Tag Archives: Stefan Grossman

Stefan Grossman, The Work & Worry Interview – PART 3

Raymond_Stefan_LakeWell, what a ride it has been.  In PART 1 of this interview we mostly talked about guitars, and in PART 2 we covered the European folk scene in the ’60s and ’70s.  We wrap up our interview with some thoughts on his work in the here and now…

W&W – Do you feel like itʼs come back around at all? In part because of the work youʼve done, so many more players are playing acoustic blues guitar, innovating…

Stefan – Some of it is great. Guy Davis… Eric Bibb, great singer, great guitar arrangements. There are other younger black players, white players that are really terrific. Iʼve contributed a certain amount, but Iʼm sure Ericʼs [Clapton] Robert Johnson records and unplugged records contributed much, much more. When The Rolling Stones do “Prodigal Son” or “You Gotta Move”, that really turns people on. One thing is for sure, if Eric Clapton does a Skip James tune, or Barbecue Bob – he did a great version of “Motherless Child” a number of years back – that doesnʼt increase Barbecue Bob sales, maybe by a half of a percentage point, but the kids are relating to a white singer singing that, not some old guy from the ʻ20s.

But you can just go on YouTube! I discovered Tom Feldmann, weʼre doing a lot of work with Tom now, I discovered him on YouTube and heʼs a great player! I must talk to Tom via the internet twenty times a day…

W&W – Tom has an upcoming instructional DVD on Son House, right?

Stefan – Thatʼs not out yet, but yes, and heʼs done Blind Willie Johnson, the gospel music of John Hurt… heʼs mostly a slide player. So weʼve got a new one coming out, Masters of Bottleneck Blues Guitar, a Fred McDowell lesson, Son House, Bukka White have been recorded, weʼre just waiting to get the TAB back. Heʼs a great player, heʼs 33! He turns me on to guys on YouTube.

W&W – Before today, I had wondered if Stefan Grossmanʼs Guitar Workshop was maybe located in your house, or if had offices, a warehouse somewhere…

Stefan – Well, historically if you wanted to run a “business”, you had to get a building, offices, warehouse, all that stuff. As a result, you have a DVD that retails for one amount, youʼre wholesaling it for another…

Our idea was that we wanted it lean and mean. So we have distributors, Mel Bay, Rounder Records, City Hall Records, in England itʼs Music Sales. So weʼll sell to Mel Bay at a certain price and theyʼll warehouse the stuff, or weʼll pay a little extra to have things warehoused at our DVD manufacturer in New York.

Raymond_Stefan_ConversationW&W – And theyʼll do the fulfillment to places like Mel Bay…

Stefan – Exactly. So we try to keep it as simple as possible, and the only thing we run out of here is the mail order. Susan [Steel] takes care of that, completely. So as a result, we had to find a house that had a large basement! Weʼve got a lot of stuff in there. Every week, Susan will place an order from the DVD manufacturer, 10 of this, 20 of this, to make sure the shelves are full here… but most of the DVDs are warehoused at the manufacturer in New York.

W&W – Would you say that, at this point, youʼre out of the traditional record business? That is to say that if you discovered a young player that you were crazy about, who had original material, that you wouldnʼt feel compelled to put out their album?

Stefan – Well it used to be that you wanted to be signed to a company, because they could send out five thousand promo records to every radio station in the country. Nowadays, my advice to anyone is to do your own CD, and sell it at gigs yourself. You wonʼt be able to send out those five thousand copies, but if the CD is a vehicle to make money and spread your music, do it yourself. I canʼt do any better.

In the old days, a label like Windham Hill was successful because they were in the northwest and the radio stations would just play the hell out of the albums! It was at the right time. Nowadays that doesnʼt happen… people donʼt buy CDs, they expect everything for free! Our CDs, weʼre able to sell them because they have PDF files on them, this added value… but now everyone can make a CD. It used to be that if you had a vinyl record or a CD, it meant that you had arrived at a certain point in your professional life as a musician. But now, a kid at two years old can make a CD! The whole business has totally changed. Now you can fill up a hall because you have a hit on YouTube, like Andy McKee. He can fill up halls all over the place. It used to be the records, now itʼs the views.

W&W – Physical media is on the wane, and youʼve now got an on-demand service. Is it as successful as youʼd hoped it would be?

Stefan – Yes! For us, it hasnʼt decreased the amount of hard-copy DVDs that we sell, but it has increased the outreach of the material. Itʻs really convenient for people overseas, you donʼt have to pay postage, duties. That has really been great. And with the on-demand, weʼve been able to do what we havenʼt been able to do with physical: people have been asking for single lessons, and now you can get single tunes, on- demand. So that has been going very well. Itʼs increasing the possibilities.

W&W – Teaching-wise, do you feel that anything is being lost with the video being the primary method these days? Not everyone can have a great teacher to study with…

Stefan – The people that do instructional videos for us do teach, the DVDs arenʼt just glorified performances. We do those on Vestapol, our Guitar Artistry DVDs. But I believe that on the instructional videos, the person really needs to be able to instruct. Initially, in the early days of DVDs, we werenʼt able to put PDFs on them. So I thought that the one thing the audio lessons had was that if I was going to teach “Stagger Lee” by Mississippi John Hurt, I could actually put a track on there of John Hurt playing it. But now the DVDs have it all. They have the lessons, the audio tracks and bonus video performances. We try to pack as much as we can into it.

W&W – Is there a lot of renumeration involved with the work youʼre producing now, the families of the old blues players?

Stefan – All of it! If Iʼm going to do a DVD on Freddie King, I contact Wanda King, we have an agreement with her… if Iʼm doing The Guitar of Freddie King, itʼs different, I would contact the publishers. But morally, I feel like you have to do that. Unfortunately, in most cases the artists are gone, so weʼre contacting the estates. The only one that was weird was Son House, after he passed away his wife just wouldnʼt open the envelopes… she thought it was devilʼs music!

W&W – My last question… in the last year, youʼve released serious instructional DVDs on Lonnie Johnson, youʼve got Ernie Hawkins doing Big Bill Broonzy, Lightninʻ Hopkins, etc… so itʼs going on 100 year that a lot of this music has been around, and thereʼs still so much to uncover. Are there particular blues players that you feel will represent the next wave of discovery?

Stefan – Well, with the blues guys, there was a fixed amount of players who were truly great, who would interest guitar players. You have blues players, like John Lee Hooker, whoʼs a great player and musician, but I wouldnʼt make an instructional DVD of his style, necessarily. It is a finite amount. The hard part is to find the teacher who has gotten it completely. Like Ernie Hawkins is great for Gary Davis, Ari Eisinger is incredible for Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller…

With someone like Reverend Gary Davis, a normal company would release one or two DVDs and thatʼs it… because they donʼt want the DVDs competing with each other. But I donʼt care! We put out a four volume set, three double-DVD sets, and Ernie probably has enough to even go into the key of F… well, that ainʼt commercial! Thatʼs not how a business should operate!

W&W – But thereʼs a historical imperative!

Stefan – Sales-wise, I just donʼt care… itʼs important. Itʼs history being made, trying to put this music onto guitar. Ari, he works very slow, but thereʼs different projects I want for him.. Tom Feldmann, we have a whole list of projects for him to do.

What Iʼm trying to do is document those styles. The music is timeless, and learning to play in these styles, with these techniques, that should live on forever.

An immense thank you to Stefan and his family for their hospitality during our visit. Please go to http://www.guitarvideos.com to see all of the wonderful offerings from Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.

Stefan Grossman, The Work & Worry Interview – PART 1

Stefan_Playing_Raymonds_HealyTwo summers ago, when this blog was a good bit more active than it is now, I thought I would swing for the fences and try to get an interview with Stefan Grossman, one of my all-time acoustic guitar heroes.  Stefan wasn’t the first folkie, finger-picking guitarist that caught my ear… I had previously spent a good bit of time listening to Paul Simon, Nick Drake and Donovan.  When my friend Michael turned me on to Bert Jansch, that was it.  I was, and remain, an absolute fiend for British guitar music, a story that Stefan plays an appreciable part in. Continue reading

Old Music, New People

During the past few months, we received three excellent albums of what could be described as “old timey” music. We thought it would be apt to do a quick round-up of these. We borrowed the article’s title from The Howling Kettles (it’s the tagline for their website). Continue reading

Guitar Honeymoon Through The South

Though my lovely wife Minette and I got married all the way back in May, we’ve both been pretty swamped with work ever since, and the idea of a decent honeymoon has been on the back-burner.  Well, that all ended this week, as we filled up our tank and decided to take a scenic drive through the south!  We didn’t do all that much pre-planning, figuring that we would just set up a few hotels along the way, and do whatever struck our fancy on any given day… but knowing that we were going to be spending a little time in both Asheville NC and Nashville TN, I made sure to have a few fine guitar stores on my mental list of places to visit, and they did not disappoint.  WARNING : if you’re not interested in some pretty subjective ideas about sound and a lot of out-and-out minutia concerning some positively lovely acoustic guitars, you’ve probably already read too much… things are about to get long and geeky! I’ll also take this moment to point out that for every minute I spent looking at guitars, Minette probably spent five in thrift stores and boutiques shopping for unique and vintage articles of clothing… so everybody came away happy!

About twenty minutes outside of Asheville, nestled inconspicuously along a residential country road sits Dream Guitars, a unique appointment-only showroom and internet store owned and operated by Paul Heumiller.  Paul started the company a while back with none other than world-renowned fingerstylist Martin Simpson, and both men know more than a little bit about fine acoustic guitars.  There are few places in the world where so many unique hand-built and small shop guitars are available to play, and I tried my best to take it all in… though it wasn’t easy!  In 90 minutes I played just a handful of instruments, each one just as beautiful as the last, and each with its own particular set of aesthetic and tonal strengths… and though I’ll admit it definitely feels a little haughty to pick apart any of these guitars, as a longtime fan of the instrument, I had no choice but to follow my ears, and these are some of my thoughts. Continue reading

Review : James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg “Avos” LP/MP3 (Tompkins Square, 2011)

AvosLife is full of funny coincidences, isn’t it?  Exactly a decade ago, I was playing guitar in The Higher Burning Fire, something of a chamber-pop group that (by my influence) dabbled with folky and fingerpicked guitar patterns.  In the middle of a full-band relocation from Kansas to New York City, I received an interesting phone call from our drummer, already in the Big Apple – “I met this guy, he’s really cool, he’s gotta be in the band…  you’ll love him, he plays just like you!”  My excitable drummer must have somehow forgotten that I also played just like me, and that I was but one of the three more-than-competent guitarists in our band… a fourth guitarist?  Did it really matter what he played like?  His mind was made up, though, and I took the whole thing as a sign that maybe I didn’t want to carry on with the band any more.  “They’ll be fine, no shortage of guitarists there!” They did the New York thing (for a little over a year) and I found my way up to Boston.

Can you tell where I’m going with this?  That mysterious fourth guitarist was none other than Nathan Salsburg, freshly arrived to NYC from Louisville and working for The Alan Lomax Archives, a post that he holds to this day.  When I went back to New York a little while later to see what my former band mates had been making of themselves in their adopted home, I found Nathan to be not only a great guitarist but a sweet guy as well, and we hit it off talking about Bert Jansch and Scott Walker.

Fast forward about seven years… the band had long broken up and gone our separate ways, and I had devoted myself almost exclusively to acoustic guitar music.  I picked up the fantastic third volume in Tompkin Square’s Imaginational Anthem series and saw who else but Nathan listed among the artists on the back of the disc.  His standout track “Bold Ruler’s Joys” was not only one of the disc’s (and series’) highlights, but was one of the most compelling and confident acoustic instrumentals that I’d heard from any of the current generation of young fingerpickers.  Nathan didn’t play “just like me” at all, he was worlds better, in a league of his own!  I quickly got a message to the man, and we started keeping in touch regularly.

Over the last couple of years, Nathan has been sending me some of his works-in-progress, mostly next-level fingerstyle jams named after race horses… for he has moved back to his native Louisville, and the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined down there!  Last year, I began hearing from Nathan about another project, a guitar duet record involving a guy named Jim from Chicago.  Jim turned out to be James Elkington, of The Zincs and The Horses Ha, who also turned out (by yet another coincidence) to be the drummer for Brokeback, a Chicago group led by the legendary Doug McCombs (he of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day). I’ve shared a bill with Doug many times in the last few years, since he and my duet partner Dave are old friends from Dave’s Chicago days. It’s a small, small musical world folks, and it’s only getting smaller… but this back story and all its little coincidences could not have led to a more exciting moment, and now I have the great pleasure to review James’ and Nathan’s stellar debut Avos. Continue reading

Review : Bert Jansch Conundrum “In Concert, 1980” DVD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2011)

Conundrum_BertAll apologies, I’ve fallen very behind on my reviews this year… though it’ s not due to a dearth of worthy releases!  Since it’s been a little while since I’ve gushed about the legendary Bert Jansch, I thought I would talk about his latest release, In Concert, 1980, out now on SGGW.  From what I understand, this show had already made the rounds on the VHS circuit (thanks Yair!) but this new issue, part of Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Artistry series, features bonus footage from a second concert, as well as a short documentary entitled A Man and His Songs.  The material and performances on offer here nicely bridge the gap between Jansch’s classic solo period of the mid ’60s and the sober, welcome renaissance  of recent years… and for that I consider it a document of utmost importance…  but In Concert is also a rare glimpse of Jansch at his collaborative best, playing both new compositions and compelling arrangements of old favorites, with players who not only have the chops to keep up with the unpredictable Scottish guitar hero, but also carry a genuine affection for the man and his art.

The Bert Jansch Conundrum was a loose sort of group that Jansch formed in the late 70’s, presumably to add a little muscle to his sound and recreate the vibe of some of his albums from that decade.  Auxiliary musicians in those years included Rod Clements, Mike Piggott, and the two men who join Jansch for this concert, mandocellist Martin Jenkins (who left his unmistakable stamp on 1979’s fascinating Avocet) and demure electric bassist Nigol Portman-Smith.  This trio is a relatively tight one, and most of the tunes follow a similar presentation : Bert singing lead and chording, while Jenkins keeps the melody flowing on violin or mandocello and sings backup. Portman-Smith’s understated yet bouncy bass does a great job of holding down the low end, and these men do keep quite a solid rhythm, despite the lack of any percussion. Continue reading

John Renbourn Tackles Satie’s “Sarabande”

Renbourn_70sJohn Renbourn is a wonder. His recording career began in England during the mid-sixties, just as the late Davey Graham was blazing new trails with the acoustic guitar.  John followed Davey’s lead, performing on his early Transatlantic albums with a sense of abandon, cleverly weaving together musical styles and traditions from around the globe. Over time, Renbourn’s playing became more measured but also increasingly detailed, sometimes blurring the line where folk music ends and classical music begins.  While his discography features a wide variety of modes and collaborations, his solo albums from the late seventies, The Hermit and The Black Balloon in particular, feature expansive long-form guitar instrumentals that are among his most ambitious and best works.  The latest album, Palermo Snow (Shanachie Records, 2010) belongs to that lineage… I was excited to discover it included an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Sarabande,”¹ as I’ve been absorbed in Satie’s music recently and, more importantly, imagined that interpreting it would be an interesting change of pace for Renbourn.

Satie’s piano compositions are generally regarded as precursors to ambient music, which he referred to as musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.” Their quality is atmospheric, repetitive, slightly dissonant.  Satie is identified with the avant-garde for his later associations with Dada, though his early compositions are often referred to as “impressionist.”  The series of three “Sarabandes,” introduced in 1887, just a year prior to his best known work, the “Gymnopédies,” indeed have a drifting, romantic quality.  Here is the late French pianist’s Jacques Février’s rendition of Satie’s “Sarabande No.1”²:

A “sarabande” is a dance in triple meter.  From what I’ve gathered, it was developed in Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century and later banned in Spain for its sexual undertones.  The dance was revived and commonly used as movement within a suite during the Baroque period, when the German music theorist, Johann Matthesson, declared that it “expresses no passion other than ambition.”³ It’s easy to imagine how the peculiar reputation and history of this dance would appeal to Satie, whose sense of humor is well documented.  One even wonders if the circularity of his “Sarabandes” was intended to be satirical. Interestingly, John Renbourn included an electric guitar rendition of a Bach “Sarabande” on his fourth album, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Despite the heavy vibrato effect, it sounds more formal than Satie’s “Sarabandes,” and I suspect provides a better sense of a typical, Baroque version of the dance:

Adapting ambient music to the guitar provides one with an opportunity to obsess over each individual note or chord; to allow the overtones that occur during sustain, as well as fret and room noise, to become the “detail” of the piece.  The timbre of steel string guitar seems particularly well-suited to the task, especially compared with classical guitar.  Solo fingerstyle guitar music, by contrast, is a show of dexterity, where bass and melody lines interact in a complex, sometimes dizzying manner. Renbourn is regarded as a master of fingerstyle form, and would seem to reside in a different ballpark from the ambient musician.  I know from my own attempts to feather ambient pieces into a fingerstyle repertoire that the adjustment in mindset is not easy to manage in one sitting.  Not to suggest that John Renbourn is uninterested in tonality, it seems reasonable to point out that the opportunities for him to really fuss over it have been somewhat scarce in his music.  I can’t think of many examples from his recorded works that resemble Satie’s music, save perhaps the duet rendition of the Charles Mingus’ “Theme from The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” with Stefan Grossman, which has impressionistic qualities.

Renbourn’s take on Satie’s “Sarabande” is similar in tempo to the Février example.  However, one gets the sensation, especially early on in the recording, that he feels slightly impatient and is struggling to lock in with the odd cadences of the piece:

In fact, it’s the sense of struggle that I find most appealing about this performance.  The voicings he selected for the arrangement also have a mundane quality that I think befits the piece.  If there’s one flaw, it would be the heavy handed use of artificial reverb on the recording, which I think obscures rather than flatters some of the details of John’s performance.  Nonetheless, I find it encouraging that this revered guitar player, who has accomplished so much with the instrument, was willing to venture into potentially uncomfortable musical territory to expand his boundaries, if even only slightly.  While this article focused only on one track, Palermo Snow is a certainly multi-faceted album worthy of celebration by guitar music fans.

¹ Renbourn’s arrangement is of Satie’s “Sarabande No. 1”
² from Piano Music of Erik Satie (Remastered, 2011)
³ from Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739)