Hot Rod Pacer

I’m not sure where to begin this post. Maybe I should start with my Dad. He was a recording engineer for Columbia Records from the ’60s through the 90s. During that time, he amassed a tremendous amount of stuff from them. Whatever they were rotating out or throwing out, my Dad would bring home. When he retired, he and my Mom moved down to North Carolina and he took all that stuff with him. It took up four storage units. After he died, I began to go through all this stuff, but it was a huge job and I found it overwhelming.

Dad's Storage

The storage units were pretty overwhelming.

That’s where Fred Gillen Jr. comes in. Fred is a singer/songwriter who’s pretty well known in these parts. He also runs his own studio, Woody’s House. My wife suggested that I approach Fred about making a trip down to North Carolina with me to help sort through this stuff. Between his knowledge of studio gear and the fact that he didn’t have any kind of emotional attachment to the stuff, he seemed to be the perfect choice. She figured that I could entice him with the promise of some cool old analog gear. There was one slight problem; Fred and I had crossed paths a few times in the local music scene and had even done a couple of gigs together, but we really didn’t know each other that well. I wasn’t sure how he would feel about taking a 14 hour drive to N.C. and then staying in the same room with me at my Mom’s place. Anyway, Fred and I met for lunch and he went for it.

Fred's Control Room

Fred Gillen Jr. in the control room of Woody’s House

You can learn a lot about someone when you’re in a van with them for 14 hours. We talked about music, growing up, former girlfriends and gigs we’d played. All kinds of stuff. We got down there sometime after midnight and got to work the next morning. The rooms were packed floor to ceiling and were dusty and moldy. It took nearly three days to really go through it and decide what to take and what to toss.

By the second night, we were exhausted. I plopped myself down in front of the TV. My Mom had so many remotes that I couldn’t figure out how to change the channel. It was stuck on some kind of drag racing show (“Pinks All Out”). Fred sat in the next chair and we watched as Karrie Anne Beebe, the only woman in the competition, took everyone out. While driving a hot rodded AMC Pacer. We were pretty impressed.

On the ride back to New York, Fred and I got to talking about high school. I went to an all-boys Catholic school, so meeting girls was a little difficult. Fred said, “Yeah? Well I spent my youth chasing after pretty redneck girls.” That was all I needed. I reached behind the seat and pulled out Fred’s little guitar and got his notebook from his backpack (Fred was driving). Over the next couple of hours, we wrote our first song, “Pretty Redneck Girls”. Inspired by Karrie Anne Beebe, it tells the story of trying to catch three separate girls in their souped up cars. The last one, the girl in the Pacer, blows past him and then picks him up at the next light.

When we got back to New York, Fred and I got together to see if we could write another song. It turned out that we could, so we wrote a bunch of ‘em. Pretty soon we had an album’s worth of songs. Now we needed a name. We tossed around a bunch of stuff until we finally came up with the very thing that inspired us in the first place; “Hot Rod Pacer”.

At first, Fred and I performed as a duo. Our first gig was opening up for Tom Chapin. Our second gig was opening for the legendary Merle Haggard.

Fred and me opening up for Merle Haggard at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY.

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The full band, from left; Debbie Tuzman (bass, vocals), Fred Gillen Jr. (guitars, vocals, songwriter), Jim Keyes (guitar, vocals, songwriter) and Jason Hess (drums).

The duo was cool, but we found ourselves wanting more. That’s when we hooked up with drummer Jason Hess and bassist Debbie Tuzman. We got together, played a few times and the full band was born. Over the course of a few months, we hunkered down in Woody’s Place and recorded our first CD (“Hot Rod Pacer”). You can get it on iTunes or CD Baby or come to one of our gigs if we come to your town! In the meantime, have a listen to the song Fred and I wrote on our trip back from N.C., “Pretty Redneck Girls”.

Earth Day; It took God seven days to make the world. Took man 20 centuries to tear it down.

Every Easter, for a few years, my kayak friends and I would go out for what we called “The Heathen Paddle”. For us , this marked the first paddle of Spring, in which we could see the first buds of rebirth and renewal. We would leave from Yonkers, NY, head down the Hudson  River to Spuyten Dyvil, down the Harlem River to the Bronx Kill which would shoot us out to the East River. We’d get out at Little Brother Island, across from Rikers Island. From there, we would head up the Bronx River and get out at Hunts Point, where we had cars waiting for us. While this was ostensibly to view nature, mostly we came across trash. This increased every year. After our last paddle, I wrote this song, “Twenty Centuries”. I hope it speaks to you.

20 Centuries

 

Yonkers Load In

Putting in at Yonkers

 

 

 

 

Gwen & Jim

Paddling in the Bronx Kill

Swim Like A Catfish

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Waaaay back  in the Digital Dark Ages, there was a short-lived medium called the MiniDisc. It looked just like a floppy disc except that it was, um, mini. It held 74 minutes of audio and that seemed pretty dang cool at the time. So for about a year or two, I carried my cute little MiniDisc recorder in my pocket. Along with discs. Batteries. Oh, yeah, and a big honkin’ stereo mic.

IMG_0142Still, you have to understand how cool this was at the time. Before, if I wanted to record a performance, I had to lug around some kind of cassette recorder and the resulting quality was less than pleasant. The MiniDisc produced much quieter, cleaner recordings.

cassette-recorder

I bring this up because today, as I was excavating the studio, I came across my old MiniDisc and a bunch of the discs that I had recorded on to. I popped one into the machine and was pleasantly surprised by the sound. More importantly, by what was on it. In the early 2000s, I spent quite some time as a teaching artist. I would go into schools and museums and write songs with kids. I loved it, especially the little kids. The process was simple; we’d pick a subject (usually what they were studying), talk about how it made them feel, and then come up with some rhyming pairs. With little kids, it was less about the rhymes and more about making sure that they got to use their own words. After the lyrics were complete, the melody would sort of reveal itself.

This song, “Swim Like A Catfish” was written by 1st graders at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY. about ten years ago. I totally forgot about this song and I’m thrilled to have found it again. I hope you enjoy it.

“Dickens’ Christmas Carol” at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow

Once again, I find myself back at the the pipe organ in the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. This time Jonathan Kruk and I will be performing “Dickens’ Christmas Carol”. For this event, not only will I be playing the pipe organ, I’ll also be playing the harp, fiddle, chimes and chains (for sound effects). Before each show, I lead the audience in Christmas Carols. It’s a lot of fun!

For tickets and times, visit www.HudsonValley.org

Spying On Santa

I wrote this song a few years back when I was invited to submit a song to a collection called “Not Just Another Holiday CD”. At that time, it was just the two verses. Since then, I’ve added a chorus and given it a big band treatment. Enjoy!

Santa’s Reindeer Ranch

I have a busy practice teaching guitar and piano during the week. When we get off topic, I  say “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” to bring us back. I used that phrase while teaching “Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer” to a kid. He looked at me and said, “I thought we were at the North Pole!”

That’s when I got the idea for this song. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

Organ Mania

8/21/12

The majestic pipe organ at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. From here you can see both pipe chests. I’m cleverly hidden behind the smaller one and in front of the larger one.

Sure it’s mid August, but I’m already looking ahead to October when Jonathan Kruk and I will be performing Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. While Jonathan will be out front captivating audiences, I will be upstairs in the choir loft with my back turned to him. I’m not being rude; I’m playing the organ.

Two years ago when Jonathan and I first met to discuss the show, our original plan had been for him to do his performance while I played “spooky organ music” between shows. Over time however, we began to progress from a storytelling performance to a real theater piece, complete with an original organ score.

Here I’m intently listening to Jonathan for music cues. The first year, I used the accordion for very quiet parts.

And what an organ it is! No, it’s not original (the Old Dutch Church never had a pipe organ). It was built by the Noack Organ Company with the look and stop design of a 17th century organ and dedicated in 1998. This is one serious instrument. And it’s a blast to play.

So how does one prepare to play so much music on such an incredible instrument? This question bothered me a lot after our first run of “Legend”. My original thought was to find a home organ that I could practice on. For a long time home organs were very popular, but in the 1980’s that popularity dropped. I got a used Yamaha organ for under $100.00 and got to work. What a let-down it was having gone from the mighty pipe organ to this! It wasn’t long before I exceeded the capabilities of the instrument. I needed something that had the same number of keys and pedals that the Noack organ had. That’s when I found the Hammond.

The first organ I got for practicing the score. This little Yamaha also had very funky “auto play” functions. They were a lot of fun, but not especially useful.

Any rock or blues fan has heard a Hammond organ. From Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” to Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” the Hammond B-3has made an indelible mark on popular music. What few people know is that Hammond also made a line of home/church organs and I was lucky enough to find one.

Here the Hammond A-100 was marketed as an instrument for the home. I have the mahogany one.

Now this is just silly. Who’s gonna lug a 400lb organ out to the patio?

My Hammond A-100 was made in 1959. It fits just inside a double closet in my studio. While not nearly as powerful as a pipe organ, it’s a lot of fun to play. It has two 61-key keyboards (which are called “manuals” in the organ world) and 25 pedals. What do the pedals do? They play bass notes. When playing an organ, you are using your feet and your hands. It keeps you busy.

These are the 16′ pipes for the organ. They’re played with the pedals. You can really shake the building with these big guys.

So now I’m spending a lot of time at my Hammond organ. In the video below, I’m practicing “Welcome to Sleepy Hollow”, the opening music I composed for the show. And yes, I’m in a closet. Even though my neighbors may be creeped out by the music coming from upstairs, you can be sure that I’ll be ready when “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” runs this October. For tickets and information visit www.HudsonValley.org

Picture of Ann

This is the cassette I found in a box of old tapes.

It’s amazing how finding one small thing can make you realize so much about your life, past and present. For me, the small thing was a cassette tape. Remember those? It was in a shoe box with twenty or thirty others. No, it wasn’t a mixed tape that someone made for me. It wasn’t an oral history of a long dead relative. It was me. Twenty years ago.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I made a go at being a singer/songwriter. My goal was to make some demos, get a record deal and then, well, I hadn’t really thought much farther ahead than that. Making a demo was much harder then than it is now. In those days, the idea of recording onto computers was as alien as, oh I don’t know, carrying a tiny telephone in your pocket that also takes pictures and plays music.

Back when I was young-I still have that guitar!

By 1992 or so, I had managed to attract a small following by playing places such as The Towne Crier Cafe and The Turning Point. I’d gotten some airplay and interviews on WFUV and WFDU, two local college stations.

My Dad was a staff engineer at Columbia records and decided to help me out by making a demo with “my band”. My band consisted of a trio of older guys who liked my songs and decided to pitch in as well. Here’s a tip for younger musicians: play with older musicians any chance you get. They’ve heard it all, they’ve played it all and you’re probably not showing them anything new. You’ll learn a lot and your songs will sound better because of their musicianship. I was really too immature to appreciate this.

Here's another press photo from 1989. There wasn't a lot of traffic.

Anyway, one Saturday my dad, the band and I gathered in a high school gymnasium in Connecticut to make a demo. We recorded the band and me live to two track DAT (remember those?!). There were no overdubs, no punch-ins, no nonsense. We just played and Dad pressed record.

Twenty years later, I’m scrambling to find a cassette player that works. OK. Got one. It was out in the garage. I patch it into my mixing board, press play and bring up the faders. Holy crap. The instruments sound great. The playing is tight. The mix is clean, nothing is hidden. They were all pros, my Dad and the guys.

But then there’s me. Not a pro. Not then. That’s clear. I’m the weakest thing on this recording. I mean, the guitar playing is pretty good (I’m the acoustic guitar on the right) but my voice seems to have a pretty tenuous relationship with pitch and isn’t particularly expressive. If I was a record exec and heard that voice, I would’ve passed also.

So why did they do it? Why did my Dad and these guys go out of their way to help me out? What I remember them saying is that they liked the songs, which brings me to, well, the song. I wrote “Picture Of Ann” about a girl named, not surprisingly, Ann.

Short story: I liked her. I asked her out. She stood me up. A few times. Why would I let someone do that? Well, if I had a picture of Ann, I’m sure you’d understand.

Ann is now a mom with two kids, one of whom has been my assistant at one of the historic sites where I perform. Ann has an entirely different memory of the events that inspired her song. Doesn’t matter now.

I think this old tape may have stretched a bit. It seems a little slower than I remember. I hope you enjoy the song. You can listen here:

Picture Of Ann (1991)

Jonathan Kruk’s “Legend” in the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow.

After a long run as “The Pirate King” at Philipsburgh Manor, Historic Hudson Valley created a new event, “Jonathan Kruk’s Legend”, featuring, of course, the great Jonathan Kruk. Jonathan and I had been performing at Legend for years, but at completely opposite ends of the event, so our paths rarely crossed. When I was invited to compose and perform a live score for his performance, I jumped at the chance to work with such a, ahem, legendary performer.

Here I am trying out the pipe organ in the Old Dutch Church just before our first rehearsal.


Jim Keyes a video by PhotoByAnthony on Flickr.

This is me, back in my studio, performing “Welcome To Sleepy Hollow”, the overture for the show:

Finally, of course, we have Jonathan doing his thing:

The Pirate King at Philipsburgh Manor’s “Legend Weekend

Here I am relaxing before an evening of piracy.

“The Pirate King” was a character I created for Philipsburgh Manor’s “Legend Weekend”, an annual event that ran during the month of October for years and years. In 2010. they created a new event “Horseman’s Hollow”, which proved to be very popular. Since then, I’ve been playing a live pipe-organ score for “Jonathan Kruk’s Legend”, which has also become very popular. In October 2011, it will run for every weekend night, but that’s a whole other post.

Here are a selection of videos of me performing the character. These were taken over the years by visitors to the event and posted on YouTube. Enjoy!

I always like to start the show with a little shtick..

“Matty Groves” is an old song about lust, infidelity and murder…

“I Wanna Be Pirated” is a take off of one of my favorite Ramones songs…

“Polly on the Shore” is a great old Pirate Song…