Tag Archives: musicianship

A Flattery More Sincere

What is the point of a tribute band? When I was young, a musician being inspired by a band led to one thing: wanting to form a band of your own, to do what your idols did. For example, I think it was Brian Eno who once quipped, “Only a couple dozen people actual heard the Velvet Underground when they first came out. But every one of those people started a band.” You hear it all the time in interviews with rock and roll legends: the first time they heard Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix, etc. they were inspired to pick up the guitar, bass or drums. They were NOT inspired to create a band that was a carbon copy of their inspirations – even if they started out by playing other people’s music (e.g., George Harrison got his slot in the Beatles by playing a mean version of “Twenty Flight Rock” by Eddie Cochran), the goal was not to mimic, imitate or impersonate someone else. It was to find their own sound, create their own music, become equals with their heroes. Somewhere along the line, however, things got out of whack. Of course, it doesn’t help that the record companies (or media conglomerates, as the case is today) are always out looking for the next big “something”. How many artists were groomed by labels hoping they had found the next big Bob Dylan (someone who could influence record sales, churn out tunes, create their own image)? Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Forbert, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, Jakob Dylan. The next Beatles? The Byrds, Hollies, Left Banke, Badfinger, Move, ELO, 10CC, Cheap Trick, The Knack, hell bands have even been manufactured to cash in – and don’t think it started with Destiny’s Child or American Idol.

Yes, there is a learning curve wherein, particularly if you’ve got no outside musical training but simply picked up an instrument after hearing a band, you mimic and imitate to get the notes under your fingers, the feel for a riff, the rhythm of a groove. But at some point, if you REALLY want to (or feel you must) use music as a vehicle of expression, of expressing who you are, you’ve got to remove the training wheels. At some point, it doesn’t matter whether or not you can play the solo from Stairway to Heaven note for note, right?

When did impersonation become tribute? They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not so sure. I think the Presley estate had similar doubts when it started suing Elvis impersonators, perhaps triggering the migration from impersonators to tribute artists in a attempt to avoid litigation from entities with significantly deeper pockets. But why bother? In the case of Elvis, I think that those running the King’s extremely lucrative post-mortem legacy wanted to emphasize their belief that the King was one of a kind, unable to be duplicated or even reasonably facsimiled. The ability to do an impersonation or impression introduces the idea that one’s mannerisms, delivery, etc., can be mimicked. Bad news for the unique legend business, I guess. My own case (because I was in fact involved in the Elvis business for a while, singing and speaking for Elvis weddings in Memphis for a couple of years, and in fact doing an Elvis-themed show at the world-famous Antenna Club in Memphis during Death Week 1994), is a little different. I never considered myself an impersonator or tribute artist – at least on a professional level, like some people I knew, like El Vez (or a couple of those guys from Honeymoon in Vegas). But I never wanted people to believe I was Elvis; and I never was really impersonating Elvis, either. I did Elvis songs like Elvis did them, and other songs like I thought Elvis might have interpreted them, from a slightly different perspective. I learned how to sing from Elvis records; at nine years old, I was absorbing his phrasing, tone, delivery, style (which of course, he borrowed in bits and pieces from a lot of others too). I could and still can sing a song with Elvis’ inflection, vowel shape and attitude, because that’s how I learned to sing those songs. I can’t really imagine them being sung any other way. Of course, as I’ve matured as a singer and performer, I add my own thing to them. But the underlying foundation is there. Is it a “tribute” to Elvis? No more than when Paul McCartney sings a song like Little Richard, Elvis or Chuck Berry. In either case, there’s something of yourself there, beyond a mere cookie cutter note-for-note copy of the original. If there isn’t, what’s the point?

Beyond the trials, tribulations and other assorted angst, trauma and self-flagellation involved in rock and roll (and tribute bands as well as finding your own “true” voice), pretty loosely described in the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Rock Star”, tribute artists are like virtual reality. Sure, you can pretend you’re actually there, seeing your favorite (or your parent’s favorite) band in person (e.g., the Stones, the Beatles, Journey, ZZ Top, the Eagles). But you’re not. You haven’t seen them, and when you compare your experience to someone who actually HAS seen these bands, it’s a little insulting not to mention ignorant. Especially when the irony is so thick you can actually see it in the stage lights – like when a bunch of Americans put on fake English accents to sound like an English band who were trying to sound like American bluesmen in the first place – that’s what a Rolling Stones tribute band usually gets you.

Honestly, who wants to become the best copy in the world of someone else? Who really wants to become the world’s greatest cover band? You’re not really paying tribute to the artists you’re covering. You’re pandering to a crowd that wants an alternate reality – that wasn’t cool enough, old enough, in the right place, able to afford or for whatever reason unable to participate in an experience with an original artist. But you know what the funny thing is? If you were playing original music, doing your thing, presenting your interpretations and artistic achievement, they WOULD be participating in that original experience. And in that moment, you and they would be here and now, truly alive, and not tied to some sentimental, nostalgic bullshit about how today’s music sucks, how they don’t make ’em like they used to. Because that’s what being cool is, really. It’s not about thinking you’re cool, or wondering who is and who isn’t, or measuring yourself against some imaginary and definitely illusory and transient standard of hip. It’s about making where you are important because you are there, and because it is right now – as if you could be anywhere else.

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A Tale of Two Singers

Last night I had the opportunity to take in a performance by a young singer-songwriter-guitarist named Adam Dale. I understand he’s originally from the Shreveport area but now based out of Baton Rouge. He plays a mix of original material and originally arranged covers that run the gamut from political satire to straight up rave up, all in a style that while definitely unique reminds me of a number of other performers, including but not limited to Dave Matthews and my good friend from Berklee, Aaron Flinn.

In particular, the parallels with Aaron were remarkable.

Both are very intricate and rhythmic guitarists, who manage to be delicate, dynamic and driving at the same time – which is no mean feat, I can tell you from 30 years of guitar-playing experience. It’s not any easy thing for any guitarist except Richie Havens to fill so much space without sounding like a repetitious drone. For good reason, Aaron has been recognized as the best acoustic guitarist in Vermont. I venture that Adam could fare likewise were such a competition held in Louisiana.

Both have very dramatic, one might almost say operatic, voices that they employ from a whisper to a scream to first draw you in and then almost knock you senseless. Their lyrics, too, have a cryptic feel and course with an ultra-personal and almost secret sense of meaning, and seem to weave perfectly between the polyrhythms of the guitar on their voices. Adam and Aaron both use quite a bit of falsetto; when I first heard Aaron sing, I thought immediately of Kate Bush, or Tori Amos. I still draw the comparison, vocal-wise, and do the same with Adam.

Then there is the physical showmanship. I guess having started as a classical musician (violin and clarinet), and then as an upright jazz bass player before I learned to rock, I never really learned (or rather, was taught to inhibit) the art of movement while playing. John Mayer’s got the art. Joe Cocker has it (in you might say a Picasso sort of fashion). Aaron Flinn and Adam Dale have it. Onstage, they keep moving. Always in motion, always (if eyes not closed in a moment of deep emotion or pique) in contact with their audience. In tandem with, or as counterpoint to, the jump-stop guitar chuka-chuck; approaching and retreating from the mic with the grace of swans. Myself, I’m more like a walrus. Not so interesting to watch.

I have seen and performed with Aaron numerous times in an acoustic setting. I have now experienced Adam Dale in similar surroundings. Both artists (and they are truly artists, definitely deserving of greater public acclaim, distribution and critical attention) also front full-scale electric bands. I’ve heard recordings of these efforts, but never seen them live and electric. I’m sure these shows are, no pun intended, electrifying, if they are anything like the acoustic shows, but bigger and more grandiose.

But there’s one area, I think, where both Aaron and Adam miss the mark. Both, in my opinion, have gorgeous and pure, clear voices. The majority of their vocal delivery, however, masks this underlying beauty with a kind of affectation, a deliberate quirkiness that runs the gamut from Stan Ridgeway to Tim Curry. Even when they’re singing ballads, they tend to truncate the notes, do some range jumping calisthenics and maintain a certain distance from what I can judge is a massive volume of pure tone. Both are large men with large voices; both are certainly effectively emotional singers. But I think both Adam and Aaron are a little afraid of their voices sounding gorgeous. Of casting aside all gimmickry and showmanship, all the fabulous guitar noodling, and simply stopping you dead in your tracks with sheer beauty. Because beauty, and that kind of exposing of the soul, is not what’s hip. It’s never been, nor probably never will be, cool to remind people that they don’t pay attention to what’s really important. It’s a scary thing to do, I must admit. I’ve only managed it on one or two occasions, and one of those was in private. Neither one of those times did I come close to what I think Aaron or Adam is capable of — because I’m more or less a trained singer, while these two are naturals.

Both Aaron Flinn and Adam Dale are capable of that kind of beauty, intrinsically. I’ve heard what they can do onstage. I’ve been in awe of the way they combine their vocals with their obvious guitar prowess. To put it in a clumsy metaphor, I’ve heard Saturday night. But I want Sunday morning. Take me to church, so to speak. I for one would love to hear it.

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I Blame Lawrence Welk

I love old songs, and I love mixing it up and keeping ’em guessing.

For that, I blame Lawrence Welk.

Some jazz cats look down on Welk’s ensemble (compared to Goodman, Ellington or Kenton it was a SWEET band), and the singers WERE pretty square. But it was the only TV show that zoomed in on the trombone player. It was the “Elvis movie” of TV – inspiration to a young instrumentalist. The mention of the clarinet anywhere else results in raised eyebrows and looks of shame. And they did tribute shows – Irving Berlin, marches of the world, and so on. I blame Lawrence Welk for giving me to Cole Porter right after I finished devouring Buck Owens on “Hee Haw.” And Willie Nelson’s doing some of those songs now, so I’m not alone in this. Country music is built upon American song history, on “Down in the Valley” and “Sweet Betsy from Pike”. These are songs that New Country doesn’t know about. It’s a different “country” altogether. American music from Scott Joplin to Jimmie Rodgers to Fats Waller, from Lefty Frizzell to Woody Guthrie to Burl Ives, from Helen Forrest to the Andrews Sisters, from the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers.

I could go on and on. I blame Lawrence Welk for that, too.

It means that a barbershop arrangement of “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” or a high lonesome rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t out of the question. I blame Lawrence Welk for showing that any song could be included in your repertoire, and that people will dance.

And I enjoy what I’m doing. I blame Myron Floren for that.

He ALWAYS looked like he was having a blast. And that’s what I wanted from the start. I love to entertain.

And I love America, where it is all possible, even for a son of immigrants (and aren’t we all?).

For that, most of all, I blame Lawrence Welk.

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For the Musicians on my friends list :)

There is a book by Kenny Werner called Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within that I cannot recommend more highly to anyone who thinks they ever were, ever wanted to be, or ever will be a Musician. The introduction to this book is so personally moving to me; it describes almost exactly what I feel being a Musician is all about. I don’t think Kenny would mind if I shared it here with you – perhaps it will convince you to purchase the book (and its accompanying CD of guided meditations) for yourselves.

There is an ocean. It is a drop of consciousness, an ocean of bliss. Each one of us is a drop in that ocean. In that sense, we are all one – or as a famous American television commercial states, “We’re all connected.” Illusion would have us think that we are all separate entities, separate drops. But if that were true, we would all evaporate rather quickly.

As we expand our limited selves into this infinite consciousness, we tap into a great network of infinite possibilities, infinite creativity – great, great power. Carried by the waves of this ocean, we swirl past all limitations and maximize our potential. Everything good that can possibly happen to us, from within and without, does. Our abilities expand beyond all reasonable limits, and we become a magnetic force for abundant light and all that that implies.

We are all part of a universal game. Returning to our essence while living in the world is the object of the game. The earth is the game board, and we are the pieces on the board. We move around and around until we remember who we really are, and then we can be taken off the board. At that point, we are no longer the game-piece, but the player; we’ve won the game.

As Musicians/healers, it is our destiny to conduct an inward search, and to document it with our Music so that others may benefit. As they listen to the Music coming through us, they too are inspired to look within. Light is being transmitted and received from soul to soul. Gradually, the planet moves from darkness to light. We as Musicians must surrender to the ocean of our inner selves. We must descend deep into that ocean while the sludge of the ego floats on the surface. We let go of our egos and permit the Music to come through us and do its work. We act as the instruments for that work.

If we can live in this realization, we will constantly have deep motivation for what is played, never getting stuck in the ungrateful consciousness of good gigs/bad gigs, out-of-tune pianos, low fees, ungracious audiences, and so on. Instead, our minds will be consumed with what a very great privilege it is to be the one selected to deliver the message to others. We will no longer be caught in the mundane world of good Music/bad Music (“am I playing well?”). Instead, our hearts and minds will be focused on the task of remaining empty and alert to receiving this inspired information and translating it faithfully, without any coloration from us.

Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery

Enjoy the day, ya’ll…

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