Sunday, December 4, 2011

Music and Musicians

I had the pleasure of seeing my favorite band live last night.  Here's the obligatory plug for their website, which is quite nice: .  It has their new EP streaming for free, and a video of them performing by a hotel pool in Canada.

I saw them at a small club in Milwaukee with a few other local bands, put together by this group that promotes events in Milwaukee (, plugs aplenty today).  They tend to always be at small clubs.  They seem to be allergic to success, which is confusing because their music is excellent.  But it's good for me because I never have to worry about their shows being too big to get in.

Don't worry.  This is not one of those stories, about how the bands I like are more underground than the bands you like and I always see them in small clubs and I'm so cool.  This is a story about how we react to encountering the people who write the music we love.  Because when you see them in a small club you come face to face with these people.  Standing next to them in the crowd, or handing them some equipment or you both end up watching the same basketball game on the bar TV.

I've never bought into the mythology of the Rock God, or the hero worship doled on anyone who plays guitar.  I think this is because I'm a musician and spend time around musicians, so I know what we're like.  A lot of us are selfish and narcisstic and just plain strange people.  There's something to be said about someone who charges others money to hear them perform, and I can say that because it's something I've done.  Not all musicians are bad, I wouldn't even say the majority of musicians are bad, but the assumption that someone is worthy of endless praise because that person makes good music is absolutely false.

I also wonder about the way in which musical skill is celebrated.  Music is hard.  Really hard.  It takes years and years of practice and dedication.  But so do a lot of things.  There are so many skills that take just as much hard work, but don't receive the same adoration.  You'll never hear someone screaming with joy at the sight of a doctor or journalist or firefighter (maybe the last one, if you are on fire and overjoyed to know that you will no longer be on fire).  But this strange phenomenon occurs with music.  You know what I'm talking about.  The crowd going nuts because the guy on stage says "It's great to be here in (name of your city)!"  This is especially strange these days, now that so many folk bands are popular.  It's a little awkward to hear people losing their minds screaming over a man playing banjo, no matter how good he is.

I think a big factor in this is the emotional connection we feel to music.  There's no denying that it's stronger than the connection we feel to other art forms, and to most things in life.  To so many people, especially young people, music is everything.  So I can understand that a lot of this passion you see at concerts comes from the deep emotional connection we share with the music.  But it's weird to me as a musician who knows musicians.  Knowing that guy on stage is not some hero.  He's just as insecure and confused as every single one of us; he just happens to be the one singing about it right now.

So where does that leave me at my show last night?  Too cynical maybe?  I was super excited to see the band, I love love love their music.  And their live shows are hugely entertaining.  I just don't get into the hooting and hollering about every thing they say or every song they play.  I enjoyed the music and clapped emphatically after each song and felt a deep emotional connection to the songs.  I just didn't feel a need to worship the singers.

It wasn't until I was riding home, though, that it dawned on me.  Yes these guys are just normal people like everyone else, and playing guitar is not a heroic feat.  But all night I had been standing a few feet from the folks who created the music that for a few years has defined a part of me.  I feel a deep connection to these songs, I feel they relate to my experience, but they come directly from the experiences of these gentlemen.  The words and sounds sprang forth from their minds before they could ever reach my eyes and impact who I am.

I guess it's a lot cooler than I had led myself to believe.  Maybe we do give too much praise to songwriters, but I realized I myself probably have not been giving enough.

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