The Cool Sound of Albert Collins

My copy of the vinyl LP

The Cool Sound of Albert Collins

The Ice Man shows up

Watching the film “Adventures in Babysitting” was a rite of passage for a kid in the 1980s. Like the title said, it was an adventure. It was a plausible adventure. And since I lived in the Upper Midwest, it was geographically plausible, too.

The film shows a babysitter and a band of kids heading from the suburbs to downtown Chicago. (I should also note that this started my fascination with the big city, and Chicago in particular.) In one scene, the group finds themselves escaping the bad guys by entering the backdoor of a blues club. This makes more sense to me as an adult: Chicago + live music venue = blues.

The group ends up on stage with the blues band. Bar patrons fall silent. The next line of dialogue comes from the singer dude with a guitar. He says with a drawl, “Ain’t nobody leaves this place without singin’ the blues.” This line became an enduring catchphrase for my family. It still makes us laugh. The scene continues with the whole group of white suburban kids joining the black blues band in an ad-libbed blues song about their plight. The crowd loves it, and the bad guys are kept at bay for another scene.

Who was this mysterious man with the guitar? He didn’t look like any familiar actor of the era. Maybe he was one of those actors with small roles, making a living in the movie world without much fanfare. For many years after that, he remained the guy that said, “Ain’t nobody leave this place without singin’ the blues.”

The Ice Man on air, on VHS

Years later, while I was working at a public radio station, this weird little part of my life story took on another development. This station played a fair amount of blues, which set it apart from any other radio station in rural Iowa. I was digging around in the 30,000+ title library, and discovered several CDs by Albert “The Ice Man” Collins. I thought, “Hey, this dude looks familiar.” The investigation was on.

(They call him “The Ice Man” because of his signature sound on guitar–sharp like an ice pick.)

We again watched our illegally-duplicated VHS copy of “Adventures in Babysitting.” I can still picture it, with my sister’s ornate cursive handwriting on the sticker and the little tab removed to prevent someone from accidentally recording over it. When the credits rolled, it was confirmed–it was Albert Collins. BOOM.

Though I had discovered Albert Collins in that radio station library, I wasn’t really into his music. I loved the blues, but I didn’t have a taste for the heavily-produced, slick-sounding records of his 1980s output on that library shelf. He made it onto the list of “Artists That I’m Aware Of But Not Really All That Fond Of.” He stayed there for another several years.

The Ice Man won’t go away

The next time Albert Collins comes up, I’m actually living in a different state. My wife and I moved to Minneapolis. It was the era of music downloads. My subscription to the legit mp3 service emusic.com pointed me to a live recording from 1969. In it, The Ice Man played at the Fillmore West as an opening act to the Allman Brothers band (one of my favorites). Maybe Albert Collins sounded different back in the day? I used some of my monthly points to download this album, and I was blown away. This is the sound that I was into. Albert Collins moves into “Artists That I’m Into.”

When an artist moves into the “Artists That I’m Into” column, I start sleuthing. When did they start recording? What labels did they record for? Who did they play with, hang around with? My next stop was the Electric Fetus, our local record store/cultural institution. I found a CD titled “Truckin’ with Albert Collins” for $6.99 in the bargain bin. The cover featured that face I’d seen in the movie in the 1980s. I’d heard samples online, and it sounded real fine. These popping, sprightly, instrumental blues tunes quickly made their way into the heavy rotation on my iPod and in the car on road trips.

The Ice Man on wax

A couple of years later, I was back at the Electric Fetus record store where I happened upon a vinyl LP copy of this same record. I quickly purchased it (though the cover was in rough shape with a split seam). Again, heavy rotation on the turntable at home. This isn’t one of those albums of fleeting fancy. It’s one that sticks with you for life, no matter the format.

A year or so later, I was in a Half Price Books store, browsing through the records. I happened upon one titled “The Cool Sound of Albert Collins.” It was still sealed, and priced at $5.99. I took out my mobile phone and looked up the track listing of that other Albert Collins record. (I must say, having mobile internet access in your pocket has made record collecting much easier and better-informed. Less guessing. Gotta love that.) Though it had the same songs, the cover was in better shape. It was a different cover, too–a 1960s-looking painting of a Tom Collins glass. Get it, Tom Collins–Albert Collins. CLEVER, GUYS. I bought it with the intention of selling my other beat up copy.

I get it home and do a bit more research. Turns out that a sealed (but water-damaged) copy of “The Cool Sound of Albert Collins” had sold on eBay recently for $450. I paid $5.99. This is one of those stories we record nerds love to tell. It just so happens that the story behind this one started without me even realizing it when I was a kid in the 1980s. I opened it up (sacrilege to some record collectors) and listened to it. I still listen to regularly.

Not every record I own has a history like this. I wish they did, sort of.

From Opera to Heirloom Harmonicas: My Top Six Musical Experiences of 2013

"The set from the opera "Arabella"

My view for “Arabella.”

1. Attending the opera for the first time, and falling in love with it.

In the past, I devoted my live music attendance to heavy metal acts. Partly because of a steady stream of metal acts make their way to the metro area. It’s a fairly dependable situation within my comfort zone. Apart from the violence, that is. I’ve always hated the mosh pits, and I was nearly punched at a Motorhead show. That’s why I decided to go down a different path this fall. My taste is fairly broad, so an operatic excursion didn’t seem to far afield.

I’ve now seen two positively magical operas so far, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Strauss’ “Arabella” at the Minnesota Opera. My expectations were blown away. I walked through those doors not knowing what to expect, but walked out knowing that I would see as many opera performances that I possibly could from here on out. The stories, the rich sound of a live orchestra and voice, the set, the costumes—all MAGICAL.

They do a fantastic job of preparing the attendees for the experience with synopsis videos with the cast. They also project subtitles at each performance. This is handy, as my Italian is a bit non-existent. You should go. The MN Opera has three more productions in the 2013-2014 season. DO IT.

 

Instruments in Indian classical performance: mridangam, two violins, and ghatam

Instruments in Indian classical performance: mridangam, two violins, and ghatam

2. Bringing my wife and 5YO to an Indian classical music concert.

The Indian Music Society of Minnesota’s concert season was the second outlet for my non-metal performance attendance.

I want to show my 5YO real-life, strong artists of both genders in all sorts of settings. With that in mind, we all went to the performance by the Akkari Sisters from India. This 5YO was attentive and lasted almost the entire three hours. Hands drummed along, there was shimmying in the seat, and many questions asked.

Now, when I have Indian music on the record player, the 5YO asks, “Is this Indian music?” which, of course, makes me rather proud.

 

Washed Out

Washed Out.

3. Seeing Washed Out at First Avenue.

My wife and I have been fans of electronic and dreamy pop artist Washed Out for years, now. When we saw that he was set to perform at First Avenue, I knew we’d have to arrange for a sitter and make a proper date night out of it. My mother-in-law came up from Iowa for a few days, and we had green lights all the way.

That is, until we discovered a case of a certain hair-borne childhood malady upon our 5YO’s noggin on the NIGHT OF THE CONCERT. We combed and shampooed our way past our dinner reservation. Splitting a burrito at Chipotle is not what I had in mind for the ever-rare date night. There we sat, exhausted by the day, only half-looking forward to the concert at that point. But we went anyway.

It could not have been better. The lights were gorgeous, the music was loud, fresh, and familiar. Have you ever seen a show where the performer was just happy to be on stage, performing for you, at that moment? That’s what happened. Thankfully so, as we needed it.

The Magic Kingdom castle at Disneyworld

Magic Kingdom delivers. So did Jim Hall and Pat Metheney.

4. Hearing the Jim Hall/Pat Metheney 1999 duo album for the first time, in a hotel at Disneyworld.

I downloaded the 1999 duo album by guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Metheney via the Rdio streaming music app on my phone. I was looking for something to calm my mind a bit, having driven 1500+ miles over several days to arrive at the Land of the Mouse.

I knew of the album, but never heard it. I’m not even sure why I chose that one. I really like Jim Hall (RIP), but the album came out over a decade ago. No matter. Playing that rich and lovely makes petty release dates seem so very inconsequential.

Funny how that works. I laid in a bed at a Disneyworld resort and had one of my top six musical revelations of 2013. Now every time I play it, I’m taken back to those delightful (and warm) vacation days.

 

Image of me at The Walker Art Center

Selfie at the Walker. (Too dark for concert photos).

5. Seeing Tim Hecker / Oneohtrix Point Never at the Walker Art Center.

Two of my favorite ambient electronic artists on the same bill? YES PLEASE.

Hecker played in almost complete darkness, save for the exit signs, fog, and glow from his Macbook. Every sound had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what was coming next. The set featured pieces from several albums, lending some familiarity to it all.

I only wish I would have taken place at an extreme volume. That’s an odd request coming from the guy that wears ear plugs when vacuuming the floor. Instead, the volume was very comfortable, allowing greater detail to come through. For the better, I suppose.

The Oneohtrix Point Never set featured some mind-melting projected images bordering on some sort of man/machine pop-culture/industrial dystopia. It fit very well with the music, some of my favorite in 2013.

 

My uncle's chromatic harmonica

Uncle Block’s harmonica.

6. Taking possession of my late, great-uncle Block’s chromatic harmonica.

When I was home for Thanksgiving, I noticed this petite, patinaed thing sitting in the “incoming mail” pile at my folks’ place back in Iowa. I thought it was something new. It seemed a little out-of-place there, as the only musical instrument around the house growing up was my sister’s clarinet. My dad said he’d had it for a while.

Later, I asked my uncle Bill about it at a family Christmas celebration. He said, “Block couldn’t really play. At all. Uncle Jack could though. He could play anything—fiddle, guitar, piano, harmonica.”

For me, it represents music as everyday activity. Not making a living with it or even performing in front of people. Rather, just playing to play because it feels good. That’s something to aspire to, if you ask me.

I usually post my lists of top six things on topsixthings.com, but this one seemed worthy of greater care.

I’m writing in cursive again

A sample of my handwriting

My actual handwriting

I stopped writing in cursive in the seventh grade. It was all printed letters from there on out. For some reason or other, I took up the quill (or pencil, actually) and started to write things all curly and old-fashioned once again.

I’ve tried picking it up again two other times in my adult life, but it never stuck.

My family and friends are familiar with my odd personal challenges. They rarely serve any purpose whatsoever. Like the time I listened to my entire music collection from A to Z. Or eating candy only in prime-number amounts.

Then I read an interesting articleabout the nature of handwriting and its effects on brain activity. From the article:

The brain’s “reading circuit” of linked regions that are activated during reading was activated during hand writing, but not during typing.

Whoa.

Communications? Efficiency? Ideas? WHY DO I PRINT MY DAMNED WORDS? “No more,” I promised with a better-placed-elsewhere resolve.

Polishing a skill unused for 20 years or so is tough. At the start, I could feel my brain using up extra capacity as I struggled with the simple connections between the letters of a word. But kept at it. A whiteboard and dry-erase marker really helped ease me back into the dignified way. (I hate to call it that, but boy do I feel fancy, now.)

Should I ever gain access to a time machine, I would consider going back and slapping my seventh-grade self and insist upon maintaining proper penmanship skills. But maybe not. Because, you see, my handwriting is better than it ever was.

My teachers always gave me poor marks for handwriting, and for good reason. I’ve seen some of those chicken-scratchings. You’d think I would have pursued a career as a doctor or something.

Each word more closely resembles my father’s handwriting now. Before it was large, unruly, flying off of the lines. Now it’s measured, even-handed, and tiny. (It’s also unreadable at a distance, which has its benefits.)

Many of the things I write for work or pleasure start off in written form. On paper. With a pencil. But now, those same words are slanty and flowing, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t just as satisfying as can be. Now, I’ll sit in meetings and take notes about things I have business taking notes about JUST SO I CAN PRACTICE.

Sometimes I’ll reserve a conference room with a whiteboard and a marker at work to work through some ideas. In cursive. There’s a certain rhythm and harmony that comes with praciticing a skill learned in youth, as an adult.

As much fun as it is, my handwriting will never win awards. I’m not signing up to teach cursive classes. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Freese, probably wouldn’t grade it better than a B- at best. That doesn’t matter, for the most important part is not what happens on the page, but what happens in my brain.