Featured Column: Remembering The Small Bands
One way that the Grateful Dead influenced culture is that in the 80s it seemed like every town had a small hippieish band or two. The main reason for that is that seeing music was a much larger part of the Deadhead identity than it is for fans of other bands. It was not just a fun night out on the town or even a peak moment. There was also a tribal aspect to seeing concerts. In the pre-Internet days, the best way to meet people who had similar interests was to go out and see Shooky Bones (if you lived in upstate New York) or Juggling Suns (for the Baltimorons) or whatever your local band was. No one expected these bands to get big or even make a career out of it, but they represented a fun way to spend an evening, to meet good people and see a decent set of music.
Bob Lefsetz’s blog may be a tad on the repetitive side but one of his core ideas makes a lot of sense. In the day of the Internet where we have limitless access to entertainment, people aren’t willing to settle for just fair music. A band playing an open mic night isn’t just competing with the other musicians at the club or even the other bars in town. When there are both official and ustream feeds of pretty much any interesting concert in the country – not to mention what home theatres, every game packages, and video on demand has done for watching sports and movies at home – and the ability to talk with one’s friends the whole time, it becomes harder and harder for bands to market themselves.
While there are obvious consequences that this creates (such as making it harder for new bands to break into the scene), one of the more subtle ways this affects things is that it changes the way that we look at performing musicians. There’s a huge mental difference between seeing a band that’s just playing for fun and to maybe be a little cash on the side and seeing a huge band. It’s much harder to think of musicians as larger than life when you spend time seeing people who are just goofing around. Losing that makes it easier to buy into the idea that musicians are superior to us. While that sounds like a good idea to the artist, it doesn’t always work that way.
Seeing Phish both in clubs and in the arena era brings home how big of a change that caused in the attitude of fans. Sure even in the early 90s fans were critical, but it was always from a point of respect. As the band got bigger more and more obstacles had to be put between them and us. By the late 90s people were starting to call them (especially Trey) rock stars. That label was enough to change the perception of the members. People started putting on extra demands on them. It wasn’t enough for them to put on a great show. They had to be doing drugs backstage and scoring with groupies and basically being a personal wish fulfillment for perpetual adolescents who couldn’t imagine anything better than an eternal party.
We’ve now reached the point where the biggest fan forum is filled with threads daydreaming about Trey relapsing if that’s what it takes to get the kind of music they want. Others are busy spreading horrible false rumors about Mike. Sure some of that is trolling and it’s a small minority anyway, but it’s hard not to notice the change in attitude. Once you start defining the entire lives of artists solely by how much entertainment they are bringing you, the thread has been lost.
When I reflect on my days seeing Phish, some of my favorite memories will only happen because the band blew up. Limestone and Big Cypress aren’t possible for a band with a smaller footprint. There’s an insanity of seeing 20,000 people chant “Wilson” or do the Stash clap that doesn’t exist when it’s just a cult band. As great as theatres are, few can match the majesty of seeing a sunset The Divided Sky at The Gorge. Phil and Phriends probably never happens if Phish don’t have mainstream success. For that matter, the increased popularity made a lot of money for some great people. Still though, especially as the fanbase starts to dwindle some, it’s hard not to wonder about a version of Phish that never graduated from large theatres, one where they can still maintain a personal connection to the crowd without getting overwhelmed. Maybe that band avoids the excesses of fame and we don’t ever have a Coventry.
While there obviously is no way of knowing the answer to that, there is one thing that people can do. Go out every now and then and see a local act. It may not be as mind-blowing as the larger bands -unless you’re lucky enough to have a Skerik project like Crack Sabbath as an option – but what it is is a reminder of why we all started going to see music in the first place. Before it became an obsession, music was a fun night out. A night or two of thinking of musicians as people with a fun hobby might not cure the urge to spread that rumor about Bob Weir, but it can’t hurt.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page