Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Starting A National Trend

Neil Young and Crazy Horse--"Like A Hurricane (live)" (mp3)

Rock and roll is probably dead. I don't say that judgementally or evaluatively, just factually and in the sense that the heyday of the two guitars, bass, and drums bands has passed as the dominant structure for modern music. The number of teenagers who dream of forming such a band and taking it into a club and onto the road and into a career is severely diminished from those peak years. Those teenagers with a serious interest in music now are not necessarily even interested in rock. It is far too easy and manageable to use a computer and some other tools to lay down some beats and synthesizer tracks and to create a hip-hop song or a homemade rap or some kind of dizzying electronica. Even though such teens might look fondly back on the Blink 182s of their childhoods, that kind of "traditional" band is simply not the norm. Not for them.

But overall we are an aging population and there are untold numbers of us in our 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's who spent some portion of our lives learning to play guitars and basses and drums in hopes of eventually forming such bands as part of some kind of amorphous dream not unlike the NBA hopes that carry far too much weight in urban neighborhoods. There are those of us who took piano lessons or who sat in dark, smoky suburban bedrooms assigned to the task of the tambourine or the background vocals or simply to be hangers-on for others dreams. I believe that there are a lot of such people, regardless of where those instruments or dreams are now, and it of them, of us, that I write.

My friend Troutking has started a national trend. He just doesn't know it, and neither does the nation. But as soon as it catches on, I guarantee you that you heard it first here. Some social trends happen as the result of some cataclysmic event, some just come about organically. This trend is of the latter type.

What Trout has done is to get some of us with a bit of homegrown musical training together to play music--old music--in that very band setting that we once dreamed being a part of. We set up and we twiddle with our instruments and we start falsely sometimes and often end abruptly. We encourage each other to try new roles, like taking a solo or playing a new instrument or adding a voice to the mix, and we work to involve everyone. We nod and quietly celebrate when we hit something magical; we look at each other and know when it didn't quite come together. But, and this is the best part, there is always enough there for us to keep going.

When word gets out, when people realize how much fun this is and how quickly those three or four chords that they once knew come back, when risks cease to become risks when among friends, when lovers of live music realize that there are some songs they will only hear in concert if they play them themselves, when the back-of-the-mind idea of playing music for a party becomes the party itself, then I envision the idea spreading like peanut butter on a bagel.

We've tackled Bob Dylan and Neil Young so far. The Rolling Stones to follow. Bruce Springsteen, The British Invasion, Frat Rock, and Jangle Night are all waiting in the wings. Each night leads to new possibilities. To play music around a particular artist or a theme creates a focus and a sense of purpose. So a ______ (insert theme here) Night at Trout's house involves computer-printer decorations with photographs and sayings of the artist in question, food that connects somehow with where he came from, beers, and most of all, music, a lot of music interpreted and played by us, to be followed by a bit of euphoria and and eating and debriefing at the end (and trying to stay out of sight while the drummer takes down his kit and transports it to his car).

The band line-up: "The Fast Car" on drums. "Paco" on guitar and vocals." "Skinny Suzie" on vocals. "Dartmouth" on vocals, guitar, and harmonica and a Russian instrument whose name I didn't catch. "Cousin Stevie" on lead and rhythm guitars, some vocals. Trout on keyboards. Me on guitar and vocals and pressed-into-service harmonica. My wife as groupie, photographer, sometimes singer. Sometimes session extras: "The Pounder" on learning guitar, "Becks" on learning guitar, "Roadman" on learning harmonica. It's all good.

And, believe it or not, we are growing as a band. We were better the second time around, more polished and more intuitive, we stretched out a bit more effectively but often knew when to say when. Though we are a friendly group, there is no such thing as a democratic band that succeeds for any length of time. So people take charge when necessary--no vote. The highlight of our last outing, the Neil Young Night, was when we were starting "The Loner" and our drummer stopped us and said, "No. Faster." And that made all of the difference.

I'll admit, I fought it, Trout's inevitable national trend. Like I fight most things. It took well over a year to get Dylan Night off the ground. Neil Young Night happened last weekend, about 9 months later, but this time there was also a practice. Even then, I wasn't willing to carve out the time and practiced against my will. I didn't want to give up weekend time. I thought we needed an audience. I didn't want to invite players to the performance who hadn't been at the practice. I didn't think that it could be a social occasion. I put up so many barriers and none of them held water.

No, Trout is clearly onto something. So many social obligations are just that, so many gatherings are the same old-same old. But when each band member walks in the door there is a kind of celebration, at least for me, of that feeling that is as primal as fire, but that is so quickly forgotten: when we make music together, life is better. Oh, yes, so much better. And even better with drums.

I hope that you, too, get the chance to figure that out, if you don't already know it. Or again, if you do. You'll be a part of something bigger, maybe something national.


Susan said...

As someone who had become uncomfortable singing in public, our gatherings have rekindled my love for singing. I'm already looking forward to the next one. And thanks for calling me skinny!!!

rodle said...

Definitely a testament to Troutking. Some people are just willing to force things to work, even if there isn't a quick groundswell of support. Numerous times I've been the guy offering reasons that he should tone down his plans, and every time he's proved me wrong.

troutking said...

Bob, I'm honored by your post. I'm really really enjoying the band too. I'm thankful for my childhood piano lessons letting me add the slightest bit to the actual music being created. Otherwise, I'd just be the annoying nudge who forced everyone to get together and then basked in the reflected glory...and I don't want to be John Landau! Don't give me too much credit, Randy. I'm just as likely to ruin the next one with a 3 hour trivia contest! All kidding aside, it has been huge fun, and I'm glad to have friends who embrace this kind of thing. Besides, in preparation for the next evening, "what else can a poor boy do, except play in a rock and roll band?"