All posts by john ellis

Song Design

by James Linderman

As I was writing my newly released Song Forms for Songwriters workbook, I started to draw parallels between the crafting and manufacture of a song and the crafting and manufacture of other artistic and non-artistic consumables.

As I did my research, the two words that kept appearing were “abstraction” (which involves creating a version or illustration of something that only shows a particular part or feature of it) and the word “design”.

I certainly knew about sound design since I had colleagues who worked in that field, but I was not sure I had ever heard the term “song design” and I began to see that this might be the name for the kind of work that would allow those of us who write song to create better songs.

Of course, form is an essential element of any kind of design work and since I had just spent the last ten years analyzing and compiling 500 of the most successful and iconic song forms for my book, I felt like I was practicing and studying the foundations of song design already.

Of course, classical composers completely understood the importance of compositional form. They wrote menuettos, sonatas and fugues and poured their creative choices into these pre-designed frames. Writing to a form like a menuetto comes with some rules and stipulations but it is surprisingly liberating since the writer can then focus on the expressive elements and the structural decisions look after themselves since they are pre-determined.

First and foremost, to be considered a menuetto, the composition must sound like a menuetto. How the composer innovates their own creative elements into it, cannot be so vast that the listener can no longer identify the form. For instance, it must be in 3/4 time and historically people had to be able to dance to it, in a dance that involved a series of small steps. A traditional menuetto is 32 bars long with an AABB form. See Menuetto in C Major by Mozart.

Within the restrictions that come with writing to a form, it is then essential for the music creator to make a brand new work and not have their music just mimic the examples that preceded it. Everyone who writes music has a responsibility to move the art form forward. It is what separates those who paint, from those who paint by numbers.

In our day and age you would get the impression that form is not an essential part of the songwriting process. To create a commercially successful song you do not need to understand, or even pay any attention to song form. I meet songwriters all the time who cannot distinguish their verses from choruses and they did not write their song with an awareness that they were creating their own song form as they went along. The downside to this kind of writing is that, songs that do not have a strong reliable form, no matter how instantly popular or immediately successful they are commercially, always die as quickly as they rise.

The urban dictionary refers to these kinds of songs as disposable music. Music that listeners find instantly appealing, but will abandon for their next musical infatuation, sometimes within days of the first listen. How commercially successful or popular these songs get before they disappear obviously varies greatly, and the study of that trend is not the focus here. Perhaps I will write on that topic another time but for now lets get back to song design and have a look at the difference between a well designed and a poorly designed element of a song.

Since my new book could be considered a design catalogue for chord progressions lets look at a small section of the template featured on page two. It is in the key of G and it is in 3/4 time.

The templates in the book display the sections of a song; the intro, verse, chorus, etc. with boxes representing bar lines like this…

Linderman Chord Choice Box

The chords displayed in this eight bar intro are options so the songwriter can choose one chord from each bar and determine if, within this very stable and reliable form, they can find a pattern that they might want to write a song with.

That song might look like this…

Linderman Chord Choice 1

Another version could look like this….

Linderman Chord Choice 2

If you listen closely you will hear that there is a distinct similarity in these two introductions because they have the same form and the chords in each bar do the same kind of job, but there is also a significant difference in these two intros as well. They each convey a different mood and therefore represent the artistic choices of their particular songwriter.

Play through both of these examples a number of times and the elements that make them similar and the elements that make them unique, will both become clearer as you get your ear accustomed to this analysis. Also try singing or playing a melody to this song part and see how easy it is to set a melody on a progression that has a reliable form. Many songwriters even go as far as referring to an element of a song as being trustworthy as it relates to the other song elements.

If you have enjoyed taking a look at these inner workings of song design, please visit my website at jameslinderman.com and find more information on my new book Song Forms for Songwriters as well as information on my Skype teaching and song coaching.

The New York Songwriters Circle 25th Anniversary

by James Linderman

There is something truly wonderful about performing your own songs at a songwriters circle.

First and foremost it is the graduating event that pulls us up from the open mic night. It seems to many of us who write songs that the open mic night is where we sharpen the skill, and the songwriters circle is where we get to not only show how sharp that skill has gotten but also where our sharpness is celebrated.

Just by being on the bill, in this invited and limited capacity, makes a statement and I believe most of us see it as a sign of ascent.

My first songwriters circle was Bluebird North in Toronto and I sat beside Melanie Doane who had won a Juno (Canada’s Grammy) for her album Adam’s Rib which was in my top 10 favourites list of all time. It was magical to not only sit beside this artist whose work I so admired completely, but to have her guitar player mention to the audience that I was a hard act to have to follow….priceless!

So if we agree that the songwriting circle is a cherished tradition then we can also agree that the New York Songwriters Circle is the most cherished of all, in this, it’s 25th year.

To try and imagine all of the incredible moments that have taken place over that time would be only possible if you had been involved with it for a long time and fortunately I got to ask the host and co-ordinator of the New Your Songwriters Circle, Tina Shafer these 11 questions that will give you a very good idea of what it has been like over the years and where she believes the NYSC is headed in the future.

Q. What did you think of the Circle the first time you went?

A. The first time I went, I was invited to be a performer. I was a songwriter signed to Warner Chapel at the time and performing in a “round”, listening to other people’s tunes and not having to carry the whole show was a delight to me!

Q. Did you make any significant changes once you started hosting?

A. The format remained the same but I used many of my early co-writers and voice students to perform …we were all just starting out in the business and it was such a great way to share our music and perform.. Some of those artists were: Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Richard Julian, Nellie McKay, Lisa Loeb, Vanessa Carlton, Billy Porter…

Q. How has the NYSC evolved since you first started hosting it?

A. It became kind of famous out of it’s own accord, there really was no other “in the round format” in those early days and the amazing talent just brought more of the same in from all over the country, and eventually from all over the world.  We soon had ASCAP nights, BMI and SESAC nights, we had SONY nights, Nashville Nights, Pop nights, R&B nights….It was truly an amazing time for songwriters and a few of us started having real success!

Q. What is the significance of hosting the Circle at The Bitter End?

A. The Songwriters Circle was actually the brainchild of the late Ken Gorka, owner and manager of the famous club.  I never planned to take it anywhere else once I started hosting it in 1991.

Q. Are your younger writers able to appreciate the significance of the NYSC and the Bitter End location?

A. It really depends, some do, some don’t.  Most of the time we do let the writers know that it is truly something special that they were chosen to be a part of our community and that the Bitter End represents one of the original spots to hear great songwriting. Really, the vibrations that come from that room are haunting, in a great way. It is a place where the music makes a difference and there is a transformation that comes from listening to a song in it’s purest form in a place like that.

Q. Is it interesting to go from a “Young Performers Night” to a night of veteran celebrity writers?

A. Yes it is a shift! Wisdom, craft and experience make for some incredible performances by the more seasoned writers.  You really feel like they are our troubadours. They have a voice that is truly their own. In watching the young songwriters, you get to see the “diamonds in the rough” and all that goes with the budding of new talent. Often, many of them are still finding their true voices and their own uniqueness.

Q. What are some of the special showcase moments that made you say, “There it is! That is what this is all about”?

A. Talent is so subjective… but then there are just those few rare artists that you simply have to watch, you have to listen. For me that was Jane Kelly Williams, Billy Porter (Tony Winner for Kinky Boots), Nellie McKay, Vanessa Carlton, Rob Mathes, The Story, Jesse Harris, Richard Julian…these artists always made me listen, I just couldn’t help it. There was something there that was so pure, you had to listen…

Q. Does your own personal success as a songwriter with songs on recordings that have sold over 33 million copies make it easier to attract top tier songwriters when you are assembling a roster that will fill the room?

A. It is easier certainly, since I have known some of these songwriters from cowrite sessions and from being a vocal coach, but also from being in the industry for so many years, my own success as a songwriter translated into greater access to hit songwriters for the Circle when we set up those pro nights.

Q. Why the focus on songwriting as a performance art? Why is performing songs by the songwriters valuable?

A. This is a great question! One that I really struggled with when trying to turn the Circle into a company back in 2006 with our famous songwriting contests. For me, seeing the “man behind the curtain” and the process of what goes into making a song out of thin air, was always the most fascinating part.

We songwriters tend to be cerebral, shy people…that is why most of us choose songwriting and then only performing on a safe stage. We take the time to think through our thoughts, emotions and spin a tapestry of words and music into a 3 minute song that capsulizes that.  To me that creative process is the great unknown, the greatest miracle.

Q. What would the late Ken Gorka think of how the NYSC has progressed in 25 years?

A. I was lucky enough to know that Ken was very very proud of my work. He told me so and when he passed last March, his wife and daughter came up to me and told me how much he respected my work with the songwriting community through the Circle. It meant a great deal to me.

Q. How should the Circle progress in the next 25 years? What should change or remain?

A. That is the million dollar question! For the most part, through all the years, the one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of great content. That has always been the consistent factor.

What I would like to see, moving forward, is greater sponsorships so we can offer some form of scholarship support to some of the newer up and coming talent. Right now, the Circle hires a videographer, photographer, sound man and promoters and paying talented people their worth makes it difficult to invest in the future of our Circle and in the future of our writers. It would be great to see some sustainable growth.

We hope that investment will come from a community that wants to continue to have a rich and vibrant culture filled with the beauty of songs performed by the artists that created them!

James Linderman: Getting Out of the Four Chord Rut

Getting Out of the Four Chord Rut

by James Linderman

Many would consider a four chord song to be a song with one completely unnecessary chord in it, and it is true that there are many brilliant three chord songs.

Country songwriter, Harlan Howard famously stated that all he needed was “three chords and the truth” and my mother in law used to joke that she only knew how to play three chords and a thousand songs and that I seemed to know thousands of chords but only three songs.

It would be fair to say that there are definitely a lot of ways, both simple and complex, to decorate our songs with harmony and it is well worth our time to explore some options and detail some of the rules of the road when it comes to “chording up” our tunes.

One of the first determinations, when looking for the greatest number of chord options for our song, is to establish what key that song is in. Determining key is easier with the help of the following chart which lists the names of the keys in the left column, lists the number of sharp and flat notes featured in the key, in the right column, and displays the chords indigenous to that key in the rows between. When attempting to establish which key a particular song is in, there are lots of criteria that music theorists factor into the equation but in most cases we can simply state that, “majority rules”. In other words, whatever key most of the chords are in, is a pretty good key to work within.

View chord chart

If we determine that all (or at least most) of our chords are in the key of C, for instance, we can then add, remove, shift or replace any of the chords in our song with other chords from that same key. Although we are not guaranteed to like the result of every choice, we might find some chords that fit to our liking and some of those good choices will provide a foundation to work from, as we add chords to the other parts of the song.

As we continue to edit, we can then start to focus our chord selections by applying one of the many chord substitution techniques that are built right into the key system. A substitution technique that is fairly straightforward and easy to apply involves relative chords. The general concept of harmonic relation acknowledges that chords are considered similar to one another by having the most notes in common and therefore offer the greatest likelihood for success during substitution.

For instance, a “C” chord is a relative to “Am” due to the two notes they share in common (C & E) and therefore they can substitute for one another almost always and with very little, or perhaps even no adjustment to the melody. Likewise, a “Dm” chord is related to an “F” chord and an “Em” is related to a “G”, all within the key of C. Numerically, we can more broadly state that the 1 chord is related to the 6 chord, the 2 to the 4 chord and the 3 to the 5 chord in every key, which gives us a substitution platform that we can apply to any key we choose to write in.

A terrific way to test drive this concept of relative harmonic substitution is to take a song you have already written in the key of “C” (or any other key using the chart above) and swap out the relative major and minor chords. You would then listen and assess the effect of each of the alterations. This may not necessarily increase the number of chords in our song but it will definitely get you more used to hearing your song framed in a new chord system that might challenge your initial choices as well as challenge the general feel of the song as well. Think of this as the training camp of chord substitution.

As far as using relative substitution to increase our chord count, a great technique is to use the relative major and minor in each section that previously featured only one of the two chords. For instance, in a bar where we had previously been playing just a “C” chord, we would now try a split bar of “C” to “Am” and then also try “Am” to “C” and determine if either of those options is more likeable than the original chord choice.

I often teach the concept where we consider our songs initial chord progression to be an unchallenged plan “A” until we have tried replacing the chords with at least three other progressions (plan B, plan C, plan D) to determine if there is a better progression available, at least with the options from this primary substitution concept of related majors and minors in spits and/or swaps.

There are a few more ways to substitute harmony that are only slightly more complex than relative major/minor substitution that offer even more chord options and the goal is to rule in or rule out that the best progression for our song is the 4 chord box pattern that we often initially use to bring our songs into existence.

James Linderman teaches guitar and piano and coaches songwriting to students all over the world over Skype. He teaches songwriting for film and film composition at the Canada Film Centre and is an Academic Ambassador to Berklee College of Music. James writes songwriting articles for songwriting organizations all over the world and is the author of a new book Song Forms for Songwriters. To learn more about James visit his site at www.jameslinderman.com or contact him at info@jameslinderman.com.

March 20th Songwriter Showcase

Spring of 2017 VOCAL Songwriter Showcase

Monday March 20th, 2017

*This is the 308th consecutive show: A Showcase of Original Songs

 

Monday March 20th was not only a wonderful first day of spring, but a fantastic presentation of original songs from members of the VOCAL organization!

john-ellis-032017John Ellis, an avid member of the VOCAL group, was the nights “surprise opener.” He performed six of his original songs for the crowd of O’Tooles which included: “Blues #1,” “Five Black Kittens,” “The Stranger,” “I’ll Be There For You,” “Chimes,” and lastly “In My Place.” Two of these songs, “The Stranger” and “I’ll Be There For You,” he has performed for us at several previous showcases, but they are always a joy to hear! All of his songs tonight were performed using his electric guitar, and programming he had been experimenting with on his computer to enhance the songs’ potential. Various other instruments could be heard in the background, such as drums, bass, and chimes.  His first song “Blues #1,” an instrumental song, started off the night with a slow beginning, but then quickly picked up the pace giving the audience a taste of rock and roll qualities. Up next he performed “Five Black Kittens,” another instrumental piece was more upbeat from start to finish compared to “Blues #1.” For some it could put you back into the 1970s or 80s, cruising in your old Chevrolet with the windows down, and spending time with your friends. One could say this song would fit into the soundtrack of the film Dazed and Confused (For those who do not know of this movie you are really missing out)! For his fourth and fifth song he took us back to some of his older pieces, “The Stranger” and “I’ll Be There For You,” which left us all feeling a bit sentimental after the high tempo pieces early on in his set. Finally, for John’s last two songs he performed another instrumental known as “Chimes,” and “In My Place.” “Chimes” was a quick, fast paced song that left the audience in a rock and roll vibe as he quickly switched to his final song “In My Place.” “In My Place” ended the night literally with a heavy, enthusiastic, electric bang!

Carey-Colvin-Granger-Helvey-032017Shortly after John performed the main event for the night tuned up their instruments to perform a twelve song set! We cannot thank Carey Colvin and Granger Helvey enough for taking their time out of their lives to come, and give the diners at O’Tooles a little treat of music. Their twelve songs were performed by Carey on the guitar and Granger on the bass go as follows: “Gulf of Mexico,” “Ten Thousand Arrows,” “Fragile Hearts,” “Let It Flow”, “Don’t Let Life Go By,” “Refugee”, “Love Have Mercy,” “Satisfy Me,” “Ricochet,” “Tropic Skies,” and “Thin Line.” Their song “Gulf of Mexico” and “Tropic Skies” left the crowd begging for summer to approach faster than it already was! Talk of sand beneath our feet, and the sun smiling down on us only sent the audience into a dream like state, dreaming of warm weather and a nice ocean breeze. Several of their songs were a more deep and pulled emotions out of us that we may not have wanted every diner of O’Tooles to see! For example, the songs “Ten Thousand Arrows,” Fragile Hearts,” “The Refugee,” “Love Have Mercy,” and “Ricochet”. These songs made us think about love, loss, gaining love, winning back love, being secure about who were are as people, and dealing with the ups and downs of life. Other songs such as “Thin Line,” “Satisfy Me,” “Don’t Let Life Go By,” and “Let It Flow” were songs that may not have necessarily drawn a significant emotion out of us, but were extremely entertaining to listen to!

Stay tuned for a list of performers for next month’s April Showcase! Once again it will be held at O’Tooles in Richmond at 8:00 PM.

 

2017 February Showcase

On Monday, February 20, 2017, the members of VOCAL got together for their monthly showcase to perform pieces of their work for the audience of O’Tooles. Performers included Anthony Dowd, John Ellis, Richard Hinman, Doug Patrick, Norman Roscher, and Gary Shaver. All the performers also wanted to send out a get-well wish to one of the founding members of the group, Matthew Costello who went into surgery the week before. Best wishes Matthew and get-well soon!

The songs tonight had a couple themes, and the biggest one being love – love between friends, love between family, and love with that special someone.

The fist performer of the night was Gary Shaver with his songs: “Between Her and You,” “Burn,” “All Things Pass.” His songs held the theme of love being complicated. His first song was a story of a person being caught between two lovers, and having to learn how to choose between them. Continuing with the theme of love Gary also sang about a lover that makes their way back into your life, and we all can relate to this in one way or another. Lastly, he performed one of Matthew’s songs as a tribute to him while being out for surgery.

Next up to perform was Richard Hinman who mesmerized us with his guitar pieces on love, but a different kind of love. His first song, “Lost,” taught us that sometimes we may be lost, but somewhere we find something to love within ourselves. After “Lost” he performed his “Reggae Song” that made you want to reach out and hug the person next to you. The beat was calm and peaceful, putting us all in a good mood as we approach the spring season. That song taught us to see the love in one another. Lastly, he played a song called “Crazy for You,” that represented the beat from the swing era, and made us all feel like we were in high school involved with young love.

Third to perform was Anthony Dowd who amazed us with his jazz influenced pieces. He played several songs over the course of the night; “Family Reunion,” “Little Hands,” “Waiting for You,” Sing me to Sleep,” and a potential theme song for Rachel Ray. All of his songs dealt with some aspect of love whether it be familial or with a significant other. Each song was played on the keyboard and moved us all throughout the night with his sweet melodies.

Fourth to perform was Doug Patrick who allowed us to enjoy his guitar works: “You Never Crossed My Mind,” “Rivertown,” and “Mist on the Water.”  His songs gave the crowd a reminder that we are all getting older every day, and we have to love ourselves, each other, where we have been, and even where we are going.

The next singer/songwriter to perform was John Ellis who played his songs on the guitar as well. His songs included: “Just What You’re Looking For”, “The Stranger,” and “I’ll Be There for You.” Each of his songs had a theme of being there for the ones you love, and moved the crowd with their lyrics.

Norman Roscher was the fifth and final performer of the night to wrap up the monthly showcase. His songs included: “Fat Alice,” “You’re Beautiful,” “Holiday,” “So Long Baby, Bye, Bye.” Many of Norman’s songs leave us laughing and carefree as we leave the show, and on Monday night Norman did not disappoint. All of his songs spoke of love, but the humor of love that each of us needs every now and then. Songs like “Fat Alice” and “So Long Baby, Bye, Bye” left us laughing and appreciating the love we all share for people who may be different from us, or in “So Long Baby, Bye, Bye” the love we do not share for those same people.

Come back out to O’Tooles on March 20th to see another lovely group of performers, and enjoy the great Richmond City atmosphere!

  • Jordan Ellis

VOCAL Showcase June 2012

The audience at the June showcase was treated to a fine performance by three of our members. The show started with Ray Brady, a relative newcomer, with his 35-year old song, Big John Brown. A tender acoustic ballad saying you can’t judge a man by the length of his hair. He followed with They Say (it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all). We Need a Hero is quite appropriate to this day and time – someone to show us the way! Before I Go was written for his wife – he’s created a bucket list of things he’d like to do “before he goes”. Keep People Angry was a clever tune written as a spoof of the Tea Party movement (tear down the EPA, Global Warming’s not real, get rid of Social Security, etc.) Turn Your Head described the situation when your kids turn away from you (“trying to make most of your times good times”).

 Chris Newcomb, a new VOCAL member, then took the stage and delivered some of his fine tunes. River City Rivals was the tale of bickering between different areas of the city, a common them in many cities (were you driving the pickup truck or the Rolls Royce?) Experiencing Imperfections told us about rainstorms of deception and watching perfect go down the drain. Dreams of You make no sense for those who ride the fence. Victoria’s Got a Secret is a great play on words about a barista he sees every day – is she there every day to see him? Mirror Mirror – asks who’s the maiden that will fall for me? I’m Alive and Kicking tells it like it is – seize the day, happy to be alive.

Chris Adams then made his first appearance as a VOCAL showcase headliner, and delivered some finely-crafted tunes. You’re Closer Than You’ve Ever Been talks of cars moving slow on the interstate, is life passing you by? Got your foot on the pedal, but you can’t accelerate. Somebody Like You – heart-wrencher saying I don’t know if I could love somebody after my heart’s been torn in two. You Can’t Get There From Here tells us that you can’t take it with you when you go and “slip between the stars”. I’m Finally Getting Over You mentions some interesting things “left” – “you left your laundry on the floor, I left my number on your phone”. Sweet Magnolia is another love lost story – it’s only a dream, all that’s left of you and me – someday you’ll be coming back to me. Played it by Heart is a really cool upbeat number telling us to stop playing it safe, take a leap of faith. She’s Leaving Tonight: who gets the kids, who gets the castle – we’ll split it all right down the middle (thought I heard a touch of Larry Stewart and Restless Heart there for a minute!) You’re Still Mine had a brush with Nashville commercial success (Little Texas) – I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking everything is alright. Nothing That a Little Love Can’t Figure Out is a peppy and catchy “two pods wrapped up together” feel-good love song. So Far Away From Me tells of one who chased her dreams to California – I’d spend all my tomorrows to keep you here today. You Know What It’s Like is a very memorable gospel number – maybe we don’t need to know all the answers – you see all that goes on down here. What Am I Doing Here (never let the truth get in the way of a good song…). What are the chances of meeting in an airport when one goes to Colorado and the other stays in Virginia? The last time we parted, the same tears flowed down your face! The crowd was on its feet calling for an encore, so Chris delivered yet again with Right Between the Eyes, a tribute to Nashville that only a songwriter can appreciate!

Member Dues Schedule

The VOCAL Board has adopted a uniform dues schedule for all new and current members to follow.  As of this post, the dues are $35 so that is the rate that is used for example in the schedule.

For 2011, anyone who is already a member will follow the new member schedule – use the month that you originally joined as your month for the new member schedule.  On January 1, 2012 the annual dues for 2012 are due in full for every member and then in each subsequent year your due date is January 1.  Regardless of when you joined, your due date is always January 1 of the new year for 2012 forward.

New members in any given year will follow the schedule as outlined below – however to be eligible to peform on the showcase or any other performance opportunity, you must pay the full annual dues amount, currently $35, regardless of the month that you join VOCAL.

January 1st to March 31st ——— $35

April 1st to June 30th  ————- $27

July 1st to September 30th ——– $18

October 1st to December 31st —— $9 (if joining in December, pay the full year’s dues and get 13 months of membership)

VOCAL Showcase February 2011

-by Matt Manion

Collaboration between VOCAL members was on display February 21, 2011 at February’s VOCAL Showcase at O’Tooles Restaurant. Headliner Steve Nuckolls was joined on stage by fellow VOCAL members John Ellis and Larry Cody. Gary Shaver, who opened the evening, brought up Norman Roscher and friend Alan Cole, and surprised a few songwriters in attendance by performing their songs. Bill Kaffenberger, who was originally scheduled to perform, was unable to make it, but hopefully Bill will join us for a future showcase.

Gary, at his keyboard, opened his set with two of his own love songs. The first contained the refrain “my love is somewhere between her and you”. Gary’s performance caused one member of the audience to comment that Gary sounded like Floyd Cramer, the American Hall of Fame pianist who was one of the architects of the “Nashville Sound”. Gary followed it with a song about lovers who look back on their affair, the only thing left being “words on a page, yellow with age.”

The wood and brick interior of O’Tooles came alive for the next number when Gary invited Norman Roscher up to the keyboard to perform a rollicking Norman song called “Roamin’ Eye”. Gary blew alto sax as Alan Cole added tenor sax, and Norman sang in his distinctive, rich, gravely voice “…can’t put a leash on them dog-gone roamin’ eyes.”

Gary then announced that he was going to play a composition written by his friend Frank Lucas, who was in the audience. Alan added sax over Gary’s keyboards and showed how lovely and complete just two instruments can sound. Frank seemed pleased at the unexpected surprise.

Falling scales and deft fingerwork highlighted Gary’s next song, which he said sat unfinished for 10 years at the end of his piano bench. Expressing the struggle of human communications, he entoned “we’re just lost at sea, if you won’t talk to me.” And later…”let’s not sink too deep, just believe in me.”

Gary had another surprise up his sleeve. This time he honored Jim Uzel, another VOCAL member in the audience, by performing a Uzel composition. A sad, last song to a once lover, the lyrics tell the story: “…now that our love is gone, all that’s left is a sweet, sweet love song.” The song ends with a beautiful chord change.

Gary dedicated his last song, a Shaver original, to Marg, who was enjoying the music at a nearby table. A heartfelt love song, Gary sang “…and I stand amazed by your love”, and “…I thank you, my darling, for lifting me up”.

John Ellis served as MC for the evening and announced that Steve Nuckolls would be up shortly. After a brief interlude, Gary introduced Steve, who introduced his first song: Simunye.

Steve explained that the inspiration for Simunye came from a trip Steve and his wife Janice took to Africa. They had ridden an hour on horseback to a Zulu village which had no water or electricity. A reunification effort was going on at that time after a civil war, and “Simunye” can be translated as “we are one” or “we are one with this land”. John added guitar to this moving song, and member Larry Cody added harmony from the audience during the chorus.

Next was one of Steve’s newer songs, the genesis of which came this past New Year’s Eve as he was out running. “My Prayer of Thanks” is an expression of appreciation of each day, with the recognition that it could be our last. Steve dedicated his next song, “Grayson Lady”, to Ethel. It was an uptempo song with images of forests and hills.

John added guitar, and Larry plucked the bass, for Steve’s next song, “Making My Getaway”. The three musicians fell right in together and their instruments and vocals blended as if they had just come off the road after a long tour. During “When the Flag’s Half-Mast” that followed, a member of the audience commented “That Larry Cody can keep some time. He’s just got a good ear.”

Next up was “Sunrise” featuring Steve’s high, clear tenor sailing over the guitars. John’s lead was perfect, sounding almost like a banjo. A hopeful, gorgeous, song with lyrics “…you know there’s always a sunrise”.

“There’s something about your love that keeps me on the ground…” sang Steve for his next tune, followed by a song he described as a “true story told second hand”.  One audience member commented that Steve hits those high notes like Dan Fogelberg. Coincidentally, Steve joked from the stage “I think I’ll do one with my high voice.”  Steve ended his set with his “At Home on the Back Roads” and “Living Out This Love” rounding out a great set for the appreciative audience.

A fine evening of original music, made finer by the collaboration between our members and friends. Please join us for the next VOCAL showcase April 21 and watch for our newsletter for details.

VOCAL Showcase October 2010

VOCAL Showcase Review – October 18, 2010
231st consecutive showcase!

Markiss Blowfish (Mark Branch) and Chuck Kerwath opened the show with a wonderful dose of blues to please the crowd. The two musicians met through VOCAL and have collaborated since then, with Chuck recording Mark’s new CD “Come Along With Me”. Chuck accompanied Mark with a cool “dobro-ish” acoustic slide guitar on their first number “Hard Times”. This song was the 2010 VOCAL Song of the Year (when your bag’s unpacked, nothing to eat, holes in your shoes, paying child support, hard times indeed!) “Betty Lou” followed with Chuck on lead acoustic guitar (she’s from the South – my kind of girl – what am I supposed to do? – she had a glow – with blue eyes). The duo followed with “Tumbleweed Rag”, an instrumental with Mark on harmonica and Chuck tickling the open strings of his guitar. This was a free-spirited number, and I could picture myself traveling down a peaceful country road with this song playing in my ear. The title track “Come Along With Me” was next, which was reminiscent of a B.B. King style – I’ll buy you diamonds and rubies, lunch and dinner with fine wine – meet me down behind the old oak tree. “Messin’ With Her” tells us he couldn’t eat or sleep all week because he’d been messin’ with her – they had been very discreet, found a place to be alone, until he came home… They finished out their set with “Honey-Do Man” with Chuck doing the honors on lead guitar again. Don’t ask me to do all these things – spend all my money, honey – don’t tell me to take my pressure pill or to turn the other cheek.

Russell Lawson then took the stage, joined by Dave Berry on fiddle and guitar. Russell treated us to some fine homespun tunes with topics ranging from prison songs to tunnel collapses (not while tunneling out of prison…). He led off with “Certain Freedom”, a “minor-key prison song” about a murderer on death row dreaming about a certain freedom once his debt is paid. “At the edge of moonlight, out past the razor wire, freedom’s like a river racing quiet through the night, far beyond the walls of tempered steel and stone around the place that murder made my home”. “Whole Lotta Gone” brings us a John Prine-ish tale of a cold-hearted former lover who turned from good to bad – “I thought that I could change you and I got what I deserved”. “Days Gone By” is a somber reflection of a loved one with a troubled life, with hope waiting in the wings, a story many of us can relate to – “get on your knees and lift your voices high, ‘cause there’s a place above where every tear is dried”. Dave swapped his fiddle for the guitar on “Swell”, a story of being overwhelmed by someone’s love, to the point that you’re fearful and cannot comprehend its power “if you would love me just a little, my heart might never touch the ground, but you pour in me like a river, so deep I feel I’m gonna drown”. Yes, you can get too much of a good thing! “Church Hill Tunnel” recounts the story of the collapse of the railroad tunnel that ran to Church Hill in Richmond, where many workers rode the rails to the end of their lives. The tunnel was sealed for safety, but the story is still alive and well. This song won 2nd place in a recent lyric contest in American Songwriter Magazine, quite an honor for Russell! Russell’s wife Katherine joined him on his last “country breakup” number, “Where are Your Tears”. As we’re on the verge of a breakup, where are the tears you said you’d shed if it ever came to this? Was your love really true, or were you faking it all these years? “I could change the wine, but I couldn’t quench your thirst”. Russell and Katherine ended the song with some beautiful a cappella harmony!

The headline performer, Bill Wellons, then took the stage, and was joined by John Ellis on guitar, Larry Cody on bass, and his son, Todd, on drums. “Long, Long Time Ago” recounts the good old days when things were more carefree and innocent (The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Age of Aquarius had not yet arrived). In light of today’s new stories, those good old days do seem like long, long ago. His next solo piano piece was untitled, but I felt I could be listening to a movie score or taking a helicopter ride through a pristine river valley with the feeling it conveyed. “Some Other World” brought out John Ellis on guitar, and the synthetic French horn sounds from Bill’s piano. This is an optimistic story of hope, where it would be great if “everyone cared, no one was angry, no one scared”. “Hurricane” followed with the band of John, Larry, and Todd. This is a colorful blues song about life along the river “my mom gave birth to me in this room, my daddy and granddaddy were born here too”. “Lickety-Split” was an up-tempo instrumental that I thought was reminiscent of the Allman Brothers of my yesteryear. Those familiar tones were pleasant music to my ears! Jack the hound dog was featured in “Doggone Blues”. He chewed up my sweater, peed on the petunias, doesn’t come when I call him, and even bit the FedEx man! Bad dog! John Ellis played some bad-dog electric slide guitar worthy of harmonious hound-howling on this song! John Ellis’ song “Blues # 1” was featured next, with Larry “Stanley Clark” Cody on the driving bass. I detected possibly some AC/DC influences in this song, and perhaps a dash of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”. “The Old Folks” is probably my favorite Bill Wellons song. It openly deals with the effects of war, but it is not an in-your-face protest song nor a lethal “call-to-arms” anthem. It simply tells it like it is, the “old man sitting in the old folks home, his wife got sick, now he’s all alone”. Their son Sam won a lot of medals in Viet Nam, but that damn war took their boy away. The next number, “Better Stay in Tonight”, is an all-too-familiar story about someone who feels like a prisoner within their own house – “lock the deadbolt, draw the drapes, the government just makes this worse”. I’d move out if I could – I hate this neighborhood. The finale was “Dueling No-Banjos”, another hard-driving instrumental featuring John on lead guitar, Larry on bass, and Todd on drums. Bill delivered the organ sounds of some of the early Allman Brothers tunes, and they really rocked the house with their closing number. The crowd called for more, but the group had exhausted their repertoire, so we’ll just have to wait until their next performance to satisfy our appetite!

– Steve Nuckolls

VOCAL Showcase August 2010

The “curtain” opened on the August 16th, 2010 Showcase precisely at 8:05 p.m. Jeff and Stephanie Boarman, a husband and wife musical team and long-time VOCAL members, set about to entertain the good-sized crowd with an eight-song set. Describing their music as “Americana”, they opened with a gentle tempo train song entitled “Bittersweet”, with pleasing vocals by Stephanie. A tongue-in-cheek honky-tonk tune followed: “I’ll Toast to Your Sobriety” which featured the lyrics “I ain’t here to think, I’m here to drink, I’m right where I’m supposed to be!” Jeff’s delivery of this tune had the audience grinning and chuckling, and featured expert mandolin work by Barry Lawson.

A minor sonority framed the song “Miner’s Prayer”, telling of a father’s hope that his infant son not have to live the life of a miner. “Cappuccino Cowboy”, the set’s only waltz, told of a cowboy’s new life (and diet!)r his son to not follow in his footsteps. chucklinged to be!”. g vocals by Stephanie. a toungue-in-cheek honky as a married man. Stephanie sang of a man “broke and branded” and how “she did it single-handed”. Clever concept and writing!

More minor sounds from the duo in “Don’t Take My Baby Away”, a lover’s lament, followed by a switch to major in the witty “Baby, How About You?” This duet, a male-female discourse, speaks of the man’s practicality and the woman’s seductive approach. The audience responded with generous applause to yet more of Jeff and Stephanie’s fine writing.

“My Kentucky Flower” was given an up-tempo bluegrass treatment, speaking of “hillbilly justice” and included the warning “don’t mess with Daddy’s little girl!” Jeff mentioned this song was once pitched to superstar Ricky Skaggs. “He swung…and missed!” said Jeff, drawing laughs from the songwriters in the crowd. Once again, Barry Lawson’s fine mandolin work greatly added to the song.

“Bury Me in Kentucky” painted a picture of a beautiful rural area and closed the first half of the show. After a warm round of applause showing their appreciation for this trio, the audience responded with even more as the Boarmans were presented with the
Co-Songwriters of the Year Award from VOCAL.

Doug Patrick, the evening’s featured act, left no time for the crowd to even fasten their seat belts, instead launching into his first song with nary an introduction! The familiar “Make It Work” opened his nine-song set and featured backup from the Boarmans, Barry Lawson on mandolin, and long-time ‘Vocalonian’ Larry Cody on bass guitar. Larry would be on stage for the entire performance, as others would come and go throughout the evening.

“Full Time Love” featured the same lineup laying down a good backbeat, and told of a fickle woman trying to get a relationship into high gear. Sharing the spotlight, Doug brought up his good friend Eddy Kitchen to sing a self-penned song titled “Good Loves Can Die”. This tune captured the essence of what many call “pure country music”.

One of my favorites followed: “Put Him in the Lineup” tells the story of a young “Tee Ball terror” from the viewpoint of a proud grandfather. This tyke is a switch-hitter like Pete Rose, a slick fielder a la Brooks Robinson, “can run those bases like Willie Mays”, and “can hit the tater for a country mile”. A pure bit of genius from the pen of Doug Patrick!

Louis Millhouse and Gary Shaver grabbed trumpet and clarinet respectively and lent a hand on the song “New Orleans Nights”, another well-known and well-loved song from Doug’s catalogue. A highlight of the evening followed: Kelly Kennedy’s lead vocal of Doug’s new song “Till the Boys Come Home Again”. Her delivery mesmerized the crowd as she sang of two families connected by marriage, each with men fighting on opposite sides of the Civil War. Andy Cleveland’s fiddle tenderly underscored the song’s message.

Continuing with the Civil War theme, Doug offered “One Lone Georgia Pine”, a moving story of a soldier’s exploits on the battlefield and his final resting place. The war cycle was completed with “Molly”, a quick waltz describing a soldier’s love for his wife. One lyric was especially powerful: “when the fighting gets heavy, you can hear grown men cry”.

The closer was Doug’s ode to the famous Virginia racehorse, Secretariat. “Watch That Red Horse Run” told of Big Red’s feats at Churchill Downs and beyond. While the rest of the field was “hotter than a Maytag range”, Secretariat was “cool as ice” and set a record clocking in at “one fifty-nine and change”. Doug did justice to the horse’s great career with this well-written song. Many who lent musical support during the evening squeezed on to the stage for this final tune.

The VOCAL Showcase has been a mainstay of our group and the Richmond music scene since July 1991. We are proud of its longevity and the many talented members and appreciative fans who make it possible. Here’s to songwriting and VOCAL’s upcoming 25th Anniversary in July 2011!

– Gary Shaver