Category Archives: Listening


I stumbled upon this NPR article a few weeks ago and it’s since stuck in my craw. While I agree with one of the overall messages – it’s important to protect yourself in high-volume environments – I’m puzzled by the Bob Boilen’s seemingly surprised POV. I try not to get preachy about much, but earplugs and volume regularly lead me to filibuster. I know that I already have slight hearing loss in one ear, and I’ve waged an all-out preventative assault for the better part of the last decade.

Like the author, I regularly attend (and participate in) performances of varying kinds: clubs, large arenas, theaters, ampitheaters, museums, bars, etc. Some are quiet and cozy, others are deafening. When I’m preparing to leave the house to rehearse, perform, or attend a show, I always take a moment to assess the sonic environment I’m heading to, and almost never leave home without my earplugs (my own personal American Express). About 8 years ago I decided to spring for a pair of Etymotic custom-molded earplugs. It seemed a little much at first, but it turned out to be arguably the best $160ish I’ve spent.

Performing in loud ensembles was ~65% of my reason for the purchase, with the remaining ~35% stemming from my regular attendance of loud (mostly rock) concerts. Now, I do love many loud styles of music, but I tend to be extra cautious with the volume at which I listen to them. (My wife regularly snipes at me in the car or at home for having the music too low when listening.) I always enjoy listening to music (of course), but it should also be a comfortable experience. After all, if musicians and other audiophiles insist on investing in a great pair of headphones for private listening (I do love my Bose headphones), why not apply the same logic to earplugs and “public listening”? Similarly, consider bowling, an activity many Americans participate in occasionally. For most people, renting shoes and/or balls doesn’t really affect their enjoyment – they’re often there for reasons more social than sport. But for those with a love of the game who play frequently and with purpose, investing money in gear (ball, shoes, upkeep, etc.) is a no-brainer because it enhances the experience.

The big complaint about earplugs in general is that they distort the sound. True, $3 foam thimbles – like renting a bowling shoes for your ears – work slightly better than taping a pillow around one’s head. In that case, you get what you pay for. However that’s not at all the case when using earplugs that are actually meant for listening (as opposed to those meant to block out sound). I always tell people that wearing custom earplugs is the equivalent of simply turning down a volume knob on your ears. Everything comes through cleanly and as projected, only at a softer level. (Also, custom plugs come with adjustable filters for varying volumes.) In fact, I can often hear better with them in, as the natural distortion and fatigue is a non-issue.

I’ve seen many loud performances. (Korn & Staind touring with the Guinness-certified world’s loudest sound system, which was painfully loud even with foam earplugs, and Phil Anselmo‘s Down immediately come to mind.) The episode that most sticks out to me is my 8th TOOL concert (10.18.02). I eventually forced my way to the front row, but was located directly in front of one of the speaker stacks for a majority of the performance. I had a deeper-than-normal ear fatigue afterwards and was to see them again two nights later. In between, I attended a wedding and, seated near the DJ, I suffered a slight auditory meltdown at the reception. As a result, the 10.20 TOOL show was a turning point for me, as I’ve worn earlugs since and haven’t looked back. (Side note: My ears, mind, and body were much better off after that concert than the previous two nights.)

Granted, the Korn show I mentioned was a bit much, but for the most part some types of music just demand loud performance. Much of rock music is quite visceral and therefore physically engaging the audience is a factor – even when wearing earplugs, feeling the music’s vibrations run through your entire body at a live show is a truly wonderful feeling. But yes, there are many instances in which a band or venue is obnoxious (again see Korn), bordering on dangerous. (I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this.) It’s a situation in which everyone – performer, engineer, listener – should and does have skin in the game.

While I’ve written most of this article from the audience’s perspective, I should also note that my earplugs have done wonders for gigging this whole time – standing amidst drums and amplifiers takes its toll quickly and aggressively. But since the original NPR article stressed the audience perspective, I opted for that arena.

I could go on and on. Truly. But since I want people to return to this blog from time to time, suffice it to say that the listener ultimately shares responsibility in auditory comfort. 🙂 And, if done correctly, it doesn’t have to compromise the overall experience.

New Listen: Mitchell & Harris’s ‘Traveling By Moonlight’

Artist: Mitchell & Harris
Album: Traveling By Moonlight (2011)

This particular New Listen is a real treat for me as it’s personal. G. Pat Harris – a dear friend and first musical soulmate with whom I heavily collaborated in 2003-6 – is half of this wonderful duo along with Anna Mae Mitchell. Pat and Anna’s collaboration began in bluegrass while we were all classmates at Central Michigan University. Since then, they’ve developed a continually expanding original repertoire and are both now based in Austin, TX.

While the obvious core is Mitchell (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Harris (basses, vocals, harmonica, songwriting), don’t be fooled – Traveling By Moonlight (artwork by Ashleigh Wisser) is a full-on sonic experience. The band includes a full rhythm section – drums, acoustic and electric guitars, bass (of course) – and also features piano, mandolin, violin, and percussion. I hesitate to simply label it “Americana” for fear of pigeonholing. Though that’s definitely the starting point, rock, folk, pop, country, jazz, and various other elements also blend together to create what matters most: a solid album of great original songs.

Though I doubt it was their primary aim, Mitchell & Harris carefully observe Rob Gordon’s song order advice with their first three numbers. 🙂 Opening with the bluegrass-tinged “Run From The Ocean,” Anna’s voice and Pat’s lyrics calmly welcome the listener bit by bit, gradually adding each instrument/voice until you finally get the song’s full ensemble halfway through. “New Day” certainly takes it up a notch, offering an upbeat, electric, 90s-pop-rock feel that gets you out of your seat. Then, almost as splitting the difference, the ballad “Home” combines acoustic and electric elements while Anna’s voice gradually grows in intensity, nicely contrasting the restrained solo electric guitar.

Such diversity is a hallmark of this album. For example, the album’s “rockers” all do so differently: “New Day” is optimistic and electric; “The Canyon” reminds one of country rock from decades past; “Lost At Sea” is electric, unapologetic arena rock (and in mixed meter, no less); and “The Overgrown Graveyard” is an example of a hybridized pop-bluegrass that’s often attempted on the airwaves but rarely works (in this case, it does!). Beyond stylistic decisions, the orchestration offers much variety and keeps the listener engaged throughout. Pat, who also served as producer, does a great job of economically showcasing a relatively standard instrumentation, using instruments only when needed and cutting out the sonic fat. Case in point: the violin’s debut in “The Canyon” (track 5) is a welcome timbral change almost halfway through the album, nicely complementing the harmonica and electric guitar. It then doesn’t appear until its cameo four songs later in “Glue,” drunkenly mimicking Anna’s cries, remaining for “Before the Rain” and “The Overgrown Graveyard.” And yet, those songs with violin (or any other auxiliary instrument) don’t stick out as “those fiddle tunes” – all twelve songs are complementary pieces to the same aural pie.

The album’s conclusion is a delightful closing paragraph, summarizing what Traveling By Moonlight is all about. The penultimate “The Overgrown Graveyard” is a bluegrass romp including most of the instruments and sonic elements heard up to that point. And “Waiting For Tomorrow” is an appropriate farewell, distilling the ensemble down to its core – the duo.

It’s been a slightly longer New Listen than normal, but I’m proud of my friends and colleagues for offering up such a quality original contribution. This is a truly independent release, self-funded with everything but the actual packaging process taken care of in-house, making this a great opportunity for everyone to support independent, original music. It’s available today through CD Baby, iTunes, and local Austin retailers, and I highly encourage you to pick yourself up a copy. Mitchell & Harris of course perform in Austin and surrounding areas regularly, but they’ll also be performing in the Midwest in December (and will be joined by yours truly for a couple shows) and in the Northeast and Appalachia in the spring. Consult their website for more information, and check them out if they’re in your area.

And finally, to reference one of this blog’s running themes: pay for what you like. 🙂

Album Links:
CD Baby (CD & MP3)
ATX Podcast (Interview with Pat & Anna, along with some musical previews.)

MTH-V: Jeff Coffin w. DMB compilation

I mentioned in the Marcus Miller post from two weeks ago that Jeff Coffin liked music that moved him via his heart, head, rear end, or all three. For over a decade Coffin has been not only one of my favorite saxophonists, but one of my favorite musicians. Without getting too sentimental here, his playing consistently cuts to my core. It’s deep, complex, “out,” and yet maintains an overall “pop” sensibility that ties it all together. Sure, he can be wailing on extensions or multiphonics, but if he’s doing that then he’s backing it up with a solid rhythmic foundation that’ll keep most people tapping their toes regardless.

Briefly, in case you’re saying, “Who’s Jeff Coffin?”: A UNT grad, he originally gained recognition after joining Béla Fleck & The Flecktones in 1997. Since then he’s also released a number of (unfortunately) little-known yet amazing solo albums (I have them all). In 2008, he joined the Dave Matthews Band to replace LeRoi Moore after his sudden injury and eventual death that summer. (Being a DMB fanatic, imagine my guilt of always wanting to see Coffin sit in with DMB, only to have it actualized via Roi’s departure and passing…)

This week’s video is a compilation of Jeff’s solos from Dave Matthews Band’s performance at Rothbury 2008. He had sat in as a guest with DMB sporadically since 1998, but this was his fourth show as the full-time/only saxophonist after joining the band with a day’s notice. The video was snagged from a live feed that was broadcast during the festival, and it’s a great compilation featuring his solos on the following songs, in order: “Seek Up,” “Grey Street,” “#41,” “Jimi Thing,” and a small clip of “Anyone Seen The Bridge?” (with the Strauss interpolation). It’s also a great compilation because I of course attended the show, and remember it like it was yesterday. 🙂

A little treat, here’s a video I was lucky to stumble upon a few years ago of Jeff sitting in with DMB on “Two Step” in April 2002. This had long been one of my favorite solos I acquired from the taping community, so imagine my surprise when the video eventually surfaced! Throughout the song, Béla and all of the Flecktones sit in, but this clip is Coffin’s solo only. (I recommend watching the whole thing if you have time.) In under three minutes, he covers all the musical bases. (And imagine my frustration that this occurred on 04.21.02 – I saw them on 04.23.02 and 04.26.02. Oh well, the shows were still great. :))

New Listen: Stan Getz’s ‘Serenity’

Artist: Stan Getz
Album: Serenity (1991)

This album is the lesser-known counterpart to Getz’s Anniversary, an album I purchased about a year ago and have been unable to put down since.  They are both a product of the same live date: July 6, 1987 at the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark. That night, Getz celebrated his 60th birthday in style, accompanied by a powerhouse rhythm section and a warm audience. Anniversary quickly became (and remains) one of my favorite straight-ahead jazz albums, and Serenity is now following suit.

Originally intended to be released together, production issues caused a delay of this “second half,” making it the lesser-known “B-side” of sorts. Like its counterpart, Serenity is a straight-ahead romp for the ages. (Those looking to get their Bossa Nova fix should look elsewhere.) Also, like Anniversary, it features mostly standards – “On Green Dolphin Street,” “I Remember You,” and “I Love You” – as well as Kenny Barron’s “Voyage” and Victor Feldman’s “Falling In Love.” The lineup is:
Stan Getz – Saxophone
Kenny Barron – Piano
Victor Lewis – Drums
Rufus Reid – Bass

I can’t say enough good about this album. Overall, it’s filled with medium- and uptempo tunes, with each one being a bit quicker than the previous, culminating with a swiftly floating “I Love You.” The standards are especially given “straight-ahead” treatment with everything falling pretty much “inside.” That’s not to say it’s at all boring, however – quite the opposite, actually, as the group has much fun with the standards. The band displays its “edgiest” playing on Barron’s “Voyage,” with Getz’s tone at times becoming brassy. (Perhaps because it’s an original?) And, conversely, the band’s gentlest playing is on the other non-standard: “Falling In Love,” the album’s only ballad. Throughout, all four musicians receive ample solo space. “I Remember You” and “Voyage” are the standout tracks here, with the band burning individually and collectively on each. The latter’s unison melody between saxophone and piano is a nice contrast to the rest of the album’s sax-centric melodies.

As some of you may know, it can often be difficult to find good (relatively) contemporary recordings of standards that aren’t too overly-manipulated or arranged. There’s such pressure for everyone to make everything his/her own these days that often there’s a paucity of players just blowing changes (on record, at least). Not that I want that all the time, but every now and again is nice. And when it’s done well, as is the case with Serenity, it is so good. No frills here, just four seasoned veterans improvising and feeding off of one another  and the audience. A must have for any serious jazz fan, in my opinion.

Album links:

MTH-V: Lieb & The Dave Liebman Group

I had a few other contenders in the running for this week’s posting, but decided to post the below video in honor of the amazing Dave Liebman Group performance I attended Sunday evening at Western Michigan University. Without turning this post into a full-blown concert review, suffice it to say that Sunday’s performance was mind-blowing, as expected. It wasn’t my first DLG show, and those  readers of this blog are likely familiar with my quasi-fanatic enthusiasm for Dave Liebman. (I was fortunate enough to take a lesson with him at his home in 2005, a lesson from which I’m still learning…) In case you’re unfamiliar with Liebman’s work and/or style, this week’s video serves as a nice primer. And if you already are acquainted with Lieb, hopefully it offers something new.

This video has been a favorite of mine for over five years. It was originally released in 2006 as part of Bret Primack‘s now-defunct Jazz Video Podcasts series. (Primack has done many wonderful things for documenting jazz on the internet over the years.) Bret offers a brief biographical introduction to Liebman specifically (under which you can see some classic footage of Quest), followed by a wonderful interview excerpt. Here Lieb succinctly describes his pedagogical approach. “3-H Club” (Head, Hands, Heart) may seem cute at first, but it runs deep and true.

The bulk of the video features the Dave Liebman Group live in Brazil performing Liebman’s “Nars Dream” (a contrafact of “Nardis”). While it may seem pretty “straight ahead” for DLG, it features a number of the group’s trademarks: fluidly shifting grooves, heterophonic sax & guitar interplay, complex harmonic extension, and a complete no-holds-barred, nothing-to-lose attitude.

Dave Liebman Group:
Dave Liebman – Saxophone
Vic Juris – Guitar
Marko Marcinko – Drums
Tony Marino – Bass

While “Nars Dream” is no free improvisation, you can still get a sense of the near-telepathic level at which this group operates. (Of course, when you have a working improvisatory group of virtuosos for two decades, that’s what happens.) If this is your first taste of Dave Liebman or DLG, I hope you like it and seek out more. The discography for both is immense, and there is a decent amount of YouTube footage of the last year of DLG’s performances alone. (For example, try to watch this and sit still…)

Two “New Listens” for Liebman’s work can be found here and here.

(PS — Try not to snicker too much at the new-but-not-quite-clever title for the video series, MTH-V. Short and to the point.)