Mark Johnson mixed part of Playing for Change at his studio
photo: Maureen Droney
Playing for Change
is an extraordinarily soulful new documentary (and accompanying soundtrack CD) that offers an inspirational glimpse into the lives of a group of diverse musicians who perform on the streets and in subways across the United States.
Conceived by Grammy-winning audio engineer-turned-filmmaker Mark Johnson, and realized by Johnson, co-director/cinematographer Jonathan Walls and producer Whitney Kroenke, Playing for Change (www.playingforchange.com) was filmed in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and has already aired on the Sundance Channel and garnered awards at two European film festivals.
Johnson counts among his engineering credits Keb' Mo,' Los Lobos and Rickie Lee Jones, among others, so it's no surprise that the film sounds great. “The point of this movie was to show street musicians in their usual environments,” he comments. “We wanted to capture the emotion and excitement, and to let the audience be a part of the experience rather than having it interpreted and filtered for them.”
Johnson had been kicking the concept around for some time, but the project really began one day in Manhattan when he came across something particularly captivating. “I was on my way to work at a recording studio,” Johnson says, “and in the subway were two monks painted in white from head to toe. One was playing classical guitar; the other was singing in a language I couldn't understand. They were so good, my jaw dropped. There were maybe 100 people in the subway, and we all just stood there. That was the catalyst: I wanted to go out and find as much of that kind of experience as I could.”
In Los Angeles, Johnson enlisted Walls, whose work he'd admired; then Kroenke came on board with financing. “Whitney loved the idea,” Johnson says, “but she felt that the film needed another element. We decided to incorporate a song on which musicians from all over the country — and, ultimately, the world — who'd never met would add their own parts.”
Capturing performances proved difficult and Johnson had to devise three different recording rigs. He and Walls first went on scouting expeditions, carrying a small setup. “We'd run around the city and see what we could find,” Johnson relates. “I'd take a Grace Lunatec stereo battery-powered mic preamp, a Tascam stereo DAT machine with Echo Charge batteries and a couple of Schoeps mics in a backpack. I also used a laptop with Nuendo and Metric Halo, the hardware audio interface with 96k sample rates and built-in mic pre's. Everything we scouted, we recorded; some of it made the movie.”
At other times, Johnson, Walls, Kroenke and B camera operator/still photographer Tahitia Hicks used three cameras and a larger recording setup powered by golf cart batteries in wheeled road cases. Johnson credits audio dealer Mickey Houlihan, owner of Boulder, Colo. — based Wind Over the Earth, for help with gear and rig design. The main rig, which recorded to Sony DA78 digital multitracks, includes Grace 801 mic preamps, a Manley Variable Mu limiter, two Schoeps (with multiple capsules) and two B&K 4011 mics, along with Shure SM57s, a Beta 52 and SM 7, and a DPA high-voltage microphone and a lavalier.
“We'd rent a van and get as close as we could. One person would park it, and the rest of us would wheel the gear,” Johnson describes. “It was treacherous! We filmed in rain and wind, and I couldn't stop musicians to ask them to change position. It was designed to be a moment in time, so it was always spontaneous. We were very careful to make the artists comfortable. I'd just listen for the loudest instrument and then put the mics farthest from it.”
The project was mixed at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles and at Johnson's home studio, Timeless Studio. Partly due to the exposure they received from the project, two of the featured artists have now obtained major-label recording contracts.
The soundtrack is available from Amazon.com and iTunes; the DVD is being released by the Sundance Channel. Meanwhile, work has begun on a second project: Playing for Change International, with footage already shot in Barcelona, Spain. Next, Johnson and friends are off to Africa to record a Zulu choir.
“With all of these people,” Johnson concludes, “it's about the purest kind of playing and their conviction of their own worth. They decided that whether or not they ever had a hit song or made a lot of money, their lives were going to be filled with playing music.”
Barefoot Servants’ Lee Sklar, with a portrait from his clean-shaven youth
photo: Rob Shanahan
Given that Lee Sklar has been a first-call bass player for more than 30 years, you might expect that at this point, not much gets him excited. After all, with more than 2,000 albums to his credit, he's toured and recorded all over the world with top artists such as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Phil Collins, Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Lyle Lovett and Veronique Sanson — to name but a few. But Sklar is an enthusiastic, optimistic type — one of the reasons he's so successful; not only is he a brilliant bass player, he's also a good hang. And these days, he's especially excited about his own band, the Barefoot Servants, and their new CD, Barefoot Servants 2, out on Atom Records (www.AtomRecords.com/www.barefootservants.net).
The Barefoot Servants are Sklar, singer/guitarist Jon Butcher, guitarist Ben Schultz and drummer Neal Wilkinson. And, yes, there was a Barefoot Servants 1, released in 1994. That disc, with its stellar playing and gritty Texas blues/rock (with Ray Brinker on drums), became a cult favorite and the band toured briefly. But lacking commercial success, busy individual careers intervened and the members went their separate ways.
The group's origin was in songs written by Butcher and Schultz. “Jon and Ben, with Ray Brinker, were getting ready to record, but they didn't have a bass player,” explains Sklar. “Michael Frondelli was producing, and he sent me a tape of their songs. I only had to listen to a couple of notes to say, ‘Count me in.’ It was ZZ Top meets Jimi Hendrix — right up my alley.”
The first CD was released on Epic/Sony, and the Servants headed out on a tour, dubbed Bubbapalooza by Sklar, opening for .38 Special, Marshall Tucker Band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and The Outlaws. “I enjoyed it so much,” he recalls, “but we just couldn't afford to turn down other work to do any more of it.”
Afterward, the Servants kept in touch. “We'd bump into each other at the NAMM show every year,” Sklar says with a laugh. “Then Ben built a studio in his house, and he called me to put some bass on a project. When I walked in, it felt really comfortable. Jon came over, and we decided to go at it again and to make a record just for ourselves. Ray was involved in other things, but I've worked with Neal for years on Veronique Sanson. We asked him to play on some tracks and that felt right, too. He's British and brought that great English musical attitude.”
The self-produced album had some outside help from engineering guru George Massenburg, who supplied advice and gear, and mastering engineer Stephen Marcussen. Schultz engineered; the project was recorded and mixed entirely at his home studio. Along the way, the first album's Texas boogie morphed into something they're calling “nouveau classic rock” that runs the gamut from cranked power rock 'n' roll to intimate acoustic numbers. Ultimately, Sklar says, the record is about performance.
Getting these guys together to tour will be challenging, but this past July, Butcher and Schultz kicked off the CD release, touring and playing radio stations as an acoustic duo. The fans are out there. “I was in a little hotel restaurant in the south of France when I was touring with Veronique,” Sklar relates. “The maitre d' came over and said, ‘Aren't you Lee Sklar?’ I thought he was going to talk about Phil Collins or Veronique, but he said, ‘Will there be anymore Barefoot Servants?’ Now, the answer is yes.”
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