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Maybe the Words Don't Matter Half as Much as the Tune [Part I]

6 June 2006

On May 15th, at the East Bay’s Ivy Room, I had the pleasure of sharing some new songs at an acoustic round robin night organized by WILLIS STORK (who also performs under the name SORCERY BIRD). The main occasion for this was BRETT RALPH’s (ex-FADING OUT, ex-RISING SHOTGUN ) first visit to the Bay Area since 2004. In 2004, we put together a band (featuring HUDSON BELL, MIRIAM JACOBSON, BLACK NASTY, and myself) to backup Brett at the now defunct 40th Street Warehouse. This time around Brett didn’t want the hassle of spending his vacation time rehearsing with a band, but also didn’t want to just do a poetry reading either. Since Willis is much more actively involved in the social aspects of the East Bay Music Scene than I, and has recently been hosting and participating in acoustic round robin nights at such venues as the Stork Club (no relation), he volunteered to organize the event.

At first, I was a little bummed out that on such short notice we couldn’t get a show at the more centrally located Stork Club, but Willis’s choice of Albany’s Ivy Room more than made up for it—for me especially, because it’s one of the few 50-100 capacity clubs that actually has a working piano (and readers of my previous columns in The Big Takeover know how crucial that is to me). So, finally, I’d be truly invited to participate in one of these round robin nights. Willis was also able to lure such Bay Area luminaries as PAULA FRAZER (ex-TARNATION; ex-FRIGHT WIG) and GREG ASHLEY (GRIS GRIS) and up and coming stars like YEA-MING CHEN (DREAMDATE) and the elusive BOBBI A) while Brett and I brought in TANYA BROLOASKI (a poet & Renaissance scholar who does a mean KITTY WELLS impersonation) to flesh out the evening. While eight people, each playing three two-song sets, may seem like overkill, this format retains the eclectic advantages of an open-mic night without being so open that about anyone can crawl in.

Since many of the artists more often perform with bands, it offers the performer a chance to try out different things in a lower pressure situation (before she blew up, JOLIE HOLLAND used to love to perform in these events; in fact, she privately lamented to me that her manager won’t let her do them anymore). It also allows the audience to connect with the singer/songwriter in a more intimate way. Aside from myself, every performer was primarily a guitarist; yet the most profound distinction I felt that night was between the acts whose songs emphasized words and those whose songs emphasized sounds. Part of the greatness of this event was that it not only accommodated both styles equally, but furthermore helped establish a dialogue between these different musical styles.

I’ve always loved that ARTHUR LEE line (on LOVE’s Forever Changes) where he sings “the things that I must do consist of more than style,” in part because he seemed to be starting his journey from exactly the opposite place from where I saw myself as starting. But even if I started by erring on the side of content while Lee started by erring on the side of style, we shared a need/duty to meet in the middle. Recently, I wrote a song called “(The Words Don’t Matter As Much As) The Tune,” because I found that trying to fit words to this particular melody was threatening to make me abandon the song for another one without as pretty of a melody and I didn’t want to have to do that. Time will tell whether this temporary solution to a perennial songwriter’s problem works for others, but even after writing that song, I’m still not convinced the words don’t always matter less than the tune or other sonic/mood elements. But this night got me thinking about it again.

I can’t speak for the other musicians that performed that night, but because I’m so obsessed with the relationship of words to the tune, the performance, and the other elements of the song, I listen to others to get some sense of how different or similar they are to me as a songwriter/performer. What ‘tricks’ can I learn from them? What do they do that I wouldn’t want to do (even if I love the way they do it)? Before I was a performer myself, I often wanted to change others’ performing style. But by sharing the stage with them, and getting to do my own thing, I have become more tolerant of, and even enthusiastic about, the differences. Such a feeling of mutual respect came through that night at The Ivy Room.

[Part II to follow]