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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.