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The Tighten Ups

The Tighten Ups:
And the 'Shocking, Horrifying and Delightful'
World of Laura Jane Willcock

By T.E. Mattox

hose who write about music and musicians frequently make comparisons to other artists. By referencing a player's style, a genre or similarities in sound a journalist can easily enhance and focus their descriptive process. It's a tried and true practice that I, too, have on more than one occasion employed. That is until witnessing, up-close and personal an on-stage performance featuring a Southern California band called the Tighten Ups. After hours of thought and a dram or two of brown liquor in a dirty glass, I reasoned the only comparable scenario that even remotely measured up would be the act of intentionally sticking your tongue in a light socket. In doing so, you become instantly and acutely aware that you've just experienced something that is at once both electrifying AND enlightening.

Since forming the band seven years ago, the Tighten Ups have set themselves apart by lacing their rock and roll with syncopated bursts of high voltage brass and soulful doses of rhythm and blues. And to the delight of friends and fans everywhere the band's high energy, power driven shows have become just as visual as they are amplified. I vividly recall how the band opened the San Diego Blues Festival a few years ago and methodically, song after song blew several hundred of us backward into the Bay. Whether they're cranking through some Blood, Sweat and Tears, tearing off a James Brown cover or wailing on one of their own compositions, the Tighten Ups play it fast and loose… and their fans wouldn't have it any other way.

Recently, I caught up with the vocalist for the Tighten Ups, Laura Jane Willcock and our conversation started back where her journey began. "Royal Oak, Michigan just north of Detroit," she told me. "We moved away from there when I was nine to a little farm house but when I was in the city I really remember the radio station CKLW (she sings) the Motor City!!! And I would listen to pop music all the time and started getting addicted to the Top 40 countdowns on the weekends and would just hole up with my little transistor radio."

Laura Jane Willcock and the Tighten Ups at the 2013 San Diego Blues Festival
Laura Jane working with the Tighten Ups. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

She's already nodding when I ask about family. "My family is so musical," she told me. "My grandma Willcock was in the Sweet Adeline's choir and my grandpa Willcock was a barbershop quarteter. And my grandpa Willcock comes from a big family that emigrated from England and so all the brothers and sisters had talents and played an instrument or sang or both. All the cousins and all the aunts and uncles were always having family events in the basement of one house or another. We always had a banjo, a guitar or an accordion and always had a piano. There was a piano in every basement in our family. People singing in a circle… drinking, with little kids dancing in the middle. That was a family musical thing that I thought all families did, you know, when I was little? But apparently not all families do that." (laughing)

Probably the reason you are an entertainer today, don't you think? "Well it made me want to put on shows for those grandparents that were singers." She smiles, "So I would learn my little songs and do a little dance for them when I was a little girl. And they would applaud and gush over me and my mom was very encouraging. I told her I wanted to be on stage when I was five. I don't remember saying that, but she loves to tell that. So she put me in dance lessons, so I was up there dancing on stage at age five." She adds, "And my dad was real goofy. He was always, 'Here, pull my finger,' and changing words to songs and make them really blue, cracking us up and humiliating us all at the same time."

You got your dad's sense of humor? "Yeah, mainly… I mean my mom's dad was an Episcopalian Priest. So, on the mom's side we went to a different kind of stage, you know? Church stage. I'd see my grandpa up there and he was the star of the whole church. And I was like, 'Wow, look at that guy!' Everyone loves him and they listen to every word he says. I want that, too. I think that helped. And there was always singing, the Episcopal Church is super sing-y."

Seems as though music was always around... "Plus, mom and dad played records all the time. My dad was a big jazz guy in the 50's and early rock and then he kind of went into a 'folky' thing. When he met my mom, she said he was a beatnik. (laughing) And he played the bongos and was sculpting and he's an artist. When they met, he was listening to the Kingston Trio and things like Dizzy Gillespie, folk and jazz stuff."

And just as a side note; in the Small World category, Laura Jane tells me, "What's funny is… you know Joey Harris' uncle was in the Kingston Trio? (Joey Harris, of Beat Farmer and Mentals fame; now a current Tighten Up) I was listening to Joey's uncle when I was just a little kid, which cracks me up. The Kingston Trio was always so goofy, tongue and cheek and humor all throughout their stuff, you know? That makes a lot of sense when you see Joey's personality."

Laura Jane Willcock as associate producer in the studio
Associate Producer Laura Jane… in the studio. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

The parent's album collection was pretty extensive? "They went into Rock and Roll, started smokin' pot, then that's when my mind started really latching on to the stuff they were listening to. Pink Floyd and the Beatles and Frank Zappa…. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. A lot of really great classic Rock and Roll stuff."

Music wasn't the only pass time for the Willcock family and being from the Motor City, Laura Jane admits she's always been… "A huge Red Wings fan… I love hockey!" She almost yells. "I got to sing the National Anthem for the Detroit Red Wings at their training camp which was in Traverse City, Michigan. There's like two-thousand people and I'm singing for the Detroit Red Wings and I'm just dying! The first time I did it, it was so cool because Sergei Fedorov was on the team and he was blocking the way for me to get on the ice. And they're like, 'just tap on him.' Laura Jane rolls her eyes, 'Tap on him?' Oh, My God, he's huge! And I'm like, 'tap, tap, tap, Excuse me Mr. Fedorov, I have to get on the ice to sing. So, I had to touch my legend and then go sing only the most important song of my entire life."

Michigan is quite a distance from San Diego, how did the transition come about? "My best friend moved out here in '89," she says. "And I would come out here on vacation with my young son who was born in '88. I fell in love with San Diego and moved here in 2001, six days before September 11th… a real terrible time to be self-employed in San Diego as an entertainer."

Did you work outside music? "In addition to being in bands, I'm also a bit of an actress." She says, "I also host karaoke, I also DJ, I also do comedy and MC events. So, I came into town with all these skills and just 'sprayed and prayed.' I would hit all the papers looking for auditions and got my first paying job playing Lina Cuisina in the 'Soprano's Last Supper,' which was a dinner theater experience at the Culy Theater, downtown. I was the mob bosses favorite singer. I had a singing roll and I get killed in the play, but I'm not really dead I'm just pretending and the whole audience gets 'made' into the mob. And you get a buffet dinner and this whole interactive thing is going on around you… it paid shit, but it was so fun."

Willcock is the first to admit it's not always about the money. "Also I started volunteering at every gay event that I could. I'm bi-sexual and I had a girlfriend right before I moved to town and I very much wanted to help out any way I could. So I volunteered for a lot of different events, for fundraisers and benefits and auctions. Someone saw me DJing at one event and they hired me to work as a DJ on the Hornblower cruises. At another event, the owner of the Flame was there, bam got another job hosting Karaoke on Tuesday nights. Then I tried to start my own 'all-girl' band at the Flame and learned how NOT to start an 'all-girl' band. First of all you don't hire everybody. But that's what I did, I hired everybody that auditioned. (laughing) You can ALL be in it. And that was dead in the water within three months. But I did meet other people that turned out to be really good friends and collaborators. Networking, networking, networking. I'm really good at that, I love the humans and I love getting to know what they're into. And I started going to as many clubs as I could, on a tiny little budget, to see the musicians in town, so I knew who I wanted to play with… because I wanted to be with high caliber musicians."

Tell me about some of your earlier bands? "The 'Flame Fatales' was the supposed house band for the Flame, but did not last long. One of the girls in that band, Leslie, she and I formed Leslie and Laura. She played acoustic guitar and we both sang and that was like our coffeehouse act. And one of the guys from the Soprano's Last Supper, Franko 'Z,' wanted me to be his jazz chanteuse in the standards review called, Vintage Vegas. So we did that as a duo for many years. We had a standing gig at Martini's above 4th every Saturday night for several years.

Laura Jane Willcock and the Tighten Ups performing
Willcock stalks the stage during a Tighten Ups set. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

He taught me so much about jazz. He had me listening to all the great American songbook writers and all the great vocalists and we did so many cool songs, I loved it. But also, it made me want to Rock, because my Rock and Roll biscuits were not getting into my mouth. No, no it was just Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. I was like, 'Man, I need to be in a rock band, I really need to Rock. So, I was at the Casbah one night… this is how the Tighten Ups thing got together." Laura Jane takes a breath, "I'm in a band back in Michigan called '74 Marauder' and we perform once a year till we die. When I left the state we made a pact, 'we're playing at least once a year till we die.' And it gives me an excuse to go back home, see the whole fam damnly and all that. 'Marauder' is a 70's cover band and we totally rock out all these cheesy 70's songs. We say we won't play any good songs from the 70's, only cheesy ones and make them ours! (laughing) It's so much fun." (laughing)

I wanted to buy a Casbah T-shirt for my drummer back home because I want his band from Detroit called, 'Easy Action' to play in San Diego, so I was trying to entice him with a Casbah shirt. The bartender was Andy Robillard in the back bar who sold me the shirt and he goes, 'Oh, who's the shirt for? Not for you?' No, it's for my drummer back home. He goes, 'oh, if you need a drummer in San Diego, I'm the best drummer in San Diego.' And I said, 'Good to know.' I'm Laura Jane and I'm the best singer in San Diego. So if you ever need a singer. We were having a cock fight, you know? Just like, 'Oh yeah… oh yeah?' And I'm like, 'I just love confidence, this guys awesome, I'm gonna' keep this card. Two weeks later he calls me up and says, 'Hey, we want to change our female singer and if you really are the best singer in San Diego then I want you to audition.' I say, 'Okay,' and I'm thinking to myself, 'God, what did my mouth get me into?'

I go to this audition and it was just Andy Robillard on drums, Gerry Wasson our current bass player on bass and then Topher Dub our saxophone player and Bob Conrad our trumpet player were all there. No guitar player and I walk in and Gerry the bass player goes okay, 'Cold Sweat, James Brown.' I'm like, 'Oh, okay.' It's just trial by fire here. James Brown, Cold Sweat, no problem. So I sang it and he says, 'Okay, how 'bout this one, how 'bout that one?' So we just fell in love with each other right away and then they fired the girl singer after they auditioned me. She was involved with the trombone player and the trombone player also left. At that time they were called something else and we all decided we should reform the band anyway, and a new name so we called ourselves, 'Tell Mama.' Andy Robillard our drummer said there was no other band called, 'Tell Mama.' We believed him. Turns out there was another band, in San Diego called 'Tell Mama.' I'm like, 'Holy Crap, nice research dude.' And we named ourselves after a fan suggested, 'Uh, why don't you call yourselves the Tighten Ups?' Awesome, let's do it. It was a fan's suggestion after we found out 'Tell Mama' was already taken."

Have you found the San Diego Blues community to be a pretty supportive environment… "Well that's the vibe that I loved about San Diego." She says, "Not just the support of the musicians, but just the friendliness of the community. You're out there in flip-flop land, people aren't all dressed up and they actually do ride their bikes and their skateboards and their surfboards and walk places. They're not all concerned with image and 25 inch heels all the time and total plastic face. This place feels more hippy-ish to me and I like that." (laughing)

It's pretty difficult to pigeon-hole the sound of the Tighten Ups. How do go about choosing the music in the Tighten Ups playlist? "We like to do our originals, of course which is kick ass. But when we're choosing songs to create our live shows, our playlist, it's a democratic process. We don't want to do big band-y stuff, even though we've got this killer horn section that could easily pull that off. And we don't want to be caught in the shuffle blues zone, either. We really want to bitch-slap our audience from the first song to the last song of the set. We don't want to take too much time in-between unless I look over and Joey's got to tune… 'Okay,' I'll talk for a minute. And we usually only do one slow song per set and sometimes we don't even do that. We want it to be a high-energy, tight experience musically. We want to really show off the talents. Our bass player, to me has the most unique sound of anyone in the band. His style, slapping that bass with his thumb and the choices he makes and the freedom that he will change up what he does that to me, really nailed down my love of the sound of the band. The horns are great and they add so much. Meri Claire, you can't keep your eyes off her when she's playing that trombone. She's visually stunning. Then Joey Harris, my favorite guitar player in San Diego, when I asked him to join the band three years ago and he goes, 'Ahhh, let me sit in with you to see...' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, he's gonna' sit in with us, he's considering it. Holy shit!' And then he loved us. By the end of the night he said, 'I'm In!' I said, 'Oh my God, my dreams are all coming true.'

Our original drummer moved away and he had a very unique style, and then we got our current drummer, Brad Smith who comes from a punk rock background. To make him funkier has been a real cool thing too, because he had never played with any kind of funk style. Because we play rock, play funk, we play blues, we play soul but he was more, straight ahead… he could play AC-DC, or could play Ramones or things that were straight and loud and strong. It was really neat to watch him go, 'Hey, I gotta' get with this bass player… and funk it up.'

We just love picking new songs; everyone has to agree on it. We've got a hundred percent 'Type-A' personality band. Every single one of us is a go-getter, and 'I'll fight for what I want' kinda' of person, but if we're not all in agreement, we'll just let it go. That being said, everyone is so nice, so generous, so kind, so thoughtful, so easy to work with, such a joy to write with and arrange with. Such a great family… and together for seven years now."

the writer with Laura Jane Willcock
Laura Jane Willcock and a fan. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

So, even though you and your band mates have outside projects, Tighten Up fans don't need to worry about the band going their separate ways? "We can count on the band being together for awhile because everyone has little kids, (laughing) except for me." (laughing)

Can you talk a little about your approach to writing? "I really love writing; I want to do more and more and more of it. I love writing with Thomas (Yearsley) for ThunderLux, it's just really easy and I'm so happy, personally right now. I used to think I could only write when I was sad, but now it turns out I can write no matter what because I'm practicing writing all the time. I love writing with Joey Harris. I get these crazy notions, like this crazy rat problem we have in San Diego that I wanted to write about. Every job I go to, you know in the alley, 'Oh, there's another rat.' 'Oh, there's a rat teaching a baby rat how to climb up the rope onto the boat I was just on. Holy crap, look at that. There's a rat over there,' I mean they're everywhere. So I wanted to write about it and the guys in my band are like, 'Are you crazy? We're not going to write about rats.' I'm like, 'Arghhh, I want to do it.' So, when I met Joey and we started writing together, he's like, 'That's brilliant! Let's do it!' (laughing)

Other than the wharf rat muse, do you have a process when you write? "Yeah, it's funny sometimes I seem to get inspired in the car a lot. Because it's a mundane thing where you body takes over doing the same thing when I travel so much from gig to gig. And then, in the shower, which sounds totally cliché. But I write in the shower and I write in the car. I always have a little digital device with me. Sometimes I write words first, but when I'm writing for the Tighten Ups, I'm thinking of horns. And when I'm writing for ThunderLux I'm thinking of keyboards, 'cause we have a keyboard player, Leo Dombecki, who is a great bluesman.

You mentioned the ongoing ThunderLux project, can you fill us in? "The new band, ThunderLux… we are almost done with our album. Leo Dombecki plays keyboards, saxophone and guitar. Our drummer is Emily O'Bannon-Robles. She just got married. She's an old friend of mine, and she used to work at the Flame and used to drum in a band called, Runhoney. I sing and I play some guitar. Thomas is teaching me how to play guitar, he tunes it into a D tuning for me so I can do it on stage because I'm not good enough to play regular chords yet… but I'm working on it."

Fish Party poster
Fish Party Poster

ThunderLux has a more traditional lineup? "It's not blues though; it's really kind of a neat rock and roll vibe from mid century with a little cartoon influence, like the Archies and Josie and the Pussycats. All original songs and we've only played out twice but we've got a lot of the tracks already in the can. We're going to have an EP by my birthday party March 3rd, which is the 31st annual Fish party. I always throw a fish party on my birthday. I'm a Pisces so I always have people bring me fishy things at these events. So, I have 31 years worth of fish in storage in my storage area that I bring out and put on display every year. And it's intense. But we always have a lot of music, ThunderLux is playing at that gig, also the Tighten Ups and the Honkys, they're amazing. And the full album from ThunderLux will be done by mid-year 2015. The Tighten Ups we've just grabbed some pre-existing recordings that we did at a studio in Escondido and we're thinking about re-mixing it into an album or an EP of some sort. We kind of just love playing out, because we do mostly cover's and you don't want to record covers."

I know you are into giving back and volunteering. What are some of your favorite charitable organizations and programs? "I have a few annual things that I usually do. The Human Rights Campaign, I do their annual bowl-a-thon where I change my outfit like seven times during their bowling marathon. And come out with my microphone and talk about who's got the most gutter balls and how teams are doing. And talk about the important work the HRC is doing. If anyone wants me for volunteering, I have a hard time saying no, as long it doesn't take away from one of my other gigs. If I'm not losing money and it's a great cause… consider me in."

Give me your craziest bar or club story. "Well, I can tell you I'm a former cheerleader and I have this maneuver that's a cartwheel into the splits that I used to do on demand in Traverse City, Michigan at Dill's Old Town Saloon. I worked there for ten years and I don't know why I trained people to do this because I kind of learned to regret it. (laughing) But I do it. I love tequila and people know it, so they ply me with Tequila. I trained them to pound on the tables and then I would do a cartwheel into the splits on demand, on stage, every night as often as they wanted me to.

So one night this person said, 'Well I'm moving out of town, this is gonna' be my last night. I wanna' see how drunk I can get you and how many cartwheels and splits I can make you do. I did 19 in a three hour period. And yes, I was hammered. I think that was the craziest image I've ever put into people's heads. I learned with my comedy, in one-woman shows and I do improv and I do stand-up… I've boiled it down to 'Shock, Horrify and Delight' in that order. You know, the Shock is the cartwheel, ahhh look at that woman flying. Then there's the Horrify. I go down into the splits. (Laura Jane slaps the table) Bam! Smacking the stage so hard, and then I pop up and do the 'ta-da.' And then Delight, Oh, she's gonna' be okay. 'Shock, Horrify and Delight' and some of that bleeds over in everything I do."

Related Articles:
Billy Watson: San Diego's Mr. Natural; 2013 San Diego Blues Festival; Big Blues from Big Jon Atkinson; 2011 San Diego Blues Festival; Missy and Heine Andersen; Nathan James: Southern California Roots

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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?


* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.


Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.


Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation


Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *


I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA


This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA


I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA

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