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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2006/03/13
by John Zinkand

Music Markers

Live music is a necessity. Through all the cycles of my life, live music has been there as a marker. I came of age with the Grateful Dead, lived while I was young and in college with Phish, began real life with Jiggle the Handle, enjoyed picture perfect west coast summers at the High Sierra Music Festival and, most recently, endured major life changes with Umphreys McGee blaring in the background. Life changes, twists and turns into as many unexpected themes and variations as any improvisational jam. Certain shows and bands will always be significant signposts and reminders of important times in our lives. While the bigger bands, shows, and events in our lives are remembered vividly for their heavy significance, the numerous smaller shows that a jam fan sees multiples times per month represent the smaller and more subtle changes in life. A few recent shows Ive taken in here in Portland serve as a snapshot for the most recent change my life has been going through.
Relatively recently, Ive whipped myself into shape. When I was seeing the Grateful Dead in the late 80s and touring with Phish in the early 90s, I was a fairly hefty young man. Eventually I moved to the west coast and began hiking, which motivated me to lose some of my extraneous bulk. Through countless hours of exercise and a severe and much needed change to my diet, I lost about 70 pounds. This made live music that much more enjoyable for me. No longer would I get tired at the end of a set and need to find a place to sit down. A hot crowded show is still not the most comfortable place to be, but its nowhere close to the borderline torture it had been when there were 70 more pounds of me sweating away.
Recently, Ive stepped up the commitment to being in shape more than I would have ever imagined possible. Ive decided to train for and participate in the Vancouver, BC marathon on May 7th. To some a marathon is an insane distance, while others compete in them regularly. My sister used to be a pro Ironman distance triathlete in which a marathon is just the last leg of a race where one has already swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles, so from that perspective, a single marathon shouldnt be a big deal. Well, its a huge deal and an even bigger commitment. When Im not working or sleeping, it seems, these days Im running or cross training in preparation for the big event. Even my beloved live music has taken a bit of a backseat to work and training. But I do manage to squeeze in some live shows among the training days, and its interesting how these shows represent my current life in flux.
For instance, a few weeks ago I saw New Monsoon and Hot Buttered Rum String Band on a Saturday night. In years past, I would have been all jacked up and ready to party hardy late into the night. But Saturday is now my long run training day, and I had to do a 12 or 14 mile run earlier that morning. The show was at a new Portland venue called the Wonder Ballroom and its a nice enough place to take in a show, but there are slim pickings when it comes to seats. With my sore stiff legs quaking beneath me, I swayed and grooved to all of Hot Buttered Rums set and about half of New Monsoons set before having to leave. I would have rather stayed for the entire show, but after a huge run, the mind has trouble cooperating with a body that is screaming out to just lie down already.
The other night Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey and the Dead Kenny Gs played here in town at the Goodfoot on a Friday night. Normally I would rage like crazy on a Friday night show performed by two such wonderfully twisted bands. This time around I found a seat and drank a few pints of water instead of beer. With a 14 mile run scheduled for the following morning, getting loaded up with dehydrating beers just isnt an option. I enjoyed the entire show completely sober and also perched on a stool to save my legs. This while all my freaky brethren imbibed freely and danced wildly to the nice grooves both bands put out that night. It was a little frustrating as both bands played shows that were highly groove oriented and danceable. But I have a bigger commitment on the horizon and knew I couldnt enjoy the show the same way I would have in years past.
After so many weeks of training, it does start to get a little frustrating now and then for a rabid jam fan like myself to see fellow freaks and music lovers dancing heartily and knocking back a few with friends on a weekend night. But then I remember to keep things in perspective. Ive done the party hardy with live music thing thousands of times in my life and will do so thousands more times in the future. However, Ive not yet ever completed a marathon. And thats what life and improvisational music is abouttaking risks, embracing the weird, and trying new things. Enjoying music sober or seated is not such a bad thing, either. There are subtle nuances that I am able to pick up on while enjoying a show in that manner that I would have missed if I was drunkenly jumping about. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
In the days and weeks after race day on May 7th, shows will take on the more familiar format that I have come to expect and enjoy. The shows I took in while training for the marathon will slowly fade into the background as exceptions to the norm. But I will look back at these shows and remember how and why I had to enjoy them a little differently. Their significance will always be remembered. Thats just one of the things that is so great about live music for the serious fan. All the shows, bands, and events that we experience due to being so heavily immersed in this scene serve as a colorfully tie-dyed backdrop to the swirling of lifes events and changes. And the best thing about it all is the knowledge that we havent even yet scratched the surface. Party on, now.

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