Tom McDonald

I grew up and got schooled in New England, hitch-hiked on a whim to pre-Grunge-era Seattle, never left. Took to designing software for authors and publishers. Raised two kids and quite a few chickens on a island in Puget Sound. Taught myself guitar and banjo and formed a covers band. I help run a map store; here’s an issue of our newsletter. I favor British tv comedies and novels by Cormac McCarthy.

Oct 092020
 

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

John Lennon (of the Beatles, the Quarrymen, the Dirty Mac, and the Plastic Ono Band, among others) was born on this day. He shares the birthday, oddly enough, with his youngest son, Sean. (Happy 45th, Sean!)

One way to celebrate the day is to sing the Beatles’ “Birthday” song (keeping in mind that Lennon considered the song, which he co-wrote, “a piece of garbage”). Another is to listen to his music with renewed appreciation. If we do that, we’re gonna have a good time, just like the song says.

John would be turning 80 today, an auspicious number: He lived for 40 years, and has been gone for 40 years (as of December). Forty years here, forty years gone: those are Biblical numbers. And how funny that this 40/40 business should happen in the year 2020.

John loved numbers and numerology, so it’s ok to fixate on this stuff for a minute. The number nine in particular held Lennon’s interest, the day of the month he was born on. Some of his song titles allude to the obsession: “One After 909,” “Revolution 9,” “#9 Dream” (which reached #9 on the charts). So guess how many covers we’ve lined up today?
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Sep 252020
 

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

When I first saw the guitarist Charlie Hunter, it was accidental. I was only interested in seeing the sax player and the drummer—two legends—not the guitarist playing with them. If I’d never heard of him, how good could he be? Hunter was in mid-solo when I walked in. Within seconds I was sold—loved the scalding tone, the unhurried feel, the unexpected chords. Then the music shifted gears and the bass line grabbed my attention. I turned to check out the bassist–but no bassist stood on stage. It took some time to figure it out: the bass player was also Charlie Hunter.

On closer inspection, Hunter wasn’t playing a 6-string, but a 7- or 8-string beast—the “extras” were bass strings. The song’s latin-jazz groove pulsed from the bottom set of strings, the leads and melodies spidered out from the top few strings. On top of that Hunter was clearly improvising all of it, working out the bones of the song blow-by-blow with the drummer. The sax player I came to hear stepped up to solo, but by then I was mostly there to see Charlie Hunter.
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Sep 142020
 

Dozens (hundreds?) of young artists fell for the 2015 song of the year, Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” and posted their own version of the hit on social media. But only one of them found herself taking a call from Prince, who saw enough talent and originality in her post to want to hear more. That was just one early “lift-off” moment in the career of singer, song-writer, pianist, and Blue Note recording artist Kandace Springs.

The calls to collaborate kept coming, from artists in diverse genres, locations, and generations: Ghostface Killah, Daryl Hall, Black Violin, and David Sanborn in the U.S., Aqualung and Metropole Orkest in Europe. (We highlighted her Metropole Orkest hook-up in our Charles Mingus celebration back in April.) Springs’ vocal stylings are varied enough, and her roots are deep enough, to deal with all of it: her work reveals clear hip-hop, soul, and R&B influences, but classical music and straight-ahead jazz are her true loves. Her life-long hometown of Nashville may be synonymous with country music, but that’s one form Springs hasn’t taken on. Yet.
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Sep 082020
 

Powerhouse singer and songwriter Neko Case turns the big Five-Oh today. Case has never been an artist to deny or put a spin on who she is, so well-intentioned remarks like “50 is the new 30” might not fly. We’ll keep it simple with a loving “Happy Birthday, Neko!”
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Aug 142020
 

The late great guitarist Roy Buchanan, who died on this day in 1988, liked to say he was the son of a preacher man. And that as a boy he attended church revivals with Black congregations, where he first heard blues music. He was the first white guy to absorb the blues, he liked to say, and to build a career around the form.

These claims may not be the gospel truth–Buchanan also insisted he was “half-wolf.” His own brother denies that their father did any preaching at all. The truth is that Roy Buchanan was a dark and complicated man and artist.

What is also unmistakably true is that few have mastered their instrument to the depth Roy did. Buchanan’s close listeners praise his array of astonishing techniques, and how he used them to express uniquely emotive statements. As with a good Hendrix solo, you catch your breath at the sheer intensity of sound and soulfulness that Buchanan summons up when he’s running hot. His Fender Telecaster screams and cries, whistles and whines in ways are piercing in one second and tender in the next—Roy could recreate the human voice in uncanny ways. But then he’d spin into machine-like rapid-fire notes that make your teeth hurt. He didn’t need effect pedals to achieve this sonic richness—he was a purist in his way, defiantly old-school in a period that expected progressive experimentation.
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Aug 012020
 

Let there be songs to fill the air: It’s the birthday of Jerome John “Jerry” Garcia. The Grateful Dead leader would be celebrating his 78th trip around the sun today. Although a quarter of a century has passed since Garcia passed away (on August 8th), there’s no need to revive his work: his music did not fade away in the first place. In fact, Garcia’s songs and his approach to improvisation seem as relevant and contemporary as ever.

A small number of his songs (co-writes with lyricist Robert Hunter) are fixtures in the American songbook, just as surely as those of Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie, and Hank Williams. That alone is a pretty big deal. But in terms of covers, you’d be hard pressed to name any musician who gave more life to other people’s music than Jerry Garcia. He attracted millions of listeners with his own original songs and his trippy way with a guitar solo, but Garcia then guided that listenership toward a much wider world of music beyond the songs of his own.
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