Dec 16

The blues about the blues

Some kinds of music travel well – they propagate out of their native cultures very readily. American rock music and European classical music are obvious examples; they have huge followings and expert practitioners pretty much everywhere on earth that’s in contact with civilization.

Some…don’t travel well at all. Attempts to imitate them by people who aren’t native to their home culture seldom succeed – they fall afoul of subtleties that a home-country connoisseur can hear but not explain well, or at all. The attempts may be earnestly polished and well meant, but in some ineffable way they lack soul. American blues music and to a lesser but significant extent jazz are like this, which is all the more interesting because they’re close historical and genetic kin to rock.

Why am I thinking about this? Because one of the things that YouTube’s recommender algorithms make easy (and almost inevitable) is listening to strings of musical pieces that fit within what the algorithms recognize as a genre. I’ve noticed that the places where its genre recognition is most likely to break down are correlated with whether the genre travels well. So whatever I’m noticing about that distinction is not just difficult for humans but for machine learning as well, at least at current state of the art.

Most attempts at blues by non-Americans are laughable – unintentional parodies by people trying for the real thing. Not all; there was an older generation of British and Irish musicians who immersed in the form in the early Sixties and grokked it well enough to bring it back to the U.S., completely transforming American rock in the process. There are, for some reason, a small handful of decent blues players in Holland. But elsewhere, generative understanding of the heart of the blues is so rare that I was utterly gobsmacked when I found it in Greece.

I don’t know for sure, not being a home-country connoisseur, but I strongly suspect that Portuguese fado is like this. I have a pretty good ear and readily synchronize myself to different musical styles; I can even handle exotica like Indian microtones decently. But I wouldn’t go near fado, I sense a grave risk that if I tried any actual Portuguese fado fan would be politely suppressing a head-shaking he-really-don’t-get-it reaction the same way I usually have to when I listen to Eurojazz.

And Eurojazz players have a better frequency of not ludicrously failing than Euro blues players! Why? I don’t know. I can only guess that the recognition features of “real” jazz are less subtle than for “real” blues, and imitators are thus less likely to slide into unintentional parody. But since I can’t enumerate those recognition features this remains a guess. I do know timing is part of it, and there are uses of silence that are important. Eurojazz tends to be too busy, too slick.

If it’s any consolation to my non-American readers, Americans don’t automatically get it either. My own beloved wife, despite being musically talented, doesn’t have the ear – blues doesn’t speak to her, and if she were unwise enough to try to imitate it she would doubtless fail badly.

One reason I’m posting this is that I hope my commenters might be able to identify other musical genres that travel very poorly – I want to look for patterns. Are there foreign genres that Americans try to imitate and don’t know they’re botching?

And now a different kind of blues about the blues…

There’s an unacknowledged and rather painful truth about the blues, which is that that the primitive Delta versions blues fans are expected to revere are in many ways not as interesting as what came later, out of Chicago in particular. Monotonous, repetitive lyrics, primitive arrangements…but there’s a taboo against noticing this so strong that it took me over forty years to even notice it was there, and I might still not have if I hadn’t spent two days immersed in the rootsiest examples I could find on YouTube.

I found that roots blues is surrounded by a haze of retrospective glorification that (to my own shock!) it too often fails to deserve. And of course the obvious question is “Why?”. I think I’ve figured it out, and the answer is deeply sad.

It’s because, if you notice that later, more evolved and syncretized versions of the blues tend to be more interesting, and you say so, you risk making comparisons that will be interpreted as “white people do it better than its black originators”. And nobody wants that risk.

This came to me as I was listening to a collection of blues solos by Gary Moore, a now-deceased Irishman who played blues with both real heart and a pyrotechnic brilliance you won’t find in Robert Johnson or (one of my own roots favorites) John Lee Hooker. And found myself flinching from the comparison; took me an act of will to name those names just now, even after I’d been steeling myself to it.

Of course this is not a white > black thing; it’s an early vs. late thing. Recent blues players (more likely to be white) have the history of the genre itself to draw on. They have better instruments – Gary Moore’s playing wouldn’t be possible without Gary Moore’s instrument, you can get more tone colors and dynamic range out of a modern electric guitar than you could out of a wooden flattop with no pickups. Gary Moore grew up listening to a range of musical styles not accessible to an illiterate black sharecropper in 1930 and that enriched his playing.

But white blues players may be at an unfair disadvantage in the reputational sweepstakes forever simply because nobody wants to takes the blues away from black people. That would be a particularly cruel and wrong thing to do given that the blues originated as a black response to poverty and oppression largely (though not entirely) perpetrated by white people.

Yes, the blues belongs to all of us now – it’s become not just black roots music but American roots music; I’ve jammed onstage with black bluesmen and nobody thought that was odd. Still, the shadow of race distorts our perceptions of it, and perhaps always will.

May 13

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago

I saw Brand X live a few hours ago. Great jazz-fusion band from the 1970s, still playing like genius maniacs after all these years. Dropped $200 on tickets, dinner for me and my wife, and a Brand X cap. Worth. Every. Penny.

Yeah, they saved “Nuclear Burn” for the encore…only during the last regular number some idiot managed to spill water on Goodsall’s guitar pedals, making it unsafe for him to play. So that blistering guitar line that hypnotized me as a college student in 1976 had to be played by their current keyboardist, Scott Weinberger. And damned if he didn’t pull it off!

Brilliant performance all round. Lots of favorites, some new music including a track called “Violent But Fair” in which this band of arcane jazzmen demonstrated conclusively that they can out-metal any headbanger band on the planet when they have a mind to. And, of all things, a whimsical cover of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions”.

The audience loved the band – nobody was there by accident, it was a houseful of serious prog and fusion fans like me. The band loved us right back, cracking jokes and goofing on stage and doing a meet-and-greet after the show.

I got to shake Goodsall’s hand and tell him that he had rocked my world when I first heard him play in ’76 and that it pleases me beyond all measure that 40 years later he’s still got it. You should have seen his smile.

Gonna wear that Brand X cap next time I go to the pistol range and watch for double-takes.

“Nuclear Burn” by Brand X

Dec 28

The blues ate rock and roll!

I’ve been diving into the history of rock music recently because, quite by chance a few weeks ago, I glimpsed an answer to a couple of odd little questions that had been occasionally been bothering me for decades.

The most obtrusive of these questions is: Why does nothing in today’s rock music sound like the Beatles?

It’s a pertinent question because the Beatles were so acclaimed as musical innovators in their time and still so hugely popular. And yet, nobody sounds like them. Since not long after the chords of the “Let It Be” died away in 1969, every attempt to revive the Beatlesy sound of bright vocal-centered ensemble pop has lacked any staying power among rock fans. It gets tried every once in a while by a succession of bands running from Badfinger to the Smithereens, and goes nowhere. Why is this?

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May 05

Sometimes progress diminishes

It’s not news to long-time followers of this blog that I love listening to virtuoso guitarists. Once, long ago in the 1980s I went to see a guitarist named Michael Hedges who astonished the crap out of me. The guy made sounds come out of a wooden flattop that were like nothing else on Earth.

Hedges died a few years later in a car crash, tragically young, and is no longer very well remembered. But I was on IRC yesterday taking music with a friend who mentioned a harmonica and a whistler doing Jimi Hendrix in a “laid back, measured, acoustic style”, and I brought up Hedges because I remembered his cover of All Along The Watchtower as an utterly amazing thing.

Afterwards, in a mood of gentle nostalgia, I searched YouTube for a recording of it. Found one, from the Wolf Trap festival in ’86, and got a surprise.

It was undoubtedly very similar to the performance I heard at around the same time, but…it just didn’t sound that interesting. Technically accomplished, yes, but it didn’t produce the feeling of wonder and awe I experienced then. His original Because It’s There followed on the playlist, and held up better, but…huh?

It didn’t take me long to figure this out. It’s because in 2015 I’m surrounded by guitarists doing what Hedges was doing in the late 1980s. It even has a name these days: “percussive fingerstyle”, Andy McKee, Antoine Dufour, Erik Mongrain, Tommy Emmanuel; players like these come up on my Pandora feed a lot, intermixed with the jazz fusion and progressive metal.

Sometimes progress diminishes its pioneers. It can be difficult to remember how bold an artistic innovation was once we’ve become used to its consequences. Especially when the followers exceed the originator; I must concede that Andy McKee, for example, does Hedges’s thing better than Hedges himself did. It may take memories like mine, acting as a kind of time capsule, to remind us how special the moment of creation was.

(And somwhere out there, some people who made it to Jimi Hendrix concerts when they were very young are nodding at this.)

I’m here to speak up for you, Michel Hedges. Hm..I see Wikipedia doesn’t link him to percussive fingerstyle. I think I’ll fix that.

Mar 13

Country-music hell and fake accents

A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.

I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”

Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.

After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.

After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…

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Mar 23

Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

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Aug 17

A flash at the heart of the West

I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.

It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.

What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!

And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.

But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.

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Apr 15

Pandora’s Biases

Back in February I experimented with Pandora Radio and loved it…enough that I bought a subscription within a few days. It’s my background music now; I might never own an analog radio again.

For a while I ran around telling all my friends about how Pandora was the greatest thing! since sliced bread! you should try it! But I’ve stopped doing that, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work as well for other people…starting with my wife. I think I know why, and it reveals an interesting failure mode of all such systems.

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Feb 07

Opening Pandora’s Music box

I’ve been meaning to experiment with Pandora Radio for a while, and finally got to it today. It’s based on something called the “Music Genome Project” that categorizes music by how it expresses a large number of “genes” — traits that describe features like song structure, instrumentation, genre influences, and so forth. According to Wikipedia these are used to construct a vector, and similarity between tunes is measured by a simple distance function. You give Pandora a seed artist; it then apparently random-walks you through tunes and artists similar to that artist’s style.

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