2006 NAMM Show Report
Freaks, Geeks and a Couple of Deadheads
by Shawn Perry
I’m wandering the aisles at the National Association Music Merchants (NAMM) Winter Event on a clear, windswept Friday in Anaheim, California. It’s a good day for music making eye candy. NAMM is the biggest and brightest tradeshow presented at the well-accomodated Anaheim Convention Center, bordered by hotels and directly across the street from Disneyland. By the end of four days, over 80,000 registered visitors would have sauntered in and out of the show, breaking all previous attendance records. With almost 1,500 exhibitors vying for attention, there was more than plenty to see and do. The seeing part wasn’t much of a stretch; believing was another story.
I got a small taste the night before when I attended an informal concert/mixer featuring Kaci Brown and Bob Weir. I joined the small gathering as Weir, standing on a makeshift stage in front of the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, strummed through a lazy rendition of Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The Grateful Dead guitarist looked resplendent in his sports coat, sandals and Jerry Garcia-like beard (sorry but someone had to say it). He rushed through a couple of numbers, making a sideways comment about a dinner engagement he was late for. Afterwards, we shook hands and Weir obligingly signed my copy of Ace. Without the distraction of seasoned Deadheads milling about, he seemed to appreciate the sentiment.
From there, it was a few steps to the posh Hilton Hotel and up to the Sunset Deck where the Music Magazine Publishers Association 10th Anniversary Party was dying a slow death. That is until a jolly fellow called Izzy Osbourne strode up to the stage. The hired, no-name band made a valiant attempt to keep things buzzing, but it took the likes of Izzy to inject the proceedings with a little more firepower. He belted out “Crazy Train” with all the spirit and gusto of Horatio Sanz, if not the great Ozzman himself. Except even funnier and weirder. Sensing a wind down, I emptied my cocktail and called it a night, saving my strength for the following day.
The Best Damn Guitars And Drums In The World
I’m looking at some beautiful and incredibly crafted acoustic guitars at the Martin Guitar Company booth. Chris Thomas, the company’s resident Artist and PR point man (I’m really trying to make him look good), presents us with a wide spectrum of top o’ the line wares. There’s the OM-45 Roy Rogers Limited Edition guitar, a re-issue of the King of the Singing Cowboy’s own OM-45 Deluxe. Like Roger’s guitar from 1930, Martin is only producing 14 of these babies, which makes them collectible and – gulp – pricey. Apparently, five figures isn't a problem for certain people who want to own a Martin guitar. The $40,000 tag on a snazzy D-45 Conversion didn’t deter someone from buying it the minute the doors swung open on Thursday morning.
Other signature models designed in tandem with Eric Clapton, John Mayer, Andy Summers and Richie Sambora underscore Martin’s commitment to diversity and compliance when it comes to creating fresh, innovative and elegant designs. We’re talking about some truly remarkable inlays and premium tonewoods. When I see the Felix the Cat Limited Edition, covered with over 100 miniature Felix figurines in various modes of exuberance (and one Felix holding a red Martin pick), I also realize these heady luthiers have a quirky sense of humor.
My colleague gets the skinny on some of the finer points of these special instruments, so I wander across the aisle to take in the wild display of axes at Dean Guitars. A Dimebag Darrel tribute, albeit smaller than last year, haunts one corner of the booth’s perimeter, while other ghoulish guitars blazing in carnal artistry and blatant spunkiness hang along a side wall, generating a darker presence on an otherwise sunny side of the floor. That’s just the way these things work out at NAMM. Coexistence, balance, and loads of harmony.
At this point, I decide I’ve had my fill of guitars and decide to steal a little time with my favorite instrument – drums. While many percussion manufacturers battle for space and decibel levels in Hall D of the convention center (where it is advised one should wear the proper protective gear and ear plugs), Ludwig Drums holds court in a corner of Hall C, dignified in its unrivaled legacy and low-key, serviceable exhibit – a carbon copy of years before. The most famous name in drums, Ludwig has been played by everyone from Ringo Starr to John Bonham. Based on that, they have my undivided attention. So I get the low-down from Bob Berheide, a Ludwig national sales manager, on the company’s latest, mostly imported selections.
“The Accent CS Custom has 100% birch shells with a matte finish. We do it in a power, jazz, and fusion size,” he says, adding, “New this year is the wine sunburst. As the year progresses, we’ll come out with other matte finish sunburst finishes.
Then Berheide shows me the Accent Custom Elite, which are essentially the same drums except, he says, they come in a gloss finish, adding: “New this year is the fade. Eventually we’ll get into other fades and glosses. The step-up from this is a painted sparkle series. Today, we’re introducing the silver glitter with the painted sparkle…”
My brain is buzzing from all the shades and colors and garnish to contend with. I glance over the transparent Vistalites and tubular Psych Red sets, realizing style and presentation rank right up there with performance and engineering. But what about the wood? “We still produce domestic all maple and all birch drum sets at our factory in North Carolina,” Berheide assures me. I take one last look, and off I am to the other side of the convention center.
Along the way, I bump into the likes of Lanny Cordola and Craig Goldy, immersed in heavy discourse about whose hair was puffier when they each were performing guitar slinging duties for Giuffria. Judging from the crowd they’re drawing, anyone in the immediate vicinity could be having the same exact conversation. I have places to be, so I cut through software land and maneuver around booths spilling over with power amps, cable, and studio and staging periphery before landing square within the cozy confines of Ultrasone.
German-based Ultrasone makes high-end, professional headphones that employ the company's unique, patented S-Logic™ technology. VP Steffenee Copley tells me all about the distinctive characteristics behind this technology, as well as other key and unique features found on Ultrasone's first line of consumer-level headphones they’ve cleverly coined iCans, which are packaged in tin can cases and targeted for iPods and other portable MP3 players.
“Every other headphone on the market, including earbuds that come with iPods, uses drivers centrally located in the ear cups so they direct audio signals down the ear canal,” she says. “Ultrasone S-Logic technology features a licensed driver focused at a tenth of an angle of your outer ear, so the audio signal produces a natural surround sound.”
Copley explains how the iCan headphones relieve sound pressure on your ears by as much as 40%. They also reduce electromagnetic field radiation waves, commonly associated with cell phone use, by up to 98%. “The idea the inventor had was to not only make them sound amazing, but make them safe,” she tells me.
The next thing I know I have a set of iCans wrapped around my head, safely enjoying the sounds of Led Zeppelin’s “The Rover.” As it so happens, Eddie Kramer, who engineered that song as well as many others by Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Kiss, is a big fan of Ultrasone headphones. During his visit to the booth on Saturday, he told me as well several other bystanders, that they were the best headphones he’d ever heard. Coming from the man behind such masterworks as Electric Ladyland and Led Zeppelin II, I take his endorsement to heart.
Today, however, Kramer is sitting front and center on a discussion panel commemorating the 35th Anniversary of Electric Lady studios. Tucked away in an anonymous Marriott Hotel ballroom, Kramer is joined by producer/engineer Robert Margouleff (Stevie Wonder, Devo), producer/engineer/musician Al Kooper (Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd) engineer/producer Michael Frondelli (Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Rolling Stones) and studio designer John Storyk, whose first design upon graduating from Princeton was the legendary studio envisioned by Jimi Hendrix.
Passing by displays of Kramer’s exquisite in-studio photographs of Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Steve Winwood, Keith Richard and Mick Jagger – I listen as each member of the board chimes in about the state of recording studios today. Much of the talk circulates about fortuitous items like optimal music listening environments (Kooper: “No one listens to music in the living room any more; they listen to music where the computer is”) and the pros and cons of digital versus analog (Kramer: “Analog beats digital any time”). I toss my faith into the fire by asking Kramer if he’d ever consider remastering any of Hendrix’s records in 5.1 surround.
“If they pay me enough money, anything’s possible,” he offers without missing a beat. I follow up with a question about whether or not Hendrix’s music even lends itself to the surround medium. “Only one album…” he smiles. “Ladyland…”
Although it’s unfortunate Hendrix himself cannot be here to take in the spectacle of NAMM, I chance upon another trailblazing guitarist named Allan Holdsworth. The stately Englishmen utilizes any number of products being shown at NAMM to give his sound that extra bit of inimitable flavoring.
I ask what brings him to NAMM every year. “To pick up stuff,” he muses. What's happening in the world of Allan Holdsworth? “I’m lining up some record projects and getting ready to tour.” Holdsworth tells me all about his band which features super drummer Chad Wackerman. I’m astounded by his energy and longevity as one of the world’s most gifted and singular guitarists. I’ll bet Jimi would appreciate Allan.
After my chat with Holdsworth, I head over to the Hilton for a little light entertainment and libations. I have no way of knowing what lies ahead for me at this point. I know I’m hungry, but food will have to wait. The best I can hope for now is a sandwich or pizza slice, but even that’s a tall order.
A Night Of Drummers and Dementia At The Hilton
After grabbing a burger and clawing my way through the lobby of the Hilton, I decide to check out some of the parties on the second floor. There are two and I have invitations to both. The Acoustic Café features an array of talented guitarists, each sponsored by an acoustic guitar manufacturer, playing unplugged style (we know they’re plugged in somewhere). Actor Billy Bob Thornton ambles onto the stage at one point and introduces his friend Brad Davis, a Texas-based country acoustic guitarist whose work has been featured in Thornton’s films. Later, Police guitarist Andy Summers comes out gently swinging, infusing his jazz-flavored progressions with unbearable lightness and finesse. The SRO crowd is swaying, but I need some air and make a swift exit.
I walk over to the other side where it’s a completely different scene. Cymbal manufacturer Sabian is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a bip, bop and bangin’ soiree. They’ve brought out some real heavy hitters like Dave Weckl, Joey Heredia and Terry Bozzio. For his portion of the program, Bozzio unveils what has to be the largest drum set I’ve ever see. It’s dark and it's hard to make out the details, but I’m guessing there’s at least fifty pieces of percussion hardware straddling that stage. And of course, Bozzio kinetically connects with each and every piece as if it’s an integral part of a giant, syncopated machine. On my way out, I see drummers everywhere, including Jethro Tull’s Doane Perry, Denny Seiwell (stickman for the original Paul McCartney & Wings), and Eric Singer of Kiss, among what I’m sure are many others.
At this point, I feel my day is full and it’s time to hit the road. I rescue my ride from the Hilton bar and we slip out, stopping by a local tavern for a nightcap. The owner regales us with tales of Bon Jovi’s appearance on his stage during a NAMM party a couple of years ago. “I didn’t even know who the hell he was,” he shrugs then nods, possibly aware that I’m only hearing every third monosyllable he’s said because the place is overwhelmingly rowdy and rumbling with revelers. I laugh like I understand and bid him good night. NAMM is all over Orange County, but there’s nary a Bon Jovi or any such creature in sight.
Almost Saturday Night
Because of personal commitments, my arrival to the NAMM show on Saturday is delayed slightly. That means parking is bound to be painful and off the map. Fortunately, I find a spot within spitting distance of the convention center’s west side and enter the show through the basement door relatively unscathed.
The basement of the convention center during NAMM, as I’ve written in previous reports, is always an eye opener. This is where the soulful denizens and rallying renegades compete for floor space; where the entrepreneurs and the unsightly mingle as the merchandise, from the simple to the inane, angles for eyeballs. Today, there is no shortage of folks rummaging through NAMM’s underbelly for those rare and unglorified remnants.
I weave my way over one aisle and past the next. This pit of enterprising merchants calls out to me. I notice a flurry of gadgets unlike any I have seen before – a hand exercising apparatus to improve your drumming, a four-string instrument of questionable dimension that anyone can play tunefully, guitars cases that magically transform into guitar stands, and plenty of widgets, springs, screws, washers, and whatyouhaveits to hold it all together.
Ascending the escalator, I realize today will be much less hectic than Friday. My plan is to look at what everyone else takes for granted. No hobnobbing, no posing. I want to explore the show from the inside out, if such a thing is possible. And what better place to begin than at the booth of a pure bred, nuts-and-bolts operation: Road Ready Cases.
When you sit down and think about it, the road case is often overlooked as a commodity in the music equipment food chain. It’s not until you’re actually on the road and/or in the studio, moving gear from here to there, that you realize the value of a solid case or rack system. Road Ready claims they make the “baddest, toughest cases in the industry,” so I decide to see just how bad and tough these products are during a grand tour with Mike Gerutto, the company’s president.
After he turns down my request to apply a few thwacks with a sledgehammer to a utility trunk, Geratto retorts with a novel and choice fact: “We have over 250 models in stock all over the United States.” He points out the new line of Cool Cases, which feature a built-in electric fan to keep overheated CD players and assorted power amps cool and unflustered. They’re also useful for DJs and production companies that need to keep their gear aptly chilled through the heat and humidity of outdoor and indoor gigs.
“This is a unique design by us,” Gerutto declares proudly, explaining that the integrated fans run on small transformers to maintain a constant and efficient flow. The cooling capability is enhanced by a specialized method of construction too detailed and complicated to explain here. I’m thinking the design and engineering behind these cases has a lot to do with the whole baddest and toughest positioning, so I bravely ask Gerutto just how bad and tough his cases are. His reply is readymade: “We have a lifetime warranty.” I grin and retreat, realizing there is absolutely no way in the world you can argue with a lifetime guarantee. I can rest easy, knowing full well that Road Ready Cases kick some serious ass and stay cool all at the same time.
Strange and Unusual Sightings
I suddenly have the desire for power, so I seek out the JBL room and stumble upon the mother lode: The Crown VT4888DP-AN, a 6,000-watt power amp weighing in at just under 150 pounds. If need be, this baby could easily blow the roof off the convention center and spread its aural goodness down to the depths of Space Mountain. Unfortunately, it isn’t even plugged in, possibly to avoid any potential lawsuits having to do with shattered glass and blown ear drums. Even so, just looking at it makes me appreciate the power and destruction it is capable of.
Once I emerge from JBL, I decide to cut south and suddenly the craziness sets in. It’s as if the natural forces of synchronicity kick in and the nuttiest characters congregate and descend the showroom en masse as a reminder of just how otherworldly the music game really is. First there’s the rogue gang of Kiss kabuki wannabes roaming the floor in search of recognition, a record deal and a semi full of goodies. They are closely followed by Powder, a band of leggy femme-bots and tall, squeamish aliens who hand out leaflets and pose for photos.
Minutes later, I catch a glimpse of the Lizardman, a tattooed, fork-tongued sideshow caricature of an actual lizard (although, in a certain light, he more closely resembles a shifty, diabolical alligator). He’s hamming it up at the Peavey booth, posing for pictures, sticking out his tongue, even signing autographs. I begin to wonder if he has some sort of a guitar or drum endorsement before realizing he’s probably not a musician. Ah yes, another sign of the times.
Then I see two more outlandishly dressed characters who could join the circus and realize they actually are two world-class musicians: the Captain of the Mothership Bootsy Collins followed by his first mate, the indescribable Buckethead. Stunned onlookers and a slapdash entourage in their wake, the two stroll down one aisle and settle in for a round of autographs. Bootsy looks stylish in a glittery green outfit that does its utmost to live up to the bassist’s wily reputation. Buckethead dons his trademark costume: a white Michael Myers mask, a yellow poncho, industrial insulated freezer gloves (which, I imagine, he must take off when he plays guitar), a life-size Chucky-like doll strapped to his chest, and an upside down, empty Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket perched atop his head. While Bootsy revels in the adulation, Buckethead robotically signs away and scarcely utters a word.
I walk past one last iconoclast: the loony Boomwhacker guy covered in tubes who enthusiastically goes into wacky mode for a quick photo. I jump for joy at the sight of Premier Percussion's "Spirit Of Lily," a special limited edition drum kit that pays tribute to the original "Pictures of Lily" set the company made for Keith Moon back in the 60s. From there, we cut over to Roland world. Without thinking twice, I take a load off in a demo showcase room and marvel at the sight of ace keyboardist Geoff Downes traipsing down memory lane, recreating his parts on Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell” and “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” as well as the 1980 Yes classic, “Tempus Fugit.”
The show is about done for the day, so I head over to the Marriott for a final refreshment or two. My eyelids grow heavy – indicating my time at NAMM is coming to a close. Even though I’m invited to the Epiphone party that night where a reunited Twisted Sister is scheduled to perform, the madness has soared to such a boiling point in the Hilton’s lobby that I need to get as far away as possible. I bid farewell to a few furry friends and acquaintances, hike out to my car and drive home. I know I’ll be here again next year, rallying up against a new set of sights, sounds, and shockers galore.