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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2001/08/20
by John Zinkand

As Luck Would Have It

I live in a very small suburb of Portland, OR. My house is a small older house that sits on a nice little hillside in this sleepy community. If one drives south down I-205 they will come across only two exits that stop in my little town. One of these exits happens to be chock full of wonderful services. Theres a tasty microbrewery, a McDonalds, a Chevron, a car wash, and a Sharis Restaurant. For those of you not familiar with Sharis, its kind of like a Dennys or Shoneys. When I got home from work this evening, my lovely wife and I decided that we would grab some cheap and mediocre grub at the local Sharis instead of driving the twenty minutes into Portland to find more exciting fare. Sharis definitely isnt four stars, but it is only three minutes from our house and has relatively inexpensive food.
We were seated promptly upon our arrival at Sharis and were just finishing up our salads when I looked up to notice a familiar looking guy walk into the bathroom. Was that the drummer for String Cheese Incident? I asked my wife. Im pretty sure it was, she replied. When he came out of the bathroom and walked by my booth wearing a trademark batik style t-shirt and his hair back in a pony tail, I knew it was the drummer for String Cheese, Michael Travis. I said hello and we shared a sentence or two of small talk, and then he went back over to his table. The fact that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and randomly bumped into this well known drummer got me thinking about how luck is such a wild thing, especially when related to the great music and scene that is the jamband community.
Luck plays a major part in the creation of improvisational music. Whether any given live music experience excels compared to others depends on many factors: the band, the audience, the atmosphere of the venue, the frequency of the songs played, the stage show, any technical difficulties, etc. As a jamband fan, there are times when we get lucky as audience members. Some are lucky enough to have seen Pigpen sing and play with the Dead while others were lucky because they happened to be walking around the Clifford Ball parking lots at 4:00am and bumped into a free Phish ambient jam session that happened on the back of a flatbed truck. The factors that make up any given special occurrence or standout performance are infinite and can boggle the mind. That being said, I want to discuss some of the standout musical performances I have been lucky enough to witness in my time as a live music fan.
I started seeing live music when I saw the Grateful Dead for the first time in 1988. Naturally, they were the first band I ever knew well enough to even know if I was witnessing anything that could be considered special. I was lucky enough to witness a few old tunes being dusted off and presented to a younger generation of Deadheads. Landover, Maryland just happened to be the location for some historic song revivals, and I just happened to be one of the 30,000 or so people in the world who got to witness them being brought back first hand. I remember the return of Loose Lucy there in 1990. The place absolutely exploded. A huge taper with long hair and a long beard looked over at me and noticed the recognition in my eye. A gigantic smile was on his face and he reached right over and gave me a big old bear hug of happiness. Everyone was screaming and clapping and the entire Capital Center swelled with love and joy at that very lucky instant. And as luck would have it, the following year I witnessed the return of the tune New Speedway Boogie at the very same venue.
I attended college in New England from 1991-1995, so my Phish luck was pretty good due mainly to the high frequency of times I attended their shows. While I witnessed the debuts of songs, old songs pulled out of the closet, and countless strange and wonderful stage antics and banter, I can think of a few Phish experiences I truly feel lucky to have seen first hand. The first occurred in Poughkeepsie, NY in the winter of 1993. The weather was an awful messy mix of sleet, ice, and snow which turned what should have been a three hour drive into a six and a half hour drive. Everyone was slowed down by the weather and many people didnt even arrive until after the second set started. Luck happened near the end of this very set when the band started in with the famous introductory oom-pa-pas that signal the beginning of the rare and entertaining song Harpua. On this special night, however, we witnessed a Harpua narration that was different than all the others. On that cold wintry evening a small cat named Poster Nutbag rose up like David overtaking Goliath and slain the oversized mangy mutt to which the songs title pays homage. Of course, the cat was so surprised that he actually defeated his long-time nemesis that he keeled over and died of excitement on the spot. The other Phish event that luck let me witness first hand was the New Years Eve run of 1993-1994. Seeing the detailed aquarium stage set complete with blue water, moving fish swimming in the tank, colorful coral on the aquarium floor, and, of course, the giant clam that eventually counted down the final seconds of 1993 was a great experience. Phish transcended themselves for these four nights as the music makers who stood at the bottom of a huge fish tank.
I saw the Aquarium Rescue Unit play live. Now thats lucky. Anyone who got to see the original ARU with Col. Bruce Hampton, Matt Mundy, Count MButu, Apartment Q258, Jimmy Herring, and Oteil Burbridge is one lucky music fan in my book. Standing in a club not more than four feet from Jimmy, Oteil, and Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q258) as they wailed and shredded away through the most intricate jams and changes all the while feeding off the small crowds enthusiasm was an intense experience worth savoring. One can still see Jimmy play with Phil or catch Oteil jam with the Allmans, but the magic of the ARUs sheer youth and energy as they wailed together in the early 90s really cant be touched.
Sometimes there is luck in hindsight. I can recall a few nights I considered having to sit through opening bands as a sort of torture. One night I went to a local bar to see the up-and-coming small band Leftover Salmon play. I had heard the bands brand of Poly-Ethnic Cajun Slam-Grass on a friends suggestion and was happy to go see them play live. When we got to the show, we learned that there was to be an opening band taking the stage before Salmon, however. I remember thinking that the opening band sounded kind of poppy with their shorter songs and tight little melodies that never really opened up into anything that could be considered a real jam. The short guy that sung all the songs and played acoustic rhythm guitar seemed to have kind of a nasal sounding voice and a hyper stage presence which didnt really appeal to me. The one thing that struck me about this band was their violin player. He was really good and actually had some amazing and hard-rockin solos. I didnt know it at the time, but as luck would have it, I was seeing the humble small club beginnings of a band that would go on to earn major success, the Dave Matthews Band.
One final thought on luck and my improvisational music experiences comes to mind. The luck is not always good. I recall one particular event that happened in New Haven, CT over a period of a few weeks. Some friends and I eagerly bought tickets for a Bela and the Flecktones show happening at Toads Place, a two and a half hour drive away. My friend was a huge Victor fan and he urged us to check out the Flecktones with him. When we got to Toads we lined up and walked into the notorious bar. Problem was there was no equipment on the stage, just a microphone and an acoustic guitar. It seems we had read the date on the ticket incorrectly and the Bela show was actually not until the following month and tonight Richie Havens was playing. We grumbled the entire car ride back home. The luck continued next month when we arrived in New Haven on the actual night of the Bela concert. It was a bitter cold evening with temperatures dipping below zero when factoring in the brisk wind chill. We lined up and finally got to the front of the line when the doorman asked us for ID. We were only nineteen year old college students, but we gave him our licenses. He then informed us that this was a twenty-one and over show even though there was no mention of the fact on the ticket, and we were not allowed to enter.
Needless to say, we were very upset. This was the second time we made the long trip to this bar only to be turned away by unlucky circumstances. We stood by the bands bus until Victor finally emerged and we feverishly explained our long and pitiful story of stupidity and bad luck through or blue lips and chattering teeth to him. He actually could relate since he had just turned twenty-one recently himself and promised to plead with the club owner to see if he could get us in. When Victor finally came back out of the bar, we were basically frozen since we hadnt planned on hanging outside for a few hours in subzero temperatures. Victor explained that he begged the owner to let us in, even going so far as asking to let us sit on the side of the stage away from the bar and booze, so we could just watch the band and listen to the music. As luck would have it, however, it was just not meant to be. Our heads hung down in defeat and shame as we slowly realized we would again see no music, had wasted our money, and had a long drive back home in store for us yet again. Then Victor told us to wait a second while he jumped back on their bus. He emerged with a hand full of t-shirts that he gave to us and said, Here you guys go. At least you got something for your money. As we drove back home, we realized that luck is a strange and unpredictable entity.just like live music.

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