It was the worst of years, it was the best of years.
I don’t need to comment on how it was the worst – use your imagination or just look at any article referencing 2016 as the worst year ever. Before we go any further, I see nothing wrong with saying it was a “bad year,” the concept of which is getting some pushback lately. I actually went on a rant about this a few days ago (If you missed it, see my Facebook Page and feel free to engage…or not).
Ok, we can generally agree on so many icons passing away – some naturally but many tragically – as well as the loss of many lesser known friends and loved ones. Not all of us will agree that our most powerful nations, and with them our planet, are being plunged into an unpredictable chaos. But we will agree that there is more seemingly insurmountable disagreement than ever before.
On that note…I have a confession to make. I feel a bit guilty about this in light of so many events. But 2016 has for me professionally been perhaps the most exciting and productive of my entire career…
It began with a short tour by Metal Allegiance, the All-Star project with numerous special guests, and in which I am one of four copilots. This included a show at the whiskey in LA, unintentionally timed with the great Lemmy’s memorial service for which our show became an official event. As I was on stage most of the time I missed the opportunity to say hello to Dave Grohl and Glenn Danzig but they were among those watching us.
From there I switched to instrumental jazz rock mode, joining up with bassist Stu Hamm (Satriani and Vai associate who gave me my first break playing instrumental music at a high level) and drummer Joel Taylor (Al DiMeola, Alan Holdsworth). This is an insane little combo that hopefully will record at some point. From Seattle, we worked our way down the West Coast including stops at Yoshi’s – a place in my former hometown region I’ve long dreamed of playing – and culminating with an appearance in Hollywood at the legendary baked potato at the big potato. There, we were joined by bassist/rapper Divinity Roxx who crushed it (she and I would later jam in New York at the Iridium). Also in attendance was Jeff Beck’s bassist Rhonda Smith, whom I had last seen when she and I accompanied the great Alphonse Mouzan a couple years prior. Sadly Alphonse passed away just a few days ago adding to the sense of 2016 being “cursed.” Here’s video of our performance together…
Back to a positive note, here’s another thing that happened that night: I was introduced to a table full of nice folks from Warwick (the German bass company whose endorsees include Stu, Robert Trujillo and more and who also builds Framus Guitars). They invited me to participate in their annual BassCamp. The conversation basically went like this:
“We’d like to hire you as one of our ‘professors.’ The only other non-bassist professor will be the drummer we just hired”
“Who’s the drummer?”
“I should be paying you.”
At this point in the year mid-late January, I would normally have attended the annual trade show NAMM which I blogged about a number of years back It’s something I haven’t missed since the early 2000’s. However after two back to back tours with radically different projects and a fast approaching tour across Europe with my trio, I decided to skip the festivities and catch my breath for a few days for which I was very thankful (However I am looking forward to returning to NAMM in a few weeks).
From there, I flew to Germany to begin the European tour with my trio, AST. This was quite an experience. We had many packed houses including folks who only know me as an instrumental guitarist and of course, many metalhead fans curious just what the heck I was up to (and mostly seeming pleasantly surprised to find they can enjoyed such a different concert experience – with no mosh pit). AST’s New Sounds in the Old World” tour went so well that a follow up was immediately booked for this coming March, Europe Unbound which will have us in new places we’ve we’ve never been such as Copenhagen in Norway and Italy for the first time.
After the AST tour wrapped up, we flew home and had a few days to rest up before continuing our trek which took place on the guitar cruise known his Axes & Anchors. There, with our upright bass and semi-hollowbody guitar tones, we added a different flavor to the to a lineup that included Zakk Wilde, Yngwie, Marty Freidman and others. It was a good time.
MARCH & APRIL
One of the downsides of playing in a lot of projects is that there are occasional overlapping events that one that one has no control over. Example: Testament was beginning a tour with Slayer – I had no control over the boat (which had been booked for over a year) while Testament had no control over Slayer’s tour schedule. So we mutually agreed that I would have to miss the first two shows of the tour. I am grateful to my always reliable standby Glen Drover for pinchhitting in the opening nights of Chicago and Nashville, and especially all the fans for understanding. I was able to to join for the night very next show in Richmond, Virginia. Of course this ended up being easier said than done…
I flew in during weather that was bad even for this area (which is often notorious for twisters). The flight was on holding pattern but we finally took a risky landing because we were running out of fuel. My ride from the airport (courtesy of my good bro, Randy Blythe) was as harrowing as the landing as the plane, with hail and high speed winds. We reached the venue within an hour of showtime (I’d been scheduled to arrive at the venue about five hours earlier). Let’s just say the chaos somehow felt perfectly fitting to begin a Slayer tour.
The Slayer/Testament/Carcass tour was a blast and one of the unexpected highlights was in Seattle where we had some very special visitors. Then towards the end, was the surreal experience of sitting in on a Slayer soundcheck to jam Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird.
After the Slayer tour, I was home for about half of May. Time in NYC was largely consumed with
A. Mixing live trio tracks for the now released AST UNBOUND and
B. Laying down parts laying for the latest Testament release Brotherhood of the Snake.
This seems to be in keeping with the schedule of doing one instrumental album improvisational album a year and a metal album… In 2015 I’d released my first all acoustic world music album Planetary Coalition (OK, technically was late 2014 but still..)… I also recorded with the Jane Getter Premonition A great progressive rock meets jazz project with some great musicians (Note: My metal album of 2015 was MA, which this year is planning a follow up. And as far as an instrumental/improv release this year – it’s looking as though there will be more than one, to be announced in the near future).
JUNE & JULY
June and July or mostly spent in Western Europe. There are so many wonderful festivals that it is a guarantee a band can keep quite busy over there. European cities are the best places to be in the summer (despite the occasional horrendous news in very recent years, for which we must all remain vigilant but continue our lives and music).
There was also a trip to to Russia which inspired me to read a novel I’d been meaning to read for quite some time, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. There were also visits to places we don’t get you often such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.. OK, I said I would leave politics out of this particular blog but just so you know: these are proud, rapidly developing independent nations that for the most part, have no desire to be pawns of a Russian Empire. Given signs of recent activity at their Russian borders, there are deep rooted suspicions of it’s much larger, more powerful neighbor. These countries are like “mom & pop” music stores being eyed by a huge music superstore for a hostile corporate takeover. This is why we must not allow Mr. Putin over there to get a pass on everything he wants, and not let him play us as his chump, along with a certain person whose last name rhymes with “chump.” (OK that’s it – Political rant over. For now..”)
August was an especially fulfilling month, although tricky to negotiate. Like that crazy maneuver catching a flight to Richmond earlier in the year, I had another adventurous connection (which fortunately didn’t involve bad weather). Testament wrapped up our European festival dates by performing at WACKEN, the annual German fest that draws 70,000 people over three days. Somehow we hadn’t realized that we were closing the show on our night. This meant being on stage at 1:30 in the morning and finishing up by 3am. I was scheduled to travel first thing in the morning to the OutReach Jazz Festival in Austria to perform with Jane Getter Premonition (with Mark Egan on bass, ex-Pat Metheny group). I flew and was driven, arriving around Noon, on maybe one hour sleep. I rehearsed with JGP, then slept hard till close to showtime. The next morning I flew back to NYC and had a good rest for my one night at home. The next morning, a car service arrived to take me to Glen Cove Long Island…
For the next five days, I was honored to be one of four teachers of the G4 Experience the other being in its founder the great Joe Satriani, a former teacher of mine and very formative years (which we had a good laugh over – I told the crowd I regressed to fourteen years old when Joe was around).. and Eric Johnson and Mike Kenealy. Oh yes there was this other guy who joined us for a couple days that some of you may have heard of (his name is Steve Vai). Not only was it humbling to be a colleague of guys like Satch, Vai, Johnson and Keneally this but we all got in some some quality hang time with each other too. It was nice to reconnect with Joe and get to know the other guys as people and I have to say the students at the G4 – with their enthusiasm and dedication – we’re also inspiring and a reminder of why we put up with the crazy travel schedule mishaps, long periods of time away from home and other challenges and sacrifices (They remind us of our unvarnished love of music and the guitar that inspired us to be who we became).
On the last night of the G4 experience as it happened my guys who I brought along for this trip as my band and fellow instructors – bassist Steve Jenkins (of Vernon Reid’s solo project) and drummer Kenny Grohowski (a young John Zorn associate) – and I were scheduled to perform at the G4. The show went great (and this unit is planning more activity). However, we finished with less than an hour till showtime at St. Vitus where MA was doing a special show paying tribute to the great deep purple (with Kenny playing drums). As soon as our G4 set ended, Kenny and I were shuffled into a car – helped by groups of students who carried our gear – and played the Brooklyn show which went without a hitch. After one night in my own bed, I flew to the UK as MA set to do our first festival appearance in Europe (Bloodstock UK).
After the UK show I flew to Nurenberg were Testament were scheduled to play a few more European shows shows. Fortunately there were 48 hours before the rest of the band flew in, so I got to rest in Nürnberg and enjoy some nice weissbier and pretzel schnitzel.
Testament’s short European run was followed by my week long stint teaching at Warwick BassCamp (as mentioned earlier). However, there were about six days in between. This meant I could do one of two things:
A Fly home and be consumed with travel (and jet-lag), then fly back.
B. Stay in Europe. As everybody was flying home from Paris, well…why not get dropped off there? Where better to stay then Paris?
Paris is one of my favorite cities in the world – sorry, it IS my favorite city in the world. Other than some great cycling, walking, dining and shopping (I found a wonderful hand-built Django style guitar), a good amount of time was spent completing my articles for UNBUILT the bi-annual magazine that Randy and I credit with its founder it along with our our newest team member, the great singer/activist Alissa White Gluz.
Refreshed from the from a great week in Paris, I flew to Frankfurt where I was driven in a van for several hours to Markneukirchen to begin teaching at Warwick BassCamp 2016.
In addition to my buddy Stu, I got to know other great bassists. A highlight for me was working with and getting to know a longtime hero of mine, drummer Dennis Chambers, with whom I worked in two different ensembles: Tetsuo Sakurai (incredible jazz rock bassist) and Alphonso Johnsnon (long time hero of mine from Weather Report and Santana). There was also Yolanda Charles and Joe Hubbard (who’s album I’m scheduled to appear on alongside alongside Dennis Chambers and others in 2017) and Felix Pastorius (son of the great Jaco and it shows) and too many others to name.
All of us did a finale jam led by extraordinaire Steve Bailey and including Jonas Helborg, Ralph Armstrong and other legends of the low end.
By this point, I might’ve opted to chill out and enjoy a quiet month (the first of the year). However, this was the only time period available for AST to do our US tour (and we were long overdue!). I’m grateful to MAXIMUM Booking for helping make this trio tour AST’s best ever in the US, with packed houses and standing ovations night after night and some great venues, including New York’s Iridium and the Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live.
OCTOBER & NOVEMBER
October ended up being my month to finally catch a breath. It was fairly quiet, until the third week, when Testament resumed touring (the first for the new album cycle). It was a five week run in Europe with Viking masters Amon Amarth, who are selling out some very massive venues over there… a very fun tour.
At this point you probably can understand why I opted to keep my December as quiet as possible. However, it didn’t exactly turn out that way…
On the last few days of tour I received an alarming email from The Sam Ash music store in New York letting me know that instruments they’d purchased from a customer turned out to be – upon further examination – ones they now feared were stolen from me. At first I thought they may not be aware I have a line of signature guitars that are readily available. But as they described the guitars in detail I got chills – this was my Heritage prototype from a previous endorsement (although no longer officially affiliated with Heritage, I still value the instruments).
I’m now pretty sure that these guitars never made it into the storage locker and were taken while being moved in (which, being just a few of more than two dozen similar instruments in transit – were an easy target). Long story short, the suspect has been apprehended, I happily had five instruments returned (thank you Sam Ash, these guys rule…SHOP THERE!) and it became a major story with front page mention in the NEW YORK TIMES.
And finally, a short time later (and just last week, as of this writing):
THE KANYE AFFAIR.
As many know by now, I was tagged in a Facebook post by an individual sharing a photo of Kanye wearing a Testament T-shirt (yes, this really happened). So I posted a snarky comment for friends only that somehow found its way, to an article on Blabbermouth.net. This drew comments by the dozen, mostly favorable, some very unfavorable (leading to some hilarious infighting among Blabber-ers) and some favorable for the wrong reasons (more on that below). From there, it found its way to endless other online journals and blogs (including Kanye fan sites) and mainstream outlets such as NME, where the ensuing fall out included pronouncements I’d given the “Greatest Response Ever” and others that, maybe were a bit more critical. Depending on your opinion, I represent your voice and should run for president, or I’m an elitist dick (why can’t I be both?) 😉
This is my final Kanye rant – a gift for the New Year (you’re welcome)….
I have no ill will towards Kanye West, although his behavior can be off-putting (understatement) and I sometimes feel he is so overexposed, I’d like to KoneMarie Kanye.
It was fascinating to read some who aren’t familiar with me express pleasant shock of at the level of my intellect. Others were outraged suggesting I (he) “Thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.” Uh.. no. For what it’s worth – I don’t brag about education. Yes, I do have an undergraduate degree from the New School, where I went in my 20’s during a hiatus from touring (Ivy League? No, but a fairly respectable college). Yes, I got my degree in music but I paid close attention in my other classes including philosophy, psychology, creative writing and political science. While I may seek to share opinions and ideas and may talk like a professor sometimes, its not out of a sense of superiority but because I’m nerdy and can’t help it.
Anyway, my education as well as a genuine attempt to be informed (paying close attention to current events from credible sources), has shaped my world view and my political views (those who rant that musicians and politics should be mutually exclusive, please take that into consideration).
I’ve said pretty much everything I’ve had to say on this matter but I will add this follow-up: my Kanye rant was once again never motivated by his artistry, but purely by the fact that he is a Kardashian by association.
And by the way, I was never “apologizing” for my initial rant in the followup, only clarifying my view because (as happened anyway), I knew it would get painted as the angry metal guy angry at the rapper for wearing his band’s shirt. This implies an ignorance that does not represent where I’m coming from in the slightest.
Meanwhile, a friend who supported my post and thought it was thorough,respectful and well explained, is also a major fan of KW’s work (not his personality) and recommended I check out the Yeezus album. Yes, it’s very good and I can see why artists as diverse as the late, greatLou Reed (who shouldn’t be judged solely by his collab with Metallica) can get behind it. No, it’s not gonna make me run out and buy his catalogue but I can appreciate it and hey – I hope he really likes the band on the t-shirt he wore that day.
I acknowledge he is talented. However, I would have much more my respect for him should he choose to distance himself those around him who profit by being untalented. The K Kretins do not inspire. They do not encourage growth (unless indirectly – by causing some of us to be so turned off that we consider making far better decisions with our lives). This goes for anything involving that sycophant Ryan Seacrest who inflicts his his anti-artistic, soul killing mediocrity upon all of us (as well as certain other unsavory personas fed by reality TV, now inexplicably in positions of power – whom I won’t mention here). Again, if Kanye were to somehow disassociate with the Kult of K – and I realized he’s married to one – I’ll be the first to sing (and play) his praises. Anyway, enough of that surreal way to end the year, which went semi-viral (final note: the photo is photoshopped – a friend, MA’s Mark Menghi did this as a goof right after the initial scandal. No I didn’t buy the shirt.. it doesn’t exist).
Which brings us here, on the cusp of 2017.
Again, for me privately, it’s been a wonderful 2016, filled with creative people, devoted music fans, trips abroad, seeing the great architecture, enjoying delicious meals, wine, coffee etc… I’m feeling lucky. I have a great career doing many different kinds of music that I enjoy. I can’t complain.
Here’s wishing all a productive positive vigilant and enlightening 2017. Have a great New Year everyone!