Music Videos

Over the years, I have appeared in a bunch of music videos. The first big one I did was “The Sinister Minister” with The Flecktones in 1989. We did another one in NYC and upstate NY in 1991, and one in Nashville for VH 1 around the same time. I did a bizarre one with Paquito DeRivera about the smuggling of exotic birds from South America, and a live concert video/cd with Kenny Loggins for Sony called “Outside from the Redwoods” that was shown extensively on PBS.
Making these videos is always surreal. There are so many elements that have to come together, so much work involved, and the images that end up on the screen stick with people for a long time. I’d like to share some of the funnier/stranger moments of these with you.

The first Flecktones video, “The Sinister Minister”, was a big reason for the quick success of the band. Warner Bros. had the vision to put us in front of millions of  TV watchers, and VH1 took them up on it by playing us in heavy rotation even before the first cd came out. We filmed it in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the coldest it has ever been there- it snowed the day we left. They had me dressed in a long black cape and a black beret. I thought it was cheesy but it was a blessing in disguise, because we were out there on the street for a few days and it kept me from freezing my ass off. We had a police detail there at all times, and I remember one of them telling a wide- eyed little kid that, yes, I WAS a vampire.

The Czech film director, who was wonderful, would show me the view through the lens before a shot. He used film, which gave the video a very classy look.

The Flecktones 2nd video did not go so smoothly. There was a different director. We shot a tune in a fairly disgusting vacant lot on the lower East Side of Manhattan where some squatters had built a surreal sculpture. It turned out that they wouldn’t let us film in front of it, which had been the whole point….Instead we were filmed standing in front of a brick wall while graffiti artists spray painted things behind us…Our tour manager, Richard Battaglia, took us aside before the shoot and warned us to wear thick soled shoes, as there were numerous used syringes and condoms on the ground. It was charming.

The second part of the shoot took place in an amazing rock sculpture garden upstate. I can’t remember its name or where it was, but I do remember that the owner was squashed to death by a huge rock that he was moving years earlier. We filmed our version of “The Star Spangled Banner” there.

(I should explain that when making these videos, you are “playing” along to your tracks, which are being played over a PA. Everything is synched. In those days, they used a Nagra with a synch track to make sure that the sound and cameras were together. It always took a little while. Then the tech guy would shout “Speed!” and the filming would begin. Now it’s all done on computers, instant synch.)

We got the footage when it was done and watched it on the bus. I commented that everything looked a little washed out. It turned out that our filmmaker had miscalculated the light and that the film from the upstate NY part of the video was overexposed. They had to spend a lot of time and money making it look good, I remember.

The same director had done a VH1 special on us in Nashville, which is how he got the call to do the video. It was called “In Your Face”, one of those shows where they used that herky-jerky cut up look for much of the footage. It was the fashion then like strobe lights were in the psychedelic ‘60’s. In addition to performing a few tunes live, everyone did their showiest  thing. Victor threw the bass around his body, might have even done a standing back flip, Roy is a show in himself, I think Bela played banjo blindfolded, etc. When they got to me, in spite of the guys telling the director that I could play harp and piano simultaneously, that I was the first one to play the diatonic chromatically, etc, he wasn’t sure what to film. Plus, what I do on harp is mostly INVISIBLE…it doesn’t make for good film, and this was “In Your Face” film.

So the director asked me, “So Howard, what can YOU do that is special?” I thought of some choice answers, thought the better of it, then decided to put him on. I stared into his eyes and said, “I can play piano with my hands behind my back!” Any kid can do that and I was joking, but he seemed genuinely impressed and eager to film it. There was an old upright piano there, so I did it. What I played sounded coherent in a twisted way. Then I had to say “You’re watching ‘In Your Face’ on VH1”. I had to say “In Your Face” very aggressively. It felt disgusting to me, like I was flipping off the audience. The director loved it.

Years later…I sat in with The Flecktones on harmonica at Ravinia in 2003 or 4. They filled the place, must have been 10- 15,000 people there. A kid came up to me afterwards with a look of awe on his face, and said, “Wow, you’re the guy who plays piano with his hands behind his back!” …

There was another unforgettable moment from that film. We did a live performance of Bela’s “Sunset Road”, one of my favorite tunes in the early days of the band. I used to clap softly on the backbeats before my entrance on keys, because the groove felt really good and it was a natural thing to do. The director liked it- it was visual- and made sure to film it. In the film, they made sure to show me clapping to the music. However, the person who edited it had me clapping on 1 and 3 instead of 2 and 4, which is where HE thought you should clap. It made me look like a moron. It’s kind of the musical equivalent of quoting a politican out of context.

The Paquito video a few years later was truly bizarre. It was shot at a now defunct Chicago Jazz club called George’s. It was a full scale 3- camera shoot with all the bells and whistles, but our music was background for a story about illegal smuggling of tropical birds. The whole thing was strange. We played a few tunes. Paquito, in his inimitable way, not only wanted me to play the tunes, but also to play a Bach Prelude in Cm from The Well Tempered Clavier as an intro to one of them. First, I am not a great classical pianist. Second, though it sounded familiar when he hummed it to me, I had never played this piece. And most importantly, he didn’t have the music. He said, “Oh, every pianist knows that piece”. During the  break between the rehearsal and the shoot that night, I raced home, unearthed the music, practiced it, and eventually played it half-decently in the video that night. If anyone of you has actually SEEN this video, please let me know.

Kenny Loggins- Outside from the Redwoods. 1993. This was a great experience with great results, but the way that it started was another thing entirely.

In Spring of 1993, I was contacted by an arranger who was revamping some of Kenny Loggins’ tunes for “Outside from the Redwoods”, the live cd/video. I was hired for the recording and became part of the touring band, playing harmonica, mandolin, ocarina, and a little keyboards. It was a great band, with either Herman Matthews or Alvino Bennett on drums, and the great Freddie Washington on bass. Playing with a rhythm section like that made everything feel easy and right. Everyone else in the band was at that level, too- Mark Russo, Steve George, Chris Rodriguez, Ed Mann, etc. I was featured on a few big harp solos. After The Flecktones’ chops-oriented music, it was a relief to be in a setting where communicating the emotional and lyrical content of the song was the most important thing. Kenny was an amazing singer, and there sure were a lot of great songs.

I rehearsed in LA for 2 weeks for the live recording, going over and over the music in minutest detail. It was hard work and things were always changing, but I really enjoyed it. Kenny even had me singing a little. I felt appreciated and got along well with all the guys

When I showed up for the live recording a week later in Santa Cruz, I was ushered into the dressing room where the wardrobe lady took me aside. We had been fitted for clothes, and I assumed that they would have something Western for me to wear. It was the general look.

She looked at me with an apologetic expression, saying “I don’t know how to tell you this, but…” -she had a hanger full of clothes for me to wear- “Kenny wants you to wear these”. She handed me a long, heavy cloth coat and a stovepipe hat. From Bela Fleck introducing me as “The Tall Thin Flecktone” I had graduated to Kenny Loggins presenting me as Abe Lincoln.

I looked the wardrobe lady in the eye and said ”No Way!” She looked at her feet and said, “Yeah, I know”. Not only was it totally surreal, but it was about 90 degrees and humid outside, too.
“What else do you have in my size?”
“Well, there are some blue jeans”.
“Fine!”
“And this blue jean shirt”.
“Great !”

I walked out on stage, Kenny looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “Well, hello, Mr. Blue!” I smiled, we played, and everything went well. The “costume change” was never mentioned, and I went on to tour with Kenny for a year or two.

 

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