The guitar project that went wrong … then wronger

Back in the 90s when the distinction between music store and pawn shop was rather blurry, I acquired a second-hand silver sparkle Les Paul guitar that only said “Lady Luck” on the headstock and “Made in Korea” on the back of the neck.

This was a time when cheap guitars were really bad. Everyone and their brother had a beginner-level Squier or Jasmine that wouldn’t stay in tune and had the tone of a brick.

Lady Luck played well, but she had an extremely bass-heavy tone. It just never sounded good. Sometime in the early 2000s I actually tried to revive her by transplanting some nice Seymour Duncan pickups, but she still only sounded marginally better.

The silver guitar just hung on the wall for the past 15 years.

Since I’m now working from my home office at least eight hours a day, I’ve been trying to clear the clutter and make it a more pleasant, usable environment. That meant some of the guitars, amplifiers and camera gear had to go. I decided to clean up Lady Luck and put her up for sale.

I opened the back panel and squirted a little bit of contact cleaner into the crackling volume pots. The knobs got stiff. Then they froze. Then they unfroze … completely … and just kept spinning.

In the past few months I’ve cleaned the pots on an amplifier, a vintage clock radio, and another guitar. This has never happened before. I also couldn’t believe the same thing happened on both volume pots. I guess the corrosion was the only thing holding them together.

I had just rendered the guitar unplayable. Selling it was no longer an option.

The “hand wired” tone craze started a few years ago when Gibson started using pots connected to printed circuit boards in their guitars. That was actually good news for me because there were dozens upon dozens of pre-assembled pre-wired pots available to replace those PCBs that ranged from $30 with some questionable looking hardware up to $250 with vintage bumblebee capacitors.

Since Lady Luck isn’t a real Les Paul, I was worried the pot spacing wouldn’t quite be the same. I was wary of buying a pre-assembled kit. I decided to spend $50 and order an unassembled kit from Amplified Parts that included everything from the input plug to the switch. It also came with some really nice shielded wiring.

I immediately ran into a few issues. The pots and the output jack had larger diameters than the original hardware. I wasn’t excited about drilling out the holes and risking a chip in the paint, but I decided it was worth the risk.

Then I had to address the fact that the new knobs were also longer than the old knobs. I made a run to True Value for 3/8″ spacers. Unfortunately, they were out of 3/8″, so I had to pay double and buy a set of both 1/4″ and 1/8″. I ended up $20 into the project just for spacers!

The new selector switch was more of an issue. It was taller than the original switch, and it needed to be countersunk to reach through the body. Lady Luck is mostly plywood with an unknown top. The switch area was not that thick to begin with.

I finally decided that countersinking the new switch to make it fit wasn’t worth the risk of having the new switch rip through the front of the guitar. I had already replaced the switch in the 90s because the original had been snapped off when I bought it. It was clean and seemed fine. I mean, after all, a switch is a switch.

The instructions that came with the MOD kit were very clear, so it only took about an hour to put everything together. Of course, I still somehow managed to hook up the switch backwards. There were no strings on the guitar, so all I could do was plug it in and tap the pickups to see which one was active with each switch position.

I thought, it’s fine, I’ll just rotate the switch 180-degrees and let the wires wrap around. Wrong.

Assuming all was well, I got to the business of reassembling the other pieces of the guitar with the new stainless steel screws I’d picked up while I was True Value. I also decided to put the chrome pickup covers that originally came on the guitar onto the Seymour Duncan pickups. That entailed a little double-sided tape and some solder on the back, but it seemed easy enough.

The next morning I spent quite some time adjusting the truss rod, setting the bridge height, and adjusting the intonation to get the action just right. Then, the moment finally came. I plugged her in.

A very loud hum came through the amplifier.

I strummed a chord.

Nothing.

When I touched my fingers various places the hum would change tone or sometimes stop completely, but never did a single note come through the amplifier.

Did I wire something wrong? Is one of the new pieces bad? Did I ruin the pickups by putting covers on them?

This project had gone wrong when I destroyed the original volume pots. Now I was an additional $70 and 5+ hours into the project, and I had NOTHING.

I hung the guitar on the wall and walked away.

The next morning I got out the multimeter and started checking continuity. This was my first time using shielded cable with a metal sleeve. My first discovery was that I hadn’t peeled the shielding back far enough on the wire going to input jack, and it was touching the base of the prong, causing a short.

My next realization was that by spinning the selector switch 180 and letting the wires wrap around it, they were shorting to the sides of the selector switch.

I remedied this situation by rotating the switch back the correct direction and adding a little bit of electrical tape for insulation — just in case.

At this point, I was still getting a terrible hum, but I was also getting intermittent sound depending on what I touched.

I decided to yank the pots and see if I could get anything to work outside the guitar. Unfortunately during this maneuver I lost one of the $3 spacers into the body of the guitar forever.

After a few solder repairs, which included hooking the switch leads up correctly, I suddenly had sound. That was amazing news since it meant I didn’t destroy the expensive pickups when I put the covers on them.

I made another run to True Value to get another 1/8″ spacer.

I put everything back into the guitar.

The hum was back, and the sound was gone again.

The shielded cables were just touching too many things inside the guitar.

If I ever do this again, I will purchase shrink wrap or some sort of plastic sleeve to put over the metal braid. I didn’t have either of those things, so I started wrapping it in electrical tape. A few minutes later, the hum was completely gone, and the guitar was singing.

So after more than 20 years, this guitar finally plays the way it should. Now I can’t decide if I still want to sell it or if I should hold onto it a little longer.

And for any tech geeks out there who might be wondering, Lady Luck has a Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan SH4 in the neck. 220k-ohm resistors tie into 470pF ceramic capacitors on the 500k-ohm volume pots, and .022mf 600v MOD capacitors run between the volume and tone pots.

Resurrecting my first guitar

Did you ever visit The Golden Pawn II?

It was located on Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Apparently the building is about to be torn down.

The Golden Pawn II: It was a pawn shop … and also golden.

When my granddad took me there in 1992, it was both my first time inside a pawn shop and my first time to experience the joyous overwhelming sensory overload generated by a wall of guitars and stacks of amplifiers.

I didn’t know anything about guitars. The Internet did not exist. I had been learning on an old classical guitar I found in my dad’s closet. My knowledge was limited to what I’d seen artists playing in music videos (which I wasn’t supposed to be watching) and one second-hand Guitar Player magazine a friend gave me at school because he didn’t like the songs in that issue.

My guitar selection method began with choosing black guitars that looked cool, but quickly shifted to black guitars that actually worked when plugged in. I finally landed on a black Arbor stratocaster knock-off that looked much like the guitar Bryan Adams played in the Robin Hood Prince of Thieves music video. While the style hadn’t been my first choice, I decided that it was “cool enough.”

Sidebar: It was actually moderately difficult to find this video. When I finally did, it turns out the Stratocaster was red, and it’s clearly not plugged into anything. Definitely not as cool as I remember. Also, fun fact, Mattel re-used the Return of the Jedi: Ewok Village playset in a different box as the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves forest hideout.

Amplifier selection wasn’t nearly as complicated. The deal was whichever working amplifier — with distortion — Granddad could get them to bundle with the guitar for $100. The man was a negotiator.

I played and played and played that Arbor Stratocaster and the little Peavey Rage amp for years. Eventually the amp died, and I upgraded to something bigger, but I always held on to that guitar.

The Arbor was gigged exactly two times for two songs.

My sophomore year of high school I played Creep by Stone Temple Pilots at the Bartlesville Mid-High Talent Show. My friend Chad sang the second part of the chorus with me. As far as I know, there is no photographic evidence of that performance.

Project Graduation (ProGrad) Talent Show Dinner at William P. Clements High School in Sugar Land, Texas, March, 1996. (Thanks, Mom. Your decades of hoarding really paid off for this blog post.)

In 1996 I opened the senior talent show with The Joker by Steve Miller Band with my friend Steve Love playing the wolf-whistle lead guitar part. Then I played Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton to end the show — but not on the Arbor. The audience was really into The Joker. Unfortunately, it was my first time to encounter large-auditorium off-beat clapping, and I ended up having to stop for a moment in the middle of the song just to find the beat again. I thought Tears in Heaven went better, but feedback at school was, “You sang it too low.” Nevertheless, photos of my performance did appear in the school newspaper.

That was both the first and last time my music ever garnered any media attention.

The Arbor came to college with me, and many people took a turn on it during dorm jams and sing-arounds my freshman year. However, as time went on, it had more and more electrical issues. Eventually I was seduced by a brand new Epiphone Les Paul, and the Arbor was left in a case in the closet for years.

Having had success with the recent amplifier repair, I decided to see if I could work some magic on the Arbor.

At some point the tone pots had frozen up. Turning the tone knob equated to rotating the entire pot, which put strain on the wiring. Eventually one of the leads from a resistor had pulled loose, which was why the guitar had a terrible hum when it was plugged in and why it got put away in the first place.

As a kid I never realized the pick guard was just one big nicotine stain.

When I pulled the knobs, I realized just how much nicotine build-up was on the pick guard. I wasn’t aware of nicotine staining as a kid — no one in our family even smoked. However, I do remember always feeling like I could never really get the pick guard clean. Who knows what life this guitar had before my granddad and I came across it.

A few squirts of CRC cleaner got the pots working freely, and then it only took about 30 seconds to solder the broken lead back to the correct tab. I tightened the nuts on the pots to make sure they wouldn’t rotate again. I cleaned the 5-way switch, then put it back together.

The next issue was the bridge setup. Teenage me really didn’t have a concept of intonation. I had adjusted all the saddles to make a nice, neat straight line. As a beginner guitarist, I also had a tendency to miss the high E string when picking, so I remedied the situation by raising the high E above all the other strings — couldn’t miss it.

It’s not recommended to raise the high E above the rest of the strings, but if I had become famous, everyone would be doing it. The strings are finally level and intonated.

I adjusted the neck truss rod, leveled the bridge saddles, and put some new strings on it. Then, for possibly the first time in this guitar’s entire life, I intonated each string.

Playing her through an amplifier last night generated a brief time warp.

Fourteen-year-old me was home alone in his small-town Oklahoma bedroom, the amplifier pegged to ten, fumbling through the chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit before kicking the amp over and pretending to smash the guitar onto the mattress of his bed.

The action is nice and low. The tone comes through dirtier than it does on my American made Telecaster, but that’s what you’d expect from old, cheap electronics. It plays as well as any cheap guitar can.

Maybe someday Finn will think it looks “cool enough” to give it a try.

Repairing a 1964 Gibson Skylark GA 5T Tremolo Tube Amplifier

“Adopt a son,” was the tagline under the Instagram photo. A local music shop had a vintage Gibson amplifier listed for sale in remarkably good cosmetic shape — except for the logo.

1964 Gibson Crestline GA 5T Skylark Tremolo

I had a quick chat with Mary about the rising value of vintage instruments that veered into a promise to sell the large Line6 AX2-212 amplifier sitting in my study, and I was off to retrieve the Gibson.

The amplifier had the original speaker, the original leather handle, no tears in the tolex or cloth, and very minimal rust on the faceplate. Unfortunately, the amp didn’t play quite as good as it looked. We still brokered a deal, and I brought it home. That’s when I took the week long deep dive into vintage radio and amplifier repair.

Yes, we have gone way beyond banana bread.

The Death Cap

It wasn’t until 1969 that Underwriters Laboratories mandated three-prong plugs on appliances. Amplifiers from the 1950s and 1960s came with a two prong power cord, which could be plugged in either way. The lack of earth ground made those amplifiers susceptible to RF noise. To combat this, designers added a capacitor between the negative terminal of the power cable and the chassis ground of the amplifiers. It was well-known and accepted at the time that if a musician was touching the guitar strings and touched another reverse grounded object such as a microphone, he or she would receive a noticeable shock. The problem with having a capacitor coming from the cable to ground was that if it failed open, it would deliver the full 120 volts AC to the musician.

The “paper caps” and the “death cap” on the unmolested board.

While I wanted to keep the amplifier as original as possible, I decided removing the “death cap” and adding a three-prong power cable with ground to earth was the way to go. I also relocated the positive cable lead to run through the fuse before the switch for a little added protection of the amplifier internals.

Three strand power cable with earth ground installed.

120hz Hum

The most noticeable issue with the amplifier was a very loud hum coming through the speakers even with the volume turned to zero. A lower 60hz hum can be an indicator of poor shielding, but a 120hz hum is usually an indicator of bad filter capacitors.

From what I could tell, the amplifier internals had never been touched, so the circuit was sporting two paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitors — a Maximite and a Minimite. I didn’t have a way to test those capacitors, but it’s generally accepted that the lifespan for a paper-wrapped electrolytic capacitor is 6 – 10 years. Being 56 years old, it was a pretty solid bet that both of them needed to be replaced.

I replaced the Maximite with two modern 22mf 450volt capacitors, and the Minimite was swapped for one of the same. I flipped the amplifier back on, and the hum was gone.

A pair of 22mf 400Volt capacitors in place of the Maximite.

As a side note, if someone is selling you a tube amp and says, “It has a hum, but it still plays great,” walk away. You can’t play great battling that hum. You can’t record with that hum. You can’t perform with that hum. Also, it’s just a matter of time before the leaking capacitors fry the power transformer and cause more damage to the amplifier.

The Mysterious Disappearing Tremolo

This amplifier has a built-in tremolo circuit powered by the oscillations of a vacuum tube. When I purchased the amplifier, it wasn’t working at all. Later at home you could hear the oscillations in the 120hz hum, but it wasn’t evident in the actual guitar sound. Then I tapped on a few connections and spread some crowded wires apart, and the tremolo disappeared completely.

My online searches turned up conflicting diagrams, some indicating a 6EU7 tube and some indicating a 6C4. As I researched both, the 6C4 was noted for it’s oscillations, so I ordered one thinking I had the wrong tube. Turns out a 6C4 isn’t even the right size for the plug. I tried a new 6EU7, and the tremolo was back.

Matched Power Tubes

When I purchased the amplifier, the dates and makes of the tubes varied greatly. The schematic called for two 6AQ5 power tubes, but one was a much more recent 6005. Power tubes are supposed to be electrically matched, so that they have the same plate current and amplification characteristics. The performance of vacuum tubes can vary wildly, so matched tubes were allegedly manufactured at the same time and more rigorously tested to meet the same specifications. When I ordered replacements from Amplified Parts, they sent me a pair of matched new old stock 6AQ5 tubes that were manufactured together in France in 1963. It kind of blows my mind that there’s still parts for these amplifiers sitting in warehouses.

Does the amp sound better with the matched tubes? Maybe I’m just a auditory plebeian, but I can’t tell a difference.

With the three-strand cable, new filter capacitors and new tubes, the amp is playing well, and I imagine it should be able to handle another 50 years. However, if I get the chance to upgrade my testing equipment I’d like to take some measurement and see how far off the original values the other capacitors and various resistors have wandered.

I should also probably spend a little time working on my guitar skills, so they do justice to this amplifier.

Self isolation is ruff, but together we can paws the spread of Covid-19

It’s week four of self isolation. If you were wondering how long it takes me to go absolutely stir crazy, the answer is four weeks. I am great at amusing myself, but without the ability to run to the store for various parts and pieces, my projects have more or less ground to a halt.

Mary has been sewing cloth masks and donating them to various organizations and essential workers. Demand has been high and grew dramatically this week after the CDC told everyone to start wearing a mask. Details are here.

Hope everyone is staying safe.

The difference a dink makes

The wind was a steady 25 knots, gusting over 30, blowing straight off the shore of the small island behind which we were anchored. Both of our dogs, whom refuse to to soil our boat (at least while we’re there) hadn’t relieved themselves in more than 24 hours and looked absolutely miserable.

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I held tight to the standing rigging as I stood on the cabin top and looked over my small kayak trying to decide if I could even make any headway towards the island or if I’d be blown back past the boat and out into the middle of the bay if I attempted the trip to shore.

It wasn’t so much that I was worried about what would happen to me and two dogs in life jackets on a kayak — we’d just be carried ashore somewhere in San Leon. The problem was that if I couldn’t get back to the sailboat, Mary would be stranded there, unable to lift the anchor and leave.

That was the weekend we really began dinghy shopping.

But what type and size of a dinghy did we need and how would we power it?

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Luckily we had many boating friends also looking for dinghies, so we waited and learned from their experiences.

Our friends on the Tina Marie Too had a big double floor West Marine inflatable with a 20hp 4-stroke engine. It was comfortable. It planed up. It held a lot of people. It was way too big for our boat. We ruled out a fiberglass floor inflatable.

Our friends on Escondida had an 8′ slat floor inflatable with a 5 hp. It was small, light and could easily be lifted on and off the foredeck. It could also be rolled up and stowed in the cabin. It didn’t hold much, and it was very slow.

Our friends on Folie a Deux bought a Port-a-bote. It wasn’t too heavy, and it folded flat to tie against the lifelines. However, it was only rated for a 2.5 hp motor, and they got caught with a strong headwind in Matagorda Bay and couldn’t make any forward progress.

What we really thought we wanted was a Takacat. However, actual Takacat inflatables are quite expensive, so we started looking at the generic Saturn inflatable catamarans available. Our friends on Hippokampos got curious about them as well and bought one.

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Not tapering together at the bow makes for a very wide dinghy. In fact, we referred to it as the barge. It was sort of a strange ride because you could feel the flex in the middle when a wave raised one pontoon and then the other. They’ve been cruising with it for over a year now, and you can actually read their entire review of it here. While they had no major complaints, we realized there was no way we could put a boat that wide on our foredeck, and we weren’t sure we’d even have the space to inflate and deflate it anywhere on Gimme Shelter.

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We went back to thinking we would go with an 8′ slat floor roll-up with a 5hp Lehr propane engine. While small and slow, that seemed to be the best option for our 34′ sailboat. We also wouldn’t have to carry gasoline along with the diesel and propane we were already carrying. We started saving and kept waiting for the big sale at West Marine.

However, sometimes the right dinghy finds you.

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Our friends over at SVMimzy.com asked if we were interested in a 10′ AB rigid floor inflatable with a Mercury 9.9 hp 2-stroke. While it was about ten years old, it was in really nice shape. I just didn’t think we could lift it or that we’d have space for it on the boat. I was incredibly surprised when the boat only weighed around 100 pounds, and I could pick it up and move it around myself — and it just barely fit on our foredeck. I have to lift it up and bit to open and close the anchor locker, but it works.

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We’ve anchored out more times this year than in almost all of our past years of sailing combined thanks to being able to easily get the dogs back and forth to shore.

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Of course, it’s been useful for more than just carting dogs around. Mary and I have made runs up and down the ICW from Bolivar to Stingarees.

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We can finally explore islands and anchorages together instead of taking turns on the kayak.

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It’s also been great for carrying my photography equipment to shore. I’d never risk it on the kayak, but now I can get the camera, lenses and tripod all safely to shore to set up for great shots like this.

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While we’re getting by with raising and lowering the dinghy and motor using our halyards, the next question is to davit or not to davit.

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Our Best Photos of 2016

Happy new year and welcome to 2017. I hope all of our readers made it, unlike all those celebrities that didn’t.

I haven’t had time to write anything new for the new year, so I thought I’d kick things off with a photographic retrospective of 2016. Deciding on our “best” photos is very subjective, and I didn’t actually ask Mary’s opinion on these. I just scrolled through all the folders of photos from the past year and picked my favorites. So, in no particular order, here are my favorite photos that we took during our adventures in 2016.

So how’s that music thing working out?

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You might remember that we had devised a plan to play music as a means to make money while cruising. The idea of sailing town to town and rocking the tiki bars to pay our way around the Caribbean was romantic and enticing.

So will it work?!!!

We’d been taking part in marina jams and playing songs with our friends at open mics on a weekly basis for a while, but the question remained, could we actually book a “gig.”

We got started in March with a St. Patrick’s Day show playing as a 4-piece band.

Then a small wedding followed soon after, which was an eye opener to how rough it is to play in 90+ degree heat and extremely high humidity. We played that one as a three-piece.

I managed to book a few solo acoustic shows, which isn’t really what I was looking for since Mary and I wanted to play together, but it was a good test to see how things went over when we stripped out the guitar solos and vocal harmonies provided by our friends.

Then we got invited to play a police fund raiser as a four-piece band, which was a fun experience.

Then we actually grew to a five-piece band for another show at our favorite bar before finishing off the year as a four-piece at a corporate Christmas party.

The gross income from our seven paying shows  in 2016 was $2050 (not counting about $200 in tips and $200 in bar tabs.) However, we had to pay out $750 to our other players. That puts us at about $1300 for the year.

So what did we learn?

Four hours is a long time: If you want to get paid in the Houston market, you have to play four-hour cover shows. When you’re playing by yourself with no instrumental solos or jamming, that is a lot of songs. I ran through more than 60 songs per night, and by the end of several shows I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for any song left to play. As we add more and more songs to the repertoire that won’t be as much of a problem, but working full time there is only so much time in the day to rehearse old songs and memorize new ones.

Equipment does make a difference: We started the year trying to mic the cajon with a Shure SM57. While it worked ok at the house when rehearsing, we could never get it loud enough at the bar without feedback. After a long debate, we finally spent the $239 to get a Shure Beta 91A that fits inside the cajon, and it solved all of our drum volume issues. This was a tough decision because the drum itself was only $175. It seemed absurb to invest more than the drum on a microphone for the drum, but in the end, it made a huge difference. I also retired my 20-year-old Shure SM58 vocal mic and replaced it with a $200 Sennheiser e945.

Good performances require rest: I currently have a wrist brace on my left arm. Practice makes perfect, but it turns out that too much practice makes for a pretty intense case of tendonitis. 12 hours a week seems to be my limit on guitar. Mary’s hands get quite swollen by the end of a show after slapping the cajon for hours. My voice also needs rest. Back in September I played four-hour shows two nights in a row, and my voice was already rough at the beginning of night two. By the end, it was really rough, which brings up the next thing I learned.

Not every performance is going to be good: Some nights nothing goes right. We’ve only had one show where things got really bad. It started ok. We had a nice group of friends come out to support us. The crowd was singing along. Unfortunately, I started losing my voice, and I ran out of songs. I thought I had a thick skin from my years in news and public relations, but getting a bad review and not being asked back to play a venue again really crushes the ego. There’s nothing to do except treat it as a learning experience and double down on the rehearsals, so that it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not going to make a living doing this: Yes, the dream is still to play live music as we cruise the Caribbean, but I have a hunch those bars pay even less than Houston bars. I think we were counting on competing against a smaller available talent pool in the islands, but that assumption may be wrong.

I’m not sure what our focus for 2017 will be. When we purchased our PA system we wanted something portable enough to fit in a dinghy to accomodate vocals, guitar and drums playing a restaurant or small bar. We’ve now got it maxed out with multiple vocalists, guitars, violin, bass, etc. While it’s a great portable rig, it’s not the right set up for a full band in large sports bars.

Hopefully we’ll get our foot in the door at some bars in Kemah closer to all of our marina friends.

Last but not least, we’ll be working on some new original music. Songwriting got put on the back burner while we crammed to learn enough cover songs to be able to fulfill our 2016 bookings. With that backlog of music under our belts, we’re ready to move forward with new songs in 2017.

If you have any song requests, please post them in the comments!

Looking for those bookings

As has been mentioned in previous blogs, one of our ideas to slow the burn on our savings while cruising is to play music along the way as a source of income. In preparation we’ve started playing shows in the Houston area to hone our skills, make sure we have the right equipment, and add a little bit of cash to the cruising kitty.

Last week I played a solo acoustic show at Little Woodrow’s in Katy, Texas. It was nice that our Gimme Shelter T-shirts had just arrived the night before.

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This was a very last minute booking, so I was lucky that with less than 24 hours notice I still had 10 friends and blog readers come out to see me.

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We’re currently trying to hard to book at least two shows per month for the rest of the year, hopefully some of which are in the Kemah area. As our schedule fills in, we’ll update the events calendar on our Facebook page.

Until then, here’s a new video of Mary and I covering Bubble Toes by Jack Johnson.

Concert review: Chris Isaak at House of Blues Houston

We don’t go to many concerts these days.

Actually, that’s not completely true. We see many, many live bands. In fact, as a live band, we even played our first wedding concert last month.

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However, we don’t go to many big concerts with famous artists.  A combo of the loud music, late nights, expensive drinks, and crowded venues keeps us away.

There are very few that I would pay to see. Then there’s Chris Isaak.

I saw him a decade ago at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, and it was an absolutely amazing show. When I heard he was coming to House of Blues, and I might get to see him in a much smaller, more personal venue, I was quite excited and pitched the idea to Mary.

Her response was, “I don’t think I know who that is.”

She was not excited. Her only reference to Chris Isaak and the Silvertones was the fact that I cover Wicked Game … but only when we’re jamming with the “Dock Boys.” I’ve heard it murdered way too many times by way too many cover bands to ever perform it at an actual show. (#nevertrustthefalsetto)   Pleeeeease don’t let the band name “Dock Boys” catch on. 

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I put the show out of my mind and went on with my life. That is, until Ticketmaster announced a huge settlement, and I discovered I had many, many discount coupon codes in my Ticketmaster account since they essentially scammed concert-goers with exorbitant “handing fees” and “UPS fees” all through the 90s and 00s.

I decided to check back into the Chris Isaak concert and found there were a few front row tickets still available. I once again pitched the show to Mary and this time she reluctantly agreed. I can’t believe I almost didn’t!  I normally hate concerts.  

We were standing in line along the third floor balcony outside the House of Blues waiting for the doors to open when a guy in sunglasses and a polo shirt holding a white dog came walking down the line kind of whispering to everyone. He was saying things like, “I heard this guy puts on a great show.” and “Oh, I heard it’s going to be a really good show tonight.”

He was already halfway down the line before I realized it was Chris Isaak. He turned around, waved at everybody and went inside. He looks so different off stage, like a normal person.  Not all dreamy like he looks while he’s playing.

I really wasn’t sure if we had front row seating as claimed on the Ticketmaster seating chart or if the entire downstairs of the venue would be standing. Once inside, I was excited to see that we did indeed have front row seats. There would be no tall people standing in front of Mary blocking her view all night. Whenever people start to stand up at a concert I might as well be at home listening to the radio. I can’t see anything. 

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The band came out strong and played a few songs before Chris stopped to introduce everyone in the band and thank the fans for supporting live music. He jokingly promised a “semi-professional state fair quality show.” Then he grabbed a wireless mic and left the stage to sing the next two songs as he strolled through the audience, pausing to sit down with people, so they could take selfies with him as he sang.

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After making his way up through the balcony and back down through the audience, he climbed on the stage, made a few more jokes, and went back to playing guitar.

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I know most of his songs, but Mary only knew one or two. However, I think we both enjoyed the music. The sound was clear and balanced, and his voice was phenomenal. Not only does he hit all the high notes live, he actually went even higher in some songs than he does on the records, and his sustain is unbelievable. The man can hold a note for 12 measures with not so much as a waver in the tone.

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We had made the mistake of ordering a couple of Bud Lights before the show started thinking that they’d be cheaper than the really overpriced craft beer. What we actually got served were $11 Bud Light 40 oz. cans, so Mary had to make a run to the bathroom mid concert. Unfortunately she decided to go right before they played Wicked Game, the one song she new, so about the second verse she came running back.

For what I guess you’d call the second set of the night, the stagehands quickly moved a drum and stool to the front of the stage as one song was ending, and as the next song began, the band transitioned seamlessly to sitting along the front edge as they played some softer, bluesier numbers. Then, when Scotty, the keyboardist pulled out an accordion, they even did a Tejano number in Spanish.

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Fun fact, Kenny Dale Johnson, the drummer, grew up in Borger, Texas and went to high school with my mom and two of my aunts. I think he’s probably the most famous person to come out of Borger.

Chris made a point to recognize this week’s passing of Scotty Moore, Elvis’s original guitarist and a great rock pioneer. The band then covered a couple Elvis songs and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire before returning to their own material.

They left the stage to the sound of a standing ovation and when Chris returned to start the encore, he was wearing his one-of-a-kind mirrored tuxedo.

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You know, to make this a “legit” review, I should have kept a list of the songs they played, but I didn’t. I was way too into the show. In fact, I wasn’t even going to snap any photos except that a House of Blues employee came by passing out flyers encouraging us to snap photos and post them to Instagram with #HOBIsaak.

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The energy stayed high and everyone was out of their seats the entire encore.

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To end the show, Kenny once again came up to the front of the stage to sing some fantastic harmonies on one of the new songs from the First Comes the Night album.

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As the lights came back on, Mary, who really had no idea who Chris Isaak was at the beginning of the night, said, “I think this is the best concert I’ve ever seen.”

I really loved the show.  The jokes were really funny, the outfits were great.  The guitar and bass player kept doing hilarious little dances, and you could just tell everyone was having fun on stage. It really felt like a show, not just a concert. There were a lot of quiet romantic moments as well that really made this a nice night out just the two of us.  

That’s a pretty good review.

Gimme Shelter’s first “gig”

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When the idea of cruising comes around, you start analyzing all of your skills and talents in hopes of identifying something that might be profitable enough to indefinitely sustain your cruising kitty or at least “slow the burn rate” as Patrick Schulte says in his most recent book, Living on the Margin.

Things like sewing and mechanic work instantly come to mind, but Mary and I are also musicians. (Well, at least one of us is a musician … the other is a drummer. #InsertYourOwnDrummerJokeHere #DrummerJokesNeverGetOld)

The idea crossed our mind that perhaps we could supplement our income, or at least lessen our expenses, by playing music at marinas and bars throughout the ICW and the Caribbean.

Recently we met a couple from New York through Facebook who were already cruising and playing music as they went. Their band, Stell and Snuggs, does some interesting stuff. Reading their blog also brought up some important issues. Considering that most bars in the US pay musicians in cash, we hadn’t even thought about needing work permits just to play music outside the US, but apparently you do.

While we were having nice marina jam sessions every weekend, the question still remained, could we get paid? Therefore, we finally booked a show to test both our equipment and ourselves.

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However, most of the bars really wanted something more than just a duo, especially on weekends. Now, in Houston we have quite a few musician friends, so fielding a full band for St. Patrick’s Day was no problem, but I think Mary and I are going to have to step up our game when playing by ourselves.

We prepped about 50 songs, and we ended up rolling through a four hour show with music to spare. My voice was raw and Mary’s hands were swollen, but we did it.

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And yes, we did get paid. For our first show we got $300 cash and a $50 credit on our bar tab. (We also found a whopping $1 tip in our tiny tip can.) Would that help supplement our cruising if we could play one or two shows per week? Absolutely! Is that anything comparable to what a bar might pay in Fort Myers, Florida or Dewey, Culebra? I have no idea.

A few lessons learned:

  • People enjoy top 40, but they get up and dance to oldies
  • We’ve got to further minimize our equipment or we’re going to have to buy a HUGE dinghy
  • Tip jars should be very large, well-labeled and right out front in the middle of the stage
  • We need to record some of our original songs and get them on the blog or on iTunes, so we have somewhere to send people when they ask about it.
  • Don’t forget the important harmonica!

A big thank you to all of our friends, blog readers and Facebook friends that came out to the first show. We haven’t scheduled any more shows at the moment, but if we do, I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. Feel free to post your favorite drummer jokes in the comments!