© 2005 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
To explain what happened last Friday night, I have to go back....my God, 35 years. Bear with me.
Back in college I wanted to be a folksinger. They still had them, then. On the radio and everything. Long time ago.
My partner Dave Spiwack, himself a baritone and an excellent guitarist, turned me onto an awesome guy named Amos Garrett, who had an even deeper voice and was an even better guitarist. Neither of us realized the track Dave played me, "Lazy Bones," was the very first vocal Amos had ever recorded. (After years as an instrumentalist with legendary Canadian groups like The Great Speckled Bird and Hungry Chuck.) We both became major fans of his work with Geoff and Maria Muldaur-long before he galvanized Maria's hit single "Midnight at the Oasis" with what Stevie Wonder said was the greatest instrumental break in the history of rock'n'roll.
Jump cut. Years have now passed. So has folk music. Rather than turn to honest work, I've become a writer, and done well enough that I've been invited to appear on Canada AM. The show airs at dawn, and they need you there hours earlier so you can wait around in makeup for hours, fighting to wake up. The only coffee available is from a vending machine. I have no change, and neither does anyone else. I am giving serious thought to dying of sheer misery when suddenly, behind me, I hear three extremely talented acoustic guitarists begin a very complex and interesting arrangement of "Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairies." They're so good that after a few bars I just have to know: who the hell are these guys? I turn…and the three guys are one guy. One human, playing all three demanding parts at once. Impeccably.
I wait in awed silence to ask him his name when his tour de force is done. But some oblivious network fool calls out something to him, and he answers "Okay," without interrupting his playing. His voice is lower than the lowest note his guitar can produce, and more resonant. Even before coffee, I can add one and one.
So when he finishes, I just walk over and say, "Mr. Garrett, my name is Spider Robinson and I'm a serious fan." "Oh, you're the sci-fi guy," he says, "Man, I love that Robert Heinlein," and our lifelong friendship begins.
Be patient. We're getting to the story of last Friday night. The other connections are easily drawn.
It was Amos who first turned me on to the lithe dobro (excuse me, resonator guitar) of Doug Cox, way back when I was still living over on the right-hand coast…and then told me about Doug's fantastic cable TV show over on Vancouver Island when I finally got too bright to shovel snow, and moved west. Without that connection, there's no way I'd have ended up sharing a stage with Amos last summer at the Vancouver Island Music Festival, a truly outstanding musicfest organized and run by the selfsame Doug Cox. (Incidentally, his original name at birth was Peter Richard Willie Johnson Cox…but a wise law forbids Canadian males to have more than one synonym for "penis" in their name. So he substituted "Dug," which means a female mammary gland.) He is notoriously the most generous musician in Canada--one of those rare instrumental wizards who prefers to collaborate with people as good as he is, a guy who would rather have a musical conversation than trade monologues. For a prime example, see his new collaboration with Canadian guitar legend Sam Hurrie (started playing in 1959, jammed with Hendrix) on the CD HUNGRY GHOSTS, for which I wrote the liner notes. [see below]
One last meaningless but somehow interesting connection: if you pop the DVD of Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL in your player, the very first information to come out of your TV will be the guitar of Amos Garrett, kicking off Geoff and Maria Muldaur's version of the title song. And Doug Cox ws just told last month that Mr. Gilliam will be using one of his songs, "Cold When I'm Dead," in a new movie starring Jeff Bridges, and on the eventual soundtrack album.
Almost there, now.
When I first saw Amos do a whole set of blues, jazz and R&B on electric guitar, back at the Middle Deck in Halifax in Nineteen-Eighty-Mumble, just prior to the formation of his legendary "Eh?" Team, his bass player was Maritimes legend Skip Beckwith. I still have a live recording of him and Amos jamming with Fast Layne Francis on Hoagy Carmichael's "Small Fry" from that era that is to die for.
And the Skipper's star pupil is Gregg Carroll…who ended up playing bass behind Amos and me at Doug's music festival last summer. I met Gregg five minutes before our set. He'd never heard me, didn't know any of my material. I had fetched sheet music, but as you can see from one of the photos that accompany my Diary account of that performance, it was a windy day and most of it blew away. Somehow the man never missed a change. You tell me. Is that telepathy? Or did he just timehop forward and listen to the CBC recording of our set, before we met?
Put those three wizards together and you have the group known as the Amos Garrett Trio, which it was my honour and pleasure to introduce last Friday night, April 22, at Cates Hill Chapel on Bowen Island, BC.
See? HERE we are....
The Bowen Island Music Association (BIMA) had booked the Amos Garrett Trio as part of Earth Day celebrations intended to raise money for the Cape Roger Curtis Preservation Society, which seeks to protect a large part of this island paradise from the people Lord Buckley used to call the greedheads. When BIMA found out Amos and I are old friends, they asked me to introduce them. Of course, I said.
And the boys want to know, BIMA said, if you'll do a few opening numbers with them...
Uh…yeah, I suppose I could handle that. If they absolutely insist…
Finally, a bonus feature: a few years back, when a now-defunct computer game company called Legend Entertainment asked me to record some of my original songs for the soundtrack of their Callahan's Crosstime Saloon game, and gave me a big enough budget to hire the best sidemen, naturally my first hire was Amos. Then I asked him who I should hire as producer, to pick the rest of the band, and he suggested Vancouver's Danny Casavant. And Danny's first hire was the Old Pro piano player who was so full of good ideas and powerhouse energy, he ended up being co-producer of the sessions: one of Bowen Island's most sorely missed former residents, Michael Creber, who has played for KD Lang and many many others. (A CD containing all four of those tracks is available over on the Music Page.) For the April 22 gig, Mike kindly volunteered to ferry out to the island and sit in with me in my opening numbers with the boys, and played with his usual brilliance and taste.
So we did a live acoustic recreation of two of those four songs of mine: "Oblivion," and the title track "Belabouring The Obvious," and they both came out sweet. This time around, I called for solos from everybody on "Belaboring The Obvious," and the results were to die for. Like I was saying above: a true conversation, between three very articulate guys with deadly senses of humour. And the crowd liked both songs just fine.
But the one that was the most fun for me was the first one I sang--with my darling Jeanne singing glorious harmony beside me: "Puppeteer," from the new double-CD Crosby & Nash.
Jeanne and I have fallen in love with the whole album, and have learned several songs from it well enough to sing around the house, but our current favorite is "Puppeteer." Like half the material on the album, it's written by James Raymond, David Crosby's son, who is simply brilliant beyond my ability to describe--and that song is so strong that it even sounds pretty good in a livingroom with just a single acoustic guitar played by an amateur for accompaniment. Played onstage over a good sound system for an appreciative audience accompanied by a superb pianist (James Raymond is a keyboard player) and the most telepathic guitarist, dobroist and standup bass player in Canada…well, let's just say my wife and I do not often have that much fun with our clothes on.
Then I did my two songs, and got the hell out of the way, and the Amos Acoustic Trio laid down a solid set that tore the place up--including but by no means limited to material from the new Stony Plain CD Amos Garrett Acoustic Album (for which I also wrote the liner notes). Amos brought a ton of copies of that album with him, and went home empty-handed except for a whole lot of twenty dollar bills.
He held that crowd in the palm of his hand for the better part of two hours; he told stories of musical history and his own career, he told jokes, he played 6-string, 12-string, and even picked a few on his legendary Telecaster, including some recent thoughts on his best-known instrumental, Santo and Johnny Farina's "Sleepwalk." Doug played virtuoso dobro and guitar, sang backup with Gregg, and sang lead vocal on a terrific, haunting song of his from Hungry Ghosts called "Beware Of The Man Who Calls You 'Bro'."
And at one point, in the course of introducing a song about true love, Amos named my wife and I as examples of a really good marriage. Neither of us will forget that any time soon.
The crowd went berserk, demanded and got encores, and went home happy; the crew struck the set; and the musicians all came back to my place. But for an account of what followed, I'm afraid you will have to wait until several statutes of limitations have expired, and the goat is dead.
For a wannabe musician who bombed out of the business 25 years ago, I've had an awful lot of good fortune lately. That was the fourth time I've performed live with Amos, and my second time each with Doug, Gregg, and Mike. A lot of guys don't get that lucky in a whole career.
And even better things are on the horizon. More on them when there's something concrete to talk about…
[What follows are the liner notes I wrote for the CDs The Amos Acoustic Album and Hungry Ghosts:]
Hey, A-A-A, eh? Yay!
by Spider Robinson
There are many Amos Garretts, and I love them all-but this is is a lid of my favorite Amos of all, the one I originally fell in love with thirty years ago: Acoustic Amos.
Don't get me wrong: nobody can make sweeter smoke come out of a Telecaster than Amos, and there are few better uses to which electricity can be put. They respect his R&B in Detroit, his blues in Chicago, his country in Austin, and his jazz in New Orleans. Stevie Wonder says he played the second best guitar solo in the history of rock and roll, and while I haven't heard his work in opera, polka or raga yet, I'm sure when I get to them I'll find them all exemplary as well. No question: whatever the genre, to hear Amos Garrett play the electric guitar is a life-affirming-even life-enhancing-experience. But to hear him play the acoustic guitar is a life-altering experience.
It altered my life forever, thirty years back, when I first heard him sing "Lazybones" on Geoff Muldaur's SWEET POTATOES. Between the honey-drippin' baritone and the witty, nimble fingers, I imprinted like a baby duck. By the time I heard GEOFF AND AMOS, a few years later, I was a hopeless addict. Perhaps it is relevant that I'm an acoustic guitar player, with a baritone voice. Amos was what I wanted to be when I grew up, and still do.
Around that time though, North America in its collective wisdom decided to abandon acoustic music-folk/blues/rock, I think they were calling it by then-and seek cultural sustenance in disco, instead. A whole lot of guitar players were forced to either go get a straight job, or put the Martin under the bed and plug in something that would play LOUD instead. Amos was a Paul Butterfield alumnus and veteran session cat, so he soon became the skipper of Canada's greatest bar band, The Eh? Team, and then the driving wheel of the internationally beloved Formerly Brothers, and there's certainly not much to complain about there: half a dozen of the best blues/R&B records ever cut.
But Amos is way better than that.
The electric guitar is a forgiving instrument. Ask a guitar player who needs a lot of forgiveness: me. Its strings are lighter, easier to bend; its sounds are easier to produce; its wider dynamic range is easier to evoke; finger positioning on the frets doesn't need to be near as precise to sound okay. The difference in required finger strength is like the difference between swinging a regulation baseball bat, and swinging three leaded fungo bats. More than a few acclaimed wizards of the electric guitar are afraid to be recorded on acoustic, where all the mistakes show.
I just checked online. There's an birchwood acoustic guitar you can buy for US$29.99. Amos Garrett could make your heart stop-or triple its pulse rate-using that guitar, with two-year-old strings on it. What he can do with a good one is just barely legal. Finger-strength? This man saves a fortune on bowling balls by buying them without holes. But it's more than muscle I'm talking about: it's the notes he picks to play-the liquid lyrical notes he somehow pulls out of the eighth dimension, or his ass, or someplace normal humans don't get to go. Amos has a special pipeline to the human heart, to what makes us grin like a fool and what makes us feel wistful and what keeps us awake at night and what keeps us struggling with style. That's his real genius, and that kind of stuff is best expressed without artificial enhancement. Why paint a jewel? Who needs reverb on a kiss?
I first heard Acoustic Amos out on Geoff Muldaur's back porch, or so it seemed. In the 25 or so years since he left it, all I've had to sustain me was one brief CD with The Cold Club of Canada. Now here he is out on his own back porch in Alberta, finally doing what he does best again-passing the jug back and forth with some of the finest acoustic accompanists currently out of jail, and making music of a kind that Hoagy or Leadbelly or Bix or Papa Louis himself would have recognized and respected, with a flair that would be a little scary if it were not perfectly clear that he uses this power only for good.
The Acoustic Amos Album is exactly what I've been praying for: a triple-A gem, good enough to get me through another 25 years. I only hope it doesn't have to.
The Gifts of the Gods
I am not a Buddhist, myself--I use Irish whiskey--but I've been married to one for over thirty years, so I happen to know that in Tibetan Buddhist lore, Hungry Ghosts is the name of one of the six realms of existence on the Wheel of Life…and not one of the good ones.
It is the realm of insatiable craving. Of greed, and addiction, and obsession, and compulsion. "They want to eat, but cannot swallow; when they try to drink, the liquid turns to fire." Industrial Strength Blues, is what we're talking here. Not just being empty-handed, but clutching for things that wouldn't help anyway. Not just hunger, but hunger for imaginary food, addiction to fiction, a jones for bones. We've all spent at least some time in that parched, arid realm, and these days all too many of us are frequent fryers. Stay too long, and it'll do to you what the Ring did to Gollum: burn you down to a ghost, without letting you die. Welcome to the Twenty-First Century...
The Tibetans say there's only one way out of that realm: generosity. "The Buddha in this realm holds a bowl from which the Gifts of the Gods are distributed, to entice the hungry ghosts to desire for the Truth,which is the only way that the deepest longings and hungers can be satisfied."
What I'm telling you is, that thing over there on the other side of the jewelcase only looks like a CD. What it is, really, is a heaping bowl of timeless Truths, served up by two of the most notoriously generous Zen Masters of Canadian acoustic roots music, and consequently it has the power to satisfy--for a time, at least--the deepest longings and hungers.
It comes through clearly in every track. It's not often that you run across two such multiply-gifted instrumentalists as Doug Cox and Sam Hurrie who would rather have a conversation than simply alternate monologues. When you do...it's one of the Gifts of the Gods, alright. There's a reason this kind of music has been around for a long time, despite anything radio can do. It satisfies, better than food itself.
Shut off the TV. Power down the laptop. Drop the Blackberry out the window. Switch off the phone. Leave your newspaper out there on the lawn, to frighten the ants. Place a beverage at hand. Then sit back in a comfortable chair, put your feet up, press play, and get ready to have your Hungry Ghosts soothed by some incredibly tasty, uncommonly filling music.