Monday, January 20, 2020

The NAMM Show report: Jan. 16-17, 2020

photo: George A. Paul

By George A. Paul
Freelance Journalist

Another NAMM Show concluded on Sunday as 115,000 music industry professionals and invited guests converged at the Anaheim Convention Center and adjacent hotels to take in new product innovations, instruments, education sessions, live performances, artist signings, award shows and more.

Held annually over four days, the Southern California convention presents thousands of exhibitors from around the world. 

Yamaha Corporation of America is among the biggest music manufacturers to display their wares at NAMM. The year, the company - whose name adorns one in every four instruments sold worldwide - exhibited more than 75 new products at its cavernous Anaheim Marriott/Marquis Ballroom space.

A family-friendly portable keyboard with high quality voices and special learning tools and an acoustic guitar series (the company sells more than anyone else) featuring the Atmosfeel pickup and preamp system were a couple examples.

Yamaha also presents the large evening Concerts on the Grand at the large outdoor plaza. This year's shows included Los Angeles metal band Animals as Leaders (a last-minute replacement for Sarah McLachlan), Tower of Power and the All Stars show.

photo: Bob Steshetz
Friday's All Stars concert saw Sinbad return as host and primarily focused on R&B and urban music. The exception was Kenny Loggins, who brought some pop to the proceedings with his hits “This is It” and the rarely performed “Heart to Heart” (both were co-penned by Michael McDonald).

The large house band was led by veteran bassist Nathan East and keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. And of course, Loggins did “Footloose.” The closing act comprised the three core members of Earth, Wind & Fire - singers Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson, plus bassist Verdine White. Early member Larry Dunn even joined them on keyboards for a bit.

Their totally jubilant six-song set made the audience go crazy. It included “Sing a Song,” “After the Love is Gone,” “Let’s Groove,” “September” and Bailey's solo hit with Phil Collins, “Easy Lover” (a female backing vocalist joined Bailey). The latter was a perfect choice, considering East co-wrote and played bass on the top 5 hit in 1985.

All the other artists on the bill (Verbal Ase, Mr. Talkbox, Avery Sunshine, Shelea)
returned to the stage to cap everything off with a cover of James Brown’s “Living in America.”

photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for NAMM
My NAMM Show 2020 experience began early Thursday morning with the Breakfast of Champions session, where NAMM President and CEO Joe Lamond presented singer/guitarist Jason Mraz with the Music for Life Award for his charitable efforts. 

Mraz said he was very fortunate to have access to music education while growing up in Virginia. "Music shaped my life and gave me so many opportunities." Mraz was in chorus and had teachers who saw promise in his talent at an early age.

Lamond asked about the Jason Mraz Foundation and the artist said he works with schools in his native Richmond, Va. and current home in San Diego to help inspire and support music programs. 

"We try to breathe life into the arts," Mraz said. "We don't have a government that funds a lot of these programs, so it depends on donors...inspiring (children and young adults) to get involved in music is "a fun way to spend your time" and "a profound and beautiful use of our time." 

Next, I was onto “Stories Behind the Sessions: Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.” at the Harman International booth.

photo: George A. Paul
Christian Hand, a DJ from KLOS/95.5 FM Los Angeles known for his “The Session” segments and Toby Scott, who engineered the classic album (along with many others in The Boss catalog) had a frequently fascinating 50-minute demonstration and discussion about the songs and recording process.

Scott provided some background about how several BITUSA tracks originated from solo acoustic predecessor "Nebraska." Since the latter couldn’t be mastered, it was released in demo form.

Then Scott talked about the protracted BITUSA album sessions. When Hand played isolated instrument and vocal stems from the title track, it was surely a revelation for many Bruce tramps in attendance. Scott said the original jam at the end of the song was cut down from eight minutes and noted how the melody structure was somewhat similar to “Hungry Heart.”

“You don’t need a lot of changes for a hit song,” he noted.

Having gone through multiple permutations, “once the ‘BITUSA’ song started in this (final) variation, it set the stage for the whole album.” Scott told how manager Jon Landau said they needed a single, so “Dancing in the Dark” was penned overnight and recorded at New York City’s Hit Factory while the other songs were still being finished at the nearby Power Station.

Hand cued up Springsteen’s amazing isolated Telecaster guitar and vocal tracks on the computer and projected it on a screen. “We would call Bruce’s guitar the ‘primal strum,” said Scott. “There is no restraint in Bruce’s vocal. I’d say, eight out of 10 times, we’d use a live first take vocal,” recalled Scott.

The engineer told a humorous story about how the studio owner often visited to check on how things were going, thus slowing down the process even more - until Landau asked Scott to politely ask the owner to stop showing up. “There were no other visitors during the sessions.”

Later, when Hand asked what advice Scott would give to young engineers, he replied, "when you’re working, do the best job you can.” As an example, Scott proudly said Springsteen’s 1995 acoustic album "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (that he also engineered) contained “all rough mixes.”

photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images for NAMM
Over at the Apogee booth, Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Theron "Neff-U" Feemster (Michael Jackson, Train, Sia) did a brief interview with Randy Jackson. The musician/producer/manager and former "American Idol" judge said these days he "loves what's happening in Nashville so much because they focus on the song."

Although the advent of ProTools and technological advances have "made everything an option, what happened when you didn't have options and just had to be good - like with Motown and country music?" asked Jackson. 

"When I was coming up in Louisiana, it was all about being the best," he continued. "Early in my career, I met with [legendary Motown songwriting team] Holland-Dozier-Holland and they told me everything I did had to be great."  

John Jorgenson’s electric guitar versatility was on full display during a riveting 40-minute set Thursday afternoon at the Pioneer Pro Audio Arena Plaza Stage outdoors near the Anaheim Convention Center’s newish North extension.

photo: George A. Paul
Ace musicians like bassist/fellow Redlands, Calif. native Davey Faragher and drummer Charlie Morgan (the guitarist used to play with him in the Elton John band) backed up a mighty impressive Jorgenson. 

They performed the Hellecasters' dynamic and upbeat instrumental “Back on Terra Firma,” a beautiful take on Rodney Crowell's poignant "Wandering Boy" (Jorgenson played on the 2001 album "The Houston Kid"), a feverish rocking take on Arthur Lee & Love’s “A House is Not a Motel,” B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get” (Jorgenson gave a shout out to Gary the Fuzzman, who was watching nearby) and George Harrison’s hypnotic “Love You To,” complete with Indian music effects. Jorgenson really pulled out all the stops with his expressive playing at the end.

Dashing back inside the convention center to Vox Amplification's booth, I saw Lindsay Ell do a sumptuous half hour performance inside a nice private music room. The Canadian country/blues singer is quite a guitarist, as I first witnessed a few years ago on the Mane Stage at Stagecoach fest. Ell's most memorable moments included a fun and infectious "Good," her top 20 country hit from 2017 "Criminal," the groove-laden "Castle" and latest Dan Huff-produced single "I Don't Love You," complete with wailing vocal. 

photo courtesy of Gibson Guitars
Gibson Guitars hosted an amazing "Icons & Friends" Party at the Grove of Anaheim on Thursday night.

Hosted by John Stamos, the event boasted performances by members of ZZ Top, Cheap Trick, The Cars, Eagles, Guns 'N' Roses, Santana, Halestorm and others.

There were plenty of standout moments: Slash and Don Felder's guitar duel during "Hotel California" and the latter's solo take on Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy," Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen doing their "In Color" tune "Big Eyes," Elliot Easton of The Cars providing deft guitar work alongside singer Andy Vargas for "La Bamba" and "Oye Como Va" and Billy Gibbons doing "Jesus Just Left Chicago" (and later "Tush," with Zander).

Slash - who has a new signature line of guitars through Gibson; see elsewhere on this blog for details - weaved in and out of several songs, all anchored by a house band consisting of drummer Kenny Aronoff, bassist Darryl Jones, guitarist Jimmy Vivino and keyboardist Jeff Young.

My second NAMM Show day began with Christian Burns (pictured left) doing a short, but sweet three-song acoustic set at the Blue/Ultimate Ears booth. He started with an emotionally resonant "In the Dark" (his 2007 Tiesto collaboration) and then did a solid version of "Back Here," his 2000 adult contemporary chart topper with BBMak, before concluding with a dramatic "Temptation," off his recent All Hail the Silence project with BT.

Upstairs in the Fender Guitars room, Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World talked briefly about his signature white JA-90 Telecaster Thinline model and played "Big Casino" and "Love Never" by the band.

Friday afternoon on the Pioneer stage, Sweet Lizzy Project delivered a terrific performance. The new Cuban rock band’s impressive debut album “Technicolor” is due out Feb. 21 via Mono Mundo/Thirty Tigers and was produced by The Mavericks’ Raul Malo.

photo: Robert Kinsler
The quintet made quite an impact during a catchy “Turn Up the Radio,” where Lisset Diaz’s wailing vocals often recalled Alanis Morissette, while Miguel Comas pulled off enticing reverb-laden guitar lines.

Other highlights included the attitude-laden delivery and raw lyrics of the new wave-tinged “Ain’t Nobody to Call,” the powerful “These Words” (which received a rousing response) and “Travel to the Moon” (where Diaz's lilting vocals brought to mind late Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan). Toward the end of the set, the band did a moody, extended cover of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2,” complete with searing solo by Comas. Definitely one to watch.

Back inside the convention center, Graham Coxon demonstrated Swedish manufacturer Softube’s Console 1, a recording hardware and software hybrid, and accompanying Marshall amp plug-in. The Blur guitarist/singer used it to help compose the soundtrack for British drama series “End of the F-ing World,” which was shown on Netflix.

During the audience Q&A section, Coxon chatted for much longer than scheduled. He didn’t rule out another Blur album, saying it depended on timing and whenever bandmate Damon Albarn was rotating projects like Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, etc.

“I love doing film and TV score work,” Coxon admitted. It keeps me learning and out of trouble...I’d score the news if I could.” As soon as Coxon read the “End” script, he started to write music, fashioning one song like 1990s-era Beck.

photo: George A. Paul
Various solo projects could come out in the future (there is a “lost” album done around the time of 2012’s "A+E") because he’s done a lot of work in the last few years. There’s also another Netflix-related score set to debut next month with music referencing 1950s and ‘60s styles as well as blueman Mississippi John Hurt. Additionally, Coxon confirmed that he recently contributed to Duran Duran's next album and really enjoyed it. 

When asked about influences, Coxon admitted to listening to a lot of Steely Dan last year, while more recently, he’s rediscovered classic Blondie albums like "Parallel Lines" and "Plastic Letters."

“I was blown away by how much I hear myself in Chris Stein’s (playing). Blondie is overlooked and an incredible band. (The song) ‘11:59’ is genius.” Coxon also cited George Harrison’s guitar work as an inspiration.

“It happens over time and without you knowing. It has to do with how you identify as a guitar player. He also didn’t realize how much he’s been influenced by prog rock acts like Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator.

Getty Images for NAMM and Gibson live photos used with express permission for media from NAMM and Gibson. Find more NAMM Show coverage here:

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