KAFM TUNED IN: How to appreciate a musical train wreck
CATCH IT LIVE
Sept. 13: Darden Smith at 7:30 p.m. in the Roper Music Ballroom
Sept. 21: Jill Cohn Trio with Will Whalen at 7:30 p.m. in the KAFM Radio Room
Oct. 6: Ray Bonneville at 7:30 p.m. in the KAFM Radio Room
There are many ways to appreciate live music performances. Some people expect to hear a note-for-note reproduction of their favorite recorded music, but in a larger setting. The addition of dancers, costumes changes, lighting wizardry, and sheer volume can add a theatrical component that looks like a polished music video performed live. In order to accomplish this, some artists lip-sync over recorded tracks, achieving split second timing over hours-long shows. On the other end of the spectrum, there are jazz artists who only hint at the structure of a known song, dancing around your expectations with unexpected moves.
Somewhere in between these extremes are jam bands. The very definition of “jam band” must contain the concept of improvisations, or jams. These extended improvisational explorations can carry you along if you let them, with just enough familiarity to let you relax and be rocked along on the ride, allowing a musical train of thought to take you on a journey of sorts. This is why fans return night after night to see the same band. In a way, it’s never the same band twice.
A three-minute song can become a 20-minute song. A song may be started, segue into another song, and later be picked up where it was left off to be finished later that night, or even on the next night. The band can alter the setlist on the fly and take the musical journey in a whole new direction. However, this musical train can sometimes come off the tracks and become a train wreck.
I used to hate these train wrecks, when melody and timing collapse, when each band member seems to be playing something completely different until someone, with any luck, is able to straighten out the mess and point everyone in the same direction. Recently, however, I have come to appreciate train wrecks, for they mean the band is willing to take chances. They are willing to open up the throttle and take us along with them on a journey of experimentation.
This spirit of exploration requires a willingness to participate on the part of the audience, of course. If you expect a note-for-note reproduction of your well-remembered recorded favorite song, you will have a bad time. However, the more familiar you are with the band’s usual repertoire, the more you will be able to appreciate when they travel off the known map. If you are not familiar with a band’s usual repertoire, you may think, as one jam band virgin once commented to me, “They only played three songs!” When, in reality, they only stopped playing three times in the 90-minute set, blending transitions and teasing bits of seven or eight songs like scenes briefly flashing by the window of that speeding musical train.
The combination of needing to pay attention while at the same time letting go and traveling with the music can be as tricky for the artist as for the listener. Jerry Garcia was known for occasionally, nearly predictably, forgetting lyrics while singing. I used to think, “How unprofessional!,” until I realized that flubbed lyrics often coincided with his most brilliant guitar playing. The scale of “playing on pure emotion” vs. “trying to remember every word” is tipped, and may portend a special night of improvisational magic. Even other band members may be experiencing the surprise of creation along with the audience. A well-known jam band member once commented to me about a particularly inspired performance by his guitarist that night: “Sometimes he comes out with such brilliant stuff, we just stand back and watch in awe. Other times, we have no idea where he is going.” That perfectly sums up both the horror and beauty of a live music train wreck.
Enjoy the best of jam bands without the train wrecks on “Magic Carpet Ride” with the Blue Z on alternate Thursday evenings on KAFM.
Karl Prager aka “Uncle Karl” is a volunteer programmer on KAFM Community Radio. When he’s not traveling the world or attending music festivals, you can catch Uncle Karl’s “Yellow Dog Show” every other Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at 88.1.
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