Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NAMM 2015 Roundup

Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
Here's my comprehensive coverage of the major live performances and keynote talks at NAMM 2015...

The NAMM Show returned to the Anaheim Convention Center last week and was bigger than ever.

Held annually in Southern California, the National Association of Music Merchandisers event drew a record 99,342 registrants and 1,621 exhibiting companies (a six percent increase over 2014) from around the world. There is such a dizzying amount of activities taking place over the four day trade show (ranging from product demonstrations, talks and awards presentations to musician appearances, signings and live performances) that it’s difficult to fit in everything you want to see even if you’re there for the duration. Still, I managed to see quite a bit.

JAN. 22

Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
Influential electronic artist Moby held court at the Hilton Anaheim’s NAMM Foundation Lounge for the Thursday morning Generation Next Keynote, “Inside the Practice Room.”

It was moderated by the foundation’s executive director Mary Luehrsen.

Moby discussed his traditional music background studying classical guitar, how everything changed after discovering punk rock as a teenager and said his goal as a musician and listener is to find things that resonate.

“I don’t care how it’s made, whether it’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or ‘Drop it Like it’s Hot’ [by Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell]. Each person relates to music subjectively. How it is disseminated is up to the individual. Be open to everything.”

After touching upon studies which found music education has been proven to improve students’ SAT scores, Moby asked, “so why are we taking money away from arts education in favor of sports” that can do irreparable harm? That drew loud applause.

He started working with a music therapy organization a dozen years ago and discovered “music is one of the best healing modalities on the planet. This is documented fact. So many of our individual experiences have the power to heal. I love different art forms, but nothing has affected me like music,” he said.

Then Luehrsen asked Moby about his career arc. One interesting anecdote revolved around the moderate success of “Everything is Wrong” in 1995. A more aggressive follow up “sold nothing and my career ended, basically.” A gig in Paris drew only 40 people. “I thought of going back to school.” 

Before the release of 1999's “Play” – “made on crummy equipment in my bedroom on a $10,000 budget” - it was rejected by various American labels. Upstart V2 took interest and the album eventually went double platinum here.

Moby gave advice to young musicians in the audience: “Don’t learn how to do anything else. Love what you do. Be as open minded as possible to what people say."

After his U.S. popularity took a downturn in later years, Moby focused more on Europe. A speech by David Lynch, where the director said “creativity is beautiful,” was inspiring. “It is the only thing worth pursuing,” noted Moby. “Fame and wealth in themselves deliver nothing.”

Other subjects in the thought-provoking chat included Moby’s home studio, still located in his bedroom (“I have 350 analog drum machines; the world’s largest collection”); fear of failure (“don’t be afraid to sound bad…we’re all human and get scared. Even rappers and pop stars do”). 

Luehrsen tried to get Moby to play one of his songs with the keyboards onstage. Instead, he grabbed an acoustic guitar and humorously demonstrated some of his party tricks involving cover songs.      

The best place for people to watch rising talent in an intimate live setting without distractions is the Taylor Guitars showcase room. Each year, the El Cajon, Calif.-based instrument company puts together a solid lineup on the convention center’s second level away from all the hustle and bustle below.

Chase Bryant got the ball rolling in the afternoon with a fine dose of modern country sounds. “It’s like the living room sessions in here,” quipped the 21-year-old Texas singer/guitarist, before rousing opener “Wayfarer Weather.”

The first of several tracks played from last year’s great self-titled debut EP, it expertly segued into Bryan Adams’ “Run to You.”

Bryant’s heartfelt, wailing vocal on the marriage-themed ballad “Change Your Name” was a highlight, while an upbeat new song from the upcoming full-length effort was catchy in a Hunter Hayes way.

Joking about his look, Bryant affirmed that he’s worn tight jeans and short cropped hair for several years. Then he closed with top 20 country hit earworm “Take it on Back,” displayed some fine fretwork and the group did exceptional cascading harmonies.

JAN. 23

Stewart Copeland had nearly everyone in stitches during most of Friday morning's H.O.T. Zone opening session.

The legendary drummer, best known for his stint in The Police, arrived early for his talk and graciously offered to sign items for fans. Following a quick career montage video, Copeland started his fun yet fascinating keynote talk by recalling how his music career began, an early punk band and how Sting and Andy Summers were recruited.

On the guitarist, he said, “Andy had harmonic sophistication which prompted Sting to write songs.” When the moderator asked whether they had any notion of pop stardom ahead, Copeland admitted, “We had no expectation of it lasting beyond six months.”

Having some UK hits led to record execs being in the recording studio for the first time as they made “Zenyatta Mondatta.”

There were some tidbits about songs such as “Every Breath You Take” (“we fought over it for two weeks”), “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” (“we tried it every which way; it was done in one or two takes") and “Murder By Numbers” (“it’s really raw; the first run through is what is on the record”).

Turning to technological changes, Copeland discussed how “it is a D.I.Y. world now. The threshold has been lowered. Kids these days do it all. The process has been democratized…you don’t need to practice for hours. It goes back to the campfire days. 

“The downside is the bar has been widened,” he continued. “How do you get noticed? It’s down to you and that’s an improvement. It’s no longer up to ‘the man.’”

Among the more interesting audience Q&A topics: Copeland’s shrewd self-promotion in the 1970s Curved Air days (he’d send letters to Melody Maker in different handwriting raving how brilliant the band was live – and got in the music paper) and rhythmic style (“it’s no intellectual exercise; it was all visceral and instinctive”).

Back over at Taylor, Blondfire’s indie pop music was just as enthralling in a semi-acoustic format (two acoustic guitars, drums, Moog synth) as it is on sophomore album “Young Heart.” The LA-based band has shared stages with the likes of Relient K, Kongos, Foals, The Sounds and Mowgli’s in recent years. Here, they opened with a luxurious “Hide & Seek.”

Some dual male/female vocal interplay between Erica Driscoll and tour guitarist Steve Stout sometimes recalled The Naked and Famous and Ivy (that band’s Andy Chase produced early Blondfire material). Standouts included the infectious, dancey “Dear in Your Headlights” - Driscoll called it a “party anthem” - the upbeat “Walking with Giants” and strident “Waves,” which proved perfect in this format.

The same held true for Vintage Trouble, whose most recent EP is “The Swing House Acoustic Sessions.” Following Blondfire on the Taylor stage, the LA band definitely didn’t disappoint.

Having only seen a previous appearance at the Coachella Festival from afar, this was a much better way to experience their R&B/soul hybrid sound. The amazing set started out with the guys seated on stools, but lead vocalist Ty Taylor could barely contain his enthusiasm.

Before launching with “Lo and Behold,” he compared NAMM to being like Christmas for musicians and said the band was glad to pay homage to the guitar company. A breezy “Never Mine” had the crowd dutifully waving their hands in the air upon Ty’s urging. “Strike Your Light,” propelled by Nalle Colt’s quick guitar work, featured wild call and response action and saw Ty go on walkabout like the show was in a small club. Later, he’d spin in circles and fall to his knees recalling the heyday of James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Finally in electric mode, Vintage Trouble closed with the powerful “Blues Hand Me Down.”

There are plenty of hot tickets at NAMM. One of the most sought-after is the Yamaha Dealers Concert. Presented at the Hyperion Theater in Disney’s California Adventure park, the Friday evening event featured top names in jazz, classical, adult contemporary pop and soul music. Many of them played a Yamaha piano.

It was emceed by actor/comedian Sinbad, who arrived onstage pretending to play trumpet in front of the large house band and orchestra. YouTube sensation The Piano Guys opened the 3 1/2-hour show with instrumental cello and piano versions of the “Charlie Brown Medley,” a racing “Kung Fu Panda: Cello Ascends” and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” On the latter, main Guys Jon Schmidt and Steven Nelson were joined by their two collaborators to comically pluck and pound the inside of the piano as it was played.

Then famed sax man Tom Scott did one of his funky songs from the 1970s. Band leader/bassist Nathan East stepped front and center for a take on Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” – made supremely soulful by three female backing vocalists. David Paich and Steve Porcaro, the keyboardists for Toto, did an intriguing version of their band’s 1983 chart topper “Africa” with full orchestra. Paich even gave some background on how it was written using the technology of the time.

Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
Colbie Caillat was quite busy at various NAMM events. She was at the breakfast session on Thursday and the She Rock Music Awards on Friday night. Then she immediately came to the Yamaha shindig.

Playing acoustic guitar (accompanied by the huge ensemble), Caillat did her sweet hit “Bubbly.” Moving to piano, she performed a dramatic “Try” off last year’s “Gypsy Heart.” Considerably lightening the mood, the artist ended with the upbeat, ebullient “Brighter Than the Sun,” heightened by supple backing vocals.

Veteran Grammy-winning keyboardist/producer Bob James (the “father of smooth jazz”) displayed his prowess on some classy instrumentals.

“I’m thrilled to be playing with an orchestra,” enthused James Blunt, who apparently flew in just for this occasion. The popular Brit started out on piano for the insistent, string section-enriched “1973” and slow, solemn “Goodbye My Lover” (both UK top 10 singles). Switching to acoustic guitar, Blunt did his multi-million selling ballad “You’re Beautiful” to much applause. But the highlight was the inspiring “Bonfire Heart” from 2013’s “Moon Landing.”

Jonathan Butler was downright jubilant on his ’87 pop hit “Lies.” The smooth jazz guitarist also sang a song in his native Africa’s language before seguing into a slow and beautiful “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley. The audience gave it a standing ovation.

Yet the best was saved for last. Jamie Cullum – whose new album “Interlude” finally arrived in American stores this week – served as the de facto headliner. One of the most successful jazz/pop artists from Britain, he opened with best known number “These Are the Days,” eventually ditching a coat and rolling up his sleeves. Cullum energetically played piano, left it to sing front and center, then hopped back on the bench during the relaxed arrangement’s trumpet solo.

“Yamaha supported me from the very beginning, even when they were advised not to,” said Cullum, whose forceful style can wreak havoc on a piano. The snazzy, slow build revamp of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” was a highlight; it found him beating on the instrument and beat boxing a nod to Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” Bob James joined Cullum for a terrific piano duet of Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things.”

Prior to the syncopated glee of “Mix Tape,” the Brit admitted he “goes mental sometimes.” Indeed, he proceeded to kick away the piano bench and jump up as the orchestration swelled.

The spirited Yamaha finale featured East, Sinbad and another vocalist leading Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which East won a Grammy for playing on. 

JAN. 24

photo by Bob Steshetz
NAMM President/CEO Joe Lamond interviewed Apple co-founded Steve Wozniak for the Saturday breakfast session at Hilton Anaheim’s packed Pacific Ballroom. The absorbing conversation covered various facets of the tech titan’s life.

Regarding the 1982-83 US Festivals in Devore, Calif., he said, “the goal was to have a good product, not to make money.” The festival also was the first to use a large projection screen near the stage. Promoter Bill Graham apparently didn’t think much of it.

Neither did concertgoers when the images shown were the first satellite video link to the Soviet Union. Band sets were shared from each country. “It got some boos. Back then, the Soviets were like Al-Qaeda.”

Woz talked about designing primitive color video games, relayed that one of his goals was to “have the end in mind and ask, ‘how do I get there?’” and discussed being proud of the evolution of early Apple computers.

When Woz said he really likes musicians because “a little mischievousness leads to creativity,” it drew cheers. So did the statement that “the best engineers at Apple always had a good music background…I like simplicity. What people wear or their haircut shouldn’t matter.”

The topic of education led to Woz to recall his time spent teaching middle schoolers, but admitting that “life education doesn’t necessarily have to come from schools.” Growing up, Woz said he wanted to be an engineer and “build things to make life easier.” Much later, a life mantra of “food, fun and friends” became very important. Equally vital is “the quality of life is how much fun you had.” 
Back at the convention center, an afternoon H.O.T. Zone session featured producer/musician/label head Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney discussing their work on Bonnie Raitt’s multi-platinum, triple Grammy-winning “Nick of Time” album from 1989. 

“It’s a tour de force vocally,” said Was, about the project. “I get very emotional listening to it now. She found songs that really struck true. She’s a great communicator.

“Nobody saw that success coming,” he continued. “We didn’t think we were going to be on the radio.”

Harry Bowens, who performed in Was (Not Was) and sang background on the Raitt album, was in the audience to Was’ surprise. They hadn’t seen each other in a while and hugged.
“Bonnie blessed us with this record. She’s real and a sister for life,” said Bowens.

The third day of Taylor Room performances started with an intense 50-minute solo set by Zane Carney.

Although the electric guitarist feared his voice would give out, it never did.

Carney - whose studio and tour credits include John Mayer, Five for Fighting, Natasha Bedingfield, the “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” cast album with Bono & The Edge and more – often recalled Jeff Buckley with his fragile falsetto. Standouts included “Talk to Me Baby” and “Cry Me a River,” from the 2013 EP “Confluence” as well as the jazz standard “Round Midnight” (featuring guest vocals by his sister Paris) and the seething rock undertow of “Little Miss Untamed.”

Next up was Alex & Sierra, winners of the third season of “The X Factor.” Their major label debut came out last October. Lots of teenage girls were in the crowd (and how exactly did they get into NAMM?).

Backed by a four piece band, the pop duo – and real life couple - had a good natured repartee onstage, usually staring directly at each other as they sang the lyrics.

Striking ballad “Little Do You Know” had a dramatic buildup as Alex broke a string on one of several acoustic guitars he tried out throughout the performance.

"This is the best place for something like this to happen," he noted. A resonant cover of Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow,” with just the two of them onstage, was a perfect fit. The luxurious jazzy/rock version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” was a pleasant surprise. Then Alex & Sierra branched out into folk territory a la The Lumineers on the whimsical “Cheating” and “Scarecrow” – both high points here.

All told, it was another whirlwind and exciting time again at NAMM. Here's looking to 2016!

Read more of my Taylor Guitars coverage at:

Special thanks to Lippin Group Public Relations and NAMM organizers. Photo of Chase Bryant by Bob Steshetz 

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