Category Archives: what urge will save us now that rock ‘n’ roll won’t?

More thoughts on HONK!

We went to the parade today, and while my video from that is uploading, I have some amendements to make from my prior post.

I was sort of sour on the whole politics angle of the HONK! bands. I think what I said was true, that basically, if the goal is to convert the unconverted, spectacles like this aren’t going to be the forum where that happens. My experience is that the only time peoples’ minds are changed is when there is some personal connection between two people that transcends politics, and then they have to reconcile their feelings to their viewpoints. Anyway, so, maybe people are not going to hear the Leftist Marching Band’s song about Wal-Mart and are suddenly going to see the light and say, yeah, they treat their workers like crap, I’m not going to shop there.

But I think there is something to the politics of the music itself that I basically buy into. First off, it’s just a total non-product. Very few of the bands there were even selling CDs. None of these people are making their living from their music, they are just out there for the joy of the thing. (I’m guessing here, to be fair: but I suspect that only a relative handful of people are making a living from music these days, and the folks in the HONK bands have not given up their day jobs). But the format of this kind of music is just not salable; it can barely even be recorded well. I mean, it technically can be recorded, and it can even sound pretty good. But unless you have a really crazy sound system at home, it’s just not going to sound like 10 horns and 5 percussionists (or more) standing 3 or 4 feet away from you, there’s not going to be a crowd dancing all smelly after a day of dancing.

I also feel like it opens a viable door for popular music. I guess it’s not popular in the sense that a lot of people like it. But it is pop music in the sense that you don’t need any kind of specialized cultural context or background to have an immediate visceral human reaction to people blowing horns and banging drums in front of you. It’s a popular music that you can participate in just by listening to it and ditching the snobbery and admitting that you like it– you don’t have to buy a T-Shirt, you don’t have to participate in some kind of record store nerd snottery, you don’t have to claim your turf as part of a subculture (there were townies, trustafarians, old crusty Cambridge folkies, new somerville yuppies with their kids in their maclaren strollers, and Click and Clack the Tappett Brothers for god’s sake). You can just listen and shake your butt and be happy to be in the middle of something great on a couple of gorgeous New England autumn days.

... and it was beautiful... but so's Maine

And I love that it just harkens to a time when if you wanted music, you just made it. You didn’t go shopping.

Basia Bulat

I had a great time at the St. Vincent et. al. show at the Middle East downstairs last night. Terri already wrote it up, and I pretty much agree with assessment of the evening’s acts. I figured St. Vincent was going to be great, and they delivered.

But the big surprise for me was the opening act, Basia Bulat (and her band deserves some credit too because they were pretty great). It’s a little more straight up poppy and less edgy than the stuff than I usually go for (one of her songs was apparently used in a VW commercial, which I guess isn’t as bad as it sounds since some all-time-favorites have been in VW commercials). But her songs were solid, and they just radiated such youthful optimism that it was pretty hard to not like her and the band: they just looked so excited to be on stage and playing their music, and they just kept smiling. She had me at the first song; this tiny person goes out and starts singing a capella with this huge voice and instantly won over all the too-cool-for-school hipsters at the middle east.

And the autoharp, featured in about half the songs, is charming. Here’s some video I shot (again, with Terri in rock photographer mode, we got there early and stuck to the front, hence the awesome vantage point for said video).

Oh, and there’s an actual video for that song, with infinitely better sound quality, at the Basia Bulat site.

Book Report: John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes

I picked this up at a bookshop in Berlin for reading material, since I was sort of out of reading material, and it seemed like a good read. It was pretty entertaining. It was supposed to be an autobiography, though the final 50% or so was finished by his wife after Peel’s death in 2005.

I won’t bother going into who he was, that is what wikipedia is for.

What I came away feeling was that there’s just not a place in the current media universe for someone like that. Despite how little choice we get from the tepid, bland mediocrity of coast-to-coast ClearChannel and Infinity stations, despite how much infinite and overwhelming variety we get from the internet, there’s nobody out there who has a pulpit, and an audience big enough to make the pulpit credible, where they can challenge people to listen to things they might not otherwise have listened to. You can get more of what you already know, you can spend all your time trying to find new things on your own, or you can listen to the same 10 songs everybody else is listening to.

Also, he was an extremely clever writer; was not surprised to hear him say that he admired Wodehouse.


My itch for visceral musical experiences that don’t involve amplification or electricity or recording technology or guitars got a great big ol’ scratch this weekend at the Honk! festival. I can’t even try to explain what the whole Honk! thing is about, so if you want words, you should check out their website.

What Cheer? Monkey

Terri astutely pointed out that this is the only thing we’ve ever seen in the United States that approaches what the street festivals we’ve been to in Barcelona are like. There are probably more differences than similarities, and La Merce is on a much bigger scale and there are more different kinds of things going on. But they both are sort of these autumn things that happen in the street, where there’s drumming and dancing, where there’s no performer/audience split— everybody is a participant. They’re both sort of modern expressions of something much more primal.

Original Big Seven Social Aid & Pleasure Society (with members of other bands)

As far as I know, while there are over a dozen bands like this in the country, it’s the only festival of its kind. It’s definitely one of those things that make me happy to be living in Somerville.

What Cheer? Brigade

I shot some video. It’s crappy, but it’s slightly better than the photos for giving you the flavor. It’s still nothing like being live in the middle of a dozen people all playing REALLY LOUD instruments.

Tilly and the Wall

I have written long half-deranged screeds against the electric guitar here before, so I won’t bore you with a mere recap of my irrational and fairly hyporcritical invective once more. All I will recap is that I think electronic music is not a way out of the guitar-based pop morass; I write software for my day job, so outside of work I need something that is not programming, something that captures a performance, a more primal give and take between two or more human beings making some kind of organized noise (I’ve certainly heard electronic music that captures this spirit, but it’s a rare thing). And while I definitely get some energy from listening to classics of previous eras, like jazz and classical (I’m sorry, jazz people, give me a counterexample that jazz is not on life support, and I will gladly eat my words), I generally crave things that are more of the zeitgeist.

Anyway, part of what appeals to me about removing the electric guitar from modern pop is really almost just the exercise of doing something unfamiliar, like writing your name with your left hand (or right hand if you’re left-handed). So that is at least in part what attracts me to Tilly and the Wall. Rather than take out the guitar, they took out another central pillar of the heterodox rock platform: the drums. And replaced it with a miked tapdancer. Yes, the only percussion is tapdancing. It actually seems obvious in retrospect, like why did nobody think of this before, which is often the hallmark of total genius.

Terri bought their most recent album, Bottoms of Barrels, last year, and I liked a song or two, but lately, they’re all I can listen to.

Also, I forgive them for being part of the same Omaha milieu that spawned the loathsome Bright Eyes.

Also, they are staffed entirely by supermodels and dorky-looking guys, a formidable combination.

Also, I would include a youtube video of them on Letterman, but I can’t seem to get YouTube to come up right now, which is odd.

On amplified music, digital accordions, and Johnny D’s

Terri and I had dinner at Johnny D’s last week. We almost never go see music there, because for the most part, the kinds of acts they book… well, they suck. It’s all this jumble of world zydeco funk blues reggae folk roots crap. But their food is actually decent, they have a varied tap, and it’s on the way home from the T. As we were eating, a guy was setting up a bunch of gear, presumeably for his gig later that evening. It seemed like a lot of effort. And I had an epiphany. I hate amplified music. All of it. It’s ridiculous. This guy is spending hours setting up equipment to spend about the same number of hours playing music. And the room is basically the size of, say, a shoe store. Just get up and play, guy. If someone in a crowd of a hundred or so people picks up a hollow hunk of wood with strings on it, and starts whacking at it and yelling words at specific pitches in rhythm, the other 99 people are going to listen. We’re wired to.

Yes, you say, but what about bigger venues? Well, bigger venues inherently suck. So, no amplified music also means no sucky big venues.

So I toyed with this idea in idle moments the past week or so, and became more and more enamoured of it.

And then, like most ridiculous extreme ideas I toy with, I found something that made me drop it immediately. And that was the new Roland FR-7 digital accordion. Fun fun fun! But I’d have to plug in somewhere…

Before I wrap this up, I have to also soften my stance on the kind of music Johnny D’s books. I confess to owning a klezmer disc or two. And confess that I saw Brave Combo, a polka band, at Johnny D’s. More than once. So I’m not immune to the occasional allure of world zydeco funk blues reggae folk roots polka klezmer crap. I guess it’s the whole Weltanschauung and the lifestyle that goes with it that I can live without. Like if I start liking it too much, I have to grow a beard and send checks to PBS and buy an old Volvo to plaster with bumper stickers.