I've spent the last six weeks or so playing music on the north coast of The Dominican Republic, as I have numerous times over the years. It's "high season" currently in the DR and the resorts, hotels and bars are packed with tourists which creates a lot of opportunities for musicians like myself to perform music.
I think of performing live as the antithesis of licensing music. When you play live you get an instant, real time sense of gratification, whereas the gratification and sense of reward that comes from licensing, unfolds over months and years. When you play live, the crowd either likes you, or they don't, in the moment. Unlike a lot of musicians I know, I find that the older I get the more I actually enjoying performing live, and it's something I will probably continue to do in one way or another throughout the rest of my life.
I played a gig a few nights ago that was one of “those” gigs. If you’re a performing musician, you probably know the kind of gig I’m talking about. It was one of those gigs where something just clicked between myself, the other musicians on stage and the audience. During gigs like this it feels like I couldn’t play a wrong note if I tried. All apprehension and nervousness fades away, and the music seems to flow out of me, without my thoughts or ego getting in the way.
It doesn’t happen every time I perform. Sometimes multiple gigs go by without getting into that “zone” or reaching that place. But when it happens it’s undeniable and palpable and the crowd responds accordingly. This feeling, this “zone”, whatever you want to call it, is the feeling I’m chasing every time I get on stage. I once heard Slash from GNR explain that the reason he's a musician is that he's chasing the feeling he gets from playing live, sort of the way drug addicts chase highs. I really relate to this description of playing music live. There's a thrill to performing live that, once you taste, you want to keep going back for more. Sometimes you get there, and sometimes you don't, but it's the thrill of chasing those moments that keep musicians going back for more.
So, back to the show I played a few nights ago...
Things didn’t really click until the fourth song of the first set, a cover of ZZ Top's "La Grange, which I'll post a clip of below. I could tell the crowd was into the song as soon as we started the song, and a crowd of people made their way to the dance floor. The song ended and there was thunderous applause and the entire show from that point on was electrifying. The crowd danced and cheered.
As the band thanked the crowd, a huge grin came over my face and we launched in the next song, a blues song that seemed to last about ten minutes or so and was built to a dramatic climax. As I launched into my solo, I stumbled upon a simple, but catchy melody that I continued to come back to throughout the jam. The bass player in our band latched onto the same melody and together we weaved in and out of this motif for the next several minutes. We played it in different octaves, with different rhythmic variations, sometimes together, sometimes more of a call and response, for several minutes, until the jam seemed to reach a natural conclusion.
Again, when the song stopped, there was thunderous applause. Mot of the second set was like this, until things seemed to peter out during our encore, and the band was clearly starting to run out of steam. But by then, it didn’t seem to matter. Every one was clearly enjoying themselves, band and audience alike.
After the show, several different people came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the show. I got a lot of “great job”, “you played great” sort of compliments, which is always nice to hear. But one conversation in particular struck me as particularly poignant. A girl I’ve known for a few years came up to me and said how much she enjoyed the show. I thanked her and said something like, “thanks, I love to play”. “Well”, she said, “it shows." She went on, "Your enthusiasm is contagious".
I had an end of the night drink after the show with a few of the musicians I performed with and went home. When I got home, I still had so much adrenaline and excitement from the gig that I couldn’t sleep. It was strange, because I’ve played so many gigs at this point that I’m usually not that amped up after shows anymore. But for some reason I was strangely excited and my mind was racing more than usual. It reminded me of how I felt when I was younger, in my early twenties, after a really good gig. I used to get so excited that I would stay up until the early hours of the morning, reflecting on the night’s performance and de-briefing, in my mind, the good and bad elements of the show.
When I woke up the next morning, my mind came back to my friend’s comment about how she could see how much I enjoyed playing music and it struck me, that that was probably about the best compliment anyone could give me. The show was great, because myself and the band I was performing with, we’re having a good time. The audience had a good time because they fed off the energy of the band. The band picked up on the audience’s response and we got even more excited and as a result played even better, with more confidence. And that, is essentially, what live music is all about. It’s an exchange of energy, if you will, between musicians and audience. It’s an opportunity to escape from the problems and stress of our day to day lives for a few hours, let our proverbial hair down, and simply have a good time.
When I was younger I used to be really into the band Phish. I saw them live dozens of times over the years. Love them or hate them, in their prime, they were an amazing live band. They toured with Carlos Santana in the early 90s and Santana had this great way of explaining the live concert experience at a Phish show, and at concerts in general. His analogy was that music was like water, the band is like a hose, and the audience is like flowers. Yeah, it sounds like some super hippy, stoner talk, but it’s a beautiful analogy if you think about it. Here’s Trey Anastasio from Phish on Santana’s idea:
“When we went out with Santana, he had brought up this thing about the Hose. ... where the music is like water rushing through you and as a musician your function is really like that of a hose. And, and well his thing is that the audience is like a sea of flowers, you know, and you're watering the audience. But the concept of music going through you, that you're not actually creating it, that what you're doing is -- the best thing that you can do is get out of the way. So, when you are in a room full of people, there's this kind of group vibe that seems to get rolling sometimes.”
I love this idea that as musicians, especially during moments of improvisation, we’re not actually creating the music. It’s more like we’re channeling the music from a deeper part our ourselves, or from somewhere out there in the cosmos. This rings true to me in my experience, because in moments where I feel in the “zone” and things are flowing particularly well, a guaranteed way to screw it up is to start thinking too much about what I’m doing or over analyzing things. It’s better to not think about things at all, or as little as possible and just let the music come through. If you think about it, that’s what stage fright or nervousness is all about, it’s about focusing too much on yourself and becoming "self-conscious". When you can learn to redirect that energy towards the music, your stage fright and nerves will naturally dissipate.
I think that’s why music, at its best, is so enjoyable. It’s a way of getting outside of our egos and problems and transcending them, to experience even greater joy and reach greater heights than possible, when we’re stuck in our egoic, “monkey minds”. That’s why playing music is so enjoyable. Because, when we’re truly in the moment, in what’s known as a “flow state” we’ve transcended, albeit temporarily, the stress and problems that tend to permeate our day to day lives.
When I was younger I used to have this grandiose concept of what it meant to be a musician. I looked up to artists like Hendrix and Dylan and saw how music, at its most impactful, could change the world and impact culture. Of course, that’s still true. Music and art have that potential. Music and art have the potential to both reflect and shape culture in profound ways. The Beatles certainly impacted culture. Beethoven certainly did as well. As did Dylan, The Stones, Pink Floyd, Coltrane, Radiohead, Paul Simon and countless other great artists over the years.
But music also serves a much more practical and perhaps less dramatic function, which is to simply lift people’s spirits and help them enjoy themselves and well, as Prince said, “get through this thing called life”. If you accomplish nothing else a musician, other than simply entertaining people and helping to elevate their moods, even temporarily, know that you’ve still done something truly great.
Life is hard in many ways and on many levels for many people and the world needs as many people as possible sharing their gifts, lifting each other up and inspiring each other. If you have the gift and ability to do that through music, you should keep doing that!
Here's a short clip of last Monday's show in Cabarete, DR.