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Once Were Brothers

Once were 2

A few months back, Robbie Robertson released "Once Were Brothers" a biography of The Band, adapted from his autobiography "Testimony." As with any good rock doc, it's a bittersweet story of the rise to stardom, fame and fortune followed by an inevitable decline. 

If you're at all interested in this story, you might know a little bit about The Band already, including backing Bob Dylan on his infamous 1966 world tour where he "went electric" to a chorus of boos every night from the die-hard folk fans. The roots of The Band go back earlier than that, though. It was formed by four Canadians from Southwest Ontario (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel), who joined up with Arkansas drummer Levon Helm to become the backing band for rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins in the early 1960s. 

The Band had its moment in the limelight in the late 1960s through the mid 70s. Their music created the American genre of music, as ironic as that is. Their first three albums stand the test of time with such classic songs as: The Weight, Stage Fright, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest. They influenced artists as diverse as George Harrison, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Elvis Costello, The Wallflowers, the Black Crows, Drive-by Truckers and Paul Kelly. They continue to influence contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Nathaniel Rateliff. 

The band was together (more or less) for 16 years when Robbie Robertson decided to call it quits with a final concert, what became "The Last Waltz," filmed by Martin Scorsese. As this film makes clear, The Band was heading for destruction due to alcohol and drug issues and Robertson hoped they could take time apart to heal and pull things together. They pulled together an all-star set of musicians including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Diamond and more. The film also includes perhaps the greatest version of their masterpiece The Weight ever recorded with the sublime vocal harmonies of the Staple Singers.

Sadly, the original lineup never played together again, though Manuel, Danko, Helm and Hudson toured without Robertson in the 1980s. Richard Manual sadly hung himself on tour in 1986. The band continued in various configurations in the 90s, but without Robertson's songwriting, the new albums were lackluster. Rick Danko died in 1999 and Levon Helm passed away in 2012.

Robbie Robertson is the only member of the band with contemporary interviews in the film, and it's very much his story. He wasn't the singer, but he was lead guitarist, songwriter and the dominant creative force behind The Band. The film does a good job representing Helm's point of view, who bitterly resented not getting songwriting credits. But as Ronnie Hawkins notes, there's a difference between arranging a song and writing it.  

It's very much a story worth watching. It's equal parts inspiring and sobering.  

Here's a trailer:


Hot upgrades: Jamstik Studio, Uno Synth Pro, Circuit Tracks

Uno Jamstik Circuit

Looks like 2021 is starting with a ton of new announcements from NAMM and beyond. I've picked three new products to highlight here, all of which represent significant innovation in the musical instrument market. 

Zivix JamStik Studio MIDI guitar

Jamstik studioMany readers are probably aware of Zivix original products the JamStik and JamStik+. These were innovative MIDI controllers that resembled guitars, but had only 7 frets. They were portable, lightweight and great for learning guitar, but not really suited to an experienced player. 

Last year Zivix launched their JamStik Studio Guitar. It's now a proper full-size neck (24 frets, 25.5" scale) headless electric guitar with a custom-designed built-in MIDI pickup in addition to the two humbucker pickups. It's gotten great reviews and they continue to update the companion Jamstik Creator software regularly. So now if you know your way around a guitar, you can control any MIDI synth --hardware or software. The creator software tracks chords, single notes, double stops, bends, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, you name it. You want to have your arpeggio guitar parts translated into '90s synth bass? No problem. Horn section? Why not? Run it through your favorite synth VSTs? Sure. Because it's a full-blown electric guitar, you can also blend the original guitar sound with whatever synth craziness you want, playing or recording both the electric guitar and synth sound in real-time. Whoah! 

This is the most innovative invention for guitar players since Line 6 came on strong many years ago. I'm excited to see where Zivix takes this in the future. At $799, it's definitely not the cheapest guitar you'll buy, but it is definitely the best MIDI guitar controller ever to hit the market. 

IK Multimedia Uno Synth Pro

Uno proI've been a fan of IK Multimedia since the original iRig guitar interface. They've continued to move up-market over the years with high quality interfaces, reasonably priced MIDI keyboard controllers and a ton of software. In 2018, they announced the UNO Synth, followed by the UNO Drum. The UNO synth is an easy-to-use analog mono-synth with rich, fat sounds, 100 presets, all in a battery (or USB) powered portable package. With a price of under $200 it was a bargain and a perfect first synth for newbies. Of course, to hit the that price point, there were some compromises. Chief among these was the keyboard, which is, well, not a keyboard at all. It's a flat surface capacitive touch controller, meaning you tap on the surface like you would on a phone or tablet. 

Just as I was starting to wonder who would out-innovate the original UNO synth, IK Multimedia announced the forthcoming UNO Synth Pro and Uno Synth Pro Desktop. The desktop continues with the capacitive touch keyboard, whereas the pro offers a world-class 37 key Fatar keybed. Both models offer an improved dual-filter, three oscillator sound engine, a dozen built-in effects including reverb, delay, overdrive, more arpeggiator options, 256 presets, a longer 64 step sequencer, song mode and more. The new model is also paraphonic, so you can play 3 notes at a time. (It's not a true polysynth, but it's good enough for triad chords and pads.) The new models are more expensive clocking in at $399 for the desktop and $649 for the larger version with the Fatar keyboard.

I'm looking forward to learning more about how synth designer Erik Norlander has incorporated the latest SSI filter to open up a richer sound palette. 

Novation Circuit Tracks

Circuit tracksLast up, this week Novation announced a new version of their Circuit groovebox. The new version uses the same Nova synth engine, and adds more flexibility for controlling outboard synths, an improved sequencer, a built-in rechargeable battery and better usability. There are also more built-in effects and a mixer.

Sadly, there's still no on-board LCD display, which I think is a drawback for some users. But they seem to know their audience. If you want to compose EDM or chill beats without firing up your DAW, this is a great all-in-one tool and definitely the easiest-to-use groovebox on the market. 

The new version lists for $399, a slight increase over the prior model. 

Let me know what you think of these devices and what other cool gear you've seen come on the market.