Like the music score for a film, you might not notice the background music at a restaurant unless it is a complete misfit. In a film score, if it fits, it propels the story along nicely. And though you might not have consciously noticed the nice background music, you might have enjoyed your dining experience a little better. In my mind, completely wrong music at a restaurant serving ethnic cuisine is as bad as having the wrong wine or beer with your meal (in a way, it’s worse, since you can send the wine back and get another, but you cannot escape bad music except by walking out of the restaurant). Imagine having a fine Cabernet or a rich dark ale with a tuna salad sandwich and fries.
This evening for instance, I had dinner in a small Greek cafe. The staff was almost entirely teenagers and the music seemed selected more for the staff’s tastes than the patrons. I don’t mind dining without a musical score in the background, but for god’s sake if you are going to play music either match it to the cuisine or play something classical or something very bland and at a low volume. Blasting out Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears hits while I’m dining on stuffed grape leaves and pita slices with hummus just plain annoys the hell out of me. Most of the patrons were thirty or forty or fifty-something’s, and I’m betting they didn’t find the music all that entertaining either. To me it was like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. Whoever owns that restaurant should make it clear to the staff that they listen to what they like on their own time.
So then we go on to have dessert and coffee at a little Italian place and guess what they’re playing? Italian instrumental folk tunes at a soft volume! And that went with the food perfectly. We lingered over the coffee and left feeling good.
Call me old fashioned, but if you decide to play background music at your restaurant, match it to the cuisine. I like to hear Japanese music at a Japanese restaurant, French music at a French restaurant, Russian music at a Russian restaurant, and so on.
My closing thoughts: Art is often about mixing various elements properly. Music is produced with meticulous attention paid to the levels and tones of various instruments and voices. Film soundtracks are mixed with the right combination of dialogue, sound effects and music. And the music in a movie is carefully chosen to match the visuals. You wouldn’t imagine having death metal as the score for a sensitive romantic scene in a movie, nor would you expect soft jazz as the backdrop for a violent fight scene (unless the director was intentionally making some subtext commentary with the mismatch). To me, food is art. So please don’t play background music that totally doesn’t fit the cuisine in a restaurant either. After all, all the world’s a stage.
That’s my short rant.
Before you get your flamethrowers out, let me tell you I play both guitar and bass equally well (or equally badly perhaps). For me personally, there are distinct advantages to playing both. At open microphone nights and at jam sessions, there might be four guitar players but no bass (or conversely two bass players and no guitar). So I like that I can tuck my little Steinberger Synapse into its gig bag and easily fit it into the back of my Prius, and voila: instant choice of bass player or guitar player.
But there are of course disadvantages too. The obvious one is you don’t get really good at either one. Since I also dabble in analog synthesis (not to mention all my other pastimes), I know I spread myself pretty thin. In all honesty though, I cannot blame my persistent musical novicehood on trying to play numerous instruments. No, in fact I believe that’s pretty much backwards: I play around with many instruments to make up for my lack of mastery of any one of them.
Well, anyway, back to the question. Some of my friends who just play guitar, believe the bass is where aspiring guitarists wind up when they discover they are in over their heads. They consider the bass to be something of a “guitar lite”. To a non-musician, how could you argue? The bass looks like a big guitar with two strings missing, therefore it must be easier to play. When you go to a club gig, the bass player seems much more laid back and his playing seems sedate by comparison to the guitarists who are playing exotic chords and shredding lead riffs with lightning speed. It’s hard to argue against the role of the bass player in the average club band as much more than an accompanist for the guitar players. I’ve heard it argued that a person could learn bass well enough to play in a band in maybe a year or two tops.
I have to agree, but only to an extent. I was indeed one of those guys they are talking about. I got my first guitar maybe when I was ten years old, and for years never got past simple barre chords and slow melodies. I got discouraged easily. Then I got a bass and found I could actually sound good on it rather quickly. I can see why some could make a causal connection (albeit a shaky one) in that regard.
But after letting my old Stratocaster sit in its case practically untouched for many many years, I became newly determined to play the damn thing. So I started studying and practicing, and listening closely to some of my favorite guitarists’ handiwork (we’ll talk about my guitar favorites in another blog). And now that I’m actually starting to dig my own playing for the first time in my life, I believe I’m good enough to be playing in a drunken garage band just for fun. And believe me, that is quite something to aspire to.
I remember picking up a friend’s violin once and after ten minutes of making horrible screeching noises, wondering if I’d ever be able to make even a simple nice sound out of it. I have a Shakuhachi flute I bought about ten years ago, and to this day cannot get a sound out of it beyond my breath rushing out of my mouth! So I am aware that there are musical instruments that seem to have a steep learning curve right off the bat. Bass is definitely not one of them. One could pick up a bass with no knowledge of music theory and incapable of even reading tabulature, and still figure out how to sound like a bass player very quickly. And that’s where it gets its bad rap from. But like most things that appear simple on the surface, there is a deepness to the instrument that can take many years (even a lifetime) to really master.
I’ve kept up with my bass playing too though, and I even acquired a six-string bass to fool around with. But it was when I got turned on to the likes of Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, Steve Bailey, Bootsy Collins, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, and their ilk, I came to an understanding of the true nature of the bass. It was the easiest instrument to play just okay. But when you start listening to the really good bassists out there (note my use of the superlative “ist” ending instead of just player.), I comprehended really how anything, even the most simplistic seeming things, could be taken to very high art forms. Some examples that came to mind were the Japanese arts of flower arranging, paper folding, and of course the tea ceremony.
And then there’s poetry. We all learned as children how to put together simple rhymes and limericks and such. For us young writing newbies, simple poems were so much easier for us to master than say, writing a novel. But at higher levels of artistic expression, that formula changes. A masterful poet has the ability to create intense imagery and moods in a relatively few lines of prose. Poetry is to me, the most difficult and highest literary art form, and not coincidentally, one that is difficult to understand until one is able to peer beneath the surface and see the subtleties and nuances that define all of the arts at the finer levels. Yet to those who tend to just see and hear the superficial aspects, these subtleties go unnoticed.
As for the bass, I think it might have been John Entwistle with the Who, who changed the role of bass from simplistic oom pah pah background to a bonafide lead role. In my humble opinion, he overshadowed Pete Townsend’s guitar playing. Pete had flash and sizzle, and was a good songwriter, but John had substance. Listen to “My Generation” if you don’t believe me! Even Townsend said pretty much the same in an interview: that Entwistle was leading Townsend through their back and forth trading of riffs in a point-counterpoint sort of exchange.
Only a handful of bassists before that had taken the initiative to step out with lead riffs. Jimi Hendrix’s bassist Noel Redding did it sometimes. Cream’s Jack Bruce too. But for the most part, it wasn’t until a more recent crop of bassists (many hailing from the jazz world) created something of a small revolution in music, whereby the background accompaniment instrument of bass turned into a spotlight instrument. I pay attention now to the bassist when I go to concerts. In fact my wife even got the bug after seeing Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller and Steve Bailey on stage at the same time, and went out and bought herself a little Squire Bronco to learn on. Now she insists when we get concert tickets, we try to get them on the right side of the stage (where the bassist typically hangs out).
So I’ve become more determined than ever now to practice both guitar and bass as often as possible. And I’ve developed a respect for all musicians, no matter what they play (be it violin, mandolin, harmonica, voice, or whatever). I strongly contend that the bass is as complex and entertaining an instrument as any, and that while it is easy to play satisfactorily when you are first starting out, it can be taken to a very high level of mastery. Maybe in a future lifetime I will be at that level. But in this one, I relish listening to the great bassists we are privileged to have in our midsts.
I am reminded of Rod Stewart’s old song “Every Picture Tells a Story”, every time I read a screenplay (or listen to a song a friend is composing, or gaze at a collection of photographs in an exhibit at a gallery). It is true—to an extent for every artistic endeavor, that there is a story behind the work of art. Sometimes you might have to squint hard to find it, but that’s part of the joy of art appreciation. Every movie, every stage play, every painting, sculpture and photograph, every novel, short story and poem, and every song and dance should tell some story. That’s what art is all about after all (save for purely and intentionally abstract art). Sadly though, it seems of late that story telling, if not dead, to paraphrase something Frank Zappa once said about jazz, smells funny.
There are a lot of business-minded folks (as well as skilled technologists) out there, in places like Hollywood and New York, as well as in cities and small towns the world over, who seem to think that storytelling is secondary to having exciting action sequences, dynamite special effects, gratuitous violence, and frankly, as much as we try to believe it ain’t so: lots of T&A. And the problem isn’t just an issue of quantity over quality, or ultra-tight schedules and budgets. I truly believe the fine art of storytelling has been lost to many people—especially in filmmaking, where sophisticated computer-generated imagery, dazzling visual effects and sensational high-dollar action sequences have supplanted good old storytelling. As long as the film does well at the box office, it doesn’t matter to producers how artistic a film is. Getting back to Frank Zappa, I remember at one of his concerts way back at the dawn of heavy metal, he wheeled an air raid siren onto the stage, donned ear plugs, and then activated the siren. While he was making a not-so-subtle statement that rock fans were becoming more interested in loudness than in the quality of the music, the fans in attendance cheered wildly, in essence validating his statement.
While Hollywood is often thought of as a soul-crushing machine where nothing but the almighty dollar matters, I’m seeing a lot of locally-produced micro-budget independent films (both shorts and features) — where you would think good storytelling would be used to make up for lack of budget, but in fact where it seems storytelling has taken a backseat to getting something (anything) out there on Vimeo or YouTube as fast as humanly possible, and then begging anyone and everyone across the blogosphere and Facebook and MySpace, who will listen to their incessant rants to watch and like it. The signal to noise ratio in my humble opinion has dropped to near zero in the indie filmmaking world. (At this point my colleagues would remind me to breathe).
But the truth is, cheap camcorders and cheap editing software along with free and easy distribution models like YouTube, has made moviemaking into a much more democratic process where the studios don’t control everything. But this has brought with it the dramatic lowering of quality of the average independent production, as everyone and their kid brother records some trivial stuff on the family camcorder or DSLR and then posts it. Facebook groups dedicated to local filmmaking endeavors have turned into bulletin boards where the mediocre hawk their stuff, and beg people to view and like. If it’s goofy enough, it might end up getting more hits than an entire season’s worth of NHL action.
A similar situation exists now for literature with the advent of self-publishing models such as Kindle. While it makes getting one’s novel out in the public eye far easier than it used to be (no dealing with agents, editors, and publishers who won’t give the time of day to anyone who isn’t already a well-known published author) it has lowered the bar to the point where the bar is practically underground. And while user ratings and reviews can sometimes help guide a reader through the morass of junk masquerading as literature, the ratings systems can and have been gamed. I heard recently that a writer who penned a scathing assessment of the Chinese penal system had found the fury of the motherland released when in a single day a huge number of negative reviews (some calling her an outright liar) appeared virtually overnight. And that’s why purveyors of low-quality movies on mediums such as YouTube go on a campaign of begging other filmmaker wannabe’s to give them a “like” to support their “career”.
I joined a couple of these local filmmaking Facebook groups to try to network with other serious filmmakers about techniques and maybe find people for cast and crew (or who were looking for cast and crew) but found they’re mostly of the “watch and like my home movie” variety of posts (with an occasional religious sermon thrown in by a fanatic). I rarely take a look at their news feeds anymore. I guess there’s a supposed implication that if enough people view and like someone’s hastily slapped together home movie on a site like YouTube, it will propel the filmmaker into a great filmmaking career. The fact is, all it does is pull the signal to noise ratio even lower than one would think possible (can it become a negative number?). The chuckles I hear from filmmaker acquaintances of mine who have actually won awards in local film festivals is that these pleas to “watch my video and like it”, as opposed to “give me your helpful feedback either way”, are a somewhat pathetic embarrassment. The really good local filmmakers seem to have abandoned mainstream communication channels like Facebook (other than private messaging), due to the high level of noise bombarding these groups on a daily basis. It has become like trying to hear the music above the air raid siren.
In all fairness, YouTube was never really intended to be a distribution mechanism for quality entertainment. Everyone knows it’s mainly where you can post your cell phone video clips of dogs gone wild, or babies vomiting up strained peas. It’s a video bulletin board. The fact that you can monetize your YouTube channel if you get enough views and likes, and actually make some money from it, doesn’t make the dog chasing his tail into an artistic work. The universal maxim that “you get what you pay for” has already moved the more talented and serious filmmakers into outlets like Netflix online and the festival circuit. Anyone willing to shell out $1,500 up front (or whatever it’s up to) to get an aggregator to screen your film to determine if it’s got any redeeming quality worthy of being potentially seen by millions of viewers on Netflix online is generally is a more serious filmmaker. It’s not that everything on Netflix is really good——on the contrary, much of it is rubbish. But it is far more likely a filmmaker will be discovered there or at festivals than on YouTube.
The small local film festivals usually charge a modest entry fee and at apply at least a little bit of pre-screening before they will show a film. Again, much of what you see on the local festival circuit is of dubious quality, but at least some of the absolute rubbish gets weeded out. I didn’t intend to get into too many details about film distribution in this particular blog. I have acquaintances who are far more knowledgeable about distribution than I am. And a man needs to know his limitations. But it bears mention that YouTube, while a good place to post and look for very short documentary-style clips of real world shenanigans, and the “peoples’ news”, it is not where people in general go to watch an entertaining movie. But I have digressed. Back to the almost lost art of storytelling.
The essentials of good storytelling: complex plot development, a central theme, character arcs, rising conflict and resolution, and maybe a moral delivered by the end, have all become afterthoughts (if thought of at all) to just cranking out footage as quickly and cheaply as possible, and maybe glamming it up a little with software tools like Aftereffects (or not). A good writer researches the subject area a little, maybe even interviews certain people to try to write with more authenticity. Coming up with an idea for a story is just the beginning of a long journey that can take months for a short and a year or more for a feature. Then comes the hard part of developing the story. Most good writers rely on trusted friends to read their scripts with an objective outside (read: critical) eye. They can take (or not) that feedback and use it to strengthen weak areas of the story. Sometimes, a friendly table read with local actors can let a writer know if dialog is working or not. The writer needs to let go of his or her ego as much as possible throughout the process.
I recently read a script that was sent to me by a local beginning writer I had worked on set with before, for an action-adventure short film that started off with a boring office conversation and then went downhill from there. The person who sent me the script seemed offended when I asked if anyone else had read and commented on the script before me. This aspiring writer told me a local director and a few actors were already on board and that they liked the script (in other words they were desperate for work). I suggested that maybe starting with a more intense dramatic scene than having two cops passively discussing the bad guy at the police station would be a good hook. I even gave notes and an example I came up with, starting the story in the midst of a crime in progress, and the local police foiling the crime, yet not catching the criminal. I explained that starting off with a tense bit of drama and as much action as the budget would allow, would make a good lead into the office scene. For my troubles, this writer acquaintance no longer talks to me, I guess for my attempt to help, I was seen as showing disrespect or something. I simply figured that the concept of putting in a hook in the first few pages, and then keeping the audience involved vicariously and/or voyeuristically, and on and off the edge of their seats throughout, as characters were developed and a plot unwound, and then bringing it all skillfully to a climax, was good storytelling technique. But good storytelling seems to be something a lot of folks who call themselves writers, seem oblivious to. I think this is the ego getting in the way. I look forward to seeing the finished production (which to the best of my knowledge is still in preproduction). I am after all, a curious person.
Many films coming out of “indiewood” suffer from the same malady. They seem to just be mere collections of scenes that the writer and director (often and unfortunately the same person) thought up and jotted down. Maybe someone thought of an interesting thing that could happen to someone and made that the centerpiece of the story, and then slapped a bunch of disjoint scenes together in front of and after it almost as a filler, and then thought they had written a good screenplay worthy of producing and distributing. I can’t imagine these writers having started with a log-line, then a synopsis, and then an outline, and then laying out color-coded scene cards on a table and arranging and rearranging them, carefully thinking about story threads interweaving across locations and between characters, as a complex plot emerges and colorful dimensional characters are shown evolving—all leading to a satisfying climax.
I get the feeling most of these “writers” have never read a book on writing nor taken a single writing class. It’s blatantly obvious when their script doesn’t even follow universal screenwriting conventions. But even if they’ve read one or two books, they still don’t seem to understand what they’ve read. When I was learning the craft of screenwriting, I was advised by my instructors and in countless books and articles I’ve read on screenwriting, to read as many scripts as I could get my hands on, in multiple genres, to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and why. I found after I’d read maybe a hundred different screenplays, that I was just starting to get an idea of what flows well and makes a good and entertaining story.
If I could give these aspiring writers one important bit of advice, it would be if you want to be a decent writer, you should first become a reader. Read, read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. “Elements of Style” is a must-read. There are a number of good books on screenwriting out there, but my personal least favorites are the “Save The Cat” series (for promulgating the Hollywood formulaic approach to writing (find a successful story and “write the same thing only different”). The advice to read lots and lots and lots of screenplays bears repeating. You can get them for free from various sites on the Internet.
And for god’s sake, master the English language—strengthen your vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, syntax and usage. Even if you’re writing a down and dirty street story full of slang, you want to use the slang and idioms and “street talk” in the right places and in the right way. If you are not reasonably competent with the language you are writing in, you probably shouldn’t be a writer until you do become so. You don’t want to negatively impress the world with poor language skills when you’re trying to sell the idea that you’re a writer. Now, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a mis-spelling or three in this blog that the spellchecker missed, and maybe got the grammar wrong somewhere, but this is blog of the kind that gets cranked out in one sitting. Hopefully there was nothing too distracting. In the blogosphere, there is no luxury of passing work onto an editor for prior review. So forgive my petty sins fellow writers. I am of course always looking to improve myself, so fire away with your salvos if that makes you feel better.
To conclude this rather verbose entry, it’s a darned shame that moviemaking has become so easy that people have gotten lazy with respect to the demands of good storytelling. Reliance on just on having a decent camcorder or cheap DSLR, and a few willing friends to stand in front of it and monotonically read a script you slapped together with all the reckless abandon of a blog, might be a good practice exercise, but it is not a formula for making a good film. If you want to be a successful screenwriter (or novelist, musician, photographer, painter, sculptor, dancer or whatever) you have to be able to tell a good story folks. And I do believe that like any talent in any area of endeavor, some people are born with innate skills and others have to work very much harder to come close to the same level of proficiency.
To answer my own question: no I don’t think storytelling is dead. There are some great storytellers around. There are great small-budget filmmakers (I hope to be able to interview one from time to time), just as there are some great singer-songwriters amidst a sea of kilowatt amplifier stacks, tight spandex, and high-speed guitar shredders. You just have to look harder for them. And when you find them, make sure you let them know in one way or another that you do like to hear or see or read a good story.
In a future blog I will talk about what happens when the writer and director are not the same person, and the director misinterprets the story but insists he or she has the sole authority and responsibility to manipulate the story for the film medium.
Freshly back from the highly entertaining Buddy Guy concert at the Progress Energy Center, I started pondering how the size of a rock band determines how the band has to perform in order to sound good. I specifically mention rock here since other mainstream genres such as jazz and country seem to have the group dynamics down pretty well—probably by necessity. I’ve been to some great rock/blues concerts lately and some pretty awful ones, and this issue perplexed me a bit. So I thought about it. How does a band get a great sound from either a handful or a stageful of performers?
It isn’t just by accident that a symphony orchestra pulls over a hundred instruments together into an intricate mixture that can move an audience deeply. It is due to the ability of the conductor to make sure each piece fits together perfectly. And the fact is some classical music just won’t work with a gigantimongus orchestra—thus the chamber orchestra, the string quartet, and the solo accompaniments. So if a classical symphony orchestra has a leader who arranges the musical compositions and then conducts the performance, why don’t all bands follow this successful formula?
The obvious answer is that they can’t afford it—aesthetically as much as financially. I can’t imagine seeing a rock band with someone in front of them waving a baton about. But on the other hand, they do have someone acting in that role for every song. Sometimes the member differs from song to song, and sometimes there is one prominent leader on the stage. But I don’t see a baton in anyone’s hand, you say? But you do. In fact you see two in the drummer’s hands. At key points in the song (especially for the ending) you probably notice the drummer making a flourish or rolls on the toms and cymbals. The he lifts his hands in the air in one final dramatic gesture and brings the sticks down in a final percussive explosion. Take a look at the other musicians at the end of a song—see how they look at the drummer’s hands. The drummer has just guided the band through various sections and brought the song to a rousing climax. Welcome to small-band conducting 101.
And it’s not just the drummer who can do this. In a band with a prominent guitarist, watch as he turns and looks at other band members and nods his head. He isn’t just showing contentment. He is indicating things to the other members: things like “four more bars on this solo”, or “your turn to step out”, and so on. And in place of the drummer raising his sticks, you’ll see the neck of his guitar rise up and then come hurling down for the climactic ending. Lead vocalists can do this too. You’ve seen them swinging a handheld microphone around, lifting it up, and then pulling it quickly down (watch Roger Daltry of the Who in a live performance).
So there is a sort of conducting going on onstage with respect to the timing of the performance. But what about for the relative volume levels of the various instruments? You see the symphony conductor point his non-baton-holding hand toward a section of instruments and then raise his hand palm up or lower it palm down. With this gesture, he informs his instrumentalists to play louder or softer. The result is a well-balanced mix of sounds. How does a small band accomplish this? For the most part, they have to rely on the sound engineer operating the front of house (FOH) mixing console for this. Most successful bands think of the person at the mixing board as another member of the band. They treat him or her with great respect prior to the show when setting up and then running through the sound check. A good FOH engineer knows music, knows the band and its repertoire, and is a master of setting and adjusting the levels of the various voices and instruments to create that perfect mix the symphony conductor accomplishes from his onstage position. If you’ve ever noticed how awful the sound can be in a bar or other small venue where the band tries to mix the sound themselves from the stage, maybe with “assistance” from a drunken buddy in the crowd telling them who to turn up or down—well you can chalk that up to that extra unseen band member not being there doing an exemplary job of riding the faders.
Then of course there is the arrangement itself. At the Buddy Guy concert, each musician had a role to play and knew when to step out with a blazing solo, and when to step back and lay down rhythmic textures as a backdrop for someone else. The prominent sound throughout the whole concert was the headliner himself—Buddy. But even with bands that don’t have a specific member who stands out as the undisputed leader, there are protocols and common sense to be followed. Much of the performance (but not all) has been determined prior to the performance in the arrangement of the piece. Buddy’s Damn Right Blues Band got it right! Keyboardist Marty Sammon, Drummer Tim Austin, Bassist Orlando Wright and guitarist Ric Hall didn’t just play well—they played well together—as if they’d been playing together for a decade or more (they probably have been). A band is most often guided by whoever composed the piece (in the absence of a strong band leader) and they make a mutual agreement as to who plays what parts at what volumes and for how long, and then they rehearses this until it sounds right. If they are smart, they will have someone with good set of ears listen to their rehearsal and let them know what sounds good and what doesn’t. What sounds good and what doesn’t differs by band size (among other things).
With a power trio like ZZTop, the big challenge is getting enough sound out of the band. Each musician has to be capable of soloing as well as laying down rhythmic textures—sometimes at the same time. Watch Billy Gibbons playing power chords while simultaneously playing lead on the higher strings, and maybe even a little bass line with his thumb (Jimi Hendrix was the undisputed master of sounding like three guitarists on stage. He was complemented by bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, rather than competing with them!). Another great power trio was Cream. The bassist in a power trio has to be able to play interesting lead lines as well as chords (Noel Redding and Jack Bruce were, and ZZ’s Dusty Hill is, more than capable of changing roles as needed to play off against the guitarist). And the drummer has to be able to both keep time for the band and deliver killer chops himself. Again, The Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, Cream’s Ginger Baker and ZZTop’s Frank Beard have been able to not only lay down a percussion backdrop, but also to stand out with remarkable chops of their own. The signature of a great power trio is having three amazingly talented musicians who know how to play together instinctively.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “big band”. The prototypical big bands were the swing bands of the post-war era, led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey… These were tight, highly sophisticated bands capable of filling a dance hall with some pretty amazingly good sounds. These days, you rarely see a rock band with more than six musicians on stage. Occasionally you’ll see two or three backing vocalists or a couple of horns. These are usually just sweeteners. They add to the cost of touring, so you rarely see them with any but the most successful touring bands capable of drawing big crowds.
My recent attendance at a Dave Mathews Band performance drilled home the fact that too many musicians on stage can be a very negative thing for a performance if not handled well vis-a-vis arrangement and conducting. The arrangements and on stage choreography must be perfect or else the result is a sonic stew. Rock violinist Boyd Tinsley was magnificent: for the ten seconds or so that you could actually hear him playing. The rest of the time, his performance was buried within a jumble of over a dozen instruments and vocals. Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross on horns – well I think I heard a little of them and they seemed pretty good. Tim Reynolds played guitar, and I’m still not sure I heard much more from his feed than one solo. The only instrumentalist that stood out was guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis, but that was an obvious decision. Branford would not likely want to be a guest performer if he couldn’t be heard above the din. And then there’s Dave Mathews himself, one of the better storytelling singer/songwriters who was up front banging away on acoustic guitar and belting out his already blurry style of vocals and he gave a totally unimpressive performance. The end result was one of the most disappointing performances I can recollect in recent times. Nothing about it was memorable in a positive way (save for the performance of the opening act: The Lumineers (more about this wonderful low-key folk/rock band in another review).
In fairness to Dave, some of the problem could have been the room acoustics (though I’ve heard some very good concerts at the PNC Arena). It could have been due to a poor mixing job at the front of house. But then Dave should know about these potential issues and stay on top of them by creating crisp clear arrangements that leave no room for errors of this type. The instrumentals were simply too busy, too muddled, too indistinct. I know that the big band sound is what Dave is going for, but in this performance he struck out.
My concluding thoughts: the challenge for small bands is to have highly talented musicians working together to create enough musical textures to keep the performance from sounding thin. The challenge faced by stage-filling bands is somewhat the opposite: keeping all those instruments and “textures” from competing and ultimately forming a jumbled morass of sound. Musicians in smaller bands need to put their egos aside and either let one member be the band leader or else trade-off as appropriate. Leaders of big bands need to take charge on stage, and they need to create arrangements that let each musician shine in their own time, rather than just generating a high-volume slop.