Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Rumination: Playing Music

A couple of guys in the neighborhood and I have started a band, and Friday night we played at a pretty big birthday party. It was great, as soon as we started playing people ran up and told us we were too loud. Just like the old days. I used to have a trick of turning around to my amp and turning some tone knob, like the treble knob on my amp, making it look like I was turning down the volume, so some bar owner or bride's mother or whatever would think we were actually going to be quieter. Of course an amplified rock n roll band is loud! It's not that the band too loud, the problem is that you have to get used to it, duh.

The bass player is a guy I've known for years, we hang out and solve the world's problems on weekend afternoons. We've been playing a little music in his basement for a couple of years, I guess, at first we had a kind of band with two friends of his but they lived too far away and it was pain to put together a rehearsal, you couldn't just play, you had to barbecue and the wives would come and the whole thing, it was a big social event. Which is fine, but sometimes you just want to play some music.

I ran into our drummer at a yard sale this past year. He was selling some musical equipment, actually I wrote about meeting him HERE on this blog. I didn't realize it at the time, but his house is directly behind the bass player's house, they look over the fence into each other's yards. Great drummer, likes the same kind of music as us, by which I mean old music, roots music. At the yard sale he said something about Willie Dixon, just to see if I'd know who he was talking about, and of course I did know that great old-time bluesman. He was talking the other day about Larry Williams, who wrote "Slow Down" and "Bony Maronie," I turned him on to Arthur Alexander, who wrote "You Better Move On," "Soldier of Love," "Anna," "Detroit City," and a bunch of other songs that you know but don't know where they came from.

We played this birthday party Friday, the birthday boy has been around the DC music scene for decades and there were a lot of musicians and music people there, producers, DJs, promoters of various sorts. So for our little band it was a kind of showcase, if we got these people's attention we might end up with some gigs, somebody might call us when they got double-booked or if a band canceled, or if there was a show coming up and they needed an opening act. I was a little nervous, I've played a couple of street parties but nothing really since 1993, when I was in a Southern rock band in North Carolina. Before that I played country music five nights a week in Fresno, and before that I played with ... somebody who'd had a Number One hit, whatever, we were a local band on the central coast of California. I think I've played in every kind of band except for pure bluegrass and pure jazz -- I've played some tunes from those genres, of course, but not all night long.

Our set Friday went pretty well. We had worked up twenty songs, all of them old rockabilly and blues and honky-tonk songs, well we did "Crazy Little Thing Call Love" by Queen, I guess that's rockabilly, right? There were several Buddy Holly and Elvis tunes, an Albert Collins rocker, "Honky Tonk Man," "I Fought the Law," stuff like that. Actually, looking back at our set, it is strange how many of those songs have been recorded by Dwight Yoakum. Overlapping tastes, I guess.

When I used to play music for a living, I always had a cheap amp and whatever guitar I could get without paying too much. Now that I'm grown up and have a real job, I have been able to buy a real amplifier. Life is cruel that way. A couple of years ago I got a Mesa Boogie amp, this might not mean much to you but it's well made, electronically it is an excellent tube amp with great distortion, amazing control over the tone -- it's almost too much, it's so clear and powerful, with such presence. Friday was the first time I've actually taken it out and used it at a gig, and I'd have to say I am still uncomfortable with it. One thing about an amp like this is that it's just as loud across the room as it is on the bandstand. The bass, the drums, might echo around the room, but this Mesa Boogie puts the clearest sound right in the listener's face, even if they're sitting in the back of the room. Every time your pick touches the strings, the guy in the back hears it. Uh, what that means is that the people will hear every wrong note you play, you can't get away with anything.

I didn't play that well but I guess it was good enough. Back in the day I used to go for weeks without missing a note, I could improvise freely and play stuff that was hard, and my fingers were obedient and nimble. I don't play enough now, I'm a little stiff. I know that if I was going four or five nights a week it would come back, but that would be too much, doing that and then getting up in the morning for my day gig.

Our band played -- we don't even have a name, we just introduced ourselves as three guys who live in the same neighborhood -- then another band and then later the musicians who were present went up on the bandstand and jammed, with Little Red, the Zydeco guy, leading the jam. Our band got a lot of compliments, including some pretty good music people who swore they were telling the truth. (Somebody said there were two Grammy winners at the party.) We knew we could play better, but whatever, the thing is, you have to sound good enough on your worst night, and I think we did that. Then we sat down, and Little Red and the Renegades played. At first Little Red played piano, and they did a lot of Louisiana flavored blues, some Professor Longhair and stuff. Then he picked up the accordion, and the place came to life. The band was animated, the dance-floor filled up, this was good. Zydeco is cool music. Here is a picture of Little Red that a photographer took at Glen Echo and posted at Flickr. He wasn't quite this ... red ... Friday night.

I met Clifton Chenier once. He was playing a hall in California and the people were rocking out, and all of a sudden the power went dead. Turned out the janitor for the building was only paid to work till midnight, and he wanted to go home, so he threw the breaker. Several hundred people partying and dancing, and he just threw the switch. I went backstage with some others, and this janitor was standing beside the breaker box, looking a little defensive, surrounded by people who were not pleased with him. The concert's sponsors were trying to talk him into turning the power back on, Chenier was there trying to sweet-talk him. I said, "What if we just put this guy on the floor and a couple of people sat on him?" Well, the concert organizers didn't like that idea for some reason, they seemed to think it amounted to "violence" but I didn't say anything about hurting the guy, we just had a put him where he wouldn't destroy the party. Later Chenier and I were talking, and he said, "Same thing happened to me one time in Texas, they found the guy in the alley with no pants on." I like Zydeco, I listen to Cowboy sometimes, if you know what I'm saying. Clifton Chenier was pretty sick by the time I met him, he was on dialysis but still playing, still going out on the road, he died pretty soon after that.

Then there was birthday cake, then they started calling people up to jam. I was in the last batch, I played six or seven tunes with them. Little Red, I'll tell you, he plays in the flat keys, which is strange. No guitar player would ever say, let's do this in B-flat. But whatever, somebody handed me a Telecaster with something wrong with it, one of the switch positions didn't do anything, but that just meant I flipped between the two pickups. Now it got fun. We had six guys on the stage, Red on accordion, Jon Carroll on synthesizer (though sometimes he took the accordion and Red played piano), two guitars, bass and drums.

I have made a name for myself with my research, I am active in our community, I have a straight job, I pay a mortgage and my kids have turned out great, but I love standing on a bandstand with a bunch of guys listening to each other, trying to play something that fits, following the changes, you get a solo sometimes but that's not the only thing. I sang a little harmony on a couple, I played crazy rhythm guitar to some of those rumba and mambo things that Red does, those New Orleans things. (I just thought of this, I have never been in a Zydeco band, either.) That Tele sang, I had fun wowing the people with some screaming lead solos, I admit it. Women on the dance-floor smile at the band, you see people at their tables tapping their fingers, people swaying as they talk to one another, walking with their steps in time to the music, man, I like that.


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