Monday, September 28, 2009

Guest Blog:: Steve Dawson on the Mississippi Sheiks Tribute record

It's not very often Shane or myself really wants to give anyone else the chance to talk - especially about music on our own blog - but after the countless hours of work required to get the Mississippi Sheiks tribute record out the door, Steve Dawson has earned a few moments of your time. Plus, with such an amazing collection of artists talking about music that influences them, well, it's better to get the goods right from the horse's mouth. So here is Steve's own two cents on a project that means more to him than you can imagine.

"My wife and I were talking one day about the Mississippi Sheiks and how under-appreciated they are. I guess that's how this whole project started. We were listening to their records and somehow the idea came up of doing a tribute album. I must have had some time on my hands, because I know that on that same day that we first mentioned it, I fired off a bunch of emails to musicians and compadres from all over the place to see if anyone was interested in being involved.

Maybe if I'd known what I was getting into, I would have thought twice about it. I now have a Mississippi Sheiks folder in my email program with 978 emails in it. And those are just the ones I received. I have no idea how many I sent. That is a pretty good indication of what the whole thing took - first getting people interested in being involved, then actually booking them to record their song, dealing with managers, agents, lawyers, and labels to get approval from everyone. Hitting people up to invest in the project, approving mixes, artwork, etc.

It took about a week, but after that, I had a pretty strong indication that this project could get off the ground. The first to express interest were Kelly Joe Phelps, Jim Byrnes, and Geoff Muldaur. I'd just done some playing with Geoff at the Vancouver Folk Festival, so we had been keeping in touch a bit. I've worked with Kelly Joe quite alot over the years, and he always seems up for trying new things. Jim Byrnes and I talked about it, and I asked him about getting in touch with John Hammond. They are old pals from the 60's in New York, and have kept in touch with each other, so that was a handy connection that got me right to John. He seemed quite keen when I talked to him, although he was unsure what song he could do. I sent him a CD with about 15 tunes that I thought would be good for him to choose.

I knew Ndidi Onukwulu could nail this kind of material, and we'd recently finished her "Contradictor" record, so that one made sense. Also, a few months before I had toured with Oh Susanna in Europe. While we were there, we talked about music quite a bit, and she mentioned that she'd done some shows in LA a few years back and that while doing a promo performance at a radio station, Van Dyke Parks had phoned the radio station to say that he really liked her voice and material, and asked if he could sit in with her at a gig! So they had talked about maybe doing something together back then, but for whatever reason, this had never come to fruition. I freaked out when I heard that story, because Van Dyke is a hero of mine - both for his playing on so many great records, but also his unbelievable arrangement skills. So, I called Suzie and asked her if she'd consider doing a song for this with him doing a string arrangement. She was totally into that idea, and put us in touch. I spoke with Van Dyke a number of times at the outset of the project and he was really into being involved. Realizing there wasn't much money involved, he said to me "Steve, the kind of money we're looking at here is a crow, but god damn it. let's make this crow a noble bird!"


So, things started to progress, we did some fundraising, and got some generous contributions which enabled me to get the record made (on a shoestring!), and some of the musicians and artists also agreed to invest their time and efforts in the project as well, which really helped.

There were a number of people that I talked to along the way that never panned out, that I would have loved to have had on the record. David Lindley was one, who was into it for a time, but ultimately opted out, the Sparrow Quartet, (which would have been a really nice addition - a modern string band take on an old form), Taj Mahal, Mavis Staples, and I even tried to get in touch with Bob Dylan... no dice though. Another big one was Ry Cooder, who expressed interest and for a time was talking about doing it, but our recording schedule was pretty much the same as that for his record "I, Flathead", and I guess he just couldn't find the time to record a song for us. Oh well!

Anyway, after a time, I had a lineup in place that I felt really happy with that included a total of 17 artists."

Here's a list of the tunes, the artists, and a little bit of info on each song:

1) It's Backfirin' Now - The North Mississippi Allstars.
I really like what these guys do, and I'm a huge fan of their Dad, Jim Dickinson, who produced and played on a lot of amazing records in the 60's and 70's. I guess they liked the idea of the project and were willing to record a track at the studio at their home in Mississippi - Zebra Ranch. Jimbo Mathis was also there and they all laid down this great track. I met Jimbo at the Calgary Folk Fest a couple of years ago and he was playing some great dirty, greasy Mississippi blues. I love the energy they conjured up on this killer tune.

2) Things About Comin' My Way - Ndidi Onukwulu
I worked with Ndidi on her record "The Contradictor" and I knew she'd be perfect for this kind of material. We had a great session in Seattle where we recorded the majority of this record in 2 days. The house band was me, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Matt Chamberlain on drums, and Jesse Zubot was there for this track. I had an idea for the groove and feel for the band, so we went over that, and then laid down 3 takes of this song with Ndidi singing live with the band. This was the 3rd take, and everyone's favourite.

3) Stop and Listen - John Hammond
This tune is what turned into the Howlin' Wolf song "Smokestack Lightning". John was keen to be on this project, and felt this would be a good song to do. He came out to meet me in Ottawa, where I was goin to record the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We did 3 takes of this song with Dom and Rhianna from the Chocolate Drops playing jug, kazoo, fiddle, bones, banjo, all kinds of stuff. IN the end, I got John to record a solo version as well, and the simplicity and killer performance by John on the solo version is what we went with in the end.

4) Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down - Bruce Cockburn
Bruce was really into the project from the beginning. He put alot of thought into the songs that he could work up, and I get the feeling spent quite a bit of time working up an arrangement that he could call his own. The guitar intro is so signature Cockburn, but still has the spirit of the original. Bruce came out to Seattle for our epic session. He was slated to record at the end of the day, so he got there about an hour early and hung out while we were working on another track. We put Bruce into an isolation booth, as he's a farily quiet singer, and was playing acoustic guitar. The rest of the band - Keith, Matt, Wayne and I were in the main room. Bruce played us his song and we worked out a few ideas, although the whole thing was very much driven by his guitar, we basically had to fall into place behind it. I think we did 3 takes. We did a few takes as well of his guitar solo, and then he said "this would sound good with a room full of drunks singing". We had had a beer or maybe two by then, so we didn't quite qualify, but close enough... so we all (the full band plus my wife Alice, and Bruce's friend Daniel) went out into the studio to sing along with the last verse. a room full of drunks indeed! William Cairn did the trombone as an overdub in Toronto.

5) Bootlegger's Blues - Oh Susanna (with arrangement by Van Dyke Parks)
The idea with this one was to record a bed track that Van Dyke Parks could use to write a string arrangement. It was just Suzy on vocals, me on guitar and Keith Lowe on bass. Van Dyke wanted it done to a click track so that it would be easier to write a midi score for that could later be recorded with real instruments. We did a couple of takes after rehearsing it, and then suzy redid a few takes of vocals and we were done. I tried to leave lots of space within the performance for the strings, but I had no idea how it would all come together. I emailed the tracks to Van Dyke, and in a few days he sent me a midi score that totally blew my mind. I seperated his score out into a cello part, two violins and a viola - a standard string quartet. We decided that we wanted it to sound like a larger ensemble, so I set out to track all 4 parts 3 times each - 12 string parts. Jesse Zubot came by and we worked on it for a long time. The violin parts were tricky because it was so syncopated and weird, but it really started to take shape after a couple hours. We just did the violins on the first day - it was a long session. Then I brought Peggy Lee by to do the cellos. She is an amazing reader, and the cello part isn't too weird - it kind of follows the bass line that keith laid down. She nailed it. Jesse came back another day for violas, and I broke out the part into 2 different viola parts, so there were now 16 string tracks. The final result is really crazy and cool. The strings totally play around the lines that Keith and I originally recorded. The tracks you hear on the final version are those original tracks, plus strings, plus added drums by Matt Chamberlin, and a redone vocal by Suzy, who felt like she wanted to up the ante with her vocal after she heard the final tracks. She did a really ripping vocal!

6) Sitting On Top Of The World - The Carolina Chocolate Drops
This was the Sheiks big hit,a nd someone had to do it! Who better than the Chocolate Drops, who are creating some of the greatest new stringband music out there. We did some takes of "Too Long" and "The Jazz Fiddler" as well, but I liked the interplay on this one with the full band, and thought they really breathed some life into this classic. Very simply recorded, also in Ottawa, the 3 of them in a room, facing each other, some nice old mics and that's it!

7) Too Long - Danny Barnes
When I called Danny about being on this project, he seemed really keen, and he knew alot of their material, but had to figure out what would suit him best. It didn't take long for him to get back to me with this song. It's an odd little tune, with a unique set of chords, unlike the Sheiks' bluesy material. Danny showed up at the Seattle session and we discussed whether we should go "string band" or have drums on this one. Matt was very accomodating and came up with his part - basically a kick drum and a hihat, with the occasional fill. Jesse Zubot was also in on this one, and Wayne was set up behind my pump organ. This one went down incredibly quickly. Maybe 2 takes. Danny wanted to give me some options for his solo, which he played on the banjo, and sang along with scat-style. They were all wild and awesome, but I kept the first live take, which is the one you hear. No one scats like ol' danny barnes! We ended up redoing fiddle, slide and pump organ solos though, as no one was really happy with their takes on that one, but the rest of the take is just as it went down, although I added Jeanne Tolmie on backup vocals later.

8) Jailbird Love Song - Jim Byrnes
This tune was done during the sessions for "My Walking Stick", JIm's last album. We recorded it in Vancouver. The band was me, Keith, and Stephen Hodges, who is Mavis Staples' and John Hammonds' drummer. The loping feel on this one was one that fell into place quickly. It's a tricky one for Jim to sing because the syllables are all over the place and there are lots of words in a short space. I think we ended up redoing the vocals later at my place. The guitar I used was Jim's '42 Gibson L5. I had it plugged into 2 amps, and one of them was totally distroing. I think it had a broken speaker or something was loose. I never really noticed until I started mixing, and then heard this really raunchy tone coming out of it. Anyway, I went with that over the clean sounding one. Jesse Zubot was overdubbed later.

9) That's It - Bill Frisell
Bill was really into the idea, and I suggested he tackle this tune, which is one of 2 instrumentals that I know of by the Sheiks. This track was done at his friend Matt's place in Seattle. I love the interplay, and how Bill pulls out some nifty ragtime chords at the end under the trombone solo (by Steve Moore). Bill sent me this version, along with another version without the tremolo guitar overdub. I liked the version with the overdub better, so that's what we used!

10) Please Baby - Madeleine Peyroux
I met Madeleine in Vancouver when I opened for her at the jazz festival. When I asked her to be a part of this she was really into it. I sent her a few different tunes, and she picked this one that I think suits the sultry edge of her voice that I really like. She was all set to come to Seattle, but literally the day before the session got hung up in LA working on her new record, and couldn't leave. So, I got her to record a version of her doing the tune on her own so I could get a good feel for a key and tempo that seemed right for her. We then recorded an instrumental version of the song based off of the demo she sent. It's one of those tunes that is pretty open to interpretation and had she made it to Seattle, it might have turned out completely differently. In any case, we got a really cool lopey kind of groove for it, and I sent it to her in New York, where she went in and recorded some vocals for it. After that, I put in a little bit of pump organ, vibes and mellotron.

11) Livin' In A Strain - Kelly Joe Phelps
Kelly Joe and I go back quite a ways. I've worked with him on a number of albums in one way or another. I know certain things about him in the studio, but the main one is that he likes to work fast. All of his takes are always interesting. Between takes of a song, suddenly the song will change keys, or time signatures, or who knows. Kelly Joe has about 3 takes in him before he's said what he has to say. There is no way you'll get him to do more than that, and frankly you shouldn't have to. Anyway, the key is to get set up fast, and go - so that's what we did. This was done in Seattle. 2 mics, which turned out to be good choices! He did 3 takes that were all quite different, but we went with the first one. I guess he forgot to turn off his cel phone though, because it rang at the end of the take, so I flew in a last bar from a different take!

12) Lonely One In This Town - Steve Dawson
That's me.... um... in Seattle again. I wanted to record this song with a really dry, funky feel, like some of that early 70's Ry Cooder stuff. 2 Takes and we had it. I tracked it playing the weissenborn, but later decided to go more electric, so I redid the lead stuff with my weird old strat and added some national tricone rhythm parts. I love Wayne's skanky organ playing on this too.

Check out some killer video of Steve playing this jammy jam here.

13) The World Is Going Wrong - Geoff Muldaur and the texas sheiks
When I contacted Geoff, he was actually working on this project anyway with his friend Stephen Bruton, he has since passed away. They assembled a crack band of the two of them, Cindy Cashdollar on slide, and Suzy Thompson on fiddle. They made a whole record of this stuff, that will be coming out soon. I really wanted this song on the record -it's the first one I had ever heard by the sheiks. I'm glad Geoff did it.

14) We Both Are Feeling Good Right Now - Del Rey
Del lives in Seattle, and I've always been a big fan of hers. She sort of sails under the radar of the music world, but tours a lot, teaches and always seems to be up to something interesting. I thought she'd be perfect for the record, not to mention that she knew Sam Chatmon, one of the sheiks, so it all seemed to make sense. I recorded her in Seattle, and just had her do her thing with 2 clarinets. She tracked live with one clarinet, and then we overdubbed 2 more clarinets. Great dixieland kind of feel on this one - we used lots of room mics to capture the sound on this.

15) Somebody's Gotta Help You - Bob Brozman
Bob has been a big influence on me and he's been an inspiring guy to be around on several occasions. We once did a gig in Slovakia at around 3 in the morning. The promoter was pouring booze down our throats onstage! Bob was letting the shots trickle down his beard (very wise). I was letting it trickle down my throat (unwise). I ended up falling off my chair mid-song, although the song was about 2 hours long. Honestly. It was some crazy after-hours venue and we just played and played until I fell off my chair. A great night.
anyway.... Bob and I were both at the Canmore Folk Festival last year and I took him to Banff, just down the road to record at the Banff Centre. Unfortunately, we had tech problems that night, which got to be frustrating, but Bob laid down some killer baritone National guitar and vocals live, and then overdubbed his mini Kona guitar. No one plays like Bob!

16) He Calls That Religion - The Sojourners
This one was done without the sojourners around. We tracked it instrumentally. This was done more out of necessity than anything else. I work with the sojourners alot up in Vancouver, and everything they've ever recorded for their albums has been at my place, so rather than have to set up for 3 vocalists in the middle of a crazy day in Seattle, I planned this track out instrumentally and then we tracked the vocals about a week later.
Danny Barnes was still around, and I got him to play banjo on the track which really took it in a cool direction. He does an awesome banjo solo, and Wayne Horvitz' B3 playing is really cookin' too.

17) I've Got Blood In My Eyes For You - Robin Holcomb
I first heard Robin on the Bill Frisell record "Nashville", and know her a little bit through working with Wayne Horvitz a few times (they are married). She also has a cool country-ish band in Seattle called Varmint, with Wayne and my bass player Keith. When I asked her to sing a song, she picked one, but then someone who had "blood in my eyes" planned (can't remember who), bailed on that song, and I really wanted someone to do it. I sent it to Robin, and she really liked it. It's very twisted. The material is incredibly dark - one listen to the lyrics will leave you with that impression. But coming from a woman's perspective makes it even weirder. Anyway, she showed up and had put a ton of work into the incredibly unique arrangement that we recorded. We tracked this one as a duet with Robin on piano, and Keith Lowe playing bass. He plucked part and and bowed part. The chart she had written out for it was about 5 pages long, so Wayne and I sat in the control room following along, and I think did about 3 takes. We did a bit of editing between takes, but not much. The intro and outro were both done seperately as well. Robin then overdubbed the vocals, and wayne did some B3 overdubs as well as some textural stuff on his DX7 (his secret weapon!). I then added the guitars up in Vancouver. I really didn't want to step on Robin's amazing vocals or piano stuff, but she kept encouraging me to add more, so there's actually a fair amount of guitar, weissenborn, and then some weirdo stuff, as well as a marxophone. This tune definitely stands out on the album - she really took it way outside the original structure. I'm really proud of this tune and I think it sounds amazing. It didn't really make sense anywhere on the record except at the very end.

All in all, this was an incredible project to work on. So many people were involved at various stages, it really made me realize there's so much more to producing than just the music! I hope you enjoyed a little insight, and will hopefully dig the music! Long live the Sheiks!

MP3:: Things About Comin' My Way - Ndidi Onukwulu

Labels: awesome, , , Mississippi Sheiks, Steve Dawson

Posted at 4:59 PM by ack :: 1 comments

add to facebook add to Digg this Googlize this post add to Yahoo

At 2:26 AM, Blogger Darrick Baxter did sayeth:

Love it dude!!!

I think i saw this dawson or his band at a festival down there. im from Canada! woot woot.

darrick baxter


Post a Comment