The Venue is the Message

A Recent Transplant Looks to Dance Without Instruction, Or Not

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about venues -- the spaces where we gather to hear new music, music we’re familiar with, music we’ve heard about. It’s started with a book I highly recommend, (though, I have yet to finish it) How Music Works, by David Byrne -- the former Talking Heads front man and world music impresario.

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In his book, which doesn’t have any particular order or heavy science to explain just how ‘music works,’ he begins by explaining how venues shape the experience of music. His explanation of the world before recorded music seems revelatory -- imagine a world in which music is not something you take with you on your way to work, something that shapes a mood during your lunch break, and is something that you must wait and anticipate enjoying! But it’s a thought that still makes sense -- the venue shapes the experience of the music. Certain styles do better than others if the venue is built to emphasize a certain aspect of the music that’s meant to be emphasized. In his book, Byrne explains that CBGB’s was an ideal place for Talking Heads’ brand of rhythmic experiments between their first two albums or so before they were able to move on to larger venues. Its cavernous structure allowed for reverb to enjoy a maximum effect, and for their melodies -- as minimal as they were for Talking Heads or even their contemporaries the Ramones and Blondie -- to still be memorable. Later, Byrne explains that Carnagie Hall, one of the most venerated venues and perhaps the hallmark for musicians to ‘make it,’ is one of the venues where he’s had the fortune to play only to come to the realization that it’s acoustics, built for classical music, was absolutely lousy for Talkings Heads’ style.

Acoustics is one thing -- a common joke among comedians and musicians alike is that if it seems like they were not doing well, it’s because of “the acoustics” -- but style is another, and that’s the other lesson I’ve taken from Byrne’s opening chapters to How Music Works. By now, with the advent of popular music jutting up against the stuffy-and-demanding nature of classical music, both being still enjoyed in a sense that music is designed for consumption, audiences go to the venues likely to play their preferred style. That’s no secret, and it’s certainly not a revelation.

Yet, I’m still confused in a sense. Since having moved from Brooklyn, New York, where there’s every venue available for every kind of music to the Upper Valley area, any band can seemingly be plugged into the local outdoor venue on a given day of the week. I am confused because there doesn’t seem to be singular places to go to enjoy specific music. Some of the outdoor venue and band combinations make sense -- like a folk band playing at a band stand in a town square -- while others, largely don’t -- like that same folk band plugging in their electric instruments an hour later to play in the same gazebo.

Of all the places I’ve taken in so far of my short residency here in the Vermont/New Hampshire area, the Salt Hill Pub chains in Hanover and Lebanon are perhaps among the most prevalent of venues -- they seem to advertise themselves as the premier places to enjoy music and beer simultaneously (and that is important to the success of live music, afterall). The first show I’ve taken in since reading Byrne’s first chapters of How Music Works was to see a folk group advertised as a ‘supergroup’ of local folk/country musicians. They were talented, to be sure, playing songs that even I, an admitted novice of most things folk and country, would be familiar, including multiple Johnny Cash covers. Their performance was dedicated, decidedly unflashy, and appropriately volumed. Nobody shuddered at how loud or intrusive the music was to their own conversations. But that seemed part of the problem. I couldn’t help but feel like the people who were at the bar, even those who were there specifically because they had heard there would be live music that night at Salt Hill Pub in Hanover, were enjoying the music. It was music that simply filled the background to conversation and bar orders, which struck me as disappointing.

Even worse, the band picked up on this mood eventually, and played on dutifully. Any hope they would engage the crowd or take requests seemed to die within an hour and a half of being there. The magic of having a live band perform for this crowd seemed lost on them and the band themselves. In short, as I enjoyed some good country folk and the requisite beer, I felt like I could leave and whether the band knew I appreciated their musicianship or even their presence wouldn’t have mattered.

This is a terrible feeling, as both somebody who loves music and somebody who has performed music for people in the capacity of a musician and as a disc jockey.

This is not to lament, however, that there’s no where to dance. Every week, there seems to be either ballroom or contra dancing available, and this is fine. Sometimes these places have live bands, and they play music that fits the venue, but it is not spontaneous. Going specifically to a contra dance, whether there’s live or recorded music to dance to, is more about the joys of movement and community. They’re good fun, to be sure, but every once in awhile, it’s good to let the body move according to a fantastic beat or rhythm that isn’t conducive to swinging your partner, but yourself. Or even, what about the music for mood? Some larger concert halls are great for jazz listening, but what about dancing to jazz? Or a blues musician who can veer between the mood to sit and drink beer, and the mood to stomp along and holler about how bad you got them mean ol’ blues?

What I am wondering now is where is your preferred place to hear music? Town squares and weekly outdoor concerts are well and good, but what about the times where we can’t make it every Wednesday at 5:30 after work to catch the act of the week? And what about the bands who either succeed more in intimate, coffee-shop style areas where the outdoors do not work to their advantage, or to the hair metal bands who cater to only certain members of a family-friendly audience? What is the history of music venues in this area, and was there a time where it was more prevalent than there is now?

That local bands are willing to accommodate to these conditions is a generous. Their expectations are tempered, and clearly, their performance reflects this. But I would love to hear from people in the area about the dedicated venues they frequent to hear some rock and roll, some country, some folk, some hip-hop, some pop, or blues, because they're the Go-To places for that music. 

Record Recommendation of the Week: Wildflower by the Avalanches.

The Avalanches released their first album way back in 2000, and have since enjoyed a tremendous amount of critical praise. The build-up to their follow-up album seems due to be subjected to insurmountable expectations. So far, the reviews seem to say “it’s good, but it’s not their first album…”

Good. I’m glad it doesn’t sound like their first album, because it sounds like a group of like-minded DJs/Cultural curators working hard to create a very specific feeling and sound. So far, my favorite records of 2016 have a decidedly summer-y feeling to them -- namely, Wildflower, and Weezer’s latest self-titled, color-coded album ‘The White Album’ -- which works toward a notion I think we all need amongst the heavy-handed news of an election year, music with some straight-ahead good vibes and good intentions.

Wildflower is my pick this week for being perhaps one of the most joyously challenging records I’ve heard recently -- I enjoy picking apart the references and allusions to records they’re using to create their tunes, and what’s more, I enjoy hearing them using these records as a code, or (no pun intended) record of what these summer-y feelings feel like according to the music we’ve heard before. In a few interviews so far, the Avalanches have cited The Beach Boys’ late-60s output (Wild Honey has been most referenced) as inspiration for this record, and indeed, it shares the same kind of joyful recklessness that can only emerge from something planned to sound so. Every reference is meticulously placed for the betterment of every track -- look no further than “Subways” or “Colors” for this, two singles of the singles released in advance of the album, where one is indebted to some classic Bee Gees disco, and another glows and shimmers like a psych-pop record from ‘66. 

I say this with the caveat, however, that much like Since I Left You, the Avalanches’ first record, there’s some moments that are far too indulgent and are perhaps too long for their own good. But compared to their first record, those moments still serve the overall feeling here for the better -- straight trippy, druggy, sunny days listening to your favorite sounds without end. If there is any fault, it’s that this time around, the collaborative tracks between the group and their guest rappers -- ranging from MF Doom to Biz Markie -- are few and far in between that there’s an inconsistency to the result..

Regardless, this is the first record in a while I’ve heard to successfully master a concept album, whether it was the aim to be so or not. It is complete, fun, funny, and an absolute joy to listen to, and I highly recommend it. Below is the kick-off track, "Because I'm Me," which has a unbelievable transition from late-60s AM-Gold Soul into early-70s string-laden R'n'B. An absolute mood-setter for the album, but could work for your own summertime road trip mixtape just as well. 

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