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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

About a month back, our band got an offer to play a festival just north of the city.  The pitch for this was that it was with a bunch of other bands from the college we'd all gone to, and apparently there were various connections to people we knew.  So we said yes.  It seemed like a fine idea.  We already knew a few alum bands in the city (in my circles I'd actually heard graduates of the college in question called a mafia, we seemed to be so pervasive), and they were all plying various versions of indie rock, some of which I like more than others, but all quality of some sort or other.  Plus, we were getting a little tired, I think, of the routine of city clubs[1], which, nice as they are, don't have the same feel somehow as a good basement or loft crowded with kids.  I guess I pictured something like a VFW hall, or a crappy garage somewhere, with the cops lurking just outside the property line.

When we started to get a little more information about the event so we could start promoting it, the picture began to change.  The promoter--who was the funny-but-weird combination of obviously young and overly professional ("what's your draw like these days?")--sent us a link to the festival's site, and while I won't post it here, suffice to say we started to get a better idea of what kind of festival it was when we saw the phrase "interband collaborations" on the descriptions page and "jugband" on the performers page.  Oh yes oh yes: we were playing a jambands festival.  Confirmation followed; I forwarded the info to a friend who has roots in said community and he replied with a description of the promoter's reputation (who, in fairness, is 19) that was, shall we say, less than glowing, and included the phrase "hippie shit."  And so there it was.  We had signed up to play a jambands show.

Upon realizing this, we were a bit annoyed and a bit dismayed but mainly amused and intrigued; our aesthetic fits into the jambands thing in a tangental way--our Venn Diagram circle probably intersects with the hippie one about 180 degrees away from where the Flaming Lips' does, but it's a similar kind of thing--but that's not really our thing, man.  So it was a surprise, but we were still planning on renting a van and bringing people up with us. 

But then we got another update e-mail, and it included the immortal words: "No Alcohol, No Drugs." 

Now, the thing about music is that you can put up with a lot of crap if the two above things are involved; indeed, whole genres are based on this phenomenon.  So we could ask people in good faith to get up, get in a van, ride an hour to Westchester, and listen to hippie shit if we all got to hang around and drink while we were doing it.  But without drinking?  No friend in good conscience would ask such a thing.  So our draw would be, uh, kind of low.

But listen: we haven't reached the final fact yet, the one that turns this whole experience from "Well, you're just being picky," to "Oh.  Oh.  I'm sorry."  Because why, you might ask, would there be no drugs or alcohol at a hippie festival?  Are there really such things as straightedge hippies?  Ah, but no, of course there wasn't.  Because, you see, a quick scan of the address of and directions to said event revealed that, in all likelihood, this was not at a club.  Nor a hall.  Nor a public space of some sort.  No, said event appeared to be taking place at the promoter's parents' house.

In--wait for it...Scarsdale.

And so we got up Saturday morning around 9, showered, gathered in the LES around 11, and set off to drive upstate.  It started off all normal--turn onto Houston, get onto the FDR, cross the 3rd Avenue bridge, get onto the Major Deegan expressway.  But then it got weird.  Maybe a brief description of the location-narrowing process we underwent will help you picture what this was like.

Imagine one of the richest counties in the country, Westchester county.

Now, imagine getting off the parkway into one of the richest towns in the country, Scarsdale.

Imagine driving through Scarsdale, which is an incredibly affluent suburb.  Imagine driving through the wooded lanes and past the very expensive houses.

Now imagine turning off one of these wooded lanes onto a suburban cul-de-sac.  Imagine the houses that line this cul-de-sac.   You know what they look like.

Imagine parking the car on this cul-de-sac and walking up the driveway of one of these big, rich homes.  Imagine walking into the yard and seeing a bunch of canopies and couches in the yard, and lights and equipment on the porch.

This was where we were playing.

In truth, it wasn't so bad; our set went OK, despite some technical problems, and we got a good reception.  Really, if there's a lesson to be learned from the whole experience, it's that even if you're dreading a gig, if you're a decent band, people will respond well to you, and playing live music is rarely not fun; there are very few gigs not worth playing, especially in areas you haven't been in before.  So it was really, honestly, fine.

This does not change the fact, however, that the whole context was absolutely insane. 

The two most insane things were probably the first things we saw there in the driveway: the promoter's vehicle (I want to say SUV, but maybe I've just imposed that in retrospect) and, next to it, a portapotty.  In a backyard.  Now, that's obviously insane.  The insanity of the car, on the other hand, lay mainly in its bumper crop of bumper stickers, and oh, I wish I had a picture.  I guess it's partially because of my lack of exposure to the scene, but there was something about the particular combo--the Phish "1983-2004 no regrets" sticker, the venue sticker that boasted "the best bands, the kindest sound," the private school sticker, the very weathered "Free Tibet" sticker, etc.  It was like a joke that was real!

We'd arrived about an hour and a half before our set time, so after loading in we mainly hung out in our cars, I think because the situation freaked us out so much.  Plus in the car we could listen to our own damn music.  As there was no alcohol allowed inside the grounds, the bassist's friends had brought some beers in an ice bucket (very classy) and the two other members went on a supply run and came back with vodka and orange juice and plastic cups.  We sipped in the car.  It was weird--it felt like being teenage again.  Well, if I had done that stuff when I was a teenager.  This was the impression I got, though.  And honestly, it was 1 in the afternoon--we didn't need to have anything to drink.  But, again, like teenagers, there was something about being told not to...

Eventually we found out that the first band had canceled--for some odd reason, cough--and that we were the openers.  All right.  So we set up as they attempted to set up, using what looked like very new equipment that they didn't entirely know how to use.  Also, they miked our amps.  On the porch.  In the backyard.  The guitarist's sister came in and told her that the cover had been $12.  I guess they had to make up the money for the portapotty rental somehow.  I did a mic check and after babbling for a while settled on a high-pitched noise that fluctuated slightly.  Someone from another band yelled "Test, test!" and I yelled, "Don't you fucking tell me how to soundcheck." 

We started playing.  Someone was videotaping.  A dog ran on stage.  The drummer busted through the head of the kick midway through the first song and used duct tape to patch it up every once in a while.  It was not his kick drum, but meh.  I couldn't see who was there because the tarp was in the way.  This meant, I guess, that they only saw up to my chest.  Meh again.  Afterwards the dad came up to us and told we had "a mellow sound."  The guitarist and drummer nodded and sipped their screwdrivers.  It was weird.

But it did get me thinking about jambands.  Really, if you're indie, there's no reason not to like jambands.  Well, aside from the music, of course.  But there are a host of things the indie mentality values that the jambands scene has in spades.  A non-corporate business structure: check.  A community-based promotion and distribution model: check.  No sell-outs: check.  Being totally "for the kids": check.  Bands form organically, make the music they want to make uncompromisingly, get signed and distributed by independent labels, tour relentlessly in largely non-corporate venues, build up a fanbase through hard work, get written up in grassroots publications as well as independently-owned ones, and maybe find wider fame and success.  What's there to complain about?  They've acheived amazing popular success without much of any compromise to either the mainstream or corporations.  Jambands constitute probably the largest independent music movement in our time.  Why wouldn't you want to emulate it?

Well...because the music's bad, right?

There's a tension in most white subcultural movements, jambands and indie included, between social value and aesthetic value, between community and quality.  Do you value something purely because its members are good people and the way they make music lines up with your value system, or because the music is really good?  There seems to be a certain agreement that decent music made the wrong way is somehow "tainted;" not very good music made the right way gets more of a pass.  Obviously a combination of the two would be a home run, but given how rarely this happens, which do you favor?

Jambands fully endorse the former, the community model.  If you can get up there on stage and lay down a decent groove, and if you're good people trying hard, well, you're doing OK.  You might not be wildly successful, but you'll be able to do reasonably well, I think.  Because the music itself doesn't matter to the experience so much as the simple fact that music is being made, and that people are listening to it, and dancing, and all in this place together and seeing each other. 

Indie, on the other hand, leaves it unresolved.  For every band that gets a good reception because the people in it are good friends or interesting characters or supportive of other bands, there's someone to accuse them of being merely "trendy;"for every band whose uber-indie image is a grabber, there's someone to point out that they're not actually very good.  But, similarly, for every band with a great set of songs, there's someone to accuse them of having the wrong production style, or the wrong label, or the wrong style.  Now, you could argue that it's this tension that produces a lot of the good that comes from indie, that by having this social endorsement in place it can work in tandem with people who look for musical quality to rise up the best-of-the-best, that elusive home-run combo of the right values and the best songs.  Maybe the fact that there's the option to favor one or the other that allows indie to thrive in so many different directions and to be of such interest to so many people, relatively speaking.  (It is a style that seems to emphasize suffering over dancing, so how big are you really going to get?  Even goth's avoided this one.)  

But you could also argue that it's what's holding indie bands back, that by their social status and reach depending in part upon their adherence to the scene creed, it encourages process over product.  That by having some value assigned to you simply because you are a noise band who employ muted vocals but at the same time throwing you into a critical context that does value content over context, it invites the wrong kind of activity, the kind of activity that can in the end be detrimental to a scene.  It's this odd combination of morality and high standards that makes indie such a weird beast, the insistence on both an absolute morality and a totally arbitrary aesthetic taste that makes its waters so difficult to negotiate without succumbing to the urge to make a load of crap. 

Oh yes, the third part of the title.  After we packed everything up, we went to the Sizzler in Yonkers for Meal.  We ordered at the checkout, we got chicken wings and fried creamed corn at the all-you-can-eat buffet, we saw senior citizens taking advantage of the $10 steak-and-buffet deal, we said "Sizzler!" in a particular way numerous times.  It was pretty awesome.

[1] We did recently play a festival in the city, but the setting of that is the subject for another post of the restaurant-review variety.