Category Archives: Friends and Family

Paris 2012: Endless Louvre

It started as a 12th Century fort, and became the royal residence and seat of the French monarchy until Louis XIV moved his throne and his wig collection out to Versailles in the 1680s.  Since then, the Louvre has been (mostly) a museum housing (mostly) pre-19th Century art.  Its most recognizable residents, of course, are Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the armless Venus de Milo.  But it’s a bit of a mystery to me why these two pieces (as opposed to some of the thousands of other options in the Louvre) are so famously iconic.

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The building itself is surely as impressive as any of its holdings.  It’s U-shaped, with half-mile long legs paralleling the Seine River.  The 1980s glass pyramid looks a little odd amid the 16th Century architecture, but the contrast makes for some interesting pictures.

I wandered the grounds late one night after the crowd had gone home to get some shots in the interesting light.  The girl in red is my neice, Caitlin.

For fellow photo nerds:  The night shots are all hand-held, with existing light.  Mostly around 1/15th second, ISO 4000 or so, with the D800 and the 24-120mm f4 lens, presumably testing the limits of Nikon’s “VR” and high-ISO capabilities.

 

 

Paris 2012: Eiffel Tower

For a while, it was the tallest manmade structure in the world.  Built in the 1880s by Gustav Eiffel (the bridge-building engineer who had recently built the framework for the Statue of Liberty), the Eiffel Tower was intended as a temporary entryway for the 1889 World’s Fair.  (Apparently World’s Fairs were a big deal back in those days).   The plan was to take it down 20 years later, but by then the radio had been invented, and having a very tall tower for radio antennas came in pretty handy, so it stayed up.  The rest is history — literally.  The French at least cut the elevator cables on the tower before the Germans took over Paris in 1940, so Hitler never got to the top when he visited Paris.

Since it went up in the late 19th Century, the Tower has been visited by about 250 million people — now including my sister Jana Parker, and my niece Caitlin.  I was lucky enough last week to get to take Jana and Caitlin to Paris for a few days of post-Christmas sightseeing.  Here’s the first batch of pictures — all of these are shots of, including, and/or from the Eiffel Tower.  Thanks to Caitlin for some nice, impromptu work as a Parisian model.  More pictures from Paris still to come when I get organized.

 

 

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Party Barn Christmas 2010: The (Blog) Post of Christmas Past

I confess:  These pictures are two years old.  And yes, I know they’re a little blurry.  But I like them.  I was digging through some older pictures last week and ran across these shots from Christmas 2010.  (The 2012 Cotner family gathering in my mom and dad’s Party Barn hasn’t even happened yet.)  If your family is about to gather, maybe these shots will give you a few ideas.  It was a homemade game of “Minute to Win It” — devised by my Killer Aunts.  Good fun for a big family holiday.  An added perk of posting two-year-old pictures:  We all look a little bit younger.

 

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Photography note:  These are with the Nikon D90 I’d just bought in October 2010.  The fun of the subject matter makes up for some mediocre technical photography skill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost Famous?

A few months ago, I told the story of my initial Forest-Gump-like foray into the world of Nashville songwriting.  Now there’s actually something to listen to!  “We” recorded studio “demos” of the three songs.  It was great fun, and I swear the songs are better than you’re expecting them to be — but of course I had lots of help.  

Click here to go to the songs — or the story and pictures are below. 

 

Country music has at least one thing in common with classical music:  More often than not, the artist you hear performing a song is not the person who wrote or composed it.  This differs from traditional rock bands, who typically write their own music.  One result of this is that in Nashville, there are dozens and dozens of songwriters happily writing songs, hoping that someday those tunes will be on the radio, sung by one of the big country stars.

Last spring, my longtime friend Greg Cook, a professional Nashville musician, had an out-of-the-blue, outside-of-the-box invitation for me:  I should come to Nashville and write some songs with him (and with a couple of his very very talented friends).  See the full story here.  Given my lack of any known skill or expertise in this domain, this seemed a bit like a suggestion that I return a few punts for the Packers, or stand in for Baryshnikov at the Bolshoi.  But Greg had faith, patience and probably some amused curiosity.  Of course I eagerly agreed.  It was great fun – mostly thanks to Greg and the two other musical wizards we worked with (Eddie Kilgallon and Justin Spears).

The initial results were promising, and this month brought about the next chapter in the adventure:  Greg brought me back to Nashville to make “demo” recordings of the three songs.  You can click here to go hear those songs.  But here’s the story behind the recordings.

A “demo” is a recording of the song, usually performed with a full band.  The point of a demo is to have something to give a country artist (singer or producer) so they can hear your song and (maybe, just maybe) decide to record it on a “real” album.  There are studios in Nashville that do a lot of this.  I’m guessing that the ratio of “demos” to songs really recorded for a major label is at least 100 to 1.  So our odds  are not good; but we are undeterred.

Greg handled everything.  The band they put together was amazing.  There’s good, there’s really good, and then — about three notches up from that — there are these guys.  The electric guitar player, for example, moonlights at this studio, but his regular job is playing guitar for Tim McGraw.  The acoustic guitar player (and bandleader) is the guy who does the acoustic parts for Rascal Flats and Faith Hill albums.  You get the picture.

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These guys were so good, you could just say “Let’s make this one feel like a Randy Travis song from the 1980s,” or “Let’s do this one kinda like Joe Walsh did ‘Life’s Been Good.’.”  And they’d do it.  And it sounded just like you’d imagined it, only better.

One great amusement:  In these settings, the songwriters do not write down traditional sheet music.  You write down the lyrics, then make a usually-very-rough, on-your-iPhone style audio recording (“work tape”) of the song with just guitar and melody, then you show up at the demo session.  The band learns the song by listening to the work tape, and then by having someone sing it with them as they play it.  The latter is a “scratch vocal”, which is recorded temporarily but subsequently recorded over when the “real” singer arrives.  Despite the fact that Greg and the other two co-writers on the three songs each have principal occupations that include “professional singer” in the job description, somehow I was the guy who wound up singing for two of the work tapes, and singing along with the band as the scratch vocal on all three.  This was probably the first time I’d sung in front of more than one or two carefully-chosen acquaintances since I was in a grade school assembly.  And I was singing for that crowd.  In my vague defense, I must have done okay – at least in terms of showing them how the song was supposed to go – because they spun out three pretty impressive “tracks” in just a couple of hours.

The next step was the vocals.  Often these are done by a hired-gun studio session singer.  Coincidentally, Justin Spears (co-writer on one of the songs, and a member of Ricochet) is one of those guys. (Justin is the guy in several of the pictures with long reddish hair and a bushy beard.)  He’s got a wonderful and amazingly versatile voice (he can sing like Hank Jr. one minute and Bob Seger or Alan Jackson the next); he’s got a Rainman-like musical-genius ability to calculate complex musical harmonies in his head and sing them on the fly; and he’s got a wacky, warm personality that always makes you laugh and feel like you’ve found a new friend.  On our demos, Justin sang the lead and both the background vocal parts.  He could do the lead vocals, then the tenor part, then the baritone – each done flawlessly, back-to-back, without practice and without any written music in front of him.

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Almost done.

The last step is the “mix.”  That’s where they use a big table-sized board full of knobs and levers and meters (and nowadays lots of computerized gizmos) to adjust and balance all vocals and instruments and make it all sound right together.  If this sounds simple or straightforward, it is not.  An example of what goes on:  Rob, the engineer, wasn’t perfectly happy with the recorded “thunk” sound of the studio snare drum, so he ran a computer program that replaced every “thunk” with a presumably-slightly-different (I couldn’t tell!) “thwk” with similar volume at the precise same instant  (Rob apparently has a library of half-second sound “samples” of various snare drums).  While the computer performed this task, Rob offered up some opinions on the sound quality generated by the drum-striking techniques of various Nashville studio drummers.  Example:  “He’s got the best kick-snare-hat in the business, but his toms are just so wimpy.”  I suspect that if I was a drummer, I’d think that was either dead-serious business, or crazily hilarious.

Though Rob could have tweaked all day, the musicians were so good there was probably little need for that.  What came out of the fancy speakers in that little room sounded for all the world like something I’d fully expect to hear on the radio.  All three songs sounded great.

Everyone who touches this process adds something new and pushes the evolution along, making the song just a little different and, each time, usually at least one notch better.  Though Greg and I were both pleased and surprised at the result, that’s just icing on the cake.  I got to spend another week with my longtime buddy, and live another few days in a fun world of music pros in action.   What’s next?  Good question.  With any luck, maybe there’ll be another chapter in this saga.

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CLICK HERE to go to – and hear — the songs.

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Somehow I didn’t come away with any pictues of Eddie Kilgallon, the great guy who co-wrote “I’ve Got People for That” with us (and who co-wrote a #1 George Strait song a while back).  He’s got a blog here if you want to see his mug.

On The Road Again with Ricochet

A few days back, I found myself on a short bus tour through Indiana and Michigan with my friends in the country band, Ricochet. (Prior stories about them are here, here, and here).  My high school buddies Greg Cook (pictured just below, after a show, in the decidedly unglamorous dressing room of the “8 Seconds” honky-tonk in Indianapolis), and Heath Wright (pictured onstage below and previously pictured here) let me tag along, take a few pictures and get another little glimpse of their music-biz life.

Late Friday night – after a show in Indianapolis and after a 3am stop at an Indiana Waffle House – the Ricochet tour bus was rolling north and Justin Spears had his guitar out, playing and singing whatever came to mind.  As we all settled in to debrief on the Waffle House antics, Justin started to play Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” –a song about musicians on the road in a tour bus in the Midwest.  (“Here I am, on the road again.  Here I am, up on the stage….”).   And of course, everyone (singers, technicians, bus driver and one visiting lawyer) joined in.  If you’ve ever watched that scene in the movie “Almost Famous” where they all sing “Tiny Dancer”on the band’s tour bus — this was one of those moments.  Or a least it looked that way to an outsider.

Being on the road with Ricochet brings no shortage of such sights.  There’s always an afternoon “sound check” — a low-key mini-concert to an empty room (see the picture below of Heath), done to check and fine tune the zillion knobs and settings on all the monitors and speakers and amps.

There’s often a pre-show “meet and greet” with fans.  On Friday night, for example, the parents of a 14-yr-old girl had driven her 2 hours to see the show, not realizing it was in a no-kids-allowed country nightclub.  So the whole band gave the girl and her parents a short private concert on the band bus before the show (see the first two pictures below).

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There always seems to be a tattered, run-down dressing room, usually with bright lights around a mirror, and with graffiti and stickers and posters from the bands who have been there before.  That’s where I took those close-up pictures of Greg.  They barely use the dressing rooms — this group doesn’t do much pre-show primping.  Fifteen minutes before showtime, they’re probably still in shorts and tennis shoes (except for Heath, who goes full-time in full-cowboy).

After the show there’s usually an autograph signing session, where sweet, proper grandmothers and local good ol’ boys line up with drunken barflies (and everything in between), all patiently waiting their turns for an autograph or a picture, and a couple of seconds’ brush with the evening’s visiting C&W celebrities.  The young ladies in the big picture below had lined up for a picture, apparently after purchasing some Ricochet merchandise; “Sweet Tea” is the name of Ricochet’s newest song.  Notice the Ricochet (temporary?!) tatoo on the woman’s left arm.

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Saturday’s show in Tecumseh, Michigan was completely different – a very civilized “Center for the Arts” theater and a room full of mostly gray-haired fans (who, curiously, gave a standing ovation only for the Ricochet drummer’s hiphop/rap medley).

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I should thank all the members of Ricochet for tolerating me again.  Some of them exited the bus in the middle of the night to head for Oklahoma, so I didn’t get to say a proper “goodbye” and “thank you.”

For the second year in a row, I got to have a simultaneous mini-reunion with my two college roomates – Ricochet member Greg Cook, and Dondi Cupp (now a Michigander, living in Ann Arbor – not too far from Tecumseh).  That’s Dondi in the white shirt with blue print, obviously posing with the band (and above in another picture with Greg and me).