Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – The BIG Session (part 2)

•December 2, 2008 • 1 Comment

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.

Madeleine Peyroux

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!

More info and order the CD here…

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

•November 17, 2008 • Leave a Comment

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…

Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – Part 7

•November 2, 2008 • 3 Comments

We’re kind of in the home stretch now for recording… there’s a big session coming up next week in Seattle that I’m really excited about, and a few of the other tracks are trickling in from other artists. The North Mississippi Allstars just completed a track on their own, and it’s a great honour to have them, and a really integral part of anything to do with Mississippi music is their dad Jim Dickinson, who played on tons of great reocords, and produced alot of amazing recordings over the years. They did a version of “It’s Backfiring Now”, and I have yet to hear it! Should be arriving any day now.

The other tracks I’m working on are for Jim Byrnes, and we did a song with him during the recording of his new CD about a mo th ago. We did a version of “Jailbird Love Song”, one of my favourite Sheiks tunes.

Stephen Hodges played drums, who was amazing to work with – he played on alot of the mid-80’s Tom Waits albums that I really love and now plays in Mavis Staples’ band. He ¬†brought the biggest kick drum I have ever seen, and used 3 snares (not all at once) – no toms or anything. WE had mics all over the kit though – Green Hornet harmonica mics actually sitting on the drums, feeding a small guitar amp, so the sounds are pretty nasty… it was great! I’m going to record someone singing harmony vocals on that one later.

Still working on the Oh Susanna/Van Dyke Parks track too. It’s done, but I still have to get the viola parts done on Van Dyke’s arrangement, and haven’t had time for a while. Hopefully in the next few weeks.

The SEattle session will be a blast – I’ll post some pictures and info as that session unfolds. IN 2 days days we will record The Sojourners, Ndidi Onukwulu, a song of mine, Bruce Cockburn, Del Rey, Madeleine Peyroux, Kelly Joe Phelps, and Robin Holcomb. There is a house band on the first day which will be me, Keith Lowe on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums, and Wayne Horvitz on keyboards. A really amazing band of Seattle-ites! At that point, this album will be about 90% done and we’ll just have finishing touches and a few other tracks to take care of to wrap it all up.

Stay tuned!

More info and order the CD here…

Ndidi Onukwulu – “the contradictor”

•October 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This was a fun one that had alot of live tracks kept for the final recording. There were quite a few musicians involved, but the main group involved was Ndidi on vocals, Roey Shamesh on bass, me and Paul Pigat on guitars, Tyson Naylor on keys, Jesse Zubot on fiddle and Barry Mirochnik on drums. We also had Derry Byrne and JP Carter in on trumpet, and Bill Runge on saxes and clarinet.

All of Ndidi’s vocals were recorded live without exception. We sectioned her off in the live room to minimize drum bleed, and used her own live vocal mic because she was really used to the sound.

Nididi writes on the guitar, but isn’t really a guitar player, so she makes up alot of her own chords, most of which I’ve never seen before. So we spent quite a bit of time looking at the tunes and how she wrote them, and how to interpret the chords she wrote to sing the songs to. That was a fun process, and I like seeing what people can come up with without knowing the technical in’s and out’s of an instrument.

Some of the tunes I would just play the chords that she invented, and some I would interpret to more straight ahead guitar chords.

We did some work at the Henhouse on this – alot of backup vocals, and some editing, rhythm tracks and a few solos, but all the band tracks, most of the solos, the horns, and all of ndidi’s vocals were done at the factory in 5 days.

Check out the photos for some action shots and more details on instruments/mics used….

The Deep Dark Woods – Oct ’08

•October 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Just spent 2 weeks with the Deep Dark Woods from Saskatoon. They’re a great band who have 2 albums out already and this is going to be their 3rd. They are really together and tight live, so I knew that we should be trying to capture as much of that as we could in the studio. The idea was to spend one week at the Factory in Vancouver, recording all the live stuff, and then going back to the Henhouse, my place, for overdubs, some editing, rough mixing etc.


Tracking was really smooth, and once we were set up, we were firing through songs pretty quickly. The band was all in one room. Amps were slightly isolated, and we built a small booth for Ryan, the lead singer. Although, it wasn’t really a booth because he’s so tall, his head was above the highest baffle. It helped a bit though in keeping the drums out of the vocal mics, but on a few of the louder tunes, there’s still more drums than vocals. It sounds cool though and adds alot of character to the sound. And yes, this means that pretty much all the vocals were done live off the floor and not fixed… impressive. I think the most takes we did was 4 of one of the tunes. Only one song, “2-time loser” had overdubbed vocals – and only because it was a really loud song – drums were cranking, amps were ripping, and I could hardly hear any vocals in the vocal mic. Anyway, we got through 12 songs, plus an extra instrumental and a cover of a mississippi sheiks song in the days we were there. We also spent some time overdubbing a few things, experimenting with some sounds, and I submixed the drums, which I love doing there in the lovely old Neve console. It allows me to work with just 1 or 2 tracks of drums later on at my place. If we do it right, about 80% of these submixes actually work for the final mix and it saves alot of hassle down the line. Plus, comitting to those sounds early really helps the creative process, I find.

Back at the Henhouse, we did some more guitars, pedal steel, a few vocal things, and rough mixed the entire album for the fellas to take home with them. I’m completing and mixing it in the next couple weeks, so all-in-all, it was a pretty quick project, but sounds fantastic!