Sweet Baby James: Benjamin Wagner’s “Forever Young” Track-By Track

October 26th, 2010

maggiemay.jpgJeff Jacobson and Patrick Riley have never met, and are separated by a thousand miles of Heartland. Still, they helped me create one of the most-beautiful recordings of my life.

For nearly twenty years, I’ve described my brand of singer/songwriter fare as “Less James Taylor, More James Hetfield.” It’s a stretch for those who know my music, but a necessary recalibration for those who don’t and expect softly-strumming guitars and a gentle tenor.

That is, until lately. More and more over the last few years, I’ve let the distortion slip away from my songs. My guitar playing has evolved from brief, sustain-free chords (circa “Out Of Your Head”) to open strumming (circa “Almost Home”) to finger-picking. Likewise, my lyrics have evolved from dense clusters of seemingly disconnected symbols, to cogent thoughts. I am, perhaps, owning my inner James Taylor. And never more so than with “Forever Young.”

And so it seemed only natural to trot out the only JT song in my repertoire. Better still, “Sweet Baby James” is editorially salient; JT wrote the song for his older brother Alex’s brand-new son as he was driving through Carolina to meet his infant nephew for the first time. The song was the released in 1970, the title track to Taylor’s debut LP. Trouble is, I hadn’t played it in years. And I never played it well.

Cue the best guitar player I know and soon-to-be UES neighbor, Jeff Jacobson. Jeff came with his absolutely beautiful arrangement fully considered, his gently descending arpeggiation delicate, nuanced, and sure to soothe. He tracked in my Hell’s Kitchen studio, bagging a keeper in just three passes, then doubled it.

It wasn’t until a Sunday afternoon — Father’s Day, if I remember correctly — just a few days after Maggie’s birth that I began tracking the vocal. It was impossible for me to make through a verse without choking up, especially this section:

There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway
A song that they sing when they take to the sea
A song that they sing to their home in the sky
Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep
Singing works just fine for me.

Everything’s more emotional these days. Maggie’s brand-new life casts terrific perspective on everything. Every song is sweeter. Every sunrise more sublime. And even more so with cello.

As if Jeff’s beautiful version wasn’t moving enough, Des Moines cellist Patrick Riley composed, produced and recorded a stunning string arrangement from a thousand miles away on zero guidance. Maggie was suffering a restless, nap-starved afternoon when Patrick’s file arrived one September Saturday afternoon. I pushed play, then danced slowly around the room, swaying to Jeff and Patrick’s beautiful recording. I sang softly to Maggie as streamed down my face. Her head fell gently to my shoulder, she sighed, and slipped off into dreams.

* * *

“Forever Young” is a collection of all-star cover songs for the young and young at heart. Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media. The complete “Forever Young” track list:

1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River

Download “Forever Young” on iTunes, or purchase a physical copy from Authentic Records Online now!

You Are My Sunshine: Benjamin Wagner’s “Forever Young” LP Track-By-Track

October 18th, 2010

sunshine.jpgFunny how things change.

Years ago now, I was in a country cover band called The Smith Family. Almost Home producer Kevin Anthony had tired of of his techno outfit, Electroland, so formed the band with a nod to his Galveston, TX, country roots. I eagerly signed on.

Kevin and I split front man duties evenly, though I enthusiastically saught out the mic for the rockers: “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Whiskey River,” “Wine Me Up.” And “You Are My Sunshine.”

See, The Smith Family closed most shows with a rousin’, rockin’, sing-a-long version of “Sunshine.” And why not? Everyone knows the tune and — a few PBRs in — is happy to join in. Most night, I was happy to stand on a table top to boot. (And many night, I ended up hailing a can as the sun rose over Brooklyn.)

Fast forward five years. I’m sketching a set list for my first all-ages, afternoon show, and I wonder, ‘What kids’ songs do I know?’ Subtract the PBR, toss in a round of solos, and we were onto something.

Cue “Forever Young.” The sing-a-long sensibility was a fit, but not our rollickin’ version; it was way too rockin’ to lull my someday-baby to sleep. Ends up, in the weeks and months prior to Maggie’s birth, everything had changed. I’d almost stopped strumming completely. I was nearly whispering when I sang. All inadvertently.

And so, as I drafted my “Forever Young” track list, I decided to put this new-found approach to work. Trouble is, I couldn’t get a decent guitar recording. Night after night I tried to nail the arpeggiation to no avail. And so, when I had my dear friend Jeff Jacobson over to track “Sweet Baby James” vocals, I called in a favor. He delivered on the second take, complete with my one musical variation: I added a chromatic in the chorus (listen for it on the lyric “away”).

CueThe Nadas’ Jason Walsmith. Jason and I’d been discussing a collaboration (another, really; Jason’s all over my 2005 LP, “Heartland”) for years. Ends up, he’d been meaning to make a children’s record, and loves “You Are My Sunshine.” And so it came to pass that Nadas’ bassist (and “Forever Young” producer) Jon Locker tracked Jason and Nadas’ violinist Becca Smith in his Des Moines studio one August afternoon. Jason and Becca’s vocals float over Jeff’s gently-arpeggiated guitar like billowing clouds. Beautiful. What’s more, Becca’s violin swoop and soar like lazy-summer fireflies. Gorgeous.

And so it is that a one-time drunken sing-a-long became a lullabye for my darling daughter with the simple passage of time, and the help of some dear friends. Funny how things change, indeed.

Listen for yourself, please. It’s for charity!

* * *

“Forever Young” is a collection of all-star cover songs for the young and young at heart. Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media. The complete “Forever Young” track list:

1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River

Download “Forever Young” on iTunes, or purchase a physical copy from Authentic Records Online now!

2010 Chicago Marathon In 4:03:49

October 15th, 2010

marathon1.jpg“It’s not the heat,” I Tweeted in the wee hours of Sunday morning, “It’s the uncertainty.”

Ends up it was both.

See, Chicago has a bit of history with extreme weather. In 2007, one runner died and another 100+ were rushed to area hospitals on account of too much heat (the mercury topped ninety!), and too little water.

That Sunday’s forecast, then, called for a high of 86 degrees was, well, cold comfort (or it’s conceptual but not thermal inverse).

Still, as Chris, Mike and I sat around Saturday afternoon (one isn’t really a tourist on a marathon weekend like this; you don’t wanna’ blow energy on siteseeing), it wasn’t the forecast that had me flumuxed. It was the thousand upon thousands of variables: rogue muscle cramps, ankle-splaying potholes, early peak, bad salmon, and on and on and on…

Sunday morning came quickly. Queuing was remarkably relaxed (in contrast to mustering some three hours prior to the NYC Marathon). I was in a seeded start up front on account of last year’s 3:51:46. I stretched and fidgeted, staring straight ahead to the once-familiar Standard Oil Building.

True, I was in a seeded coral (that is, a section of the start populated by runners with competitive times).

Still, when the gun went off (well, there was no gun, just some guy announcing “The 2010 Chicago Marathon is under way!”), I was startled at how quickly runners popped into fifth gear. Everyone around me was cooking, while I kept reminding myself, ‘26.2 miles, 26.2 miles…’

The course zig-zags through downtown, then north towards Lincoln Park and The Gold Coast. I was unsettled the whole way, my synapses firing at every undertainty in my brain: distance, dehydration, aches and pains.

The scenery, though, was spectacular. The sky was a cloudless, incandescent blue, Lake Michigan sparkling beneath. Every corner revealed a distant childhood memory (My family lived in nearby Oak Park from 1977-1981).

Still, I felt frenzied and anxious, even more so when — somewhere prior to the half-way mark — goosebumps rippled down my arms like a gently breeze. Or was it actually a gentle breeze?

Though for previous matathons I’ve only stopped periodically for water, I’d been doubling-down on hydration the whole route: Gatorade and water. Still, dehydration was knocking. And though the midway mark — The Sears Tower, a beacon of my childhood — provided a moment of inspiration and levity (The Verve’s “Lucky Man” helped), and I was on pace for a sub-four finish, I was getting worried.

All the while, the spectre of Chinatown loomed large. Though my cousin Andy pledged to cheer for us there, he characterized it as a concret ghost town. Combined with burgeoning exhaustion, dehydration, disorientation, and a rapidly depleated playlist…

Sure enough, Chinatown was drab, shuttered, and sparsley populated with spectators. Twenty miles in, I’d blown though nearly every trick in my bag: three-gels, two Advil, and a stick of Trident gum. All that was left was my beloved, last-ditch gummy bears which I choked down just a few sun-bleached blocks from Comisky Field. Comisky Field! How did we make it to Comisky Field!?!

My memory of those last six miles is, as expected, fuzzy. There were moments in the hinterland-borders of downtown where I didn’t know where I was, or when it would end. When we finally turned north, and the skyscrapers re-aligned before me, I was reoriented. But the sun was crippling, a near white-out despite my sunglasses. I’d taken to pouring water over my head, and onto my arms. I was struggling to keep pace, constantly calculating my sub-four odds despite diminished mental faculties. My iPod headphones finally fizzled out on account of waterlog. I bit my tongue to drive a last spark of adrenaline, and tuned into the roar of the crowd. After one-last, painful uphill, I turned left into Grant Park, and began the slow, gentle descent towards the finish line, leaping to tap the banner as I crossed.

In the moments that followed, I looked up to those skyscrapers I grew up loving so much. And I looked up at the sky, so blue, so full of sunshine. And I smiled, And stumbled northward to my hotel grinning at all that I had endured — all the heat, and all the uncertainty — in these short four hours before most of the world had even finished their morning paper. And I quietly muttering under my breath half-comment, half-question, “Next?”

Mr. Tambourine Man: Benjamin Wagner’s “Forever Young” LP Track-By-Track

October 11th, 2010

dylan.jpgIt may not be immediately apparent, but the “Forever Young” track list is intended to reflect the arch of the day.

From from “Rainbow Connection” through “Moon River,” the lyrics, instrumentation, and production start bigger and brighter, then transition to more somber and sleepy.

“Mr. Tambourine Man,” then, is all about the transition to night.

“I know evening’s empire has returned into sand,” Dylan first sang on his 1965 LP, “Bringing It All Back Home.” “Vanished from my hand, left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.”

True, “Mister Tambourine Man” isn’t a kid’s song (Dylan apparently wrote the song after a trip to Mardi Gras), still, the dream-like imagery (which some describe as “surrealistic,” and attribute to the influenced of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini) seemed perfect for this record. Through the “smoke rings of [Dylan’s] mind” to the “foggy ruins of time” “surrounded circus sands,” the song is rich with other-worldly imagery.

While some have attributed the surrealist imagery to Dylan’s burgeoning drug use, many have read this lyrical willingness to follow his musical muse as a “search for transcendence” (see also: “Rainbow Connection”) — a pursuit I can only wish for my daughter.

Better, perhaps, than dream imagery and search for transcendence, is the song’s rich life lesson. In recording “Forever Young” for Maggie, I’d hoped to give her a series on small, inspiring gifts. To that end, “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” seems to me to be a pretty good way to live.

Chris, Tony Maceli, Ryan Vaughn and I recorded basic tracks in March with Gary Atturio at Galuminum Foil Studios. I tracked additional guitars, vocals, and (of course) tambourine in my Hell’s Kitchen Studio (aka walk-in closet), well prior to moving to the Upper East Side.

Bryan Dunn (whose rootsy, authentic body of work and and reedy, rockin’ voice, seemed an ideal fit for the cover) and I bagged vocals (and his guitar solo, natch) in Maggie’s nursery just a few weeks before she was born. Producer Jon Locker added Dylan’s signature Hammond Organ (complete with whirling Leslie speaker) in Des Moines shortly thereafter.

* * *

“Forever Young” is a collection of all-star cover songs for the young and young at heart. Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media. The complete “Forever Young” track list:

1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River

Download “Forever Young” on iTunes, or purchase a physical copy from Authentic Records Online now!

Top Seven “Forever Young” Benefit Show Moments

October 6th, 2010

wha.jpgThis weekend’s two “Forever Young” Benefit CD Release Shows were something special. We performed two: one for kids, and one for folks who like booze. Both were outstanding, and filled with inspiring, outrageous, and silly moments. Here are my top seven:

7 – Fundraising Is Fun We raised nearly $1000 for children’s media research and advocacy in 24 hours. But we can do better. Download your copy of “Forever Young” on iTunes now!

6 – We Are Stardust Man, how lucky am I? A couple of emails and a handful of bona fide New York City’s rock stars show up: Casey Shea, Emily Easterly (her new single, “The Only Two On Earth” is amazing and available for free at her website), Jamie Leonhart, Bryan Dunn, Chris LoPresto, Jake Cohen and my oldest and dearest pals Chris Abad and Tony Maceli. Wow. What a stage!

5 – Casey Kicks It Up A Notch Even with it macabre verses (seriously, have you read the lyrics lately?), “You Are My Sunshine” doesn’t rank very high on Lower East Side Hipness Meter. Nor do sing-a-longs. I thought perhaps I’d jumped the shark when I ditched strumming my guitar, tossed my hands in the air and began clapping. That is, until Casey Shea let loose a tell-tale, tequila-fueled, “Yeah!” and ignited the audience. For a minute there with Case, Emily, Bryan and me hollerin’ along with the audience, it was like a barn-burnin’ hootenanny.

4 – Golden Slumbers Just seconds before our silly, sloppy finale, Chris LoPresto, Casey and I gave the band a breather, and performed The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” on scarcely more than a wing, a prayer, and one, brief rehearsal (albeit a live one in front of kids). Rockwood was buzzing with Friday night chatter, all lung-busting banter and flirtatious hollering, still, we endured. And — surprise — a few notes in, the room fell silent and stayed silent through the last note of the last word: Lullabye.

3 – My Nephews Play Coy The truth is, “Forever Young” was preceded by the 2003 one-off, “Songs In The Key Of E,” a similarly-themed home recording for my nephew Ethan’s first Christmas. And so it was moving to have him there in the front row with his brother, Edward, sister, Ella, mom and dad. Ethan and Edward both watched intently, averting their eyes when I winked and smiled in their direction (then stormed the stage to bang on the drums just as soon as we were finished). Some day, I hope we get to perform with our band, Stinky Jack. Crazy nephews, indeed. Awesome, too.

2 – Six Years Later The story is well-worn, but awesome. I first met my now-wife in a shaft of white light at the end of the tiny Rockwood Music Hall bar. Five years later, we’re happily married. Better yet (as if it could get better), my beautiful wife was standing there with swaying with our beautiful daughter in her arms. Did I mention I was lucky?

1 – Maggie Figures It Out If there is a sweeter moment for a singer/songwriter/father than watching his brand-new, four-month-old daughter stare up at him onstage performing, well, I don’t know what it is. Her big, blue eyes were fixed on me, her expression intent. She was doing the math, putting it all together. “Daddy does what!?!”

* * *

Download “Forever Young” on iTunes now! The complete “Forever Young” track list:

1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River

The Only Living Boy In New York: Benjamin Wagner’s “Forever Young” LP Track-By-Track

October 5th, 2010

nyc.jpgGrowing up, “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” were in far heavier rotation than “The Only Living Boy In New York.” Sadly (perhaps), it took 2004’s “Garden State” to re-introduce this Simon & Garfunkle classic, the b-side to “Cecilia.”

Apparently, Simon wrote the song as a thinly-veiled message to Art Garfunkel when he jetted off to Mexico to act in Catch-22″ leaving Simon alone in New York writing songs for what would become “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

In the intervening years since re-discovering this gem, I’ve spend hours pacing New York City, Simon & Garfunkle wafting through my headphones a salve against the city’s callous, shallow, anonymity. It’s a beautiful, pensive, lonesome song, one I think we managed to capture pretty well.

When I first conceived of the record, Abbi was just a few months pregnant. We didn’t know our baby’s gender, and didn’t want to. It struck me to include “The Only Living Boy In New York” almost immediately, not just for its beautiful melancholy, but also for the opportunity it presented to perform it with my dear friend, Chris Abad for whom I had the honor of performing the song as he walked down the aisle to marry his awesome wife, Megan.

Chris , Tony Maceli, Ryan Vaughn and I recorded basic tracks in March with Gary Atturio at Galuminum Foil Studios. I tracked additional guitars, vocals, tambourine in my Hell’s Kitchen Studio (aka walk-in closet) on a pitch-perfect, misty New York City night (you can watch a “>making-of video here) before moving to the Upper East Side. Chris turned in a sweet, uber-high backing vocal recorded in Maggie’s nursery. Producer Jon Locker added Dylan’s signature Hammond Organ (complete with whirling Leslie speaker) in Des Moines.

For months, every street corner prognosticator from Puerta Plata to Paoli, Pennsylvania, had diagnosed Abbi’s low-carry as an imminent sign that we were having a boy. Our beautiful daughter, Margaret Burton Wagner was born at 5:20pm on Monday, June 7. Still, I think the song fits.

I don’t wish the latter on my daughter (though what human’s life has lacked at least an iota of lonesomeness?), but I do wish for her a soundtrack to those moments. If she must feel this way (someday, far-off in the distance and even then only for an instant), may she be guided by a song such as this, one whose harmonies float like apparitions in the foggy distance, and whose harmony asserts, “Let you’re honesty shine, shine, shine, shine on!”

* * *

“Forever Young” is a collection of all-star cover songs for the young and young at heart. Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media. The complete “Forever Young” track list:

1 – Rainbow Connection (featuring Amber Rubarth)
2 – Forever Young (featuring Emily Easterly)
3 – The Only Living Boy In New York (featuring Chris Abad)
4 – Mr. Tambourine Man (featuring Bryan Dunn)
5 – You Are My Sunshine (featuring Jason Walsmith & Becca Smith)
6 – Sweet Baby James (featuring Jeff Jacobson)
7 – You’ve Got A Friend (featuring Mai Bloomfield)
8 – Golden Slumbers (featuring Casey Shea)
9 – Amazing Grace (featuring Jamie Leonhart)
10 – Moon River

Download “Forever Young” on iTunes, or purchase a physical copy from Authentic Records Online now!

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

October 2nd, 2010 - 8:00 pm

Rainbow Connection
The Only Living Boy In New York (w/ Chris Abad)
Mr. Tambourine Man (w/ Bryann Dunn)
Golden Slumbers (w/ Casey Shea)
You’ve Got A Friend (w/ Casey Shea)
Forever Young (w/ Emily Easterly et all)
You Are My Sunshine
+ Live Forever

* * *

Benjamin Wagner & Friends
“Forever Young” Benefit CD Release
All-Ages Show Featuring Casey Shea, Chris Abad, Jamie Leonhart, Bryan Dunn, Chris LoPresto, Emily Easterly, Jake Cohen & Tony Maceli

Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media.

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

October 2nd, 2010 - 3:00 pm

Amazing Grace/Killing the Blues (w/ Jamie Leonhart)
Rainbow Connection (w/ Jamie Leonhart)
The Only Living Boy In New York (w/ Chris Abad)
Mr. Tambourine Man (w/ Bryann Dunn)
Golden Slumbers (w/ Casey Shea)
You’ve Got A Friend (w/ Casey Shea)
Forever Young (w/ Emily Easterly et all)
+ You Are My Sunshine

* * *

Benjamin Wagner & Friends
“Forever Young” Benefit CD Release
All-Ages Show Featuring Casey Shea, Chris Abad, Jamie Leonhart, Bryan Dunn, Chris LoPresto, Emily Easterly, Jake Cohen & Tony Maceli

Proceeds will be donated to The Fred Rogers Center and The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. Though neither is affiliated with the project in any way, we believe strongly in supporting their efforts towards advancing early learning and children’s media.