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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Listening to a master explain the craft of storytelling

John Madormo
By Ted Slowik

Regular readers will know that while I'm deeply interested in developing skills and proficiency as a musician, I'm most passionate about songwriting and storytelling. On Saturday, I listened intently for more than an hour as an accomplished master storyteller spoke about the craft.

John Madormo spoke to teachers who are education alumni of North Central College in Naperville during a Homecoming Weekend event in the school's library. Many know John as a longtime professor of broadcast communication at the college and general manager of WONC-FM 89.1, one of the nation's finest college radio stations.

John established the John Drury Awards to honor excellence in high school broadcasting. The awards are named for a late ABC7 Chicago newsman, and currently the reigning No. 1 high school radio station in the country is at my own alma mater, WLTL-FM 88.1 at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange. But I digress.

A few years back, about when he turned 40, John decided to pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. Sure, he had a successful career as a college professor and a wife and kids, but he talked about that "What If" theme I've written about often. Only he described it as "Living On Someday Isle," as in "someday I'll write that book" or "someday I'll sail around the world."

So John started spending his lunch hours and late nights learning to write screenplays. Here's an important point he made: If you want to seriously make room in your life to pursue your dream, you've got to give up something. For him, it was watching late-night television. A modest sacrifice, right? In my case, I'm giving up live performances in 2015 to focus more intently on writing something great and lasting.

For the past 10 years or so John's been walking to Nichols Library in downtown Naperville and writing for an hour during lunch, inspired by the books around him. Some days he would only write a paragraph, but he was one paragraph closer to his dream. He finished a few scripts, shopped them around and even had some optioned, meaning producers licensed the rights to turn his screenplays into films. He sold the rights to one outright, though none has been green-lighted yet.

He said people in the industry have called his work very original, but John explained that sometimes being original is simply combining two or more influential existing works in a new way. He says his story "Coach Dracula" is a mix of "Dracula" meets "The Bad News Bears." John says he started writing for younger audiences so he could create something he wouldn't mind having his daughters read.

Along the way someone suggested to John that one of his screenplay ideas might pitch better if it was based on a book or series of books, say, like Harry Potter. So John started writing stories about a 12-year-old character that became Charlie Coller: Snoop For Hire, a series of middle-grade mystery novels published by Penguin Books. The third book is being released this fall.

John's books have been added to the reading lists for public schools across the country, including Chicago Public Schools, New York City's Bank Street College of Education, and schools from Arizona to New Jersey. He regularly visits schools to talk about writing, appears at conferences, author talks and book signings. He's found success and a second career doing what he's passionate about, and he's an inspiration not only to many young readers but to many adults who might be thinking "What if" or "Someday I'll."

The best part of John's talk Saturday was listening to him describe the craft of storytelling: character development, story arc, the three-act drama, foreshadowing, cliffhangers and so on. Every great hero is flawed in one or more ways. Great villians have a redeeming humanizing quality, like Dr. Evil petting his cat in the Austin Powers movies. John knows writing across many media: radio, TV, film and literature. The elements of successful storytelling are the same regardless of the form, and they apply to songwriting as well.

John's a great writer and a fascinating speaker. If you have kids in second through fifth grades you should have them read John's books, and if you ever get a chance to hear John give an author talk you should go listen to him.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A fantastic month so far of performing and hearing great live music!

By Ted Slowik

Hey, all! Been having a blast this October playing and hearing great live music! Since this blog is partially to remember great musical adventures I'll run through a recap of the last couple weeks.

Liz with Robert Cray
On Oct. 2, the great Robert Cray performed at North Central College. My sister Liz and brother Mike were there, and Liz got to meet Robert! We've seen him many times over the years. I was at the Alpine Valley show in 1990 for Stevie Ray Vaughan's final performance that included Robert, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and others. Robert sounded great in the Wentz Concert Hall, and his playing, singing and songwriting is as superb as ever!

Clarence Goodman, Kim Treiber and friends
On Oct. 3 I made my debut playing electric guitar in band. The very talented Clarence Goodman invited me to join Lyons Township High School class of 1979 friends to perform at their 35th reunion at a joint called Saban's in Hodgkins (great food!). The band featured fellow Suspended Animation bandmate Dave McGranahan on harmonica, Clarence on acoustic guitar and vocals, Kim Treiber (LT '79 who now lives in New Mexico) on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Rick Demski on bass and Kim's cousin Randy Ourada on drums. I played lead guitar with the house band at the end of the evening, and opened the night with a 30-minute set of acoustic originals and covers. My cousin Shelly Powers was in from Arizona, and I had a ton of fun hanging out with Shelly and her St. Cletus classmates from the old neighborhood. I was especially surprised when Betty Tompkin, mother of some good childhood friends from Timber Trails Swim Club, popped in unexpectedly after seeing a post on Facebook.

Sat., Oct. 4, was the big Barn Dance show at the center of my musical universe, Chicago Street Pub. Bad Saddles, Alex Hoffer Band, Edward David Anderson and The Leadfoot Band performed. All the performances were awesome and the atmosphere was electric with many friends on hand! I captured video of some of Leadfoot's performance.

Noah with B.J. Novak
On Wednesday, Oct. 8, after my son Noah met actor/author B.J. Novak at North Central College, I popped by Tribes Alehouse in Mokena for a couple tasty craft beers, great company and awesome live, original music hosted by John Condron. I've really enjoyed making near-weekly appearances at Tribes' open mic for the past three years and learned a lot about performance by watching John and so many other talented people that appear there regularly. When I compare myself now to where I was three years ago, when I set aside the bass and picked up the acoustic guitar after the final Big Eddy Springs Blues Band performance, I'm very happy with the progress I'm making as a musician and performer. Every time I play feels like a personal best.

Nick Domberg at White Horse

Thursday, Oct. 9, found me at the White Horse for open mic hosted by Brian Barry. Brian's such a great guy, and his wife Kristin is very involved musically as well managing appearances by Alex Hoffer and others. Great musicians, singers and songwriters like Nick Domberg and Allison Flood were there, and Aly, Brian and I performed "Red Rover" together. I never cease to be amazed by the broad and deep pool of musical and artistic talent that fills Will County!
Allison Flood at White Horse
BTW, Allison Flood and John Condron are topping the bill when I open for them Nov. 1 at Lewis University's Studio Theatre. We'll each do about a 30-minute set of acoustic songs, mostly originals likely, in a benefit for the Heritage Theatre Company alumni troupe in residence there.

As if that wasn't enough fun, on Friday, Oct. 10, I was back at Chicago Street Pub to hear Allison's very talented husband Chris Flood open for The Righteous Hillbillies. The Hillbillies have become my favorite band, and it's been great getting to know singer Brett James (who did the artwork for my "Comfort Zone" CD), bassist Jeff Bella and drummer Barrett Harvey. I've been taking guitar lessons since Christmas from Hillbillies lead guitarist Kev Wright and owe a great deal to him for the progress I continue to make. Taking music lessons builds your self-esteem and confidence in addition to your abilities, and I find those improvements transfer over into all areas of your life.
Righteous Hillbillies at Chicago Street Pub

Also this week I was honored when Kev asked if I'd warm up the crowd when his fellow student Chase Patrick Walsh celebrates the release of his CD "Your Friend the Robber" at an all-ages show at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at Chicago Street Pub. I met Chase when I was helping publicize Hopstring Fest this year and was immediately impressed by his talent, abilities and work ethic. Chase has unlimited potential, in my opinion, and I look forward to watching and hearing his progress.

Then I was back at the Pub last night to hear J. Ross Green open for The Regressors, a very talented band of friends keyboardist Kevin Krauss, guitarist Chris Foray, bassist Tom Flavin and drummer Jeff Sledge. I've listed to their new release "These Times" and think it's very good! The recording quality is excellent and their performances showcase their range and appreciation for varied styles. Plus I LOVE J. Ross Green (aka John Green) and how he writes personal stories in local settings. His newest material is his best, in my opinion, and his performances, recordings and songwriting continue to be the best every time I hear him. I captured video of a couple of John's songs, "Blood On My Boots" and "15 Shots."

J. Ross Green and The Regressors
Well, that brings us up to date on the musical adventures during October. In addition to the Nov. 1 and Nov. 16 shows, remember you'll only have a few opportunities to see me perform live for a while because I'm suspending public musical appearances in 2015 to focus on an extended writing project. The big finale will be a farewell show Saturday, Dec. 20, at Chicago Street Pub. You won't want to miss it!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Announcing a break from public musical appearances

With fellow Naperville Sun storyteller Genevieve Towsley
By Ted Slowik

Today I am announcing that I am suspending my public musical appearances as of Jan. 1, 2015.

The reasons for this are many. First, I have been selected to become a volunteer for the Joliet Area Community Hospice. Volunteers provide companionship to people near the end of their lives. I consider this an opportunity to give back to my community,  and out of respect for the privacy of the people I will spend time with I think it's best if I keep my thoughts to myself.

I suspect the time commitment will be substantial, but I can think of no better way to spend the time I have. I'm a good listener, and I hope to collect stories that, at the appropriate time, I hope to share with you. I think I have a chance to gain a greater understanding of the meaning of life through this experience. I've always believed myself to be first and foremost a writer, though I'm considerably enjoying the progress I'm making as a performer.

The rigors of preparing for regular public performances are considerable, and since my own near-death experience I've learned to know my limitations. The hassles of arranging bookings, coordinating schedules with other musicians, practicing material, promoting shows and the like require a great deal of time. That's the time I choose to spend providing comfort to others instead.

I look forward to--at some point in the future--crafting quality, lasting stories of the people I meet.  They may be in the form of songs, or journalistic-like chronicles. I used to write fiction in college--maybe I'll try that again. Whatever the form, I hope to be inspired to create something great as an outcome. But I'm entering this effort with a spirit of complete dedication to volunteerism and will respect the protocols set by the hospice. I undergo a comprehensive two-day training session on Oct. 25-26.

I considered volunteering several months ago, when I was still on medical leave following a near-fatal heart attack in February. I applied at the hospice, but there's a long waiting list. There are many opportunities to volunteer, and I wanted to serve my local community. There are options like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties, shelters that serve homeless people and myriad other services. I chose hospice because it felt like a good fit for my skills and what I want to accomplish, which is to simply be empathetic toward others.

Joliet Area Community Hospice provides compassionate, professional care to terminally ill patients and their families. It has served more than 17,000 patients since 1982 in greater Will, Grundy, and Kendall counties along with parts of Cook, DuPage and Kankakee counties. At any given time, more than 200 trained volunteers provide companionship to people in their homes or at a facility off McDonough Street--the first freestanding hospice home in Illinois. From 1992 to 2009, executive director was Duane Krieger, father of Naperville City Manager Doug Krieger.

I intend to continue my private lessons with guitarist Kev Wright of The Righteous Hillbillies, but figure the time I spend playing in my basement is better spent than in front of an audience for a while. I will miss my weekly appearances at Wednesday night acoustic open mic at Tribes Alehouse in Mokena, hosted by John Condron. However, I'm now comfortable with my proficiency at playing all types of music in front of friends or complete strangers.

I may occasionally--perhaps during times when work is not as intense--break my self-imposed cloister and perform music in public. I'll see how it goes. If asked I'd very much like to perform next summer at Tim Placher's Shindig at the Shanty and at Joliet's Hopstring Fest. I may also post music videos to my YouTube channel every so often. I intend to remain active on social media--I just won't have as much to say because I'll be spending time volunteering and I don't intend to talk about that while I'm doing it.

I hope to gain a greater appreciation for end-of-life care and note that while I expect my incredible 88-year-old mother to continue living independently for some time I realize our remaining time together may be short. She's much on my mind, as are all my friends, family and loved ones.

Stay tuned for details about a farewell performance at Chicago Street Pub on Saturday, Dec. 20.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Announcing two October benefit shows in Hodgkins and Romeoville

Ted and Clarence 2/9/14
By Ted Slowik

Update 9/23: The show at Lewis on Nov. 1 was previously announced for Oct. 25. Tell your friends!

Today I'm happy to announce I'll be performing sets at two separate benefit concerts in October. The first is Oct. 3 at Saban's Place in Hodgkins and the second is Nov. 1 at Lewis University in Romeoville.

Fall is a busy time at work and I haven't been hustling gigs much, so these are among the few performance opportunities this year while I continue to develop my guitar playing. I'm excited because at the first show in addition to performing an acoustic half-hour solo set of originals and covers I'll be playing electric guitar in the house band at the end of the evening!

The event is called "A Little Help from Our Friends: A Benefit for HCS Family Services Food Bank" and it takes place from 8 to 11 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3, at Saban's Place, 9507 Joliet Road, Hodgkins. The HCS Family Services Food Bank is based in Hinsdale and supports many families in the LaGrange area.

The event is organized by musician Clarence Goodman, a then-fellow cook I met while working at Poppin' Fresh Pies in LaGrange in 1979. Clarence was kind enough to invite me to join him in performing a couple hours of Beatles songs at a party in LaGrange on Feb. 9, the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." That was great fun! Clarence also asked me to open the show celebrating the release of his CD "Don't Fret" in April at Saban's.

Ted at the 2013 Heritage Theatre benefit
In addition to Clarence, performers that evening will include fellow Poppin' Fresh alumnus Dave McGranahan and Jane Warfel, Rick Demski, Kim Treiber, Donna Sauers, Jane Wareham and Jim Bassett. Bob Baker will be master of ceremonies. Lyons Township High School Principal (and North Central College alumnus) Brian Waterman is scheduled to make an appearance.

The second show begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, in the Philip Lynch Theatre at Lewis University, 1 University Parkway, Romeoville and benefits the Heritage Theatre Company, the alumni theatre troupe in residence at Lewis. Thanks to Heritage president Jo Slowik for the opportunity to perform. It's great to support the arts in Will County!

I'll open the evening with an acoustic set of originals before solo performances by Flipside Works recording artists Allison Flood of Lockport and John Condron of Joliet.

John Condron
Condron, 41, has released five albums since moving to Joliet from Philadelphia in 1997: “If Any Or At All,” (2012),  “Eleventh Hour Grace” (2010), “Loud As Silence” (2006), “Down To Dorsey” (2004) and “My Own Device” (2001). The most recent was a solo album, with others released by the band he formerly fronted, John Condron & the benefit.

When he moved to Joliet 17 years ago, Condron was playing rhythm guitar in the New York-based band Poets and Slaves. The band eventually dissolved but Condron stayed in Joliet. These days, Condron continues to perform regularly, write new material, produce other artists and manage Flipside's Midwest artists, including Flood. 

Condron also has produced, arranged and performed on a full-length studio recording for multi-platinum Irish singer songwriter MickeyHarte and collaborated with legendary songwriter Paul Brady, for whom he opened a show at Old Town School of Folk Music last year.
He’s toured across the United States, in Ireland and throughout Europe in support of his original material. Visit to learn more.

Allison Flood
Flood, 34, recently decided to resume her music career though she remains a full-time mom to sons Gabe, 14 and Aiden, 4 and daughter Rowan, 2. She’s been singing since she was a child and grew up in a musical family. She began performing while attending Andrew High School in Tinley Park and in 2002 began singing with the Joliet-based country rock band The Stone City Stragglers. The group performed extensively, recorded three albums and disbanded in 2008.

Since deciding to resume her music career Allison has reconnected with artist friends and made many new ones. She’s also been recording her solo studio debut, a six-song EP of acoustic originals produced by Condron and engineered by Bill Aldridge at Third City Sound in Joliet. It’s due for a fall release by Flipside Works.

“Opportunities like getting signed to a record label don’t come along every day, so whether I felt ready or not I decided it was time to go for it,” she says. “As a songwriter, what you do is very precious and very personal. It’s a whole other world than being an entertainer performing other people’s songs.”

Monday, September 8, 2014

Enjoying a fantastic weekend of music in Joliet

Song circle at the Church
By Ted Slowik

Wow, that was a great weekend of live music in Joliet! It was Will County Celtic Fest weekend, and the fun started Friday night with an intimate pre-fest gathering that featured a performance by Irish singer/songwriter Colm O'Brien.

Don Nudi, John Condron, Pat Otto
Colm is part of the Flipside Works stable of artists, and Flipside presented the two days of performers on two stages Saturday and Sunday at St. Joseph Park in Joliet for Will County Celtic Fest. But before that got underway, Colm performed at a private event Friday night. As the evening progressed, a song circle broke out with Colm, John Condron, Allison Flood, Scott McNeil, drummer Don Nudi and bassist Tom Maslowski.

Will County Celtic Fest is an extremely fun affair presented by the Irish American Society of County Will. St. Joe's Park is a wonderful venue in town, a picnic grounds with booths for food and beverages and volunteers staffing events. As election day is drawing near, the politicians were well-represented this weekend, including Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante and Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

Cutthroat Shamrock
And the musical lineup was fantastic. Saturday featured performances by Appalachian punk rockers Cutthroat Shamrock and Milwaukee-based Celtic rockers Whiskey of the Damned. It was a great time seeing many good friends and hearing fantastic, lively music. The weather Saturday and Sunday was beautiful, too.

Sunday I rehearsed at Ron Kostka's house in Minooka with guitarist George Barnes and Ron's drummer friend Jay for an upcoming tribute show for Ron's sister Shirley, who passed away earlier this year. Shirley wrote the lyrics for several of the songs we played together back in the early 1990s, so we're getting the band back together in her honor.

The Righteous Hillbillies
On the way home I stopped by Mugz Hideout, formerly the Big Basin, a fun joint in Channahon where Interstate 55 crosses the DesPlaines River. There's a marina there, and a bar where The Righteous Hillbillies played Sunday afternoon. It was a glorious day, and I love their brand of Southern rock. They have a tremendous following, and it's always a good time hearing them.

All in all it was great weekend of live music!
I-55 over the DesPlaines River

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Slide is a fun way to expand you guitar repertoire

By Ted Slowik

Some of the most iconic, memorable riffs and licks in all of rock and blues history are played on slide guitar. Think of Elmore James' "Dust My Broom" (a Robert Johnson song) or a lot of solos by Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter and the Allman Brothers and the distinctive sound of a wailing or mournful slide will come to mind.

Some players seem to take to slide naturally. Here's a clip from 1993 of a 13-year-old Derek Trucks (son of drummer Butch Trucks) playing "Layla" with the Allman Brothers. He was an amazing prodigy even back then! Other great guitarists, including Pete Townshend, shun the slide and rarely, if ever, use it.

I've always liked the sound of the slide but only recently begun to experiment with it. I bought my first slide, a glass one, less than a year ago. Depending on the sound you're going for, you can use slides made of metal, glass or other material. Usually it slips over the ring finger on your left hand, if you're a right-handed player.

Slide has appealed to me because I love blues and roots rock music. I recall reading that Robert Johnson used a bottle neck as a slide. You can play slide on both acoustic and electric instruments. If you use effects, a little delay goes a long way to enhance the sound of slide.

Playing slide is particularly fun in open tunings, though you can also play slide leads in standard tuning. I picked up an inexpensive Epiphone electric guitar to keep in open tuning, which encourages me to practice slide. It only takes a minute or two to tune a guitar to an open tuning, but it's even easier when there's one sitting there in open tuning and you all you have to do is pick it up.

As I've been playing slide, I've focused on improving the tone. It takes a little practice to get used to the sound, and figuring out where on the fret you want to place the slide. You want to eliminate fret buzz as much as possible, and find that sweet spot where the note is in tune. As you get used to it you can wiggle your slide finger and start to make some really cool sounds.

My guitar teacher Kev Wright loaned me an acoustic Fender Resonator dobro, which is a steel guitar. I played some slide on it in an open tuning and it sounded great. I haven't ever played any pedal or lap steel instruments, which have a very distinctive country sound. But I do love the beautiful sounds they make.

Today I'm sharing a clip of my progress on slide guitar. I'm not there yet but it's coming along. I'm playing an old original, "Balcony," that I wrote back in the 1980s about my friend Dave Kent's apartment on Chicago Avenue in Westmont. I'm having a lot of fun learning slide, something that always seemed to intimidate me until I tried it and discovered I liked it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A new song and a progress report on the music front

By Ted Slowik

I don't write songs very often. In fact, I just completed my first new song of 2014, and here it is September already, the final third of the year.

I've been writing songs for more than 30 years, and I have finished fewer than 100, for an average of about three per year. The past two years were very productive. Since switching from bass to guitar in 2011, I wrote nine songs in 2012 and eight in 2013.

My approach to songwriting has changed a lot over the years. I used to think a song was like a child, and that writing lyrics and composing music involved an intense process like giving birth. Nonsense! More recently I've developed a very deliberate approach to songwriting that starts out by attempting to answer the question, "Why does the world need another song?"

Because the truth is, the world is filled with songs and a new song has to serve some purpose. Lately, I've been thinking of my songs like one would think of a wardrobe. Sometimes, all your clothes are too old or don't fit right and you just need something new for an occasion. That's a good reason to write a new song, when you're performing your material and you realize you need a number that's not too fast or too slow or in a different key or tuning or tempo or in some way makes it different and a good fit with your other original material.

As I've been learning guitar from Kev Wright of The Righteous Hillbillies, I'm discovering I want songs that have a little more space for instrumental interludes. I used to be strictly a rhythm-and-vocals guy. The songs on my debut studio CD "Comfort Zone" are like that. There's a small solo where Pat Otto plays mandolin on "Red Rover" but otherwise no real jams.

Now that I know my way around the fretboard a little I want to play music! So I need songs that have room for solos. I wouldn't say I had writer's block for the better part of 2014. Rather, I've just been focused on improving my musicianship and hadn't given much thought to writing.

But, as the idea for the new tune came to me, I figured it would be good to write about the experience of surviving a near-fatal heart attack like the one I had in February. The new song is called "No Tomorrow," and I think it's about redemption and realizing our time here is short and we should make the most of it.

Though the theme may draw from personal experience, it's a fictional tale, told in third person. There are four characters, each has a different verse. There's an absent father, a half-assed brother, a lousy husband and a prodigal son. Some think the subject matter is deep or dark but I think it's an upbeat tale of salvation.

You can read the lyrics to the song on my website, which I hardly ever mention on here but should more often. You can hear an audio demo of "No Tomorrow" on my SoundCloud channel. And you can watch an early video demo of the tune on my YouTube channel.

The guitar lessons are going great! Though I've been almost exclusively playing acoustic the past three years, I'm playing electric more and more recently. I've had a beauty of a Gibson 335S Explorer since I bought it from Hound Dog in 1988. Recently I bought a Fender Blues Junior amp. And, just this past week, I bought my first effects pedals, distortion and delay.

I still use the Boss loop pedal for both acoustic and electric. It's a great practice tool, and effective performance device, too. You can record a rhythm track and have that play back while you play a lead guitar solo over it. It's fine for what I'm doing now, which is learning scales and licks and tones and levels and all those things. Eventually though, I hope to play as an accompanist to other musicians.

I have no immediate plans to do any additional studio recording at this point, nor do I expect to dramatically increase the number performances I do any time soon (I average about one per month). I still regularly do Wednesday night acoustic open mic at Tribes Alehouse Mokena, hosted by John Condron.

I'm happy with the progress I'm making as a musician but realize I still have a ways to go. A while back I read the Robert Gordon biography, "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters." In the book we learn that one of Muddy's sons, Big Bill Morganfield, discovered music later in life and spent six years in the woodshed learning guitar.

I've spent three years learning guitar so far, so I figure I'm about halfway there.
P.S., please like the music page at and follow me on Twitter @tedslowik!