Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NAMM 2014: Performances and more

A version of my article originally appeared at

photo courtesy of NAMM
For many music industry professionals, the winter NAMM Show’s return to Anaheim Convention Center this past week was the year’s top priority. While walking through the large trade show floors, it was common to hear people say their schedules were arranged around the annual trip to O.C. or how much they couldn’t wait to come back.

International retailers touted their regular products and lateste innovations. New and established musicians used it to discover, network and promote tools that help them fulfill their creative ambitions.

Brian Transeau is a key example of the latter. The American electronic dance artist known as BT (shown below) spent more than a decade refining Break Tweaker with help from Massachusetts company iZotope. During a demo of the drum synthesizer and beat machine product Thursday afternoon, he showed how to stretch and subdivide music notes in different meters as onlookers gasped.

photo courtesy of NAMM
Loud EDM sounds blaring from the small iZotope booth expectedly drew a big crowd. 

“There are so many firsts,” BT excitably stated to the assembled throng. “It breaks the usual paradigm … I’m scared to see what dubstep producers will do with this.” 

Leland Sklar, on the other hand, mainly utilizes NAMM to see old friends and connect with European and Japanese vendors he usually only communicates with via email.

“For me, it’s mainly about the social experience than hunting down new gear. There’s not much new stuff I need at this point,” admitted the veteran bassist, whose extensive studio session credits since the '70s includes work for Phil Collins, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon. “To me, everything here is like reinventing the wheel.”

“A few years ago, it was depressing with the state of the economy,” he added. “I really feel the energy of the music business now.”

Singer Will Champlin, 30, third-place finalist on the recently completed season of NBC’s The Voice, said he’s been going to NAMM for half his life: “I like seeing the new products and software for making cool new sounds.” Champlin was specifically hunting for a good wireless pack, in-ear monitors, headphones and microphones.

photo by George A. Paul
Fellow music competition show finalist Elise Testone (from 2012’s American Idol, pictured left) attended her inaugural NAMM and played at the Westone Audio booth.

Passionate, bluesy songs like “Can’t Get Enough” and “Still We Try” rose above the noisy din on the convention center's floor and served as a preview of her debut album, In This Life, due next month.

“I think it’s important to be aware of what the music community has to offer. We’re all on the same level,” Testone said. She felt the show’s major benefit for musicians was to “get up to date on all the latest equipment.”

Nashville pop/rock artist and NAMM newbie Ben Rector felt it was “great to see what’s new out there and reconnect with the companies you enjoy.”

Obviously another big part of the trade show is the live performances. Dozens of acts played on five stages located in or around the hall and adjoining hotels, plus vendor booths.

photo courtesy of NAMM
Saturday night, Hall of Famer Robby Krieger (pictured) headlined the large outdoor GoPro Stage on the Grand Plaza. The former Doors guitarist and his five-piece band Jam Kitchen included two sax men who cooked up a heady musical brew despite a muddy sound mix.

Opening the 90-minute set with some trippy instrumental jazz-rock excursions, Krieger’s fingerstyle fretwork remains dexterous as ever after nearly 50 years.

“Here’s one you might remember,” he said, before a hypnotic instrumental take on the Doors’ “You’re Lost, Little Girl.”

The crowd howled in recognition at the classic rumbling riff of “Love Me Two Times,” where Krieger handled lead vocals. The added sax strains were seamless and the players were clearly having fun.

Bassist Arthur Barrow (pictured below) sang/spoke the bizarre “Cosmik Debris,” by his former boss, Frank Zappa, and Krieger tore off some stinging runs. A sprightly, compact “Coffin Dodger” (off Krieger’s 2010 CD Singularity) featured memorable slide guitar.

Halfway through, guest vocalist Dave Brock, of L.A.-based Doors tribute act Wild Child, and Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz kicked the show’s energy level up a few notches. An extended “Touch Me” really benefitted from the horns; the bluesy “Back Door Man” sizzled, thanks to some musical call-and-response action between Krieger and guest harmonica player Lee Oskar, a founding member of Eric Burdon & War.

photo courtesy of NAMM
An enthralling “Riders on the Storm” found Brock in fine, brooding, Jim Morrison-esque form, and Molitz smiled broadly during his interplay with Krieger.

“Light My Fire” (featured twice on the highly recommended new Doors DVD compilation, R-Evolution) whipped the crowd into a frenzy as each musician got a chance to shine.

The guitar vet even incorporated a snatch of the Sound of Music standard “My Favorite Things.” Finally, Brock leaned over the crowd amid fiery closer “Roadhouse Blues” and people sang along loudly to the refrain.

photo by George A. Paul
Earlier Saturday, Joseph Arthur played a freewheeling set on the GoPro stage before a sparse, indifferent lunchtime crowd.

Battling sound problems, the irreverent Ohio alt-folk singer/guitarist spotlighted songs from his 10th and latest studio effort, the intriguing Ballad of Boogie Christ.

Released in two parts last year, the loosely structured concept album features appearances from Fistful of Mercy bandmate Ben Harper, Band keyboardist Garth Hudson, drummer Jim Keltner and others. It was released in the U.K. via Real World, the label belonging to one of Arthur's earliest benefactors, Peter Gabriel.

Accompanied by bassist Jonny Polonsky and a drummer, Arthur apparently dropped an F-bomb onstage and threatened to have his time cut short. Laconic, World Party-esque vocals were often paired with wicked electric guitar solos. “I’m sharing this with you in a therapeutic way,” he said. Highlights included “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water” and the rapid-fire wordplay on the intense addiction tune “I Miss the Zoo” (based on a poem).

photo by Bob Steshetz
Sheila E. headlined Friday night’s festive GoPro Stage in conjunction with the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus Imagine Party.

Before the concert started, Everclear’s Art Alexakis explained how he wrote, recorded and mixed a new pop/soul song called “Free,” with students at Los Angeles Music Academy's College of Music (where Alexakis serves as songwriting chair), then shot a music video, all in half a day. Then it was shown on a screen.

“You get back as well as you give ... tenacity is how you win in this life,” he said and proceeded to deliver a solo acoustic version of the Everclear hit “Santa Monica.” Too bad more Alexakis music didn’t follow.

Despite a ton of energy, Sheila E. and her seven-piece band turned in an erratic performance, rife with medleys. They began with several tracks from Icon, her first studio release since 2001 (due in April) and boasting appearances by frequent collaborator Prince and MC Lyte. But new Latin jazz, funk and R&B jams like “Nasty Thang,” “Lovely Day” and “I’ll Give You That” came off flat.

photo by Bob Steshetz
The large crowd ate it up, however, and Sheila’s rhythmic delivery on various drum sets and congas were still a wonder to behold.

Following an anecdote about growing up in the musical Escovedo family, she turned in a satisfactory version of “Koo Koo,” her minor 1987 R&B hit.

An ill-advised snippet of the Purple One’s “Erotic City” was followed by bigger E. tunes from the '80s, the fun and punchy “Belle of St. Mark” and groove-laden “A Love Bizarre,” which unfortunately fizzled out.

Indoors at the Marriott Hotel Lobby Stage, Camille Bloom (pictured below) was clad in a bright flowery shirt and proved to be a commanding presence during her Friday afternoon set. Often recalling Ani DiFranco and Suzanne Vega, the Seattle folk singer and guitarist (alongside robust backing vocalist Gaelen Billingsley), delivered a powerful 45-minute set, leavened with humorous between-song banter.

photo by George A. Paul
“The System Is Broken,” among three selections from Bloom’s 2013 indie EP release Big Dreams, was an intense, politically-tinged tune about “the have-nots in our culture.”

It was simply riveting. The title track was an even catchier pop confection live; tension-filled “Here You Come Again,” off the 2010 full-length title Never Out of Time, was equally strong.

Fast and feisty closer “Habit” saw Bloom hilariously add bits of Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Carly Rae Jepsen and more.

Taylor Guitars can always be counted on at NAMM to present a solid crop of promising young talent, plus a couple big names thrown in for good measure. This year was no exception.

photo by Bob Steshetz
Upstairs in the convention center late Thursday, the San Diego company’s spacious room hosted Johnnyswim, a Nashville-based Americana duo whose 40-minute performance was often akin to the Civil Wars.

Acoustic guitarist Abner Ramirez had a burnished, Ben Harper singing style during the delicate ballad “Annie” and the partially Spanish-sung “Adelina” (both from last year's Heart Beats EP). Meanwhile, Amanda Sudano belted out her vocal lines with finesse, especially on the title track and “Diamonds.” They boasted a comfortable rapport together. Looking forward to hearing the debut album in April.

Definitely one to watch.

photo by Bob Steshetz
Good Old War provided warm, inviting harmonies Friday with their Guster-meets-CSN tunes. The unassuming Philly indie folk trio let their music do all the talking. “Better Weather,” a pleasant “Loud Love” and “That’s Some Dream” fared best.

“Hello, I’m John Mayer,” joked the boyish Ben Rector, 27, at the start of a short, memorable Taylor Room appearance on Saturday.

Then the Oklahoma native poked fun at his own attire. Indeed, a self-deprecating sense of humor and adult-geared, heart-on-sleeve pop/rock songs are traits that Mayer - not to mention Matt Nathanson and Eric Hutchinson – all share with Rector. The difference? This guy adds some inspirational sentiments to the mix.

photo by George A. Paul
A 2006 John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner, the singer/guitarist has toured with Needtobreathe, regularly places in the upper reaches of various iTunes charts and gets his music placed in TV dramas.

Rector’s inspiring fifth album, The Walking in Between, reached the Billboard Top 200 tally and was tailor-made for coffee houses.

During the appealing “Easy Loving You,” Rector adeptly made up a third verse from an audience poll suggestion; the emotional “Sailboat” and dramatic “When a Heart Breaks” soared with vigor. I missed his last House of Blues Anaheim gig. Hope he returns again soon. 

Jason Mraz last played Taylor at NAMM four years ago. His return drew a capacity crowd that spilled outside the doors. Company head Bob Taylor gave a heartfelt introduction about master builder Andy Powers and fellow San Diego resident Mraz.

Accompanied by female folk-rock band Raining Jane (which added cello and mandolin strains on different songs), the amiable Grammy winner opened with a haunting revamp of his Top 10 single “I’m Yours.”

Then he offered a preview of several promising numbers from upcoming album Yes; the sumptuous “Long Drive” sounds like a real gem.

After reminiscing about his early days in San Diego, Mraz and the ladies performed the quietly elegant ballad “A Beautiful Mess” with some supple harmonies, and his sustained vocal note drew loud applause.

Finally, the smooth “Lucky” segued into Spandau Ballet’s “True” and ended the Taylor NAMM series on a high.

For even more in-depth coverage of NAMM 2014, head to: and

1 comment:

ida said...

Wow, you sure covered a lot of ground and a lot of performances!! I was only there for the Robby Krieger performance. He was awesome, as always. Clearly, those guys love playing together.