An Evening at the Punch Room

Bob Peters is not messing around.  From his lair on the fifteenth floor of the Ritz Carlton in Charlotte, he is crafting cocktails.  I normally stay away from the word “craft” these days, IMG_1148because it evokes artisanal micro-green salads and small batch kale tallow soap.  Peters is a craftsman, though, and Mrs. Guitars and Gin and I headed up the big elevator one windy March evening to see the man in action and taste his wares.

Things kicked off in a distinctly 007 mood.  A R-C staff member showed us through the lobby bar (itself lively and hip enough to be a happy destination) to the elevator.  Upon emerging at floor fifteen, we were faced with a plain corridor ending in a hostess stand and what looked to be a black leather covered wall.  The Punch Room only has thirty-seven seats, and while there is, apparently, often a queue in the corridor, we were, as always, unfashionably early and walked right up.

The hostess slipped a key-card into a slot in the leather wall and then opened a leather door (it’s possible these were not real leather- they could be vegan for all I know).  This led to an ante chamber featuring a single leather-doored restroom.  From there. . . the Punch Room itself beckoned.

The first thing that happens when you enter the Punch Room is that someone hands you a glass of punch.  Peters makes up a big bowl every night of a different variety. IMG_1139 Historically, punches are older than cocktails, and the one we had was delightful (and strong) indeed.  I wish I could tell you what was in it, but I’m not even sure we found out.  He does have several punches on the menu (made in batches for two); for example, the one called “A Rad Miracle” features Milagro Reposado tequila, salted radish syrup, and Lillet Blanc.

From there, we put ourselves in Peters’ hands.  I first went to the bar to seek his advice, and he walked back to our table to ask about our preferences and favorites.  He and Mrs. G&G had a deep conversation about flavor profiles and botanicals.  I gave him the directive to treat me like a sorority sister on spring break who’d never had a drink without an umbrella.

For Mrs. G&G, he came back with this:IMG_1143

The lovely Pisco Sour, featuring pisco, muddled lemon and lime, and St. Germain foam on top. Pisco is a light amber Peruvian brandy, but unlike the heavily flavored European brandies most of us know, it is unlawful to age pisco in any sort of wood at all.  The result is a lighter, grapey-er spirit.

 

 

 

For me, the offering was a carbonated Aviation.  I hadn’t told Bob about my love for the barely-violet gin cocktail, but in his wisdom he had sussed it out.  He uses Cardinal gin, IMG_1142lemon juice, Luxardo, and creme de violette, as per tradition, but carbonates it himself with his personal. . . carbonator?  It was wonderful, combining a fine-bubble fizz with a lovely light drink.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we moved up to the bar, wanting to continue our impromptu education uninterrupted.  He let us taste the difference between green and yellow Chartreuse, let IMG_1144us in on the best-kept-secret ABC store in Charlotte (Cherry Street ABC), and further prodded our palates.  When I confessed that I had no love for the über-hip Negroni, he took it as a challenge and prepared for me a Cynar Boulevadier, subbing cynar for campari and creating a bitter-but-slightly-less-so drink that allowed the complexity and sweetness to shine through the shadows.

 

 

I haven’t discussed the luxe decor, the bar snacks, or the views of downtown Charlotte.  They’re all superb, but the real draw here is Peters.  The hours he mulled over glassware, his curating of small batch exotic spirits, his unrelenting search for new flavors, and his generosity of spirit as host and teacher: these are the real draw.  We’ll be back; stop by and tell Bob we sent you.

http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/charlotte/dining/punch-room/the-experience

 

“There was this one song you played- what is called again?”

At almost every gig I play, someone (usually a gentleman of a certain age) comes up afterwards and asks, in the vaguest terms possible, about “this one song you played, it’s kind of slow, and I know I’ve heard it, but . . .”  But the answer is always the same: “Sleep Walk.”  In 1959, brothers Santo and Johnny Farina released the instrumental, which was the last number one charting instrumental of the ’50’s. The pair grew up among Italian-Americans in Brooklyn, and most of their peers favored doo-wop over the steel guitar, with its country and Hawaiian associations. Santo, who was 20, had no interest in anything but psantojohnny_seven45rpm_01laying the occasional weekend gig. His 16-year-old brother, Johnny, saw the potential of the song, and pushed the duo into a recording deal. The song became a runaway hit, and DJ Alan Freed declared “This thing will live forever.” And so far, he’s right. The song’s been covered over and over, with Brian Setzer’s cover winning a Grammy. Covers are great, but there’s nothing like the original. Here Dick Clark introduces: youtu.be/2rwfqsjimRM

The Last Word

IMG_0055One of our very favorite cocktails of late has been the Last Word.  Equal parts Luxardo, Chartreuse, gin, and lime juice, this refresher is citrus-forward enough to be crowd-friendly but herbally complex enough to keep the interest of the most curmudgeonly craft cocktail hipster.  The two liqueurs are unique and give a “this tastes familiar but I can’t put my finger on it” mystique.  Luxardo has become our secret weapon, with its funky bitter cherry pit flavor bringing the Tiki to the party.  The Chartreuse is the star here, though: a liqueur made in a single French monastery since 1737.  Although it contains some 130 herbs and botanicals, only two monks at any given time know the recipe.

The recipe originated during the gin boom under Prohibition, and has, like the Corpse Reviver #2, had a renaissance in the past few years.  It doesn’t hurt that the drink is beautiful to look at in the coupe as well.  We support the local boys at Cardinal Gin in Western North Carolina, and their smooth blend of botanicals complements the Chartreuse perfectly.

1 oz. each lime juice, Chartreuse, Luxardo, and gin, shaken and strained.

The Bo Diddley Gretsches

boGretsch is famous for its unconventional guitar shapes, and at least a few of these are owing to an unconventional player: rock and roll singer (and one of the only human beings ever to have had a beat named after him) the late Elias Otha Bates, aka Bo Diddley.

Bo Diddley is a vastly important figure in the history of rock and roll. If you want to see someone well and truly in command of an audience, watch this clip of Bo in 1965. How someone who looks like Urkel’s uncle can be so dignified yet so primal is a rock and roll mystery.

The rectangular guitar above was one of Bo’s own designs. He wanted a guitar shaped like the ones he had made from cigar boxes and played as a youth. Below, you see another Bo design, the Jupiter Thunderbird (which is now known as the “Billy-Bo” because of its association with Bo but also with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top).

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There was a third design born of Bo’s collaboration with Gretsch: the Cadillac (Gretsch already had a relationship with the marque, using “Cadillac Green” as a color for its Country Club model). It was a favorite guitar of his first female rhythm guitarist, “The Duchess.”

I Know Bo!

Call it autumn of 1986. I was walking alone down a street in Copenhagen (yes, Denmark) one morning, minding my own Scandinavian business. Around the corner, about twenty feet away, a group of men emerged, laughing and American. In the center, a mountain of a man wearing a cowboy hat with a feather band was smiling broadly and telling a story. After a split second, my twenty-year-old brain fired, and without thinking I blurted out: “Bo Diddley! I love you man!” Without missing a beat or saying a word, the man shot his finger-guns at me and smiled (did he wink?), and walked on. It remains one of the proudest moments of my life.

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Why Gretsch?

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Say you’re not a guitar player.  If you’ve heard of any guitar brands before, you’ve probably heard of Gibson, Fender, and maybe Martin. A guitar you’ve definitely heard, if not heard of, is the Gretsch. The Fred Gretsch company started making musical instruments in 1883. The company started with banjos, tambourines, and drums. Guitars soon followed, and Gretsch began making big hollow-bodied jazz guitars.

When rock and roll took off, Gretsch guitars were prominently featured. Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and Duane Eddie all played Gretsch guitars. In the mid-1950’s, Chet Atkins became Gretsch’s most prominent chetendorser, and several models bearing his name were introduced.

 

Gretsch sales, already brisk, took off when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, George Harrison wielding HIS Chet Atkins signature Gretsch. George also played and recorded with a Duo-Jet model from the company. John also occasionally played a Gretsch.

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The 1970’s, though, weren’t particularly good to Gretsch. Aside from an occasional oddball romance (Angus Young from AC/DC, for cryin’ out loud!), Most major acts stayed away from the big fellas. Gretsch had been bought out by Baldwin in 1967, and the quality and innovation level of the guitars plummeted.

The 1980s didn’t promise much more for Gretsch. The punks and new-wavers favored Fender Jazzmasters and Mustangs, and the hair metal bands went in for pointy Charvels and Jacksons in neon colors. There just wasn’t a market for a big, elegant, glittery coffee-table of a guitar.

Until this guy came along:

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The hippest of hepcats, and the consummate guitar player’s guitar player: Brian Setzer. Cutting through the hair metal of Def Leppard and mope-rock of The Cure came The Stray Cats, playing music that your dad is too young to remember properly.

Since the rockabilly revival inspired by Setzer, Gretsch has come back in a big way, popular not only among rockabillies, but roots rockers, Americana artists, and jazz players. Check out Reverend Horton Heat, Paul Pigat, and Big Lazy for some modern Gretsch sounds.

Modern Relics: Or, When is Green Blue?

A couple of years ago I acquired a guitar that is a source of controversy and acrimonious debate on guitar message boards across the whole wide Internet!  Is it made from baby seals?  Is it studded with conflict diamonds?  Does it support Obamacare?  None of the above!  It is a RELIC.  And just what does that mean if you’re not Indiana Jones?    A relic guitar is a new or nearly new guitar which has been distressed so that it looks old.  Mine is a beautiful sonic blue reproduction of a circa 1960 Fender Esquire.

2014-12-18121532“That ain’t blue! “

Well, it was.  Fender guitars from the 50’s and 60’s were often painted with automotive colors.  Aztec Gold, Inca Silver, and Sherwood Green were straight off the GM color chart and adorned many Telecasters and Stratocasters.  Sonic Blue, the color my guitar began its short life as, was a rich sky blue used on some 1956 Cadillacs.   Guitars were painted with their designated colors, and then sprayed with a  clear coat of nitrocellulose lacquer.  Over time, the clear coat of lacquer would both yellow and check with age, UV exposure, and temperature fluctuations.  The yellowed lacquer would turn Sonic Blue into a delicate crackled celadon green, as you can see on my guitar.  Some of the original blue can be seen peeking through on the guitar’s edge where some of the lacquer has worn through.    

How is my brand-new guitar displaying yellowing and checking and other wear?  The father-son team of Mark and Matt Jenny has been aging guitars for years now using a top secret set of formulae which may or may not involve UV lights, ovens, freezers, hurled sets of car keys, and dragging the guitars behind a truck.  They are some of the best in the business as far as realistic aging goes and they finished the body and neck of my guitar.  Brand new and very old.

2014-12-18 12.17So who cares?

Why is this controversial?  Well, there are very serious camps in the guitar community that believe your instrument should only carry wear and scars that it has “earned” over the years.  As far as they are concerned, relics are fakes that are pretending to be something they’re not.  Why not just get a new guitar and play the living heck out of it?  That sounds good, but modern guitars are rarely painted with lacquer anymore.  Most new guitar finishes are a heavy coat of polyurethane.  Short of a hammer and chisel,  you aren’t going to get nicks or scratches into that kind of finish, and if you do, it will just come off in ugly flakes, producing the very sad “bad relic.”  Polyurethane also doesn’t check into the beautiful delicate patterns that lacquer does. 

Wasabi?

There’s a Japanese concept called “Wabi-Sabi”- the aesthetic that values imperfection, incompleteness, and a little roughness around the edges.  While there’s something lovely about a brand-new perfect guitar that looks like it’s been dipped in plastic, the guitar that looks and feels like an old friend has its own loveliness.  The metaphor that gets thrown around a lot for reliced guitars is that of blue jeans.  Sure, you can buy a stiff pair of brand new jeans and wear them for years to get them broken in, but you can also buy prewashed distressed jeans with wear and fading and even holes in them.  I say get what you want, play what you want!  It’s an open secret that many touring musicians don’t take their precious vintage instruments on tour with them, but rather relics they’ve had made as stand-ins.  If you think you’ve seen Slash on stage with his $250,000 1959 Les Paul, I have news for you.  If I want to play a guitar that looks and feels like my  grandaddy left it in the barn behind the John Deere for fifty years, well, that’s just what I should do.  The guitar plays like butter (guitar people always say that-  honestly I don’t know what butter would play like), looks great, and sounds fantastic.   I can’t think of anything else I could want.

The Number One

All About My Creston Guitar!

IMG_0451My “number one” guitar was made by renaissance man Creston Lea; he makes guitars, plays in a number of bands, and has published a collection of short stories called Wild Punch (he’s a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop).  No two of his guitars are alike, and they’re all handmade in close consultation with their future owners.  My guitar is made of one solid piece of 150-year-old spruce salvaged from a barn in Vermont.  Check out my guitar and many others at the Creston Electric website: crestonguitars.com  (all photos courtesy Creston Lea and Jessica Anderson)

My guitar, before it became my guitar, was once part of a “rustic cabin,” as stated on the pile of lumber it was liberated from ~

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My guitar in its early stages ~

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Since I’ve had the guitar (March 2014), I’ve removed the tremolo (a highly modified Bigsby type).  Other than that, though, I haven’t changed a thing: and I’m a notorious guitar-thing-changer.

Collaborating with a custom builder is a remarkable experience that few players get.  Lea is a delight to work with: articulate, patient, but not afraid to declare a strong opinion.  His FAQ might paint him as a little more of a curmudgeon than he is in practice.   The conversation started with wood (what he had, what different varieties might sound like), then went to body shape, neck profile, and, finally, electronics.  We settled on, respectively, salvaged spruce, telecaster, almost baseball bat, and Lollar gold foils.  Lea was constantly in touch, sending photos, queries, updates, and videos.  One day I got a video from him showing him pressing the neck into the pocket and then using it to lift the entire guitar sans screws, using the friction from the tight joint alone to keep it together.

The price was reasonable: less than even the cheapest Fender Custom Shop model.  Everything is impeccable from the carving on the nut to the NOS burgundy volume and tone knobs.  There are ways in which owning this guitar violates my fickle nature; every couple of months I pull out a strat or tele and try to convince myself that THIS is the change I want.  I fall for the crystal position 2 and 4 sounds on the strat or the growl of the tele bridge pickup.  But then there’s always something not right: the nut binds, or the neck is too flat, or the crystalline sounds that sound great in the basement don’t quite cut through a band (or a cocktail crowd) at a gig.  Like all great tools, the Creston feels solid in my hands.  It never delivers less than I put into it.

Visit Creston Guitars at: crestonguitars.com