The Documentary Film Before The Music Dies (B4MD) (review in the March/April issue) weighs in on the state of American music and the music business. An impressive number of insiders complain outspokenly that the public is given neither the opportunity nor a reasonable length of time to appreciate great, innovative artists and their music.
Two synergistic industries, music and radio, have moved toward a cookie-cutter aesthetic. Rather than offer the public innovative newcomers, labels promote bands seemingly cloned from the last successful band, to minimize the chance of “failure,” defined as no immediate profits; commercial radio follows that model in programming. Similar thinking has moved the clothing industry from many individual sizes to Small, Medium and Large…and eventually to One Size Fits All, where nothing fits well, but it’s cost-effective.
Years ago, the milkman delivered to our door (and vintners, too, in rural France); both milk and wine came in sturdy bottles, fresh and reliable. Every family had a standing order, but outside requests (extra cream during strawberry and eggnog seasons, more reds in hunting season) were expected. In those days, radio offered the same service: fresh, reliable music delivered to my door, with room for special requests. Times change, and now I go to the market for milk and wine, and a venue for my fresh music. It’s less convenient, but, like a trip to the store, it actually increases my choices, my market awareness, and offers major benefits like once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
B4MD opens with an electrifying performance by Ray Charles and Billy Preston—Ray elegant, Billy high-kicking in a Key Lime-colored suit with pegged pants. I remembered seeing Ray in Saratoga, Billy Preston in LA. There are many, many artists in this film, and as it unfolded, memories bubbled up like Champagne. On film, Nora Jean Bruso (who I’ve caught in Albany and San Francisco) sang a capella outside Ground Zero, Morgan Freeman’s club in Clarksdale (good catfish); Eric Clapton joined Doyle Bramhall II onscreen, but I saw Bramhall supporting Clapton (Madison Square Garden). Bonnie Raitt (Saratoga and NYC) talked about “playing guitar pretty good for a girl.” Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Calexico’s Joey Burns apparently sat in their respective living rooms (but I saw them in Austin). Dave Matthews spoke eloquently, quirkily, and at length…precisely his style (Phoenix). Les Paul (NYC) and Hubert Sumlin (Atlantic City and Woodstock)…and on and on.
Last Labor Day weekend, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys brought Rhode Island’s Rhythm & Roots Festival to our collective feet, followed by Marcia Ball, who brought us to tears with a soulful “Louisiana.” The evening’s closer, Los Lobos, ratcheted the energy level up to 11, and invited guests onstage. Los Lobos, Ball, Riley and 10 or 15 other unbelievable musicians jammed in the 40-mph winds of Hurricane Eduardo…on the exact one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Braced against the gale, I firmly believed it the perfect place to be at that moment.
Later that month, at the San Francisco Blues Festival, Little Richard followed Ruth Brown. Ruth came back out to share Richard’s piano bench, and he gently teased them both about “the old days.” Two Hall of Famers, frail enough to be helped onto stage but vigorous enough to deliver wonderful music, harmonizing and reminiscing only yards away. Who knew it would be Ruth’s last performance? DJ Scott Muni, rest his soul, could never have delivered me those moments, though he would have if he could. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences you must seize for yourself.
The artists in B4MD are headliners now, but of course they weren’t always. Branford Marsalis makes the point that it’s impossible to recognize the next step forward when you first hear it. It takes time. That’s why I want to show up in a funky bar or at a sparsely-attended opening act, and keep an open mind. I know years later I’ll see some major star onscreen and say, “I saw him (in Hoboken).”