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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Every great song deserves a great acoustic version

By Ted Slowik
Every great song can be played on any instrument. From accordion to zither, a good musician can use any instrument to breathe life into a good tune.
In the realm of rock music, you no doubt have favorite songs. Most likely these are recordings of electric versions. Chances are your favorite artist has performed and quite possibly recorded those great songs acoustically at some point.
If we narrow the discussion to guitar performances it's easy to come up with numerous examples. Consider this 2009 Foo Fighters hit "Times Like These." The electric version rocks out, but for a 2010 greatest hits compilation the band released this lovely acoustic version.
Artists have been performing excellent acoustic versions of rock hits for decades. In 1979, for the "Secret Policeman's Ball" benefit concert, Pete Townshend famously performed this acoustic version of the rock classic "Won't Get Fooled Again" from The Who's 1971 album "Who's Next." Obviously it's not a note-for-note replication of the synthesizer-laden popular recording. But the acoustic treatment follows the basic structure of the tune.
One has to understand that before The Who ever cranked up the amps to record "Won't Get Fooled Again," Townshend strummed it acoustically as he wrote it. Songwriting and recording is like any creative process. This article about Edward Hopper's creative process includes numerous early drawings and sketches for "Nighthawks" and other famous works. Similarly, a song's definitive version may end up being a recording of an amplified band. But a great song can be interpreted an infinite number of ways, many of them acoustically.
I'm a big Beatles fan, and when the "Anthology" releases came out I enjoyed hearing acoustic demos of many of their hits. Even the loudest guitarists can make it sound good acoustically, like Stevie Ray Vaughan did on MTV's "Unplugged" in 1990. You can even find footage of Jimi Hendrix performing acoustically and it sounds great!
The takeaway is this: you don't need a loud band or fancy effects and gimmicks to make great music. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Joliet's musical variety and remembering a fallen friend

By Ted Slowik

We're so fortunate in the Joliet area to have opportunities to experience great live music of multiple genres. This weekend alone I saw great blues, rock, Americana, bluegrass and Irish music at different venues in town. 

(There's also 65,000 people in town for the Electric Daisy Carnival electronic dance music festival at Chicagoland Speedway) 

Friday night I watched Charlie Champene and Alex Hoffer perform at Paddy's on Theodore Street. It was a nice small room and the crowd was very appreciative. They both sounded great. Eric Totherow ran sound. Charlie sounded good playing a set of Irish music and later some other songs, and Alex expertly mixes up originals and covers. 

It's been just a month since I quit cigarettes, so it's still a bit tough just sitting in a bar listening to and watching music being performed. I lasted a couple hours, though, with breaks. (I go for walks now when I crave a smoke.) It was a beautiful night--a full moon--and there was a nice path through woods right across from the bar.

Later I made it down to Chicago Street Pub. I missed Jack Avery's Kin but I caught a set by Pat Otto and Steve Haberichter. They traded guitar and mandolin back and forth. John Condron stopped by after rehearsal with his Old Gang Orchestra bandmates Tom Maslowski and Don Nudi. They're performing at Chicago Street at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 2, with Cutthroat Shamrock, another artist in Eric Johnson's Flipside Works stable of talent.

Sunday night I saw T-Bird Huckstep's band perform its weekly Joliet Heritage Blues Jam set at Kegler's on Theodore Street. T-Bird was recently inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and he sounds better than ever.

Joliet actually has a robust blues scene--you don't need to go into Chicago proper (or even far-away places like Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn) to hear great, authentic live blues. There are world-class bands like Chicago Blues Angels that play in the area regularly, and jams at various venues that feature many great players.

On a somber note, in honor of Memorial Day T-Bird's son Dustin played "Taps" on trumpet at the jam. It was a very moving and respectful moment. That reminds me that I recently learned of the passing of Steve Petrusich, a talented classical guitarist who was a regular on the acoustic open mic circuit. Steve, who performed as Spetrus, left us all too soon. He wrote a book called "Fig Tree Economics," and I understand he leaves a young child and other family. It's very sad, and a reminder that our time here is short and we should make the most of it.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A musician mentor helps a writer trying to figure out music

I had a great time Wednesday night at Tribes Alehouse Mokena at the weekly acoustic open mic jam hosted by John Condron. There were great sets by Patrick Spiroff, Scott McNeil, Ryan Olssen, Allison Flood, Bill Ryan and a special surprise appearance by Chuck Pelkie.

Chuck and I are old friends, meaning we’re old and we’re friends. We met in the ’80s while studying journalism in college, worked together as reporters at The Herald News and were bandmates for 11 years in the Big Eddy Springs Blues Band, from 2000 to 2011.

Eleven years is a long time in band years. That’s about how long The Beatles worked together, if you count their early years in the Quarrymen in the late 1950s through their breakup in early 1970. It’s hard to work together in a group on a creative process for that long without people eventually getting tired of it and wanting to do something else.

Big Eddy was a great traditional Chicago blues band. Chuck said his new band, BlindWhiskey, is about a third blues, one third originals and one third rock covers. I’ve heard the guys jam and they sound great, and I’m very happy for Chuck that he’s making music he enjoys with good friends.

I was bassist in Big Eddy, and when I left the group in late 2011 I began this process of performing my songs (and some covers) on acoustic guitar. I was pretty rough at first, but I keep improving. Keep in mind, I consider myself a lifelong writer who is learning to become a musician. I'm OK at singing but musicianship is not my strongest suit, which is a bit of a challenge when you’re performing, well, music. I could fake it pretty well as a bassist for about 30 years, but one day at a jam Twist Ferguson called me out and basically said I had no idea what I was doing. He was right, and I'm grateful to Twist for motivating me to become a better musician.

I’m working really hard at getting better, practicing until my fingers quite literally are falling off. (It’s nearly a month since by last cigarette.) In addition to learning more chords and scales and making better sounds on the guitar I’ve added a loop pedal, open tuning, some slide work, capo variations and harmonica to my repertoire. My writing’s getting better, too. I think “Red Rover,”the most recent song I’ve written, is my best yet.

I have to extend much gratitude to John Condron for all his support and encouragement. From John I’ve learned it’s better to regularly perform and perfect your best material, because previously I was leery about playing the same stuff too often. By watching John perform most every week I’ve learned the most important thing is to relax and have fun, and that usually helps you connect well with the audience. I’ve studied how you can be comfortable getting up and performing material with other musicians without prior rehearsal.

John’s been a great friend and mentor and I can’t thank him enough. I hope he’s able to lend his ear and expertise later this summer when I record some originals in Billy Aldridge’s Third City Sound studio in Joliet!

This past Saturday, May 18, John made a two-hour appearance on the Topless Burrito Bar radio show with Charlie Champene, Travis the Healer, Vitamin B, Billy Blocker and engineer Eric Totherow. You can download the show for free and hear John perform many of his originals. The TBB guys had me on the show last month.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The need for adventure and a trip to Watseka

By Ted Slowik

I needed an adventure today. Work and life and music have been all jumbled up, and I figured a drive in the country would do me good. It was a beautiful day so I drove to Watseka to meet Dylan Bentley and see him host a jam at the Full Bull.

Now, it's crazy to drive about 180 miles round trip--that's three hours--to play at an open mic. But it's exactly what I needed. I needed to take some material on the road and see how it played to an entirely different audience. I needed to get away and clear my head. I needed to recapture part of that songwriting vibe I had driving to and from Florida in March.

When I got there a little kid led me in and handed me a rock that he said was gold. It wasn't really gold but I told him it looked plenty shiny. I like Sunday afternoon all ages jams. There was a guitarist there named Trevor who got the jam started with some nice acoustic instrumentals.

Dylan was a no-show at first. I got up and Trevor played along on four originals--Slowiks, Red Rover, Springfield and Hinsdale. It went great. A guy named Harley ran sound. Red Rover continues to get a very special reaction. I think it's a hit. Or could be, anyway.

We were ready to call it a day but a bass player showed up, and another guy sat in on drums, and we did a little impromptu blues jam. I sang I Ain't Drunk, Seventh Son, Love in Vain and Come to Papa. I got it all out of my system by that time, and had worked up a sweat so I packed up and stuck around to hear Dylan play a set.

His music's really good. He's from Sheldon, about 10 miles east of Watseka, which is about 30 miles south of Kankakee. I enjoyed listening to his songs about being his father's son and having his mother's eyes. I had heard of him through Chris Corkery, and they're similar in style. Both are great Americana songwriters. Chris is a wicked good guitarist and Dylan has a great singing voice.

Today it was great to meet new people, play live music for an audience, drive through the country, enjoy the farm scene and soak up a bit of America. I would drive that far everyday to have an experience like that. Music and life are more fun when they're an adventure.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A recovering journalist's top 5 tips for writing lyrics

By Ted Slowik

I got together this week with a bunch of former newspaper colleagues to remember a friend, Tim West, who passed away May 14. Tim worked at The Naperville Sun for 40 years. He knew that town better than anyone, and he will be missed.

I spent 20 years working in newspapers. I hired a lot of people, fired a few, and learned a lot about writing and editing. I helped a lot of interns and young reporters become better writers. Most of what I know about writing for newspapers has to do with storytelling, and a lot of that translates well to songwriting.

So here are a Recovering Journalist's Top 5 Tips for Writing Lyrics:

1.)Write efficiently. Don't bore people with lots of adjectives and flowery words. Get to the point, quickly. If what you're writing about is interesting, say it with the fewest words possible. If it's not interesting, write about something else.

2.) Use strong verbs. There’s no better way to be efficient with your words than using strong verbs. Avoid “is” and “was” and use strong, active, descriptive verbs. This means you should also expand your vocabulary by reading more.

3.) Write in the active voice whenever possible. Say what's happening now, and how it affects the reader (or listener). Avoid writing in the past tense.

4.) Use similes and metaphors. These are among the strongest devices for improving descriptive writing. You could say the girl’s hair is long and red, but it’s way better to say her red hair flowed like ketchup down her back, as Tom Robbins did in “Still Life With Woodpecker.”

5. Find the unexpected. Dog bites man isn't interesting. Man bites dog, now that's interesting! It's challenging to write about life and love and all the same old same old in a way that hasn't been done a million times before, but it can be done.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Unraveling the mysteries of the immortal songwriter

By Ted Slowik

Sometimes my life as director of PR and media relations at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., collides with my other life as a musician and songwriter in ways I couldn’t imagine.

On Tuesday I attended and wrote about a research symposium keynote address by Dr. David Fuentes, professor of composition and theory at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. His talk was called, "Do You Hear What I Hear? Listening as Research.” Dr. Fuentes is a good speaker and he’s no doubt a great teacher. One of his books is called “Figuring Out Melody” and it’s a guide for songwriting novices.

I’m no novice, but I’ve not formally studied music theory or composition either. I’ve been writing songs for 30 years, mostly for the sheer pleasure of it, and if you do anything long enough eventually you don’t suck at it. Besides, songwriters like Lennon and McCartney had no formal training either. I write honestly, from the heart.

In the past 18 months, my approach to music performance and composition has shifted from hobbyist to aspiring professional. I’ve applied my energies in earnest to figuring it out and becoming a great songwriter and guitarist.

What struck me most about Dr. Fuentes’ talk today was his point that music isn’t magic. It can be figured out. Music makes people laugh and cry and is used to great effect in creating emotional sequences in films. But music isn’t entirely subjective, he said, and it can be studied scientifically in an effort to understand its emotional power.

“Every time we notice an effect we can find a cause if we take the time to look,” he said.

Allow me to quickly digress for a moment and talk about my father, Jozef. He was a mechanical engineer. He would take things apart and put them back together just to figure out how they worked. He invented the surgical staple and designed an android that’s in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He built it to test space suits used by astronauts.

I inherited none of my father’s mechanical inclination, but all of his curiosity for how stuff works. For me, though, I’ve always been driven to figure out how stuff works organizationally. First it was radio, and how DJs play music and read announcements. I became program director of my high school radio station.

Then I was determined to figure out how journalists made newspapers. I became editor of my college paper and eventually managing editor of a daily newspaper. I learned a lot about writing, editing, storytelling, managing deadlines and most of all, people.

Now I’m all about songwriting, and I’m immersed in figuring it out and writing the best songs I’m capable of writing. Songs that will make people laugh and cry. Songs I hope they will remember and continue to play, even after I’m gone.

Because if you’re good enough at something like songwriting, you can hope to achieve some measure of immortality.

Photos for North Central College by Steve Woltmann

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A solo show and irreconcilable differences

Last night I performed at 30 Buck with good friend Tim Placher. Tim went to grade school with Tom Thayer, a guard on the Super Bowl champion 1985 Bears team, and the Thayer family owns the 30 Buck bar and restaurant next door.

A few times a year Tim performs his Portable Piano Bar show there and lately has invited me to split the night with him. It's great fun! The bar's always crowded when Tim plays and I've gotten to know many of his friends. Tim has also let me play at his big musical parties at the Shanty above the Kankakee River outside Wilmington the past two summers.

This year I was trying to figure out a way to involve the band Bluesonic in these gigs, but playing with the band just wasn't working for me. The experience was no longer any fun. I've been making real progress writing and performing original songs on acoustic guitar these past 18 months. I realized I don't have time to continue developing my solo songs and play bass in a band, so I had to choose one. I decided to leave the band.

I was only involved with the band for six months but it was still difficult to cease involvement with the project. Still, once it became apparent that there was no way the project would work due to irreconcilable musical differences, I felt it was pointless to spend another minute of time on the effort.

I've booked some studio time this summer in Billy Aldridge's Third City Sound in Joliet. I'm hoping to record professional-quality versions of a few of my best songs. I'm hopeful there will be opportunities to perform with other musicians again soon, but for now I'm focused on continually improving the writing and performance of my original work. My singing's certainly stronger since I quit smoking!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Family, fathers, Jim Gaffigan and Happy Mother's Day

By Ted Slowik

There are few moments in life you really cherish. The kind of memories you hope to recall when you're on your death bed. Tonight was one of those for me.

I could not be more proud of our daughter, Hannah. She's beautiful and gracious and smart and I love her with all my heart. She thinks the world of me because tonight I was able to introduce her to Jim Gaffigan.

They met in the green room in Pfeiffer Hall at North Central College in Naperville before Jim talked about his book, "Dad Is Fat." Anderson's Bookshops--one of the nation's top independent booksellers--brought in Jim for a talk and book signing. Jim's brother Joe, who lives in Burr Ridge, introduced Jim and cohosted a chat about family, writing, inspiration and all sorts of things.

Jim, a father of five, showed a funny family movie before his talk. In the video his oldest daughter interviews her younger siblings about their father. Then Jim and Joe came onstage and talked about their childhood and family. 

Their honesty was refreshing and wonderful, and they answered every question from the audience. The best was an extended exchange with a 9-year-old boy. A lot of aspiring comedians asked questions, and Jim brilliantly dealt with what he by now is no doubt used to: admirers gushing about his comic talents. It's well-deserved praise and admiration.

The evening reminded me of a night five years ago when I was managing editor of the daily Naperville Sun. Anderson's brought Tim Russert to town on his tour for "Wisdom of Our Fathers," his follow-up to "Big Russ and Me," about his father. Tim received many responses from readers who related stories about their fathers, and Tim collected the best. He picked one from my sister, Jeanne. They got to meet in the green room at Pfeiffer Hall in 2006, and
Tim signed her copy of his book. North Central College English professor Judy Brodhead, now also a Naperville City Council member, was there. It was a shock when Tim died suddenly in 2008.

Naperville Sun publisher Jim Lynch did a great cover of the evening Tim was at Pfeiffer Hall. There's our Dad on the cover of the paper, with Jeanne on his shoulders. Dad was an engineer who designed an android NASA used to test space suits. His android is in the Smithsonian Institution. He also invented the surgical staple. 

Our dad, Jozef Slowik, died in 2006. He was really an amazing guy. Most patient person I've ever known. Sweetest, smartest, most wise and loving human you could ever hope to meet. "He taught us how to live, and he taught us how to die," Mom said to me when he passed. Mom being Clare, or Dr. Clare Slowik, Ed.D., retired professor of nursing, mother of 12, quilter and baker extraordinaire, world traveler and most wonderful mother anyone could ever hope to have.

So happy Mother's Day, Mom. Thanks Jim G. for being so great tonight. Miss you, Dad, and our Jim, and Tim and all other great writers. Love you Jo, Hannah and Noah.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sharing ideas in a Songwriter Circle

By Ted Slowik

Hey, all, thanks for the love and support about not smoking and for liking the original music. Means a lot.

I was back at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet tonight for the first Songwriter Circle in a while. Been nursing that sore finger. It's much better after 11 days with no cigarettes. Blood flow is returning but it's not 100 percent yet.

It was great spending time with Alex Hoffer, Charlie Champene, Steve Becker, Mary Beth Daw, Tom Maslowski, Becky Smentek and more. We all took turns playing originals and critiquing them. There's nothing like honest feedback from other writers.

I played three songs: You Never Listen, King of the Mountain and Refugee Blues. Went well I thought.

What was really great was listening to Alex and Tom and Becky and Charlie and Steve and Mary Beth play their songs. I could see and hear the improvement in everyone! It was a good night. It reminded me of Chet Kondratowicz's Thursday night acting class at Lewis University, where I met Jo. Everyone prepared a monologue or scene and performed it. The others watched and responded. These Monday night Songwriter Circles are like that.

Anyway, I'm a bit crazy from the nicotine withdrawal. Caffeine's the next to go. And oh how I love coffee. But the progress seems to have stalled on the finger healing and I need to get the blood flowing so this week it's goodbye caffeine. I hope the headaches aren't too bad.

It's great to feel life again. I feel like I'm coming out of a period where I was frozen in place. It's hard to progress as a string musician when one lacks the use of the index finger on his fret hand. It's kind of an important digit. So I've had to get myself better, and I'm getting there.

It's springtime in Joliet, and Hannah's taking the most wonderful pictures in the yard. That's her work at the top.

Cheers :)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Life's a roller coaster, not a merry go round

By Ted Slowik

Life is full of highs and lows. It's a lot more like a roller coaster than a merry go round. It's not always easy or fun, but if you're good at coping with change you'll be fine. Remember, it's not the strongest or the smartest species that survive, it's those that are best at adapting to change.

I've been through a week of pretty dramatic change. I'm a nonsmoker now, after 30 years. I didn't want to quit, I had to. I was losing circulation to my fingers and couldn't play guitar. After a week there's much improvement. I'm coping with the physical change just fine. There are some social situations where my energy level isn't quite there yet, but I'll be fine. I'm not smoking ever again. If it's a choice between smoking and being able to play guitar, that decision's a no brainer.

Musically, it was a great week. On Tuesday, I got together with my great friend and former Nobody Knows bandmate Dave Kent. We went to Berwyn. I played a couple tunes at the open mic at FitzGerald's, then we went and heard a set of great acoustic blues by Jeff Massey of Steepwater.

Wednesday I was back at Tribes Mokena for the weekly acoustic open mic hosted by John Condron. Greg Toombs and Matthew Law from Bluesonic were there, so that was a great surprise! I got to hear great performances by John Green, Scott McNeil and Ryan Olsson, and Bill Ryan and Greg Woods from Time and the New Romans were there, showing us the progress on their new recording project.

On Friday Bluesonic rehearsed, and we're making good progress getting ready for some gigs this summer. Saturday was Mustache Fest 2013 at Chicago Street Pub in Joliet, an event that Jeff Jullian of Vaudevileins puts together. He lined up seven great bands from all over, plus a great opening acoustic set by Matt Biskie. It's a great time meeting and talking to musicians from Champaign, St. Louis and elsewhere, and great hanging out with Bill Aldridge, Triz and many others.

So it was a week of doing what I've been doing a lot of these past 18 months, playing music and hearing and seeing music being made. The only change is now I do it without cigarettes.