Seek a fresh line each day

I was once dragged to see a popular, second-tier jam band in one of our grand theaters, a band that had played a lot of small local clubs on the way up, and a band I loathed, on record, to the offense of several friends who found them terribly exciting. At this stage in their career, they were selling out big theater shows in certain cities, even multi-night runs. Their secret was not a large fan base but a frighteningly loyal and mobilized one. And that is, indeed, one way to do it. My friends insisted I give them another chance. Experience the magic.

So I went, and they sucked. White-guy jam funk by the numbers — everyone in the band playing on every beat, even the bass player, and all rhythms go Dah-di di-Dah-di-Dah-Dah-Dah, or some variant thereof. Songs made of stoned brain drippings. Fine if it’s your thing, dude, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I did notice, however, that one of the band’s two lead guitarists had grown into an excellent long-from improviser. Clearly, he had gone to school on Scofield and Mike Stern and Scott Henderson. He had stretched his harmonic vocabulary considerably, and he had worked on drawing a clean long line in his soloing, staying in the moment, resisting his own collection of showboat clichés and instead making phrases out of the air, all dimensions of the great discipline of jazz playing. He was sounding really fine. Next level, even. Wasn’t enough to redeem the band or the material in my ears, but still.

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Deep into an interminable first (and, In the Grateful Dead tradition, the shorter and more song-focused) set, the band announced a special guest. How rarely are they actually special? But in this case, it was a legitimate legend of roots guitar playing — a country, blues, rockabilly, twang wizard who’s playing I knew well. Sweet!

And man, when his first solo hit, what brightening of the room: cutting, visceral, articulate, full of swagger and edge and zero percent jam lassitude and noodle. Then he started trading leads with the ace player from the band, and something remarkable happened. The legend ran out of gas. He had nowhere left to go. The jam kid was spiraling into space with fresh invention and new ideas, melodies spinning off melodies. The legend had become, in less than 30 seconds, pure self-parody. I don’t blame him, either. When was the last time he had to blow for more than 30 seconds? His limitations suited him fine in 99 scenarios, but this was scenario 100.

This daily blogging is a great and self-enriching discipline. It’s the daily publishing, on the other hand, that wears on the soul. One gets sick of one’s own voice and perspective. One begins to fall back on stock riffs, known winners, signature moves. Let me draw a fresh line each day and stay in the moment, like the jam band of journalism. Let me fall not into self-parody and hot licks.

Muse, use me for thine purpose. Discard when done.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.