Melissa Ferrick at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York
The size and complexity of the musical world blows my mind.
Genres and styles seem to be as numerous and varied as snowflakes. Just when I think I have a handle on things – at least within the parameters of the current, western culture in which I reside, and that I can organize in some satisfactory way the musical world as I know it today – I’ll learn something new about a subgenre, a style or a trend, and I realize it’s not possible. The musical world – even my tiny corner of it – is too big to fully understand.
In addition to my amazement at the boundless forms in which music exists, I am also fascinated by what people seek to get from music. It serves so many functions, and within those functions, so many aspects of music are valued in such different ways. I am endlessly curious about people’s motivations for listening to music. What on earth moves them?
Last night my own feelings about what’s musically important to me became clearer, and as soon as I got home, I began to digest my thoughts…
This evening I went to hear songwriter Melissa Ferrick at Caffe Lena, the iconic local venue here in Saratoga Springs, New York. My former husband produced what I believe to have been her first EP demo – the recording that came before her successful career began (starting on Atlantic Records), now over thirty years ago.
As I listened to her set, I observed the audience with care, as I do at all shows. I always note the reactions, whether folks nod or sway to the time, whether they mouth the lyrics, whether they sit stock still, whether or not they applaud or shout. It was fascinating to me how many folks didn’t move an inch as they listened. I’d say maybe five percent moved visibly. Melissa’s stuff is, as one would expect from a songwriter, mostly about the story, the choice of words. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that the folks there present – as with folks who gravitate to singer/songwriters in general – didn’t seem to care so much about the groove or the harmony. Maybe even the melodies weren’t of top priority. They seemed to care primarily about the sentiments expressed. I imagined that they were listening for the language and the poetry. Listening for connection through story.
For me, that’s secondary. A clever lyric always impresses, but I don’t really want all that storytelling. (Says the woman who’s penned nearly 700,000 words of her story over the past decade.) And as for the nuance, the poetry? There’s a deficiency in my character, I fully admit it, because I don’t have a need nor the patience to listen for it. (I do enjoy reading poetry, however.) When I’m listening to music I’m wanting primarily to be soothed, to be taken to a place of ease and deep comfort. My objectives cannot be met by an evening of music consisting of essentially the same four chords with very similar voicings. For me, the story alone is never enough to carry the same predictable harmony, over and over. If I want a story, I’ll go hear someone read one. (I usually get a lot more enjoyment from the stories that come in between the songs than come from the songs themselves.)
Please understand that I know Melissa is a super-talented showman and songwriter, and her relationship with the crowd is beautiful. She’s top tier stuff. And her rhythm, her time? Her style of playing is built on it. Her groove is rock solid. Melissa is an all-around stellar human and badass musician. (But in light of how few in the audience were nodding in response to her time, it seems to confirm once again that for them, groove still takes a back seat to story.) Yet somehow – and I cannot quantify exactly how – it didn’t move me the way it did all those people there. Maybe it’s because I have no history with her material. I don’t know. Her set was a great thing to behold, and what she possesses is rare – and I’m glad I went, for sure – but on the whole, I don’t need a lot of solo singer/songwriters in my life. A few shows a year by great talents like Melissa will do me just fine.
There, I’ve said it. It’s been on my mind for decades. I’ve always known it, but I’ve never shouted it from the rooftops before. But now I am ready to declare that I am, musically speaking, a snob. Perhaps I’m even a bit of a simpleton. I want music to wrap around me like a warm blanket or tease me like a lover. I want to feel about a groove the way I do about a fresh, hot slice of thin crust pizza with just the perfect amount of char on the bottom. Oh dear God. That’s the good stuff I’m after.
I like things the way I like them, and at this point in my life I don’t wish to spend too much time trying to like things I pretty much know that I won’t. I’m always up for listening to something new, and I’ve probably spent more time critically listening to a far wider variety of music than most folks I know (thanks to my father, former husband and son and their huge combined musical orbits), but I no longer wish to give over hours of my time to music that I don’t really love.
Instead, I’ll take any form of Bach you have, I’ll take harmonically and sonically rich tracks of any genre, a few clever lyrics – then add in a handful of impeccably tasty sessions at Daryl’s House and I’ll be good. On the drive home I might want some hair bands to push me through those long, dark highway miles, and when I’m driving into New York City I’m gonna need my Cuban grooves on the way down and some deep R&B cuts on the way back. And when I can’t be soothed by tasty and tidy pop tunes, give me some straight-ahead jazz, the stuff that scratches the itch like no other musical form. On a fine fall day I might need to hear the sweeping expanse of a Mahler symphony. And on that first warm day of spring, I’ll definitely need some vintage Allman Brothers playing (with all the windows down) when I’m driving through Greenfield.
Metaphorically speaking, I listen the way I eat; the meat isn’t important to me, the sauce is. All I’m after is the bread and those sexy flavors. Actually, forget the bread. Brother, just hand me a spoon.
I don’t need a sophisticated story – just something I can identify with. Mostly, I just want a rich sound and a great feel. And please. When you’re sharing those lyrics, please… get to the point already. I’m here to witness your story, but do you really need nine verses to tell me about it? Give me a hook or a melody that I’ll go away singing, share a curiously clever lyric. Let me hear the kind of arrangement or performance that will make me laugh out loud because it’s that good.
As I see it, music and food provide the highest order of pure pleasure I’ll ever know at this point in my life. So this shit all better be pretty compelling. Music should sound as good as the best barbecue tastes.
After Melissa’s show I walked around the tourist town to hear the many lives acts whose music spilled out into the street. I paused at each, wondering what it was that appealed to the patrons. It was easy to see what all the cover bands offered; folks waved their beer bottles in the air and sang along with every line. Humans have enjoyed this sort of camaraderie for centuries. The jazz club was different, very few seemed to be listening, the music served more as an energetic bed behind the conversation. I moved on to the large venue in town and could feel the bass pushing my organs around inside my body before I reached the main room. It felt like a physical assault. Yeah, but this was a young person’s scene. Once I too had the energy – and desire – for a full immersion like this. But not now, it seemed almost violent. I didn’t finish out my tour of the town; I’m not a fan of electrified Irish bands; loud, midrangey and often on top of the beat, they usually just make me anxious. Kinda like Zumba classes. (Seriously guys, what’s with the crappy music at the Y? Someone, please, figure it out. Produce some compelling tracks already.)
These days I need the good stuff; I need the medicinal forms of music. Please, do your best to play and sing in tune. Bury the click or lay just a bit behind it. Let your string quartets and symphonies breathe and sway like great undersea plants. Give me a sonic profile that is balanced, lush, and just loud enough. Time is running low; I need to get to the good stuff now. I need to get to those tasty, salty crumbs at the bottom of the bag. Got no time for the filler these days.
Ok, so having just unloaded my uber-honest feelings about music, I feel I must make a confession: I do not find my own music to check many of my own requisite boxes. I’ve written songs that fit my current and limited purview; I write for me and a piano, not for a band. And it’s really more like therapy than songwriting. (Kinda like this collection of writings. So. Who knows how my songwriting might evolve?)
This songwriting thing is completely new to me, and I’m a tad disappointed that my process is confined to keyboards. Guitar players carry an arsenal of critical elements that serve to drive songs. I don’t have the built-in drummer of the strum patterns, I don’t enjoy the complex harmonic profile that strings create, and then there’s the portability issue. I have always been deeply jealous of guitar players, and it’s only getting worse as I realize all the components my one measly instrument is missing. I have begun to dream about having a band, of hearing how my songs might sound if they could only be fully animated. Who can I enlist? Fantasies of moving back to Chicago filter into my thoughts… At least there, I know musicians. I’m odd man out here, and it feels acute these days.
My efforts to find a duo partner have failed, so I’m skeptical that I can find anyone to help me animate my music. I dunno. I feel stopped. I’m such a critic, and yet I myself am worlds away from any sonic success. I began writing songs only to discover there are so many more layers to the process than I’d realized, to say nothing of what’s involved in producing it and bringing it to life. (I wish to add that I do know well about the production process, it’s just that I didn’t expect to get sucked in and wish for anything more advanced than simply writing a song and documenting it on my ancient iPhone 7.) With the skills and tools I have presently, I don’t have the ability to achieve a product that comes close to what I think might be satisfactory. Holding standards that I myself cannot live up to makes me feel a bit foolish, but there it is.
In writing my own music, I have created a monster. Kinda looks like my next project will be learning how to train the beast.
Postscript: Since publishing this post, it has been brought to my attention that a primary element of Melissa’s show is simply her incredible energy. Seems silly that I missed such an obvious thing; it appears that in my analysis of her performance and music, I missed the forest for the trees. Yes, Melissa exudes energy. She also exudes humanity and honesty. There’s much to be said for her and what she gives to this world.
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