The 2013 Grammys

February 14, 2013

I am so far out of the dominant music scene. It’s pathetic. But I’ve never liked pop music since B96 or B97 or Bwhatever-it-was came on the scene in Chicago in the ’80s. I never listen to it, so watching the Grammys was like waking up from a long sleep. Or returning to a nightmare. While there were some high points, most pop music remains mediocre, with predictable structures and hooks, lyrics that make Cole Porter weep in his cold grave, and vocal acrobatics that any Baroque or Classical composer would have appreciated. I am not a fan of pop music. Or country music. Or most of what passes for the dominant music culture.

Watching these performances, I’m struck by how similar they are. Are these musicians afraid of the audience? Must every guitarist look at their guitar? Must every keyboardist look only at their bandmates? Must every freaking vocalist spend 90% of their stage time with their eyes closed? It’s a strange feeling, watching all this. It’s like you’re witnessing someone else’s music. You’re caught up in a light show and in the energy of the people around you, but you’re not inside the music. Whatever happened to the honored position of “the entertainer”?

I like to say that I was raised in the tradition of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, but that’s not completely true. I didn’t know Cab Calloway until college. And while I was familiar with Louis Armstrong, I didn’t see a lot of video footage of him until much later. So what was it? Shall we blame swing choir? Theatre? Something made me dedicate myself to connecting with the audience. It was never enough to just sing a song. Anyone can do that (well, almost anyone). But can you reach across that invisible fourth wall and welcome the audience into the common space you inhabit, where you’re both inside the music and the energy you are all creating?

I was surprised to see Justin Timberlake inhabiting that kind of space [I’m trying to link to him but YouTube has pulled all his Grammy vids due to copyright violations]. I don’t know much about him but dismissed him as a pretty-boy pop star. But his performance leapt out of the TV. Very tight and crisp and dynamic. And Mavis Staples was totally in command of the stage, even among the 10 or so other musicians grouped on stage with her as they got through that old wheezer, Take a Load Off, Fanny. Is that what I’m looking for? Maybe that’s it: Performers who take command of the stage. They are a cut above a “singer” or “pop star” or “guitarist” or whatever. It’s by taking command of the stage that you break the fourth wall and create the safe space for your audience.

I keep looking for people I recognize but I’m twenty years out of date. Sting and Elton John are in command of their craft but I keep flashing to the famous photo of Bono at Red Rocks in Colorado. Right out there as far as he can get into the crowd, belting out Sunday Bloody Sunday. Prince appeared briefly and upstaged the people who won the Grammy he was presenting. I mean, how do you stand up there and say you’re in the same league as Prince?

And, a random thought, why is everyone so tethered to a microphone on a stand? Maybe headset mics aren’t up to snuff yet, but do you really have to stand in one spot and twist all over the place to put your mouth next to a wireless mic? The rappers had it right when they took the mics off the stands and had the freedom of the stage.

I liked Jack White’s outfit. Not his performance, but my, he rocked those spangles.

Ah, they’re starting a new category next year for music educators. How cool is that? I would nominate “Miss G” (Pam Guenzler, later Pam DeBoer), probably the most influential teacher in my life. Hell, she’s one of the most influential people in my life. She was brought in at the start of my high school freshman year to take over (and liven up) the “lesser” choirs and direct the musicals. She was outstanding. I have so many memories of her classes and swing choir and theatre and laughing, laughing, laughing. She saw me for who I was. She told someone, “That’s how you know Carol [as I was then] loves you—she works for you.” I could barely bring myself to say the words aloud but I would work my tail off for anyone who meant a damn to me. And she, with hundreds of students to keep track of, saw that in me. She taught me a lot more than music. She taught me a lot about musicality, and she taught me a lot about life. She left at the end of my senior year to start a Christian radio station in the Caribbean with her husband and I’ve never seen her again. But I will never forget her, setting at the piano in the big choir room, looking over at someone and leading the laughs before making us want to soar higher, ever higher.

So that was it (I’ve been typing during commercial breaks). Aside from Justin Timberlake, there wasn’t one song or artist that made me say, “I want to hear more from them.” Is this the best we can do? All that money, all that time, all that training and touring and honing and creating, and this is it? I’m going to bed.


April 1, 2011

Regrettably, I was disappointed in the Pffefer show tonight. After all, I was promised Yiddish vaudeville! Instead I watched three musicians onstage staring at the ground. In other words, it was a concert instead of a show.

The musicians were technically very proficient. One on accordion and piano. One on bass (he also did percussion on his bass, which was very cool). One on violin. They had a guest artist play cello on two or three songs.

The pieces were good, with two Django Reinhardt tunes really sticking out for personality and verve. There were two tango dancers who danced three or four times. They also stared at the floor. One wonders what was so fascinating about the Buskirk-Chumley floorboards tonight.

The audience was a bit sparse but appreciative. For once in my life, I was seated near a group of woo-ers. I am a big woo-er. I also am a ululation-er. Even a Xena-war-cry-er. And I always get stuck by these silent sticks-in-the-mud. But tonight I was even out-wooed at points! It was amazing!

The audience gave them a standing ovation but I wasn’t moved. I felt bad for setting there, but I just didn’t feel swept away. I’d tried even closing my eyes so I wouldn’t be critiquing the stage show, but the music just didn’t reach me the way I expected it to.

One thing I noticed was how they went almost straight into an encore. I wondered how that would work in a Kaia show. But I really don’t like the concept—that feeling of an encore being automatic. It’s got to be earned, with the audience refusing to leave until they get more. Like the energy that was raging at the end of the Red Baraat show last Lotus. Always leave ’em wanting more.

Miles Davis used to perform with his back to the audience. That just pisses me off. It’s so rude. I was raised to be a performer, not an artist. I’m not into self-expression for its own sake; I think a performer’s job is to connect with and help transform the audience. That transformation can be as simple as inspiring them to clap along or tap their feet. It doesn’t need to be some huge spiritual awakening. And I take issue with musicians (and others) who ignore the audience or leave them out of the creative experience.

I’ve heard from a couple different performers that it’s bad form to close your eyes when singing because it cuts you off from the audience. I think there’s some merit to that. But I also think there are times when the process is very internal, and the audience can be moved by witnessing that.

I think Kaia is so popular with audiences because we put on a very good show. We are constantly connecting with our audiences and giving back. We look at each other on a regular basis and smile (these guys tonight made eye contact only 5 or 6 times in the course of a 55-minute concert). We present the audience with an active, engaging show. Our technical execution isn’t always up to snuff, as you can tell on our live recordings, but the energy created makes us all deaf  to that. (Usually. Sometimes I cringe. :-))

The main reason why I was disappointed tonight is because I went in with inaccurate expectations. I wonder how we can communicate about Kaia shows so that people can be excited about what they’re going to get and then be blown away by something which exceeds their expectations.

My advice to musicians: Look up. That’s where the rest of us are. Let us in.

Lotus—it’s real!

August 20, 2009

Today Kaia got the official word from Lee Williams–we are singing at Lotus! We have a Friday night gig from 8 to 8:45. Saturday night is a long set from 8:45 to 10pm.

On Saturday we’ll also be giving a workshop on world music at Lotus in the Park. The workshop is an interactive exploration of what shapes world music and what to listen for at Lotus. That sounds really dry but it won’t be.

So I’m avoiding the important bit—how does all this make me feel? Excited. Terrified. And deeply grateful. This is something I’ve wanted since I went to the first Lotus, lo those many years ago. I wanted to be a part of it, to sing, to perform—even if it were on some street corner! And now my chance has come. Funny how this old world keeps spinning around.

My terror is that something will go Horribly Awry. Like we’ll make some massive mistake or series of mistakes. That we won’t be able to stick together. That we’ll be too tired to pull off the Saturday night set. That I’ll make massive mistakes and everyone will know. That no one will come. That everyone will come.  That we won’t be able to reach the audience. That…that…oh, I don’t know, that a meteor will hit. See how many things could go wrong???

The joyful part is imagining feeling confident and excited and really connecting with the audience, no matter what the circumstances. I love that give and take. Anyone who thinks an audience is passive just isn’t paying attention! The “audience” is just as important as the “artists” in creating the overall experience. Lotus audiences are generous and loving. They’re having such a good time that they can’t help themselves!

I remember when my sister came to Lotus and observed, “This is what community is supposed to be like.” And I’ve always felt that there is no bad at Lotus—only good. I can only hope that we give back as much as we’ve taken over the years, so that we can be a wonderful part of that tapestry.

In the meantime, I’ve got some memorizing to do! 🙂

Aretha Franklin and Marian Anderson

January 24, 2009

Of the many inspirational moments of President Obama’s inauguration Tuesday, for me one of the most touching was Aretha Franklin’s singing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” While most comments have focused on her hat, of all things, I’ve seen little mention of the historical threads that came together on that chill January morning.

Marian Anderson, born in the late 19th century, was a supremely talented contralto. She was the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera and won many well-deserved plaudits for her talent. She kicked off her career with a ten-year stint touring Europe, due in part to the greater acceptance of African-Americans’ talents at the time.

In 1939, she planned a concert for Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s biggest venue for classical music. The Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, refused to allow her to sing because she was Black. This was one of a number of stinging incidents of discrimination, but its blatant racism made it a very high-profile case.

The great Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s leading forces in her own right, helped organize Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And so it was, on a chilly April day in 1939, as Hitler’s shadow loomed large over European democracies, that Marion Anderson held her concert. The centerpiece? Her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”

The irony of the lines “Land where my fathers died / Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” was too loaded for people not to see. The whole question of racism and discrimination took on a new urgency, and at different levels of society, than had previously been the case. It is still a stunning sight to see her calmly singing the piece with Lincoln looming behind her.

Fast-forward nearly 70 years to Capitol Hill and the site of the Inauguration, where another African-American woman, veteran of the civil rights struggle, sang the same song. In that moment is wrapped up the efforts of Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr (“I have a dream!”) and countless others.

While Aretha’s voice was not in as fine a form as she would have liked, her mere presence drew the threads of the historical tapestry together. The shadow looming over democracies today comes from within, as the Bush administration quashed civil liberties (though Obama is dismantling some of Bush’s oppressive measures). African-Americans still face discrimination and racism, but nowhere near the frequency and intensity of 70 years ago. There is also a greater understanding of how complex the intersection of ethnicity, class, and gender is in our country. And the hunger of people from all backgrounds to hear the talent of African-American performers integrated our performance spaces long ago!

If I believed in an afterlife, I would say Marian and Eleanor were very happy with Aretha’s performance. Regardless, her presence put to rest a shameful chapter of American history and celebrated how far we’ve come since those vicious days.

Kaia at MLK ’09

January 20, 2009

Tonight we (Kaia) performed at the City’s MLK Day celebration. It was a tricky 9-minute set of 6 pieces of music linked by spoken word. When we met for sound check I completely blanked on all the narration! Quite the panic. Jacob, The Bus-Chum Sound Guy, did a great job as usual. I sent over a diagram for mic setup and we only had a few tiny adjustments to make. He made some suggestions that saved us all time and trouble.

Then I came home and practiced my lines! This time I practiced while waving my hand in front of my face — not only did it simulate a strobe light effect (j/k), it simulated an environment of distraction. After many run-throughs I curled up quietly on the bed and spent some time meditating on the civil rights movement.

I’ve seen so many documentaries and read about that period of U.S. history (primarily the late ’50s and ’60s) that sometimes I feel like I understand it. But I can’t understand it, not fully, no many how many protests I’ve been to or how many ways I get discriminated against. I’m far more privileged than not, and it’s a dishonor to those who joined in the struggle and risked the Klan and military might to think otherwise.

I had a gut feeling that we were going to go on sooner than we anticipated, so I made sure to get there early. I always get very “internal” before a show, pulling into myself and getting very focused. I don’t like to talk and I don’t like a lot of distraction. Having spent enough time in crowded dressing rooms has inured me to that, though! 

The Kaiasistahs were in fine form tonight. We invoked Jane several times (how we miss her!), did some simple warm-ups, and ran the set quickly. Then we did the traditional Kaia cheer (done before every performance) and headed up to the backstage area. We could hear a little of John Whikehart’s (Ivy Tech-Bloomington chancellor) speech. After some quotes from MLK delivered by a cute kid from a local school, we were on. 

How I love the Bus-Chum. It’s a great performance space. It seems so big but it’s actually a very reachable performance space. My beloved high school auditorium was over twice as large but the Bus-Chum has a little of that “gathering in” feel to make performers feel at home.

The set itself went by in about four and a half seconds. I hit every cue and remembered every necessary line — woo-hoo! It started very heavy, with Strange Fruit to start off, followed by four lines from In The Mississippi River. We could really feel the audience start to key into us on that second piece. 

We then moved into two verses from Oh Freedom and got some audience members to clap (MLK audiences are traditionally pretty sedentary but attentive). Eyes On The Prize went over well, keeping the audience with us. I don’t know if anyone there remembered I Love Everybody from last year, but it felt really good to sing at the slower pace and with big smiles.

For my intro to On Our Way To Freedom Land, I got to say how, for all intents and purposes, the Bush administration ends tonight! There was a big emotional response along with some clapping and hollering. It felt so good to say, “Erev Obama — we are on our way to freedom land!” We then blistered through the piece with Jenny and Lorraine wailing like soulful banshees. 

The audience response was very warm and we had a nice three-bow ending before zooming off-stage. We burbled downstairs to the dressing room where we shut the door and did some celebratory woo-hoo-ing. We were all on a major performance high. We’d made only very minor fluffs. I’m amazed that we pulled the whole thing off, completely memorized, after being handed the concept cold only 3 weeks ago. Go, Kaia! When I get frustrated, I need to remind myself of these things so I appreciate what goodness I have!

Amy, Lorraine, and I were able to stay after for the rest of the program. The keynote address by Bishop Woodie White was extremely moving. The most riveting story he shared was when he and two white colleagues tried to enter a Mississippi church during Freedom Summer and they were arrested. The church was his denomination, but he wasn’t allowed to enter because he was black. He and his colleagues were arrested for trespassing and “disturbing worship.” They were held four days before bail money was raised ($2k apiece)! I can’t imagine being a person of color in the South at that time, held in a white jail. I got that shiver that comes from being in the presence of living history.

He also mentioned his college roommate, who was white, Southern, from Mississippi, and had a pronounced accent. Danger, Will Robinson! Only it turned out that this man had been in jail more times than White on behalf of securing freedom for African-Americans. Topping it off was the mention of the scars on his roommate’s face — the result of an attack where the Klan tried to kill him. White talked about how he’d written this man off before he even knew his name, based on the color of his skin and the place he was from. And how wrong he was to do it. The whole story was arresting and a great set piece for describing how we internalize stereotypes and social prejudices.

So tonight my belly is full of a massive ice cream sundae, I’ve watched His Girl Friday to help me ride out the sugar/post-performance high, and I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow’s inauguration. I think the biggest thing to comprehend will be that Bush’s reign of terror is over. I can’t quite believe it. Who knows what he’ll do on his way out the door, but all my hopes are riding on America rising to the challenge of going with the better angels of our nature rather than reacting from fear and anxiety. I feel once again that chill down the back of living history, knowing we stand on the cusp between “chaos or community.” I pray we will choose, as a nation, to embrace hope.