After a musical episode this past week, I once again got to thinking about the many musical differences between live music and recording studio work. I’ve written before about the concept of “serving the music” being too often the polar opposite of the intent of live music. I don’t often subject myself to a lot of hobby pop musicians and their weirdness and insecurities, but it happened twice this past week and I’m still stepping back from the experience; partially out of disappointment and partially to save my hearing.
It’s not a youth-oriented thing, either. A few weeks ago, I volunteered to be part of a setup band for a local open mic. We formed a temporary group of three: keys/guitar, bass, and drums with about 30 years of space between the oldest (me) and youngest member of the group. We rehearsed twice in the drummer’s living room. We didn’t bother with microphones and we, me and the keys/guitarist, calibrated our volume to the drummer’s acoustic output and we heard each other fine and I enjoyed every moment of practice with that group. Let’s call the keys/guitarist “Travis,” mostly because that’s his name. Travis has a strong voice, but he’s no screamer. I’m usually pretty quiet, vocally. There was absolutely no moment in 4-5 hours of playing together that made me wish for a PA system in that living room. For a few hours, I almost felt like a musician and sort of wished for a performance venue where we could play just like this.
In contrast, this week in the same space there were four of us: all old guys. Guitar, harp, bass, and drums grouped around the drum kit in maybe 120 square feet of fairly live space. Before the guitarist fired up his trendy, over-priced, “hand-wired” boutique faux-Fender Deluxe, the harmonica player and drummer warmed up a bit and I had a brief moment of imagining “déjà vu all over again.”
As soon as the guitarist plugged in, that wet dream dried out fast. Like so many hobby guitarists, his “sound” required far too much output for the room. Obviously, the usual Fender-copy tube topology produces a fairly boring sound at anything less than ear-shattering volume, so ear-shattering it was. I needed a lot longer cord for my bass, or a wireless system that would let me pull back 50’ or so. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the loud guitarist was also rhythm-deprived. Unhappily, the drummer tried hard to “follow” the guitar, since the guitar wasn’t following anything tempo-related and that makes for a miserable experience for me, the bass player. Topping it all off was an evening of Beatles and Grateful Dead nostalgia.
After almost 55 years of being around musicians, you’d think I’d have grown either more tolerant, or at least less disgusted, when the point of playing instruments is not to make music together. You can’t imagine how much I wish that were true. After all those years, the point of playing with other people, for me, is still to make music. I didn’t pick up a guitar or bass to meet girls, to express my inner teenage rage, to become rich and famous, or to play power games. Unlike Jimmy Page who loved the power of being the guy who could make 50,000 people go deaf with a twitch of his hand, I just wanted to make a poor approximation of the incredible sounds I heard on records from Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Mann, Cannonball Adderley, and the rest of my jazz heroes. By the time I was 18 or so, it was clear to me that I didn’t have the will power to persevere to their level of musicianship, but that didn’t mean I had to sound awful. It still doesn’t.
The difference between what I’ll call “a hobbyist” and “a musician” is that hobbyists don’t care about the sum of the parts in a musical performance. Their only focus is “how do I sound?” I realize that means a lot of “professionals” (a person engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime) are glorified hobbyists. During the 70’s, as stage monitors allowed everyone on a stage to become the main act with everyone else playing a supporting part to “me,” pop musicians became less interested in the product of the parts and far too interested in their own contribution. Today, we’re saturated with performances that are contaminated by the acoustic mess the front of house tech is stuck wrestling with from stage monitors far too loud for the venue. This is all about ego, not music. It’s not only not musicial, it’s anti-music. “Playing music” in a group requires listening to the other players. If all you can hear is you, you should at least have the decency to be a solo act. That will also provide you with the real information as to what your audience will be when you have it your way.