Category Archives: Music

Post #134: Concert Etiquette au Centre Bell.

14jjpxpxSo, my wife and I ventured up to Montreal last weekend to see John Mayer at the Bell Center. Mayer shredded, wailed, crooned, and serenaded us at one point with a fake Japanese garden projected behind him while he sang songs solo acoustic. It was a great show, featuring Mayer’s full band and his blues trio, and I recommend catching Mayer on his current world tour, but that’s not what I want to talk about. If you’re interested, here’s a review of the show from the Montreal Gazette. Or, if you want to read up on John Mayer and his current goings on, including various non-sequitors and narcissistic ruminations about the nature of celebrity and the strangeness of the modern condition, here’s a recent profile from the New York Times.

No, what I want to talk about is the Canadian crowd. Namely, I want to talk about their deference, their politeness, their near silence, their I’m-not-gonna-stand-up-ness, and their overall laid back and staid approach to seeing a rock show in a large venue, which they responded to with about as much gusto as you would muster for a street performer who you begrudgingly decide isn’t half bad before you drop a buck into the kitty, then go get some frozen yogurt.

Let’s start with contrast. Five or so years ago, I went to see Phish at a hockey arena in Albany, New York. There was no smoking allowed inside the venue. Did that stop the Albany crowd? Please. By the middle of the first set, the place was like a bar in Mad Men, washes of smoke clouding your vision, wispy swirls of it gray and pink in the stage lights. So thick you just knew you’d never quite get the smell out of your clothes and likely have to burn or throw them away. And, being a Phish show, at least half the smoke was not from Camels or American Spirits, but had a more, shall we say, herbal inflection.

I’m not saying I liked the smoke. I did not. I’m just making a point.

john-mayer-vaguely-teases-title-of-new-single-01John Mayer also played in a hockey arena. The Bell Center is home to the mighty Montreal Canadians. But there was not a single puff of smoke, tobacco or otherwise present. When’s the last time you went to a concert at a large venue and you didn’t see anyone smoking? Even indoors. In fact, I think if you’d lit up in that place, the locals would have smothered you in gallons of warm, overpriced Molson, then escorted you from the premises.

The couple to our left arrived late, mid-way through Mayer’s first whole band set. They sat down, settled for a moment, took a couple cell phone pics. After that, they did not move. At all. They clapped politely between songs, but otherwise stared down at John Mayer as if he was no more real than a vision on a television screen. They did not stand for the encore. They did not show any more animation following a wailing solo, or a song’s crescendo, than they did for a ballad. In fact, virtually nobody moved in the whole place. The crowd was appreciative and I think genuinely enjoyed the show–they were cheering by the end–but the lack of hooting, dancing, or any other kind of external pleasure or tom-foolery, which I’ve come to expect as part and parcel of seeing live music, mystified us. I’m not a rowdy concert goer, but I like to whistle and cheer and get my white man’s overbite on as much as the next guy. Usually, I follow the flow of the crowd. The crowd stands, I stand. They hoot, I hoot. But that night, the crowd was so mellow as to be almost sedated, and I kept looking around wondering if I was missing something. Wondering if I should lead the charge. But we were afraid to stand up since nobody else was and so kept our seats and clapped politely like everyone else.

A couple of times I went to the bathroom, only to find the beer lines empty, the hallways bare and silent, the souvenir stand abandoned.

I began to wonder if there are unwritten codes around concert  etiquette that are regional and perhaps even national. Thoughts on this? Was I witnessing some sort of national politeness that felt utterly foreign to my crass American instincts? Or was I myself that brash, noisy, hard drinking American that a Canadian citizen might be quietly judging as uncouth or uncivilized?

pere-lachaise_chopin_graveI was once standing near Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, admiring the weeping virgin atop it and the maudlin bust of the great man at its center, some of Chopin’s haunted and tinkling melodies dancing through my memory, when I heard a man shout, “It’s over here baby!” I shit you not that at that moment, my reverie was broken as an obese family of four ambled down the dirt path wearing matching American flag t-shirts on their way to Jim Morrison’s grave. I hid in the bushes until they passed, lest I be accidentally linked to their horribleness in the eyes of a local.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I appreciate quiet and being able to sit and enjoy a show. I don’t talk at the movies and I’ll shush you if necessary. And generally, I’m not in favor of smoking at indoor venues because it’s gross, but the near capacity crowd at the Bell Center last weekend brought a Lay-Z-Boy vibe that I found wholly unfamiliar, and not a little disconcerting.

I believe in wearing it on your sleeve. Someone rips a sweet blues solo, how else are you supposed to show your approval save shouting into a crowd, whistling, or high-fiving the person next to you? You gotta let em feel you. Arms folded, dead eyed, and silent is no way to rock and roll, Canada.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Too judgmental. Dare I say, too American?

I still love you, Montreal. But you gotta loosen up a little. A $13 Molson should do the trick.

 

Post #131: A Podcast for Your Pleasure

flat_sharp_logo6_burg_grey4So, yes, I haven’t written a new post in an embarrassingly long time. It’s not because I don’t love you. Getting an MFA and starting a new podcast has kept me sadly away from this platform, and from all of you fine people.

I did want to let you know, though, that I have a new endeavor I’m excited to tell you about. A podcast.

I assume you know what a podcast is, but just in case, it’s like a radio show that you don’t listen to on the radio. You can stream it, or download it.

My show is called Flat Sharp, and it’s about music. My co-host Matt Saraca and I each choose one song per episode to discuss and that random pairing becomes fodder for a discussion about music, pop culture, and beyond.

I’m very excited about it, and would love to have you as listener. You can find our first two episodes below. You can also connect with us through our website and also through Twitter or Facebook. Let us know what you think.

 

Cheers. Until next time…hopefully sooner.

Post #118: Good For What Ails You

phish-danny-clinchA few weekends back my lady and I jumped in the car after work on Friday and took in Phish’s two night stand in Worcester, MA at the DCU Center. I’ve never seen the band there, but the room goes back a ways in Phish lore and is said to be a space that always brings out the best in the band, high praise indeed for a place that normally houses minor league hockey.

If you’re reading this but you’ve never seen Phish live before, it might be too late to convince you to do so. Maybe you’re an old dog afraid to learn a new trick. Maybe you’re jaded. Maybe you’re short on concert cash. Maybe you live in a place like South Dakota or Alabama where the band just never plays. Maybe you believe the rumors. But I can assure you that seeing Phish live is a concert experience unlike any other. And I’ve seen a few concerts. I’ve often told my father, who I know would never be caught dead at a Phish concert but absolutely loves live music, that if he could ignore the obnoxious fans and their strange hypnotic swaying, he’d genuinely enjoy the music. Be impressed by what the band can do. Phish is one of, if not the greatest improvisational rock band of all time. And I’m including all the other great ones in the mix when I say that. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic. I’ve just listened to a lot of music and thought about it a lot. Phish deserves mention in the pantheon of improvised music, regardless of the esteemed company they’d be asked to keep. As their fan base ages and their relevance wanes (Phish will never enjoy the cultural kitsch of the Dead, alas), I worry that their legacy will be far smaller than it should be. For their music reaches levels of joyful virtuosity that I’m at a loss to find a superior to outside of jazz (whose greatest practitioners I don’t mind saying, are on a whole different level.) A band so great deserves more.

I first saw Phish at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the summer of 1995, right after I’d graduated from high school.  Seven of us piled into a Civic hatchback and drove the two hours each way from Oneonta, New York to SPAC. The band was then so unknown to me that I actually thought they were Rusted Root during most of the first set, having listened to a friend who claimed RR was the opener (not knowing that Phish always tours alone). At one point, I asked “when does Phish start?” only to have my friend say, “this is Phish, asshole.” That show is a fond memory but didn’t necessarily spark my love for the band and its bizarre, addictive music. That happened in college.

My college roommate Mike spun Phish bootlegs from breakfast, lunch, and dinner our freshman year. I hated the music at first and I dreamed of killing first my roommate, and then the members of the band. The music just sounded like a horrible screeching blob to me. Whiny, out of control. Too fast and wild and unpredictable to enjoy. But the more I heard, the more the chaos began to separate, and when it did it broke into melodies and songs and I began to pick out bits of beauty, humor, oddity, even genius. There were musical parts of astounding complexity and cleverness, and some of most supple and lithe guitar playing I’ve ever heard (courtesy of Trey Anastasio). If any song did it that year, it was the version of “Stash” from A Live One, the band’s first official live release. Listen to it. After that I fell for “You Enjoy Myself” and “Reba” and “Gumbo” and other Phish staples. The more I heard, the more I perceived a secret club, one I didn’t necessarily want to be a full time member of, but one I knew I’d enjoy visiting from time to time.

When I met my wife, she just happened to be an on-again, off-again Phish freak, having seen the band thirty times already by that point. We started to see the band together when they were nearby and that was that. I let down my guard, stopped worrying about the drugged out hippies that sprung up like mushrooms and wanted my ticket for free before the show and wanted to sell me grilled cheese after. I mean, who were these people? I’d heard about the Dead’s fans, dedicated masses who traveled from place to place with the band, recording its shows like gospel and trading the tapes, gorging on variations of the same song. But I’d never seen musical love like I saw from Phish’s fans. It was a little weird, but more than anything it was kind of beautiful. It made me jealous. I wanted to love music that much. The band’s unique sensibility and vast and quirky song catalog inspired a level of dedication worth of tunneling into, and which often seemed to result in a sort of insider’s addiction. Loving Phish become a sort of secret knock.

It also became a punch line. Hipsters and doubters have always looked down on Phish, assuming their fans are deluded and their music subpar. But fuck them. I’ll write about them later.

Over the years I’ve been to probably twenty plus Phish shows, no grand number compared to any number of more dedicated or obsessive fans–my friend Leah has seen well over a hundred–though that twenty is still a good five times more than I’ve seen any other band or musician. I’ll keep going until they stop.

When we drove down to Worcester, I hadn’t seen the band in a couple years and though I was tired from a long week teaching, I was buzzing for the buzz. We just made it into the DCU Center before lights out. And out they came.

Honestly, these days, at times it’s hard for me not to feel like the band isn’t treading water a bit. They’re now thirty years into this thing. They’ve broken up officially once, but more like twice, and at times you wonder if the personal chemistry is still there. There were some moments in the first set on Friday night where I could honestly feel them not playing with focus and passion. Like they were watching the clock a bit. Trey was particularly sloppy in that first set, botching lyrics and guitar parts beyond the playful, experimental norm. Mediocre Phish is still far better than the energy and variety you get from nearly any other band, but they set the bar so high, anything less leaves me distracted. And going into set break, that’s how I felt.

And then the second set completely blew my mind. All it takes is one good jam and all is forgiven. And the second set was absolutely dripping with them. I won’t geek out and give you the play by play. It doesn’t feel like the right thing, and it’s hard to do Phish’s music justice with descriptions. Something about their chemistry, when it’s on and they’re flying, defies description or simple understanding.

But try this.

The Greeks hold that perfection is attained not through exact harmony and balance, not through the simple balance of a square, but through the proper combination of contrasts. Through a balance of imperfection. Opposites working together to create a unique understanding, a rare harmony. Phish is sort of like that.

I could keep trying to explain it, but I’m not sure you’d understand.

PS…do yourself a favor and listen to this Tweezer from Tahoe from this summer. But if you do, really listen to it. Give it the time it’s worth. It’ll give right back.

 

Post #90: Control

john-lennon-and-mark-david-chapmanI can’t deny I’ve thought about that moment many times. December 8th, 1980. John Lennon had just come back from the recording studio, had just emerged from his limo and was walking through the arched doorway of the Dakota building, an arm full of cassettes, when Mark David Chapman emerged from the shadows, pulled a Charter Arms .38 Special Revolver, dropped into a firing stance, and began his well planned work. A life long Beatles fanatic, yes, I’ve thought about it. Even researched and read about it. You might have done the same.

“I’m shot, I’m shot!” Lennon is said to have called out, staggering up the stairs in a blind panic. The nearby Dakota doorman shouted to Chapman, “do you know what you’ve done?” To which Chapman calmly replied, “I’ve just shot John Lennon.” By the time they got Lennon to the hospital, he was already dead.

Completing the haunting scene, when the police arrived at the Dakota, Mark David Chapman was sitting on the sidewalk, calm as a Hawaiian Buddha, holding a paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, awaiting his arrest.

It’s the suddenness of the whole thing that stays with you. The moment between calm and chaos. The tension between life and death. Between breath and the darkness. Four squeezes of the trigger and one of the all time greats was gone forever. A wife lost a husband. Sons lost a father. The world lost a hero.

I don’t bring this up to bum you out. Okay, I sort of bring it up to bum you out. Why? I feel bummed out and I need some company. Sorry. But I don’t do it randomly or without purpose because what’s on my mind is intriguing stuff and I need you with me. Wednesday morning, Yoko Ono, who’s been trying to draw attention to gun control and the recent debates over guns in America, Tweeted a photo of Lennon’s blood caked glasses. The ones he was wearing when he was shot. She Tweeted the image on what would have been her and John’s 44th wedding anniversary and she did so four times, each Tweet containing a different message about gun control, and the photo, whose caption reads: “Over 1,057,000 people have been killed by guns in the U.S.A. since John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8, 1980.” The stark, wintry New York skyline is hazy in the distance, though, if you look closely, it’s a bit clearer through the lens of Lennon’s bloody glasses.

yoko-ono-guns-lennon-glasses

My first thought was of these glasses themselves and the lonely, dirty life they’ve lived for the past thirty plus years. I wondered where Ono kept them. I wondered about the courage it took to keep them and to leave them in this condition all these years. To leave them in a position to make her most vulnerable, perhaps as a reminder of her love for John, of the moment he was taken from her. Taken by a man and a gun. The say an image speaks a thousand words, but I’ve already written nearly 600 about this one in the last few minutes alone and it’s put so much on my heart and mind that I think I could write about it all night and never come close to exhausting its power and the clarity of its purpose.

For all the apparent complexity of the debate over the 2nd Amendment and gun control in America, I have to say it seems pretty goddamned simple to me. Guns=death. As a Beatles fanatic, I don’t say so lightly, but I’m with Yoko.

Post #68: Fallen Idols? Not even close.

Out of nowhere a couple days ago I found out that one of my favorite rock bands, the criminally underrated and barely known Canadian quartet Sloan, were making a stop at Higher Ground here in Burlington and last night I drove over and caught the show. There’s something utterly bizarre about knowing a band’s music for a substantial amount of time before you see them live. It’s almost hard at first to accept that this band that you’ve only known through photos and pop hooks and long drives through Pennsylvania is actually composed of four flesh and blood men who wear t-shirts and tennis shoes. Who adjust guitar straps between songs, sweat after a while, and sip water from generic bottles. At first you feel like you’ve wandered into some dream in your past, a basement party or a long ago conversation, a scrap of high school kicking down the windy streets in your mind. But no, it’s real. Just another rock and roll show.

My first thought when I arrived at the show was embarrassment and sadness for Sloan. The place was dead. Not sparsely populated. Dead. I did the math, then texted my wife at home: there are 18 people here I wrote.  She wrote back: hahahahaha. At the show’s peak, there were maybe twenty-five people in a room that holds probably four hundred. I hadn’t expected a packed house, but I hadn’t expected a morgue either. Who knows if it was poorly promoted or the band just isn’t known in these parts. Or maybe it was just a Thursday in October. But Sloan, though they seemed a bit bummed by the sheer lack of audience, and quipped about it before plunging into their set, gamely put on a terrific rock show. They were promoting a special edition vinyl re-release of their 1994 opus Twice Removed and the first set consisted of the album in its entirety, followed by a second set full of choice B-Sides and some of their biggest hits. I was in heaven. The band sounded great. Robust and energetic, tight and well rehearsed, yet loose and playful. All the great things we love about rock music. Not too serious music played seriously by professionals doing what they do, bringing the same abilities to their craft whether for a thousand listeners or for twenty. They looked good, too. They’ve been around a while and I wondered if they’d look a bit sad, as aging rockers can. But they didn’t. All were thin and youthful and looked healthy and vibrant.

I first discovered Sloan through my older brother, Jacob, who passed along their album One Chord to Another, still my personal favorite, and I’ve been a fan ever sense, secretly enjoying their music and wondering why no one else ever seemed to know who they were. I haven’t always kept up with purchasing their new albums, but I’ve stayed aware of them, wandering occasionally through their catalog on iTunes to see what they were up to, popping into their website from time to time, or catching random YouTube interviews with the band. But so infrequently do I meet another Sloan lover that when confronted by one, as I occasionally am, and was last night, I feel an instant kinship, as if reunited with an old war buddy with whom I can swap stories that we alone will understand because you just have to have been there.

When a band lasts a long time, but never makes it huge, the tendency is to feel bad for them. We tend to weigh success in volume. And when a band like Sloan can’t draw a decent crowd in a music town like Burlington that’s not too far from their own home base (originally from Halifax, they all now live in Toronto), it would be easy to wonder why they still bother. Or how they cope with never having blasted into the rock stratosphere, which means that they still have to endure tiny crowds in already small rooms. But there’s other ways to look at it. How about the victory of lasting so long with your original membership? Of continuing to put out new music every couple years, and music that stays consistent, the newest selections holding up against anything in their catalog? I spent the set break talking to Sloan’s merch guy, Jay, and before buying my two sons Sloan t-shirts (and one for myself) I asked him about the crowd. What he told me was that in Canada, the band remains a radio stalwart and very popular, as they always have been, but in the States it’s still, and always has been, hit or miss. In the larger markets (Philly, Boston, New York), he said, Sloan brings out several hundred on a given night, but in smaller market towns–and here he politely swept his arm over the handful of people in attendance–it was usually a small collection of die hards. I was struck, though, by Jay’s energy, by his joy in working for Sloan, by how unapologetic and unworried he seemed by the small crowd, because, hey, it was just one night, and suddenly I felt bad for pitying Sloan. They’ve been around forever, consistently playing music, so they must make money, at least enough to keep doing what they love. Any they sounded good. Better than good. They blew me away with their song craft and musicianship. What is success anyway?

To celebrate the band’s recent twentieth anniversary, during which they’ve released an astonishing ten albums of original material, NPR featured a story about Sloan. It’s a nice piece and offers some perspective on the victory of longevity and the benefits of being a band that’s always flown a bit under the radar and why that might have been the only possible path between there and here.

Rock on, Sloan.

http://www.sloanmusic.com

 

Post #53: Pre-Order Purgatory

I have to vent for a minute about the sudden (or so it seems to me) availability to pre-order forthcoming whatever.  Books, music, movies.  You can buy anything in advance these days.  Let’s say you do some searching to see what’s new out there.  Whatever purveyor you’ve searched (iTunes, Amazon, etc…) will tell you not only what is available, but they’ll show you what’s not available, or what you can pre-order.  And sometimes they won’t even delineate between the two in any obvious way.  This annoys me.  Now, I like knowing what will be available, this gives me something to look forward to, but do I need to know six months in advance?  And it begs the question, why would you buy something that you can’t even have?  I’m a Coldplay fan and I remember that for months before their new album Mylo Xyloto came out, it dominated the iTunes charts.  Was far outselling the bestselling available album of the moment.  This is weird to me.  I mean, there’s no limited supply.  They’re not going to run out of downloads, are they?  Not to mention, if you’re enough of a Coldplay fan to even consider pre-ordering, you’re not going to forget that they have an album coming out, so why not just buy it when you can actually listen to it?

A couple months ago I was looking at Michael Chabon titles on Amazon because I’m a loser and its what I do for fun and my eyes popped out of their sockets when I saw the colorful icon for his new novel Telegraph Avenue.  Breathless, wetting myself (not really), I clicked on the icon, which gave no indication that this title might not be available for purchase right his very second, then waited to click “Buy Now” only to find out that “this title is available for pre-order and will be released on September 11, 2012.” And this was a couple months ago, which means they were advertising this book for pre-order six months before it comes out.  What the hell?  Why do I need to know this far in advance?  Why torture me?  It’s not like they’re offering me the first five chapters for pre-ordering or something, so there’s basically zero incentive.  Occasionally with album pre-orders, you get the single ahead of time or the album will automatically download when it’s finally available, so that’s pretty cool I guess.  Or not.  We’re already the most advanced buying culture the world has ever seen, and now we don’t just buy what we want, we buy what we are going to want as well.  And it works.  If pre-orders didn’t get people to buy more, Amazon and iTunes wouldn’t offer so many of them.  It’s fairly simple.  It’s like, want better TV shows?  Stop watching shitty ones.  Want a less gossipy culture?  Stop reading Yahoo OMG and TMZ.

It’s like those tantalizing previews for the juicy looking upcoming blockbuster, a preview for which just started and you now can’t wait to see, only at the end of the preview you find out that its release date is a year and a half away.  So far away that you could be dead by the time it hits theaters.  When this happens, I don’t feel excited.  I feel deflated.  I feel like Ralphie from A Christmas Story.  You know the part, when he finally solves the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring mystery and he’s so stoked, only that instead of finding out a worthwhile secret to justify his time and effort and live up to the anticipation, it’s just a reminder to drink his stupid Ovaltine.

His response?  Say it with me…

Son of a bitch.

Post #42: So Long Old Friend

I’m sure my parents played records by The Band when I was growing up.  They must have.  There was John Denver and America and Joni Mitchell and The Beatles and Neil Young and Elton John.  There was Cat Stevens and Roberta Flack and Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.  I must have heard The Band too.    What’s funny is that even though The Band’s music harkens back to something deep within me, which is why I’m sure it was around in those days, I don’t have strong recollections of hearing their music until I was in my twenties.  A lot of other music I can firmly root, and concretely so, in my youth.  But not The Band.  High school was lost to rap and heavy metal and alternative and Dave Matthews.  College was dominated by jazz and Toad the Wet Sprocket.  In my twenties, my best friend and bandmate at the time, Nicholas, liked The Band and it was in his company that I first started really listening to The Band and when I first saw Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, which for many reasons has become a classic and is widely considered the greatest concert ever filmed.

The Last Waltz is a concert film masquerading as a love letter to The Band and to its intrepid chief songwriter and spokesperson (or so Scorsese would have us believe), the ruggedly handsome and windswept Robbie Robertson, with whom Scorsese was friends, but its most striking moments actually come not when Robertson is on camera but whenever drummer and singer Levon Helm is behind his drums singing timeless classics out of the side of his mouth like his very life depends on the next note, every glob of flying spit alive and bug like under the crew’s bright lights.  Helm died April 19th after a long battle with cancer at the age of 71.  Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson are the sole remaining members of the original line up.  So long, Old Friend.

When I first saw The Last Waltz, I had only a passing knowledge of who the guys in The Band were.  I’d go on to nurture a deep love of their music and learn all about them that I could, but at the time, I didn’t know much, other than that they sounded like they were from the American South circa Appomatox, but were actually (of all things) 4/5 Canadian and came up in the 1960’s and were, for a time, Dylan’s back up band, then known as The Hawks.  So I’d heard them a little bit, but with The Last Waltz, at last, I got to see them.  “Don’t Do It” was actually the very last song played that Thanksgiving night in San Francisco in 1976, but it actually opens the film and I remember thinking, as I watched the music kick in and the camera swing over to Helm, He’s the fucking drummer?  Are you kidding me?  The Drummer!  Somehow this fact had eluded me.  There didn’t seem to be any possibility in my mind that that voice was coming from a guy who was also keeping time and ripping fills.  Up on Cripple Creek.  The Weight.  Ophelia.  Rag Mama Rag.  The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Get Up Jake.  All sung by a guy playing drums.

There’s a reason singing drummers are a rarity.  It’s hard enough to play drums when you don’t have to do anything else.  Trying to sing with feeling while playing  drums sounds to me like trying play drums while someone is throwing bottles at your head.  But even still, some end up doing it.  Don Henley and Phil Collins are probably the most famous examples, but for my money Levon was the best of them.  I don’t say the “best” because I want to make this into a contest. What I mean to do is just make a distinction of why I think he’s the best.

Here’s Don Henley singing lead and playing drums on “Hotel California.”

Now, here’s Phil Collins doing “In the Air Tonight.”  Skip to around 3:30 where he starts drumming.  It should be stated, though, that Phil Collins is actually a bad ass drummer most of the time and that this song doesn’t showcase his overall drum skills very well.  I’m trying to focus on singing while drumming, though.

Here’s Rare Earth with Pete Rivera on drums doing “I Just Want to Celebrate.” For me, Rivera’s a guy who actually gives Helm a run for his money.

Now, here’s Levon Helm singing lead and playing drums on “Up on Cripple Creek”

Again, I’m not trying to malign these other musicians because they’re all great, just to draw some attention to Levon, who I think is a cut above other singing drummers.  It’s mostly a distinction made by two things: his intensely emotional singing and his jazzy right hand.  Helm plays the ride cymbal like a jazz player, using it to syncopate both what he’s doing with his snare hand and what he’s singing.  There’s a liquid connectedness in his overall performance that’s simply unteachable and the product of the panoply of influences that informed Helm’s style.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what made Helm so special and I haven’t come up with much that you haven’t come up with.  It was alchemy more than anything.  The sweet combination of passion and natural ability.  The comfort with so many different kinds of music.  Shit, on The Last Waltz alone the guy plays drums for Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and more.  And that was during one concert.  There’s a lot of intangibles that make Helm special, too.  He looked the part, for one.  The guy just looked right singing that music.  Tell me I’m wrong.  Pete Rivera…eh…not so much.  Helm was damn handsome as well, and seemed to be pretty well in touch with that fact.  Watch how he mugs just a bit for Scorsese’s cameras, an extra sly smile or two, a little more mustard behind each fill.  He also had an uncanny ability to play off his bandmates, something you don’t see much of from Henley or Collins who seem pretty much lost in themselves and keeping time.  In this, Helm sets himself apart, becomes a drummer’s drummer.

There’s many a writer and music fan missing Helm these past few days, missing his windswept dirty hair, his hunched posture behind the kit, his awkward interview smile, his (mostly) humble ways, his bravery as he battled the cancer that would strip his voice down to a fierce whisper, the incredible Americana of his life’s story.

There’s a lot to miss.