Issue 116

Issue 116

Issue 116

Frank Doris

“Baby, there’s only two more days till tomorrow.” That’s from the Gary Wilson song, “I Wanna Take You On A Sea Cruise.” Gary, an outsider music legend, expresses what many of us are feeling these days. How many conversations have you had lately with people who ask, “what day is it?” How many times have you had to check, regardless of how busy or bored you are? Right now, I can’t tell you what the date is without looking at my Doug the Pug calendar. (I am quite aware of that big “Copper 116” note scrawled in the July 27 box though.)

My sense of time has shifted and I know I’m not alone. It’s part of the new reality and an aspect maybe few of us would have foreseen. Well, as my friend Ed likes to say, “things change with time.”

Except for the fact that every moment is precious.

In this issue: Larry Schenbeck finds comfort and adventure in his music collection. John Seetoo concludes his interview with John Grado of Grado Labs. WL Woodward tells us about Memphis guitar legend Travis Wammack. Tom Gibbs finds solid hits from Sophia Portanet, Margo Price, Gerald Clayton and Gillian Welch. Anne E. Johnson listens to a difficult instrument to play: the natural horn, and digs Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly. Ken hits the road with progressive rock masters Nektar.

Audio shows are on hold? Rudy Radelic prepares you for when they’ll come back. Roy Hall tells of four weddings and a funeral. J.I. Agnew looks at colored vinyl and asks: does it sound good? Wayne Robins enjoys new albums from Bananagun and Khruangbin. I interview Carl Marchisotto of NOLA loudspeakers. Ray Chelstowski cranks his tube-amplified car stereo. Jay Jay French tells a reader why he had to abandon Grateful Dead fandom. To close the issue, Audio Anthropology takes the plunge, James Whitworth clocks in and our parting shotgun rider clowns around.

John Grado of Grado Labs, Part Two

John Grado of Grado Labs, Part Two

John Grado of Grado Labs, Part Two

John Seetoo

In Part One (Issue 115), John Seetoo and John Grado talked about Grado’s reference vinyl discs, the “Grado sound,” the use of wood in headphones and cartridges, company founder Joseph Grado and more. We continue the conversation here.

John Seetoo: Let’s talk more about home audio. The premium Epoch cartridge line combines cocobolo wood with precious stones, gold, and intricate wiring to create an ultra-low mass cartridge that has garnered rave reviews. What inspired you to arrive at this design and what motivated you to create it during a time when streaming has become the dominant platform for most music listeners?

John Grado: Grado had been in business for over 60 years and was the first to offer a stereo moving coil cartridge. Now we hadn’t made a moving coil cartridge since the early 1960s and over the years it seemed as though vinyl listeners came to think that if the cartridge wasn’t a moving coil it just wasn’t very good. To be honest, it bothered me that after all these years in business making cartridges longer than most companies around, I felt we weren’t getting the respect we deserved.

A 1960s Grado turntable.

So my competitive juices started to flow, being a boy from Brooklyn. I went to work designing what I wanted to be considered one of the finest cartridges in the world and not a moving coil design. Two years later, we introduced the $12,000 Epoch cartridge to rave reviews, [with] notable reviewers saying it was the best cartridge they had ever heard. But we didn’t stop there. We continued to work and recently we introduced the next generation of the Epoch, and the response has been that after hearing this new version, it was difficult for people to listen to the original. We were so proud of this new Epoch3 that we offered a trade-in program for people who had bought the original: send us your old working Epoch and we’ll send you a brand new one free of charge. That’s how eager we were to get the word out that we felt we had the best cartridge money could buy.

The Grado Epoch3 cartridge.

All we have learned in developing the Epoch3 has trickled down our cartridge line, all the way to the entry level Prestige Black3, a great sounding cartridge for the money.

JS: While streaming is the dominant platform, vinyl has made a resurgence. What is your opinion on this trend, and how has Grado Labs addressed this burgeoning new market?

JG: The younger generation has been brought up with streaming as the dominant platform. To them vinyl is a new technology, something they can touch; the turntable is a toy they can set up and play and, most importantly, they hear how good it sounds. They enjoy the act of shopping for an album and looking at the photos and reading the album jacket. It becomes a discussion with friends about what albums one has and the music the bands are making. All that is more than just pulling music out of the air and not thinking of where it’s coming from. Vinyl brings them closer to the music and makes it a more enjoyable experience.

During our peak years [in the] late 1970s, we were producing about 10,000 cartridges a week. During the 1980s with the introduction of the compact disc, demand for cartridges steadily dropped to a low of 12,000 for the year 1990. As we entered the headphone market at that time we really didn’t expect that in the year 2020 we would still be producing phono cartridges, but we are and we are thrilled to be doing so. It has been a very pleasant surprise to be in the phono cartridge business and still innovating 67 years after Joe made his first cartridges on his kitchen table.

Building an Epoch3 cartridge.

JS: Vinyl has undergone physical changes over the last century, from heavier discs during the post-World War II period to the 1960s, the wafer thin and prone-to-warp RCA Dynaflex LPs of the 1970s and 1980s, to current vinyl discs, which are a closer return to the more robust records of the early to mid-20th century.

How have Grado Labs’ cartridges addressed these changes in vinyl disc manufacturing regarding optimum fidelity, the tracking force required and the playback of warped discs, and which Grado models do you think would be the best all-around-use cartridges for someone with an extensive record collection that may be nearly a century old?

JG: We manufacture cartridges for 78 RPM, mono and stereo reproduction. The signal on the vinyl is transmitted the same way as it was a hundred years ago. Of course, there have been improvements in materials science; however, the signal on the vinyl is the same. There is no one solution; someone with an extensive record collection would possibly need all three [cartridge] designs.

JS: In the relatively early years of Grado Labs, Joseph Grado was making loudspeakers, turntables and receivers, but made a conscious decision to focus on phonograph cartridges and ceased production on all other product lines. Some of those early Grado speakers and other units have become historic collectibles. Do you remember what those units sounded like? What popular rival brands and models would you compare them to?

Grado loudspeakers.

JG: I’m not sure how old you think I am but fortunately I’m not that old. Joe started with cartridges and expanded into speakers and turntables and also a few accessories. All that ended with the exception of cartridges in 1964. I started work as a 12 year old on July 3, 1965 so I missed out on those earlier products, but their reputation lives on. We still get calls for parts or information about them, especially the turntable and the wooden tonearm and it’s been almost 60 years that they’ve been out of production. That’s the reputation they’ve acquired and that we work to uphold.

JS: Grado is a Brooklyn-born company going three generations strong. What do you think makes privately owned Brooklyn hi-fi companies like Grado Labs or Ohm Acoustics different from their rivals? Would you ever consider expanding outside of Brooklyn?

JG: It’s the water; we have the best water in the world. But more importantly, it’s our employees and Brooklyn with its diverse population gives us a talent pool unlike any other place. We feel a company is only as good as its workers. At Grado, we like everyone to feel like family and that’s how we treat them.

The thought of moving or expanding any other place never entered my mind, I’m a Brooklyn boy always and always will be. Where else can you get pizza like what’s made in Brooklyn? Like I said, it’s all in the water.

JS: As your sons, Jonathan and Matt, are now working with you at Grado Labs, how important has their generation’s use of computers, the internet and digital technology become in your current business? What areas do you feel in which these are an advantage, and what areas do you think keeping things “old school” is better?

JG: First, I must say it’s a joy to be working with my sons, and I understand my Uncle Joe’s enthusiasm at having someone continue on what he had built over the years.

An early Grado tonearm.

Jonathan coming on board really took us into the new era of social media and of showing us the importance of having a properly designed and informative website. A while back the website Mashable did a nationwide survey of small businesses, evaluating their influence through social media, Grado coming in the top eight nationwide showed that we were making a presence and getting our message out. And the continual work on our website helps keep people well informed of the goings on at Grado.

Jonathan also works on the partnerships that we’ve been involved with. Companies such as Bushmills whiskey, Oreo, Reebok, Dolce & Gabbana, and Microsoft to name a few. We enjoy working with these and other companies. It keeps life interesting.

Family tradition: John and Jonathan Grado.

Matthew also gives his creative import on all the design work going out and actually promotes Grado through his personal Instagram and Facebook sites.

Working with both sons has been a blending of old school and new, and the result I feel has worked well. The boys were the ones to push for us to get into in-ear [headphones] development and more recently the whole Bluetooth market, all while keeping our full line of wired headphones and phono cartridges. All have been successful. So it’s been a good blend and I see many good things coming in the future.

JS: Are your sons involved with you in R & D (research and development), and what are some of the criteria you use to decide upon trying fresh materials, a new design, or going for a unique sound?

JG: Both sons are involved in all aspects of the company, and they both have their specialties. Matthew has been working with me to cover the daily operations, front office and production. He also works very closely with the production of the wooden series of cartridges which only he and myself undertake. What I’ve learned over my 55 years at Grado can’t be acquired in a few short years but he is eager to learn and picks things up much quicker than I did.

John, Matthew, Loretta and Jonathan Grado.

I have been around here since 1965, at first looking over Uncle Joe’s shoulder and over the years accumulating all the Grado knowledge and techniques, and I’m thrilled to be passing this onto Matthew. He also has some projects he’s working on that might be implemented in the near future.

We always keep our eyes and ears open for new materials that we feel could be interesting to work with, as with our latest, the hemp wood headphone. We had heard about hemp wood and thought it would be an interesting project to try to build a headphone, without knowing how it would machine or how it would sound. Both were a challenge but we worked at it and feel we have an amazing product.

Each Grado model has its unique sound but we feel none of our models roam outside of what we like to be known as the Grado sound. We think of each as having their own formula or recipe and feel anyone familiar with the Grado sound, if listening blindfolded, would be able to tell they were listening to a Grado product.

JS: If Grado Labs were to expand into an additional product line outside of headphones and cartridges, what would it be, and why?

JG:I really couldn’t see us expanding to other products in the audio industry, but maybe something to do with food. We are big foodies and do quite a bit of experimenting, and of course we enjoy eating our experiments.

JS: Of all the different cartridge and headphone models in the Grado product line, past and present, which ones, if put in a time capsule and opened fifty to a hundred years from now, would you say best exemplify the Grado sound?

JG: Well, I’d have to say what best exemplifies the Grado sound would be our two flagships, the PS2000e headphone and the Epoch3 phono cartridge.

The PS2000e headphones.

But the ones I’m most proud of would be our SR60e headphones and our Prestige Black3 phono cartridge. The reason being, I feel when cost is no object there are fewer restrictions when working on a design, but with the SR60e and the Black3, cost was a consideration and to design a $79 headphone and a $75 cartridge that are held in such high esteem are accomplishments I’m most proud of.

Grado is not a company that just makes products for one [price] segment of the market; we make products for every segment. We often get contacted with people telling us how they have grown up with our brand, starting with our entry level models and experiencing the thrill of moving up the product line over the years.

It’s hard to build a respected reputation, but it’s even harder to keep that reputation for over 67 years, and that is our game plan.

John Grado at CES, 1995.


Header image: an early Grado cartridge.

The Natural Horn: Recent Recordings

The Natural Horn: Recent Recordings

The Natural Horn: Recent Recordings

Anne E. Johnson

French horn is a notoriously difficult instrument to play at a virtuosic level, but that’s nothing compared to the challenge of playing its predecessor, the natural horn. This instrument looks like a French horn but has no valves to facilitate moving from note to note. The player relies primarily on his or her mouth position (embouchure) and secondarily on placing a cupped hand in the instrument’s bell (hand stopping). A few recent recordings will give a good overview of what the natural horn sounds like and what it can do.

The bulk of music specifically written for natural horn is from the late 17th through the early 19th century. The added valves that define the French horn were patented in the first half of the 1800s, after which there was no going back to the awkward, valveless precursor. But today, a number of skilled horn players have not only mastered the natural horn but seek out opportunities to play it.

The perfect example is Canadian hornist Richard O. Burdick. It’s fair to say that Burdick is obsessed with natural horn. He even started his own record label, I Ching, and has composed a fair amount of his own music. But most of his recordings are little-known works from the time when natural horn was the only option (or the idea of valved horn was so new that not everyone was willing to use it).

One of Burdick’s idiosyncrasies is that he seems to be the only natural horn player he knows. Therefore, all his chamber music recordings are overdubbings of himself playing all the parts. On his album Natural Horn Music FOUND, he uses that technique to create rare performances of works of a handful of composers who are hardly household names: Comte de Champigny, Édouard Du Pay, Alexandre Javault, and Johann Heuschkel.

Heuschkel (1773-1853) was a German musician, better known in his day as a teacher – Carl Maria von Weber studied with him — than as a composer. In Burdick’s recording of his “Six Pieces for Three Horns, Op. 9,” you can hear a wide range of techniques in use, from tricky tonguing in faster passages to crescendos and decrescendos on long notes. Burdick struggles sometimes with technical aspects, but his commitment to preserving the repertoire is so important, that perhaps his weaknesses as a player can be overlooked. There are serious ensemble issues in the overdubbing; I hope at some point there’s a new recording of this promising piece, preferably with four hornists playing together in the same room!


The exploration of obscure composers is practically a requirement if you want to learn the natural horn repertoire. A recent duo recording by Steinar Granmo Nilsen on natural horn and Kristin Fossheim on fortepiano offers another line-up of unknowns. Early Romantic Horn Sonatas, on the Norwegian label 2L, includes works by Ferdinand Ries, Franz Danzi, and Nikolaus von Krufft, all of whom were born in the late 18th century.

The Sonata in E Major by Krufft (1779-1826) is a moderately interesting work, unexceptional but solid. Nilsen’s horn-playing, on the other hand, is first-rate. Besides have greater facility and expressive capacity on the natural horn than Burdick, he is also well versed in early-music performance practice, a background reflected in his phrasing and ornament. Fossheim brings similar skill to her keyboard work. Here’s the rondo final movement of the Krufft sonata:


Known in his day as a cellist, German composer Franz Danzi (1763-1826) has a style similar to Schubert’s. He must have known some impressive pianists, based on the complex passages that Fossheim handles with grace and dexterity. The opening movement – an Allegro with a slow introduction – lets Nilsen demonstrate the natural horn’s more strident tone colors.


There’s another collection of rarely heard horn music, Vapeur de son: Original Works for Natural Horn and Érard Harp from the Napoleonic Age, released on the Vermeer label. This one features Luca Delpriori on horn and Paola Perrucci on harp. An Érard harp is an instrument using the patented inventions of French instrument maker Sébastien Érard, namely his innovative tuning systems that allowed the pitches of all the harp’s strings to be instantly changed by one or two semitones.

The recording features works by a number of French, German, and Italian composers. One of those is François-Adrien Boïeldieu (1775-1834), whose Solo for Horn with Piano or Harp Accompaniment gives Delpriori a chance to demonstrate is clear, stable tone.


Most horn players know the music of Jacques-François Gallay (1795-1864), celebrated in fine fashion on the album Jacques-François Gallay: Chamber Music for Natural Horn Ensemble on Resonus Classics. Les Chevaliers de Saint Hubert is a group of four top-notch hornist from all over Europe. The recording includes Gallay’s Three Grand Trios, Op. 24, and his Grand Quartet, Op. 26.

The ensemble, comprising Anneke Scott, Joseph Walters, Jorge Renteria-Campos, and Martin Lawrence, glories in the warm, rich sound of the natural horn. Just listen to the elegant phrasing and precision in the quartet’s Andante con moto second movement:


Two recent recordings on Hyperion show other aspects of the natural horn repertoire, although that label does not offer any complete tracks for me to share as examples. First, there’s the album by Ursula Paludan Monberg, joined by early-music ensemble Arcangelo and directed by Jonathan Cohen. The program includes works of Haydn, Telemann, and others.

Of course, because it’s music for natural horn, there have to be some lesser-knowns in the mix. I recommend the beautiful four-movement anonymous concerto that could well be mistaken for Telemann. You can hear the whole album if you subscribe to Apple Music, or at least listen to short samples if you’re not a subscriber: https://music.apple.com/us/album/the-early-horn/1488137360

And we have not yet mentioned Mozart, who wrote his four beloved horn concertos for natural horn, although today they are almost always performed on the modern French horn. Another excellent Hyperion release features natural hornist Pip Eastop playing those concertos with the Hanover Band under the direction of Anthony Halstead. A fun bonus is the Mozart Horn Quintet, on which Eastop is joined by the Eroica Quartet. Sample or listen on Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/album/mozart-horn-concertos/929087641


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Gaius Cornelius.

Travis Wammack – Memphis Royalty

Travis Wammack – Memphis Royalty

Travis Wammack – Memphis Royalty

WL Woodward

We’re going to visit a guy today who is known to guitar players but not to the general public. Travis Wammack recorded his first record when he was 12 years old and had a hit single at 16. He is a legend in the Southern rock world for his work at Sun Studio and Sonic Recording Service in Memphis, then FAME Studios at Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall, going on to be Little Richard’s band leader from 1984 to 1995. So grab a beer and a bowl of crawdads and we’ll jaw.

In 1954 “Little” Travis Wammack was eight years old, living with his parents in Memphis. His dad brought a guitar home and told the kids whoever wanted to play it could have it. Travis swallowed that guitar like a frog with a June bug. His mother would remember he would fall asleep with the guitar in the bed and his “little foot just tapping away.”

I know this is possible because I had a band mate, Stu Clemens, who would do the same. Don’t ask me how I know this. Some stories just shouldn’t be told.

When Travis turned 11 the family moved to Binghampton, a suburb of Memphis. While in Memphis and later Binghampton Travis would lug that guitar half his size into department stores, restaurants and bars to play for change. He’d camp out by the juke boxes and when a customer came up to play a tune, Travis would ask, “What are you going to play?” Most of the time he knew the song. The customers would put the nickel into the guitar’s sound hole (no case) and he’d play it. Travis would relate that from the time he was 11 years old he never needed any money from his parents.

A local DJ for KWAM, Eddie Bond, saw Travis on the street with his guitar. Bond asked him to play a few tunes. Eddie Bond was also a promoter who booked acts into shows around the South called jamborees. He asked Travis if he’d like to open for a few of them. Well he had to check with Travis’s parents first.  Little Travis was still 11. His parents, knowing Travis’s talent and potential, acquiesced as long as Travis didn’t miss any school and that Bond would be responsible for him.

“Little” Travis as he would be billed started opening in venues around Tennessee and Arkansas for guys like Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. There is a cool story of Bond trying to find an electric guitar for Travis to play at a show and Perkins let Travis borrow his. Because Travis was small the guitar reached down to his toes. So, Carl took out a pocket knife and cut a hole in his guitar strap that had been specially made for him, so that Travis could play the thing. Wammack remembers being impressed and honored, and never forgot the gesture.

Eddie Bond then got a call from the musicians’ union who told him Travis could sing at his shows but not play the guitar. Bond responded that they had tried to get Travis into the union but had been refused because of his age. “You mean you won’t let him in the union because he’s too young, but you won’t let him play in my union band?” Eddie Bond hired a lawyer and sued. Bond and Travis went to New York to the union’s headquarters, where their case was heard. The union politburo voted Travis in, and he became the youngest member of the musicians’ union at 11 years old.

Wammack quickly developed his own style, sound and chops. He invented a fuzz tone by running a lamp cord out of the external speaker jack of his amp and into a tape recorder. The overdrive out of the tape machine resulted in a sound he became known for. He also experimented with the little amps and speakers in the drive-in theaters. I, um, assume he purchased these legally. Travis called his style, which resembles chicken picking, “stuttering.” Chicken picking uses a hybrid pick and fingers “popping” style to get the “pluck”, but Travis had a fingerpicking style that was morphed more from guys like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

By 15 he figured he would try his hand getting session work. Roland Janes, a session player at Sun Studio, had left and started his own studio, Sonic Recording Service. Travis admits he was a little cocky and went in to meet Janes telling him, “I’m going to be a star and I want to be your session guitarist.” Janes had been a top session guy with Sun and would be hard to impress. He had Travis play him a few songs and agreed to let him do some sessions.

Before long Janes was using Travis and his bass buddy Prentiss McPhail almost exclusively. One reason was talent but another was economics. The guys got $8 a session whether that session was five hours or 15. So the boys would be playing at shows in the evenings, then going right to the studio to work all day. Obviously, Travis had ditched the school gig by then.

The trade-off was that Wammack and McPhail had access to the studio and could use it anytime they wanted, and they did. In 1962 Wammack and McPhail wrote an instrumental called “Scratchy” which would eventually reach #80 on the charts.  You can hear Wammack’s tape loop fuzz here.


Yes, that was a backwards tape loop on the vocal, considered to be the first use of that technique.  That’s what happens when you let unsupervised teenagers do what they want in a studio.

Dig this. “Scratchy” was the B side. “Firefly” was written by Wammack and he thought that was the hit.  You can see why; the guitar playing is remarkable for a sixteen year old in 1962.


Rick Hall at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals had seen Travis play and tried to get him to move down to Alabama, but at the time Wammack was doing well around Memphis so Hall had to settle for flying Travis down periodically.

You all know the story of Rick Hall’s entire band leaving FAME and starting Muscle Shoals Studios. Hall was a competitive and vindictive man. He called up Travis, wanting him to put together the best band around. Travis did know the right people and Hall convinced him to leave Memphis and relocate to Muscle Shoals.

Thus started a period where Wammack met and played with the best in the business. Hall was a top producer/engineer and everyone wanted to record in Muscle Shoals and get that sound.

Wammack recalls that in 1970 Little Richard came to FAME to record a new album. Travis mentioned that he and Junior Lowe had recorded a scratch demo called “Greenwood, Mississippi” and felt the style was a cross between Richard’s style and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Richard wanted to hear it so Travis took him out to his truck where he had the demo on a cassette.

He’s in his truck with Little Richard. Must have been a moment.

Little Richard loved it so they went in to tell Rick Hall they wanted to do the song. Hall set up the studio and the musicians started in. But Travis relates that Little Richard was in the vocal booth shaking his head. They stopped and Richard said to Wammack, “This isn’t right. Where’s that music from the truck?”  Travis replied that was just a demo. Richard said, “That’s what I want to record over.” This thoroughly pissed off Rick Hall, but hey it’s Little Richard. That’s what they did and Little Richard had a minor hit with it.

Hall needed a vocalist so he asked Travis if he knew anyone. Travis did, and talked George Jackson into coming down from Memphis. Jackson was not only a great singer but a gifted songwriter. He worked for FAME for a while, but Rick Hall was a hard man to work for, demanding and set in his ways. Jackson eventually left FAME for Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which was about the worst insult you could give to Hall.

Travis Wammack tells the story of George Jackson calling him from Muscle Shoals Studio telling Travis he had a rock and roll song he’d like him to hear. Travis showed it to Hall but he rejected it saying they could write a hundred like that. No animosity there. Jackson sold the song “Old Time Rock and Roll” to Bob Seger who liked it just fine. Rick Hall was a hoot.

To emphasize what an influence Travis Wammack was, while touring with Little Richard in England in the late 1980s one show was attended by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. When Richard introduced Travis Wammack, Plant and Page turned to each other and simultaneously said “Scratchy!”

They asked if they could go backstage (granted) to meet Wammack. Page told Travis that record was the one that made him begin to practice earnestly and make it in music.

If you’re still with me and interested, this is a half-hour vid of Travis telling some of these stories and more. He’s a good storyteller and remembers everything.


Also, I’d like to credit a book, Travis Wammack’s Rock and Roll Days by Steve Johnson that I used for material and some research. It’s more like a collection of remembrances from Wammack and his cohorts but the stories of the rowdy rockabilly days are fun.

Colored Vinyl: Eye Candy, But is It Ear Candy?

Colored Vinyl: Eye Candy, But is It Ear Candy?

Colored Vinyl: Eye Candy, But is It Ear Candy?

J.I. Agnew

Records, from the age of shellac to the vinyl era, have traditionally been black. Artwork was typically confined to the small round paper label on the record itself and to the packaging.

Unsurprisingly, when a record deviates from the plain black object we are all used to, it draws attention. Colored records, transparent records, splatter disks, translucent records and picture disks can look stunning and boost sales. But how do they actually sound?

To answer this question, we should begin by investigating how these records are manufactured. The raw material, a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) blend that contains certain additives to improve performance, arrives at the pressing plant in large sacks containing granules. Typically, these granules are already black, manufactured as such by the polymer supplier. To produce a black record, these granules are placed in a large hopper, which feeds them to an extruder, which melts and squeezes them into a homogenous dough-like form, shaping them into soft round pucks of a predetermined weight. Each hot puck is then placed between the molds of a hydraulic press and a record is pressed. Since the granules and puck are black, the final record is also black.

Colored vinyl from the band Naxatras.

This would therefore be the reference with which all fancier-looking records will be compared.

Making a transparent record is a very similar process, the difference being that the PVC granules used are not the typical black ones, but transparent granules ordered from the polymer supplier. This is a different blend, and contains different additives. The homogeneity of the blend is similar, but in practice transparent records, more often than not, suffer from static a lot more than black records. Also, most pressing plants go through many more sacks of black granules than transparent granules each year, so the requirements and controls for the black granules are usually much stricter.

Making colored records introduces an additional step. Since each customer is likely to request a different color or combination of colors, it doesn’t make much sense for a pressing plant to stock all possible colors of granules. So, they use transparent granules mixed with pigment powders to create the desired color. The discrete pigment particles are unfortunately traced by the playback stylus, increasing the background noise of pigmented records.

Splatter records and multi-color disks, including marbled, striped, polka-dot and any other variants are even more complicated requiring multiple pigmentation stages to mix and match colors and shapes. As the playback stylus moves from one color to the next, the minute changes in the microstructure of the material create changes in the character of the noise floor, rendering it much more noticeable than a continuous noise floor.

Picture disks are very similar to transparent records. They are actually two halves of a transparent record, with a printed picture in between. The sandwich is permanently sealed together. While the surface of the record is the same as a transparent record, the picture sandwich construction does seem to introduce a resonant element and picture disks sound noticeably different to plain transparent or black records pressed from the same stampers.

Picture and colored vinyl discs from the editor’s collection.

While all of the aforementioned colorful and creative variations are great to look at, the tradeoff is unfortunately that what is good for the looks is not best for the sound.

But how bad is it?

Not that bad actually, if a few important points are taken into account. The mastering and plating processes for colorful records are exactly the same as for black records. The mastering stage, where the lacquer master disks are cut, is always the most critical part of the process, defining the sound of the final product to a much greater extent than any other aspect of disk manufacturing. As such, starting out with great mastering, as is true for black records, greatly improves the chances that the final product will sound good. Bad masters cannot be made to sound good, no matter what is done in subsequent stages.

But even if we begin our sonic journey with excellent masters, not all plating and pressing is equal. Even assuming that the plating is accomplished with due care, there is still the pressing stage that can make or break the final product.

Just as with black records, colorful records require a lot of skill, craftsmanship, attention to detail and heavy industrial equipment in good working order. A good pressing plant will routinely achieve much quieter colored records than a mediocre plant, even if both facilities can make records that look just as pretty. In practice, the more complex and elaborate types of colorful records require more skill and more equipment, so a better pressing plant can usually also make prettier records that also sound impressively good. In fact, the colorful records of a good pressing plant can often sound much better than the black records of a mediocre plant.

Most of the “issues” inherent in colorful records are related to an increase in the noise floor, compared to black records. While this increase can be kept quite small by competent plants, it is still there. As such, colored records are a better match for music and recordings with less intense dynamics, to keep the distance between the music and the noise floor of the medium as great as possible. Ideal candidates are usually rock, pop and some electronic music albums.

On the other hand, a lot of the classical and jazz repertoire is very dynamic, calling for the widest signal to noise ratio that can be achieved, in which case, black records are perhaps more appropriate.

In the final analysis, in the case of a popular music recording with intentionally limited dynamics, the difference in sound quality between a good black record and a good colorful record would most probably remain inaudible to the majority of listeners.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Banfield.

Wanda Jackson: the Queen of Rockabilly

Wanda Jackson: the Queen of Rockabilly

Wanda Jackson: the Queen of Rockabilly

Anne E. Johnson

In the tiny town of Maude, Oklahoma, Wanda Jackson came into the world in 1937. Her dad bought her a guitar and took her to lots of western swing concerts by folks like Tex Williams and Spade Cooley. By the time she was 19, Jackson had her own radio show. Today, she’s made over 40 studio albums, charted countless times, and is considered the first important female rockabilly star.

Her career certainly had a colorful start. When she was 17, Capitol Records asked her to record a duet single with Billy Gray, leader of Hank Thompson’s country band, the Brazos Valley Boys. The record hit the country top ten, but Capitol wouldn’t give Jackson her own contract. Ironically, it was producer Ken Nelson who refused to sign a woman to a solo contract; he would end up producing all of Jackson’s most successful albums. Capitol came to its senses and signed her in 1956. Around this time, Jackson briefly dated Elvis Presley, and he’s the one who introduced her to playing rockabilly.

Her first album, Wanda Jackson, came out on Capitol in 1958. Most of its songs were by other people, but the last two tracks on Side B were by Jackson herself. She would develop into an accomplished songwriter, as these early examples suggest.

The final cut on the album is her own “Baby Loves Him.” Jackson has that bouncy rockabilly swing down pat. The studio musicians, uncredited on this and other Jackson albums, were always hand-picked by Ken Nelson. They often included Buck Owens on guitar – usually a Fender Telecaster – before he made it big in his own right.


The albums dropped at a furious pace, and the hits kept on coming. The title song from Right or Wrong (1961) did very well, originally a jazz standard from the 1920s that came into the Western swing repertoire thanks to a recording by Bob Wills. None of the songs on Right or Wrong were written by Jackson, but she had excellent taste in material, so all of it is worthy of being covered.

For example, there’s “The Window Up Above,” a heartbreak ballad by George Jones. Jackson shows off her low register, never over-singing. The light, skillful brushwork by the unnamed drummer on snare helps the arrangement from becoming too sentimental.


The Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, most famous for writing the score to the film Mary Poppins, sold a song called “The Things I Might Have Been” to country singer Kitty Wells in 1952. Recognizing a good thing when she heard it, Jackson snatched up that same song for her 1963 album, Love Me Forever, which happened to be her first LP released in stereophonic sound.

This is a very different sort of arrangement from the earlier examples above: Here we have sweeping violin lines and a cadre of silky-smooth back-up singers. Despite the pomp, Jackson still controls her delivery, letting the drama happen all round her as she maintains her clear, intense tone.


Nelson was still producing Jackson’s records when she made Wanda Jackson Sings Country Songs in 1965. By now, Nelson had made a name for himself as the man who introduced Merle Haggard, Merle Travis, and Gene Vincent to an insatiable and growing country fanbase. He was unusual for dominating both the more traditional, stripped-down Nashville sound and the richer, more electrified rockabilly style.

Side A of Wanda Jackson Sings Country Songs ends with Jackson’s own “Kickin’ Our Hearts Around.” There’s a real elegance in her singing, creating perfect counterpoint with the steel guitar line (probably played by either Hal Rugg, Weldon Myrick, or Ralph Mooney, but as usual, no credit is given).


Country music has never been an easy field for women to break into, so Jackson deserves credit for trying to help a songwriter named Ann Bruce. Over the years Jackson recorded several of Bruce’s songs; sadly, it doesn’t seem to have resulted in much of a career for the composer.

One of those songs is on Jackson’s 1967 album You’ll Always Have My Love. Bruce wrote “My Days Are Darker Than Your Nights,” a solid country number. The guitar solos are by Roy Clark, leading a band called The Party Timers, which toured with Jackson during this period. The other members were Michael Lane on steel guitar, Don Bartlett on drums, and Al Flores on electric bass. Sometimes Tex Wilburn filled in on the road for Clark, who had his own tours to worry about.


All great top-selling artists’ careers must wind down eventually. Jackson’s last record for Capitol was Country Keepsakes (1973), produced by an icon of country music, Joe Allison. One interesting cover on this record is “Reuben James,” the song by Alex Harvey and Barry Etris that had been a hit for Kenny Rogers in 1969.

Jackson is a great storyteller, with a sense of mystery and even humor that surely influenced Dolly Parton.


As is true of many classic country musicians, Jackson had a passionate love of gospel. In her case, though, it was relegated to an open secret for much of her career; she didn’t have a chance to put much down on vinyl while she was with Capitol. When she left, she took advantage of her newfound freedom to make lots of gospel albums for a wide range of labels. Among those was Nashville-based Word Records, for whom she recorded Closer to Jesus in 1977.

These are mostly covers of songs from established gospel artists, including Gary S. Paxton, who produced the album, and Bill Gaither. Paxton wrote “He Was There All the Time.” The violins and steel guitar, engineered to bring out their high frequencies, hardly make for an original sound, but Jackson’s sincere delivery sells the song.


One of Jackson’s last recordings, from 2006, brings her right back around to her starting point. I Remember Elvis (Goldenlane Records) is a tribute to the man who introduced her to rock and roll. Some tracks are written by Jackson on the topic of Elvis, and some are covers of songs the King made famous.

Here’s her version of “Love Me Tender.” Her voice has lost much of its intensity and stability, but the emotional commitment and dramatic phrasing remains.



Still living in Oklahoma City, Jackson suffered a stroke in 2018, which forced her to announce her retirement. But she has since insisted that a duet album with Joan Jett is in the works. Whether that comes to pass or not, no one can take away her crown as the Queen of Rockabilly.

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral

Roy Hall

The bride and groom walked down the aisle to the wedding canopy while the whole orchestra played the wedding march. That is the whole Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the late 1930s my mother-in-law was engaged to a musician. Just before World War Two, she fled to Israel and subsequently married someone else. Her ex-fiancé, Leo, who later arrived in Israel, was a violinist but when the nascent Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was forming, there was a shortage of double bass players and a surfeit of violinists, so he decided to learn the double bass and join the orchestra. Subsequently, his son, Gaby, became a double bass player, joined the orchestra and for a while Leo and Gaby were the oldest and youngest members.

My wife and I moved to Israel in the early 1970s and through my mother-in-law, met Gaby. He is a delightful man, fluent in many languages and a wonderful bass player.

His wedding was in an outdoor catering hall in Ramat Aviv, a suburb of Tel Aviv. We didn’t know what to expect but to our great delight, Zubin Mehta, the conductor and his wife and the whole orchestra were in attendance. Notably, the brass section were mostly non-Israelis. Music was everywhere, making the affair lavish and very jolly. For me, mingling with such musicians was humbling.

At some point individual orchestra members did party tricks with their instruments. Most memorable was the concertmaster who stuck his violin upside down, slid the neck between his knees and played a ditty with his bow.


“Look at that!” squealed the woman on the beach pointing. Her husband, engrossed in The New York Times, slowly regarded the scene. Nonplussed, he returned to his newspaper.

For quite a few years my wife Rita was member of an LGBTQ chorus on Long Island. They mainly chose songs from the Great American Songbook. Their performances were always fun and over the years, the quality of the chorus steadily improved. The choirmaster, Cindy, announced that she was marrying the love of her life, Carrie, and we would be invited to the wedding.

The wedding took place on the beach in Bayville, Long Island. This beach is particularly beautiful. It faces Old Greenwich, Connecticut, and on this evening, the sky was clear, the temperature was perfect and the water was calm and deep blue. A platform had been installed with chairs facing the water. The beach was quite busy with a few bathers sitting nearby. As the sun was setting, the ceremony began. Cindy’s brother, who has a beautiful voice, started singing and then Carrie appeared in a white suit. Shortly after that, Cindy appeared in a matching outfit. This was the “aha” moment that caused the woman to squeal.

This was our first gay wedding and I was curious about the ending of the ceremony when the official says, “I now pronounce you…?”

The answer was, “Married.”


My friend Heinz Lichtenegger, owner of Audio Tuning and Pro-Ject married his wife a few years ago. Jozefina, his bride, is 20 years his junior and is a Slovakian beauty. The wedding was held in a small church near Bad Pirawarth, about 20 miles from Vienna. All his friends from the small villages that surround the area were there. This region, Niederösterreich, is famous for its Grüner Veltliner wine which, if well made, is delightful. Interestingly as you drive around this beautiful countryside on the edge of the Czech Republic, you often come across oil pumps similar to the ones you see dotted around Los Angeles. One of the many reasons Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, in the so-called Anschluss, was to acquire the oil deposits there.

The reception was held in a castle not too far away. Heinz has always had good taste and the food and wine at the affair was of the highest standard. One of the many purveyors was a schnapps maker. His fruit brandies – blackberry, raspberry, pear, plums, blueberries and many more – were so delightful and intense that instead of drinking them right away, I spent a long time just sniffing these delightful liqueurs. This thrilled the owner so much that he kept plying me with more samples.

Many people there were from the Hi-Fi Industry. At one point I sat next to a German distributor who had been actively wooing me for many years. At that time, I was very happy with my German distributor and had no intention of changing. He approached me and said, “Roy, I would like to settle this situation between us, I think we have to achieve a final solution.”

“What?” I yelled, genuinely shocked at this turn of phrase which was used by the Nazis.

He looked at me incredulously and quietly asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I retorted.

At some point, the music started and everyone got up to dance. The tune was the Blue Danube Waltz and to my surprise, everyone started to waltz. In school in Scotland I learned Highland dancing so I guess in Austria, everyone learns to waltz.


My nephew Mischa married his wife in Sonoma, California. For the occasion, my sister Joy and her family had flown in from Israel. My wife and I, my daughter and her boyfriend, my son, and grandson all came and we booked into an Airbnb on the edge of town. It was a lovely sprawling house with a great kitchen. This allowed us to cook feasts from the produce in northern California, which is spectacular. We weren’t too far from the town of Santa Rosa so I made a pilgrimage to the Russian River Brewing Company to sample and then bring home a couple of growlers of Pliny the Elder beer. (This is one of the most storied beers in the US and in my opinion, the effect of drinking a few pints is similar to the high you would get on Quaaludes.)

The outdoor ritual was held in the bride’s father’s home a lavish house set upon acres of land. The sun was just setting as the ceremony began when Riute, a lifelong friend of Mischa, sang the blessings. Riute is a trained opera singer and hearing these ancient prayers sung by a professional was moving even to an old atheist like myself.

The ceremony over, the food arrived. Like everything else the quality of the buffet was impeccable. The star of the evening was quail the size of pigeons. Our host explained that these birds were grown exclusively for the French Laundry in Yountville, one of the top restaurants in the US. That weekend the restaurant was unable to offer them. I don’t know what our host paid but it must have been a lot to finesse them from Thomas Keller, the owner. There was a magic to that evening, something to do with the light, the vows, the garden and the camaraderie of the guests.

The evening ended around a campfire as we listened to music and watched the children play in the dusk.


They met in the forests of Poland.

She and her first husband were fleeing the Nazis and even though they were holding hands, the trees separated them and she never saw him again. She was found by some partisans and joined them. They were fighting the Nazis and her second husband to be was one of them. They survived the war, got married and moved to Australia. Years later they joined their youngest daughter in Israel, bought a house and spent part of the year there. And now, after surviving the holocaust, he was dead, a victim of liver cancer.

My wife and I were visiting Israel shortly after he sickened and managed to see him before he passed away. His daughter, Sally, along with her husband became two of our closest friends when we lived in Israel in the early seventies. Although they moved back to Australia for most of the time we lived there, we maintained a closeness that exists to this day.

In Israel, funerals are held immediately but this one was delayed for a few days because Sally’s sister had to fly in from Australia. There was always tension between Sally and her sister. While she was in transit, the family prepared an obituary to be inserted in The Jerusalem Post, the English language daily. We contributed a little to the text and Sally’s husband made sure that all family members were mentioned. The next morning the newspaper arrived and due to an error, Sally’s sister’s name was omitted. They decided not to show her the paper but, of course, while sitting shiva after the funeral, a ‘friend’ pointed this out and this caused a whole new set of problems.

Caskets are not used in Israel. The body is wrapped in a shroud and buried directly into the ground. As Sally’s father was being interred, his wife, in a fit of melodrama, tried to walk into the grave. Her daughters held her back until the end of the service.

As she was leaving the cemetery, she turned to her daughters, smiled and said, “I was good, wasn’t I?”


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Yeugene.

Let the Good Sounds Roll

Let the Good Sounds Roll

Let the Good Sounds Roll

Ray Chelstowski

When I was growing up having a real car stereo was almost as important as owning a solid home system, maybe more. The radios that came standard with most cars were so horrible in sound and function that a cottage industry developed of stores dedicated only to car stereos and installations. It was as if every automotive manufacturer had thrown in the towel by offering low-quality AM/FM only radios, knowing that anyone who cared about sound would rip them out anyway. I know, I’m writing about a car stereo in Copper, but good car stereos were something to aspire to, not look down upon.

Going into a car stereo store in the 1970s and 1980s was an experience that was entirely different than going to a store with home audio components. For starters, there was no way to replicate the sound of your car’s cabin when auditioning a system in the store. So, radios and speakers were mounted into vast wall displays and you had to take a leap of faith that whatever you heard and liked in the store would sound as good or better in your ride. However, more often than not, because the car interiors were so small the sound would almost always be better once installed in your car than in the showroom.

But car cabins are far from perfect audio environments. Some favor the bass. Some favor the treble. And some just rattled because the interior trim wasn’t what it is today. That said, there was nothing like pulling up to a friend’s house blasting a newly-installed system. This was something to brag about to anyone within driving distance.

I’m reminded of a few car stereos in particular that I’ll always associate with certain bands. The first was an all-Pioneer set up that my brother Brian installed himself in his 1972 Volkswagen “squareback” station wagon (in Sunkist orange). At the time, the model he chose to go with the speakers was at the high end of Pioneer’s product line. He installed some speakers up front along with two rather large ones in the bottom of the rear hatch. He remade the entire cavity where these were mounted, and put insulation between the metal frame and the face plate. This gave the speakers a cozy bottom to their sound.

Nice ride! 1972 Volkswagen “squareback.”

The car would be a regular fixture at summer beach bashes on Long Island Sound. There he would open the hatch wide so that the speakers now faced out and I can remember Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams blasting endlessly. One night it drained the battery dry and we all wondered how it hadn’t happened earlier. Somehow through sheer necessity and beach-side inspiration he and our cousins engineered a way to tap in to an actual power line so that this would never happen again. Back then everyone was at least a little bit handy and resourceful.

For you younger readers, playing music on car stereos at parties was once a pastime as American as baseball. I’m reminded of my late friend Pat. At a high school party one summer weekday night, Pat took us from the party out to the street to hear the new stereo he had installed in his 1982 Ford Fiesta. It was about midnight and he put on Little Feat’s “Fat Man in The Bathtub” from Waiting for Columbus at a volume that had to be at nine out of 10 or higher. The sound was amazing – especially the bottom – and the car didn’t seem to budge at all even though the volume was so high.



As the song unfolded every light in the neighborhood began to turn until a dad who couldn’t sleep and had an early day ahead of him came running out of a house in PJs and a robe, screaming at Pat to turn it down. Pat kept innocently asking “What? I can’t hear you. The music’s too loud!” The next day he was back in the neighborhood cranking the Dixie Dregs like nothing had happened. You can get lost in sound inside a car and Pat often did.

Car stereo cassette systems were everywhere. From Motor Sport, October 1969.

Not every car stereo of the day sounded so good. My friends the Adams brothers co-owned a 1964 Ford Fairlane. It had a little bit of pep because of its inline 6 cylinder engine. But the real muscle came from the way it looked – metallic blue with black rims and silver bullet hubs. The brothers had affixed a state troopers’ ball and whip antenna (used with a CB radio) so it had the look of a mid-1960s Canadian border highway patrol car. Inside, the car stereo was all lights. It was made by Audiovox and when you’d drive at night that little car stereo had so many flashing lights that it looked like you were sitting in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle.

However, that’s where the wonder ended, for as bright and impressive-looking as the display was, the lack of any real power from the system made songs like “Trudy” by The Charlie Daniels Band sound wafer thin. So they decided to add a boost to the system and add an amplifier, also by Audiovox, called “The Sound Exploder,” thinking that such an amp would remedy the weak sound. It had one big square power button and a pilot light. When turned on the only thing that exploded was our laughter over how little it did to change anything. Sometimes even cheap car stereos could create moments you’d never forget. [Are there any readers who had car cassette decks who didn’t have to fish out tapes that were eaten? – Ed.]

I’m something of a classic car collector. I have been fortunate enough to have acquired cars that already had the radios replaced with high-quality units. In my current classic car, a 1986 Porsche 911 Supersport, the prior owner installed what may be the best system I’ve ever seen. It’s at least the best I have ever owned.

Ray’s 1986 Porsche 911 Supersport.

The car came with a Blaupunkt in-dash unit that lasted me about a year. I had to replace it and ended up going with a Sony head unit that is perfectly fine and has modern functions like Bluetooth and Pandora. But what really sets this system apart is the two Butler Audio Tube Driver BLUE TDB 275 power amps under the front hood. Butler Audio is a company specializing in high-end home, pro and car audio vacuum tube gear. Like most tube components, the amps, rated at 2 x 75 watts (into 4 ohms, 250 watts bridged), add incredible power and warmth to the sound.

A “Sowy” car stereo…whaaa? Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When the car is started, the in-dash unit is the only power source. As the tubes warm up the system kicks into gear and the volume jumps by a good 50 percent. This comes through a pair of Focal in-door speakers that have exceptional range and clarity. The sound the system delivers is very full- bodied. Even with a car whose engine can often drown out the conversation between driver and passenger, this blend of components finds a way to cut through and present itself without piercing your ears or feeling like they’re intruding into the space. It’s as close to the warmth and range provided by the best home systems as I have heard. That’s the case whether you are listening to a disc, using Bluetooth, or the radio or a remote digital music source. Lastly, to have tube amps in a car, well in my opinion that‘s just plain cool. It’s old school in so many ways and yet with a functionality that’s very 2020.

Ray’s Butler Audio TDB 275 vacuum tube power amplifiers.

Before I had to replace the Blaupunkt I hadn’t been to a car stereo store in 20 years. They’ve changed. Today, all cars come with really solid radios, and the more expensive the car, usually the more elaborate the stock sound system. They are also pretty well hidden and integrated into a car’s infotainment system – no more banks of Space Shuttle lights. They sound great and better yet – they are impossible to steal.

This mid-1970s Lear car stereo was advertised as theft-proof too.

The evolution of stock car stereos and the move away from aftermarket systems ultimately has caused the car stereo stores that are left to turn to radar and remote starter installations. Everything’s become more block and tackle, and frankly boring. (With one exception: those “sound off” competitions featuring cars loaded with thousands of watts of amplification and multiple huge speakers that create dangerous in-car decibel levels.)

None of this changes the fact that great music, often played at high volume, goes together with cars and summer like ham, eggs, and cheese. It’s perfectly defined in the classic NRBQ tune “Ridin’ In My Car.” That one-on-one experience of singing along with a favorite song played through a custom system in your own car is something entirely red, white, and blue.

There are some memories that only a car stereo can create. Fortunately for me, I have many and expect even more to show up just around that bend in the road.

Images of the Past: On the Road with Nektar

Images of the Past: On the Road with Nektar

Images of the Past: On the Road with Nektar

Ken Sander

Things work out, I’m happy, I have the job as road manager for Nektar, a British progressive rock band, as told in Issue 115. First concert is in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The crew loads in, sets up and the band does a sound check. Not perfect, but acceptable. At showtime the house (concert hall) seems full. After I get the band on stage and the show starts, I mosey over to the sound booth. This is the best place in the house to hear the band (of course that is why they put it there). I’m standing next to Vinnie Schmidt, the front of house sound man and close to Mick Brockett and Pete Lango’s light show control set up.

Nektar. Photo courtesy of Bellaphon Records.

This is my first look at Nektar’s full production. Its big and impressive. Just four musicians (before the later addition of legendary keyboardist Larry Fast of Synergy fame). Roye Albrighton is the lead singer and guitarist. He is talented, a tall handsome presence. A diamond in the rough. With his talent he could play with anyone. Derek “Mo” Moore is on bass and vocals. Mo and Roye are of similar height, which makes for a nice visual balance on stage. Mo plays bass in a very unusual way. He plays it like a guitar, quite different, but it works, and he sings too. On drums and some vocals is Ron Howden and he is just right in the musical mix, a world-class drummer contributing on vocals and putting out a precise rhythm, loud but not overwhelming. On keys is Taff Freeman, the Scottish lad, and he is more than first rate. He strokes a Hammond B3 organ with two Leslie speakers (I love the sound of a B-3 with two Leslies), and sometimes a clavinet and a small synthesizer. Nektar has its own unique sound.

This being the first show on the tour there are more problems than normal, but they are taken in stride. The audience is into the show. The band and Mick’s light show are right on. They handle the little technical breakdowns and play on, unfazed. Between the encores the band make quick adjustments in some timing and music cues and Roye uses a strobe tuner to tune his guitar.

Back in the dressing room after the show the band goes over their miscues and technical mishaps. None of them are upset; it is the first date of the tour and stuff will get worked out. They are seasoned and have been here before. I am standing by taking in the flow of information as some of what is required will fall to me for fixing or for purchasing equipment. This is just for the band; the crew come later and are more detailed in their requests.

Next day is Detroit, just a hundred and sixty miles to the northeast. That night the technical problems are halved. Then we play Minneapolis and now the band is in mid-season form. Next is Kansas City and I have been there before. The off-duty uniformed police in the venue, Memorial Hall, search the audience as they enter and throw all the contraband into a cardboard box. Leather jugs of wine, weed, hash and every kind of powder you can imagine. But no syringes or anything like that. These fans will party, but they are not the street druggie type.

During the show I go to the box office to settle up the payment for the gig. It is a bonded box office, like a bonded messenger, insured and vetted with no chance of funny business so it goes as smoothly as withdrawing money from my own bank account. Then everyone else leaves the box office, telling me they will give me “privacy to do my paperwork.” I am all alone with the cardboard box and I start sifting through it. I see a few things of interest and help myself. This will come in handy to smooth the edges of touring for those who partake. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only road manager given that leeway.)

Ten minutes later I stroll out of the box office and the cops smile at me and say, “see you next time Ken.” “Always a pleasure,” I answer. In fact, I do see them again later down the road. Concert security is a high-paying fun perk, er, gig for off-duty uniformed local law enforcement and the promoter is glad to pay. It is a comfort for him to have the law on his side. I have never heard of a box office being held up and there is often a lot of cash there.

I am starting to get rumbles from Ron Powell, their American manager. There is nothing he can fault me with, but he does not like my relationship with the band. It feels to me that he is expecting a big emotional high-five from Nektar but there is none. Not to say the band does not appreciate him, but he is not there on a day to day basis. It seems like he is jealous of my relationship with Nektar. This is unheard of. It is in the manager’s best interest that the road manager, band and crew get along in order to work well together. It lightens the manager’s load (one less thing to worry about). But Ron does not know anything about band management. He can produce a concert though.

Being on the road is like riding together in a spaceship. Within bands, crew, wives, groupies and girlfriends there is a degree of shifting around. It is not that unusual for a gal to be with someone at one point of the tour and someone else at another. This happens on the road. Look at Fleetwood Mac or the Mamas and the Papas and that just scratches the surface.

I do not want to give the impression that Nektar was a lovey dovey hippie commune. Bands have common goals and that overrides personality issues – until it gets to the point where it doesn’t. Many times, band members must bite their lip and say nothing. ZZ Top has said their longevity is due to having separate tour buses.

Sometimes aggressions come out sideways. There was a story I heard about the drummer for the Jefferson Airplane. Seems that their drummer was allowed a two-minute drum solo the middle of the set. Okay fine, but then their drummer’s solos kept getting longer and longer. The Airplane and Grace Slick talked to him, asking him to keep the solo short at two to three minutes tops, but to no avail. Before long he was averaging around twelve minutes and it was over the top, boring even.

Exasperated, finally the rest of the Airplane had had enough. The next show, when the drum solo started, they all walked off the stage (as usual), but this time the rest of the band left the theater, out the stage door to the alley (the load-in area) behind the theatre, smoked a J and just hung out. They timed it to exactly forty-five minutes and then they walked back on to the stage. The drummer was drained, exhausted, soaking wet with a pool of sweat puddled in a pear-shaped wide circle around the drum kit. He had the look of a dog who had been left out in the rain. No words were ever spoken, but from then on, the drum solos were respectfully short.

An aside: after they break up it is not unheard of a band to reform years later, maybe with some new members. There are many reasons for a successful band to reunite. Some bands owe back taxes. The IRS is responsible for more bands reuniting than any manager, agent and promoter combined. Nektar never had this problem.

Ken (yellow shirt) with the band. Photo courtesy of Tommy Jung.

Later in the tour we are checking into the Holiday Inn on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. A really nice hotel, and our rooms have a view of Lake Michigan. At the same time Alice Cooper and his band are checking out along with Jonny Podell, Alice Cooper’s agent and a friend of mine. Alice (real name, Vincent Furnier) says a quick hi. We know each other from when we were both starting out in Los Angeles. They have a plane to catch so they are in a rush, but Jonny stops long enough to introduce me to two gals, and says, “these are nice girls, not users.” Nice surprise, really nice surprise.

That night the show is presented by JAM Productions, run by Jerry and Arnie, good guys. The concert is in the famous Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. This Deco ballroom is a trip. The clouds in the ceiling are moving, whoa! It was built in 1926 at a cost of 2 million dollars (back then) and was considered one of the most beautiful ballrooms at the time with breathtaking arches, extravagant balconies, and terra cotta ceilings.

Next night we move on to St. Louis and are back at the Ambassador Theatre. KSHE 95, the city’s rock and roll FM radio station, is plugging the show big time and Ron is based there. This is a big money date for Ron as all four shows (two a night) are totally sold out. Thankfully, this is the only time on this tour the group must deal with the grind of doing two shows a night. Security, once again uniformed off-duty cops, give me the same courtesy as their Kansas City brethren. (I know what you are thinking; why would they do that? Methinks it is because I used to be very likable?)

It is an exhausting two nights for the group. The next night is Milwaukee. Then, thankfully there are two days off to fly to Los Angeles where we play the Santa Monica Civic Center. We get precious little rest from there because we have only one travel day to get to Atlanta. Talk about dart board routing! But this is the reality of most tours. It has to do with venue availability and making sure there are no competing acts in town. No one in the business would want two headline acts playing in the same city at different venues on the same night.

After Atlanta we have one travel day to get to Washington DC. Now for a while we are in the northeast and the travel is a bit easier.

Four gigs later we are in New York playing the Academy of Music on 14th Street, just a few blocks from my apartment. Everyone and everybody who is involved with Nektar is there. Nektar’s whole support team (except Ron) is based here in New York while they’re in the States. After the show there’s a celebration party in the dressing room after the show. The promoter is Howard Stein, the big-name New York promoter, and after the show I walk home and finally get to sleep with my wife in my own bed.

This tour is going at warp speed and that is fine, as it is very efficient. It is coming to an end; just a few more concerts for Belkin Productions (in Cleveland and Columbus) and then we finish off with Panther Productions (owned by manager Ron Powell) in Houston. Ron and Mary Ann, his right-hand gal and previous Nektar road manager, bring a cake backstage afterwards. It has been a great tour. Ron made money, and Nektar lived up to expectations and then some. Everyone involved on all levels had a good experience.

Ready to enjoy a cake with a map of Texas at the end of the tour. Photo courtesy of Tommy Jung.


Header image: Roye Albrighton of Nektar. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/BlueBreezeWiki.

Me and the Dead, Part Two

Me and the Dead, Part Two

Me and the Dead, Part Two

Jay Jay French

In response to reader jeffstarr who commented on my Dead article, The Rocky Road to Unlimited Devotion” (Issue 114), he asked why I had to dislike the Dead just because I became infatuated with glam rock.

That is a good question.

In my forthcoming book Twisted Business (to be published by RosettaBooks), I go into greater detail but I will use this column to elaborate.

I am not the first musician, when faced with a huge creative sea change, who has made the decision to make a radical musical change.

Think about this: Sinatra wiped out Bing, Elvis wiped out Sinatra, the Beatles wiped out Elvis (and everything else), disco wiped out rock, punk wiped out “corporate rock,” grunge wiped out hair metal and so on and so on.

The point is that if you were a musician who has a career suddenly stopped in its tracks because of an enormous sociological and commercial sea change, then you are faced with a choice: either get on board or tough it out and hope you can still have a career.

A music-loving consumer doesn’t really have to deal with it except that, as your personal taste changes, so go your buying habits.

I know so many musicians whose livelihoods were affected by these kinds of changes that many of them quit the business rather than get on board with whatever trend was happening.

In my case, I was completely invested in the hippie, drug and Dead culture and I regarded my total turnaround from this life as life-saving. This, of course, was a very personal decision. I didn’t feel the need to turn my back on any other of my favorite artists but the Dead were different. It wasn’t just the music, it was the life they and the music represented. It was something that I felt I just had to do to save myself both in terms of the drug lifestyle and the need to make a musical change. The Dead embodied “the past” and to save myself, I had to walk away. Completely.

The Grateful Dead, 1970. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

No one knows what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. As a “celebrity” we are always under a microscope and I am totally aware that fans and non fans alike parse the statements we make.

It goes with the territory.

I responded to this particular question from jeffstarr because I felt that it did need elaboration. Whether my response makes sense is up to the reader. All I can say is that, as explained, I did what I had to do and I have nothing more to add in this regard.

Bananagun and Khruangbin Take on the World

Bananagun and Khruangbin Take on the World

Bananagun and Khruangbin Take on the World

Wayne Robins

Bananagun: The True Story of Bananagun (Full Time Hobby)

Khruangbin: Mordechai (Dead Oceans)

Bananagun had me won over with their name, a readymade punch line for a mild risqué joke often attributed to the actress Mae West. “Is that a (gun/banana) in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Like the quip, Bananagun, from Melbourne, Australia, does not take itself too seriously. They’re mellow yellow.

Its videos strive for the manic energy of set pieces from the Monkees, or the slightly distorted kaleidoscopic effects of low-budget 1960s psychedelic art. They run around barefoot; they’re funny and silly.

The garage rock roots and mild trippiness of Bananagun is part of its allure. In a brief appraisal in The New Yorker in its “Night Life” section recently, writer Jay Ruttenberg distilled the band to its essence: The group  “bears the hallmarks of one of the sundry sixties acts whose work slipped through the cracks of time, only to be salvaged, decades later, by sharp-eared record collectors.” That’s especially true of the fab opening cut, “Bang Go the Bongos,” which has both escalating Merseybeat harmonies and the clatter of your local high school band’s basement. There are multiple percussionists, two horn players, and myriad people banging things to propel the songs of guitarist and singer Nick Van Bakel.



In other words, Bananagun comes predigested for crate diggers. I am not sure how this record will go over for the substantial audiophile segment reading this: I have listened to The True Story mostly on inexpensive Cyber Acoustics computer speakers, which may account for the “authenticity” of what I’m hearing as their 1960s roots. The musical roots are not just the Aussie-Anglo-American garage sound of the Easybeats, the Australian-band that released the enduring “Friday On My Mind.” The band also leans into the 1960s Brazilian tropicalia of Os Mutantes, and the high-life and Afrobeat of Nigeria’s 20th century musical titan Fela Kuti. You need know nothing about either to appreciate this record.

Bananagun is much a product of cosmopolitan 21st century Melbourne, especially its remarkable radio station, PBS (for Progressive Broadcasting Service). Founded at the dawn of the punk era (1976/1977), its mission statement has been “creating space for little-heard music and underrepresented voices.”

If you’re in the area, you can listen at 106.7 FM, but chances are you’re not in Australia, and you will want to listen online at https://www.pbsfm.org.au/guide. The programming is so deep and diverse that if you listened for a week, you’d probably never hear the same song twice. Aside from a Monday-Friday morning show, every hour or two has a different program. “Curating” is an overused term these days, but you can get a feel for the specialized expertise in each segment from some of the program titles: “Twistin’ Fever,” “Mumbai Masala,” “Boss Action” (not Springsteen, but rare funk and soul), “What the Folk” (or self-described as “world folk whatever that means”), “Riddim Yard.” No matter what the niche, a global mindset is the soul of PBS programming, and the programmer hosts are passionate about honoring the cultural implications of their source material.

These days programs are archived for online access, but when I first started listening to Emma Peel’s show “Switched On” years ago, my children were young and I had to listen low, or with headphones, live at 11 pm on Friday nights. I had the feeling I was listening in real time, since Peel’s specialty and my passion was rare salsa and boogaloo from the late 1960s and early 1970s: Joe Bataan and Johnny Colon, for example, but also hard to find moody grooves from anywhere in the galaxy. (“The usual unusual tunes.”) I dig Horace Silver, for example, but his “Acid, Pot and Pills,” played recently by Peel, is not as familiar to me as “Song for My Father.”

At the time I exchanged emails with Peel a few times, and wrote about her show on my blog, but there was one thing that shook me when I looked at the clock: This music, so spectacularly suited for late Friday night, was running live in Melbourne from 1 pm to 3 pm Saturday afternoon. I am guessing she is much in demand on weekend nights DJ-ing at clubs.

So if you grow up with this musical ecological diversity, no doubt it would seep in to your music organically. That’s why Bananagun’s music sounds so unforced. “Freak Machine” mixes some Afrobeat guitar and funk rhythms, but the sound it evokes to me is what might accompany folkloric Ghanaian movie posters. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190313-incredible-ghanaian-film-posters. These posters often advertised bootlegged versions of Hollywood action movies (Sly Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Charles Bronson) that the artist had not even seen. By using the title and iconography of the stars, the artists were free to improvise: In a poster for Jurassic Park, a man is taking a golf swing at a dinosaur.



This is the world of imagination that Bananagun, at its best, inhabits: “Modern Day Problems” finds its way into the Secret Agent Man TV theme, while “People Talk Too Much” is an instrumental interrupted occasionally by a line of singing. The samba pop “Out of Reach” and the flute swing of “Perfect Stranger” offer a hint of summer romance, while “Bird Up!” has lots of bird sounds. Real birds, from Van Bakel’s country house.


Not so coincidentally, the first week of July PBS Melbourne featured Mordechai, the new album by Texas trio Khruangbin (pronounced “krung-bin”). The bands are almost mirrors of one another. Khruangbin also digs that birds live in their song “Father Bird, Mother Bird.” For both bands, the bird is the word.

Khruangbin’s musical fetish is for the Thai rock of the 1960s and 1970s. Though it takes its name from the Thai word for airplane, the trio comes from the smallest of small town Texas: a dot on the map called Burton, population about 300, incorporated as a city about 80 miles from Houston. The trio of Laura Lee (bass and vocals), Mark Speer (guitar), and Donald “DJ” Harrison (drums) met singing gospel in church, which is highly likely, since there does not seem to be any other place in Burton in which to meet: A blow-up of Burton on an online map showed a Baptist church to be about the only named building in the city limits, with another Baptist church just outside. Their Texas bona fides are so solid that despite the global percussion and Thai guitar influence, “Mordechai” is included in an Americana Highways poll for readers to choose the best album of the month. They’re on the list with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Steve Wynn, Sarah Jarosz and John Hartford.

Previous albums have been mostly instrumental. “Mordechai” is also instrument-first, though there are more vocals led by Laura Lee. On “If There is No Question,” the vocals are just another sound deep in the mix. The dreamlike “Dearest Alfred” sounds like a letter written in artificial intelligence version of another language translated into English, with odd syntax: “Can you imagine my joy? I received your wonderful letter.”

Khruangbin also draws on European movie soundtracks (“Connaissais de Face”); “One to Remember” is a kind of floating dub reggae, not unusual for this band which in 2019 released Hasta el Cielo, an entire dub version of its Con Todo El Mundo album. Both records reinforce the essential presence of Laura Lee’s bass guitar. The Tex-Mex regional roots on the new album are evident in “Pelota,” and you can imagine that if there was one restaurant in Burton, it might be Tex-Mex-Thai fusion. Or at least in their Houston neighborhood.



There are times, as with the largely instrumental New Orleans band Galactic, that they might thrive in a more formal situation as full partners with a singer-songwriter. Khruangbin did that earlier in 2020 on an EP called Texas Sun with Lone Star singer-songwriter Leon Bridges. The title song is the best thing either has recorded: it has that crisp, desert border sound of the band Calexico. Though Bridges clearly drives the song “Texas Sun,” the tune “C-Side” has Bridges working hard to work his phrasing around Khruangbin’s unpredictable beat and exotic sounds. Whatever the style, Khruangbin is both distinctive and adaptable, comfortable in a world of its own.

Talking with Carl Marchisotto of NOLA Loudspeakers

Talking with Carl Marchisotto of NOLA Loudspeakers

Talking with Carl Marchisotto of NOLA Loudspeakers

Frank Doris
Carl Marchisotto is the president of Holbrook, NY-based Accent Speaker Technology, manufacturers of NOLA loudspeakers. Before then, Marilyn and Carl owned Acarian Systems, makers of Alon speakers, and Carl worked for Dahlquist and others. NOLA offers loudspeakers for stereo and multichannel listening. Available in a variety of finishes, NOLA models range from the $2,500 per pair Boxer 3 compact speaker to the flagship Grand Reference VI Gold, a $450,000 system featuring two main and two subwoofer towers plus two external crossover units with isolation platforms.
NOLA Grand Reference VI Gold.
Frank Doris: How did you get started in audio? Was it before you joined Dahlquist? Carl Marchisotto: It was a love of music that got me interested in its reproduction. I studied piano for 12 years and my father played violin. My mother brought me to the old Metropolitan Opera House often. I became used to the sound of live music at an early age. I became fascinated with loudspeakers while in high school. I built a pair of 12-cubic-foot bass reflex enclosures to go with Whiteley Stentorian 12 inch coaxial drivers. Fortunately my Dad was into woodworking, which made this possible. In the late 1960s I worked as an engineer for Fairchild Defense. After hours, while at home, I developed a musical effects device that could sustain guitar notes. We showed it to Gibson and they bought it. They named it the Maestro Sustainer. I then left Fairchild in 1971 to start All Test Devices with my wife Marilyn and another partner to produce the Sustainer for Gibson, in addition to other musical effects devices. I also developed the All Test Phono Preamp model ATD 25 and this product got me closer to reproducing music – my first love. We later sold our company to my partner and in 1976 I joined Dahlquist.
An early-version Maestro Sustainer.
FD: Can you give us a rundown of your time at Dahlquist? How were you involved in new product development and speakers like the DQ-20? CM: Dahlquist was a one-product company at the time I joined it. I developed all the products that came after the original DQ-10 loudspeaker, including the mirror-image and mylar cap kits. (The earlier DQ-10s had drivers that were in the same orientation regardless of whether the speaker was used for the left or right channel. Carl’s revision oriented the speaker drivers in matched, mirror-image pairs, which improved imaging and soundstaging. – FD) I developed two lines of enclosure-type loudspeakers encompassing some eight models in the M Series and the M900 Series. I was there for 15 years and developed the DQ-8, DQ-12 and DQ-20i in the open-baffle range. Then unfortunately Jon had an automobile accident which left him debilitated and the company was sold.
Dahlquist DQ-20.
I remember two great things about working at Dahlquist. One: Jon gave me free rein in developing products so I was able to investigate the sound of many materials and techniques for use in loudspeakers. Two: the great Saul Marantz. I could listen to his experiences and advice all day long – he was that spellbinding. Dahlquist became a totally different company when the corporate types (aka The Suits) took over. They told me which tweeter I had to use and that it could cost $7 max! They only saw cost, with sound quality second. FD: What made you decide to leave and start Acarian Systems, later Accent Speaker Technology? CM: The new management and I were not a good fit, to say the least. I convinced them to pay me full salary and benefits for nine months if I left. They agreed. I used the time off to develop a new loudspeaker. Marilyn and I formed Acarian Systems to produce it. We named it the Alon IV. There was also a third partner involved in Acarian. Over time this third partner became more and more greedy – until it became impossible to continue – and this caused Marilyn and me to leave Acarian Systems.
Alon IV.
In 2004, Marilyn and I left to form Accent Speaker Technology, with the brand name NOLA. Even though we owned all the rights to all the Alon designs and technology, this third partner in Acarian sued us anyway. The new company, Accent Speaker, is family-owned, with no outside corporate interests and no partners to answer to. It continues this way today.
Marilyn and Carl Marchisotto.
FD: You’ve always been a proponent of drivers, specifically tweeters and midrange drivers, mounted in open enclosure-less baffles. Why? CM: I prefer the open baffle design for midrange drivers and tweeters because this provides a sound that is closest to the sound of live music. The difference in sound is not subtle. Many times at shows, visitors told us they came into our room because of the sound they heard in the hallway – outside our demo room. However, since there is no rear air load on the driver to control the driver, as in a box speaker, special drivers are required. These turn out to be more expensive, but worth it to my ear. In addition, there is no way to completely absorb a driver’s rear wave in a box speaker, and so the delayed rear radiation is reflected back through the cone, and this colors the sound.
NOLA Concert Grand Reference Gold 2.
FD: What is your philosophy on crossover design? CM: We have our own topology, which we developed. We named it Unison. Except for some subwoofer applications, I do not agree with using 24 dB/octave slopes for bass, midrange or high frequencies. This is due to the deleterious effects of such a slope to the transient response and efficiency of the system. We also do not agree with the very shallow 6 dB/octave crossover slopes. FD: What do you like for driver materials? I know you’re a big fan of alnico magnets. We use Alnico-magnet systems in our best drivers, despite the high cost, because they provide the most lifelike sound. However, they are too large to use in the True Ribbon tweeters used in the Reference models, so we use high-grade neodymium for the ribbons instead. Our best speakers use metal cone woofers, coated paper cone midrange drivers and aluminum True Ribbon tweeters. Our less-costly models use silk dome tweeters. When developing the Gold series of our Reference loudspeakers, we decided to gold-plate the copper phase plugs for cosmetic reasons. Much to our surprise, the gold plating improved the sound of the solid copper phase plugs! We continue to gold-plate them. FD: What do you think sets NOLA speakers apart? I think what sets NOLA apart is that my goal is to duplicate the experience, at home, of listening to the live event. Naturally the more ambitious models come closer to achieving this goal. But even with the Boxer 3, our least-costly model, I have spent a great deal of time listening and optimizing the sound during its development. I listen to everything that affects sound – including types of adhesives (we use different ones in different places), types of rubber, fastening devices, component mounting techniques, and cabinet materials and finishes, in addition to the usual list of things like drivers, crossover components, solder and speaker terminals.
NOLA Boxer 3.
All models including the Boxer 3 are hand-built, hard-wired without printed circuits or current limiting devices, and use lead-free silver-soldered joints throughout. All products are built to customer order – not from stock. FD: What are some memorable moments you can tell us about? CM: Listening to Saul Marantz at Dahlquist telling me about the time he told Sid Smith how to get the phono noise down on the Marantz Model 7 preamplifier. Saul had this gift of asking a few questions and then being able to reduce a complex issue to a more fundamental one, wherein the solution to a problem became apparent. It is not that Saul told the engineers what to do, but instead, that he created an environment where his interaction allowed the engineer to perform at his best. I can still hear the unmistakable sound of the “clink” from Saul’s Zippo lighter. Listening together with the late great Harry Pearson – he was only interested in the sound produced and not by what or who made it. And if he was not happy, he would have no problem in letting you know. He was usually right. Fortunately, he always seemed to like what I designed. He was gifted in not only what he heard but also in being able to describe the sound in words in such a way that resonated with readers. During the Acarian days, in conjunction with the late beloved Victor Goldstein tribute to Victor in Issue 111>, Victor made arrangements so that he and I were able to set up and to demonstrate the Alon V loudspeaker to the orchestra members of the New York Philharmonic. I remember one of the orchestra members saying to me, after the demo, “I cannot believe that I can now hear the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin.” This unexpected comment meant a great deal to me. FD: That must have been gratifying! CM: Then there was the time at Dahlquist I had a big shot from our German driver manufacturer ask me at CES as I was taking a speaker apart, “Is it broken?” “No,” I said, “just modifying it.” I had not finished the design of a new model before it was time to ship it to CES. I had not decided whether I liked the sound with the brace installed. So I glued in the brace and shipped it to the show. As it turned out I did not want the brace, so at CES I was wielding a hammer at the cabinet – bang bang, bang! – just as the big shot guest walked in! Once at Dahlquist Jon got the bright idea that we should line a cabinet with black top for damping the inside of the walls. So we followed a black top truck through the neighborhood and got them to give us a pail of black top. We then brought it to Jon’s kitchen and microwaved it! Well, he was the boss! What a mess and a smell! Not good! We never did get to listen to it. Then there was another time at Dahlquist when we were developing the DQ-1W subwoofer. Jon decided that the Marchisotto’s apartment had the best bass characteristics, so we had to do all the listening in that apartment, much to my wife’s surprise. Jon, not known for quick decisions, had us build 16 different subwoofer designs – all brought to our small apartment on the second floor. The net result, after we managed to knock all the glasses out of the next door lady’s china closet, was that she threatened to call the police! I guess she was not an audiophile. At Acarian we once shipped about 15 pairs of Alon I speakers to our Thailand distributor. Only one problem: our manufacturing partner forgot to glue in place the bottoms of all the cabinets, so once the speakers got to Thailand all the bottoms fell out. The irresponsible partner’s response was, “so send them some screws.” Needless to say we lost the distributor. FD: Even before the COVID-19 crisis, some brick and mortar dealers were struggling. How has NOLA been handling the situation? Any plans to sell direct, or maybe do a combination of online and retail? CM: We do offer direct sales to our customers in areas where there is no dealer nearby. FD: Anything else you’d like to add? CM: I think there is a fundamental difference between NOLA and other speaker manufacturers. As I mentioned, I have had a consistent goal for the sound of our speakers to re-create the live sound experience in the home. This concept has followed me through more than three companies, dating back from before the Dahlquist DQ-10 up to the NOLA Grand Reference VI Gold. I think the most important consideration in buying a loudspeaker is if you agree with the designer, in the same way that you agree with the chef when choosing a restaurant. I think product reviews may be more important now than ever. This is because there are now fewer local dealers for a customer to visit and audition the product in person. Sadly, there seems also to be fewer reviews that describe the sound of the product in such a way that reading the review would give a potential buyer the critical information he or she seeks. FD: Is there anything new on the horizon you can tell us about? Any big surprises in the works? CM: The most exciting new development at NOLA is our Studio Grand Reference Gold 2. I was very happy and excited to hear that the prototype performed as I had envisioned. The soundscape was huge in a relatively small room with images that suspended out in front of and behind the speaker into a 3-dimensional palpable space. Using just one exotic super-Alnico bass driver, bass response has been extended to 28Hz. We hope to share this experience of the Studio Grand Reference Gold 2 at the next live audio show.
NOLA Studio Grand Reference Gold 2.
We’d like to close this interview with a comment from Marilyn Marchisotto, Carl’s wife of 52 years: Like some of our great music composers, there is no doubt that Carl has that gift for hearing the music in his head before his design is even put down on paper. He has often discussed a design he’s had in his head with me, and that he just knows the speakers will make the same musical sounds once they’re built. And much to my astonishment, he always succeeds. Our family is so proud of his work and dedication to his passion for music. Over the years, he has shared this passion with me and has passed down this passion to his daughters as well. Accent Speaker Technology, Ltd. 1511 Lincoln Avenue Holbrook, NY 11741 631-738-2540 info@NolaSpeakers.com www.nolaspeakers.com Header image: NOLA Announcer 2, center channel speaker.

Audio Shows 101: What to Expect As A First-Timer

Audio Shows 101: What to Expect As A First-Timer

Audio Shows 101: What to Expect As A First-Timer

Rudy Radelic

A guide for newbies to make the most of the audio show experience.

Since audio shows have been sidelined for the year, I felt it might be a good time to offer some of our readers an overview of a typical show, and what to expect from one. After all, they’ll return someday. There are common misconceptions about these shows, which I hope to dismiss by pointing out the many reasons I attend.

Roll back the calendar to the early 2010s. One of my pals in Chicago was telling us about the audio show he had attended. In subsequent years, he would pester me about attending this show (AXPONA) since I live less than five hours away—an easy drive. In 2016, it was time. I made a reservation at a hotel about ten minutes away from the Westin O’Hare where AXPONA was being held, purchased a three-day pass online, and attended the show.

This wasn’t my first trip to an audio show, but it had been almost four decades since I had attended anything similar. As a teenager, my father had learned of a show near where we lived, and we went.  I can’t remember the exact year, but I bought a half-speed mastered copy of John Klemmer’s Touch from a little upstart audiophile label named Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. The following year, a similar show took place downtown at Cobo Hall, our local convention center (now TCF Center). Following that, no other shows came up on our radar.

We did, however, make yearly visits to the Detroit Auto Show and upon experiencing AXPONA for the first time, the show environment felt familiar enough to me that I didn’t feel out of place. Despite the difference in products, the shows do share some similarities – bright lights and shiny things, large gatherings of enthusiasts, hopeful sales representatives making a pitch, even the lukewarm overpriced convention food and drink.

Since then I have made a point to visit AXPONA every year (this year excepted). It has grown to become one of the country’s major audio shows and is the only one that caters to our part of the US. Prior to our current travel restrictions, I also had plans to attend this year.

Many audio enthusiasts are indifferent to these shows or, for whatever reason, are against them, especially those people who have never attended one! I felt it would give an interesting perspective to tell everyone why I like to attend, and to note that I get a lot more out of these shows than looking at expensive shiny things! I am not a full-blown “industry insider,” so I approach a show differently than someone who attends multiple shows per year.

Expect to see a lot of rooms, like this Luxman Audio display. Photo by Harris Fogel, New York Audio Show, November 2019.

Reasons for Attending

First, why go? One factor is that AXPONA is the only major show that takes place within driving distance for me. But the bigger picture is that an audio show gives me the opportunity to experience brands I would otherwise never have a chance to see. Throughout the 1980s, a buddy and I used to travel up Woodward Ave. and visit the four audio stores located among Royal Oak and Birmingham, Michigan, stopping at a record store or two along the way. We’d get a good idea of what was new and exciting and became familiar with many of the brands available. Today, there are fewer retail stores, spread much farther apart and carrying fewer brands. An audio show replaces those lost experiences with brands I can only read about otherwise.

Second, I go to audition specific brands and models. I may read about a component that interests me, and in many cases will be able to hear it, or a similar model, at the show. If not, I still have the opportunity to speak with company representatives or in some cases, the company owner(s) or founder(s), some of whom are legendary. I tend to buy most of my components used, but a favorable impression at the show will inform future purchases, and I may end up buying that model years down the road. Some manufacturers’ products also have a “sound” to them, and an audition of their current lineup helps me get a feel for that.

Some of the exhibit rooms are large, like this one featuring VAC, Von Schweikert and Esoteric at Capital Audio Fest 2019.

I realize that many audiophiles complain about the sound of the rooms at the shows. They are correct – the sound can be variable. Some rooms are poorly set up, while other manufacturers pay much more attention to the inflexibilities of the room and apply room treatment and other techniques so they don’t sound quite as bad. I don’t go to a show to judge ultimate sound quality. Instead, I can get a feel for some of the equipment’s finer qualities, which is sometimes enough to motivate me to seek out a proper audition.

The third reason I attend is to get ideas to bring home and apply to my own system. If an accessory or interconnects make an impression on me, for instance, I might investigate a similar improvement at home. Even such details as room treatments and speaker placement are not lost on me – there is nothing so challenging as properly setting up a room at an audio show, and very few of us have dedicated rooms at home for listening, so seeing how other people do it is enlightening.

A fourth reason is to attend the lectures and demonstrations. While many don’t interest me, I do earmark some of them to visit if they are helpful or feature an industry figure I am interested in learning more about. One of the most informative lectures I attended was a seminar on room treatment by Bob Hodas of Bob Hodas Acoustic Analysis – it taught me a few new concepts and reinforced those I already practiced.

A fifth reason to attend an audio show, and the highlight for some, is the vendor marketplace. Many audiophile and used-vinyl dealers set up areas where attendees can browse and purchase recordings. Others sell accessories like cables and interconnects, isolation devices, vinyl cleaning systems, room treatments, and even furniture. A few vendors sell at full list price, but others will often offer a show discount and will extend that discount to online orders placed during a time period after the show ends.

The Marketplace at a recent AXPONA. Photo by Rudy Radelic.

Outside the marketplace, some of the manufacturers will have show specials, and a few of them sell off their demo components at a discount so they do not have to haul or ship them back home. Even if it appears nothing is on sale, ask! It might be a good way to break the ice and make yourself a sweet deal on something new for your system. Budget some extra funds if you are looking for a new component. Even if you don’t find something to bring home, if you can get a good deal at the show and leave a deposit to get your order in, you are ahead of the game.

Finally, an audio show is all about the networking, one of the most important parts for me. I like making contact with industry members. I also enjoy the company and camaraderie of friends and other audiophiles, especially those I may have only known before as a screen name on an internet forum.  In addition to my Chicago pals (and a few others who might find their way to Chicago), members of our local audio club and their friends attend AXPONA. We often go out to dinner after the show or will hang out in one of the exhibit rooms if they stay open after official show hours (often loosely enforced if at all). If there is a live performance we are interested in, we might attend that. At most audio shows, some rooms host after-hours listening parties (which I unfortunately have missed). Rumor has it that the cocktail lounges at the hotels stay active into the wee hours of the morning, with the libations pouring freely. [These rumors are correct. – Ed.]

A Few More Thoughts

One thing that bothers some audiophiles is the cost of the equipment. They feel that since just about everything is out of their reach financially, why bother going to a show to listen to components they can never afford? However, they just might be missing out on the benefits I have listed. Browsing manufacturers’ websites and scouring US Audio Mart and Audiogon might be something they can do on their computers, but they miss out on socializing and interacting with others. Our hobbies are very personal to us, and we approach the idea of being audiophiles in many ways; yet it’s helpful to all of us if we congregate and share our experiences.

The Haniwa booth at the New York Audio Show, November 2019.

Should you bring a spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or significant other to the show? You may be smitten with them, but make sure they are smitten with your music and your hobby before bringing them along. It is not hard for a companion to get bored on a trip like this. Maybe an hour or two is fascinating for them, but three long days can be a bit much. If it’s a big city like Chicago, sure, maybe they’ll tag along so they can explore the city while we audiophiles spend time at the show.

I would also offer similar advice for bringing older children with you. If they have an interest in music and a curiosity about how music is reproduced, by all means bring them. Seeing and hearing so many good systems might spark their own interest in this hobby and break the habit of using earbuds and smartphones for music listening. If they take interest in the headphone gear (and most shows have dedicated exhibit areas for headphones), leave them there for a while to explore the many products available. And again, if they want to spend one day at the show and the rest of the time exploring the surrounding city, let them do it. But contrary to the stereotypes, these shows are not exclusively the domain of aging, greying middle-aged men. I have increasingly seen younger attendees at AXPONA in the few years I have attended. [I’ve seen this at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF), Capital Audio Fest, CanJam and other shows as well – Ed.]

Most audio shows have an area dedicated to headphones. Photo by Rudy Radelic.

Are accommodations expensive? On average, I would say they are affordable, in the sense that a nice, clean hotel room probably starts at around $100 per night (Manhattan excluded!), most of those having a complimentary breakfast included. There may be rooms available where the show is held, but they usually get booked up first by the exhibitors with maybe a small amount left over. If you are lucky enough to find one, expect to pay a hefty premium over the rooms at surrounding hotels. For AXPONA, there are enough hotels nearby in Schaumburg to find something affordable and within walking distance. At RMAF, you can find something a mile or two away.

To make the most of your time, plan ahead. Get there an hour before the show opens on the first day, in order to get your ticket, wristband and/or badge. Use your program and prioritize what you want to see. Make note of any seminars or product demonstrations and plan your schedule around them. If you want time in a less-crowded room, try to plan your visits to those rooms earlier or later in the day.  For lunch, plan on mediocre, overpriced hotel restaurant or convention center food. Some prefer to eat off-premises, but that eats up a lot of time and I feel that I can eat out 365 days of the year, but can only attend an audio show for only a couple of days per year. I’ll suffer the culinary delights of convention food, thank you.

It goes without saying that you should dress appropriately. Not necessarily business casual, but showing up in a tank top, cut-off shorts and flip-flops is not conducive to having your peers and especially the company representatives take you seriously. But also, dress appropriately for the city itself. It could be hot or cold outside (welcome to March in Chicago – I’ve seen everything from 82 degrees to a snowstorm on the show weekend), but the rooms themselves are going to be quite warm considering the equipment and amount of people inside. Most importantly, wear some comfortable walking shoes.  If you attend a show for the entire weekend, you will be walking the hallways for miles, taking the stairs instead of the crowded elevators, or standing in busy demo rooms.

But most of all, have fun! That’s what it is all about. Enjoy the music, revel in the sound, socialize, and make the most of a show made just for us – the audiophiles of the world.

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Frank Doris

"I call shotgun!" We can guess what's on that iPod: "Tears of a Clown," "Send in the Clowns," "Cathy's Clown," "Everybody Loves a Clown," "Death of a Clown" and a whole bunch of Insane Clown Posse albums. Photo by reader Michael Walker.

Four Solid Hits!

Four Solid Hits!

Four Solid Hits!

Tom Gibbs

Sophia Portanet  Freier Geist

Sofia Portanet is of Spanish and German descent, but she grew up in Paris, and she sings with perfect ease in both French and German. Although, the songs destined to be the “hits” on this side of the pond are sung in English, which she also manages with ease and effectiveness (they were sung in German initially). The first few singles from the album have been released in Europe over the course of the last year, but her first album, Freier Geist (Free Ghost) makes its American (and worldwide) debut this month. Her striking take on post-punk and synth-pop are part of what’s being hailed on the European continent as a rebirth of the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave), and the music is definitely reminiscent of the kind of sounds we were hearing in the late-seventies into the mid-eighties from groups on both sides of the Atlantic. She’s been tagged as “Germany’s next big pop star” in the German music press and by the BBC.

The entire record maintains a high level of energy throughout from the totally propulsive drumbeat of the opener, “Free Ghost.” It’s her English-language version of the eponymous title hit, and is more a clever play on words about Sofia being a free spirit rather than an actual ghost. The frenetic pace continues with “Menschen und Machte” and “Wanderratte” (Wandering Rat), which is accompanied by a very cool “behind the wheel”-type video. On “Planet Mars” — which has been prepped as the first single stateside — she wails in a way that Nina Hagen could only dream about back in the day; her vocal histrionics have also been favorably compared to Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of the B-52s. The album is mostly a rapid-fire mix of guitars and synths, along with Sofia’s ever-changing vocalizations, but slows it down a bit for the synth-heavy final two tracks, “Ringe” (Rings), and the album’s closer, her version of the classic “Racines” — sung in French — is an anthemic ballad that blew me away with its majesty and grandeur.

Freier Geist is probably the best post-punk, synth-pop album I’ve heard since forever, or at least since the eighties. In fact, if it were still the eighties, I’m sure this album would be all over MTV and in the mix along with all the heavy hitters of the day! All my listening was done with Qobuz’s 24/44.1 stream, and the sound quality was exemplary. There’s nothing really groundbreaking here, but this is a really fun album, and has a really snappy, poppy sensibility to most of the songs that helps to make it such a joyful listen. And Sofia Portanet definitely has the eighties’ big hair down pat. Very highly recommended!

Duchess Box Records, CD (available for pre-order) (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Bandcamp, YouTube)

Margo Price  That’s How Rumors Get Started

Margo Price was completely off my radar until about a year ago when I happened to catch her performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert of the song “A Little Pain,” from her album All American Made. She was dressed in a sequined micro-mini dress that accentuated her every move under the spotlights — she was an absolute vision of loveliness, and her smoky/sultry, kittenish vocal stylings (think maybe an updated, countrified version of Stevie Nicks?) were damn-near irresistible. I’d suggest checking out this video performance to get a feel for how Margo Price was able to command the stage and the room; unfortunately, it’s been taken down everywhere on the internet, except at Stephen Colbert’s site, where you have to scroll through the entire show to get to her performance. Still, a very rewarding watch and listen. Her style is kind of alt-country/Americana, and her band was cracking, to say the very least — I tracked down the video online and watched it several, several times following the live performance. It really grabbed my attention, and All American Made definitely moved into my regular rotation on Qobuz for months afterwards.

For her new album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, Margo Price has a new record label, and has obviously decided to give  her music a slightly harder edge. And she’s teamed up with alt-country’s bad boy Sturgill Simpson — who, until his last album, at least — I totally loved. He kind of went off the rails for me with his latest, Sound and Fury, but I can’t begin to tell you how many folks (especially Copper readers!) felt it was his best work. Anyway, he’s assumed the production chores here, and he’s actually managed to meld a very interesting mix of Margo Price’s often angelic vocal style with his new-found, aggressively rock-and-roll meets and crushes-the-life-out-of-country music style he seems to have recently become enamored with. His production is shockingly spot-on — mostly — and only gets a bit over the top on a couple of tunes. Regardless, the album is definitely a move away from the alt-country leanings of her first few albums, following a path that’s much more in the realm of southern rock. As the final touches were about to be put on the album early this spring, the pandemic broke out, and Margo Price’s husband, guitarist Jeremy Ivey, was diagnosed with COVID-19. He’s okay now, but that delayed the album’s release until now.

The title track opens and leads off with a stylish piano figure by none other than former Heartbreaker Benmont Tench; he adds his incredible artistry throughout the proceedings. The track chronicles an encounter with an ex of Price’s, who, it would appear, is nothing but bad news and can’t keep his mouth shut: “Word travels faster than a whisper in the wind, Now all the birds are flyin’ south, Black hawks and doves, we are at it once again, And you’re talkin’ out of both sides of your mouth.” One of the record’s real highlights and the album’s true centerpiece is “Hey Child,” which is kind of a gospel/country/soul (but hard-driving) tune that deals with someone who’s really down on their luck. It’s an anthemic song that’s propelled by massed keyboards and crunching guitars, along with a powerful backing chorus from the Nashville Friends Gospel Choir — it’s a powerhouse of a song. In contrast, it’s followed by “Heartless Mind,” which is a synth-pop kind of ditty that almost feels like it might have sprung from the eighties; I’m sure Sturgill Simpson probably has one of his Manga-esque videos already lined up for this one!

All my listening was done with the 24/48 Qobuz stream, which, while a tad compressed, actually sounded pretty incredible. Despite being stylistically all over the place, this is a really good record, and among the best alt-country/southern rock records I’ve heard all year. I’d definitely place Margo Price’s That’s How Rumors Get Started in the same ranks alongside works by artists like Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, or Lucinda Williams — it’s that good! Highly recommended.

Loma Vista Recordings, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

Gerald Clayton  Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard

Four-time Grammy nominated pianist Gerald Clayton has been steeped in jazz traditions since his childhood; as the son of jazz legend, bassist, and composer John Clayton, his musical training began early at home. He continued his education at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he earned a Presidential Scholar of the Arts award. Later, his studies continued at the USC Thornton School of Music, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree under piano icon Billy Childs. Which was then followed by a year of intensive study at the Manhattan School of Music with none other than pianist extraordinaire Kenny Barron. In 2006, Clayton placed second in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz piano competition. His 2010 debut recording, Two Shade, was nominated for a Grammy; that happened again with his compositions and recordings that followed in each of the next three years. He’s currently the musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour, and  he’s performed and recorded with artists as diverse as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, John Scofield, and Charles Lloyd, to name a few. Quite the resume, to say the least!

Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard marks Gerald Clayton’s debut on the Blue Note label, and the recording revolves around quintet and trio settings that utilize players from some of Clayton’s past albums and sessions he’s taken part in. The lineup includes bassist Joe Sanders, and also features saxophonists Logan Richardson (alto sax) and Walter Smith III (tenor sax). The newcomer is drummer Marcus Gilmore, who makes his first recorded appearance with Clayton here. The group spent six days at the legendary Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City, where tapes rolled for two sets each day; I didn’t have a physical copy of the disc available to me, and no amount of research on the internet could help me determine the actual dates of the recording sessions. Although it’s pretty easy to guess that they had to be prior to the onset of the pandemic; it’s no big deal, but I still found it very interesting that no one seems to have clearly marked the dates of the recordings — at least at this point. Anyway, the best takes were culled from the twelve sets during the group’s week-long residence at the iconic club to create the album release.

The seven tunes are scattered throughout the generous 75-minute runtime of the session, so there are definitely some extended takes with plenty of room for all the players to stretch out. And you get a really great sense of just what an amazingly talented pianist Gerald Clayton is. Among the quintet settings, four of the tunes are Clayton originals. The set opens with the 10-minute “Patience, Patients,” where the horns introduce the main theme, then step out at points where Clayton delivers very deliberate piano solos, accompanied by only bass and drums; the intimate interplay between Clayton, bassist Sanders and Gilmore’s drums and excellent brush work has an almost “chamber jazz” feel. You immediately get a good sense of his ability to set the stage for his accompanists, as his second solo segues into a beautiful, but challenging, tenor solo by Walter Smith. “Envisionings” is a rhythmically inventive blues that starts with a calmingly modal Clayton solo, that eventually blends into the full band, offering plenty of room for dynamic soloing between both altoist Richardson and Smith’s tenor. The first of the two trio settings include a propulsive version of Bud Powell’s “Celia,” where the three players push each other into a really swinging rendition of the tune. And in deference to the wishes of the longtime matriarch of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon (who always insisted that each artist performing in the club play at least one standard in every set), Clayton and company honor her intentions here with an emotional trio reading of the classic “Body and Soul.” The set closes with a quintet offering of the Duke Ellington classic “Take the Coltrane,” where Clayton’s trio sets the mood, just in time for the excellent horn section to come crashing in.

The sound quality of the 24/96 Qobuz stream is, quite simply, superb; this is one of the best sounding jazz recordings — or of any genre, for that matter — I’ve heard in a very long time. That said, I do have a very small quibble; there are so many classic recording sessions from the Village Vanguard by the likes of Bill Evans and John Coltrane, among many, and it’s the seemingly archetypical setting for live jazz recordings. Made famous by spacious, atmospheric recordings like Bill Evans’ classic Sunday at the Village Vanguard, but the sound here — while otherwise excellent — is a little flat, and lacking in front-to-back depth of field. Everyone just seems a bit squeezed on the stage, and there are few of the ambient cues that are so in abundance in so many classic recordings from the venue. Which the near-holographic imaging of my Magneplanar loudspeakers tend to give you in spades — the magic that this group produced live is not quite all there on the recording — my guess is that it’s a microphone placement problem, which seems really odd for a venerable jazz label like Blue Note. Regardless, if you have any appreciation for jazz music that’s on the more adventurous side, you’d be hard pressed to find more rewarding sessions than those contained here. Highly recommended.

Blue Note Records, CD (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)

Gillian Welch  All the Good Times Are Past and Gone

I’m  a huge fan of Gillian Welch, and when I first got wind of this upcoming release about a month ago, I was beyond excited, as their last album, 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest surely ranks among their very best recordings. And nine years is a heck of a long time between releases, for anyone! Of course, those of you who are also among the faithful realize that “Gillian Welch” is the name that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have chosen to perform under since Revival, their 1996 debut. And yes, they’re an item, although they prefer not to focus on their personal relationship, and just let their inimitable style of Americana and Appalachian folk music do all the talking.

The new album is All the Good Times Are Past and Gone, and surprisingly, it’s a covers album, recorded at their home studio, and includes their remarkable takes on tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Prine, Elizabeth Cotten, and Norman Blake. Three Welch/Rawlings arrangements of traditional folk tunes are also included, along with a rousing version of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” thrown in for good measure. And in an interesting and unexpected move, David Rawlings, whose tenor voice melds perfectly in harmony with Welch’s alto on almost all of their songs, takes the vocal lead on several of the tracks.

Opening with a plaintive rendition of Elizabeth Cotton’s “Oh Babe, It Ain’t No Lie,” you’re immediately given a great sense from Gillian’s lead and the thrilling harmony vocals that they haven’t skipped a beat in the nearly nine years since their last album (they’ve been touring virtually non-stop the entire time, despite their absence from the recording studio). We then get a surprisingly effective offering of Bob Dylan’s “Señor” (from the oft-maligned Street Legal), with an impressively authentic David Rawlings lead vocal. “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” is the first of the traditional arrangements where the duo spins their ever-present magic into another classic from Appalachia, and of course, there’s plenty of excellent flatpicking work from David Rawlings on the classic 1935 Epiphone archtop guitar that’s become his trademark. And there’s more of that great guitar work on another Dylan tune, “Abandoned Love,” a really great mid-seventies track that didn’t see the light of day until 1985’s Biograph retrospective. That really good groove gets cut short, however, as the tape splice harshly segues late in the song into the previously mentioned “Jackson,” which always brought the house down when Johnny and June delivered it as one of their encores. Rawlings and Welch’s version here definitely doesn’t disappoint! The album closes with a fun version of the Arlie Duff classic “Y’all Come,” which I probably heard a zillion times when my mom watched Hee Haw every Saturday night during my childhood — it’s the perfect tune to close a nearly perfect record.

The 24/44.1 Qobuz streaming file was absolutely superb, and the recording is intimate, yet spacious with a really great capture of the recorded acoustic of their home studio. On the big stereo, you get a really great impression of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing right in your listening room! While their concerts are always entertaining, and there’s always a wealth of great material in their set lists, these cover tunes will prove to be a valuable addition to their concert repertory. I do have a minor complaint, and this is more from the standpoint of a longtime fan — while the intricate guitar interplay between Welch and Rawlings is in abundance here, there’s not a trace of Gillian’s always plaintive and always interesting banjo picking. Oh well, maybe next time — or even in concert! Very highly recommended.

Acony Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

Set It Off

Set It Off

Set It Off

Frank Doris

I wonder how many people blew the speaker. Thanks to our Ray Chelstowski for submitting this.

Now that's a listening chair! From Audio, October 1962.

I think I saw this on Chiller Theatre when I was a kid. From Audio, August 1964.

"The ultimate in pure sound reproduction?" Maybe not. From Audio, October 1977.

We stand in awe of these audio jewels. And they're unbelievable when used in guitar amps. From Audio, November 1958.

Comfort and Adventure

Comfort and Adventure

Comfort and Adventure

Lawrence Schenbeck
  1. Good:

If I ever start making playlists again, or decide to re-organize my record collection, I could divide everything into just two piles, Comfort and Adventure. Lately I’ve been stuck in the Comfort zone, but that won’t last. Soon enough I’ll want to hear music that offers puzzles, surprises, danger.

A healthy mix works best. Music can be quiet, slow, and spare as long as it engages. Likewise, we welcome bedlam more often if it’s nicely organized. Balance is key.

That’s the attraction of Rivages (ECM), a new collection of sweetly addictive tunes from accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and his new sidekick, guitarist Kevin Siddiki. Siddiki is classically trained but has improvised his way through a lot of different situations, including albums with my favorite oudist (oudician?), Anouar Brahem. Audiophiles might get a special kick out of this delicate, elusive interactions of guitar and accordion, especially in moments where each plays strings of single notes in counterpoint with the other:


A worthy (if noisier) runner-up: This is Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Sony), featuring Yo-Yo Ma and the usual gang. Better than their first effort, and it’s easy to hear why. The arrangements are more clever (i.e., chaotic, contrapuntal, engaging), the collaborative effort more spirited, the sheer variety of the set list more fun. Give it a spin:


  1. Even Better:

When’s the last time you dropped in on a pianist as good as Kirill Gerstein playing a new concerto with, say, the Boston Symphony? Bet it’s been awhile.

Now you can catch up via Adès Conducts Adès, a DG release featuring two new works by Thomas Adès. Formerly one of Britain’s Young Lions, he’s now pushing 50 but still full of surprises. Over the last decade, Adès and Gerstein have developed a professional relationship that produces significant—and exciting—results.

When Gerstein approached him to ask for a new piece, Adès suggested a “proper piano concerto,” meaning three movements, fast-slow-fast, lots of virtuoso display, the works. Here’s what tumbled out:

By the time it’s over, you’ll have gotten a whirlwind tour of The Twentieth-Century Piano Concerto: hints or heaps of Gershwin, Ravel, Prokofiev, Bartók and more, delivered with Adès’ trademark ferocity.


(I don’t mean to imply this piece lacks “originality”—only that, like most classical music, it is well acquainted with its parents, cousins, and aunties.) Gerstein has titanium fingers—again, don’t take that literally. But I’ve watched him deliver knockout blows to Liszt and Rachmaninoff in concert, so “titanium” seems like an accurate description. What matters more is his extreme sense of rhythm. Gerstein began his career as a jazz pianist who studied at Berklee. The man’s got time. And Adès demands it in phrase after phrase: meticulously notated, this music nevertheless floats free of the beat, gently pushing ahead, pulling back, like Cannonball Adderley on a good night. Check out this excerpt from the second movement:

I like the low brass scoring and bass-drum accents; reminds me of Prokofiev but with chords from Planet Poulenc. Read more in Joshua Barone’s recent NY Times piece, which includes excerpts from Gerstein’s new album for Myrios, also strongly recommended.

The other work on the Adès album, Totentanz, is an orchestral song cycle: in a series of medieval German texts, the Grim Reaper confronts kings, clerics, and peasants; they’re not well pleased. It’s shorter than The Seventh Seal but louder.

  1. Drop-Dead Best:

So why not drop everything you’re doing for a couple of hours, settle in at your workstation (or preferably your big-screen web-linked television) and watch the Met HD presentation of Iphigénie en Tauride, an opera by Gluck (1714–1787)? It’s a great, great theatrical work by one of the most talented theater musicians in history. Iphigénie has everything an opera needs—great arias/ensembles/choruses brimming with emotion; richly atmospheric choreography/sets/costumes/visual effects; all of it packed into a storyline that pushes all the way to the end.

Peerless American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham acts and sings her way through a leading role for once in her life, instead of being stuck—as mezzos invariably are—playing the evil hag, older sister, or kid brother (witches, bitches, britches, as they say). And what a role: Iphigenia is a key figure from Greek drama, sister to Electra and Orestes, all offspring of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. In this tale handed down from Euripides, she has been rescued by Diana but sent to Taurida, a barbarian outpost on the Crimean peninsula where she’s forced to preside over ritual sacrifices. (I wrote about all this in #115.) A couple of Greeks are washed ashore after a storm, and cruel King Thoas slates them for sacrifice. Trouble is, they happen to be Orestes (Plácido Domingo) and his best friend Pylades (Paul Groves). Separated for years, Iphigenia and Orestes do not recognize each other.

Stephen Wadsworth was the organizing genius behind this celebrated production, supervising its inspired visuals, dances and stage business. Everything he put in actually worked, supporting the actors and the story. Everything!

This is where I shamelessly endorse Met Opera on Demand, the premium streaming service via which the Met has been offering one free opera from its vaults every 24 hours. If you subscribe (details here), you get access to everything, whenever you like. It’s worth it.

Iphigénie is also available as a $4.99 rental. Here is a (minimalist) trailer:


And here is an extended clip, taken from the climax of the opera. (If you think you might view the entire production, skip the clip.) Happy adventuring!

Header image: Susan Graham in the title role of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Beat the Clock

Beat the Clock

Beat the Clock

James Whitworth