Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Bring Back the Grand Finale

When I was 16, I went on trip to London with my family: my mom, my dad, and my sister. The only real goal in my teenage brain at the time was to find the songwriter Billy Bragg once I got there. I had, by then, ingested quite a bit of "Talking with the Taxman about Poetry," and "Workers' Playtime" had just been released. I couldn't quite believe that someone had found a proven process to compress Woody Guthrie-style, social commentary into obvious Motown chord changes but, there it was, and I was on my way to meet him.

I somehow convinced my parents that I should be allowed wander off across London using the Tube on this journey and I eventually (the luck!) found that Billy was playing a *quadruple bill* featuring his band — with, at the time, with Cary Tivey on piano — Michelle Shocked, comedian Barry Crimmins, and Michael Franti fronting one of his earlier bands. I bought a ticket and was floored. It was perfect in its wobbly imperfection, the kind of rock n' roll I had come to expect from rock heroes like the Del Fuegos, but presented here, before me, in a theater setting with red velvet-y seats and a crowd of people singing along. For the grand finale, the entire set of performers from the evening participated and a light clicked on for me. I saw the light, so to speak. I bought a t-shirt at the merch table on the way out and wondered: "What does an avowed socialist do with all the swag sales money?"

Later that night, within just yards of arriving back at the hotel, I encountered my dad. He been out looking for me at the direction of my mom, clearly having re-assessed the wisdom of having let a naive, suburban kid wander this big city beyond midnight. He was glad to have found me almost home. As a dad myself now, I can intuit the amalgam of relief, surrealism, and adrenaline he experienced at that moment. Standing there in the Underground, he and I paused a bit in the vacuum of the moment to take in a drunken reveler in a Burger King crown singing his heart out. He was relieved to have found me. I was elated at the experience of the previous four hours. In that regard, it was a win for both of us.

In any case, Bill's music became a guide-wire for me in so many regards from that point forward. While I occasionally returned to those early records, I followed his career forward, too. At each turn, there was a song there for the taking that somehow matched my world.

On "William Bloke," indeed, he captured, in a single song, the circumstances and moment I met my wife,
He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in,
she said 'I'm a teacher, I teach the children.'
the joy and complex circumstances of bringing our kiddo home 14 years later,
Their baby came home to them an unmarried mother,
they wished she would turn into a pillar of salt
and, today, the absolute most important rule in our home:
Compassion has to be the greatest family value.
Just last week, I was Googlin' to confirm Bill's favorite song — it might just be Lowell George's "Willin'" and that's a story for another blog post entirely — and I was reminded in the search results of his pre-pandemic project singing train songs and traveling by train with the songwriter Joe Henry. It took me right back to that moment in London so many years ago, this image of two musicians in their misbegotten hats — this time standing right in the middle of in my hometown of Chicago at Union Station — embarking on a literal shared journey.

I'm thinking about this, of course, because we're all still stuck in our homes, watching so much of this horribleness occupy our TV screens, awaiting and praying for the end of this craziness, but also acutely aware of the things we're grateful for, and missing that shared journey and experience of live music. That is, of course, the main thing we're all looking for as musicians alongside our cords and cables, the hum from the amps, a shock to the lips, and most importantly to me, the grand finale and the arc of community and solidarity it represents, which I first learned about from Bill's show way back in 1988.

So, right now... bring me back to the Billy Bragg grand finale at Dominion Theatre in 1988. Let me stand on the side of summertime ski hill, overlooking Lake Superior, thirty years later, while Michael Franti hauls all the kids in the audience on stage to sing along. Don't play me a slow, mournful version of anything right now; instead, give me the ten minute grand finale jam of "I Saw the Light" with Billy Strings and his crew. Give me a nine minute version of Don Dixon and Autumn Defense doing "Praying Mantis" to close out a house party. Give me Maria McKee, Van Dyke Parks, Hiram Bullock, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and David Sanborn closing out a Night Music episode doing "Sailing Shoes." Bring out Ringo and Ronnie Wood (in his tuxedo t-shirt) and give us all The Band, with the rest of the ensemble, singing "I Shall Be Released."

When this is all good and over, give me the grand finale in full, glorious harmony, over and over again, from the West down to the East. You and me, together, we can take the long way home.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon writes on music, business, and creativity at Unclumsy.com

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Sunken Ledger

On His First Solo Outing, Mike Tittel Owns His Own Demons

According to Mike Tittel, half of Ohio is sitting at the bottom of Lake Erie and we're probably better off for it. Tittel, a Southern Ohio native and Cincinnati-scene fixture for over 20 years puts it bluntly: "If every drum kit I own was stolen tomorrow," he says, "I'd make more progress just writing songs at my kitchen table than trying to talk my way into another gig in Columbus. Who needs it?" He should know. In the mid 90s, Tittel traveled the country while vacuum-packed in a Ford Econoline as the touring drummer for the iconic power-pop band, Loud Family. Along the way, he absorbed almost everything you need to know about the craft of hook-laden artful deception. He learned a fair bit about songwriting, too. The rest he picked up from a well-worn record collection of XTC, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, and every possible incarnation of Westerberg, all clearly just below the surface in his writing.

Back in Cincinnati, Tittel made one more record — 1999s astounding "Let There Be Work" with his band Pidgin — then hit the pause button, set aside the drums, sold the old-school 16-track AMPEX 2" deck, and opted for career of photography and advertising. He waited a full 15 years, then returned in 2014 with the harrowing "44," a stop-motion chronicle of his admittedly complex life at the time. "Friends were concerned," he laughs, but it turned out to mark an awakening. His second act in music, dubbed New Sincerity Works, released the acclaimed "Nowadays" (2015) and "Wonder Lust" (2017) in quick succession, both featuring an all-star cast of the best of the best in Midwest power-pop: Bob Nyswonger of the Psychodots & Bears and Roger Klug among 'em.

With 2020's "Sleeping In," his first true solo endeavor — he plays almost all of the instruments with support from his key comadre, Lauren Bray, of Pretty Birds — Tittel turns down the volume and breaks out the vintage acoustic guitars, but can't get away from the pop sensibilities, no matter which way he swims. From "3AM" to the closing track ("Birds of Murren"), "Sleeping In" lets you in on a little secret: you're gonna hear the paged turns of spiral notebooks, the inked padding of lined legal rule, and the ledgers of lyrics right up close as he skims across the personal and the profane. From the Neil Finn-tinged "Own Your Own Dealings" to "On a Good Day," the songs end up reading like a practical guide to realignment in a world so obviously overturned:
The seekers of the dreams, those busting at the seams
with losses from the past, it's time to do the math
For Tittel, it's clear that it's no longer enough to be the photographer, the drummer, or the songwriter alone. He's determined to be the observer-in-full and go, as the songwriter Greg Brown would say, "further in," the cinematic and the ineffable in single sentiment, every single time.

"Both the shipwreck and the treasure are resting on the bottom," Tittel notes about the creative process, "waiting for anyone who can hold their breathe."

Watch the album trailer for "Sleeping In" here.

– Jon Roketenetz

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Wilson

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Black & White

On Location for Aldila Golf in California

Glad to spend a few days shooting for Aldila Golf outside of San Diego with the super-talented adventure photographer, Mike Calabro, this January. A great way to start the year: enthusiastic client, lucky weather, and a stack of quality photos to support social media outreach for a legendary brand. Shown here decked out in his black and white polka-dot DannyShane polo, Mike takes aim.

These days, I pack three cameras for these types of trips: my old Canon with Sigma lens, the new Sony a7 mirrorless with 50mm prime, and the little, simple, perfect Fujifilm X70 which nabbed this photo of Mike.

Check out Mike's work on his Instagram account.

– Jon

Jon is the CEO of GimmeAnother and founder of 3VERB.