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Monday, January 27, 2014

A great time opening for Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue

Mike Farris at The Union Jan. 24, 2014
By Ted Slowik

Friday night I performed a 30-minute set at The Union in Naperville, opening for Mike Farris and the Roseland Rhythm Revue. The crowd was great, braving brutal wintry conditions to turn out. There were more than 100 tickets presold, and a lot more showed up at the door.

The show was part of North Central College's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week, and it was an honor to be part of the celebration. The Union presents outstanding national acts on Friday nights during the school year in a former church building and is staffed by students involved with the College's Office of Ministry and Service.

The show was a little late getting started, as the band's sound check ran long. Understandable, since the band was a nine-piece lineup of stellar professionals that included two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, horns (sax and trumpet) and backup singers.

Ted at The Union, Jan. 24, 2014
The band members are all top-tier pros, so this was my biggest showcase to date. The crowd listened to every song of my acoustic set and cheered loudly in between, quite a change from the usual bar gig where conversations are going on and the performer is just part of the evening's entertainment. This was a real concert.

Nashville-based Mike Farris has been a star in the music business since the early 1990s when he fronted the Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies. More recently he's been merging roots gospel music with arrangements inspired by New Orleans, Stax and the blues. He's earned an Americana Music Association New & Emerging Artist of the Year Award and a Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album of the Year.

He performs solo or with three-piece, five-piece and nine-piece bands. The full nine-piece lineup doesn't often travel with him outside of Nashville but he brought them all to Naperville.

Paul Brown
To give you a sense of the caliber of musician in Mike's band, keyboardist Paul Brown caught an early flight to Los Angeles the morning after the Naperville gig to attend the Grammy Awards with blues legend Bobby Rush. Paul produced, recorded, engineered and mixed Rush's album, "Down in Louisiana," which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album (Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite took home the Grammy in that category).

Paul's got an impressive resume as an artist and producer. He owns a recording studio and record label in Nashville, called Ocean Soul. He's amazing on the Hammond B3 organ and very fun to watch perform.

Paul Brown, Bobby Rush and Bonnie Raitt at the Troubadour, Jan. 25, 2014
Saturday night in L.A., he and Bobby Rush were at the Troubadour hanging out with the likes of Bonnie Raitt. Bobby performed "Gone, Gone, Gone" as part of a tribute to The Everly Brothers. You could follow Paul's Grammy adventure on his Twitter feed.

Meanwhile, Mike and the rest of the band made their way back to Nashville, no doubt questioning the wisdom of booking a January show in Chicago. You could see from Mike's Twitter that road conditions on the trip home were less than ideal.

Brutal weather on road from Chicago back home. black n white really captures it.
It was a great experience opening for the band. I started with "Stand Your Ground," adding a few Dr. King references, because if MLK was here today you know he'd take issue with some of the laws in Florida. I did four songs from the new "Comfort Zone" release, and was glad sister Liz was there to hear "Slowiks," which continues to get a great reception from audiences. I closed with a couple covers, performing Ian Hunter's "Resurrection Mary" ("on a wild Chicago night, with the wind howling white") and Robert Johnson's "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day."

Thanks Whitney, Jeremy, Brian, Dorothy and everyone at The Union for the opportunity to be part of a fun and special show.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why a performer should strike a balance between covers and originals

Ted performing at The Union, Naperville, IL 1-24-14. He played five originals and two covers.
By Ted Slowik

A classic debate that runs across many genres of music concerns whether artists should perform originals or covers. It's a question of entertainment value versus artistic integrity, and one that each performer must answer individually.

From the entertainment point of view, covers can be great crowd pleasers. Fans like the familiar, and there's often a sweet spot where an artist can impose his unique style on a well-known song to great effect.

On the other hand, a performer who relies too heavily on covers may find it difficult to ever establish himself as an original artist. Covers cast a long shadow and can make it harder for creative types to find acceptance should they eventually decide they'd prefer performing their own material

Most performers start out as better musicians than writers. These days you see incredibly talented kids singing and playing, though it's uncommon for youngsters to have the inclination or life experience to be decent writers. So there's absolutely nothing wrong with covering other artists while you're developing your own style and learning the craft.

Young performers who cover multiple artists will fare better than those who cover several songs by the same stars. Your voice may be perfectly suited to copy a certain singer, or a band's material may be in the wheelhouse of your playing style. But be careful, and seek a variety of artists to cover. You don't want to be typecast as someone with limited range.

For many artists--quite probably a majority--writing originals is more challenging than performing music. Even the famously lucrative team of Jagger/Richards had to be forced into songwriting by their manager Andrew Oldham, who locked them in a kitchen and wouldn't let them out until they wrote a song (their first, "As Tears Go By").

Reluctant writers might abandon the effort too quickly, frustrated by less-than-perfect results. Here's the thing though: Writing, like most skills, is usually a matter of persistence and effort. It has a lot less to do with inspiration, though those who work hard at it are sometimes graced with brilliant ideas for melodies, lyrics and stories.

Ultimately, the greatest musical rewards result from being original. As a path to happiness, writing is often therapeutic and a means to cope with or even solve life's problems. And financially, even the best-paying gigs may not equal publishing and licensing royalties in the long run.

Still, there's a lot to be said for performing covers. Interpreting others' material can also be transcendent. An artist like Joe Cocker made a career of it, and the great Frank Sinatra said a performer doing someone else's song had to "make it his own." If you have those rare, special gifts that only a tiny percentage of performers possess, then by all means don't worry about writing your own material.

For the majority, though, it's important to strike a balance between entertainment value and artistic integrity when considering whether to perform originals or covers.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Meeting Studebaker John and hearing great blues at Harlem Avenue Lounge

By Ted Slowik

Two  of my favorite things to do are hearing great blues music and meeting cool musicians. I did both Tuesday night at Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn.

Harlem Avenue Lounge is a venerable institution for live music. For more than 20 years it's kept alive the vibe of the authentic blues joints that used to populate Chicago's west and south sides. Proprietor Ken Zimmerman has a keen ear for talent and impeccable taste. From the full sound of electric blues bands he books on weekends to the artists he selects for Tuesday night acoustic showcases, I've never been disappointed at the Lounge. So when my friend Dave called and asked if I wanted to hear Studebaker John, I readily agreed. It was also a chance to meet up with friend Dennis Robling, who wanted a copy of the new CD. Dave had heard Studebaker John live on Scott "Hambone" Hammer's excellent weekly blues show on WDCB-90.0 FM.

The nice thing about acoustic Tuesday nights at the Lounge is the laid back nature of the proceedings. The quality of entertainment is world-class--many of the blues cats who play there have toured Europe--but usually if the crowd's not too big you have a chance to meet the artists. Many, like John, are approachable and happy to talk about their work and music in general.

Studebaker John Grimaldi, 61, has been playing blues harmonica and guitar for about five decades. His first recording was released in 1978, and his website lists 13 albums he's made since the early '90s. His most recent, 2013's "Kingsville Jukin'" by Studebaker John's Maxwell Street Kings, was released by Delmark Records.

John's musical influences date back to Maxwell Street, that open-air west side market where you could hear blues performed as street music. He's a master of slide guitar and gritty harmonica playing, and creates a bass drum sound by tapping his foot on a wooden Pepsi crate that has a guitar pickup affixed to the inside. He played the entire night in open E tuning.

He also possesses a soulful voice and keen songwriting skills. John writes about Maxwell Street and all sorts of topics but avoids lyrical cliches. His writing clearly comes from the heart and draws upon personal experience.

We chatted for maybe 20 minutes, and while I wasn't taking notes I was listening closely. He talked about the recording process, and how nowadays most studio recordings start with a click track, proceed to a guitar and vocal, then other tracks are layered on as warranted: bass, drums, keyboards, etc.

You miss the live feel of a band as a unit that way, he said. That's not necessarily a new criticism made by fans of the analog process. But then John mentioned how the digital process enables too many artists to fix mistakes made during a recording. You know, there might be a good take with a couple bad notes, and today's engineers can airbrush those flaws right out.

"Where's the quest for perfection?" John asked.

That, my friends, is our thought for the week. Because John wasn't the talent he is today when he first picked up a harmonica at age 7. He got here over a half century of always striving to be better in his live performance. An artist who works that hard to perfect his live performance is going to be able to capture that authentic live sound when he's in the studio, and you can hear that clearly on the excellent "Kingsville Jukin'."

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Six marketing and publicity tips for independent musicians

By Ted Slowik

Making music is easier than ever. Low-cost technology, easy access to free instruction and the availability of free distribution channels via the Internet means just about anyone can create and independently release music.

While this is great for you to get your music out there, it's also great for millions of others doing the same thing. In a sense, it's more difficult than ever to get people to listen to you. Regardless of how good or original you are, you're still challenged to be noticed beyond your circle of Facebook friends.

So here are six tips for marketing and publicizing your independent music:

1.) Be professional. You don't have to pay big bucks to get that professional look, but you do need to give it some thought. If your own skills are lacking in photography, graphic design, writing and other marketing areas, ask friends for help. Think visually and collaboratively. Ask others for opinions, and be receptive to their criticism. You may be strong in some musical areas and not even realize how much experience you lack in other areas of the profession.

2.) Get others to talk about you. There are millions of artists online promoting themselves on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, ReverbNation and tons of other channels. Potential fans see tons of these messages every day, and after a while you tune out the blatant self-promoters. What's interesting and more likely to get someone's attention is when someone encourages you to check out someone else!

3.) Talk about others. This may seem counter-intuitive, but one good way to get others to talk about you is to talk about others. It's like an advanced form of the follow-back principal on Twitter. If you encourage your Facebook friends to like another musician's fan page or subscribe to their YouTube channel, it's OK to ask others to do the same for you. Here's the key though: to be effective you need to do this on an individual basis. Don't post a mass message saying, "Hey peeps! Ask your friends to like me!" and expect huge returns.

4.) Consider the local press. Traditional media like local newspapers and radio still wield tremendous influence in reaching an audience. If you've got something newsworthy, like a big show coming up or a new recording you've independently released, find the email or phone number for an entertainment writer or editor with your local paper and let them know. Write a bio and press release, and have someone look it over and offer advice on making them better. Have one high-quality publicity photo. If you don't hear back, don't be discouraged. It's OK to try to follow up and ask why they passed on your story. Heed their advice, and apply their suggestions to how you promote your next effort.

5.) Leverage your mentions. Do you know why ads for movies often include quotes from critics? Because it's a proven, effective way to persuade people to want to see the film. If you do get a mention, find the key sound bite that best summarizes the positive reaction to your work and add that to your bio or work it into your rotation of social media posts. It goes back to the principal that others talking about you carries much more value and influence than you talking about yourself.

6. Be patient. The promotion efforts you make today may not produce an immediate splash but they may  pay dividends months or more down the road. Your name is a brand, and typically it takes time to build a brand's reputation and develop loyalty among fans. Marketing and publicity is a lot of work. It's time-consuming, requires critical attention to detail and often doesn't produce the hoped-for results. Often that says more about the level of interest in the actual content of the piece being promoted than the success of the campaign. So why you may be right in thinking your music is great and deserves to be heard, hopefully you also believe your next work will be even better and you experience continuous improvement in the quality of your art.

Ted Slowik has more than 20 years experience as a newspaper writer and editor and more than five years experience publicizing professional entertainers. Learn more at

Friday, January 3, 2014

The day bluesman Twist Ferguson changed my life

By Ted Slowik

Well, the big day is here! I've spent months planning the Jan. 4 CD release show at Chicago Street Pub for the debut studio recording"Comfort Zone," and I'm looking forward to seeing many good friends at a memorable evening.

I want to dedicate this day to Joliet/Lockport bluesman Twist Ferguson. I've told this story to a couple people and I want to put it in writing so I get it right, to express my gratitude for the day he changed my life.

It was early 2012, as best I can recall. This happened down at the River Club on Railroad Street in Joliet, on the west bank of the DesPlaines River, in the shadow of the Interstate 80 bridge. They have a blues jam down there on Wednesday nights. Twist is a regular, and a lot of other players like T-Bird Huck, Michael Brown, Tom and those cats hang out and play.

This was just a few months after I had left the Big Eddy Springs Blues Band after 11 years as bassist. I was still figuring out just what I'd be doing next musically. I was starting to explore the guitar more, though on this particular night I happened to be playing bass--the instrument I was comfortable with. I was not prepared for what was about to happen.

At a blues open mic, the person running it calls up various musicians who may or may not know each other. Sometimes you play with people you've never met. I knew of Twist and had met him before, but I think this was the first time we played together.

I was playing my Gibson Grabber electric bass, and Twist was playing an electric guitar--Fender I think, but I'm not sure. There was a drummer, a second guitarist and a keyboardist.

We were playing a shuffly kind of insturmental boogie. I was standing in the center in front of the drums. Twist was to my left. We'd gone around a couple times on the 12-bar progression. The other guitarist and keyboardist had taken solos. It was Twist's turn to solo but instead of playing he stopped, turned and gave me an exasperated look.

He motioned with his face, hands and body. I was like, "What?" He was like, "It's rhythm and blues." I didn't understand. Whatever he was trying to tell me, I wasn't getting. Finally he just shook his head and said something like, "You don't know your scales."

Now, Twist is kind of an ornery fellow. I could have reacted any one of a number of different ways. I could have gotten all indignant, and been like, "You're just a jerk," only using language a lot less PG. But instead it struck me: He was right. I didn't know my scales.

Nobody had ever called me out before, but the truth is I had been faking it for nearly 30 years. That is to say, I played by ear. I didn't know a lick of music theory, and I had never taken the time to ask anyone to show me the basics. I had never learned or practiced guitar scales. As a bassist, I could blend into the mix, show energy or restraint depending on the moment and pass as an integral part of the act. I never had to solo, but on the rare occasions when I did I could pull off something passable.

Twist showed me the light, and for that I'm eternally grateful. A few months later I saw him at the Uptown Tap in Westmont at a jam hosted by Mark Cihlar. I tried to buy him a beer but he said he didn't drink anymore. He accepted my offer to purchase a lemonade for him, and I might have bought a drink for his friend.

You see, unless you've experienced the sheer joy of creating beautiful music, you'll have no appreciation for the insight Twist imparted upon me. Music can be like a labyrinth. You think you have a competent understanding of the art form then one day you stumble upon someone like Jon Gomm who just totally shatters your comprehension of the sounds an instrument is capable of making. It's like the movie "The Matrix."

So thanks, Twist, for helping me realize how little I knew. Because I've learned much since then and I'm determined to devour as much more as I can in the time I have.