Make Music Great Again
Written by Barry Warsaw in music on Sat 21 January 2017. Tags: music, change,
I'm always going to remember January 20, 2017 as a beautiful day.
Those who know me, and know the significance of that date, will no doubt wonder if I've lost my mind. But let me explain why a day that could have been filled with crushing physical and psychic depression, instead is not only filled with light and love, but I think planted the seeds for what must inevitably come next.
I'm writing this in a sort of quantum superposition. I haven't read or heard any news since about 8pm last night. My wife and son are down at the Women's March in Washington DC and I've woken late, had breakfast, done my morning tai chi and meditation, and now I sit down to try to put some of my thoughts onto "paper".
You probably know what else happened on that date. And if so, the question is: why was last night so revitalizing, so positive? Because a trio of U-Liners played an enthusiastic set as one act in a night of three, filled with transcendent music and amazingly bright joyful people.
I'd thought the gig was going to be a night of protest against a new, unthinkable political reality, and the message of hate and fear that came along with it. But it wasn't a protest gig, it was a celebration.
The show was at Gypsy Sally's, a club with a great vibe down in Washington DC's Georgetown area, under the Whitehurst Freeway. I've played there several times with several different groups, including my main bands the Cravin' Dogs and the U-Liners. Some places (musical and otherwise), just have a Vibe. You can tell that magic happens there. The Barn at Keuka Lake where I've attended tai chi camp has that vibe. All the hours and hours of chi-filled practice permeates the place and you can't help but begin to vibrate on the same wavelengths the moment you walk into the place. Gypsy Sally's is like that; all the hours and hours of soulful music, played by amazing artists, fills the place with a vibration that you can feel, if you're in tune, and that vibe flows to the folks who work there, who play there, and who listen there. Make Magic Great Again.
I'd been told the show was sold out, and there's no doubt the place was absolutely packed.
Before the show even began, we hung out in the green room just off the stage, with the other musicians and their crew, a few fans and friends, and folks from the venue. Being like-minded in our sensibilities, we had lots of great conversations about the politics of the day, the recent election, our thinking on the causes of the outcome, and how to effect the kinds of change that we want to see in the world. And yet there were many different perspectives, each bringing a little bit of truth to the overall discussion. It wasn't all just grousing either. There's a sense that we are witnessing the last gasps of an old world order, one that is increasingly and inevitably doom to the history books due to unstoppable changes in demographics, technology, climate, and resources. It's a message of hope, but also of activism. The lies that have been hidden under the surface are now exposed for everyone to see. There's no more wink-and-nod about the power structure any more, no more middlemen whitewashing the naked ambition and exploitation. It's all right out there in the open. But it will take work to get people woken. Make Dialog Great Again.
The night featured John Kadlecik, a guy from the 'hood make good. John is deeply steeped in the music of the Grateful Dead, and has both led his own bands, and played with many of the greats, bringing this genre and repertoire to an eager fan base. Last night John did both an short solo opening set, and later closed the night with his new band, leading the Bureau of Sabotage in a transcendent two hours of music. After John's three song opener, A Trio of U-Liners, Joe Uehlein, Tom Espinola, and myself, played a 45 minute set of acoustic songs (although I was playing my Noel Redding Jazz Bass), with the typical U-Liners focus on themes of labor, the environment, peace, and justice.
Looking out from the stage, I could only see 10 or 15 feet into the audience, and it was nothing but sublime smiles of joy. We played songs people knew, like Deal (which was the perfect opener, going over well with the crowd of Dead-loving fans), Ghost of Tom Joad, Redemption Song, and What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding? And the crowd sang along with us. They rocked, they swayed, they nodded their approval. The thing that makes playing live music so... addictive... is the energy of a fully present audience feeding back to you on stage, you channeling that through your fellow musicians, and amplifying it back like an emotional P.A. It's a feedback loop of positive vibes that carries you all along like a wave, especially when the musicians you share a stage with are listeners with open ears and a talented, giving, honest approach. Make Soul Great Again.
Our set was over way too quickly of course. Up next was David Gans, a world leading authority on the Grateful Dead and a very talented musician in his own right. A authentic voice, David entertained us all in the green room before the show with his acoustic guitar and singing. When he took the stage, I had to make my way to the back of the house, to get a feel for the audience's perspective. I didn't get far before I was stopped by the throng, so after a song or two (and with Joe and I ordering a post-gig meal at the bar) I made my way back to the green room. Really, it's by far the best seat in the house anyway - except for being on the stage of course!
Now, with the folks milling about backstage, we fell into spotty conversations, mostly about how we felt we played, about gear (as musician's will) and what not. It's loud back there, but even so, some of the guys in BoS were resting and preparing in their own ways for their upcoming set.
But there are moments when everything stops.
Like when Nick Newlin, a local accordion player who I've known through DC musical circles, and even played with a few times before, got up to join David for a few songs. They laid into Friend of the Devil, and I'm telling you, when Nick started to play his solo, all conversation stopped. There's a little door separating the green room from the stage, and four of us quickly filled that small opening, looking back across the stage at Nick and David reaching ever higher in their musical exchange. It takes a lot to get a room full of musicians to shut up and pay attention to other musicians. Or maybe it doesn't really take that much at all, just some damn fine playing that reaches out and demands your attention, and that's what they gave us. Make Passion Great Again.
You also have the perfect view of the audience from that door. They knew, perhaps intuitively, what was going on, and they were lost in the music too. Eyes closed, bodies swaying, hands doing that Grateful Dead hands thing! broad smiles on all the faces. For me, with David on his own, then with Nick, and later with John, I was in a place of pure happiness. Nothing else mattered, nothing else existed. Our entire world was one little bubble of shared musical perfection. Make Joy Great Again.
Up next was Bureau of Sabotage, with John K, Aron Magner, Jeff Franca and Oteil Burbridge. Now, remember I'd just heard these guys soundcheck a few hours before. Jeff Franca, who also plays drums for Thievery Corporation, I think literally did not stop for their entire hour-plus long sound check. I mean, this guy was grooving heavy and almost non-stop even before hitting the stage, and I got the distinct sense that he was just warming up. I'd never heard him play before, but you know me, I instantly lock onto the drummer, and this guy had my attention from the get-go.
Oteil Burbridge, well, he first came onto my radar years ago when the Cravin' Dogs opened up for Aquarium Rescue Unit, a group that Oteil played in with Col. Bruce Hampton. When we all first arrived, I introduced myself to Oteil and reminded him that we'd met before. He remembered the Dogs, although we both struggled to narrow down the time and place of that outdoor festival where we first shared a stage. Funnily enough, I'd just rewatched Billy Bob Thorton's Sling Blade not days earlier; Bruce Hampton plays a small but memorable part in that fine movie.
Oteil is one of those guys you instantly like. He just has an open, welcoming sense to him. He's about as real as it gets, especially for someone who's played with as many fantastic people as he has, from ARU, to Dead & Company, Tedeschi Trucks, and of course the Allman Brothers Band. Another local guy gone big, and one helluva monster bass player. Oteil is the kind of bass player that I really love, and to understand why, I have to detour with a confession.
I was never much of a Grateful Dead fan growing up.
Look, I respect Phil Lesh, both for his contributions to the Dead, and for his musicianship and songwriting ability. But his style just isn't what moves me as a bass player. You'd think, cutting my teeth in the progressive rock arena, with idols the likes of Geddy Lee and Chris Squire, I'd be into his melodic style, but there just was something missing in the groove for me. It just never sunk its hooks in me for whatever reason. Even as my tastes expanded, and new bass heroes came to me, my reach just never fully embraced the Dead.
But then I started playing with Joe in the U-Liners, and all that changed. The Dead did do it for Joe; he's a huge fan, so naturally we play a lot of their songs. We even had a run of 10 years doing a Jerry Garcia tribute (often in the later years, opening for one of John K's bands), around the anniversary of Jerry's birth and death. I've seen and shared the stage with many a Dead tribute or cover band, and most pay close homage to the originals. Few do it so masterfully as John K does though, mostly because it's actually pretty difficult. Their music is not easy to play.
But the U-Liners take a different approach. We play their songs our way, with deep grooves, in keys more amenable to Joe's vocal range (which changes how you have to play the songs), and with our own diverse and often rotating instrumentation. Do that for a few years, with one of the best drummers in the DC area, not to mention my great fellow musicians, and you'd have to be completely tone deaf not to fall in love with the Dead's songs. And fall in love with them I have. We don't have the depth of repertoire that John K has obviously, but I always love those Garcia tributes as we get to really stretch out and groove out on some truly masterful songs. Make Fun Great Again.
The other thing about bass players is, there are millions of really great ones. Really. Men and women who can slap and pop at prodigious rates, or play Jaco or Geddy bass lines to perfection, or can play stunning solos, and tappity tap as if they had 20 fingers. But what often gets lost is what I think is the most fundamental job requirement of a bass player: to groove. If you don't groove, the band is lost. As a bass player, your job is to marry the rhythm and tempo of the drums with the harmony and melody of the guitars, vocals, and lead instruments. I've never personally enjoyed soloing much because what I have to say on the bass is all about that groove. Getting as deep inside it as possible. Moving some fucking hips! Give me a good drummer and a great rhythm guitarist, and I'm happy sitting back in Bass Player Alley laying it down for hours. That's why I love cats like Victor Wooten and Oteil Burbridge. For them, it starts with the groove, they give it respect and embrace it, and it's within that groove that they can play amazing solos and fills, displaying all their pyrotechnics. The groove is never lost, and that's the key. Just go read Wooten's The Music Lesson and watch him sink into the deepest I-V groove after a blistering solo to understand what I'm talking about. Watch Oteil on stage for two hours, locking in with the drums, guitar, and keyboards, shaking his booty with a huge grin on his face the whole time, then punctuate some contemporaneous jam with a smoking riff or fill so mind boggling that a bass playing hack sticking his face out of a stage doorway can do nothing but ball over in laughter at the sheer unexpected joy of it. Make The Groove Great Again.
As I'm watching the BoS play their set, I'm also looking out over the crowd. Remember, I'm standing in a door at rear stage left, with a great view of the drummer and bass player, the keyboard player hidden from view by a large, loud monitor in front of me to my left, and the guitarist way over there across on front stage right. There's nothing but the most devoted fans in the first ten feet or so that I can see illuminated by the stage lights. Beyond that, faces come into view and then fade back into the dark. In the front row, people of all shapes and sizes move with abandon to the music. Many eyes closed, many open, and nothing but ecstatic smiles on all those faces, every one of them Beautiful.
Occasionally I catch a glance with someone, lock eyes for a moment, and we acknowledge what we are witnessing and participating in. It's larger than any one of us. It's something that we are sharing at that exact moment, a moment that comes and goes, a moment that flows, but for which we are present right there and then. The smiles broaden, the gaze lingers. I'm sure part of that is their view of some old dude in a long gray beard staring back at them from a doorway for a momentary connection, then both of us getting swept back into the wave of music. I see a few dear friends faces and make longer contacts with them, exchanging a few soundless gestures of greeting, friendship, and love. I reconnect with a few people -strangers, but somehow not strangers- again and again over the course of the evening. Just a person with whom you shared something real, something electric, even if only for one night of great music. The beauty of humanity shines bright. Make Beauty Great Again.
With Joe as our ride home, we left while BoS was still playing. I said goodbye to the few friends I could, old and new, but for others we just disappeared. One moment there, the next gone. Like Life. I left filled with optimism. You cannot bury that spirit, and agendas of fear and hate must ultimately fail. I've thought a lot about how to carry forward in this new reality. I think it requires acts great and small. I miss going to the Women's March, but I will tell you that it takes a lot more recuperation from a late night of standing, jumping, walking, and playing than it did twenty years ago!
The March is a great act, and large scale actions like this are imperative to let the powers that be know that we are still here and demand attention and respect too. But small acts are just as important. In everything you do, try to spread a little bit of light. In qi gong class we envision a healing purple light, and it's something I can sometimes see very clearly. Nights like last night spread light, peace, and love, and that is infectious in the best possible way. These nights of music, of several hundred people coming together in a small club in DC, of abandoning ourselves to the righteous vibe, are the yin to the yang of all the other craziness going on. It restores balance. The small conversation at the end of the bar with a new staff member, asking her name, learning a small bit of her life's story, sharing smiles. That spreads light. The hugs, handshakes, fist bumps, cross-stage waves, lingering eye contact, unison head nods - all these make a difference, transferring a little bit of light from one person to another. Amplifying it. It changes us, and with enough of that, it changes the world. Change is inevitable, and more nights like that, which I'm certain were replicated in cities and venues across the country last night, are the first steps in shaping that change in the direction of the amazing human potential we know we have in Us.
I think we've had too many years of trying things that we know don't work. Consumption. Wealth. Power. Money. Corruption. Selfishness. In our hearts we know that's a dead end, that it's time has past. Now is the time to make other things great again. Real things. Things that matter and that everybody wants, not just a few.
Make Light Great Again.
Make Love Great Again.
Make Peace Great Again.
Make Truth Great Again.
Make Compassion Great Again.
Make Heart Great Again.
And now I go to collapse the wave function, to see what's happening in the world. To engage with it... again.
Make Music Great Again.