Positive Music Place

Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown”

Posted by dlockeretz on April 15, 2017

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the conversation that begat Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown” record, released in 1970. I’d imagine it might have gone something like this:

“Frank, baby, I love ya, but those record sales, they just ain’t what they used to be, dig? This new one, it’s gotta have a little hey-hey or your career, it’s bombsville!”

“Don’t worry, pallie, this new one’s gonna be a gas. Got some tunes by that gofer from the Four Seasons, what’s his name? And that cat who wrote that bluesy little number those limeys Led Zeppelin ripped off – “Confused for Days”, I think it’s called – let me tell ya, pallie, this is gonna be a barn burner!”

“Oh yeah? Tell me more, Frankie!”

“Well, you see, pallie, it’s about this bunter in upstate New York. Wife goes scramsville.”

“Oh, so he gets to take up with any ol’ broad he wants! Ring-a-ding!”

“Well, pallie, it ain’t exactly like that, see…”

When people talk about “concept albums” Frank Sinatra isn’t usually the first name that comes to mind. Ol’ Blue Eyes never sang about dystopian future societies or assassins who have been brainwashed by totalitarian governments. Yet his record “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – a 1955 album of ballads about love gone wrong – was one of the first LPs to be conceived as a whole work, rather than merely a collection of songs. Thus, it has been considered by some to be the first concept album, an ancestor of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “2112”, “The Wall”, “Kilroy Was Here” and “American Idiot.”

“Wee Small Hours” was an attempt to sell Sinatra to a more mature audience as he entered his 40s. Similarly, at the end of the 1960s, Sinatra’s sales were flagging as the British Invasion and Woodstock consigned him to the past. Many erstwhile teen idols had attempted to connect with the changing times. Dion DiMucci, known for “Runaround Sue” and “Teenager In Love” sought out weightier subject matter in  “Abraham, Martin and John.” Bobby Darin of “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash” fame waxed introspective with “If I Were A Carpenter.” Even Elvis ventured into social comment with “In the Ghetto.” The 53-year old Chairman wisely avoided jumping on the psychedelic or protest trains or trying to squeeze out another hit single with Nancy. The direction he chose instead, however, was surprising, to say the least.

Sinatra was given a complete set of songs written by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and Jake Holmes, an eclectic songwriter who is perhaps best known for “Dazed and Confused” (as well as assorted television jingles). The story: a woman leaves her husband and sons for the big city and the poor bastard’s stuck in Small Town, USA trying to figure out what happened.

“Watertown” is not a perfect record. The pop-rock rhythm section, electric bass in particular (and I say this as an electric bassist) make the thick orchestration seem more like Phil Spector lite than the swingin’ Nelson Riddle sound beloved on the Sinatra records of yore. The chord progressions perhaps excessively rely on harmonies that are known to create melodrama (music theory geeks probably know that I’m talking specifically about the IV/iv/I cadence; for people with lives, think of it as the musical equivalent of slow motion in movies: a good effect used sparingly, but one quickly gets the point). That Sinatra overdubbed his vocals for the first time on record doesn’t hurt “Watertown” per se but listen closely enough and you’ll miss the fluidity of his earlier years. And make no mistake: this record is not easy to listen to start to finish. We’ve all heard ditties about breakups and heartache before, but trust me, midway through the second side if not sooner you will feel the weight of the cumulative effect of these songs, whether or not you’ve recently been through a split. But I’m not writing about “Watertown” because it’s perfect; if I wanted to write about perfection I’d write about “The Nightfly.” I’m writing about this record because in almost four decades of listening to music, I’ve never encountered anything like it.

The title track, “Watertown”, opens the record and establishes the slow pace of life for the narrator and his world; exactly what made his wife restless: “Not much happenin’ down on Main, ‘cept a little rain”; “Everyone knows the perfect crime is killin’ time.”

“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” describes the moment of the breakup, in a coffee shop where life goes on as usual for everyone else except the doomed narrator. The song debunks the theory that the “Watertown” story is not about a divorce but about a death: “Just as I begin to say that we should make another try/she reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says goodbye.”

“For a While” begins with a lilting waltz tempo that gives the listener a sense of hope, but ultimately it just serves to set the theme of the song: it’s easy to distract oneself with work, friends or house chores, but reality cannot be escaped.

“Michael and Peter” introduces the two sons – “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing” – and also provides a clue into the dynamic of the marriage: “You know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can…” Some critics have found this line to be awkward, but it also suggests that the narrator’s mother-in-law sympathizes with or perhaps pities him; whatever made his wife leave, it wasn’t any kind of malice on his part. Besides the sons, the narrator also focuses on details of everyday life that may seem mundane (the house needs paint; it’s been raining; the guy who mows the lawn asked after you) but are also revealing about his character: intimidated about broaching the bigger issues of his life and marriage, he tries to find meaning in little things.

“I Would Be In Love (Anyways)” starts quietly and rises to a crescendo reminiscent of “My Way” – but while that anthem has the confidence of a man looking back on a full and rewarding life, here, Sinatra has no control of his destiny except to make peace with it.

“Elizabeth” opens side 2, giving the narrator’s ex a name and also for the first time personality traits. Here, the narrator acknowledges that “you were all much too much/out of reach, out of touch/when you came to me/I found it could never be.” Perhaps she at one point really did want him but he never felt worthy, thus making the relationship a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be)” tells us more about Elizabeth and her quirky traits that endeared her to the narrator – “always some new recipe/the kitchen always looked like World War III.” The line “We’d spend each night with company/just you, the teddy bears, the dolls and me” has stirred uncomfortable feelings among some listeners who find that it suggests a father describing his daughter, but according to Sinatra expert Ed O’Brien, Jake Holmes said, “They were probably kids together. I wanted to give the sense that they had gone to school together. They had fallen in love and married quite young.” Read that way, the song appears to echo the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No” – innocent young girl becomes a jaded, distant adult – but its bittersweet tone owes more to Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We” (another song that was given a great performance by Sinatra; but I digress).

“What’s Now Is Now” addresses Elizabeth’s apparent infidelity: “You should have told me when it all began…” The music becomes more dissonant and rhythmically complex than what we’ve heard so far (although it’s still not exactly Stravinsky). Despite his resentment, the narrator still wants to work things out: “I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again.” As before, he clings to the past: “And if you feel at all like me/just let me know and I’ll make it like it used to be.”

“She Says” is the shortest and most musically unconventional song in the set. Sung against a static accompaniment, it has the feel of a classical recitative, serving as a prelude to “The Train.” The song appears to represents the narrator’s first communication from Elizabeth since she left, but the refrain “So she says” sung by a distant children’s chorus casts doubt, perhaps echoing the skepticism of Michael and Peter – kids are often smarter than we think.

“The Train” is the most uptempo song on the record, almost bouncing, reflecting the narrator’s optimism as he awaits Elizabeth’s return at the station. Anyone who’s counted down the minutes to a long-awaited reunion with a loved one will relate: “The crossing gate is coming down, I think I see the train…” but by now we know better. We can only stand by as the foregone conclusion plays out: “The train is slowly moving on but I can’t see you anyplace…” Earlier in the song the narrator reveals, “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer/’cause the morning mail had left some time before.” Was the conversation with his ex-wife in “She Says” then completely imagined?

A final song, “Lady Day”, was included on reissues of the record and on the CD. The focus shifts to Elizabeth, painting a portrait that may be interpreted in different ways, none of which are optimistic: “So many empty dreams/so many bitter times…” Perhaps the harsh realities of the big city made her regret leaving her family; maybe the narrator is imagining it all, still holding out hope that she will come back to the life she knew. Those who believe that the record is about a death, not a divorce, have found support for that theory in lines such as “Her morning came to fast too soon/and died before the afternoon.”

What will become of the narrator, Elizabeth, the boys, the mother-in-law and the other denizens of Watertown? No matter how one interprets the ambiguities of the latter songs, it’s hard to imagine anything too upbeat. As this article points out, “If you listened to Wee Small Hours while you were in your 20s or 30s, you may have thought, ‘This is a great account of loss, but he shall love again.’ Watertown, on the other hand, delivers the devastatingly more realistic message that life, age and class may conspire that we will never again love or dream as we once did.” Seen in that light, does the album offer the listener any kind of hope or redemption? If so, it’s in Sinatra’s ability to find dignity and meaning in the quiet ups and downs of working class life, much as Springsteen would start doing shortly after this album was released.

What drew Sinatra to this concept and what made the Reprise Records suits think it would sell? Perhaps Sinatra wanted the challenge of assuming a role different from anything he had done before: focusing inwardly, not outwardly. As for what made Reprise think they had a hit on their hands, that’s anyone’s guess. The record was a critical and commercial disappointment. Fortunately Sinatra’s prior decades of success were enough for him to be able to easily absorb this blip on the radar of his career. More to the point, especially among connoisseurs, the reputation of “Watertown” has grown in the years since. Generations of listeners have marveled at how convincingly Sinatra steps outside of his celebrity and into Everyman. “Watertown” asks questions without providing answers. It provokes the imagination. It makes the audience appreciate what they have even while mourning what they’ve lost. For the open minded listener, “Watertown” is a unique experience.

For further reading about “Watertown” click here, here and here.

 

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Citizen Kitten at Three Clubs

Posted by dlockeretz on March 20, 2017

Jazz may have an uphill climb these days, but Citizen Kitten is willing to put in the legwork. The Los Angeles jazz quartet made their debut at Hollywood’s Three Clubs on Sunday, March 19th, 2017 and delivered a show that was as entertaining as it was musically accomplished.

Today’s jazz musicians face a bit of a catch-22: if you put in the time to study, practice and gig your way to excellence, it’s hard to not take yourself at least a little bit seriously for your efforts, but when audiences have more and more choices for entertainment – live or in home – they don’t want to spend money or time hearing someone blowing their own horn (excuse the pun). We’ve all seen the meme showing how the performance is the tip of the iceberg compared to the rehearsals, but most audiences don’t care about how much time musicians have put into their art anymore than most musicians care about how many thankless hours the average corporate drone has to log. In a nutshell, a successful jazz (or any other style, really) performer has to put in the work and still make it look fun.

How does Citizen Kitten tackle this dilemma? The “kitten” of the band is singer Amanda Achen, a twentysomething who moved effortlessly from jazz standards to Broadway to Beck to Zeppelin to Gnarls Barkley, commanding the stage at a rare level. She also managed to seem approachable in a way that not all jazz singers are. During a sultry rendition of “Misty” she couldn’t help but smirk as she sang the line “Helpless as a kitten up a tree.” Her “What Lola Wants” was, inevitably, seductive, but she didn’t overplay the temptress role; she strode up to an audience member in the front row and said, “I like your shirt” without missing a beat. Add this to a rocking version of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling”, an odd-time “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and a genre-exploring rendition of “It Don’t Mean A Thing” and she put in a full night’s work.

Backing Achen was bassist Jon Lee Keenan, guitarist Matt Berger and drummer Paul Tavenner, all of whom expertly navigated the multiple changes of groove and tempo. Berger felt equally at home using dissonant chord voicings on a jazz arrangement of “Black Dog” as he did taking his microphone stand and playing slide guitar with it on a ripping solo in the same song. Keenan’s electric upright bass had the woody, full sound of an acoustic but allowed him more room to explore with both the grooves and solos than would have a traditional instrument. Tavenner provided a framework for the others from behind the kit, running the gamut from the torch songs to the rockers, giving the funkier numbers an old-school feel with brushes and pulling no punches with the cymbals when things needed to get loud.

In the midst of their innovation, some of Citizen Kitten’s standards felt a little familiar. They have shown an ability to turn songs on their head without making it seem like a gimmick; it will be interesting to see how they continue to develop tunes such as “One Note Samba”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “If I Were A Bell.” Over time, the skill and chemistry of these musicians will lead to the pace of their comic interplay between songs will tighten up while remaining organic. If it seems like I’m nit-picking a debut performance from a band that’s only been together for a few months, maybe it’s just my own envy sneaking through – I’ve been in bands that have worked for years without ever reaching this level. These guys are great and will only get better.

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Book review: “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto” by Mitch Albom

Posted by dlockeretz on March 9, 2017

Mitch Albom was a musician before he was a writer. When his dreams of rock’n’roll stardom seemed destined to not come true, he switched to journalism. Even as he found success with “Tuesdays with Morrie” and a series of well-received novels, he continued to seek musical outlets by becoming a member of Rock Bottom Remainders (a part-time rock band of authors including Dave Barry, Stephen King and Amy Tan) and by writing “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto”.

The narrator of “Strings” is Music. If this idea sounds a little weighty, it’s because it is. Albom, however, manages to make Music an engaging storyteller. Also helping is that Music paces its story well by allowing other characters – some real (Tony Bennett, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Stanley) and others fictitious but based on archetypes (female Brill Building songwriter; pop music historian; Jewish manager) to share reminiscences of Frankie Presto, a virtuoso guitarist and singer whose death and memorial service frame the novel. Thus, while Music provides the ongoing thread of the story, the reader is given different perspectives about Presto by those who knew him at different stages of his life: drifting teenager, rising idol, fading star, disillusioned journeyman, reclusive but legendary teacher.

At first glance, “Strings” follows the familiar story line of the young, hungry artist who is lured by fame and fortune and loses their way. At one point, Music says, “I have been on earth since mankind’s inception and have produced sounds…that involve awakening, love, pain and the four seasons. But in my countless creations, there has never been a sound for ‘career.’ Why do you let it affect me so?” Despite this, Albom doesn’t necessarily want us to hate the music business and what it did to Frankie Presto. He understands that people lose their way and have to find themselves: Frankie makes mistakes and unlike some, he is fortunate enough to live to learn from them. A broad brush interpretation of “Strings” might conclude that with music, as with anything, one must take the bad (the business side) with the good (the art).

Indeed, taking the bad with the good sums up the reader’s experience with “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Despite a few hard-to-believe plot twists that don’t add much to the story, an excess of one-sentence paragraphs and some forced music-related similes (is it really necessary for smoke from a gun to take “the shape of a music rest?” or to refer to Frankie Presto’s lifetime love affair with the free-spirited British girl Aurora as a “symphony”?) Albom’s obvious love of music of all genres keeps the pages turning. He pays tribute to classical guitarists Francisco Tarrega and Andres Segovia to Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Elvis, Lyle Lovett, Ingrid Michaelson and almost everyone in between.

A common critique of this book is that one has to be a musician to enjoy it. To that, all I can say is that the book was given to me by a non-musician friend and came highly recommended. If you have no interest in music, this book is not for you, but even those who have never plodded through hours of scales and arpeggios or broken down a P.A. system in a dive bar at two in the morning will be able to enjoy and relate to much of the story.

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CD Review: Hilton Ruiz, “Strut”

Posted by dlockeretz on October 28, 2015

Note: This CD review is a companion to D Theory #98.

In the fall of 1990, my sophomore year in high school, I came across a CD at the library whose cover, for some strange reason, caught my attention.

Hilton Ruiz's record Figuring that if the music was one tenth as exciting as the image, I checked it out and scurried home to listen to it. It took perhaps ten seconds of the funky groove of the band’s cover of Lee Morgan’s classic, “The Sidewinder”, to get me hooked. Unlikely as it seemed, I was so enthralled by the music that I almost immediately forgot about the album cover. Not only did I love the record but it inspired me to dig further into jazz. Almost immediately I went from feeling awkward and uncomfortable with the style to a full-fledged jazz snob.

Despite the impact the record had on my life, it slowly vanished from my playlist. Over the next quarter century I started listening to music for pure enjoyment less and less, although I never fully forgot this record. Lately I found myself curious to see if it would stand up to my memory. I bought a copy on eBay (it’s also available at Amazon). Would the same record that appealed to a hormonal teenager trying to make sense of jazz resonate with a 40-year old journeyman? As the late Mr. Ruiz might have said: Sí, señor.

Powered by Ruiz’s exciting piano, a tight horn section and a rhythm section that, while sometimes busier than necessary, never lets up on the energy, this diverse collection of tunes amounts to that all-too-elusive beast: ear candy with staying power. The rocking “Sidewinder” allows each band member to introduce themselves in an hot update of Morgan’s hip ’60s track. Saxophonist Sam Rivers contributed “Bluz”, an angular be-bop melody set over a smoldering Latin groove. Two mid tempo compositions by William Allen (not a band member, perhaps a friend of Ruiz’s?) – “Soca Serenade” and “Aged in Soul” – mix up the feel, both featuring the horn section.

The two longest pieces – trombonist Dick Griffin’s “All My Love Is Yours” and the only Ruiz original, “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” at eight and almost eleven minutes respectively – wear out their welcomes. Both have fun, uptempo grooves and nice interplay between the horns but could have been trimmed to five or six minutes; one doesn’t see the development that might be expected in compositions of that length. The two ballads on the record – the short, lounge-y “Why Don’t You Steal My Blues” and dramatic solo rendition of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” – are the final two tracks, which seems an odd choice of sequencing. Even if one were to read the 2 1/2 minute “Blues” as a prelude to “Lush Life” ending a high energy record with a ballad is anti-climatic. Thus, when listening to the record start to finish (yeah, I know, I’m old) one is left with the impression that the sum of the parts are greater than the whole.

Nevertheless, reconnecting with “Strut” has been an enjoyable experience for me. The record has long been out of print and sadly, Hilton Ruiz left us far too soon in 2006, at the age of 54. Thankfully, the music lives on and will hopefully create new generations of jazz geeks in the years to come.

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Escape artists

Posted by dlockeretz on May 19, 2015

Note: this is a simulblog, appearing both on “D-Theory” and “Positive Music Place.”

When one of my friends posted her concerns that the internet would spoil the finale of “Mad Men” before she had a chance to watch it, I reassured her in my typically smart-ass manner: “Already saw it. Vader is Luke’s father.”

My knowledge of “Mad Men” consists of having watched about 10 minutes of it and listening to people praise it. The show has helped me see that just because something is popular, that doesn’t make it bad. I get the show’s appeal: timeless themes of pride undone by a tragic flaw set against a glamorous ’60s backdrop is a winning combination. I’ve realized that the problem is not Don Draper; it’s another “D”. My tastes in TV are escapist (see D-Theory posts #44 and #84 for more info). Thus, if I don’t want to be judged for favoring lighter entertainment when it comes to the tube, I shouldn’t judge those who prefer Adele to Mahler.

A few days ago I was listening to a popular country song that was the requested first dance at a wedding where I was performing with the 40-Oz. Band. Overhearing it, my wife gave me a look that needed no explanation. All I could do was tell her, “Not everyone wants to be challenged on their wedding day.” Similarly, not everyone wants to be challenged after a long day at the office.

Like all creative professionals, us musicians put so much work and heart into what we do that when someone doesn’t notice, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We shake our heads when people download Nicki Minaj tracks by the millions while our heart-felt oeuvre, honed by the light of a midnight lamp, is met with indifference at Open Mic night.

Yet we ignore, too: whether it’s by eating fast food instead of going to the farmer’s market; by reading “Twilight” instead of Shakespeare or by watching “The League” and “Shipping Wars” instead of “Mad Man.” That doesn’t make us bad people; everyone needs convenience and escapes now and then. Most dieticians agree that you can’t expect yourself to eat perfectly 24/7. Play for the people who want the challenge, don’t let the ones who don’t bring you down and step outside your own comfort zone now and then. You may pleasantly surprise a writer, chef, candle maker or photographer who assumed you were just looking for an escape.

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A comedic turn by B.B. King

Posted by dlockeretz on May 15, 2015

Years ago a friend and I were discussing the one artist whom we would see live if we could only pick one. My friend was a self-described “illiterate folk musician” who introduced me to some new ideas, such as the fact that jazz snobs like me might actually be able to learn something from pop and rock musicians. As he was influenced by world music, I expected him to name an Afro-Pop artist I’d never heard of; perhaps an obscure punk or New Wave band whose quirkiness appealed to him. His answer was, “B.B. King.” After pausing for a moment he added, “Solo guitar.”

As it turned out, neither of us would ever hear B.B. King perform in his lifetime; as of this writing the last concert we attended together was Kitaro (but that’s a story for another day).

I can’t say anything about B.B. that hasn’t already been said and my credentials as a fan are rather thin. “Riding with the King”, his record with Eric Clapton from 2000, is a personal favorite of mine but I know it’s on the tamer side of his oeuvre.

What I can do however is share a lesser known performance of his that I’ve always loved – even though he never plays a single note. Here’s B.B. King in the film “Amazon Women on the Moon.”

Thank you for the music B.B. – and the laughs. We’ll take good care of Lucille for you.

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CD Review: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, “Rare Bird Alert”

Posted by dlockeretz on March 6, 2015

Listening to “Rare Bird Alert” is kind of like having dinner with a favorite uncle whom you haven’t seen for ages. You laugh, joke, perhaps debate and argue a little, perhaps reminisce about those who are no longer around. You leave with a lighter step, thinking, “Man, I forgot how much fun that could be!” At the same time, some of the truths your uncle laid upon you–not in a heavy handed manner but just by way of sharing his experiences–resonate with you for some time after. You always enjoyed your uncle but as an adult, you appreciate his wisdom more than when you were younger.

Every actor has made an album, or at least so it seems. Martin however has been somewhat out of the limelight for the last few years, making his musical career seem like less of a gimmick. More importantly he actually has the talent to pull it off. The songs are innovative but also infused with tradition, stepping out of the box without being overly obvious about it. A good example is on the opening track (also the title track), an instrumental in which Martin uses silence in a way that is uncommon in bluegrass but works well with the tune (addition by subtraction, if you will.) Another strong instrumental is “The Great Remember” in which Martin’s banjo is melodic, almost lyrical. While Bela Fleck has been known for banjo virtuosity in almost every style of music known to man, Martin manages to make it sound prettier than one could imagine.

Most of the tracks are vocal however and we are treated to quite the variety of singers. Leading off is none other than Sir Paul, although “Best Love” is a somewhat pedestrian vehicle for him. The close harmonies of the Dixie Chicks bring the heart song “You” to life. Martin’s own Steep Canyon Rangers turn in impressive vocal performances as well. The most technically demanding–and arguably most humorous–song on the record is “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”, an a capella number with several smoothly executed modulations. The Rangers’ humor and skill are also evident on “Women Like to Slow Dance” and “Jubilation Day.” The record also features a live version of Martin’s classic hit “King Tut”, this time in a fully bluegrass rendition.

There is no dead weight on the record, although a few are relatively weak. “Go Away, Stop, Turn Around, Come Back” and “Yellow Backed Fly” are both entertaining and cute but not particularly memorable. Nevertheless, it’s that all-too-uncommon record (a true “rare bird” if you will) that is enjoyable to listen to in its entirety; even the songs that don’t stand out work well enough to not skip. Not every story that your uncle spins is a masterpiece; occasionally Aunt Mildred’s roast might be a little dry. Their hospitality, however, is hard to beat and few people who spend an evening there regret it. There are far worse ways to spend 40 minutes or so than with this collection of songs from Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

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“You had all year”

Posted by dlockeretz on January 28, 2015

Is it OK to musicians to play for free at nonprofit events such as school fundraisers and AIDS walks?

Sure it is, as long as the charity/nonprofit organization in question doesn’t pay a cent for anything else. That’s right: if the city where the event is held, the caterers, the security, the administrative staff, photographers and other vendors associated with the event don’t make any money, I’ll happily go without as well.

Musicians are often expected to play at weddings, clubs and offices for “exposure”, “karma”, “food” and more substitutes for money. But aren’t nonprofits different?

Nope. Whether it’s a corporate party, a wedding or a fundraiser is immaterial; the principle is the same. If they have money for a venue and food, they have money for music.

At NAMM, I attended a workshop on advice for artists seeking endorsement deals. The panel included Mike Johnson, known for his extensive online library of drum lessons, his work with Simon Says and Filter and for the purposes of his appearance at this workshop, his endorsements. “NAMM is not the place to get an endorsement deal,” he told the audience. “You had all year.”

You had all year.

No budget for musicians? Sorry, you had all year. How much does the band that you want cost? Get a quote, sock aside the cash and pay the fee or settle for less.

As a musician, there’s nothing wrong with saying that to event organizers who don’t want to pay. Do our landlords, car title holders and cell phone companies care that we can’t come up the money because we were helping out a nonprofit and turning down paying gigs? Don’t we have to budget extra for tax season, which comes at the end of what is usually the leanest time of the year for musicians? (Speaking of taxes, if I wanted to be a smartass, I’d point out that in the case of schools, you already contribute to them; churches and other nonprofits are usually tax exempt. But this is the Positive Music Place so I’ll try to keep it civil.)

Look, I have nothing against nonprofit organizations; they just don’t get a special pass. There are other ways to donate to organizations in which you truly believe. Volunteer to perform at a nursing home. Busk on the sidewalk and give the money to the local food bank. Offer to do a presentation at a school. Maybe even give a little discount to someone who wants you to play at a fundraiser. But when someone seeks you out requesting you contribute to their cause–no matter how altruistic–yet claims no budget, just give them a friendly reminder:

“You had all year.”

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Steely Dan at Coachella – crazy enough to work?

Posted by dlockeretz on January 10, 2015

There are three likely responses to Steely Dan’s announced appearance at this year’s Coachella festival: “Wow!” “Why?” or “Who?” In this post, we will focus on the second.

I’ll admit it’s hard for me to be objective about Steely Dan, my favorite musical act of all time. I do know this: not everyone shares my love of them. I wish I could play the “That’s OK, it’s just over your heads/you have to be a musician to appreciate them” card but many musician friends of mine whose opinions I respect were either never fans or have found that “The Dan” has run their course. I’ll admit too that most of their recent output, including lead singer/keyboardist Donald Fagen’s post-“Nightfly” solo records, has the feel of going to dinner with your ex and holding out hope that the fire is still alive but, despite a few shared laughs and good memories, ultimately being disappointed.

That said, I will now try to unravel the million dollar question: what the hell is Steely Dan doing playing Coachella? Is it anything but a recipe for disaster?

Maybe, just maybe. It’s a longshot, like an ailing Kirk Gibson coming to bat against flame-throwing Dennis Eckersley with Game 1 of the 1988 World Series on the line (Christ, I need to stop dating myself) or Mercury records producer Charlie Fach insisting that the Bachman Turner Overdrive record a song they’d written as a joke, entitled “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” (that’s more like it.)

What can make this dark horse a contender?

The healing power of irony will be a factor. Hipsters and millenials love to be ironic and so does Steely Dan; they’ve been called Brooklyn’s first hipster band. Many bands have songs about someone catching their partner in bed with someone else, but only Steely Dan’s “Everything You Did” features a protagonist who asks is girlfriend to do the same things to him that he saw her doing to his rival. As Fagen said in 1993, “I’m into my post-irony phase, which includes irony as well.” Who knows; perhaps while savoring the irony that they are listening to the same music their parents and perhaps grandparents grew up on, young Coachella attendees may find their voice in a band with so many obscure references that an online dictionary has been established to sort them all out.

There are non-ironic reasons why this might work too. An LA Weekly article claims, “Your favorite rock/pop/electronic/hip-hop act? Likely influenced by the Dan.” De La Soul sampled “Peg” and MF Doom sampled “Black Cow” and they probably weren’t being ironic.

Lastly, at the risk of sounding reactionary, is classic rock entirely dead? There was enough outrage at Kanye West’s fans not recognizing this Paul McCartney character with whom he recently collaborated to make me feel that yes, humanity still has hope. It took seven Super Bowl half-time shows of classic rock artists such as Springsteen and West’s protege Paul McCartney in the years following the Janet Jackson incident before  we grew tired of it and got the Black Eyed Peas instead; even then not everyone thought that the event was better for it. With the right packaging, everything old becomes new again. Ten years ago, “Guitar Hero” got kids listening to the Allman Brothers. Who knows, maybe Steely Dan’s appearance at Coachella will have hipsters putting down their artisan Old Fashioneds and doing shots of Cuervo Gold.

As for the haters? While acknowledging that the following argument can be used against me vis-a-vis my opinion of Coldplay, I put forth the notion that to attract haters, a band has to be at least somewhat known. After all, the writers of “Knocked Up” could have chosen any band when they had Seth Rogen say, “That’s because Steely Dan gargles my balls.”

Sometimes on the day after too many beers and pizza, I’ll be getting dressed and look the pants I’m about to put on and feel as if I’m diving into a tiny pool from a high board. I have to admit that I feel a similar vibe about Steely Dan at Coachella. That said, I’m cautiously optimistic; if the main argument against Steely Dan’s appearance is the band’s irrelevancy, you could say that they have nothing to lose. We’ll know in three months. For now, I leave you with the words of the good folks at Funny or Die: “They’ve had way more sex than you’ll ever have.”

 

 

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An open letter to McGarry Productions

Posted by dlockeretz on September 28, 2014

Dear Sirs and/or Madams,

Thank you for contacting South Bay Blues Authority about performing at Lucky Strikes, House of Blues and the other venues you book. In light of the fact that our band has virtually no chance of drawing the one hundred people you request for a Monday night show, I am going to decline.

I would also like to respectfully suggest you reconsider your expectations of bands’ draw. I’ll admit I have been out of the L.A. club scene loop for some time and perhaps have an outdated idea of how many patrons are required for live music to be economically sustainable at your venues. Perhaps what I am going to say is wildly off the mark and if so I apologize for wasting your time.

Based on my experiences in the music business, which include many performances in California and my native Boston, plus nation and world wide tours, my belief is that very few local bands will be able to attract 100 out on a Monday night. At the risk of being blunt, the bands that do are likely to be touring or playing more established local venues or perhaps taking high-paying corporate gigs.

Perhaps there are bands in the L.A. area who can bring 100 people to a weeknight show. On the surface, that would seem like an ideal fit, but it begs deeper questions. Will these 100 fans come back to the venue to hear other bands about whom they know nothing? Will the band be good enough to keep patrons in the venue for other reasons there and to inspire them to come back?

I don’t mean to suggest that a band’s popularity and their quality are mutually exclusive, but let’s look at this objectively. For a band to spend the time and energy necessary to develop that large a following – be it by social media, innovative branding, catering to the latest trends or any number of other methods – odds are something else, such as the actual musical quality of their work, has paid the price. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule – Felsen, a great Bay Area band, has (in my opinion) managed to craft a sound that is contemporary but also is rooted in the rich tradition of the best singer-songwriters of the past and the results speak for themselves. If you can find bands such as this who deliver a genuinely high-quality show, more power to you. Occasionally the hottest girl in high school is also an exceptionally wonderful person.

That being said, even if you can find a high quality band that can bring 100 folks out on Monday, will that ultimately reflect well upon the venue? When people go out, they don’t always like to feel crowded in. Sure, when we see U2 or Bruce at the Bowl we don’t mind being part of a crowd, but for individuals who might be seeking a more intimate weeknight on the town, is being hemmed in with 98 other customers an ideal experience? In final analysis, the number of drinks sold will effect your bottom line but the number of customers to whom they were sold won’t. Shifting your focus from quantity to quality of patrons might help you become open to a variety of bands which, while unable to meet your request of 100 people, could draw individuals who are more likely to stay longer and buy more–and by playing excellent, honest music, can help cement the venues’ reputation as a great spot for live entertainment.

About all of the above, I might be completely full of crap, and it wouldn’t be the first time. All I can say is that I do deeply care about the availability of great live music to the general public. If high end bands are discouraged from opportunities reach new audiences that will inspire potential customers to go out to support live music and local businesses, I hope it’s for the right reasons.

Thank you for reading.

All the best,

David Lockeretz

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