Tuesday, January 24, 2017

NAMM 2017 recap

More than 100,000 music industry professionals and guests from around the world converged on the Anaheim Convention Center  this past Thursday-Sunday to attend the 116th NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show.

From live performances and discussions to product reveals and demonstrations, there's never a shortage of things to see and do at the event. I spent three days there and still didn't hit everything that I wanted to check out. 

Torrential Southern California rains wreaked havoc on NAMM attendees' schedules, outdoor gigs and the convention center itself (which sprung several leaks) on Friday.

Inside the ACC, a different type of chaos reigned: by noon, the noise level from people trying out instruments had already reached a fevered pitch.

Headline acts and newcomers perform at various stages around NAMM. Upstairs at the ACC, the Taylor Guitars room hosted several next-big-things you're sure to hear more about in the future, plus one bonafide hitmaker (Andy Grammer of "Honey, I'm Good" fame).

Here is a rundown of my experience...


The daily NAMM U Breakfast Sessions, hosted by NAMM president and CEO Joe Lamond, always include thought-provoking interviews and music. On the first morning, he saved the best for last by presenting Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Robbie Robertson with the NAMM Music for Life Award.

Then the pair had a fascinating, but brief discussion about Robertson's tenure in The Band and later work in film soundtracks.

As a young musician in Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks, Robertson said "one of your big goals was to absorb everything...coming from Canada, then going to the Mississippi Delta was like reaching the Fountainhead (of inspiration).

"I was 16 and in a Southern rockabilly band. Part of the magic was soaking it up, woodshedding, learning your craft. All of us were on a mission."

When members of the Hawks eventually formed The Band and backed Bob Dylan on his controversial electric tour, they were harangued. "People threw stuff at us," Robertson recalled, but I said, 'the world is wrong. This is good and they have to get used to it. That was an extraordinary experience - realizing you're in the midst of a music revolution."

Robertson recounted the famous story about how he came up with the opening line of The Band's signature song "The Weight" by looking into the soundhole of his Martin acoustic guitar and seeing it was made in Nazareth, Pa. 

Robertson on The Band's farewell concert/film "The Last Waltz": Director Martin Scorsese's "touch and instinct with music separated him" from everyone else.

"It started as a modest idea to go back to the Winterland in San Francisco where it all started (for us) with promoter Bill Graham. These different people represented spokes on the wheel of music that influenced us."

photo: Bob Steshetz
At the Taylor Guitars room, 2015 San Diego Music Award winner Tolan Shaw used looped rhythms to augment his captivating folk/pop tunes, whose nuances often recalled Jason Mraz and Glen Phillips.  

Sensual song "Tonight, All Mine" proved enticing, while the '70s groove-laden "Why Me" (off his '13 self-titled album) was about "appreciating what you've got."

That track and the gently dramatic "Mr. Moment" were inspired by Shaw's travels to far-flung places like India and Nicaragua. Both were standouts. Elsewhere, Shaw urged people to celebrate their differences before playing "Naked" and closer "Change the World."

Out on the convention center floor, Dwight Yoakam (pictured left below) strummed his new signature Martin DD-28 acoustic guitar, which has a pair of playing cards embedded on the fretboard, and played bits of "Mystery Train" and "I've Just Seen a Face." He also waxed rhapsodical about previous Martin guitars he owned and the instrument's vital role in early rock 'n' roll, country and bluegrass music history - from Elvis Presley to Stephen Stills.

photo: Robert Kinsler
"When this opportunity came up last year, I jumped at the chance" to do it, explained Yoakam, seated directly across from the Martin booth and next to company CEO/chairman Chris Martin IV. Turns out the blue guitar case's "psychedelic sunset" interior was inspired by a similar design on a Rolls Royce that John Lennon owned.

RSO - the new duo comprising Richie Sambora and Orianthi - blazed a mighty rock trail on the main outdoor Grand Plaza stage at night. Despite a muddled sound mix, the former Bon Jovi lead guitarist and Aussie axe shredder still did a frequently sizzling 70-minute set.

It included solo material from each (the bluesy "Stranger in This Town," a driving "According to You" fared best), interesting covers (U2 & B.B. King's "When Love Comes to Town," Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man"), Bon Jovi numbers ("Lay Your Hands on Me," "Livin' on a Prayer," "Wanted: Dead or Alive") and a couple from their upcoming album produced by Bob Rock. RSO often traded lead vocals, played back to back and generally had a good time.


In the morning, a handful of people braved the downpour to watch Temecula chanteuse and USC student Julia Lucius kick off the Marriott hotel acoustic stage with some pleasantly jazzy folk and pop songs like the Jewel-styled "3 a.m." and "Sugar." She did fitting covers of songs popularized by Amy Winehouse (The Zutons' "Valerie" - a good showcase for Lucius' willowy vocals), James Bay ("Let it Go") and a Ray Charles/Peggy Lee medley ("Hit the Road Jack," "Fever").

John Lennon Songwriting Contest Winner Skye Strickler was originally slated to play the Grand Plaza stage at noon, but the steady rain prompted a cancellation. Instead, he shot a music video for "Where Did You Go" inside the recording studio-equipped Lennon Educational Tour Bus.

The rising dance/pop singer from Austin released his infectious debut EP "DNA" earlier this month. It is highlighted by the aforementioned track, a sensually ebullient, Olly Murs-ish "Dance the Night Away" and passionate ballad "Ripple" [stream it on Spotify and other major outlets or buy at iTunes and Apple Music]. Some college radio stations in Texas and elsewhere have already given airplay to the EP.

In an interview that afternoon, Strickler admitted to being overwhelmed at the enormity of his first NAMM. He was also thankful for the thousands of dollars' worth of music gear (Epiphone Casino guitar, Mackie Wireless digital mixer, Audio-Technica microphone and more) awarded as a prize. "Those will really help me move forward as an artist."

As far as performing in Austin goes, Strickler said "it's not a very pop-friendly place. I tend to perform to (pre-recorded rhythm) tracks, so there aren't many places to play." He hopes to do a full tour in the near future, but now is "focusing on more songwriting" and the possibility of releasing a full-length album down the road. 

Among the most sought-after tickets at NAMM is the Yamaha Music Dealers concert. This year's program, dubbed "The Heart of Inspiration," was held in the Marriott Hotel's Platinum Ballroom. The company spotlighted it's long history and new product launches. Each performer was introduced by a short film where they talked about the instruments and their background. First up were three generations of sax players: Grammy winner Randy Brecker, Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) and Grace Kelly (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). The trio strutted their stuff together on a vibrant jazz song.

photo: Bob Steshetz
Next came Butch Walker - the Atlanta rock musician, who got his start fronting Marvelous 3 in the late 1990s/early 2000s, then went onto become an in-demand producer for the likes of Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, Taylor Swift, Weezer, P!nk and countless others. Walker also has a solo career and released his eighth album "Stay Gold" last year. Backed by a full band at Yamaha, he did the rousing John Mellencamp-esque "Wilder in the Heart."

Grammy and Oscar-winning composer/lyricist/pianist Stephen Schwartz played "For Good" and "Defying Gravity" (from his musical "Wicked") alongside singer Shoshana Bean (a cast member of that Broadway production).

photo: Robert Kinsler
Then Yamaha shocked most in attendance by introducing a true superstar: Larry Mullen Jr. The U2 drummer rarely does interviews, so the revealing preview film with shots of him walking around Dublin and discussing his career was a real treat for fans in the room.

Mullen was presented with the Yamaha Lifetime Achievement Award for Musical Excellence. With self-deprecating humor, Mullen accepted the honor by saying, "part of me wonders if it's all been a terrible mistake or they chose me as a cheaper alternative to Phil Collins or Neal Peart." 

photo: Robert Kinsler
Mullen climbed behind his drum kit and played a mini-U2 set with Walker on lead vocals and the Yamaha All Stars (including bassist extraordinaire Nathan East and most of the others previously onstage).  

Walker looked like he was having a blast and did an admirable job, putting his spirited spin on "Desire," "Angel of Harlem," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Pride (In the Name of Love)." Since Martin Luther King Day took place a few days prior and the lyrics are inspired by the late civil rights leader, Mullen  dedicated the song to King's memory.

Later that evening, Chi McClean (pictured below left) brought his southern styled roots rock to the Sheraton Hotel acoustic stage. Playing before a crowd more concerned with chatting and drinking than hearing heartfelt, soulful music, the Nashville-based singer/guitarist still managed to cut through the din and make an impression. 2016's "Let Me In" is one of the best indie releases I've heard in awhile. It features former Black Crowes guitarist Audley Freed and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals, among other prominent names [get it at or].

photo: Robert Kinsler


The Breakfast Session featured a sprightly, fun set by Grammy-winning ukelele player Daniel Ho. He introduced each song, got a crowd singalong going and "Pineapple Mango" went down especially well.

Upstairs at the ACC, the TEC Tracks conversation between industry vet Bob Lefsetz and the legendary Peter Asher was very illuminating. The musician/producer/manager discussed his early career as a member of Peter & Gordon, a friendship with Paul McCartney (who dated Asher's sister Jane and lived at the family house right when the Beatles were breaking big), joining The Beatles' Apple Records, signing and guiding the early career of James Taylor and a longtime collaboration with Linda Ronstadt.

"Songwriting is a mystery," said Asher. "I find it easier to write on commission." McCartney wrote P&G's chart-topper "World Without Love." Asher still has the demo and handwritten lyrics, which is "locked away in a safe for when the money runs dry," he joked. 

More tidbits from Asher...

On working as head of A&R for Apple: "It was a live and let live thing. If John wanted to go make his naked album with Yoko, everyone said, 'just go do it.'

On Linda Ronstadt: "She turned out to be one of the smartest persons I ever met...she chose a lot of the songs she (covered) herself; the rock 'n' roll ones were mostly me."

On juggling many job roles: "I like working hard and find it exhilarating. I don't sleep much."

What he considers career milestones: "World Without Love" going No. 1; hearing James Taylor for the first time; "You're No Good" going No. 1; getting his second Producer of the Year Grammy for albums by Ronstadt, Cher and 10,000 Maniacs

Across the hall, Brian Collins and his band played some good time country music at Taylor Guitars. At times, the amiable Georgia native brought to mind the heartland style of Bob Seger and John Mellencamp.

photo: Bob Steshetz
He really impressed during songs from 2015's "Human Highway" like the catchy "Never Really Left," Lee Brice-styled "Enjoy the Ride" (where he got the crowd to sing along), a strident "Little Girl Lost" (which would appeal to Jake Owen fans) and the bluesy "Gonna Be Easy." The latter featured dual harmonica work by Collins and special guest Lee Oskar of War. 

Another TEC Tracks session spotlighted the making of Aerosmith classic "Toys in the Attic." Hosted by Mr. Bonzai, it featured the album's producer Jack Douglas and guitarist Joe Perry. Douglas vividly set the scene of what seedy NYC was like in the mid-1970s. 

"Jack pulled our nuts outta the fire; the label was gonna drop us," recalled Perry, who also said the band knew it had to hunker down in the studio after seeing a former fellow touring band fall apart. "We saw the New York Dolls crash and burn and didn't want that to happen to us." 

The producer gave Perry his "first lesson in studio etiquette" by threatening to punch him out after a studio tirade over a screeching piece of equipment.  

More tidbits...
On Steven Tyler: "He threw words out like proto rap," said Perry. "We discovered Stephen was a tormented lyricist...he had an ear for the lingo of the streets," noted Douglas.

On "Walk This Way": The rhythm was partially inspired by "Young Frankenstein."
"Stephen put double entendres in the lyrics to see how far he could go," recalled Perry. "David Johansen called and said 'that song is filthy.'"

On "Sweet Emotion": There was some backward masking - handclaps and Tyler comments - on the LP. 

Ronnie Spector's 70-minute evening set on the Grand Plaza stage, held in conjunction with the John Lennon Educational Bus, was simply glorious. Backed by a large band (men in matching suits; three female Ronettes with 1960s-styled hair and attire), the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer sounded sharp. Still saucy at 73, the lead singer suggestively tugged at her top and made guys in the front section feel special by pointing to them as she sang.  

There were plenty of archival clips on a screen that coincided with various tunes. The first of two from "American Bandstand" showed Dick Clark erroneously introducing them as "Native American music."

Between songs in Anaheim, Spector sat on a chair and told anecdotes about the good 'ol days. Several selections came from "English Heart," her solid 2016 album that pays tribute to UK hit makers - many of which The Ronettes toured with during the '60s. A tender take on The Beatles' "I'll Follow the Sun" was prefaced by a Fab Four story. "I'd Much Rather Be With the Girls"; a Rolling Stones recollection.

During the Ronettes' best known tunes like "Baby I Love You," "Do I Love You," "Walking in the Rain" and "(The Best Part Of) Breakin' Up," the harmonies were spot on.

Some selections had an added poignancy because the singers or creators had passed away: the rocking "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" (Johnny Thunders; Joey Ramone later produced a Spector remake), "Back to Black" (Amy Winehouse). The Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" was dedicated to Spector's late sister Estelle - a fellow Ronette.

Spector didn't hide her emotions, either: she wiped away tears at several points. Billy Joel's "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" - the studio version's producer Bruce Springsteen and backing E Street Band were shows on the backdrop - came off strongly, as did signature song "Be My Baby." Original Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine (now 87!) was helped onstage to recreate his famous beat in tandem with the other band drummer. Finally, a bunch of teenagers who have participated in the Lennon music education program helped perform and sing the closer, "I Can Hear Music."

Portions of my report originally appeared at
All photos by George A. Paul, unless indicated

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