Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Playing w/ the Pros

(All pics on this post are from Zoe Krylova's camera!)

After my tumultuous departure from the Greater Portland Metroplex, it was time for some good old time religion. That would be coming from the talents of nine very fine musicians coming together in various combinations over the course of five days. The goal was to rehearse a bunch with musicians who had never really played together and see if we could come up with a palatable performance for a Tibet-centric audience on the eve of a talk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Headlining the bill was Techung, the most popular Tibetan folk musician performing today. Techung was schooled at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) situated high above McLeod Ganj, the Dharamsala neighborhood that houses the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple. When I lived in Dharamsala, I was privileged to interview TIPA secretary Tenzin Lhaksam for 90.4 Tashi Delek FM radio. The podcast can be found here.

Joining Techung was Rinzig Tibet Wangyal of New York, one of the most intuitive guitar players I’ve ever had the privilege of playing with. Also just a screamer of a player when he’s plugged into a pedal and all juiced up.
Techung and Rinzing taking a slow morning in Earlysvill, Va.

The backing group was Charlottesville’s Jam Thicket, a band of four hardened local musicians who have coalesced in the rural hills of Albemarle County after more than 100 years of collective band experience. And just so we didn’t appear completely old and out of touch, 17 year-old Mia Bathke and her Dad, Michael, drove down from Milwaukee , Wisconsin to spice up the night with their great harmonies. I was gonna get a tune or two thrown in just for kicks. You gotta like having a guy in a wheelchair on stage right? Right...? 

Jam Thicket

The night before the gig we gathered at the home of keyboard player Victor Benshoff where the normally calm and collected band nervously set up gear, not knowing what to expect from the new musicians added into the mix. Jam Thicket which consists of Benshoff, Guitarist Dave Hersman, Drummer Warren Jobe and my brother Dan on bass, are as grounded and rehearsed an outfit as you’re going to find. Internally they’ll always find minute faults that drive them crazy, but to the naked ear the music isn’t rock, it’s granite.

Victor Benshoff

Warren Jobe

As they ran through a couple of their standards (Zappa, Allman Bros., Dick Dale covers), I plugged in and tried to make as little awkward noise as possible. Occasionally Hersman would toss me a lead at which time I stuck to the sage motto Dan taught me years ago about playing leads: If it sounds bad, don’t play it; if it sounds good, play it again. It seems almost stupidly simple, but if you stick to that premise, they’ll let you on stage with anyone. One bad noise can offset 30 minutes of great playing.

An hour into the rehearsal, Techung and Rinzig knocked on the basement door after long trips from Atlanta and New York. This is when the event began to take on a magical quality that stayed in tact for the next five days. Dan greeted Techung and Rinzig with traditional Tibetan kata scarves as we anxiously waited to see what would unfold. We had all heard some of Techung’s music, but none of us, bar Dan, had any idea how to play any of it. Techung arrived with a bag of tricks that included a pair of guitars, a 3-string dramyin, a dulcimer, a collection of flutes & recorders and this odd string-bow instrument called a ‘piwang’ (sometimes 'pewang'.  

Techung on the Piwang.

The piwang has two strings, but the bow is actually intertwined into the strings. The musician draws the bow back and forth and changes the tone by applying pressure on the two strings. The resulting haunting melody lines are nearly inseparable from the vocal timbre behind it. That is, IF you’re hearing the music being played by a master.

Jam Thicket took a step back as the Tibetans looked over the setup and decided where they belonged. This was their gig, but being completely unselfish and giving musicians, they didn’t want to over step their boundaries. Rinzing unpacked his axe and sheepishly plugged into Hersman's setup in front of the drum kit. We knew these two were pros, but that can mean a lot of things. That might mean they sing great, but don’t really play that well. That might mean they detune all their instruments and play some kind of music none of us had ever played. Or, in the case of Rinzing, it meant that he could just play the shit out of anything you put in front of him.

Dave Hersman

After we initially slapped a couple of leads around and I quickly firgured out he knew how to play, I asked him if he wanted to play one of my songs to get things going. He agreed and I taught him a simple, but powerful song I wrote in Dharamsala about Kalsang Namsto, a Tibetan Nun who was murdered by Chinese border guards while crossing into Nepal. I ran Rinzing through the chords and started into the song. Normally it’s a nice slow ballad with a peak towards the end. But Rinzing stepped on his borrowed pedals and shredded the song to pieces. I’ve got a couple of leads worked up for it, but it would have been a total embarrassment pulling them out after he’d just ripped the song a new one.

Yours Truly sounding much better than I do at home, thanks to Jam Thicket.

So we knew they could rock, but playing the Tibetan Folk music was another effort all together. The tempos are quite different and the two of them weren't sure exactly how they were going to arrange each song. After about 20 attempts at two different songs, none of them ever sounding quite right, the decision was made that Techung and Rinzing would play by themselves and Jam Thicket would join them towards the end of their set for a few tunes.

After rehearsal, we loaded up the gear into cars and escorted Techung and Rinzing back to Dan’s house in Earlysville where they would stay for the duration of the festival. Not only were they playing our little gig, the two of them were also opening for His Holiness as he spoke to 5000 at the Charlottesville Pavilion.

This also meant that floor space at Dan’s house in pastoral Earlysville, 30 minutes from the venue, would be at a premium. Dan’s wife Zoe met us at the door and showed us how she’d transformed her living room into a luxury suite. We slugged a final beer, trying not to wake up three-year-old Tristan, then went down to get some much needed rest before the next two action-packed days.

All this activity was a candy shop for the curious Tristan.
Early the next morning the house was up and buzzing while the locals tried to have as normal a morning as possible, getting ready for school and work. But Tristan, being as curious a fellow as you’ll ever meet, was gushing w/questions about the two guests sleeping in his living room. I was desperately low on sleep after my horrid trip in from Portland and slept in as long as I could until I was woken by Michael and Mia arriving from Milwaukee.

Can't tell who's more curious - Mia or Tristan. 

It was a glorious day in Albemarle County and as soon as Michael and Mia unpacked and got settled in, the house began filling up with music. Michael and Mia were working up their set in the sun of the back porch while Techung and Rinzing filled up the living room with music from the other side of the world. The Tibetans let me sit in on their rehearsal for a bit so I could teach them a couple of songs we’d decided on for a full jam at the end of the show. After an hour, I still had a hard time finding my way through their material, but when I showed them the chords to All Along the Watchtower, they had it down in less than ten seconds.

Eventually we packed everything into a couple of cars and made our way to the Southern, a high-tech studio-quality venue in the middle of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Andy, the owner and sound tech of the Southern had a monster job on his hands trying to funnel the sound of nine musicians and more than 20 instruments to each part of his club – as well as arranging the complicated monitor mix on stage.

 It’s easy blasting out a bunch of sound to an audience. The hard part is making sure musicians on stage can hear each other. Nearly all of us had a vocal part or two and that means you need to hear the harmony parts of somebody standing three loud amps away. Often times you can be sitting right next to someone on stage and not be able to hear their instrument. This requires stage monitors to be individually tuned so that the band can actually hear itself. It’s not easy to do, and when it’s not done right, musicians are furious, not delirious as they may appear.

It's da Gizard. 

But Andy is an absolute sound maniac and with just a little bit of sound checking and stage managing, everyone was ready to go. Michael and Mia opened up the show and it’s just stupid to try to describe how cool they sound. Just do yourself a favor and take a listen to one of Mia’s tracks. I’ll let that speak for itself!

Mia Bathke - don't know her now -> you will soon!

Next Techung and Rinzing took the stage before a curious crowd of band friends and Tibetan supporters. Needless to say the performances were stunning and surreal. I could continue to write, but it’s really pointless. I’ll let you open up a track from Techung’s website and let you scroll through the pics on Zoe's Flickr page.

Jam Thicket took the stage for the last 90 minutes and thrashed through their set of clever originals and spot-on covers. I got to join them for a handful of tunes, with the only disappointment being that Rinzing was not around to rip the snot our of Kalsang, like he had the night before. We would have loved to stay up and jam all night, but the week had just begun, His Holiness was speaking in the morning and we had lots more music in us as time went on. 

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