Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – The BIG Session (Part 1)

Just got back from Seattle, where on Nov. 10 and 11, 2008 we held the big session for this record. I had assembled a house band (in my head) of people who I really wanted to have back up some of the artists. All of those people live in Seattle. So… surprise, surprise, we held the session in Seattle, just 2 hours south of Vancouver, where I live. It was a major undertaking getting people on board on the same day, but we somehow got everyone on board and set the dates and booked 2 days at Avast Studios. I’d been there once before, and met the manager, Stuart, once. He was really accomodating for this and liked what we were up to. His studio has lots of room, great vintage mics, a killer sounding live room, and a classic Trident A-Range console.

My wife Alice and I, and my manager Kathy, who is also doing some wrangling for this project headed down the night before. The plan was to start early on the 10th and get through 7 tracks for the record. Then the next day, we only had to get 2 done, but in a shorter period of time.

The list of artists was:

Day 1 – Kelly Joe Phelps, Madeleine Peyroux, my track, Ndidi Onukwulu, Danny Barnes, The Sojourners, and Bruce Cockburn.

Day 2 – Del Rey, Robin Holcomb

Right before we left for Seattle, we hit snag 1, which turned out to be pretty much the only snag of the session. Madeleine Peyroux called and was going to be stuck in LA finishing her album and unable to come to the session. She really wanted to do a track still, but she just couldn’t make it to Seattle. So I suggested that we record her track without her and get her to sing on it later. She was into that, so she sent me an MP3 of her playing the song, and armed with that, we headed south….

After an agonizing 2 1/2 hour wait at the border, we got to Seattle, got settled, and met up with Bruce Cockburn to say hello. He got in the night before to visit some friends, so we went out to a little pub around the corner from the hotel. We packed it in pretty early though, as the day ahead was looming.

Kelly Joe Phelps

We headed to the studio around 9AM, and Kelly Joe Phelps met us there at 9:30. He’s an early riser, and I know that he can sound great even early in the day. I’ve worked with him quite a few times over the years – playing on his album “Slingshot Professionals”, and producing “tunesmith retrofit”, as well as doing quite a bit of touring together a few years back. It’s always good to see him. He brought up a National Style-O for the project which was cool, because he doesn’t record with Nationals very often. Kelly Joe was going to do “Living In A Strain”. Cameron and Cathy were there setting up – Cameron was the engineer at Avast, and Cathy his assistant. We considered quite a few mic options, but I wanted to keep it simple, as I always do with Kelly Joe. It just sounds better with him – he moves around alot as he plays and so it’s hard to get more than one mic to sound good on his guitars. We got a couple of mics fired up and I moved them around a bit until I was happy with the sound. Nationals are also tricky because their sound is very complex – the tone of those guitars is generated at several different spots, so you really have to find a magic spot for the mics. Once we were rolling, Kelly Joe did a couple of takes, both of them vastly different. We took a little break and then did a 3rd take, with a slightly different form in mind. With Kelly Joe, he really gets into a song and tears it inside out… once he’s gotten in there and spat it out, it’s pretty hard for him to feel anything better than the original take. HIs vocals and playing are both so great that you never really deal with “mistakes” with him – it’s just preferences of what sounds better. Of the 3 takes, all different tempos and feels, we felt the 1st take was the best. So that’s what we kept. I love 1st takes. and that’s it… no overdubs, no other instruments. Just Kelly Joe doing what he does best. solo.

The band arrives

It was just like clockwork…. kelly joe and i yakked for a few minutes after his session, and then he hopped in his car heading back to his house about 3 hours south. About 2 minutes after he split, the band started arriving. Matt Chamberlain showed up first with a car full of gear. Matt is definitely one of my favourite drummers on the planet. I know of him through his work with Jon Brion, Bill Frisell, Critters Buggin’ and countless other records he has played on. He’s also from Seattle… how convenient! And he and Keith Lowe know each other. I think from playing with Fiona Apple back in the early days of her career. We’d talked a little bit about what he should bring, and decided that what we wanted was a more vintage kind of sound rather than a super-modern pop drum kit. He showed up with a 1940’s kit, I believe it’s a Slingerland (could be wrong!!). It still has the original calfskin heads on it! Anyway, it sounded fabulous and he had a wide array of percussion toys and clangy cymbals that I love. Cameron, the engineer had the drums up and running within an hour or so. I wanted to keep it simple, so we used a pair of overheads, 2 mics on the kick drum, 2 on the snare for different sounds and that was about it. There were a couple extras on toms, etc, but I won’t use them. We then set up Keith Lowe’s bass station. I knew the bass would likely be all acoustic, so we didn’t bother even setting an amp up for him. We baffled off the bass a little bit to get some seperation, but kept them both in the same room. Then Wayne Horvitz’s keyboard station was also set up in the room. A B3, a wurlitzer, and I brought my pump organ. There was a grand piano as well, but it didn’t get much use until later. We put Wayne’s amps and Leslie in a room next door. I was also in the main room for part of the time, but if I was playing an acoustic instrument, I had to go go into a booth to get enough separation.

So, we were all there and pretty much ready to go by around 2PM… this will be continued in Part 2.

More info and order the CD here…

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~ by stevedawson on November 17, 2008.

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