Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Show I Came To See

Joe Louis Walker--"Sugar Mama" (mp3)

Much as I have enjoyed listening to Nils Lofgren's solo work off and on for the past 30 or more years, I have often wondered why Springsteen doesn't give Nils a song or two during one of his mega-concerts.  Lofgren has a fairly impressive catalog of classic, if underheard, rock songs, particularly in his earlier years, and songs like "Moon Tears" or "Back It Up" would rock it pretty good in most any concert setting.

 The same with Steven Van Zandt.  He has a wealth of songs, songs he's written for Southside Johnny or for Gary U.S. Bonds, plus songs from his own solo records that sometimes strike me as good as Springsteen's own songs.  It has seemed egotistical  to me, almost selfish, that Springsteen wouldn't draw more from the talents of these other performers.  No more.  I've wised up.  I've realized that when you go to see a live show, you go to see the person(s) printed on the ticket.  That's the show you came to see.

Case in point:  last night, I saw Mr. Joe Louis Walker, in my estimation the finest living blues guitarist on the planet.  The man not only has incredible stage presence, he can also play with virtuoistic brillance in a variety of blues styles, with a clean tone, with speed when he needs it, with an economy of notes when that fits.  I was blown away by his playing, and, in fact, I texted a blues-aficionado friend of mine during the show to tell him that Walker "is the finest blues player that I have seen."

The problem, if there is one, and if there isn't, I am creating it here and now, is that Mr. Walker's show featured a backing band of "all-stars" in their own right, or, since I didn't know them, all-stars in Mr. Walker's estimation.  And all-stars must be given their due.  So, during a Joe Louis Walker show (as build) we were treated to two songs sung by his back-up female vocalist and two sung by his other guitarist, the son of none-other-than Larry Coryell.

Most people in the audience seemed to think that this was just fine.  But I came to see Joe Louis Walker, and I expected/wanted to see him as the focal point of every song.  Which is not to suggest that he didn't play a stunning, idiosyncratic solo on every song in the set, save one.  He did.  Each one further confirmed his skill and breadth.  But when you do to see Eric Clapton, for example, you don't want to see him playing back-up on other people's songs, do you?  I don't.

So I end tonight with an odd feeling: that I have seen the best blues guitarist out there, but I didn't see him at his best.  I've noticed this as a kind of trend.  We have a free concert series here in Chattanooga, called Nightfall, and I know of at least two other occasions this summer already, and more at Jazzfest, when I was there, where the main vocalist, a strong performer, has given songs to someone else in the band--a guitarist, another singer, a member of the next generation.

What gives?  I see two patterns:  1) Handing off the lead duties gives the main performer a chance to rest, and 2) someone else in the band is trying to establish his or her own career, and the main performer wants to help out.  I don't like either pattern.  The shows we're talking about here are brief, an hour and fifteen minutes at the most, and though I admire the desire to promote others, I didn't come to the concert, ultimately, didn't spend the money, to see these other performers as featured performers.

A few years ago, a friend and I went to see Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of the Marsalis clan, at Snug Harbor in New Orleans.  The eldest Marsalis is a terrific piano player, which is what drew us out of the French Quarter and to his show.  But during the show, it turned out that Marsalis had added a vibes player to his trio, and, as the show went on, the vibes player seemed to be featured more and more.  Now, for me, a little xylophone goes a long way, and I was disappointed to hear Marsalis' piano featured less and less.

I can't speak to how pervasive this trend is beyond my own experiences, but I still don't like it.  Sure it's great that older musicians want to offer a helping hand to younger musicians, but I think that their first obligation is to the concertgoers, those who have dropped their money on a ticket. 

Joe Louis Walker has a great blues voice and an even better blues sensibility, and when he hands on-stage focus to his back-up band for four or more songs in a row, I think he does a disservice to his fans, regardless of how exceptional a background musician he is.  I don't want to make a big deal about this, but I have been listening to Mr. Walker since the 1980's, and while I've learned from Alejandro Escovedo that I have no right to request particular songs at a concert, I still remain confident saying that anything from Mr. Walker's catalog would have intrigued me more than the current projects of his sidemen (and women).  Yes, they are very good, but they are not who I came to see.

In most settings, it costs quite a bit of money to see a concert.  I don't think it unreasonable that a concertgoer expects to see the listed performer perform as the main part of the act.  Sure, maybe there's a song here or there where the main person plays a different role, but that should be rare and an exception.  And , sure, when I go to a concert, I have little way of knowing what the performer is into at that time.  Maybe he really gets off on playing other people's stuff and getting to hang back, except for solos.  Rock critic and general asshole Dave Marsh is probably going to leave another comment saying that it's none of my business what a performer does or doesn't play or how he decides to play his show. 

But I have to disagree.  I think I've played Mssrs. Walker and Marsalis et al the supreme compliment that there's no one I'd rather listen to.  That just happens to include members of their own bands.  I mean, who would you rather see?  The Jimi Hendrix Experience or Hendrix backing up Buddy Miles in the Band of Gypsies?

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