Sunday, October 25, 2009

Do You Like American Music? (We like all kinds of music….)

Two things have inspired me to write this essay:

1) I just finished watching (for the second time), “We Jam Econo”, the excellent documentary about the legendary San Pedro, CA band The Minutemen, who existed from 1979 until guitarist D. Boone’s fatal auto accident in 1985, AND
2) The fact that just two nights ago, I played a gig unlike any of the thousand gigs I’ve ever played: a bona fide “jam band” (and that’s just for lack of a better term—these guys have been playing this kind of music before that term was coined) gig, at Tammany Hall in Worcester, MA, filling in on drums for the Bruce Mandaro band. (Bruce Mandaro used to be in a band called Slipknot for about 15 years before the 90’s metal band of the same name sued for the name and won)

and a third that just occurred:

3) wouldn't it be fun to have a Dead cover band who did their songs like Minutemen tunes? All under 2 min? Anyway...

Unlike most other gigs I play, I didn’t tell but a handful of people about it, for the simple reasons that 1) I don’t know too many people who live in the Worcester area/ and or would want to travel to see a gig on a Thursday night and 2) I don’t know too many people who would be interested in seeing this band. I also am not exactly known for playing in anything approaching a jam band, and didn’t want to keep explaining how this all came about. This isn’t in any way a dig at the band, who is made up of extremely talented guys who’ve been playing music since before I was born. It’s more that most of my friends, musicians or otherwise, just aren’t into “that scene” (me included, to be honest). (By the way, the way the gig DID come about was through the Woodstock Transperformance thing. I was part of the Dead band, and Bruce was the Garcia.)

In re-watching the Minutemen documentary, a few things struck me. One is that I’m about as uncomfortable in a mosh pit as I am surrounded by hippie dancing (and I’m using that as just a general term). I’m really an uptight guy who is most comfortable onstage, away from the action. And I want neither a stray mosher’s fist or a stray noodly-hand-chasing-an-acid-trail to make contact with my eye.

Another thing I noted after the movie is the number of punk legends who’ve, in various interviews, articles, etc, gone on record as being influenced by some aspects of the Grateful Dead’s music: Greg Ginn of Black Flag/SST Records Mogul, Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo, The Meat Puppets, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Elvis Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge (who said he learned lead guitar by playing along to “Dark Star”) and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. I know (Minutemen) Mike Watt and D Boone weren’t afraid to flaunt their classic rock roots (Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan... their cover of CCR’s “Don’t Look Now” really verges on hippie funk, albeit at two minutes.) I have no idea of their thoughts on the Dead. Though 80's Garcia could have learned a little something about how a large man can move about a stage had he caught one of their shows.

Of course I’m one of the cynics who scoffed when I heard about the Empire State Building being lit “tie dye” this past week to honor some Dead-related museum exhibit. I mean, I just can’t bring myself to think that that’s in any way cool. And yet, I AM one to, say, play a non-Dead fan the Velvet Underground’s 18 minute “Follow The Leader” from The Quine Tapes and say “give that a looser rhythm section and that’s a friggin Dead song”. Or make a CD for a friend with the noisiest, most chaotic, feedback-strewn versions of (early) Dead songs I know of. So yes, I walk a thin line. That “Walk On the Wild Side” inspired “Franklin’s Tower” is a fact that made me happy, even if would make Lou Reed puke. When I heard a version of “Sugaree” where Garcia winds down his solo by playing the “Wild Side” bass line for a few measures was also a fun find. But this is not another “Warlocks East vs Warlocks West” essay.
I think I wanted to focus on this gig I did. But it’s late and I’m tired. Focus!

First off, preparation for this show was also unlike any other I’ve done. Beyond Bruce Mandaro, I didn’t play with the rest of the band until the first note. I didn’t meet the keyboardist, Mark (whose main gig is in Max Creek) until he walked on stage, late due to a prior engagement. Rehearsal consisted of beginnings and endings of a handful of songs and a small stack of CDs with certain songs asterisked. . Come showtime, Bruce called out at least 5 songs we hadn’t rehearsed and segued into a couple other strangers. I assume this was because he felt safe that I could roll with these punches. A vote of confidence. Phew...

The set consisted of half originals, half covers (and not all Dead covers, by a long shot. There was some Paul Simon, Beatles, Dylan, a Dave Alvin song and bluegrass traditionals thrown in, all with different feels from the familiar versions).

At the show, I told at least a couple of the guys, “I play with a lot of people, but really, this is my first ever gig that’s largely improv…”. Bruce assured me that any perceived trainwrecks are immediately forgotten and often times, in the spirit of the Dead, just lead to a new, unfamiliar place. There’s no getting lost, there’s no crashing. Just keep your ears open and try to look for visual cues if something seems to want to end.

For me, the second set was better than the first. I think in the first set I alternated between waiting for someone else to guide (and just staying on some groove) and, on the other hand possibly changing things too often, like someone hitting the different beat buttons on a synth. By the second set, sufficiently loose and in tune with the band, we got into some very interesting territory in the jams.

The thing that struck me afterwards was, my reference points for responding to what the band was doing, were probably different from their normal drummer(s)’. Sure, I had a young Bill Kreutzmann in mind at various times, but, just as often did I have Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) in mind during some spacy moments, or Terry Chambers (XTC) during some reggae-tinged bits. Or Meat Puppets or Minutemen when things got Bluegrass-y. (is playing electric bluegrass THAT muchdifferent from playing a punk 2/4 beat?) And yet, if I brought up any of those bands, I can’t say for sure that they’d have had any idea of these reference points. So I kept it my little secret.

It’s really hard to remember too many specific moments, since it wasn’t just a series of rock tunes. But I will recount a conversation I had with someone there where I mentioned another Dead mix CD (actually, two) that I recently made (for Henning!), to state the case that, the thing about the Dead at their core was that (for the most part), take away the jamming, and there were dozens of great songs in their catalog. The response I got was “yeah, I actually feel the total opposite. I listen for the inspired improvised moments”.
I had to change the subject at that point. And not freak out and think “I’m not one of you!”.
(and I just remembered how mad it made me once when, after an Aloha Steamtrain show, a guy came up to me and said "you guys are good, but you'd be better if you JAMMED!"I mean really...there's a time or place for everything. It's like saying "I like ketchup. You know what would make your pancakes better? Ketchup!")

Writing a great song is like designing a building or a house. Finding great improvised moments is like hiking down a path and noticing the way the light hits a certain tree for the first time, and you know you’ll never see it exactly like that again, nor do you want to because you’ll always just compare it to that first, amazing time. If you snap a photo or do a painting of it, that's a song..or poem. Experiencing the fleeting moment, that's improv, that's kind of just living...not knowing what's around the corner.

There’s beauty and the essence of creativity in both approaches. I think my final verdict is that the improv thing is, for me, a total treat to play, but not always what I want to hear. (though, ok, I can rattle off at least 5 amazing Dark Stars)

When the day comes when I’m no longer driving long distances between libraries for my day job (which is partially how I re-discovered the art of listening to the Dead—30 miles on the Pike, or over the mountain from Orange to Warwick to Northfield, or Ware back to Deerfield goes by in a flash when you’re entranced by a never-heard-before, inspired show), I just can’t predict how often they’ll be on the musical menu. But I’ll never again deny their influence as I may have done for so long in the past. And that, I swear is my last word on the Dead.

Below are links to two articles I’ve come across by people with similar feelings:

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