Every year my good friend Little Brother hosts a jam at his home in Conyers, GA. This year’s was the fifth such jam.
I first met LB on the Harmony Central Acoustic Guitar Forum and soon after bought one of his DVD blues lessons. From there I learned of the jam and made my first trip over there in 2004. Since then I haven’t missed a jam and I have become firm friends with so many great people.
So why do I keep going back? There are so many reasons. Firstly, the people. Little Brother and his family are the friendliest and most generous hosts you could hope to meet. LB picks me up at the airport, puts me up in his home for the duration and takes me back to the airport when we’re done. His son even gives up his room for me and other jammers to use. His wife is the sweetest, too. She does the catering for the Friday and Saturday and somehow never looks stressed or tired out. We’re talking about 90+ guests here so it really is an incredible feat and we eat some of the best BBQ I’ve had anywhere!
The jam takes place through the house, in the garage and spills out into the back garden. There is a PA set up in the garden for the open mike performances on the Friday and Saturday night and that’s a lot of fun. There are also braziers and a camp fire in the garden and people dotted all around picking and grinning or just chilling out and listening.
I always fly out on the Wednesday and the best bit is the arrival when the early birds are there and we catch up and the whole jam is still ahead of us. I was met at the airport by Alan “Surreal McCoy”, Little Brother and SteveO. Unk and Carl were already at the house. The tradition is for the early birds to hit the Northside Tavern in Atlanta on the Wednesday night to catch Mudcat and friends. I did that the first year and had a great time, but it took me the whole jam just about to catch up with the time difference. So since then I’ve always skipped the Northside and got to bed early. This year I made it to bed for 10pm (so 4am according to my body clock!) and slept through, so I was pretty much set up for from the Thursday.
On Thursday we just hung out and chilled, did some playing and waited as folks started to arrive. Some of the regulars began to appear: Dr Mike turned up with Steve Tribbet and two newbies; Orsino rolled in with his kettle and chocolate guitars courtesy of Mrs Orsino; Randy Rick came by with his arm all fixed up. Some of us took a trip out to a new guitar shop near the LB household and it was quite a nice shop. It had some nice Santa Cruzes and Froggys.
I did an open mike spot on both Friday and Saturday nights. I hadn’t actually played all that much in the months leading up to the jam. My free time was pretty much going exclusively on learning photography and image editing. So I was a little out of practice when I got to the jam. Needless to say, by Friday my fingers were hurting! My first ever open mike performance was at the 2004 jam and each year I feel more comfortable there. I’ve since played quite a lot and have a repertoire that I can draw from without too much practice. So I was able to bang out a few tunes without too much difficulty. I do still get nervous but I don’t get scared. It always amazes me though how a song you have down cold can still go wrong when under the lights. For example, I got the words to Hurt mixed up and had to think of how to repair it whilst keeping going. I’m not sure that anybody noticed. So I guess you could say that I know pretty much that mistakes will happen and I just need to learn how to deal with them without drawing attention by stopping or apologising, etc. And d’you know what? It works! As I said, I played Hurt (the Johnny Cash version), Watching TV (Roger Waters) and The Queen & the Soldier (Suzanne Vega). Unk came up to me afterwards and said that he was blown away that I played The Queen & the Soldier. I’d never played it at the open mike before but did post a recording of it a long time back and it just so happened that he was telling someone that I do that song just before I did it! It was a nice moment.
All of the performances were great and they seem to get better each year. This was the first year that local maverick musician Myles Loud wasn’t taking care of the PA — he got to play this year instead, which was a real treat for us all! — so we worked with Little Brother’s personal PA and it went really well. LB and Kay really do have the organisation down to a fine art now, including not staying up jamming until 4 or 5, and everything just seems to run smoothly. Whilst staying up late always seems like a good idea at the time, it never really is and it means that one misses much of what goes on early the next day.
One of the standout performances for me was jam newcomer and local musician, Pat Walsh. As he played I was thinking to myself “John Lennon”. Then Orsino tapped me on the shoulder and said that he thought he had a real Liverpool sound. It also reminded me of Crowded House/Neil Finn and there was a definite Britishness to his sound. He did this one song called Umbrella Birds that just blew me away. I asked him to play it again on the Saturday, which he did, and he’s agreed to send me a recording and the chords as I really would like to learn that one! This is a track from the CD that he gave out at the jam.
It’s always a treat to hear Joe Jordan play and he played one of my favourites that he does, a Mac McAnally song called Barney. He also played a tune called Caledonia that he learned from a friend of mine, George Duff. I’d heard him play it last year and it brought tears to my eyes. This time he dedicated it to me and the words were much more pertinent this time with our moving to Scotland in a few short weeks. The chorus starts:
Oh but let me tell you that I love you
And I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me and I’m going home
How about that! It was a great moment.
Towards the close of play on Friday, I walked in to the garage and heard Steve Tribbet playing a Warren Zevon song. He mentioned that there was one WZ song that he’d like to learn. “It’s not Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, is it?” I asked. Turns out that it was. I just happened to have the chords and lyrics for that song with me so I toddled off to get them and we sat and played through the song. It was a blast and made Steve’s day!
On Saturday morning British expat Peter Ready asked Orsino if he’d like to try his part-graphite, part wood Rainsong parlour plugged in to check it out so we got ourselves a cup of tea and went out to the stage. We must’ve sat there for two hours as player after player got up and did a relaxed set on the Rainsong. It was a lot of fun and a really nice guitar to play, surprisingly so in fact. If I saw one for sale I’d snap it up, particularly if it were 300 dollars as Pete’s was. Great deal, Pete!
Oh, I forgot to mention that I took my kilt with me this year and got dressed up just before I hit the stage on the Friday night. Folks seemed to like it and it was a lot of fun, particularly on the Saturday night.
But back to the Saturday afternoon for now. I asked Steve and Alan if they fancied working on Roland to do at the open mike that night. They did, so we went upstairs to rehearse for a while. We got it sounding pretty good, even if I do say so myself! I then mentioned that I’d been looking for someone to play the Beatles’ Two of Us for ages, so we worked on that too and it sounded great! The Arkansas boys know how to harmonise and it was a real treat to play it with them.
So my turn for the open mike came on Saturday. My good friend and fellow jammer Joe Carpenter and I first met at the UK gathering in 2005 and since then have met several times on both sides of the Atlantic. It has become a bit of a tradition for he and I to play Rocky Raccoon together and this time was no exception.That tune always goes down well. I then played Strolling Down the Highway (Bert Jansch) and Blackbird (Beatles) then finished with Ye Banks & Braes. I got recordings of Saturday’s performances on my iPod so you can pick a track and have a wee listen.
Then it was time for Steve and Alan to come up. Steve made some speech about wanting to play as well as I do so figured that he should dress the same. It turns out that he and Kay had been plotting this. He took one of Kay’s skirts and wrapped it around his waist, rolled up his shorts, put on one of LB’s flat caps and then put a pink handbag around his neck. It was a whole lot of fun and shows just how great a sense of humour everyone has at the jam. We then went on to play Roland and the Two of Us and did not too bad a job I reckon. It was a really memorable night for me, but not just for that. A bit later on, LB was on stage and mentioned that it was my and his wife, Kay’s birthdays so everyone joined together in playing and singing Happy Birthday to us while we danced together down the front. There’s nothing like having Happy Birthday played and sung by a bunch of musicians! Then they wheeled out my present — a Soundseat! You could’ve knocked me down with a feather! It has my name embroidered on the back (so that I can remind Lorraine whose chair it is!) Really, this shows just what a great bunch of friends I have over there. Thank you so much folks!
Sunday was the tear-down, most of which SteveO did on his own. There’s a man who knows how to get a job done! By then most folks had left and there were just a few of us left. We chilled for a while in the garden and then went out for some Mexican at night. Thanks Bob!
I should also give a thought to absent friends, of which there were a few, most notably my good friend Kelvyn. Kelv is a Welshman living in Hawaii and this is the first jam that he’s had to miss. Mike Crixell was there in spirit too. There absence was made up though by the large number of jam newbies that were there this year. I guess that’s just the way things go. I made a lot of new friends this year and the newcomers all went away as awestruck as I was the first time around. I’m sure they’ll be back if they can make it!
LB took me to the airport on Monday via a steakhouse where he treated me to a nice hunk of fillet steak. That set me up nicely for the flight home. I didn’t manage to sleep on the way back but thankfully the plane had a fairly modern entertainment system (not like the flight out though – it was rubbish!) and I watched a couple of movies and read for a while.
What really gets me about guitar events like this one is that there are no egos. It’s the same at Kaufman Kamp, the UK gatherings, anywhere where a bunch of people get together to play acoustic music. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do, what car you drive, what guitar you play. It’s all left at the door on the way in and it’s the best feeling. The way that LB and Kay makes everyone so welcome in their home and the huge amount of trust that they show to, what is in essence, a whole lot of strangers, is simply overwhelming. It really gives me hope and faith in humankind when I go to events like these and share the music with others. I know that may sound trite, but it really is that way and the only way to experience it is to do it. So I come back not feeling sad that it’s over or disappointed, but renewed and invigorated, like I’ve had a few days where I was able to step out of everything into a world where everything is as it ought to be, and to experience something like that, even if only for a few days, is just the best tonic.
And now that I’ve been back for a couple of weeks the enthusiasm to play still hasn’t worn off and the Soundseat really is great for playing on. I always have the best time at the jam and each year it seems to get better. Thank you all for making it the greatest event of the year!
I’d also like to give a special thank you to Lorraine, who lets me jaunt across the Atlantic every year to have fun while she stays home and watches first one kid and now two. You’re the best Lorraine!
I took my Nikon D70s with me and managed to get a few half-decent shots which I’ve put together in a Flash web gallery for y’all’s enjoyment