Thursday, January 28, 2016

The NAMM Show 2016: A final report

photo by George A. Paul
Each January, music industry professionals from around the world descend upon the Anaheim Convention Center in Southern California for the winter NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show.
Among the biggest trade shows in America, it features displays of all the latest music gear and technological advancements, performances by rising and established performers, fan signings, seminars, demonstrations, retail instrument sales deals and much more. 

Held Jan. 21-24, The NAMM Show drew a record-setting 1,700 exhibitors and 101,000 registrants (16,000 came from 125 different countries) over the course of the event. There’s such a wide variety of things to see and do that it’s impossible to do everything. Here is a rundown of what I experienced.

Thursday, Jan. 21

Many past NAMM attendees can attest that the initial daily Breakfast of Champions Session at the Hilton Anaheim is a must see because it usually includes top name musicians live or in conversation with NAMM President/CEO Joe Lamond. The Day 1 agenda, featuring Graham Nash, St. Vincent and Jake Shimabukuro, was no exception.

First up was Shimabukuro, the acclaimed ukulele player known for his studio work with Alan Parsons, Ziggy Marley, Bela Fleck and as a frequent tour mate with Jimmy Buffett.

Accompanied by bassist Nolan Verner, Shimabukuro’s four-song set started with the title track to last year’s “Travels” CD. Using a mahogany Kamaka tenor uke, the gorgeous tune started calmly before he got into some intense strumming. A cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” saw the Hawaiian musician progressing from a light to vigorous touch and having fun.

The popular take on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – which made Shimabukuro a YouTube sensation in ’06 – was a wonder to behold. The audience applauded halfway through and the pair concluded with an intense jam.    

Joining Lamond for a brief chat, Shimabukuro discussed his career and charity endeavors. Citing the benefits of the ukulele, he said it’s tiny, affordable, very easy to play and fits with the modern lifestyle. “If you want to hike a trail, you can take it with you. I hear stories about how people started playing and it changed their lives.”

Of his involvement with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Shimabukuro said, “my heart is totally in music education…music and the arts are like P.E. for the mind.” The musician also noted that playing an instrument can help deter kids from drugs and joining gangs.
Annie Clark AKA St. Vincent talked with Lamond about her new signature Ernie Ball Music Man electric guitar. “I put all of my 20 years’ experience into it. I always looked at the guitar as a noise generator and explored ways to use it as a full palate…This is an equal opportunity ergonomic guitar. I’m a small person, so it needed to be light. I’m a fan of (early ‘80s New Wave artist) Klaus Nomi and angular shapes. I wanted it to have tone flexibility and a super-friendly neck to not discourage learning."

She recounted her time growing up in Dallas and joining The Polyphonic Spree and collaborating with Sufjan Stevens before branching off to go solo. When asked about inspirations, Clark cited Nirvana and David Bowie.
photo by George A. Paul
Graham Nash, a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash, received the Music for Life Award at NAMM and headlined Thursday night’s free outdoor concert on the plaza.

Nash put out a memoir (“Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life”) in 2013 and is set to release his first solo album in 14 years (“This Path Tonight”) on April 15 via Blue Castle Records.

With Lamond, the legendary singer/songwriter reminisced about forming The Hollies with childhood friend Alan Clark and moving to California, where he hooked up with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. “When I first heard us sing together in Joni Mitchell’s living room, I knew what we had together in one minute: that vocal sound.” Other topics Nash touched upon were...

Collaborations: “One simple thing. Music is the most important thing in (CSN’s) relationship. It’s the essence of what we do…if you show me your best, I’ll bring it every day.”

Early days recording at Abbey Road Studios with The Hollies: “You couldn’t touch the equipment, but once you sold millions, you suddenly had the power…my first
recording experience was on mono 2-track.”

Playing Woodstock with Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young): “A lot of people don’t know that was only our second gig in front of people. And we had the balls to have Joni open for us.”

Making music: “No amount of technology can make a bad song a good one.”

Life and philosophy: “I was fortunate enough to have my parents’ encouragement at a time when people said rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t last…I’m exactly the same as you. I’m grateful to be a citizen of this country.”
Inside the convention center, I caught the TEC Tracks Sessions keynote with Eddie Kramer.

The legendary producer/engineer/mixer did a frequently humorous audio-visual presentation. It included rare black and white photos from Kramer’s archives about major recordings that he worked on during the 1960s and ‘70s (Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, KISS, Frank Zappa).

Kramer relayed how he started as a tea boy in a British studio and worked in Pye Studios in 1963, recording The Kinks and Sammy Davis Jr. Moving on to Olympic Sound Studio was the “beginning of huge innovation and breaking new ground. Being independent let us be adventurous.”

There were plenty of fascinating stories from Kramer.

He recalled how Hendrix performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” live after getting an advance copy. Members of The Beatles were in the audience and reportedly were so blown away that they went back into the studio and redid the guitars. While doing the Fab Four’s “All You Need is Love” single, John Lennon played acoustic guitar in the control room and Kramer had to find a way to properly record him there.

For Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love,” they cranked the reverb up and left mistakes in. During “Black Country Woman” (recorded outside of Mick Jagger’s estate with a mobile studio), the sound of an approaching plane was left in.

“We’re so obsessed with ProTools and cleanliness. Just let the music flow.”

Among Kramer’s current projects is building a studio inside Toronto’s famed El Mocambo nightclub and his Tesla-inspired signature F-pedals, wirelessly powered through induction.

Out in The Arena section of the main convention center floor, Jim Scott was interviewed for the Working Class Audio Podcast.

The Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer/mixer - whose credits include Wilco, Crowded House, Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Sting and Jack’s Mannequin – described having to work his way up from the bottom at The Record Plant at 28 after leaving his career as an engineering geologist. The advent of MTV and demand for videos led to experience recording and filming concerts for broadcast.

Being hired for The Police concert film “Synchronicity” resulted in high profile jobs like assisting Daniel Lanois on Robbie Robertson’s self-titled CD. Scott said his work ethic revolves around “being intelligent and doing a good job…I try to say ‘yes’ to everything.

“I’m a good sense organization. I know how to get a record across the finish line.”

After 30+ years in the business, Scott said “I keep working because I love it. Some artists are picky, but your job is to keep them on task.

“It’s the best job in the world and I’m good at it. I don’t want to retire.”

Friday, Jan. 22

photo by George A. Paul
Downstairs in the convention center’s Music Metro Hall E, Southern California-based rock band Groove Session performed at the Funguy Mojo Box Guitars booth.

They used the retro-looking rectangular instruments during a tasty acoustic set. It featured selections from 2015’s “California Hurricane,” including the laid back title track, a bluesy jam bolstered by Sarven’s Manguiat’s slide guitar and the funky, Ben Harper-esque “Hold it Together.”

The Inland Empire Music Award-winning trio drew a good sized crowd and received an enthusiastic reaction – no easy feat. Acclaimed soul pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph even turned up to jam with them. 

Heading upstairs to the ESP Guitars room, John Jorgenson and Brad Davis did a 35-minute set. The former (pictured below) is best known for high profile stints with Desert Rose Band, Elton John and The Hellecasters and a Grammy-winning leader among gypsy jazz guitarists.
photo by George A. Paul
The latter guitarist has worked with Marty Stuart and Warren Zevon, had a song recorded by Tim McGraw and is widely known for his flatpicking technique.
They have recorded together and toured with Earl Scruggs, so there was a friendly rapport while playing Americana and gypsy jazz-leaning songs on Takamine acoustic guitars.
Standouts included two songs off Jorgenson’s 2015 box set “Divertuoso” - “Feather” and “Travelin’ Angels” – which finely displayed his fast-fingered fretwork and breezy folk style.
Just two weeks after the passing of David Bowie, some fans at NAMM were drawn to see 
Mike Garson, who did several demonstrations on grand piano in conjunction with Ilio's Synthogy Ivory II Grand Piano virtual instrument. 

photo by George A. Paul
The acclaimed keyboardist played on more than a dozen Bowie album from 1973-2010, ranging from "Aladdin Sane" and "Young Americans" to "Earthling" and "Reality," as well as with Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. 

Without any fanfare late Friday afternoon, he quietly sat down at the piano and proceeded to do a half hour instrumental jazz set with a standup bassist and trumpeter. Unfortunately, for Bowie enthusiasts, Garson didn't play any of his longtime employer's songs.
Yamaha always dazzles with its special show for instrument dealers and invited guests. This year’s New Product Happening was held at the Marriott. Everything kicked off with Caroline Campbell showing off her deft classical and rock skills using the Yamaha electric violin. Backed by a full band led by bassist Nathan East, she did some spirited playing on a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” that went down a storm.

Next up was Jon McLaughlin (pictured below). The Indiana singer/songwriter has recorded with Sara Bareilles, Demi Lovato and Jason Mraz, heard in movies, TV and Disney’s California Adventure, performed at the Academy Awards and notched two top 40 adult rock hits.
photo by Shalon Goss
He did two songs on piano from his latest album “Like Us.” The dramatic, yearning of “Down in History” was compelling, while the effusive, tongue-in-cheek “Don’t Mess with My Girl” arrived with McLaughlin's lighthearted boxing-themed music video in the background.  

Veteran smooth jazz keyboardist Bob James appeared via a video to play alongside the live band.
Following a quick clip introducing RevStar (Yamaha’s first new electric guitar model in a decade), Nashville’s Apollo Ltd. impressed mightily with “March On,” a tune from their debut EP that brought to mind OneRepublic.
Another song found the alt-dance duo deftly interpolating ELO’s “Evil Woman” in soulful fashion with the backing band’s female singers. They played with plenty of spirit and are definitely ones to watch. 
Saturday, Jan. 23 
The Grand Rally for Music Education, held at the Hilton, opened with music from the Canadian Brass. Incorporating humor into their introductions and performance, the veteran Grammy and Juno Award-winning music ensemble did Bach’s “Fugue in G minor” and really got the crowd excited with a cover of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”

photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
Weird Al Yankovic was interviewed by NAMM Foundation Executive Director Mary Luehrsen. A longtime advocate for music education, Yankovic talked about how starting accordion lessons at 7 was hard, but it got him to stand out. “I wanted to rock,” he said. “Playing accordion warped me, but Mad Magazine finished the job.”

Citing Sixties comedy singer/producer Allan Sherman as an early influence, Yankovic “thought I could do something similar.” While doing a radio show at his San Luis Obispo, Calif. college, he recorded a parody of The Knack’s “My Sharona” called "My Bologna" and submitted a tape to KMET FM/LA deejay Dr. Demento. The song immediately became popular.

“Part of me knew if I was serious about the accordion, I’d be playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs all my life. I tried original songs, but my twisted self” worked better.
One early song got bootlegged from the Demento show and was being played in New Zealand “way before things went viral.”

Luehrsen asked how he stays topical with the parodies and Yankovic admitted it’s “all about finding the sweet spot. It’s always a puzzle to coordinate everything and make it feel timely.”

He always makes use of the latest technology. “Doing vocals in analog is something I hope to never do again. Purists, I’m sorry. You can’t hold onto old business models.” As an
example, Yankovic mentioned making several music videos for his latest album to put on various online platforms.

Looking back at the early days of MTV, he said, “it was bad, like guerilla TV. The VJs stumbled upon their words. They let me do a 4-hour block of anything I wanted called ‘Al TV.’ You couldn’t do that today.”

Back out on the convention center floor, Mike Elizondo was at the Avid booth for a Pensado’s Place interview. With production credits ranging from Switchfoot, Carrie Underwood and Alanis Morissette to Eminem, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre, Elizondo’s appearance drew an overflow crowd.

He admitted about working with Underwood, “I was nervous at first because I’d never done country. She immediately put me at ease and said ‘don’t try.’ Keith Urban was the same way.”

Stressing the importance of being a bass player (of which he is also one): “There would be no rock ‘n’ roll” without them. "They are the bridge between the harmony and melody.”

Elizondo told aspiring musicians to “figure out where you excel and make sure your composition is as strong as it can be before showing it to people. Your voice shapes you.”

photo by Robert Kinsler
Upstairs in the Taylor Guitars room, John & Jacob closed out the El Cajon-based manufacturer’s NAMM performance schedule with a thoroughly enjoyable 45-minute set that ranged from Americana and power pop to old school rock ‘n’ roll.

John Davidson, Jacob Bryant and company wore matching maroon suits and boasted plenty of high flying harmonies that would put others to shame. The Nashville-based band put out a solid eponymous debut album in 2014 and did three of those songs live. 

Highlights included infectious harmonica-laced opener “Ride with Me,” a tight take on the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Suzie” (with Jacob wielding a well-worn Taylor acoustic guitar), the rockin’ “Done” (a Band Perry hit they co-wrote), The rave up “Problematic Chemistry,” a frenetic “Oh Melissa” (self-described as “our acoustic harmonies meet punk”), plus the jaunty “Be My Girl,” which was punctuated by trumpet and featured on ABC TV’s “Nashville.”

The big outdoor evening Legends Concert on the Grand Plaza Stage included several singers who came to fame in the 1960s and ‘70s, performing a couple songs each. They admitted they didn’t rehearse or sound check, so things got a bit rough at times. Yet the spirit was still there. Guitarist Spencer Davis handled lead vocal on his band's “Gimme Some Lovin’” (originally by Steve Winwood).

Keyboardist Bill Champlin of Chicago proved the best of the lot while turning in a soulful cover of George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around” with assists from female backing vocalists. Founding Toto singer Bobby Kimball was quite a character, doing a grandiose delivery on hits like “Africa” (Dexter Espinoza handled the verses), “Hold the Line” and an extended “Rosanna,” where Champlin sat in.

Chuck Negron did admirably on Three Dog Night staples “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “One” and “Joy to the World.” Jim Sohns from The Shadows of Night led everyone in an all-star finale of his 1966 hit “Gloria.”

Later that night, singer/songwriter Will Champlin - who finished in the top 3 during Season 5 of NBC TV singing competition "The Voice" and is the son of Chicago's Bill Champlin - played tracks from his 2014 album "Borrowing Trouble" at the Marriott stage.

Performing solo, he looped added music and vocals to get a "one man band" sound. Folk/blues tune "Heat of Passion" (heard on HBO), found Champlin adding slide guitar and wailing. The stomping "Borrowing Trouble" proved equally intense.

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