Friday, February 11, 2005

You Don't Have to Play All the Notes

There they were lined up in alphabetical order, taking their turns on stage like kids at a spelling bee: Guy, Joe, John and Lyle. Only these four were my contemporaries, give or take, and they sat with guitars on their laps, not even standing when it was their time to spell a song.

Reading left to right, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely and Guy Clark established conclusively at least one thing to be missed from the Sixties — hearing great songwriters singing great songs with nothing to lean on but a chair, an acoustic guitar and the occasional vocal harmony slipping quietly in the back like someone come late to church.

They made new even the songs we'd heard a dozen times before. They drew a sharp line in the dirt between unaffected art and pure entertainment, and then plunked down a boot on either side for a couple hours.

It brought up one of the great dividing lines in Minneapolis that emerges whenever visiting friends and relatives hit town. Will they want to go to Mall of America or see a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion (PHC)? And then what will you do about it? If it's the former, you draw them a map and tell them you'll see them for supper. If the latter, you're advised to secure the tickets well in advance and keep a couple for yourself.

Years ago such an out-of-towner visit cornered me into going to a PHC performance, which I'd regarded as a Minnesota cliche I could do without repeating. Garrison Keillor is a wonderful writer, as close to Twain as we're likely to ever get — in more ways than one. My personal taste is for reading fiction, not actually watching its creator pretend, and nothing I saw from the star that day gave me reason to change.

But the non-marquee players did. Greg Brown and some now-forgotten others played live and loose, giving a music lesson I'd somehow forgotten after years of picking away solo on my own music. I'd actually forgotten what it was like to raise voices in concert, to work your way through a tune with strangers, staying together using no more than the rhythm, an occasional nod and a shared sense where a song wanted to go next.

I never became a jammer and didn't form a band, but did find others to play with. One memory from those early days... Trying to find something to play with a younger, more classically trained musician, a friend and I pulled out sheet music for a song written before her time. She read it easily and we ran through a few others with reasonable success. Suddenly, she looked at us in amazement and said, "You don't have to play all the notes!"

She'd discovered a truth her teachers had never gotten around to. There's more to playing than reading what's down on paper, and plenty of ways to add and subtract without making it a different song. Too many players can muck up a song, but not as quickly as a few playing too much. A musician can saw through all the right notes and never find the song.

I can think of no greater horror than being expected to play the same stuff, note for note, night after night. And I don't just mean music.


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