Thursday, June 26, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 096 (punching the clock edition)

For at least 21 or 22 years--at the very least, since Dharmonia and I first moved to Bloomington for graduate school--I have sought regular gigs: weekly, monthly, whatever (cue the old joke about the accordion band, re-hired after the last set for "next year's New Year's", who say "Can we just leave our gear set up?"). This is in keeping with my general preference to set up schedules and more-or-less standard procedures for everything from cooking to building a website to building a lecture to working-out a concert program: my brain just works better if I'm not constantly reinventing the methods by which I get stuff done: by working out a standard system, I obviate the necessity of having to think up a new one at every iteration. So whether I'm making guacamole or framing a wall, creating a podcast or packing a car full of instruments, I tend to follow the same procedures. And when I'm learning a new skill--whether it's rendering a recipe or a piece of software, the big watershed is when I can go "off the book" and follow the process from memory. A standard procedure speeds up the moment this watershed appears--even when it's things I don't want to do (the elliptical comes to mind), doing things the same way at the same time of day increases the odds that they'll get done.

I've written before about the other merits of this approach: the way that it reconnects us to older ways of knowing, the way it shifts the focus from the abstract/imagined end-result and toward the process of making, the way--certainly in a musical situation--that it gets our noses out of the score and into the communicative dynamic between the players. A regular gig has a lot of the same merits: knowing you have to be there every week constructively removes the whiney five-year-old "but I don't feel like it!" soundtrack in your head. It's a lot easier to be productive if you recognize that the line between "do or don't do" has fuck-all to do with "want to." It's like having a workout partner who'll nag you if you don't show up: you're going to be there because people are expecting you to be there.

And, it's a very useful way to move incrementally toward longer-term goals. At least 4 years ago, I decided that I wanted to get some of my acoustic-blues/roots chops back. I knew that, given the demands of my day job, exercise, research & creative activity, and the fact that I was teaching and playing Irish trad music at least 4 days a week (and continuing to try to build my own skills--to be perfectly honest--to a world-class level in that music), any recovery of blues chops was going to have to go slowly and gradually. Which in turn meant that I needed some kind of regular situation that would keep me working at it: not the 2 hours/day I try for with the principal music, maybe not even every day--but some kind of schedule that would rebuild the blues thing.

So, when we were offered a Thursday-night regular gig at a coffeeshop in town (along with the Friday pub session, and the Saturday teaching session, and the Sunday night rehearsal), I took it, but proposed that we trade off, week-by-week, between Irish trad music and blues. Trad night would be Dharmonia, buddy Steve (flute) and myself, plus whoever we invited, but blues night would be the "Juke Band"--umbrella term for myself and fiddle, second guitar, percussion or whatever else. I'll play National steel or mandolin, and it's around my own versions of things that the other players fall in.

It's been interesting to revisit these repertoires--these specific songs--many of which I at least first heard, if not learned, literally 30 years ago, from my great heroes Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, Bob Franke, Paul Rishell, Spider John Koerner, and Paul Geremia. However, I make a conscious effort to avoid the approach I tried to employ all those years ago, of copping exactly the arrangements and versions of those players' I admired--great though I still think they are.

Instead, I try to treat them more like "folksongs"--as songs I know, have heard for years, used to play, but which I'm now going to play the way that I hear and play them now. This has advantages: it helps me rediscover these things, rather than trying to "recreate" them; it keeps things loose and improvisational and lets me lead the other players through versions; and finally, I think it takes me closer to the way that some of the first-generation acoustic blues guys played. A second-generation acoustic bluesman like Robert Johnson was demonstrably borrowing, imitating, and elaborating the songs and arrangements he learned, and when he recorded in '36 and '37, he was quite consciously creating set-pieces that were specifically (and brilliantly) tailored for the short duration of the 78-rpm record.

But the first generation players, like Charlie Patton, Willie Brown, and Henry Thomas, were much more concerned with being able to hold down a groove and blast out enough volume, while maintaining his stamina for 4 or 5 or 6 hours in a juke joint. Those guys were not so involved with elaborate set-pieces; they were more concerned with creating an environment in which the drinking and dicing and dancing could go on along with the music. I'm pretty-well convinced that they improvised a lot, just riding that groove (and, in Patton's case anyway, drank a lot of free booze and sneaked away with other people's women).

Playing a lot, on a regular basis, and especially (or even if) the audience isn't paying much attention, is a really good workshop.

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