Saturday, May 1, 2010

Making Music: The Grateful Dead, Amanda Palmer, and John Mayer

I found an interesting confluence of ideas this week in the separate streams of information from two musicians I follow.

Amanda Palmer, who is touring in Europe right now, performing both her own music and as a part of the music/art project EvelynEvelyn, posted a full quote of a rant from a music commenter named Bob Lefsetz about the Grateful Dead exhibit at the New York Historical Society.

Mr. Lefsetz was not overly impressed with the exhibition, but his brief review of it leads into a lengthy discussion of the approach to music-making that the Dead had and how that approach is lacking in much of today's music business. The Dead, he notes, were "an adventure without a destination." They didn't really have "hits," they weren't all over the radio (at least not in their heyday), and they didn't play a scripted concert. But their approach -- a communal dedication to the idea of music, to trying, to musical experimentation -- could and did pay off:
You’re not waiting for the hit.  You’re not amazed by the pyrotechnics.  But if the band stands on stage playing long enough, we’re all gonna fall into a groove, you’ll feel it and be transported.
I have not yet seen Amanda Palmer play live. Though I had heard music from her first band, the Dresden dolls, in the past. I found her and started to follow her activities, and listen to recordings, after she became engaged to Neil Gaiman, a favorite author and social media presence who I have been tracking. But I think she lives this approach to music; open, free, experimenting and giving to her audience. And I applaud her for it.

Meanwhile, John Mayer, who is in a break between tours, posted a video and discussion on his site this week that suggests as a similar approach, even if he does come from a much more pop-star and celebrity place.

Mayer is starting work on songs for a next album and has decided to try writing while on tour, working with his band during sound-checks and perhaps adding early versions of tunes to his set to see how they play.

For his last album, Mayor used the internet as a sounding board and posted works in progress, snippets, and thoughts as he went along. This time, he says, he wants to "think like a new artist."
Playing arenas and ampitheatres doesn’t have to mean showing up and doing an end zone dance. What if it were alive and organic and I played new tunes that were constantly changing and growing up each night? It would sure light a fire under my ass to write the best song I could, knowing I’d be bumping a surefire album track for it.

Playing to 20,000 people should feel like playing for 200, just with 19,800 more people looking in.
I think this is promising. I like John Mayer and have since his early light-rock singer-songwriter days.

I knew we were onto something with him when he appeared on a grammy awards show early on as a new artist allowed to play a bit of an early hit, solo, on acoustic guitar. He went off-recording during an instrumental break and added some very tasty, jazzy licks that suggested a jammer was in there somewhere.

His subsequent music has borne that out as Mayer mixes hard rock, pop, and a bit of jam-band aesthetic into what is still a pop star career.

Making music is at its best when it is communication, back and forth, between musician and listener. This can happen live, it can happen in recordings, and it can happen in written music if one stays open to the idea that the music is alive and depends on both playing and hearing.

And to the idea that the musician is as much the audience as the people who paid a promoter to get in the door. The best music often comes as a surprise to the musician playing it.

So, let us support those musicians who embrace this approach -- whoever they are, where ever they are, and whatever they play.

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