Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Goodbye, Larry Hoppen (1951- 2012)

It's difficult to believe I won't see Larry again. A year ago, we played together on the final day of the Salty Dog Reunion in Ithaca New York. Prior to that, I hadn't seen him in almost forty years.

Larry achieved rock immortality by singing the Orleans' hit, "Still the One" and "Dance With Me", both written by John Hall, Orleans' guiding force and his then- wife Johanna. 

We knew each other in Ithaca NY, in the early 1970's, and although we were never in the same groups, we played together fairly often, especially when he was a member of Boffalongo, a group famous in Ithaca for originating "Dancing in the Moonlight." Larry was the guitar player, singer, sometime keyboard player and even trumpet player in the band. 

When he left town to join Orleans, with Boffalongo band mate Wells Kelly (Wells' brother Sherman, also in Boffalongo, wrote Dancing in the Moonlight),  they returned frequently to Ithaca to play at The Salty Dog, a newly opened bar with a dock right outside, where you could moor your boat and drink a beer. I'm not sure anyone ever did that, but you could if you had a boat and liked beer.

After I left Ithaca, in 1973, I rarely saw Larry. One day I googled him, wrote to his address and we rekindled our long distance friendship. 

Larry Hoppen died last week at the age of 61. He was a few months older than I am. He left a wife and twin daughters. His voice still rings out on oldies stations around the world every day.

Now, amazingly, I'll never speak to, or play with him again.

He was the most musical person, blessed with an incredible ear, a virtuoso on any instrument he chose to play and a unique and powerful vocalist, the kind of talent comes along rarely in any generation. 

Being accepted by Larry as a fellow musician was a moment for me, way back there in Ithaca, when I knew that I was no longer just practicing, I was playing.

The night I found out Larry was gone, my band played Dancing in the Moonlight in a bar in Washington, DC. In Florida, at New Smyrna Beach, John Hostetter played Dancing in the Moonlight. Huey Lewis told me that he played Dancing in the Moonlight.

How many other musicians, from all over the world, whose lives were touched by Larry throughout the years, played something special this last weekend just to send their friend a message that he will be missed?

My guess is all of them.

Billy Benson Builds a Boat

My friend Bill Benson, artist extraordinaire, lives in my old stomping grounds of Ithaca New York in a simple ranch house on a scenic canal on the south end of town.

The canal as seen from the deck. The gate keeps the deer out.
He and Sadie, his wife of thirty- eight years, enjoy a classic kind of BoHo lifestyle there, in a town where you can still actually live that kind of lifestyle comfortably and elegantly. It's a lifestyle that I aspire to, but have only marginally achieved. However, that's another blog.

Next door to Bill's house, which he finished himself- put in the floors, tiled the bathroom and built a crafty deck outside, is his north- light painting studio.

The studio is mostly on one floor. There's a sleeping loft and a small room with a shower and storage area where Bill keeps his tools, turps and varnishes. A two- story window lights the place during the day and the big room is filled with his art in varying stages of completion and medium. Some paintings are framed, some not. Large canvases dominate, but they are surrounded by smaller paintings, all of which are wonderfully seen, wonderfully drawn and masterfully painted.

A stack of new charcoal drawing lie on a drafting table, each covered with an expensive paper overlay.
The drawings are of cows. I'm not going to attempt to describe them here, except to say that I wanted to own them all as soon as I saw them.

Bill showing the cow charcoals
Next door to the studio is a third building- a large shed, a frame really, covered in that ubiquitous blue tarp material and roofed with transluscent white plastic. Inside the shed, literally filling the structure is a sailboat.

When Bill bought it, several years ago, it was in terrible condition. But over those years he has been lovingly restoring his vessel. He hopes that by this time next year he will be sailing Lake Cayuga in his and Sadie's own boat.

It sleeps two, has a brand new engine (hoisted into place by Bill and Sadie one trying afternoon), a small galley, eco- friendly toilet and white decking. The day we visited, he received a package with some sort of brass part he had commissioned from a drawing he had submitted to a metalworker. It looked like a piece of abstract sculpture- something that would fit in perfectly with the rest of the art in the Benson's house.

the new engine
Once the boat is finished, the shed will be demolished. It was put together around the boat, after all, the way Kodak constructed buildings around their gigantic Kodachrome processing facilities (or so I'd always heard.) Sadie will be happy to see it go. "I'm amazed the neighbors don't complain about it more than they do."

"They've gotten used to it," claims Bill.

And, when the shed comes down, the light will change in Bill's studio. "People will date my work from before the blue tarp came down and after," Bill jokes. "'The slight blue cast inherent in his work prior to to 2013 has disappeared,'" he mock- quotes.

The best part is that when their fellow sailors see Bill and Sadie gliding through the water, they'll be looking at an actual work of art, from the vision of Bill Benson, Ithaca's own fine- art visionary.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Only in New Orleans, # 5,000,002

©2012 by Chris Granger, Times Picayune
Yesterday, during Uncle Lionel Batiste's funeral and wake, someone commented on the realness of the mannequin standing against a potted palm. "That's no mannequin- that's him!" was the reply.

In an effort to make Uncle's sendoff as memorable as everything else in his life, his body was displayed standing up.

Article here: http://www.nola.com/music/index.ssf/2012/07/uncle_lionel_batiste_gets_send.html#incart_river_default

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Missed it by one, but no matter: 100,001 is a very cool, cosmic palindrome of a number.

Thanks, readers, for visiting this page over 100,000 times!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bad Television- Bad!

I think that everyone can agree that current television sucks. I'm not sure whether it is because the people of the United States have become so collectively stupid or because we've become so collectively indifferent. Or both.

Current cable TV is the biggest money making scam since corporations found out that people will pay to wear their logos, instead of the reverse.

Each month I pay out a ridiculous sum of money to have crap beamed into my house. Prior to cable, I paid no money to have way less crap beamed into my house, some of which I actually watched. Not a lot, but some.

Last year I added HBO as a premium because I wanted to watch Treme, a good (not great) show about New Orleans. I assumed that in between seasons there would be something else to watch that would make that investment worthwhile.

I was wrong.

It all sucks. The movies are terrible and their own programming, aside from Curb Your Enthusiam, which stopped filming in 2011, is moribund. What's worse, they postponed this year's season of Treme!

Here's what else I hate: all reality- based TV, with no above- the- line talent that cost pennies to produce, compared to, say, an episode of CSI, especially anything featuring self- entitled loud mouth assholes, such as, but not limited to, anything with Housewives or New Jersey in the title; anything featuring washed- up or even current celebrities not doing what they're famous for; anything where people compete, especially shows that have cooking competitions with close- to- inedible food combinations;  virtually all network shows; all game shows but especially any so- called talent shows; and all made- for- tv movies.

I really hate the fact that I'm paying huge bucks for all of the above, and I still have to endure terrible CGE commercials utilizing songs from my youth to sell erections, cars and myriad other useless products.

In the past, the ad agencies paid the networks to sponsor their shows in return for advertising their products. Now the networks are being paid by sponsors and by us!  And bitching about falling profits!

Why do I do it? Why am I paying this money when I so clearly don't have to?

Maybe I should just get the converter box and go back to a minimum of channels that include PBS, still a beacon of intelligence in a sea of utter intellectual filth.

Hmmmm.... Why not?

Thursday, July 12, 2012


That's what the counter said this AM.

We're counting down to 100,000 visitors to this blog, something I never thought would happen.

Please let me hear from some of you who have visited: criticisms, complaints, maybe even something nice- I'd love to write a special edition for the 100,000th view.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Uncle Lionel Batiste Enters Into Heaven

Uncle Lionel at a Second Line in 2002 © Breton Littlehales


Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.” 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 

-Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven

Uncle Lionel bass drummer, ladies man, spirit figure and congenial eccentric/ ambassador, died Sunday, July 8th, 2012. He was eighty, or eighty- one according to some sources. (I used to speculate on his age- it was difficult to tell.) Cancer had ravaged his already whip- thin body but he still made it to dba , the Frenchman Street music venue, on June 26th for one last show. Seated in his wheelchair, surrounded by family members and beautiful women, he requested songs as he sipped a cool drink. As always he was, as they say, dressed to the nines.

© Jerry Moran
Uncle (everyone, including myself, called him Uncle) played bass drum with the Treme Brass Band, a New Orleans fixture. In a town where everyone is an eccentric, Uncle stood out- he wore his watch on his hand, not his wrist, and he always wore sunglasses, especially at night. He dressed elegantly at all times and wore his status as "the coolest man in New Orleans" easily as if to say, "Of course."

© Carolyn Kaster
He began playing bass drum at the age of eleven, and his story is the story of black New Orleans: born in a house in the Treme later demolished to make room for a city project, parading as a child with a social aid and pleasure club, shining shoes on Bourbon Street outside the Dream Room in the Sharkey Bonano heydays. He was even in a kid's kazoo band: they paraded every time Joe Louis won a fight.

When I made my fateful trip to New Orleans or America's Greatest City as it is known here in "L by L" land, in December of 2005, I was looking everywhere for confirmation that the city was not dying and that, somehow, everything would be okay, someday. Here's a link to an earlier blog: http://bretlittlehales.blogspot.com/2010/01/toussaint-on-corner-and-see-you-later.html

During that visit I went with my friends, the Freeland- Archers, to a dance at the Cafe Brazil, searching for what passes as normalcy in a devastated city where normal is a very disputable term at best. There, on the dance floor, like a cafe au lait Fred Astaire was Uncle Lionel, gliding and sliding to the music of Lionel Ferbos (yes, another Lionel!) squiring a parade of the most attractive women in the crowded club.

I can't even begin to describe the emotional impact this had on me. How bad could things get, I wondered, if Uncle Lionel is here, and still dancing.

What I didn't know was that he had just recently returned to AGC after losing his home in the Lafitte project and gone through a terrible depression. Perhaps he persevered because he was aware how important he was, how symbolic he had become.

Spike Lee featured him in the documentary "If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise", his follow up to "When the Levees Broke", the 2006 Katrina film. He was seen in an episode of of HBO's Treme, and his likeness was used on countless ads and promotions for AGC.

Keith Spera, Times- Picayune

Actor Wendell Pierce who plays Antoine Batiste, the hard- luck trombone player on Treme, was walking on the banks of the Seine in Paris Sunday night when he heard brass band music. A French group was playing tunes from New Orleans, Pierce's home town. "It just shows you the impact of musicians like Uncle Lionel... his legacy will be felt not just in New Orleans but the world over."

That warm evening at dba, at the end, they wheeled Uncle Lionel out of the club. Everyone stood and applauded. Everyone said goodbye. He beamed, smiled his trademark grin and waved, surrounded by family and friends.

Then, last Sunday, he entered Heaven like General William Booth, beating on his big bass drum once again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I Run a Blues Jam

I run a blues jam at a bar. I play blues music on the harmonica and sing.  That's (some of) what I do.

Every Thursday, for the past seven or eight years, I've presided over a blues jam at a venue here in Washington, DC, called the Zoo Bar, across from the National Zoo.

Here's how it works: my band, the Big Boy Little Band, plays an opening set starting at 8:30PM. This set is usually an hour long. During our set, the musicians sign up, list their instruments, let us know if they can sing and if they have to leave early.

Then I go down the list and try to put bands together. Each configuration gets three songs (it used to be four but we'd run out of time) during which they play blues songs, a one- to- three- chord progression, usually structured around the singer's preference. I try to make sure that everyone who signs up, regardless of ability, gets their time onstage.

Does this seem simple? It does to me. There are jams like this all over the country, probably all over the world. But when you're dealing with a cross section of people with widely variant musical ability and opinions, sometimes it gets a little frustrating.

Like the time the the quartet of young (white) gentlemen came in to do hip- hop. When I told them we were a blues jam, the singer offered to "punch [me] out." I declined and told him to sit down or leave. He and his friends left.

Or the country- western singer who called me a name when I said he could only play blues. "Do you know who I am?" I said no, but that there were plenty of blues in country western. "Do a Bob Wills song. Or a Johnny Cash tune," I suggested. "You can use my band."

"Your band is shit," he replied. "Except for your drummer and guitar player. And the bass player." Needless to say, that's pretty much the whole band.  Except for me.

Message received.

Of course, there is a plus side. Many new and good bands have formed at the jam. Complete bands may come down and play- the owner usually bar- tends on jam night and they may catch his ear. It's a great place to meet other musicians. I think most everyone would prefer playing live with other musicians than just playing along with recordings in their basements.

Several nationally known blues musicians have stopped by to play- our audience gets to hear them for free prior to their local appearance at a venue that is decidedly not free.

My band gets to play at least one hour a week (at the minimum) and this has obviously helped us tighten up and keep our repertoire somewhat varied. And we make money. Not a lot, but a little, with regularity.

Despite these highpoints,  I've put together my own list of guidelines. Now, keep in mind that I mostly keep these to myself. They're for me, for my mental health. No need to outline them on a big board or the sign- up sheet. Frankly, they're really just common sense suggestions..

Having said that, I'm going to list them right here. Anyone from the jam who regularly reads the blog will be able to see them but I'll take that chance!

Here they are:

1. If you want to play, you must sign up.
Don't think that because I know you, or you're there week after week that I'll automatically get you up there. I won't.

2. Bring your instrument. If you're a drummer, bring sticks. 
We have had a lot of wear and tear on our amps and microphones for which there is no compensation. Harmonica players in particular have used up at least two of my custom mikes. Plus, I get people asking if they can use my harmonicas! The answer is NO. Bringing your instrument is a sign of professionalism.

3. Play blues.
It's a blues jam. Not a country- western jam, not a rock jam and not a folk jam. It's not freestyle and it's not rap or hip- hop. It's not Reggae. The reason blues works is because of the form: usually 12 bars, a I- IV- V progression and some semi- familiar lyrics that rhyme, and because most forms of western music have some blues within its repertoire. It affords a certain amount of instrumental freedom and everyone gets to be a guitar god for about two choruses.

4. Not everyone gets to play with the house band.
Some do, some don't. If you feel that you have to play with the Big Boy Little Band, it means that someone else who has signed up won't be getting up on that set. Then we get backed up and the jam runs out.

Some jam- meisters do let everyone play with the house band, but they only get one song apiece and are charged $5.00 for the opportunity. I don't want to do this if I can avoid it. Warning: there is some pressure to change this.

5. Be nice.
Don't give me or anyone else a hard time. Questions like, "How come this guy is coming up? I signed up before him!" may be pertinent in restaurants or while waiting at the Whole Foods meat counter, but they are irrelevant to me.

Usually after we play our set, we have a full house of customers and jammers. Part of my job is to keep as many people there as possible, so I try to put up as good a configuration as possible. I also like to give the house drummer a short break as he has just completed an hour set, so there may be a wait.

If you don't want to tip, just say, "No thank you," when someone comes around with the tip bucket. No one wants or needs to hear a lecture on economics from an asshole in a bar.

6. Three songs or 15- 20 minutes, so tune up before you get called onstage.
And try not to decide what to play for 10 minutes.

7. Singers call the tunes.
It behooves you to sing if you want to do a particular song. Instrumentals can just go on and on. Part of my job is to prevent that, and to prevent "train wrecks"- songs that have too many chord changes that not everyone will be able to play. See rules 2 and 5.

The corollary to this is that good drummers and bass players can usually play as many sets as they want. Everyone plays guitar or harp, it seems, but few play drums or bass.

8. Drink or eat something
It's a bar, for chrissakes!

9. Don't come in after 11PM expecting to play.
The jam starts at 9:30 (or so, depending on whether we have any good drummers signed up) and ends at 12:30 AM. By 11 I've pretty much figured it out. (Unless you're a drummer!)

10. Every once and a while, someone way better than you (or me) is going to stop by. 
Don't be angry because you don't get to go up. Just sit back and enjoy them. They're really, really good, or I wouldn't have invited them, and you can learn something from them.
Ten is always a good number for a list, so let's leave it at that. There are a few more things, such as if I think you haven't had enough playing time I'll try and make it up in subsequent weeks, or if I think you sound particularly good that night, I'll try and bring you up with the Big Boy Little Band at the end of the night, but, mostly, I think that covers it.

I run a blues jam at a bar. I play blues music on the harmonica and sing.  That's (some of) what I do.