide (including NBC, MSNBC, XM, Sirius, CTV, BBC) along with streaming video on MSN.  Tickets are still available at New York Giants' Stadium, in Australia, Japan, China, Germany.