Benefit show for GLASS

Times aren’t easy for anyone right now, but but we’re going to do a little something to support some really great people here in the community.

Join us this Tuesday, Oct 13 at 8pm EDT for a virtual benefit concert to support GLASS, a local Framingham non-profit providing community and mental health services to LGBTQ+ youth of color. Your donation will support:

HIV/STI Testing
STI Treatment
PrEP and PEP – Prevention for HIV
Safe Sex Supplies
Syringe Services
Individual and Group Therapy

(I’ve had great interactions with JRI – the non-profit that runs GLASS – through another of their youth support organizations for special education and am really happy to have the chance to help out here.)

Please join us here

All donations can be made via Venmo to @breakitdownvocals 

A Little Mixtape for you

Hi all!

No big blog for you today, but I have a little bit of a present for you.

Some time ago, I started keeping a Spotify playlist of tunes that I cover and also added in a few of my own. It helps me to both keep fresh on the songs (keeps the lyrics cemented in my brain) and also gives me ideas for sets.

As I was listening to it, I also realised it also makes a pretty damn good mixtape – provided you don’t mid a little musical whiplash every once in a while.

Anyway, please go ahead and take a listen. I really enjoy these tunes and I hope you will as well!

-Chris

The Journey Home

I’ve been a little silent for the past few weeks.  I mean I’ve been playing some great virtual gigs and recording (and re-recording) A LOT, but have not been doing a lot of writing.  I think that’s about to change, but I do want to share something I wrote during a trip down to NJ a few weeks ago.  It’s less about music, and more of a mental journal entry.

Still, I wonder how many of you have been through a similar experience over the past few months, making your first journey of any distance during these Covid times.  I’d love to hear any thoughts and experiences you’d care to share in the comments section below.

Anyway…

I set off at 10 AM. The very simple route – from the Mass Pike, to I-84, to the Merritt, to the Tappan Zee, to 9w – is one I’ve known by heart for many, many years. I’ve done the trip from Newton to Harrington Park many dozens of times, and as a day trip (down and back the same day, about eight hours driving time) several times. Familiar stops, familiar times to fuel the car, to fuel the self.

But today it feels very different.

Already halfway through Connecticut, I realize this is the first time I’ve been out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts since March 14. This is such a strange feeling – both the awareness of having been confined in one place for so long, and also the amount of anxiety and trepidation that comes along with travel. Especially since travel – in many cases very long-distance travel – has been a regular everyday thing for so much of my life. But now all of this – the travel, the movement, the sense of how big the world is – feels so very foreign.

It’s the Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend, and while there certainly are other cars on the road, this drive is nothing like the way it usually is. Traffic is flowing freely, and in some places there are hardly any other cars on the road. I listen to podcasts during the drive – news and comedy from the BBC. It’s interesting as always to see how people in the rest of the world are handling what’s going on. All of the BBC panel shows are virtual, and even the News Quiz was a taped Zoom call.  I’ve also been listening to music (a lot of new mixes of the current set of songs I’m working on), but then after about two hours of driving, it’s just time for silence. 

The trip from Newton to Harrington Park is not terrifically long in the scheme of things – only 3 1/2 hours without traffic. As I start to pull into town, I see familiar sights: the coffee shop that was once a convenience store, the flower shop that was a record store, the hobby shop that was once the center of my universe and is now selling furniture. 

My parents’ house, not unlike so many other houses here, sits on a piece of land that 60 years ago was a farm. Homes in this neighborhood are spread apart on quarter-acre lots; everyone has their own isolated kingdom. This particular one even has its own moat in the back, in the form of a brook flowing through a small wood. The backyard protected by this moat should make a perfect setting for our socially-distanced COVID get-together. My mom and dad are right there as I pull up, and all of us stifle the impulse for what we really want to do, which is to embrace each other.

It’s a lovely late summer day. Not too hot, not too humid – just humid enough for the mosquitoes to come out. The dozen or so bites I’m about to collect will have me doing a bit of a mental evaluation to try to determine whether the West Nile virus is less of a threat than COVID. I’m OK taking the risk on that one for now.

My parents look somewhat older than they did when I last saw them back in January, more than the chronological 7 1/2 months would have suggested. Dad‘s hair is growing more white than I would expect. Granted, by the same measure I have lost more hair than my normal trajectory would suggest, and my beard is now fully salt and pepper.

We sit at snack tables in the backyard about 10 feet away from each other, eating takeout from a local restaurant. (It’s the first time that I’ve really eaten much in the way of meat in months. We keep vegetarian at the house, so this is a bit of a treat.) We spend the next three hours talking about what’s going on with the family, how my job is doing, how they’re doing. They ask me how my music is going, which is a great delight to me. I think I’ve made very clear to them in recent months how important this part of my life has become in addition to my “real job”.

We talk about how my niece has just tested positive for COVID. She and several of her friends had been getting together on a regular basis as a quarantined “pod”. One of the friends, fearful of being ostracized, failed to let the others know that she was not feeling well. (And that’s how we get to a spreader event.)

And then at the end of about 3 1/2 hours, I get back in the car and begin my trek back to Massachusetts.

In other times, I would know that it was just a matter of 2 1/2 months before I would see them again at Thanksgiving, along with dozens of other family members. Clearly that is not the case this year, and I have no idea when we will all see each other. I am happy for having made the drive, though it leaves me unsettled and uncomfortable. I am sad. I am tired. I am sad and tired most days these days.

And so, in the interest of doing what I can to accelerate the clock to that moment when we can safely be together, I go back to my own “cabin in the woods” (fine, my apartment in Newton, MA) to wait this out, hopeful that tomorrow will bring good news.

Dictated to Siri from the Merritt highway on September 6, 2020. Added to, deleted from, and edited significantly to be readable by other humans on September 27, 2020.

Two Years

September 5, 2018 was a pretty momentous day for me. I spent most of that Wednesday pretty completely freaked out. Anxious beyond all belief – and for me that’s kind of saying something, as I spend most of my life in some degree of worry or anxiety. However, this was a deliberately sought-out source of anxiety, and one for which I had prepared over the previous two or three weeks. 

You see, that Wednesday night was the first time that I was signed up to play the Open Mic Jam at Terry O’Reilly’s. I hadn’t played live on my own since I’d fronted a band back when I was in my early 20s. I’d continued to do songwriting and recording, but life had gotten in the way of performing. 

In January of 2018, I wrote down a list of things I wanted to accomplish that year. “Playing my music live” was at the top of the list. And then of course the anxiety and self-consciousness that comes with exposing yourself – and all your flaws – in public, for all to see, caused me to find excuses not to move forward. 

I’d known about the Open Mic Jam for years.  I’d gone to see other friends play, and it was always a very big deal. It also seemed like a really supportive crowd, so I knew that’s where I wanted to start. 

Come August, Jen reminded me that I had in fact set a goal for myself, and suggested that I actually get it on the calendar. So, I found the Facebook page and the link to sign up, and took the third open spot for the night of September 5. 

I met both Andrew Geano and Terrance Reeves for the first time that night. Andrew listened to a little bit of my story, and then when the time came he said in his inimitable way, “OK, we have a first timer here. I want you to take your one hand, put it high in the air, then raise up your other hand, and bring them together fast to give a big Open Mic Jam welcome to Chris Steele!“

I played “Caroline” and “Old Age and Treachery” that night. 

There was a lot of sweating. My hands didn’t work right. My voice felt weird. And at the end, there was a lot of applause, and a really warm feeling that reminded me why I wanted to do this, and told me that I might have found a community I wanted to do it with.

Two years on, I’ve played another 95 sets, and over 500 more songs. I’ve played in Newton, Boston, Allston, Maynard, Concord, Cape May, Indianapolis, Red Deer, and my second hometown – Edmonton. It’s become a core part of my life, and one I won’t ever walk away from again.

I have also made so many good friends along the way – Tim Ko, Joe Dunn, and of course Andrew and Terrance, who have run the shows, and then Danielle, Miriam, Audrey, Ethan, Polly, Sarah Beth, Rory, Lisa, Alex, Elliot, and all the others with whom I have shared a stage and a microphone. (And of course Jen – who is both a poet herself and a main source of encouragement.)  I’ve also done my own small part to try to support our group and others during this period of COVID by establishing a virtual safe place to perform and try out new ideas – The Virtual Necessity Open Mic.

I cannot fully express how appreciative I am, and how wonderful it feels to be in community with all of you. (Of course, I do wish that our community could be more in each other’s company these days.) The past two years have allowed for a tremendous amount of growth and change. Two years from now, if the fates allow, I hope to look back (with another 100+ shows under my own belt) and celebrate with all of you all that we have accomplished. 

Stay safe. 

-Chris

The Joy of Collaboration

For the past several hours, I have been listening to something that is giving me great joy. The narcissistic fact about this is that it is one of my own songs: “Pulling Nails”. The reason it’s making me so happy is that I am hearing it in ways that I have not been able to realize until now.

I think I’ve shared here that I am in the process of putting together a collection that will be released as an EP sometime in the coming months. I don’t have the timeline quite yet, but I know what songs are going to be on it, I know what order they’re going to go in, and I’m already starting to put together the artwork for the collection.  All of the basic recording has been done (I think — I am prepared to be wrong). What needs to be done now is the mixing and mastering.

In the past, I would’ve done all of the mixing myself, and then used an online provider to do the mastering. As I’ve also mentioned before, this time Terrance Reeves has been working with me on the mixing. And it’s been a revelation!

As a musician and a recording engineer, I am not without some degree of chops. I don’t know everything, I am constantly learning, and it’s not what I do all the time, so I don’t necessarily have all of the skills that I would want to have.   However, and more importantly in recording my own music, there is one fundamental necessity that I lack – and that’s objectivity and perspective. 

(“Two! Our two weapons are surprise and…”)

As I’ve been listening to the various mixes Terrance has sent me of “In A Minor Key”, “Clouds”, and “Pulling Nails”, I’m noticing he has found things not just in the recordings but in the songs themselves that either I had given up on unconsciously, or never even realized were there. He has been able to give them groove and flow and narrative. 

He’s also been able to listen to the songs from the outside and ask questions about what I think the song is about, the emotions it should inspire, and how I’d like the listener to hear this song. And since he hasn’t been with it from conception through arrangement and recording, he can put forth ideas that I don’t have the perspective to think of. 

It’s important to remember that collaboration provides a chance to enhance your art. In no way is it about sacrificing your vision: in fact, it is the chance to be able to know that your vision is getting through to your audience in the way you want it to.

Collaboration also makes the act of creation much less lonely. And in the present day, that has a tremendous value all its own. 

So, here’s a little sneak peek – but only a peek. Stay tuned and I am so looking forward to sharing the finished product with you really, really soon.

2020 Can Go Suck It

2020 Can Go Suck It 

So far, 2020 is a year when I can’t see people I love, when I can’t hear the music live that I want to hear, when the world is falling apart at the seams, and when tyranny has become the rule of the day. 

A year when the resurgence from winter into spring was stymied because we were stuck inside to keep ourselves from dying or from spreading a virus to others who might die. A year when summer has been spent behind window glass glancing outside – not a baseball game to be seen, not a swim club to be enjoyed.

It is a year in which a man tinted Easter-egg-dye-orange tries to define reality through the warped lens of his own imagination. And his imagination wants to take us to a dark, dark world.

It is a year in which pandemic has become a word that is part of our everyday lives. 

It has become a year in which I have memorial services to attend, and I don’t know when those memorial services will take place, or if they even ever will. People who were dearly close to me are gone, and I don’t know when or if we will ever have the opportunity to come together to celebrate their lives.

Here’s my tally-

  • An icon taken by glioblastoma 
  • A mentor taken by Covid
  • A friend taken – again – by glioblastoma 
  • Another friend (and boss), taken by a tragedy I don’t and likely won’t understand 

A year of mortality. 

A year of confronting the temporary nature of everything. 

A year of learning how each moment is a gift, and the next cannot be taken for granted. 

A Farewell to Kings

Today, right now, is August 1, 2020.  That’s five years since Rush played their final concert ever at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Tonight we’re watching Time Stand Still, the documentary from that tour and of its final shows. 

It’s a good thing to do. A worthy thing to do. It brings back good memories of years gone by – of getting together with dear friends and going to see and hear great music together.  

And I hope that it’s also a reminder that we will do so again, and that there are friendships yet to be forged and memories yet to be made. 

Sometime. 

Somewhere. 

-Chris

The Bestest Music Stores….

Wow. Been a little time between posts here, but thank you for sticking with me.

There has been a lot going on both in my day job and with just the stuff of day-to-day life. As a result I have not done as much of this kind of writing as I should like to, but rest assured there’s a lot of music that I’m going to want to share with you.

Both “In a Minor Key” and “Clouds” are in the final stages of mixdown. Terrance has been doing incredible work with these tunes, making them pop in ways that I hadn’t really appreciated they could. I am really, really excited to share them with you, and we will do some kind of a formal release in the coming weeks. I will post details here when we are ready.

I was thinking just yesterday about how the ability to pick up a guitar and play, write, and sing for people has been such an incredible relief during this period. 

I was also thinking back to when I was learning to play, and the things that both sustained me, and also could very easily have caused me to stop. I was thinking of this in the context of what has happened to music stores over the past 20 years, and I began to wonder a little. 

Some dude’s receipt from Manny’s. Explains a lot.

Those of you musicians who know New York of old know that 48th St. between 6th and 7th was where all the guitar stores were. I can think of at least seven, including Sam Ash, Manny’s, Rudy’s, and the aptly named We Buy Guitars.  Now of course I used to go there as a teenager and stare at the guitars all the time (“Hey kid – got a credit card? Gonna buy…. anything?”), but somewhat later I had the fortune (misfortune?) of working at the corner of 6th between 47th and 48th for about six years.

Sam Ash of Old

You might or might not be surprised at the change in a sales associate’s demeanor when you walk in wearing a tie rather than as a 16-year-old long-haired kid. 

And I guess that’s my point because let me give you a contrast:

There’s a fabulous music store called O. DiBella Music on Washington Ave. in Bergenfield, NJ.  It’s the kind of place that my Jewish not-quite-my-grandmother would refer to as haimish. Now over a hundred years old, the store was very much a neighborhood tradition, and they knew their clientele.

My 16-year-old self was their clientele. 

16-year-old me did not have a car, so I would pedal the 6.2 miles from my house down to DiBella to shop for, lust over, and occasionally buy musical equipment. There was never any snotty question out of anybody running the counter, and in fact exactly the opposite. Tons of encouragement, tons of help, tons of questions answered.

One particular summer day, I rode all of those miles on the bicycle down to the store and purchased this little beauty. An early 80s Gibson “The Paul” that has been with me ever since. 

My One.

By the way, I did not buy a case that day. I carried that guitar by its neck while I pedaled the 6.2 miles back home. 

The guitar has been through a lot. It’s been dropped on 89th St. in Manhattan, had its headstock snapped off, and repaired – ironically – at Rudy’s Music Stop on 48th St. – and oh my god it is still my favorite guitar. It feels fabulous; it moves air like you wouldn’t believe. The action is wonderful. And if there is anything that truly defines my tone, it’s that guitar. 

So, is Sam Ash still on 48th St.? Does Manny’s still exist? No. 

Is O. DiBella still going strong in the original location?  Oh hell yes. And I cannot thank them enough for the support and good advice they gave a 16-year-old kid.  

Be safe. Rock on.

-Chris

Recording, and Being

Greetings everyone. It’s the end of another week, and the beginning of yet another. I cannot express to you how happy I am that I’ll be taking vacation time at the end of this week. Also, there are at least two new songs that feel like they want to be written. I plan to work on those as well as the approximately 8,243 other songs that I have in various forms of semi-completeness. Three days of work should allow me to finish them all…

This is… easy?

Terrance sent me the first remixes of “In a Minor Key”a few days ago. The new mixes are just absolutely wonderful. He re-envisioned these songs in ways that I hadn’t quite thought of, yet capture their spirit beautifully! The new punch and clarity of In A Minor Key made me really see how I could give still more to the song by recording the vocals in a much cleaner way. Just spent three hours today doing exactly that, and I am so excited to hear the final product!

One of the things that occurs to me, though, is the difference between the songwriter’s experience and the fan’s experience of a song. A songwriter lives with a song as it evolves from the initial germ to the point of recording and beyond, including varying interpretations in performance. Every performance is different, every night is different. A song is like a child: born full of potential, growing into itself over time, always changing.

However, fans very often have cemented in their minds the one performance that is captured on tape or the recording that they play in their bedrooms, cars, and phones hundreds upon hundreds of times.

For the musician, it is one song, but taking on thousands of lives as it is performed over and over again. For the fan, it is one performance, played thousands of times. 

Anyway, all of this is by way of telling you that there is new music on its way, and quite soon. I can’t wait to share it with you!

-Chris

Burnout

Sometimes life gives you clues in the form of subtle metaphors. Other times it delivers them with blunt force. 

Tuesday was one of those other times. 

My computer monitor had been acting strangely over the previous couple of days – suddenly shutting down, but responding to turn back on, and then turning itself off again 20 minutes later. Tuesday morning, it shut down again, so I turned the monitor off and then on — only this time the monitor didn’t turn on. Instead it released the puff of magic blue smoke that we all understand to be the spirit of the device leaving for electronics Valhalla. 

Burnout affects us all, I suppose. 

Feeling empty

I’ve been running way too hard and way too fast, particularly with work. I’m going to take a few days off from work next week and I’ll use that time to focus a little more on music. Terrance and I spoke earlier today, and he’s well along on the first of the remixes. I’m really looking forward to sharing some of this music with you soon, assuming nothing catches on fire before then.

-Chris

Four in a Week (Live Music, Recording, etc)

If you’re wondering why it’s been a little while since there has been a long blog post, it’s because we have been busy! 

One of the things we’ve been working on is recording music. Demo versions of both “Clouds” and “In a Minor Key” were released to SoundCloud a few weeks ago. If you haven’t already had a chance, please take a listen. I’m very proud of the songwriting on both, but they are very different feels. I would really appreciate it if you sent me your thoughts.

One of the key reasons I’m asking for your thoughts is that I’m about to do something with both songs that I haven’t done before. Terrance Reeves – who is a musician, a producer, and a friend – will be taking possession of the original tracks over the next couple of days with an eye towards mixing them properly, and turning them into final products. My vision is that these two songs (along with five others) will eventually become an EP for my favorite songs from the last year.

The waiting is the hardest part….

Getting this done has already been a little bit of an adventure as apparently I have not been updating my recording software as often as I should. In my initial effort to try to get the tracks ready for Terrance yesterday, I was presented with an update for one piece of software that then crashed the core StudioOne engine. It is at times like these that

1) I am thankful that I back everything up to the cloud, so no original recordings would ever have been lost, and

2) I have enough experience to know panic is not the right option in this case. Instead the right option is to step away, think through how one got to this particular crisis, and back up two or three steps.

Short story – everything is back to normal, and now I have a newer and slightly more capable recording system than I did two days ago, with no damage, and with only minimal out-of-pocket outlay to fix the problem.

There’s also a lot going on for us on the live music scene – which is not quite the same thing as the in-person music scene, although there are glimmers of hope here as well. For example, our dear friend Andrew Geano is starting to play out again in New Hampshire – open air and socially distanced, but still live and in person. Tim Ko has a similar set of situations, and the links here will take you to their pages.

As for me, I have now two regular gigs and a couple of upcoming specials.

First, I will be playing at 2 PM on Father’s Day (Sunday, June 21) at the Music Salon. Linda Marks has invited me to do a set, which I am very happy to do. This set might be a little different from my usual sets because I’ll be playing from a slightly different location – should be fun. 

Next, the two regular gigs: Tuesdays at 8:30pm I play the Apocalyptic Open Mic, and I’ve also just added a Friday afternoon gig (5 – 5:30) at Eagles Nest Revisited. Very grateful to Jay Singing Spirit Cunningham for including me in the latter!

Last, but certainly not least, this coming Monday, June 22 at 7 pm we will be hosting our sixth Virtual Necessity Open Mic session. Do you sing? Write songs? Write poetry? Haven’t had a chance to perform in a while? Please sign up and join us. You will be among friends. 

Thanks, and I really look forward to seeing you all in person soon.

-Chris