The Low Down Review – No. 17

10 May



Outdoor Orchestra: Once the warmer weather moved its way over to my doorstep, I started spending some time each morning out on the porch. Leaning on the rail, cup of coffee in hand, I listened to the robins sing out, the crows caw their way from tree line to tree line, the woodpeckers knock away the bark and bore down, and the house sparrows chirp and tweet. I listened through the din of the cars because the birds quieted down when they passed through. Many simply flew off.

With that as a day’s start, I found myself chatting with a buddy of mine about the messages one can find in nature’s sounds. That is, messages of warning from the birds, if the “peepers” suddenly go silent, if the crickets quit their fiddling, etc. I told the story about the time I turned around on a Yellowstone trail when the birds hushed, and the magpies tracked my every step. Armed with only a bowie knife and a bottle of water, I wasn’t about to explore that nervous tension.

Within minutes of the chat, I checked my email and found a review of Bernie Krause’s, “The Great Animal Orchestra,” (Little, Brown & Company) a book that calls on us to pay better attention to nature’s sound and music. Serendipity. After reading the review and sharing the coincidence with my buddy, I headed out to buy the book. Here’s the review – Jeremy Denk provides a descriptive, compelling and concise summary. Krause provides a compelling narrative as well, and I finished the book in under a work week.

There is quite a bit of what may be considered activism in the book. Specifically, a call to preserve what’s left of the planet’s wild spaces. To Krause, a healthy habitat exhibits rich and diverse sounds, and these sounds are fading. Some will undoubtedly hold his activism against him, but I can’t blame the man, and I certainly don’t hold it against him. Through the course of his four decade career, he’s experienced, first-hand, the deterioration of 50% of the habitat he used to visit to record. The man has been to just about every continent, as detailed in the book, so it’s not as though someone developed half of his backyard.

In fact, I share Krause’s concern with the disappearance of wild space (I touched on it briefly in LDR 12), but I hadn’t yet thought of it in detailed terms of soundscape. This past weekend, while hiking the Plotterkill Preserve in Rotterdam, NY, I decided to take a very close listen to my surroundings and what I experienced was dissonance between the visual and the aural. Take a look at the below picture. I snapped it while resting:



It’s a beautiful scene, right? A peaceful locale to sit and enjoy nature… Well, as Krause states in the book, a picture tells only part of the story. Here’s what you may not imagine when staring at the cascade: the pitched rumble of high-altitude jets, the thrum of the low-flying propeller planes, the popping compression of tractor-trailer air-brakes on the NYS Thruway, the gargle throat pipes of motorcycle “mufflers,” and the distant buzz of lawnmowers. When man-made noise peaked across the soundscape, it seemed that the birds simply gave up. Thinking back, I had always heard this, but I hadn’t actively experienced the dissonance. If the sounds fade, what messages are we missing? Krause answers the question with detail, acumen and a vibrant story-line.

Krause’s book gave language to thoughts that were brewing in my mind, and I thank him not only for the book, but also for all his work in recording nature’s symphony, or “biophony,” as he termed it. His experience with the Nez Perce origin of music story is a beautiful account of humility and awe; it floored me. Nature made the music first, and as Krause argues, we could do better by ourselves to open our ears and start listening to the song.


Remaining Bookish: I’m in the middle of refining a new tune. I’ve titled it “Comanche Moon” and found the lyrical content in two books: Larry McMurtry’s epic Western novel, “Lonesome Dove,” and the tremendous non-fictional account of the settlement of Texas and the forty-year battle with the Comanches, “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S. C. Gwynne – watch and listen to Gywnne describe his book here… If you haven’t read either of these books, I think the lyrics to “Comanche Moon” may provide you with a general feel. I’m hoping to bring this tune to a live performance in the next week or two. Read the lyrics to “Comanche Moon.”



Still working between the bookends, this summer, I’ll team up with buddy and longtime Palatypus collaborator, Matt Durfee, and some of the folks from Black Mountain Symphony, including Charles Burgess for a night of tunes from the Anti-Rent War. That’s right, the Anti-Rent War, a period of New York State history in which farmers revolted against the Van Rensselaer family, and feudalism by another name, the incomplete sale. We’re calling ourselves, “Big Thunder and the Anti-Rent Ramblers.” The research for this show has been a delight, and certainly an informative experience.

For the project, which is part of the Rensselaerville Festival of Writers, we’re using a book titled, “Tin Horns and Calico” written by Henry Christman. We’re using the lyrics found in the back of the book, and putting music to them – the heavy lifting done by Matt and Charlie. I’m working on an original tune for the show, assembling bits of the sweeping arc of the story together, and taking lead on a tune called, “The Landlord’s Lament,” a tongue-in-cheek, if not outright mocking tune told from a landlord’s perceived perspective.

Catch “Big Thunder and the Anti-Rent Ramblers” at the Palmer House Cafe, in Rensselaerville, NY on Friday, July 27th at 7:00 p.m. for a bit of NYS history, and a few beers.



SNEAKY NOTE: Matt Durfee is leaking new tracks from his upcoming solo album, “Little World.” Get yourself a listen…


From the Low Down: I’m happy to announce that the teasing I did in earlier LDRs was for good reason. I’ll be teaming up with folk phenoms, The Stray Birds for a show at the Moon and River Cafe on Monday, June 4, starting at 8:00 p.m. They debuted in the top 20 on the Folk Charts. Get there early; the seats will fill fast.

As you can see from the below schedule, I have quite a few shows on the near and distant stretches of the horizon. I’m excited about these shows too (I can’t tell you how honored I am that these folks have taken a chance on my tunes, or are welcoming me back); this Friday, I’m playing a show at a luthier’s co-op, a place which services and builds guitars, sells vintage instruments and serves beer. Such a great place to sing out a set… So it leads me to a question: do you folks want more information on individual shows listed here in the LDR? I take pride in sharing where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to with you folks, but I’m starting to think that it’s at the expense of what the future holds. Holler back at me, and let me know if y’all prefer more info on the up-and-coming.




I have more good news about the folks over at WEXT. They produce a great program where listeners can sign up to be the D.J. for an hour to share their own favorite tunes. A few weeks back, I was fortunate enough to head into the studio to record a segment and spin tunes by songwriters and musicians that have influenced and continue to inspire me. They titled the program “My Exit,” and you can listen in to my hour on Monday, May 28th at 8:00 p.m. as well as on Sunday, June 3rd at 10:00 a.m. For those of you outside of range, stream the station on the web here… I posted a quick note on my chosen set on the website and you can view that and the set-list here…

So, I think that’s it for now. Be sure to write back with suggestions on the LDR; I’m looking forward to chatting with you about it. And as always, folks thanks for everything. Spread the word and share the song… I simply can’t do it without you.

– Mike


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  1. M.R. Poulopoulos - July 25, 2012

    […] annual fundraiser, the Festival of Writers. I wrote about our part in the Festival in LDR 17. Check it out and arouse your […]