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People who’ve known me for any length of time know that I take my coffee seriously. Very seriously.
In 1980, while on the road with Sean Blackburn, my friend Fr. Bill Teska introduced me to Don Lohr who, at the time, lived outside of Tucson, Arizona. Don, disgusted with the quality of coffee offered in those days, had figured out how to roast his own. Through trial and error he came up with the idea of using an old uncoated long-handled omelet pan over the stove top to replicate the actions of a drum roaster. I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with Don learning his philosophy and methods.
There were a lot of variables in that method—you don’t really have control of the temperature and airflow, for example—but with practice I learned how to roast a mighty good batch of coffee; for the next 15 years or so I roasted my own. I managed to source green beans from a variety of suppliers and I learned a lot about coffee growing regions, processing and taste. I usually enjoyed single-origin coffees and I would change coffees with each new roast. It was never boring.
In the late 1980s a new coffee culture started to spread across the landscape. Many cities that had never had a decent coffee shop, much less a roaster, were now sporting at least one. The Twin Cities was no different: Ed Dunn came in and opened his first Dunn Brothers Coffee shop in St. Paul. (A few years ago he sold his company to a franchiser, but it’s still pretty good. They continue to roast every day in almost all of their locations.) Ed, like Don, was gracious and forthcoming with his coffee knowledge. I started purchasing my coffee already roasted more and more of the time. Eventually I stopped roasting at home almost altogether.
I was interested in various brewing methods, too. Don Lohr had very good luck with a stovetop espresso machine; the one he used was called an Atomic. They were made in Italy and looked very space age. I believe a company in Australia or New Zealand is manufacturing them now. There was a similar machine, the Vesuviana, also made in Italy. I still have one of those. Drip methods, plunger pots, vacuum pots from the 1920s and ’30s, flip-drip pots, Turkish ibriks—I messed with nearly everything except percolators, because percolators suck.
I kept, and occasionally still use most of the coffee rigs I’ve picked up through the years. It’s amazing what a person can collect given enough time. We all have our favorite methods and they’re all a little different. With freshly roasted high-quality coffee and a little care it’s pretty easy to make a delicious cup of coffee. A good grinder is absolutely necessary, too.
Speaking of grinders, I started, like most folks, with a cheap little electric blade grinder. Later I got a hand grinder or two, and I tried a variety of electric burr grinders as well. Generally the consumer grinders wear out, usually about two days after the warranty expires. This was true with grinders from Krups, Braun, Cuisinart and a few others I tried through the years. What’s the matter with the mill?
I’ve never stopped learning about coffee. The so-called Third Wave has brought in even more changes, most of them good. The pour-over coffee offered at the Café Bach in Tokyo is the best I’ve ever had in a shop (although I’ve had as good). I lurched over there from the hotel next door several mornings during my stays in Japan and believe me, I paid attention to what they were doing every step of the way and learned what I could. Especially as I enjoyed my second cup of the morning.
These days I use a Rancilio Rocky doserless grinder, an upgraded Rancilio Silvia espresso machine, a vintage KitchenAid grinder, and the Hario pour-over method. Gram scales and timers are important, too, for consistent results. The Rocky grinder made an incredible difference in my coffee life, a difference I could taste. It was expensive, but the price per year is already less that what I paid for the grinders that burned out, and the quality is so much better. The Hario method is also a big improvement over the Melita-style drip coffee I made previously. Yum.
Everybody needs a hobby!
Published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 20, 2013
I came to the Twin Cities in 1969 and settled in the West Bank neighborhood, joining a collection of young folk musicians associated with the Extempore Coffeehouse and, later, the New Riverside Cafe. The main thing I remember about those days was the camaraderie. If there was a new gig, we’d all find out about it. We’d support each other, show each other the new guitar thing we’d learned that day, share a newly released record album. We crashed at each other’s places and were involved in each other’s lives and careers.
The late Dave Van Ronk, whose early career provided the inspiration (however broadly) for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” was a dear friend of mine. The stories I heard from him and from others concerning the Village folk milieu of the late 1950s and early ’60s remind me of my own experiences in the Twin Cities a decade later. In both cases the scene was vibrant and full of interesting, smart people.
The narcissistic dim-bulb Llewyn Davis of the film bears little or no resemblance to the Van Ronk I knew. Maybe the folk revival looked like this in the Bizarro World, but certainly not in ours. Tom Paxton (“Troy Nelson”), for example, isn’t anything like the smug jerk depicted in the film. The music was a passion for these people, not a job; certainly, nobody — at least before Bob Dylan broke through — was getting rich at it. People jammed, hung out together, argued music and politics and art. They loved what they were doing.
It’s hard to imagine, incidentally, that Llewyn Davis could have come up with the solid song arrangements portrayed here. He just doesn’t seem that interested in the music. I was delighted, by the way, to hear Van Ronk’s own version of the traditional “Green Rocky Road” during the closing credits.
A couple of stories — one about the Merchant Marine, the other about the coat — are right out of Van Ronk’s life. That’s where the similarities end, though. Van Ronk didn’t crash on people’s couches. He had a couch.
As movies go, especially dark ones, this is a very good film, something I’ve come to expect from the Coen brothers. The acting is exemplary (some of it’s great, even), the plot is engaging, and the sets are fabulous.
But as you enjoy the story, don’t mistake it for the reality. If it’s history you want, pick up a copy of Van Ronk’s “Down In Washington Square,” recently released as a three-disc retrospective by Smithsonian Folkways, and play it while you’re reading his 2005 memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”
I came up with some rules for flying with guitars that have served me reasonably well through the years. I thought it might be a nice idea to share them.
When I travel to Europe or Asia I have to fly. Sometimes it’s necessary in North America, too. I tend to carry two instruments when I fly (as opposed to four or five when I drive). Here are some rules.
- Know your airline’s policies. Some are more lenient than others. I’ve had very good luck with Delta (knock on wood) so far. The instruments fit in the overhead usually and the folks tend to be really helpful most, but not all of the time.
- Use a good flight case in the event that you do have to check them. I use Karuras and Caltons because they are no bigger than a normal case and they do provide a lot of protection.
- Understand that the TSA guys will open the case and move stuff around when you check an instrument in baggage. Lots of stories about stuff not being put back in the right places, cases being forced shut and necks breaking (This happened to two friends of mine). I put all my strings, tools, capos, picks, tuners—everything that I’ll need—in a separate bag in my suitcase and transfer it back into the guitar cases when I arrive at my destination. Just in case, so to speak. The fragile stuff like microphones go in my computer bag. The TSA guys will ask about that stuff so have it organized.
- Get there early. I can’t emphasize this enough. Get there early. Understand that it’ll take you a little longer to get through security with guitars. I try to get through security and to the gate at least an hour and a half early. I want to be one of the first people on the plane so I can get my guitars into that precious overhead space. That generally means I get to the airport three hours before flight time. It’s a good thing I know how to read.
- Sometimes there simply isn’t room for the guitars in the cabin. Almost all airlines will “gate check” a bag and, although they don’t always like to do it, you can ask that they give it back to you at the gate at the arrival point. Delta has a special tag for this; I think it’s pink. Generally they will do this and it means your guitars are last to be loaded in baggage and first to be offloaded. It’s always worth a try.
- Keep smiling. Be civil no matter what. They have the power; you don’t. Say thank you a lot. Try to remember that the next person traveling with instruments will have to deal with these same people and he or she will have a much easier time if you are nice. Sooner or later it’ll come back around to you.
Just home from a nice little tour of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Ohio. I got to drive through West Virginia three or four times and saw more of that gorgeous state than I ever had before. While John Denver’s innocuous “Country Roads” certainly helped the state’s tourism and economy, the song that went through my mind was Bruce Phillips’ “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia.” Check out Hazel & Alice’s version if you get the chance.
One thing I’ll never regret as long as I live is that my home is in Minneapolis. I got to see Kirby Puckett play baseball. Many times. I’d have seen him play more if the Twins had played outdoors, but I caught a few games at the dome every year and had the pleasure of seeing him play on the road, at storied Yankee Stadium in 1987, the first year they went to the series and ultimately won. I saw him in Kansas City, too. And Oakland. To say that he was a joy to watch is a huge understatement. Rest in peace, Kirby, and thanks for everything.
When I think about the great guitar players who influenced me, and there are many, both through recordings and people I knew personally, the one guy that really changed my life at the tender age of 23 or so was Ted Bogan. Ted played with Carl Martin and Howard Armstrong as part of, naturally, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, “the last of the old-time black stringbands.” Ted played those big chords that moved up and down the neck behind Carl and Howard’s lead work, or behind the vocals. He was the glue that held everything together and made their sound work.
The thing is, he was primitive enough that I could see what he was doing after awhile. Unlike, say, Freddie Green (six notes to the chord, one chord to the beat, no cheating) Ted’s work was actually possible for a young folkie like me to follow. He’d do a whole string of chords that would go up from say the 3rd fret to the 12th and then he’d look up at the audience and grin.
Yeah, the guy was having fun and that’s what it’s all about. I had started listening to Western swing at about the same time as I first heard these guys and the parallels were amazing. The same kind of chords and the same kind of rhythmic feel worked in both genres. It really became the basis for my entire way of looking at the guitar.
Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a wonderful read. To me it was like sitting in his living room late into the night talking, eating, drinking and listening to music. Dave was a masterful storyteller and it’s an amazing and wonderful thing that he was able to capture that feeling on the page. There are many wonderful and funny stories in there (the first time he met Joni Mitchell, for example) along with scads of information about the Village folk scene in the ’60s.Dave’s co-author, Elijah Wald did a wonderful job organizing and assembling all the notes, tapes and interviews into a cohesive and wonderful whole. If you liked (hell, even if you didn’t like, or didn’t read) Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1 you simply must read The Mayor of MacDougal Street. You won’t be sorry.
I moved to Minneapolis in late 1969 at the tender age of 19. I came because it was a guitar town and I played the guitar. Well, it was reasonably close to my home town of Fargo, too, and that was important to me at the time. It turned out to be one of the luckiest moves of my life. The West Bank (near the part of the University of Minnesota that sprawled across the Mississippi River to its west bank) seemed to draw young creative people like a magnet. Rents were cheap, as was food. There was always something to do.
The center of the whole thing, at least in my little world, was the Coffeehouse Extemporé. Unlike the coffeehouses of today, the Extemp had a performance area with a stage, sound system and couches and chairs and probably would fit upwards of a hundred people. Every month I’d get my gig there, and so did everyone else (not on the same night). There was an open stage every week and no shortage of new talent. more…
I shot this picture outside of Salt Lake City on my drive home from a west coast tour. I really can’t add anything; the picture says it all.