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Columns > Dan Alford - Audio Files

Published: 2002/10/25
by Dan Alford

Steinbeck

Thoughts:
Breaking the pattern here, Im offering an essay this month, instead of the regular reviews- hope you enjoy it. Check back next month for some holiday shopping suggestions. After that Ill close out the year with something from the Dead family.
As always keep in touch with comments or contributions, be they full reviews or some Quick Picks.
Also, keep an eye open for Audio Files B&P offers on the Jambands.com Tape Trade Board. This month a fine soundboard of Percy Hills Big Band from 9-19-02 was offered (in fact the offer is still open till Halloween). The next offer will be up in early November.
Quick Picks From the Disc Changer:
Phish, Live Phish Vol. 16, Disc 1- Axilla > PYITE > Roggae
GD, View II, Disc 2- Excellent 90s era Help > Slip > Frank
Govt Mule, 2-20-02, Disc 1
Bruce Hornsby, 9-26-02, Disc 1- With Kimock, Tongue n Groove followed by Rainbows Cadillac
Phish, 8-1-99, Disc 1- Ends with a big ol SOAM
Discman: SKB, 4-25-02, Disc 3- Youre the One, Coles > Hangers
Essay:
John Steinbeck, one of Americas great 20th century authors, is best known for his writings on the Dust Bowl period, and the hardships of the laboring classes in California, in books such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. But some of his finest writing is non-fiction, pieces that could loosely be called travel logs: Travels with Charlie and The Log from the Sea of Cortez. The latter book is the commentary that accompanies a scientific work produced when Steinbeck traveled in the Gulf of California with his great friend and muse, Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist, to catalogue the invertebrates in the regions coastal areas. The scientific work continues to be a valuable resource, but the travel log, filled with philosophy, detailed observations, and page after page of the wryest humor, is a shining example of Steinbeck at his finest. As with any great piece of literature, certain themes and ideas can be extrapolated from T!he Log and made to shed some light on our own experience. More particularly, the Steinbecks own introduction to the text helps shed some light on the practice of concert taping, its purpose and its successes and failures.
The author writes, "One of the reasons we gave ourselves for this trip- and when we used this reason, we called the trip and expedition- was to observe the distribution of invertebrates of the littoral, to see and record their kinds and numbers, how they lived together, what they ate, and how they reproduced. That plan was simple, straight-forward, and only part of the truth. But we did tell the truth to ourselves. We were curious. Our curiosity was not limited, but was as wide and horizonless as that of Darwin or Agassiz or Linnaeus or Pliny. We wanted to see everything our eyes would accommodate, to think what we could, and, out of our seeing and thinking, to build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality." Such is the experience of the passionate music fan heading off to a show. Certainly he or she travels with the purpose of music in mind and may inform friends and colleagues that a jazz performance is in the offing, but that is only part of the truth. He or she is curious, eager for the sights and sounds of a parking lot, indeed potentially he or she is even eager for the car ride, or train ride or bus ride, itself. "How will the night unfold?" she asks herself. "What will the venue be like?" he wonders. The security? The fan is curious to taste mixture of a kind veggie burrito and an icy cold Sammy Smith, to notice the smell of a Clove in a crowd, in addition, of course, to reveling in the evenings auditory offerings. And when all is said, or played, and done he or she will place the important or interesting points in some semblance of order and weave a tale to tell, "build some kind of structure in modeled imitation of the observed reality." To many, an important feature of that model is a recording of the musical performance, an audio-graph with which one might reflect again and again on the events of the evening, a tool to help pin down the highlights, and to flush out the details- to figure out what really happened. Such a tool can be invaluable to a storyteller. But it is not adequate, in itself, to describe the event.
"For example: the Mexican sierra has XVII-15-IX" spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being- an entity which more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman." A jam segment may juxtapose a series of chord changes that are uncharacteristic, or difficult, or may exhibit the syncopation of various peculiar and noteworthy time signatures. Those points are easily followed on a recording. But if a solo takes off, and is complemented by a hard, driving bass line, if it threatens to unravel the whole structure of the song, but in the end coalesces again with the other instruments and moves gracefully, gloriously to a final refrain that sends the crowd into an ecstatic dance and wild cheers- something else happens, something that is not quantifiable, but which transcends the contributions of all those involved.
"The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth D. XVII-15-IX. There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed- probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself." Similarly, the only way to hear the truth of a concert performance is to approach it, most likely with the aid of a recording, in an equally cold and calculating manner. Perhaps a transition is flawed due to an off-key note, or a complicated movement is played perfectly because it matches the guitar tabs without variation. Those are truths of a performance, but they are the least important truths to be had. They do not capture the energy of the room, the interaction of the musicians and the audience, the contributions of the light show, the stomach pains caused by that not-so-kind veggie burrito or the yearning for another Sammy Smith. "The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way." Indeed, Phish is not that color, that texture, that Dead, nor do they smell that way.
The music fan must address his or her experience, as well as his or her collection of recordings, with a curiosity for all the possibilities. A Galactic performance from 1999 may not be musically memorable, but the lighting, constructed from an 8 MM film projector and a pair of slide projectors may linger in ones memory. That Sector 9 gig that knocked you off your feet last spring may not translate well to a recording. While a yellow-jacketed security guard may have man handled a young fan on the way in, the China > Rider that opened the second set may have been a moment of brilliance. Perhaps that Wolfmans Brother that was shrugged off because you heard at your last show will turn out to be the one you cant stop listening to three years later. There are so many facets to be considered, so many corners and alleys to be examined, so many ways of perceiving, that it is a crime against oneself to be hindered in ones sensory experience. While it may be impossible to be objective, the music fan must not "let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizons and crowd the sky down on us." Rather than focus only the truths of a recording, or only the truths of the concert experience, combine the two; neither will be the worse for it and "perhaps out of the two approaches there might emerge a picture more complete and even more accurate than either alone could produce Lets go wide open. Lets see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific strictures." Lets get on with the show.

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