Well, it took a while, but finally happened. The stars aligned, schedules avoided the pitfalls of conflict, and I found myself with a whole CD’s worth of “classic rock” to learn over the period of a week and attempt to perform with some type of conviction, with a band of guys that really didn’t know each other all that well, in a two night stand at Mill and Main and Guadalupe Café last Thursday and Friday evenings. There were songs by the Band, there was a Van Morrison tune or two, there was Dylan and Hendrix and Panic — oh my! Muddy Waters, Jerry Garcia, Traffic and John Hiatt all were present, ripe for the occasional oddball reinterpretation or brave attempt at careful emulation — or sometimes neither. Can you really pull off an acceptable cover of “Girl From The North Country” without it sounding like an incomplete version of “The Weight” on half a bottle of sleeping pills? Didn’t think so.
Let’s stop here, if only for a moment, while I try to explain the inherent paradox found in being any sort of “music critic” whilst simultaneously being a performance starved guitarist. Yes, I tend to give “jam bands” a bit of a hard time in print, and won’t deny a substantial lack of interest in listening to them. We all know it’s been done and done and done again, and the most confusing thing is that somehow it still manages to sound pretty much the same, no matter whose fingers are playing the notes, regardless of the decade or geographical orientation. Somewhere right now there’s a group of friends out on the deck of some little bar, noodling on a semi-funky Dmin7 vamp for about an hour and a half, with a few patchouli scented girlfriends hippy dancing up front while a table full of inebriated college students/future bank employees stare at their watches and wonder when ESPN is going to show last nights baseball game again. It’s just a universal truth.
But no matter how strong my opinions are about the genre, often the overwhelming urge to just play some guitar will supersede my personal tastes and judgmental nature and it’ll seem like a mighty fine idea to play three or four rambling guitar solos on a tune like the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider.” You know, “When in Rome,” and all that stuff. And if I were lucky enough to have a few talented and enthusiastic players to share the experience with, then you’d might as well hand me a tie-dye and some Birkenstocks while I tune up my strat and commence to boogie. Like, wow, man.
So with a few marathon rehearsals under our belts, we set up on Mill and Main’s deck and proceeded to work out the bugs of our impromptu set in front of a real live (and unusually patient) audience. As if the jam-oriented leanings weren’t apparent enough, our opener was a somewhat honkytonkified take on Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me,” and as simple a song as it is, I was soon reminded of the glaring difference between working out fancy country licks in the privacy of home or rehearsal space and performing them in front of crowd. It felt a little like painting myself into a corner when I clearly recalled specifically telling myself not to as I grabbed the bucket of paint and brush. By the time we broke into a similarly twangy cover of “She Belongs To Me” I again found the pavement rushing up to meet my face in the first solo. Thankfully, by the time we made it to “Little Wing” my hands were in better communication with the brain, the band was more comfortable and in the pocket, and we managed to make a rather pleasant evening out of the whole thing.
The following night at Guadalupe (where else?) we were, for all practical purposes, ready to rock. With the first gig jitters out of the way we were able to kick things off with a little steadier footing, and... oops. Yeah, maybe it’s the downfall of wanting badly to impress people, but I did wind up eating some gravel again in the first few tunes. Less is more, less is more — at least that’s what they say. Sadly, I sometimes just don’t listen too well, and the result is a half-baked attempt at showboating- and every so often the boat sinks. When the singer broke into the first verse of “Feeling Alright” while the rest of us were playing a Van Morrison tune, I was ready to pop Frodo’s magic ring on my finger and go all invisible and such. But that’s what this was all about- not the picture-perfect rendering of a handful of classic tunes, but going up there and not just “seeing” what happens, but letting it. Gems and warts get equal billing at gigs like this, and which is which is more up to the crowd’s decision than that of the performer.
All I can say is that by the end of both gigs my fingers were sore, the band was endowed with a few of those inevitable “inside” jokes that only myself and the drummer really wind up laughing at, and my perspective regarding what to personally expect from performing music live and in person was shifted ever so slightly. Were we good or bad? Tight or sloppy? Rambling or refined? All and none of the above. But we played some music for a bunch of people that did a fine impression of enjoying it, and that’s got to count for something. And despite all the self-critique and belly button contemplation, I managed to have a good time as well. Now if I could just figure out exactly what an Alpine Taxi is, I’d be that much happier. Slang for hiking boots? A piggyback ride in the mountains? Curious...