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February 2008
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House of Floyd

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If you're among the die hard Pink Floyd fans waiting in vain for a reconciliation between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, I've got good news.  No, there isn't a reunion.  But a close approximation is on tour through Northern California with Mark Showalter's brilliant House of Floyd tribute.

I managed to catch this seven piece band at a gig in Santa Cruz a few weeks back, and they put on a smashing live show.  House of Floyd gets as close to note-perfect as any band I've ever seen --including Roger Waters' own "Dark Side of the Moon" tour last year.  The set list is always a closely held secret since it changes for every gig, but the show I saw spanned a range of early Sid Barrett-era songs all the way through "Wish You Were Here," "Animals," "The Wall," and "Momentary Laps of Reason."  And much to the audience's delight, they played "Dark Side of the Moon" in its entirety.   

While it's not a stadium extravaganza, House of Floyd managed to put on a pretty impressive light show complete with lasers, psychadelic effects, video projection and, yes, a floating pig.  To my surprise, the video and effects added a lot to the ambience and impact of many songs.  It was interesting juxtaposition to see weird pig cartoons combined with video of politicians during "Pigs (3 Different Ones)." 

The overall musicianship of the band was incredible.  Showalter deftly played keyboards, sax and sang his fair share of vocals.  Guitar player Pat Potter did some amazing Gilmour-inspired leads that were note perfect and soulful.  And Bill Coonley juggled keyboards, guitar, lapsteel, vocals and who knows what else.  With such a top-notch band, it's no wonder they are able to recreate Floyd's many studio hits with precision.  And these are songs that every fan knows note for note.  So its' no small feat to be able to be able to play these songs.  I can only imagine the weeks and months of practice to make these songs perfect.  And to top it all off, they brought out a children's choir for "Another Brick in the Wall #2."

Of course, how close any tribute band recreates the sound of the original depends both on musicianship and, perhaps unfairly, on the vocalist.  For 90% of the songs, House of Floyd were spot on, if a bit heavy on the reverb for some vocals.  (Hey, if it helps capture that classic sound, why not?)  However, there were a couple of David Gilmour numbers that were hard to match.  Maybe it was an off night, but Pat Potter couldn't quite capture Gilmour's vocal style on "Money," despite great guitar work and overall musicianship.  But then again, I had the same feeling at the Roger Waters concert.  I guess no one can really do Gilmour's vocals the way he can.  And, suprisingly, some moments that I thought would have been impossible to capture, like the opening drums of "Time," or the orgasmic vocals of "Great Gig in the Sky," well, those were breathtaking. 

I managed to shoot about a dozen video clips from the show which I've posted on YouTube, as well as a couple dozen of the best photos on PicasaWeb.  This was the most fun I've had in ages.  So check it out.  Better yet, see House of Floyd live at one of their upcoming shows throughout Northern California.  And breathe, breathe in the air.


Peavey 258: All The Rage

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The boffins over at Peavey have figured out a way to cram tube-like sounds in their Rage 258 amp using their new TransTube technology.  The result transforms a compact 25 watt amp from a lightweight into a clean playing champ that goes beyond most practice amps.  The sound seems larger than should be possible with the super 8” Blue Marvel speaker and sounds great at the other end of my retro Strat reissue.

I bought this thing in a small guitar/amp store that felt obligated to point out to me that this was not the EFX version with numerous onboard effects features like flanger, delay, octaver, touch wah, reverb, chorus, phaser, etc. But after trying the plain-jane 258 model and working through the different sound and tone settings, I was more than happy to save the extra $50 bucks.  But if you're looking for a wider range of tones and effects, then by all means check out the Peavey 258 EFX model.  Technically it's been discontinued but you can still find it in some shops.

The sound out of this amp is loud and clear enough that you could almost (but not quite) get away with playing a small club or school gym. Loud enough anyway that my wife has told me a few times now to “turn that thing down!” Peavey literature explains that the reason for the clear sound quality at high volume is a result of the power amp behaving much like a tube output section. The preamp responds with natural compression that increases as the amp gets louder. This little amp plays huge and the 3 band EQ offers very legitimate tone difference through each setting.

Case in point, switching from “clean” to “lead” and pointing the pre/post gain at each other while selecting the “vintage” mode allowed me to bang off a heavy metal homage to Neil Young’s classic “Out of the blue”. A slight adjustment to the gain and I was doing another pretty good imitation of the scrappy rock/metal sound that Joe Walsh put out for “Walk Away”.

Switching back to “clean” and opting for the “modern” setting with my Strat on the neck pick-up provided that un-mistakable Mark Knopfler plunk ‘n twang groove. All in all, the settings on this amp offer a legitimate range of distinct sounds that I would have expected from a larger more expensive amp.

My first inclination in looking for a practice amp was to go smaller, with less wattage/more portability. But with 25 watts and plenty of volume playing out of one of those nifty little Blue Marvel speakers and only 16 pounds of carry weight; there’s no need to go any smaller when you can pick up one of these little boom puppies for a mere hundred bucks and some pocket change.

The standard Peavey Rage 258 has the following features:

  • 25 Watts RMS power
  • Super-Duty Blue Marvel speaker
  • 3-band EQ
  • 2 channels
  • Tape/CD aux input/direct out
  • Pre and post gain knobs
  • Master volume
  • Stack/Modern/Vintage voicing switch
  • Headphone jack
  • Dimensions: 19-1/4" W x 15-1/2" H x 9-1/2" D
  • Weight: 16 pounds

If you haven't figured out Peavey's numbering convention by now, 258 means 25 watts, 8 inch speaker.  They also have a 158 model (15 watts, 8 inch speaker) bass amp.  The Peave Rage 258 lists for $149 and sells for around $120 at Guitar Center


The Smithereens Live from SXSW in Austin

The Smithereens, along with Seven Mary Three, played a private party sponsored by Sun Microsystems at the SXSW conference in Austin last week.  The band put on an excellent set including classics like "Behind The Wall of Sleep," "Room with a View," "Cigarette" and a couple of covers including "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Behind Blue Eyes."   Even though this was a smaller-scale gig than when I saw them in November at Cow Palace, the band gave it their all right down to the finale with "A Girl Like You." Then they took it even further with a couple of encores that had Jim Babjak playing his Telecaster in the audience.  For Smithereens fans, it was a great moment! 

I managed to get some good photos and also a some video which I've posted on YouTube. Unfortunately, the sound on some of the videos is a bit distorted since I was very close to the speakers.  I'll post the results of a backstage interview with Smithereens guitar player Jim Babjak in a few days.  The Smithereens is one of the best classic American rock bands in thirty years, outlasting punk, new wave, synth-pop and dozens of pretenders.  They've got a distinct sound, rich vocal harmonies and catchy, timeless melodies. It's music you just want to turn up to 11!

Watch for a new live album that's been recorded recently and should be out in May.  There's also a tour shaping up that will take them through the east coast and the midwest. I hope they'll add some more west coast dates and make it to the bay area again this year.


New Taylor Solidbody Electrics

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Taylor has long been known as one of the best acoustic guitar builders in the world, but until recently they've stayed out of the electric guitar market.  But that changed a few months ago with their new series of solid body electric guitars.  Not surprisingly, they're getting rave reviews.  I managed to check out the new Taylor Solidbody electrics in a couple of local guitar stores.  In short, these guitars live up to the hype. 

Right now these new models are in somewhat short supply as production is limited.  There are three models: the Classic, the Standard and for whom money is no object, the Custom.  While they share a lot of commonality in terms of design and components, each is unique in its body color and tone.  The Classic model (left in the above photo) is aptly named given its retro white color and styling.  It's the only one of the Taylor's that's truly a solidbody; the higher end models are chambered to improve tonality and reduce weight.  At 8 pounds, the Classic feels solid, if not svelt.  Starting at $1500 for the Classic and over two grand for the Custom, these are not cheap guitars.  But if you're looking for something different than the typical US-made Strat or Les Paul, this is a good way to go.   Taylor's unique custom pickups, tone control and selector provide for some unique tonal variety in a well constructed guitar.


iVideoSongs Beta

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I got a tip from a buddy in Santa Cruz about some new developments over at iVideoSongs, an instructional video site for musicians.  The beta version was launched at Silicon Valley's Demo conference in late January.  Now they've released over 20 tracks of Beatles songs with Giles Martin (who worked on Love compilation album) telling some behind the scenes stories.  The lessons include rockers like Revolution, Day Tripper, Paperback Writer, Help, Hard Day's Night as well many other classics.  The lessons are very detailed and cover all aspects of the song, typically running 15-50 minutes for each lesson.   

You can also view a preview before buying any lessons.  That's good since lessons range for $5 - $10 a pop, depending on the song and complexity.  Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" costs $4.99 while the Beatle's "Day Tripper" is $9.99.  The more expensive pricing is for songs that are taught by either the original artists or producers.  But it seems to me to add a level of unnecessary complexity.  (I'd rather learn Jet than the Beatles, but that's besides the point.)  That's cheaper than private lessons, but can add up. At least if you're paying $10 you'll have motivation to master the song.  And if you do, it's certainly worth the price. Even though the site is still in beta, it looks quite promising. 

There are lessons for Acoustic and Electric Guitar as well as Drums and Piano.  The genres of music covered include Rock, Indie, R&B, Pop, Folk and Country though some areas are quite sparse at the moment.  The lessons are categorized as beginner or intermediata and there are also free tutorials on Blues riffs, Pentatonic scales, Alternate Picking, Palm Muting and so on. 

As they build up their catalog of lessons (aiming for 1,000 by end of year) I hope they'll also offering a subscription pricing plan or some other kind of "frequent rocker program" for repeat customers.  Check out some of the tutorials or the footage on YouTube.


Carbon / Silicon on Tour --Who Dey?

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Ok, I'll forgive you for not knowing who Carbon / Silicon are.  I must admit, I was caught off guard myself.  A buddy told me about a new band he'd heard that sounded a lot like The Clash.  That's pretty understandable since the band was formed by ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones and ex-Gen-X bass player Tony James.   Carbon / Silicon is launching a US tour starting in March to promote their latest CD The Last Post.  They'll be kicking things off at Austin's mega music conference South by Southwest (SXSW) March 13 and then hitting the west coast with shows in LA, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and then gradually heading through the midwest and east coast through April with another 10 gigs.   

Tony James has an awesome blog and you can download MP3s directly from their site.  The music is lively and in, Tony's words, full of "positivity."