Paul Bryan: 1920-2021

Yes, 1920. Paul Bryan died just after his 101st birthday.

But the triple-digit number doesn’t tell the whole story of his longevity. I don’t have an official record on when he made his last appearance as guest conductor of the Duke University Wind Symphony or when he last played euphonium, but I know the answer in both cases would be “recently.”

“PB” made the transition from professor to professor emeritus after my freshman year. That was not “recently.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who had as much of an impact after his alleged retirement as PB.

And it wasn’t as if he conducted at Duke for just a few years. He was there from 1951 to 1988, first as the director of (all) bands before focusing on the Wind Symphony.

Please pardon a brief rant here — my Duke experience taught me that marching bands and concert bands / wind symphonies are different entities. I spent a bit of time in the Duke University Marching Band (DUMB) as well, and I enjoyed it, but in a different sense that I enjoyed Wind Symphony. To overgeneralize, the Wind Symphony was a bunch of nerds who would break out into improvised counterpoint singing on the tour bus, and the Marching Band was a bunch of drunks who would straggle in to warm up for football games quite a few minutes after they were due. (Being punctual and not a drunk, I was occasionally frustrated with this, but I still loved the overall experience.) Musically, the Wind Symphony was on a different level. I was one of the better clarinet players in DUMB, but I wouldn’t have passed the Wind Symphony audition on anything involving, well, wind. (As director of bands, PB spent several years conducting both, as mentioned in this smart DUMB history, but Duke wisely let him spend his time working on music rather than marching.)

That’s one reason I’m still a bit angry that James Madison High School won’t let kids play in any concert band unless they also join a marching band that requires its members to give up most of the month of August and many fall weekends so they can compete and win a state championship. Good for them, but the point of music in schools should be to provide good musical experiences for all who want them, and again, concert bands and marching bands are different entities. At Duke, only a handful of us did both.

That means, in part, that the music the Wind Symphony plays is not the music a marching band plays. Marching band music is fun in its own right — being a good Athenian, I enjoyed playing the B-52s’ Rock Lobster. But there’s a rich repertoire of music that wouldn’t work for marching bands and really doesn’t get its due elsewhere. A lot of concert band / wind symphony music is vibrant. Beautiful. Fun!

Just listen to the music at PB’s 100th birthday celebration 13 months ago:

(I’m still mad at myself for visiting Duke the week before this event. I plan poorly.)

So one of Paul Bryan’s many contributions to music is that he helped to keep the notion of a concert band alive. This wonderful music should be heard somewhere, and I’m proud to have been part of the movement to make it heard in Duke’s lovely (even before the remodeling you’ll see in that video) Baldwin Auditorium.

The irony is that my entree into the Wind Symphony was because of one little quirk of PB’s. He liked having a string bass in a Wind Symphony.

And that’s how Paul Bryan, in a classic moment of serendipity, changed my life.

When I started at Duke, I fully intended to play in the Jazz Ensemble. For one semester, I did. Read my obituary of the great Paul Jeffrey to see how that went — basically, I knew nothing about jazz, and I decided to switch to other activities like The Chronicle, which set me on my career path.

I auditioned for the Jazz Ensemble on several instruments while Jeffrey patiently heard me out on each one. That meant I was running around the music building looking for a string bass on which to show off my half-decent but non-jazz skills.

The person I wound up asking was, you guessed it, Paul Bryan. And before I knew it, I’d agreed to join the Wind Symphony.

Or at least the “scab” Wind Symphony composed of people who were not spending their fall semesters in Vienna. Some freshmen were aware of the Vienna experience and had signed up early, but I had no idea of such things. (Among the people who went to Vienna that year, oddly enough, was one Ben Folds, not a Duke student but a pretty good percussionist, and holy crap, I just discovered that there’s video from one of the Vienna concerts online.)

I enjoyed it. When PB and the bulk of the ensemble returned from Vienna, I stuck around and spent one semester playing for him, including the Spring Break tour through Ohio and Illinois.

Because of that, I wound up dating an oboe player, which apparently made some Chronicle staffers jealous. (I found out maybe two decades later. Should’ve spoken up in, say, 1990, folks.) More importantly, with all due respect to that wonderful oboe player with whom I had a happy relationship for six months, I eventually moved to percussion and developed a lifelong love of bashing things that put me in the pit orchestra for Hoof n Horn shows and a dazzling production of Carmina Burana. I played percussion of sorts just this past weekend:

(My drum song is at the 39:20 mark. If you watch the rest of the show, please, I beg of you, skip the songs in which I attempt to sing.)

So my PB story really revolves around a brief interaction that happened solely by chance. But it did, in a meaningful way, change my life.

Now imagine how many people whose lives he affected. Go back to 1951. How many people? Hundreds? Doing some quick math in my head, he must have conducted at least 1,500 musicians. Add in his work in Durham, and it’s surely 2,000. He may have just given them a couple of semesters of a rewarding musical experience, or he may have had a powerful influence on their musical careers, as in the case of my friend Anthony Kelley, a great composer and Duke faculty member today. (I still remember my first attempt at playing the bass part on one of his compositions. I think I dropped the bow and broke out laughing, even though I had gotten farther than the tuba players. Sounded really cool when we finally got it.)

I’m nearly a year past 50 now, and I sometimes dread aging. But if music helps keep me alive and thriving for another few decades, I know I’ll have a good role model to follow.

The best YouTube music channels

Pure escapism is hard to find these days. Even on TV, many of the ads have reassuring music that isn’t really reassuring. (See this Slackjaw post: “Are You Trying To Escape Reality By Watching TV? Tough Shit, Here’s Our Coronavirus Commercial.”)

Even on YouTube, you might see an International Rescue Committee ad with Patrick Stewart somberly describing the plight of refugees or cat who hangs out with a refugee family.

But for anyone who wants to be immersed in the wonders of music, the finest art form humanity has ever developed, YouTube is still a pleasant sanctuary. YouTube music channels offer education and entertainment.

You can learn about music theory, dissect your favorite songs or see someone have a bit of fun mashing up songs and styles.

They’ve continued to put out new content while socially distanced. And honestly, they’re better binge-watching than anything on Netflix.

A few of the best:

Top 2000 a gogo: Dutch public radio station NPO Radio 2 has an annual countdown of the Top 2000 songs ever. To go along with it, they chat with the artists who made those songs — not necessarily in sitting interviews but with well-produced, short films.

Todd in the Shadows: A different take on popular songs comes from a music critic with a strange gimmick. He sits at a piano in the dark, visible only in silhouette, and mixes in videos from the artist in question. Many of his videos are reviews of recent pop hits — the latest from Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Halsey, Adele and so forth. But his best videos fall into a few categories:

  • Top Ten Best or Worst of a given year, sometimes the year that just passed but sometimes reaching back into history. Good example: Top Ten Worst of 1991 (Part 2).
  • One Hit Wonderland, dissecting not just a band’s one (or biggest) hit but also the history of the band and what happened to them after they hit it big. Good example: The Cardigans’ Lovefool, one of several cases in which he points out several other good songs by the band that may have been hits outside the USA.
  • Trainwreckords, looking at albums that sank an artist or band’s career. Good example: Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, one of the oddest things ever recorded by a major band.
  • Cinemadonna, looking at the films of Madonna. It’s a surprisingly long list. Good example: Dick Tracy.

Todd is candid, even cynical, but that just makes his praise that much more sincere. He also provides volumes of research, digging up videos you probably didn’t see on MTV.

Frog Leap Studios: From Norway, metal-minded musician Leo Moracchioli does ironic covers of pop songs with a lot of metal touches — ominous low guitars, double bass drum pedals, growling vocals, etc. His two biggest are Adele’s Hello (57 million views) and Toto’s Africa, the latter done before Weezer’s cover and with an English couple adding some guitar and a compelling female voice.

Ten Second Songs: Anthony Vincent occasionally tackles vocal challenges, but he’s better known for taking a song and recording it in 20 or more different styles. His patrons then vote to pick one, and he does the entire song in that style. His tour de force is Bohemian Rhapsody in 42 styles, including Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Boyz II Men, Daft Punk, Janis Joplin, Bobby McFerrin, Bruno Mars, Aretha Franklin, Muse, medieval music, and a stunning David Bowie impression that should have won the vote for a full-fledged rendition. His Bowie impression won the vote from his Enter Sandman video.

Rick Beato: An Atlanta-based producer has plenty of insight into music theory and production. He makes some top 20 lists — best bass lines, best guitar sounds, etc. — and occasional editorials about trends he hates in the music industry. But his best videos are in the “What Makes This Song Great?” series, in which he goes through a song and isolates specific tracks — bass, guitar, drums, etc.

12tone: Want more music theory? This channel, named after thankfully devoid of a horrible musical style no one outside academia cares about, sketches out the various elements of specific songs.

David Bennett Piano: A young English pianist also has a theory-first approach with videos like “Songs That Use Polyrhythms & Polymeters” and “Picardy Third: When Minor Resolves to the Major Chord.” He also goes meta with lists of songs that “rip off” other songs or classical music.

Things I used to be good at: Timpani

I have no idea why my percussion teacher had such faith in a relative beginner at Duke, but I wound up playing Elliott Carter’s March at my senior recital after only two years of instruction.

I did not, however, play it as fast as this guy, who’s impressive but omits the fun switches from the heads to the butt end.

This guy uses each end of the stick, and he gives some commentary to explain how he goes about it.

He must have an unlimited budget, because he talks about experimenting with his sound in a concert hall. At Duke, we had three timpani in the rehearsal hall and three in the concert hall, and we had to take the big one back and forth on a grassy slope.

He made his own timpani mutes. So did I, in a sense. I used socks.

Also, when I turned up on recital day, I found all my stuff had been moved from the stage because the jazz guys had set up for a concert at night. Glad I got there early enough to switch it.

The piece uses rhythmic modulation, a complicated concept that would make Rush, Yes and the math-rockers that followed King Crimson break out a calculator. The idea is this — play for a while in a particular tempo, then play something that hints at a change, and then change the tempo so that, for example, a dotted quarter note in one measure is as long as a quarter note in the next.

This video takes you through the score so you have a visual. The piece starts at 105 beats per minute (unless you’re playing at light speed like the guy in the first video) and modulates at the 30-second mark (dotted quarter becomes quarter) to 140 bpm. At the 55-second mark, it gets freaky — the eighth notes in a 10/8 measure become quintuplets in a 2/2 measure. Then you have some measures in 14/16 before the dotted dotted quarter has the same value as a half note.

Of course, the performer can take liberties with all this. My teacher encouraged me to pause for a bit on the quarter note after the monster section (2:05 mark) to emphasize the change in mood.

Generally, such experiments lead to some unlistenable music. Even in March, the listener isn’t aware of all these tricks. I nailed this piece when I performed it, and the audience didn’t know the difference. One person who came out to listen said, “You played, and then when you put your sticks together, we clapped.”

But rock musicians sometimes sense a challenge to make things as complicated as this is. And that’s why you have Dream Theater, a band that’s more fun to analyze than it is to hear.

Count ’em — 108 time signatures (well, some time signatures are repeated, so it might be more accurate to say 107 time changes):

My favorite songs of 2018

This list doesn’t feature songs released 2018. I’m a little slow. Some of these songs are from the 90s, and I’m just now catching up. Some of these songs were ever-present in my CD player in my young adulthood, and I’m re-discovering them.

(Yes, I made a Spotify playlist.)

Let’s hit it …

The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon 

Gord Downie was considered a national treasure in Canada, and the Hip’s farewell concert was a major television event.

When Downie passed away, a vigil was held in Bobcaygeon, a small town about 160 kilometers from Toronto. Downie had no particular tie to the town, choosing it for this song because it rhymed with “constellation,” but the band later performed there even though it’s not a big town that attracts a lot of touring bands as big as this one.

It’s a simple, beautiful song propelled by Downie’s wonderfully expressive voice.


The Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster

A sprightly little tune about survivors’ guilt. Must have been one hell of a nasty breakup to compare it to the sinking of a German ship in a World War II naval battle that few people survived.

As with Bobcaygeon, it’s a repetitive melody, but the rhythm is unpredictable, and Downie builds the drama with his authoritative delivery.

This is one of the songs they performed on Saturday Night Live when fellow Canadian Dan Aykroyd (neither the host nor a cast member but appearing in several sketches to prop up a disastrous season) pushed for them and did the intros.

Angela Perley and the Howlin’ Moons – Green Eyes

There are a few perks to being a fan of a relatively obscure band. I had interacted with Angela on social media a few times before I saw them, but I figured she couldn’t possibly remember every fan she meets online. Then I went to Hill Country BBQ, where I was the only person sitting on my half of the front row. (Attendance was rather spotty, mostly a few curiosity-seekers who wandered downstairs from the restaurant, but they didn’t seem to mind.) I looked up after they took the stage and saw her smiling and waving. I looked behind me, thinking she couldn’t possibly be waving to me. She was.

Afterwards, I chatted with her for a bit, posed for a selfie and got a big hug. I also talked with bass player Billy Zehnal, who has kids around my kids’ ages.

Her songs are often about young love. Dandelion Kisses, which they stretch out with an atmospheric intro in their live performances, is a bittersweet tune in which the protagonist knows the man she’s with is in love with someone else and will eventually win her over. (I often find myself yelling at no one in particular: “Angela, you deserve better than that!”) This one is a little less complicated.

Check out the solidly produced “Stereogram Session” or check out the fun live version.

Nicole Atkins – Listen Up

I’ve also interacted with Nicole a bit on social media, especially when she was hosting a show on SiriusXM. I’m not sure she knows who I am, but she high-fived me on the way out of her concert at The Barns. And this happened …

(I didn’t say that I was so startled that I let out an awkward “Hi!”)

For some reason, she just happened to start and finish in the right aisle where I was sitting, taking advantage of the acoustics to sing sans microphone. At the start of the show, she walked through — starting right next to me — singing the wistful Neptune City, which was recorded with a lush arrangement but sounded great with simple guitar chords. After her set, she once again headed into the aisle and sang an a cappella Over the Rainbow, then strode down the aisle to leave. I had my hand up to wave, and she high-fived me.

Yeah, I’m a 48-year-old fanboy. So sue me.

I wish she’d sung a couple of my old favorites — the foreboding Vultures (one of the songs I practice on drums) or the fun Girl You Look Amazing (which had a video that would’ve been a hit if MTV still played music) — but her new stuff is good as well. For this one, she did another entertaining video.

I’d say she should do comedy, but I wouldn’t want her to waste that gorgeous voice.

PJ Harvey – Man Size

Not sure why her breakthrough album Rid of Me popped back into my head after 20 years or so, but I’m glad it did. She skewers gender stereotypes throughout with raw guitar and some odd time signatures (11/4 here, which is a lot of fun to play on drums).

I think 50 Foot Queenie was the bigger hit, and I’m listening to that one, too. But I flipped a coin and chose this one.

Our Lady Peace – Starseed 

I associate this one with my drives back to Duke when I found too many excuses to go back and visit my friends. It’s back with me now because it’s a terrific drum part that I plan to pitch when School of Rock does its adult session. The drummer, Jeremy Taggart, was 18 years old when he recorded this — the Wikipedia entry for the album says recording was delayed for his high school graduation.


Metric – Dressed to Suppress 

OK, THIS is a new one. I’d worried that Metric had fallen off a bit since their brilliant album Fantasies, but Art of Doubt is a powerful return to form. Emily Haines adds subtle inflections throughout that aren’t just for show — they highlight and illustrate the point.


Belly – Mine

They’re back! And the new album matches up pretty favorably with the two they released in their 1990s heyday. WHFS would’ve loved this one.

Drummer Chris Gorman is also an artist, and he’s made intriguing videos for this one and Shiny One, in which Tanya Donelly sings about parenthood over a rumbling bass groove and soaring guitars. The Shiny One video seems to be paying tribute to their hit Feed the Tree, for which the video was set in a forest.

And check out the live version of Mine, which is more ragged here than when I saw them live, but it captures Tanya’s joy at being back on stage with her band as well as bassist (and cancer survivor — let’s keep Obamacare, OK?) Gail Greenwood’s propensity for cool rock-star poses.

Screaming Trees – Dying Days

Not sure I heard this one way back when it was released. I mostly knew Screaming Trees for Nearly Lost You, as I think most of us did, as well as All I Know. This one was a reflection on all the tragedies in the Seattle music community, but I actually find it uplifting somehow.

I’d recommend not watching the video for this, which is just contortions of a grotesque bit of album art, but put it on in the background and listen.

Or just listen to …

the full Spotify playlist! It also includes a few extras, such as …

Heart, Barracuda — Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has a girl who can sing this. That’s some serious talent.

The Mars Volta, Cotopaxi – Believe it or not, our local School of Rock has musicians who can work their way through the crazy time signatures here.

Rush, La Villa Strangiato – The School of Rock Rush show director has challenged the gang to play this one.

Chris Stapleton, Midnight Train to Memphis – I don’t listen to a lot of country, so I’m going to call this “roots rock” instead. Great voice, and I have fun playing this one with the snare drum tuned way down low.

The Stone Roses, Love Spreads – I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with a reasonable drum part for this. I will come up with …

Motley Crue, Dr. Feelgood – Another drum-workout track.

Rancid, Rejected – Believe it or not, School of Rock has a bass player who looks like a shy, studious girl who can play this part.

Throwing Muses, Sunray Venus – Tanya Donelly’s stepsister, Kristin Hersh, is still going strong, and she’s had the same trio now for a couple of decades.

The Cardigans, I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer – A perennial. That’s my jam, period.

And I’ve included some comedy. Enjoy.



Second hits by alleged one-hit wonders

Saw #NationalOneHitWonderDay trending on Twitter and figured I would spot several bands and musicians unfairly labeled as such. Ever since I saw a TV special label Suzanne Vega a one-hit wonder just because one of her songs was bigger than the many great ones in her catalog, I’ve taken this a bit personally.

I’m not going to argue Crash Test Dummies or Rednex (all together now — “if it weren’t for Cotton-Eyed Joe …”). I won’t even argue Thomas Dolby, Modern English, Kajagoogoo or even The Buggles. Not even Bobby McFerrin, who is best known for one of his worst songs. But some of the nominees just show our short-term memory.

I’m not going to post the tweets, but I’m simply going to list those I spotted and name other songs/albums that were certainly in my consciousness and others.

And before checking, I’m going to bet that someone says a-ha.

Here goes …

Tiffany: Could’ve Been (hey, I’m not saying I LIKE these songs) went to No. 1.

a-ha (yep, second one I spotted): The Sun Always Shines on TV and a JAMES BOND themes, The Living Daylights

Rick Astley: Sure, all his songs sounded the same, so I can’t think of any other titles. But they existed.

And this tweet was funny:

Flock of Seagulls: Seriously? Space Age Love Song and Wishing hit the Top 40 and got steady airplay on MTV.

Sinead O’Connor: Won a MTV Video Music Award for You Made Me The Thief of Your Heart. I thought The Emperor’s New Clothes was bigger than it apparently was.

Cyndi Lauper: You know what’s funniest about that tweet? The hit they mentioned was She Bop, which was neither her biggest hit nor the song most people will remember if you mention Cyndi Lauper to them.

‘Til Tuesday: This is a tough one. Aimee Mann has had such a great career, even if her songs didn’t hit the Top 40. Not even Save Me, which is ingrained in public consciousness (and perhaps proves how irrelevant the “Top 40” really is).

Toto: No. Just … no. Just because Africa is going through some sort of hipster revival doesn’t mean Rosanna, Hold the Line and their late-career ballads didn’t exist.

Falco: Tricky one, because Der Kommissar got as much attention for the English version (recorded by someone else) as for the original German.

Katrina and the Waves: Do You Want Crying hit the Top 40, but it’s admittedly pretty far behind the one big song. What was that called again?

The Cardigans: My Favourite Game did pretty well. And while it wasn’t a hit in the USA, I have to toss in this terrific video, which does have 928,000 views on YouTube.

Baby you’re foul in clear conditions, but you’re handsome in the fog …

OK, where was I?

Devo: The tweet shows them playing Satisfaction. Shape it up. Get straight. Go forward. Move ahead. Try to detect it. It’s not too late. To …







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Two posts this month, each one a reaction to an Ultimate Classic Rock post. Maybe I need to diversify my reading?

This one is on backwards-masking. Remember that? Remember when millions of kids played Led Zeppelin backwards and grew up to worship Satan?

The post includes several amusing videos, including one of a very earnest mulleted and mustached man speaking with a televangelist and basically hypnotizing the audience into thinking Stairway to Heaven is one extended backwards love letter to the devil. It also includes Weird Al’s absolutely intentional “Satan eats Cheez Whiz” message.

This, of course, made me think of the classic B-52s moment in which they urge people not to play their records backwards:

That’s included on a roundup of the funniest backwards messages in music, featuring Bloodhound Gang, L7, Pink Floyd, Soundgarden and, again, Weird Al.

To be fair, sometimes I can hear the supposed backwards messages. Sort of. In this funny video examining a few songs, I can actually hear a few snippets of what we’re supposed to be hearing. But I’m being primed to hear it because the alleged messages are on screen. (I probably should’ve listened without watching the video.)

The funny thing, though, is that some of these might mention Satan (or “Snn” or “Saaaaayna” or whatever we actually hear), but even if you believe all of the alleged lyrics, you wouldn’t conclude that the message is pro-Satan. If you think merely mentioning an entity is supporting it, try going to your local fundamentalist church and playing Dear God. Or God Save the Queen, which would probably be funnier.

Just goes to show you — human capacity for self-delusion in the name of a cult is boundless.

Wikipedia has an extensive list of supposed backmasked songs, but we really can’t let this go without hearing from The Rutles (at 1:46 mark).