Jason Isbell’s back

More of my friends are discovering Jason Isbell, who’s been all over the media landscape in the last few weeks after the release of his latest album. It’s another strong effort — I cannot believe his consistency in putting out great music — and it also features the bittersweetness that I admire so much in his songwriting.

It’s not easy being a singer-songwriter these days. In an era when the producer is more important than the musicians for a lot of acts and every musician seemingly gets scrubbed by electronics, singer-songwriters still put themselves out there, often accompanied by the simplest of music, and that’s just not the way most music listeners want things. But Isbell (and a number of my other favorite musicians) still do it this way.

This particular Isbell album is noisier than his last two efforts, but it still has plenty of contemplative moments. Even “Cumberland Gap,” my favorite song on the new album, makes devastating use of the line “Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole,” and nobody I know makes it through “If We Were Vampires” unmoved. That’s really all you can ask of a musician.

The pain of Washington sports fandom

It hurts so much to be a Washington sports fan. The Redskins have never really scarred me — I grew up hating them as a fan of the then-rival St. Louis football Cardinals, and it never has gone away — but the other teams have taken a chunk out of me at different times.

I say that now because the Capitals and the Wizards bowed out in the second round of their respective playoffs recently, within a few days at each other. The Wizards loss didn’t bother me much — they had a great year by the low Wizards standards — but the Caps loss was soul-crushing yet still again. They had the best record in the NHL for the second year in a row; they were eliminated in the second round by Pittsburgh for the second year in a row; they have a record of playoff defeats that seems unprecedented to me in U.S. sports.

I can’t even talk about the Nationals, who have yet to win a playoff series even though they have been the best overall team in baseball the last five years. I honestly had little confidence last year they would beat the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs; their 2014 loss to the Giants featured the longest game in playoff history (which they lost, of course) and 2012 was the kind of hell that never goes away.

As a result, I’ve adopted a fatalistic attitude toward professional sports here. I start with the assumption that a given team will never win a playoff series, and then I can allow myself to be mildly surprised when one breaks through. If they get beaten (often in excruciating rubber-game fashion, I might note), I don’t have to feel the pain that sports fans usually feel when their team is eliminated. I don’t even watch elimination games; that way, when I get the inevitable result after the fact, the pain only lasts a second.

Of course, that doesn’t suppress the memories. Most of my memories of sports here involve horrifying, critical losses. And even when I take some preparatory steps, those feelings don’t go away.

The Lone Wolf Harp Train 10

Warning: Harmonica geek content follows.

I’ve owned a Lone Wolf Harp Train 10 for a while now. I’m not a big believer in purpose-built harp gear — it’s generally expensive and I find it of dubious value — but this amp breaks those caveats and there definitely are qualities I really enjoy about it.

The first and most obvious reason: The price. It only runs about $350 or so new, compared to many harp amps (even small ones) that can run multiples of that price. Used ones regularly can be found for $75 or $100 less than list. It’s also good-looking, abandoning the usual tweed-or-Tolex motif of most amps for a tan vinyl finish. Cosmetically, it reminds me a lot of Premier or Valco amps from the 1950s.

But of course, all of that is secondary to the tone. It’s taken some tweaking, but I’ve arrived at a point where I really like the tone of this amp.

As a purpose-built harp amp, it has none of the clean tones that typically defy, say, a Fender amp until it gets cranked to a certain point. Instead, this amp moves into overdrive fairly quickly and heads into pure grind territory without much encouragement. That’s a tone a lot of harp players are going to like, especially less experienced players who are learning how to drive their amps to get the tone they want. This amp makes it easy to get overdriven tones, and your embouchure doesn’t have to be as strong on this amp as it does on some others to get classic harp tone.

But this ease also made the amp more of a mixed bag for me. I had to calm the amp down in various ways to get the tone I wanted.

I started by subbing the two tubes. The amp is a simple 6L6 design that puts out about 10 watts or so, which drives a 10-inch speaker custom designed for harp. It comes standard with Ruby/Shuguang Chinese tubes. I thought the 6L6 power tube was quite good, but the 12AX7 pre-amp tube really drove the amp into a high-grind, harsh-edged tone.

Like a lot of old tone geeks, I have a box of tubes at home, and after some swapping, I settled on a JJ ECC83-MG for the pre-amp tube and a JJ 6L6GC for the power tube. The pre-amp tube made a huge difference; the 6L6 swap didn’t, no matter what I put in there, and I think I actually may like the Ruby a little better. Swapping tubes was a mild pain because they are not mounted on the bottom of the chassis, but that arrangement also helps with heat dissipation.

The amp is made in China at a low cost, and it shows it in a few ways. I acquired this amp used, but it only was a few months old. Nonetheless, when I first pulled the chassis, the silver finish (the chassis is not chromed) was missing in spots. The cable jack is plastic, which means it probably will break at some point; it uses PC board wiring, which makes it a lot harder for hobbyists to work on the amp should something go wrong. However, the electronics build quality looks OK and this method really saves money. Contrary to popular myth, a well-built PC board amp should be as reliable — or even more so — as a hand-wired amp.

There are two controls: Volume and “Balls.” The latter is such a Beavis-and-Butthead name for a control that I just find it annoying. It’s basically a bass/subtle gain boost control and it doesn’t change my personal tone very much; it works best when you’re trying to boost lower-volume bass and overdrive.

The reasonable sweep of the volume control is a sure sign this is a purpose-built harp amp; on guitar amps, without some modifications (usually lower-gain preamp tubes), howling feedback often presents itself before you get the volume past 12 o’clock on the dial. I had no trouble dialing in this amp to 3 o’clock, and then the feedback showed up in a more gentle, controllable manner.

The overall tone is darker than a guitar amp, which is again what you’d expect from a purpose-built harp amp (harp is a bright instrument). It gets pushed into a speaker that I admired and disliked at the same time. It is a low-wattage custom-built speaker that’s clearly designed to emphasize speaker overdrive/distortion tones, but I found the distortion so hard-edged that it took on a solid-state quality. It also mushed out the tone on stage for me, meaning the speaker couldn’t cut through even a low-volume mix. I had a couple of 1960s-vintage Jensen C10Q speakers in storage; installing one of them solved that problem.

New players trying to get some overdrive in their tone or more experienced players who just like this tone are really going to like the stock speaker, and it’s nice to see one that was designed for harp. However, I just did not like this tone and might have even sold the amp if I didn’t have a replacement speaker laying around. It’s hard to justify paying $50 to $100 for a replacement speaker on an amp at this price point.

The amp also has a line-out that samples from the speaker circuit (a good thing). It’s high-Z, which means if you’re going to use the line-out on a pro stage, you’re also going to need a DI box to convert the output to low impedance. I’ve never used it; I just mic the amp at gigs where that is necessary or desired.

Overall, I liked the amp, disliked the speaker (but many players will be happy with it), really liked the looks and the price point, and am using it quite a bit at gigs these days. It’s a great first amp for harp players and it has considerable versatility; it has some inevitable compromises that help keep the cost down; it looks great on stage. It’s not loud enough to cut through a higher-volume band, but you wouldn’t expect that at this price point and it’s easy enough to mic up. I wish it had a more traditional tone control and the “Balls” circuit doesn’t do that much for me other than make me groan at its name. Overall, though, I’m a fan.

This old tambourine


This old tambourine might have been mine for 20 years. I really don’t know when I bought it, but I can’t remember a gig without it for a long time now. If it’s been around only a decade (I’m sure it’s been longer), that means it’s been played in close to 400 or so shows and countless practices.

This old tambourine is beat to hell. It’s missing seven jingles, worn away over time from violent thrashing. An eighth jingle hangs on precariously. Eventually, the wire support in the middle cuts through the jingle and you’re just playing along one day and the jingle takes high-velocity flight and might land several yards away. Nobody’s been hurt. Yet.

This old tambourine sounded great once, but not so much any more. You might think all tambourines sound exactly the same. They don’t. Some don’t cut through the mix; some sound cheesy; some sound like toys. This one knew how to make that BAM noise and also could make a beautiful continuous soft shake.

This old tambourine is chipped and frayed. I’ve stomped on it, beaten it with sticks, smacked it off surfaces, and generally just tossed it on the floor next to the mic stand before gigs. The chambers that hold the jingles are worn around the edges and in the middle. All of the remaining jingles are tarnished from sweat and beer and rain and barroom misadventures.

I retired this old tambourine today. I bought a replacement that I like even better, even though I might I like it better in the way that you like new things over old things at first, but the old tambourine was honestly starting to sound odd and thin. It was time.

This old tambourine went into my music tool chest with various other toys that I sometimes use and sometimes don’t. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. The new one went into the place of honor in the gig bag, and I don’t think the two will swap places again. But the old one had its time of service. Time for a new tambourine and new adventures.

Got a job

Speaking of job interviews, I just accepted a position with AARP as senior editor of digital content. I start May 8. It’s going to be quite a change to go from working for a small startup filled with millennials to a huge organization staffed full of boomers, but I’m excited about the challenge and am happy to get back to work. Can’t wait.