Friday, November 20, 2009

Inspiring Life-Long Fans

As a music fan that has developed strong and lasting affinity for my favorite songwriters over the years, I have given a lot of thought to what qualities an artist/band has that promotes deep and meaningful fan connection. And it isn’t just the qualities that the songwriter has - a devoted fan also possesses attributes that enable them to be profoundly moved by music at an elevated level than the more casual listener. Personally speaking, I believe that my fandom is fueled by an analytic and obsessive mind that - once inspired by the music or words - must dig deeper to question the meaning behind the art by revisiting lyrics, reading interviews, and mining for clues. I dream in lyrics, and they often follow me throughout my waking hours. My music obsession is at once a great love and a debilitating foe (particularly when Beyonce released that fucking “Single Ladies” song). But I digress.

Far more interesting are the qualities that some musicians possess that set them apart from other musicians in fan admiration. Every band has fans, but what separates the bands that produce great music that is fun to listen to from the bands that produce life-changing music that has a profound and inspiring effect on their listeners? In evaluating my own fan experience - and also observing the fan culture for artists that I don’t personally connect to strongly, but that seem to evoke very strong emotion in fans - I have drawn the following conclusion. A songwriter’s willingness to reveal vulnerability - lyrically, vocally, and through performance – is a quality that cannot be faked, and I believe it is the single most important component in creating music that resonates deeply with fans.

The ability to authentically reveal vulnerability is the key to greatness for any artist, no matter what artistic form they use. For a singer-songwriter, it is an especially critical quality because, not only are they producing the material (as the writer), they are also channeling the emotion (as the performer). Whether it reveals itself in lyric, in the tremor of a vocal, or in the form of nervous ticks during performance, the ability of a songwriter to uncover his or her own vulnerability offers the audience the human element that is critical to forming a deeper connection to the music.

Whatever you may think of Morrissey (vocally, he’s not one of my favorites), he is a prime example of an artist who bares all his self-doubt, narcissism, and regret within the lines of his songs. He typically writes in the first person narrative, not passing off emotion to other characters, but instead leaving himself completely exposed. His songs are dripping with a self-absorption that I can’t really appreciate, but his fans eat it up and he has one of the most cult-like followings in rock music.

Other songwriters are subtle in their openness by using characters to channel their own personal experiences and emotions. A writer like Springsteen can be perceived as writing more with empathy than vulnerability because the joy and heartbreak of his characters may not translate as his own personal experience. However, that does not make him any less endearing to fans. People connect deeply with the characters in Springsteen’s world because they portray basic human emotions that we all know– restlessness, loneliness, yearning, desire, and disaffection. It doesn’t matter if the vulnerability belongs to Mary, Wendy, Candy, Sam, or any of the other dozens characters Springsteen has created. HE KNOWS how they feel, and he knows how you feel, too. Springsteen is unquestionably worthy of all of the accolades and adoration he has received over the years. He writes about human fragility with the same Old Soul clarity that I attributed to Van Morrison.

One of the newer bands that has developed a fiercely loyal fan base, in addition to landing themselves on most music publications’ top ten lists for the decade, is Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire produced two of the most beautiful, honest, and musically stunning albums in recent years. String instruments, heartfelt lyrics, Win Butler’s ability to vocally convey emotion, layer together to create a humility and rawness that is so attractively genuine to the listener. Arcade Fire is a relatively new band but already fans have formed a deep connection to their music that will sustain the life of their career as a band.

Lastly, I want to mention a couple of my favorite songwriters that perform with such openness and vulnerability, that I didn’t truly fall in love with their music until I saw it physically come out of them. Is it strange writing about Stevie Nicks and Brandon Flowers in the same paragraph? Probably, but they happen to be - as performers - my sentimental favorites. Seeing Stevie perform ‘Rhiannon’ with such fury, or the heartbreaking ‘Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,’ was pivotal for me as a fan. She has an amazing ability to connect with live audience and you feel as you are watching her that she is graciously handing over her heart for those few hours. Her fans sense her undying devotion and they are as loyal as any fan community out there.

Performing is not second nature for Brandon Flowers, and I think that he seems outwardly nervous and jittery, endears him to fans. There is a lot of realness to him. He uses bravado on stage, but equally there are moments of sincerity and vulnerability, gesturing and singing with such emotion that you feel he is begging, pleading with you to feel his words the way he feels them. I had bought and regularly listened to the Killers first two albums before I was aware of how they perform. The Killers, like Arcade Fire, are a young band with a hugely devoted fan community. And to witness them live is spectacular, just ask a Victim.

Of course, there are many qualities that attract fans to different musical artists. I like all kinds of music that I may not be sentimentally attached to, but that makes for great listening. Some of the best musicians and bands convey a detached coldness that, although is a quintessential rock and roll attitude, does not cultivate the kind of fan adoration of artists who open themselves up a little more. So many great artists that I didn’t get to! Help me write the next chapter! Who are your sentimental favorites, and why? I would love to hear from you!


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Classic Clips: Otis Redding at Monterey Pop Festival 1967

Otis is at the top of my list for musical talent gone from this earth too soon. Every time I hear that voice, I wish for the 40 more years of fantastic material he would undoubtedly have produced, had his plane not crashed that December day in 1967. It is also a shame that there is not more video footage of Otis because, while just listening to him feels like every emotion is coming across in crystal clarity, to watch a performance reveals him as a truly genuine and heartfelt entertainer. This footage from the Monterey Pop Festival of him performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Satisfaction” was taken just 6 months before his death. His energy and excitement leap off the screen and show that, although his time was short, he is one of the soulful greats.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts"

Most Bob Dylan fans can point to a favorite Dylan lyric, song, or album, and offer their own assertion: “THIS . . . THIS is why he is THE Rock Poet, THE Master Storyteller.” And the diversity in what any group of fans will tell you is astounding because, of course, he has written many wonderfully crafted tales. My favorite Dylan story is the one he tells of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

Musically, there really isn’t anything special about the song. In fact, it could probably be outright tedious for many listeners. It is an 8 and a half-minute, ragtime style song with 15 verses and no chorus. But as with most Dylan songs, it isn’t the music that makes it special, it is his calculated weaving of the tale. Calculated, because this is a song about deceit and murder in which there are few known conclusions, several perceived outcomes, and a whole world of open interpretation left for the listener. I know that I will never solve the mystery of this story, and yet I listen intently time and time again for any clues I may have missed the first one hundred times I listened.

There is too much to this story for me to detail, so if you are not familiar with the song, read the lyrics or have a listen by clicking the play button below before reading further.

So . . . Dylan’s a tease, huh? What is interesting is that much of the detail in this story is supposed, but not definitively stated, so on a superficial level the listener understands what happened. On first listen, you likely come away from the song thinking: Big Jim’s dead, Rosemary stabbed him, she got the gallows, Jack ran off with the money, and Lily is left without both of her lovers. But that is an outcome based on assumption, because only these absolutes are stated: Big Jim was stabbed, Rosemary is accused of a crime, and the Jack of Hearts is “missing.” The rest is speculative.

And, oh, how fans have speculated on this puzzle that will never be solved. Reading listener interpretations of this song reveals that no two people have the same perceived outcome of what happened, or even of who are the true villains of the story. THIS IS WHAT MAKES DYLAN A MASTER STORYTELLER – the clues he does not give the listener are equally important to building intrigue as the clues he does give! Did Big Jim shoot and kill the Jack of Hearts? Was it really Rosemary who stabbed Big Jim? Was Rosemary executed? Was Lily an outlaw who orchestrated the whole thing? Were Rosemary and Lily mother and daughter? All of these missing pieces can be resolved in our own imagination; Dylan has given us the ability to shape shift the outcome at our will.

In addition to the mysterious outcome, the weaving of Old West themes – a cabaret-style saloon, outlaw gangs, and especially poker and gambling – paint a vivid picture of the scene. Cards and gambling are referenced throughout the song; Big Jim is referred to as “the king” who owns a diamond mine, Rosemary is a “queen without a crown,” and of course, there is the Jack of Hearts. Although we will never know, I believe that Lily was the Ace of Spades – the “death card” - in this game; the character that deceived them all and came out of the story unscathed.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

I’m A Bass Whore

I know - I can’t believe I went with that title, either. OK, moving on . . .

Consider me an avid devotee of bass players everywhere. Where I have discerning tastes in vocalists and lyricists, my slutty ears will open wide for just about any sound emitted by a bass guitar. Even when the playing is not great, I still like it; and when the playing IS great, it is usually the primary reason that I am listening to a band in the first place. I am a sucker for all kinds of bass sounds and playing styles: hollow and jazzy, slap percussive, distorted, deep and low, or high and melodic. I will take them all.

I love the versatility in bass sound and playing. It is typically thought of as a rhythmic support instrument that bridges percussion with the more melodic guitar and keyboard sounds. In serving this function, it really is responsible for setting the mood of the song, and often in such an understated way, that many listeners may not even realize it’s role in doing such. Conversely, the bass can have a very heavy-handed impact on the sound and is the cornerstone of genres like funk and reggae. Ron Blair from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is an example of understated, bare bones, rock and roll bass playing. From time to time, his playing is featured more prominently (what would “American Girl” sound like without that bass line?), but for the most part, he serves a support role in a band where guitars and keyboards are the main driver for the overall sound. On the other end of the spectrum is Flea, whose slap-bass style is the trademark of the Chili Peppers overall funk sound, and is, by no stretch of the imagination, “understated.”

My favorite bassists fall between those extremes, and though they are all unique from one another, share the quality of playing guiding roles, or at least very distinguishable roles, in songs they play. Peter Hook stands out for me because he is one rock bassist that - if he were performing solo, just him and his guitar on stage – I would buy a ticket to see him. I think Hook was most responsible for determining the mood of any given Joy Division song. Whether his playing was low and somber like in “Atmosphere” or “Twenty-Four Hours” or high and upbeat like in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” I think he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for any versatility Joy Division had in conveying mood.

Andy Rourke, along with Hook, is a player that I can put into the “why I listen to that band” category. I did not immediately like the Smiths, mostly because Morrissey’s voice was an acquired taste that took me a while to embrace. What kept me coming back to the Smiths was the guitar work of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke, and particularly the way they played off one another so well. I wouldn’t say that there is a great deal of versatility in Rourke’s sound, which is generally high and melodic, but it does make slight transitions that cross over into funky (“Rubber Ring”), twangy (“Panic”), and outright pop-y (“This Charming Man”) at times.

That brings me to Mark Stoermer, who is one of the more versatile bass players in rock right now. He and Ronnie Vannucci make up a chameleonic rhythm section, and they are the key to the Killers’ ability to dabble in so many rock and roll styles. Stoermer’s playing has varied from album to album, as has the Killers’ overall sound. I love the basslines that he created for “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and "Midnight Show,” from the Hot Fuss album. The songs are lyrically dark, and the basslines prominently stand out and accentuate that mood. For live performances of songs from Sam’s Town - an album with a lot of fast American-style rock songs - Stoermer demonstrated the skill and precision to play quick, repetitive notes that are so tight in supporting Vannucci’s drumming.

Songs from the Day & Age album show Stoermer coming into his own as a groove player; when I listen to that album, I can’t help but wonder which of those songs may have originated with his bassline. “Joyride?” “This Is Your Life?” It seems like his playing may be an increasing driver in the songwriting process for the Killers. Perhaps it always has been, but the bass “personality” is revealing itself a bit more in the Killers’ most recent work.

Lastly, I want to mention Chris Wolstenholme, of Muse. He creates sounds that are so different that I am intimidated to write about it, but I will do my best with my lack of technical vocabulary. In his playing, individual notes become almost undetectable because they blend together to create a continuous, distorted backdrop for a lot of Muse’s songs. It is Wolstenholme that gives Muse songs a digitalized, modern industrial sound and, were it not for his style and equipment, the band would lose a key factor in what distinguishes them from many of their contemporaries. Anyone ever wonder what he would do with a Hofner Beatle Bass in his hands? No? Just me, then.

Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg, a few of my favorite bassists. They never get enough glory for diverse melodic and rhythmic role they play in crafting our favorite songs. There are many bass players that I would have loved to mention, both well and lesser known, but I probably exhausted the readers’ attention span back on paragraph two. As I am continually drawn to and inspired by all types of playing, I’m sure it won’t be long before round two of the bassist love-fest begins.