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Watch: Our Band Debut at Millburn Rocktoberfest 2023 

Last week, on September 9, 2023 my band Jason Didner and the Drive played its first live set in its current incarnation. Heavy rain and thunderstorms scattered festivalgoers in the hours leading up to the show, but a die-hard core of music fans stuck around, and the rain ended just as we were setting up. 

Jason Didner and the Drive perform at Millburn NJ Rocktoberfest 2023. Amelia Chan, Leah Fox and Jason Didner are in this photo.

Here's a phone camera video from Nicole Gray that captures band and audience alike, on our performance of the funk blues tune “Quit While You're Ahead:” 

And here's stationary footage of the whole set provided by Martin Fox. 

 Our set that day consisted of: 

  1. Salt and Sand
  2. Asking for a Friend
  3. Quit While You're Ahead
  4. Two Places at Once
  5. You Can't Get There from Here in Jersey 

My Thoughts on the Performance

I was delighted with Ameila and Leah's performance, especially as our debut show in a festival setting where you face the challenges of having to set up very quickly with no soundcheck. For Leah this meant playing on an unfamiliar drum kit. 

Check out the amazing tightness of “Quit While You're Ahead!” This sure doesn't sound like a first time playing it live. 

For my own part, I came away with some lessons learned for my own performance: even when in a rush to set up, check the volumes of both my rhythm and lead guitar tones! When my first guitar solo of the day came up on “Asking for a Friend” I switched to the overdrive channel, stomped on by booster and… blew my own head off with outrageously high volume! I managed to adapt using my guitar's volume knob, which also changes the tonal characteristic of what I played. 

I also learned to look down at the set list occasionally. I accidentally skipped over intended song #5: “It's About Time,” straight to our closer, “You Can't Get There from Here in Jersey.” It would have been great to share that important message and create that moment with the audience… but there's also something to be said for the addage “Always leave them wanting more…” 

Rocktoberfest is an annual festival that benefits the Millburn Education Foundation. We look forward to returning next year. 

My Guitar Gear Gets an Update 

Changes to my musical gear are often inspired by changing gig circumstances, including my mode of transportation. Over the past week this has again been the case. 

Recently I got the opportunity to assemble a band to perform at Millburn Rocktoberfest on September 9. I got inspired with having a live band perform songs that I've only been able to perform solo acoustic or record all the band parts one at a time. I also had to face the reality that my musical gear would need to shrink to fit my downsized vehicle and my bandmates' small cars. 

See, my other band, the Jungle Gym Jam, played the majority of its gigs when I had a minivan and could haul everything we needed to a gig. In the pre-COVID era there were plenty of gigs - about 50 per year - certainly enough for the big vehicle to be worth it. 

Then came the pandemic and with it, only virtual gigs. Then came Vladimir Putin's Russian invasion of Ukraine. It became immediately apparent to me that continuing to burn large amounts of gas, mostly to commute alone to/from work, would continue to fund autocrats and waste my money, I decided to go for a plug-in hybrid car, the Prius Prime. 

A Smaller, but Still Very Effective Amp

My previous guitar amp, a Blackstar HT-120, took up the entire hatch of the smaller car, though it offered an absolutely glorious guitar tone that I loved. With the new gig coming up, I decided to make my move and trade in the big Blackstar amp for a much smaller (but still loud and clear) Orange Super Crush 100 combo (pictured below). This transaction took place at Sam Ash in Springfield, NJ. 

This amp only takes up half of my hatch, making much-needed room for my accessories and the merchandise I sell at my shows. The clean channel offers great clarity and definition. The dirty channel can provide anything from a classic rock overdrive to full-blown metal distortion. I auditioned the amp by playing the original songs I'm preparing with the band for Rocktoberfest, and was plenty pleased with the sounds I got out of it. 

The Incredible Shrinking Bass Amp

Just as I parted with a larger guitar amp whose tone I loved in favor of a smaller one with a pleasing sound, I needed to make a similar move with the bass rig. Amelia, our bassist, lives in the city and borrows a small car when she comes out to NJ. She was never able to fit my Hartke HD 150 in the car, so I'd put it in the minivan and we'd have what we need. Lately we all have small cars; none of us could fit it if we're carrying anything else, so I downsized that as well. 

The new bass amp is significantly smaller, shockingly light weight and throws plenty of bass sound. It's the Fender Rumble 100. One night I played my bass through it with my looper pedal. Once the loop played back I hopped over to my guitar and jammed along with my bass part still playing through that amp. I was delighted with how the two amps sounded together. 

Pedal, Pedal, Pedal!

The previous Blackstar amp had 3 channels - one clean and two dirty. I could have an overdriven rhythm guitar sound and another slightly louder lead guitar sound. I had to work out a similar solution for the new amp, which features one dirty channel, not two. Jeff at Sam Ash suggested a signal boost pedal I could stomp on to quickly raise my volume from dirty rhythm guitar level to lead guitar level when I have a solo to play. 

The need for another pedal called my attention to an issue with my old setup. I'd place my amp footswitch and my tuner pedal on the floor and they'd sort of drift around over the course of a rehearsal or performance. The addition of another pedal led me to think of a more stable solution - a pedal board. 

I chose the Pedal Train Classic Jr., a moderately-sized, slanted aluminum pedal board, which comes in a carrying case. 

As long as I was making the move to a pedal board, I added a Roland Super Chorus CH-1 pedal, which adds terrific richness to a clean guitar tone. I love how my “Salt and Sand” guitar accompaniment comes out with the pedal on. 

I tried playing with my Vox wah-wah pedal on the board, but quickly found it physically awkward to work that pedal while it's on an upward slant. It reminded me of when I played on a stage built on a hill where I was flexing my calves for the entire show! So when I use the wah, it will be on the floor to the right of the pedal board. Bonus: that leaves more room on the board for other pedals anyway! And I'm much more comfortable working the wah with it flat on the floor. 

Jeff wisely suggested mounting my wireless receiver to the pedal board, which will make my gig setups quicker and easier. 

The Orange amp footswitch is mounted to the board for quick changes between the clean and dirty channel. I placed it next to the booster pedal so I can quickly stomp both pedals when switching from clean to lead. 

On the pedal's upper-right corner you'll see my tuner pedal, the TC Electronics PolyTune 2. This pedal can allow for quick silent tune-ups one string at a time but you can also sound all the strings at once and have the pedal indicate to you which strings are in tune and which are not. I could use a bit of practice with this mode, but I can see that as a convenient way to quickly check tuning between songs. What I like best about this pedal is its very bright display which is most helpful when performing outdoors in strong daylight. 

More Power To You 

The addition of more pedals brought about the need to consider powering those pedals. When I was taking just the tuner (and sometimes the wah) to gigs, I could just put fresh batteries in the pedals and not worry about a power supply. But adding more pedals, especially the boost pedal, brought new considerations. The boost pedal does not take a battery. And individual power adapters for every pedal is not practical, especially since each has a large AC/DC converter at the plug (affectionately known as a “wall wart.” Try plugging all those individual wall warts into a multi-outlet strip! 

So I invested in a MXR Mini Iso-Brick power supply. This little device, smaller than a cell phone, has only one wall wart and powers up to 5 pedals. The important thing about it is that it provides isolated power to each pedal. There are other options, like running a daisy chain of power from one pedal to the next, in succession, but this solution tends to add unwanted noise to the audio signal. I've experienced the purity of the sound when the pedals are connected to the Iso-Brick Mini. 

Using Velcro (which came with the pedal board) I mount the brick under the pedal board and run power cables to those pedals that require power. 

At the time of this writing, one of the five outputs is failing to provide power (and its corresponding blue lamp does not light, confirming an issue), so I'm bringing it back to Sam Ash for an exchange; I'll keep you posted how that turns out. 

Improvements in the Works

In the above photo you'll notice some crowding issues where I only had straight ¼" cable plugs, like the one coming out of the Orange footswitch or the left side of the wah-wah pedal. I've just received replacement cables with right-angle plugs, which should go a long way toward neatening the board. 

Also, I'm considering adding an overdrive pedal, like perhaps the iconic Ibanez Tube Screamer, for the purpose of using my looper pedal, which is very useful for practicing leads over a just-recorded rhythm guitar part. I also like the looper for creating short videos. 

The problem with the looper is that when I play a lead over a rhythm part through my amp now through its dirty channel, it lacks clarity in both the lead and the rhythm. And if the amp is providing all the distortion after the looper, you can't make the looped part clean and the lead distorted. That could be achieved if you add an overdrive pedal to the signal chain before the looper. Look for updates on an overdrive pedal… 

My Go-to Electric Guitar

For the past 11 years my go-to electric guitar has been a PRS SE Custom 24. I installed Schaller locking tuners when I first got this axe. It's served me well in bandshells, at the Stone Pony, on the Coney Island boardwalk and in the home studio. I'm convinced this guitar immediately made me a better player; I'm still enjoying finding new licks with it. I'm considering upgrading the pickups, as I'm still using the stock pickups that came with it. 

Are you a gear-head? what kind of musical gear are you most excited about? Let's geek out about it in the comments below. 

Introducing Jason Didner and the Drive!  

Last time I had a band perform my original songs (other than specifically for kids) was in 2012, for a handful of benefit shows. 

From 2013 until the pandemic, my musical focus was almost entirely on “Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam” - original rock songs for kids and their grown-ups. Since COVID-19 has receded to endemic situation, I've begun receiving and honoring requests for that band to give concerts, which is always a thrill. 

But during that lockdown period I got inspired to write and record lots of songs about what was on my mind. I began giving virtual performances from home. I released three albums under the name “Jason Didner” and as the pandemic eased, I began giving solo acoustic performances out in public. 

Now I'm pleased to introduce the band that will join me in going electric: Jason Didner and the Drive. This is the same band name I used a decade ago, but with a changing, flexible lineup, as my musician friends are mostly in multiple bands with varying availability. I felt that the band name's two meanings of the word “drive” fit this project well.  There's the role that driving plays in my formation of musical ideas (many were inspired in the car) and there's that sense of “drive,” a strong intent to express myself to you through music. 

Introducing Jason Didner and the Drive, set to perform at Millburn NJ Rocktoberfest on September 9, 2023

Heading into Millburn, NJ's 2023 Rocktoberfest on September 9, our lineup is as pictured: 

  • Amelia Chan on bass and backing vocals
  • Yours truly on lead vocals and guitar
  • Leah Fox on drums

We've had a couple of rehearsals and this rhythm section is really gelling around my multitrack recorded arrangements; we're having a great time bringing this music to life. My fellow musicians are finding their own way to interpret these songs and help tell the stories they contain. 

We're playing in the Music on Main Street space at 5PM. The festival begins at noon and runs until about 10 PM. You'll find a pleasing array of food vendors, shops and nonprofit organizations to connect with. 

A New Dimension to my Performance: Looping 

I've just added a new dimension to my live music performance - something I figured I'd get around to someday, but my upcoming show Saturday gave me a really good reason to make it happen now. 

I've been rehearsing for a benefit concert for my daughter's school. My neighbor Leslie Masuzzo is a teacher in the district and will sing while I play guitar. During a practice, Leslie suggested we replace a sung part with a guitar solo. As the only guitarist in a duo, I'd normally have to drop the rhythm guitar to play lead guitar and try to imply the rhythm part, frequently punctuating the solo. Now I don't have to! 

Thanks to this new looper pedal I'm using, I can capture the rhythm guitar part live and immediately play it back on repeat, then play my guitar solo over it, as shown in this one-minute video! 

This will now become a moment in my live shows whether I play solo or in a duo, whether I'm playing in person or on live stream. 

The new pedal is a Boss Loop Station RC-1 - the simplest pedal they make. I'm counting on the simplicity of operation to make me less likely to misfire in my capture and playback of a rhythm part to solo over, and to make sure I end playback gracefully. I'm practicing this regularly and you'll likely see more videos like this one as I go. 

The guitar is also new - a Yamaha APX 600, a physically smaller acoustic guitar, more closely resembling an electric guitar in feel and playability. Since I'm now in a position to play guitar solos, I suddenly found myself in need of an acoustic guitar where I didn't have to press down to hard to clearly sound the notes. This instrument is nicely satisfying that need, as you'll see in this clip. 

For more videos like this: 

Finding my Singing Voice by Controlling Acid Reflux 

Jason Didner singing and playing acoustic guitar solo at Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, NJ March 10, 2023. Photo by Nicole GrayWhen you learn to listen to your body, many things in life get better. I've gotten several benefits from recognizing when my stomach is about full. One of them is in rehearsing, recording and performing with my singing voice. 

Chronic stomach acid issues had me frequently clearing my throat or singing through intermittent spikes of burning pain. My voice was hoarser with less range and endurance. Doing vocal exercises a few times a week helped, but did not prove sufficient. The acid was affecting me as it occurred during singing and it was having a cumulative effect by coming up for much of the day and night. 

What really helped was cutting my meal portions in half and recognizing that 20 minutes later I wasn't actually hungry. When my stomach is less full, I'm less likely to have acid rush into my esophagus over the course of several hours a day. 

It also helped to see John Taglieri, a singer with a voice strong and true, share stories of his own struggles with gastroesophogeal reflux disease (GERD) and its effect on his vocal abilities. This keeps me more aware of the importance of managing my own case of GERD.  

Mindfulness plays a role

I credit my meditation practice with the Ten Percent Happier app for a subtle improvement in my awareness of my bodily sensations. I believe this is how I'm better able to know when I'm full. I still want snacks between meals, but I'm better able to discern want from need. Also, by eating smaller meals, I know that a snack will not overfill a stomach already inundated with the most recent meal. 

Benefits offstage too

I've experienced benefits besides the onstage ones. I've lost weight after I'd been gradually gaining. I sleep better and am now unlikely to wake up an hour into sleep with my throat on fire, which would happen after a late, rich, big dinner. I worry a little less about my heart (My ongoing issues with anxiety have sent me to the ER three times now). I've slowed my consumption of cough drops by a lot, because I'm not spending hours a day feeling the burning of acid in my throat.  

Self-care, not deprivation

I view my new-found eating habit as a matter of self-care rather than deprivation. It's rooted in feeling better and safer, not in feeling badly about myself, my appearance, etc. It's reinforced by my having given the best vocal performance of my life when it mattered most. I was on top of my game in front of the Outpost in the Burbs audience in my hometown of Montclair last week. 

I understand a little better what the inside of my body feels like from meditation practice. This way I know when I'm satisfied with what I ate. When I feel satisfied, I don't feel like leaving food for later is punishment or deprivation. Plus when I save the rest for the next day, I get to enjoy more of my favorite foods at a time when I will be actually hungry again.   

Self-care also means checking in periodically with my gastrointestinal doctor, Mark Tanchel with Gastrointestinal Associates of New Jersey (GANJ). I take famotidine to limit the amount of stomach acid that comes up my esophagus at Dr. Tanchel's direction. I also get endoscopies when my symptoms are particularly troubling. 

I'm not on a diet

I'm not on a diet program. I'm not accounting for point values of the foods I'm eating. I'm not “being good” or “being bad.” I'm not “sticking with a program” or “cheating.” I'm simply, for the first time in my life, at age 52, eating enough to feel satisfied, no more, no less. 

Most of my life I've been a visual eater. You put a thick 6" sub and chips in front of me and I'll eat the whole thing – because that's what's there for me to eat. I remember hearing of a fascinating psychological experiment with bowls of soup that secretly refilled through a tube to the bottom if the bowl. As long as the subjects had a visual cue there was more soup still in the bowl, they continued to eat more than a bowl full. 

I haven't stopped eating visually; I've just added the element of listening to my body. This has helped me change my visual references. At a restaurant, I'll typically plan on saving half of what's presented to me. I've tried that plan before, and then I'd eat right through it, to the point where there isn't quite enough left over to save for later, so I'd might as well eat that too. And I'd feel the pain in my throat later.  These days, I seem to appreciate the many benefits of limiting my portions to what won't set off my acid. 

Your Story

If you like, use the comments section below to share your story of managing GERD and the difference that control is making in your music or your life in general. 

My Unconventional Path to the Microphone 

Jason Didner at Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, NJ in 2003. Photo by John MullerSure, I could carry a tune as long as I can remember. But my real passion was always for my instruments, not vocals. 

At age 10, it was trumpet and piano. By 12 I was fascinated with my friend's synthesizer and certain that was my path. When I was almost 16 I attended my first Van Halen concert (because of Eddie Van Halen's synth parts) and became spellbound by Eddie's guitar wizardry. I picked up guitar and gave it my all to learn to play. 

In high school I formed a rock band and wanted to shred like Eddie. I was more than happy for a classmate to handle frontman duties so I could pour my passion into the guitar. It turns out we had a harder time keeping singers in the band than Van Halen themselves! And there were interim periods where I substituted on vocals. All the while I was way more interested in the guitar part. Given my rapidly deepening voice, I was not about to chase the high wailing vocals of Sammy Hagar, David Coverdale (Whitesnake) or Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin). I'd make do by singing their parts an octave lower, in a low, raspy growl. I sang in the school chorus my senior year, but did not enjoy the feeling of vocal fatigue that would come on halfway through a rehearsal. 

This preference of mine continued into college where I was perfectly content to blast riffs and solos and let singers handle the vocal work and the rapport with the audience. 

Two events in my last year of college started to shift my relationship with singing lead. One was the discovery of Billy Joel's live album “Songs in the Attic.” See, I went to college at Stony Brook University on Long Island where Billy is a true hometown hero. Around my school, Billy's deep cuts were heard coming from a dorm or a jukebox more often than the hits. I could hear my baritone voice in Billy's. I could sing his songs and back myself up on piano with some authenticity. I was learning to open up my throat and sing naturally. 

The other event that got me into singing was the early-90s rise of karaoke, which came to our campus bar. I took my chances and signed up to sing Billy Joel, of course. It was a new experience to hold a mic and not play an instrument. Now I needed to figure out what to do with this new mobility of not being stuck behind a mic stand. I continued to enjoy karaoke after graduating, and even while writing songs and getting interested in the acoustic guitar. 

In my cover band after college, I enjoyed taking a turn at the mic to sing Billy Joel's “Miami: 2017” and “You May Be Right.” I started to take on solo acoustic gigs to perform both my originals and a growing number of cover songs. I enjoy the direct communication with an audience that I get by singing my originals right to them. I cherish this opportunity to entertain this way either in-person or in an online performance. 

Willie Nile - a True Inspiration for My Artist’s Journey 

My journey as a music artist is now forever linked to Willie Nile, New York City’s quintessential rock-n-roll poet. At age 74 (or 14 or minus 4, whatever he feels like saying into the mic), Willie exudes rock-n-roll passion and vitality I hope awaits in my future.
I’m 52 and just achieved a high-water mark in my music career last weekend opening for Willie. Like Willie, I’ve chosen a patient and persistent approach to my artistry. Like Willie, I’ve chosen family over pursuit of fame. Like Willie, I’ve given myself the flexibility to work at a non-musical career that keeps my family stable and provides health insurance.
Willie Nile backstage with opening artist Jason Didner at Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, March 2023And last night I warmed up his audience for his show at Outpost in the Burbs in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey USA.
In Willie’s two-hour podcast interview with Bob Lefstetz, he generously shares an alternative route to a creative way of life without sacrificing one’s most important ties. When the business of major label records got him down, Willie moved out of the city and kept on writing. He eventually started his own record label and got to define success on his own terms, not those of the mass market.
I never got anywhere near a major label opportunity and would not have been eager to bend my life to its demands or business model of keeping its artists indebted. All four of my albums are self-released, as are all but the first three of Willie’s.
Like Willie, I’ve had decade-long gaps between album releases and am experiencing firsts past age 50. Willie’s story affirms for me that in music, age matters way less than artistry when you’re not in it for fame. We’re both more prolific past age 50 than before that mark.
Preparing for this concert exposed me to a great deal of Willie’s story and his vast musical catalog. It reassured me that it’s OK to still want to grow my artistry and audience even as I live up to my adult responsibilities of work, livelihood and family. Willie’s story strengthened my belief that I have not aged out of rock & roll striving.
Willie and I also share the memory of a common acquaintance, “Mr. Lou” DeMartino. You can read more about this connection here

I'm opening for Willie Nile in March in my hometown. This one is personal.  

Willie Nile and Mr. Lou DeMartino playing in Joe D'Urso's band ad Rockland-Bergen Music FestivalI felt strongly that I would pair well with Willie Nile when I learned that he was coming to Montclair to perform at our town's Outpost in the Burbs concert series for a Friday night, March 10 performance. And I was delighted to learn that Outpost's organizers shared that belief and chose me to open the show. This booking holds a deep meaning for me based on a special common acquaintance we share. 

I was first introduced to Willie Nile's musical stylings in 2003 when an Internet radio station sent me a promo copy of the Light of Day compilation of Bruce Springsteen covers. Willie played "I'm on Fire" in a signature soulful rasp I'd get to know better over time. 

I was later drawn further into the Light of Day movement when one Lou DeMartino responded to my flyer seeking a bassist for my rock band for kids and families - the Jungle Gym Jam. Lou was also the bassist for Joe D'Urso & the Stone Caravan, a band that was the driving force behind the Light of Day project's musical initiatives. The Light of Day Foundation raises funds and awareness for Parkinson's Disease and ALS. 

In the spring of 2015 Lou joined the Jungle Gym Jam as a side-hustle. He quickly got to work recording and performing with us. He loved entertaining kids from the bandshell stage. Shockingly, he passed away from an asthma attack a mere 3 months after joining us. 

After Lou's passing, I got involved with the Light of Day Foundation, creating kids' music fundraiser concerts to help with the cause. I always think fondly of my brief time with Lou when I think of Light of Day. 

Jason Didner, Ross Kantor and Lou DeMartino as Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam in June 2015In our time together, Lou quickly made a deep impression on me as a humble and loving human being, deeply devoted to whatever he took on. He confessed to me that in order to improve his chances of getting into the Jungle Gym Jam, he took the the flyer off the wall where it had been displayed so no one else would see the flyer and compete with him for the gig! I wasn't mad. I was impressed that such an accomplished and well connected musician wanted so badly to be in my group. 

He was a quick study and was quick to make arrangement suggestions that added dynamics to our songs. His tasty embellishments on songs like “Jam Packed” took the funny song about family trips to the next level. 

Lou took it upon himself to carry the PA system and other heavier equipment while Amy and I healed from our kidney transplant and were not medically cleared to lift objects yet. He ended all his emails with LLU - "Lou loves you." 

So you can imagine the emotional response I'm having to the news that Outpost in the Burbs said yes to my pitch to open for Willie Nile - a perennial star of the Light of Day concerts and recordings. "Mr. Lou" is very much at top of mind as I prepare for this very special evening of music. I'll be thinking "LLU" when I'm playing that night.