Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – The BIG Session (part 2)
After the band arrived and set up their gear, we spent no more than an hour and a half getting all the sounds up and running. Thanks to Cameron, the engineer there at Avast for getting us up and running. The first 2 songs we were going to do would have no lead vocalist, so my job was to play with the band, but also to guide them through the form of the songs. These are pretty simple tunes, but sometimes it can be really misleading trying to play something simple without hearing the singer. It was an issue for me though because I wanted to keep my live guitar tracks, which were acoustic, but I also had to either sing a temporary vocal part for the band as we went, or talk them through which part we were at and what was coming up as it was happening. That was easy for me, but doing either of those 2 things would also bleed into my acoustic microphones, so I decided to isolate myself in a vocal booth at the back of the room, so i could talk or sing through the songs without getting my voice in the mics around the room.
As I mentioned before, Madeleine had to pull out of the trip to Seattle at the last minute, but still really wanted to do a song, so we decided to record a backing track for her to sing to. She had sent me an MP3 of her performing the song “Please Baby” as a reference, so I had a good idea of how I thought the track would work. I played the MP3 for the band and we hopped into the main tracking room and started going through it. I was playing weissenborn in the booth, with a U87 on it, and then also ran it into an amp as well. Matt settled on a groove pretty quickly and Keith and Wayne fell in, with Wayne on a bluesy delayed wurlitzer part that was a nice contrast to the major tonality of the melody. We got a good take on the 3rd try, with me doing a really rough guide vocal track… Madeleine Peyroux I am not! But it really helped the band knowing where the words were going to land, so that’s what we did. I aded a fingerpicking part on the tricone, and replaced the weissenborn part that had the rough vocal on it, and we had a nice instrumental track! I’ve sent it to Madeleine, and she’ll be doing the vocals for it next week in New York.
Next up was my track, which is called “Lonely One In This Town”. I really like this tune and wanted it on the album. Originally, the Sparrow Quartet was going to try to do it, but their touring schedule is so full on that it became too difficult to pull off in time. I decided to do a version of it with the band. I’m playing weissenborn and have overdubbed a lead slide guitar part, there’s some nice driving bass, organ and a very fine groove laid down by Matt. We did a take really quickly (I was trying to stay on schedule too, so tried to get this one laid down quickly), and I tweaked the arrangement slightly after listening back. It’s a funny tune because it really only has one verse, so there’s not much to it. We went right back in and blasted through it again and got it on the second take. I’m really happy with it, but still have a couple things to overdub – possibly a ukulele a track.. we’ll see.
Danny Barnes – Too Long
Danny Barnes is a fantastic musician from Austin, Texas, who now lives close to SEattle. I’m a big fan of his from way back when he had a band called the Bad Livers, then he had a band with Keith called the Old Codgers, and he also made a really cool record with Bill Frisell and Keith called “The Willies”. He plays great banjo, guitar, dobro, and sings great too, in an old-time kind of way, but with punk-rock delivery… I thought he’d be perfect for the sheiks tunes, and he knew a bunch of their tunes, so it was a perfect fit. Danny wanted to do “too long” a great song that has a really strange un-standard kind of form. The idea was to have Danny lead the band on banjo and vocals, and the band would be very traditional string-band based, with just a bit of kick drum and hi hat from the drums to fill it out. I brought along my trusty “portable” pump organ (it actually weighs about 120 pounds), but it folds up into a suitcase, and i use it on almost every session, so i brought it along. I knew wayne liked it as well – he used it on a couple of gigs we did together this year. Jesse Zubot, my old compadre from Zubot and Dawson showed up at this point, as he was going to play on this song and the next one. So we had banjo, fiddle, bass, some simple drums, pump organ and I was going to play my national tricone. Danny went to the vocal booth and we started trying the tune out. Danny and Jesse figured out a few lines to play together, and Danny had an idea that he wanted to do a banjo solo that would be really weird and syncopated, so he wanted to overdub it. We split up a fairly large solo section so each band member took an 8-bar solo. Jesse and I went into the control room to record, just to keep all the mics a little bit separate. We got up and running pretty quickly and got the song down in 2 takes. It cooked along really nicely and Danny nailed a great vocal take and banjo part. We had a few issues with the solo section, and no one was really that happy with their solos, and danny wanted to overdub his solo anyway, so we all just punched in the entire solo section as a band. We did 2 complete takes of the solo section like that, and felt we all had some good stuff, so it was done!
The Sojourners – He Calls That Religion
This is a really cool tune of the sheiks that I’ve been playing on and off with The Sojourners. They are a gospel trio that sing in the style of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Blind Boys of Alabama, etc. I hooked up with these guys a few years ago when we did a record called “House of Refuge” for Jim Byrnes. They sing really well together,a nd I wanted them to be a part of the project, so this tune seemed like an appropriate choice. It’s kind of a nasty little tune about a deviant preacher…
We’ve performed this song many times, so I knew exactly how I wanted it to turn out. However, bringing the 3 of them down to seattle was an issue both for time and finances, so I decided we’d record this one without them singing and then I would record them later at my place in Vancouver. Danny Barnes was still around for this one, so I wanted to get a pretty band-oriented sound with some organ, my tricone guitar playing the rhythm and some slide stuff, and then Danny along for the ride on banjo. It turned out to be a great combination. This tune is more of a standard blues kind of tune, so it was pretty easy to nail. I think we did 2 takes of this one, and had it down in no time. We did no fixing or punching on that, and have a great track fort he sojourners to sing to.
Ndidi Onukwulu – Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way
Ndidi is a fantastic singer who now lives in Vancouver. I produced her last album, The Contradictor, and I knew she’d be perfect for this project. She always gets into the spirit of the song, and in all the work I’ve done with her, we’ve never fixed or punched in a single vocal. It’s always live, always has great energy, and sounds like no one else… This tune. is a 16-bar blues, bt the chords fall in odd places. It’s not standard. But aside from those quirks, this song is almost the same as “Sitting on top of the World”. The Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded that song already, and do a great traditional string-band version of it. So I really wanted to make this track different from that. I thought we could do something kind of heavy and groove-oriented with it. I was watching a video on youtube of Ry Cooder in the early 80′s and there’s a great drum break that happens in the middle of the song. I’m pretty sure it’s Jim Keltner, but I can’t really tell. Anyway, I really liked the groove, and thought it would be a good starting place for this song, but it was really fast. I stuck a mic in front of my computer and recorded 4 bars of it, and then threw that into protools. Then I slowed the groove way down and looped 2 bars and played the rough idea of the song on top of it. I played it for everyone, but didn’t want to get hung up on replicating it, especially from Matt’s point of view – I knew he could come up with something just as cool, but it was definitely the inspiration for the feel of our track. We all got set up, had the full band going, and it was pretty full-on. Jesse was playing acoustic violin and was getting drowned out by the drums, so we moved him back into the control room. Everyone else was in the main room – keith on bass, wayne on organ, me on my modified strat, Matt on drums, and Nddi in the vocal booth. We did 3 takes like that and each one sort of took on a life of its own. It was great to play a groove like that with such a killer band. We worked on the dynamics a bit and Ndidi sang killer takes. I still haven’t decided which of the 3 takes to use. They are all really good.
Bruce Cockburn – Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down
The last song of the day was with Bruce Cockburn. He had come in from New York for the session, and had worked out a great guitar picking and vocal arrangement of this tune. We all sat around in the main room playing through it a couple of times. Wayne played some very subtle organ, I played weissenborn, keith on bass, and Matt changed kick drums to get a really boomy sound with more decay and a lower tone. At first we were kind of toying with doing it without drums, but decided it would work well with the groove that Matt did underneath. We spent a while tweaking Bruce’s guitar and vocal sounds once he was set up in his booth. He had a really beautiful sounding blue guitar, built by Linda Manzer. Bruce wanted to incorporate the pickup and internal mic into the guitar sound, so we tried it a number of ways, but nothing beat just using a single U87 mic on the guitar about a foot away. I think we had an M49 Neumann up for his vocals. We were happy with all the sounds, so we started with a take, and got through the whole thing and went in for a listen. It was pretty close, but we decided to alter the tempo very slightly, and also bring othe rinstruments in a little more selectively. We did 2 more complete take of the tune, and I felt like the 3rd one really nailed it. Bruce kicked it off with a cool guitar riff that is reminiscent of the sheiks, but more in his own style, and the whole thing had a great groove right from the top. Bruce and I felt we could get a better guitar solo in the middle, so we went back and overdubbed a couple of takes, and we had it. Bruce said “now all we need is a chorus of drunks!”. He wanted to do a unison vocal over the last verse, which was definitely worth a try. we gathered everyone who was around – bruce, me, keith, my wife alice, Carrie and Daniel (who were both there taking photos), and wayne, and maybe someone else. We gathered around a single mic and did a few passes of us all singing in unison. It turned out to be really cool and that was it! There may be a horn overdub that I’ll do – a trombone perhaps… we’ll see. Spirits were high, although we were all pretty exhausted. We hung out for a while at the studio, and then headed off for a few celebratory beverages at a nearby pub… success!
So that was the end of the first day – getting 7 songs done in one day with a rotating cast of characters was probably the most stressful yet rewarding day ever in the studio. It’s only when you look back and think about all the little things that could have gone awry – gear, people showing up on time, getting set up, getting the sounds right, that it seems like we really accomplished something special. Kudos to the greatest band I could ask for, and a killer team at Avast!