Monday, June 8, 2009

Compartmentalizing the Morass

So, K.C. & I returned from the Kerrville Folk Festival almost a week ago, after having spent about 12 days there (Kerrville is an 18-day festival). We’ve been in years previous, but only for the first weekend (the festival always starts Memorial Day weekend). It’s a totally different experience when you allow yourself to be immersed in it…almost in the same way that music is a MUCH different experience for those who choose to make it a significant part of their lives (or perhaps it chooses you…”Almost Famous” always creeping in the background) than it is for those who only allow it to stay out on the periphery somewhere. Yes, you who listen to the “lite rock” station and claim to love “all types of music” have NO REAL IDEA what a true experience of music is. You simply have not allowed yourself to dig in as much, or allowed the music to dig into you. Okay, I’m totally getting sidetracked.

All this to say that Kerrville was a revelation on many, many levels. Here we are, we’re camping on a ranch with God knows how many other people, a large majority of whom are songwriters. The place is wall to wall tents, trailers, campers and large canopies under which various camps have created their “campfires” (“campfire” in this scenario does not involve any actual fire…it is the standard term for the spots in which somewhat organized song circles ensue. What’s a song circle? It’s when people sit in a circle and play songs, dumbass). Toilets have no plumbing attached…they are semi-permanent port-a-johns. There are showers, but be prepared to look at a bunch of naked people of your gender while taking one. Formal performances happen primarily in the evening, either at the Kennedy Theater (the larger, outdoor theater commonly referred to by the Kerrville-initiated as “mainstage”) or the Threadgill Theater. Mainstage on weekends, Threadgill during the week.

All this music is acoustically based, hence the Kerrville FOLK Festival. Yes, Dylan went electric in 1965, and occasionally there are full bands involved with some electric guitars, etc. But the songwriting element is key—the song is king, and it had better be up to snuff. It can be boring-ass, I-IV-V all day long as long as you’re saying something, and saying it in a way that has some poetry and cleverness to it. To experience so much of this music sitting in a song circle/campfire is remarkable…so many songs, just one person and his/her guitar, laying it out there in the most raw, pure form possible. It’s an extremely pure way to experience music. I felt that way so many times during those 12 days…like I was experiencing something really pure. That being said, it kicked my ass in ways I wasn’t can really get bogged down in insecurity at Kerrville if you’re a songwriter. Or a guitar player. I was over the insecurity thing within a few days, but the insecurity turned into a very clear recognition of one thing: as a “rock” songwriter, lyrically I can’t hold a candle to these people, not even (especially not even) my own wife. These songwriters are craftsmen of the highest order, and have to be—the standard in their genre is really high. I mean, it’s WAY higher than it is in rock. I think about the lyrics to a song like, say, “Do You Realize???” by the Flaming Lips (recently declared the official state rock song of Oklahoma) and I think about how great I think the lyrics are to that song, but they don’t even approach the standard set by some of these songwriters. I am not saying that “Do You Realize???” is a bad song. It’s a great freakin’ song. The fact that it’s a “rock” song, though, allows it a certain set of parameters in terms of its content. Take a song like “Blue Tattoo” by Joe Crookston, though, and pour that down your throat (I’d also like to cite the song Chris O’Brien wrote on the ranch while we were there, but unfortunately there is no spot in which to listen to it online yet). This song is amazing in its storytelling capacity, it’s poetic capacity, etc. It operates in a different universe than the Flaming Lips. It makes a rock songwriter feel out of his element to have songs like this cropping up all the time. Out of my element is fine…I understand that what I do is different, and not necessarily bad.

As a guitar player, however, it was a different story. I basically decided some time right around the middle of our 12 days that I was going to come home and become a MUCH better acoustic guitarist. Most of the crap I do on an acoustic guitar is just the same crap I do on electric transferred over. This is not the right approach, especially when it comes to folk. I am, very much, someone who operates as a “guitarist” in the folk world, so I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to fingerpick better, I’ve got to be able to play solos that are more appropriate to the acoustic instrument. I get compliments on my playing but they’re mostly from dudes who can hear in their heads what I’d sound like on electric. So, the woodshedding begins. I haven’t put in any significant practice on my instrument in a number of years, so it really is about time. I am very much looking forward to it, and that is key. I do music full-time, so practice should be a part of what I do, period.

In the midst of all this, of course (I say “of course” because this is starting to become routine for me…any large-scale immersion in the folk world usually results in the following line of thinking), I start to doubt the future of Dr. Pants. I start to wonder if I really have the desire or unction to stay in a rock band long-term. Acoustic music is so damned EFFICIENT. You and your instrument go up there, you plug it in (not even that if you’re campfirin’) and you go. There are no amplifiers, there is no loud drummer (at least for a lot of us...some mainstage performers played with large ensembles that included drum kit), just you and the damned song. I envy this proposition. It is part of what’s behind the decision to constantly tour the crap out of K.C. Clifford and leave Dr. Pants as an afterthought (the commercial viability of K.C. Clifford, and all the obvious financial constraints of acoustic duo vs. 4-piece rock band are quite key as well). I came home not really sure what to do next, other than practice my acoustic guitar. Luckily, fate stepped in, we did a rad podcast taping for the Elmocast at the Oklahoma City CoCo, and the next morning “Donuts” was used on CBS Sunday Morning. Voila. Dr. Pants continues unabated. I mean, I am really excited about all of this. I am also really excited about getting back on the road in July and playing some kick-ass Midwestern house concerts with K.C.

So, where is the music in all this? Who kicked ass at Kerrville? Who were some of my “favorites”? Before I go any further, I will say (with less bias than you think) that K.C.’s mainstage set was fantastic. The aforementioned Joe Crookston definitely qualifies. We listened to his record on the way home, and it’s great, too (although it lacks a certain visceral, present quality that is part of what makes listening to him in person so special. Sorry, Joe, if you’re reading this I hope that doesn’t hurt your pride). Our friend Chris O’Brien (Mr. Boston Hot Sauce himself) continues to impress as well. Louise Mosrie, one of the winners of the Kerrville New Folk competition (the songwriting competition that takes place on the first weekend of the festival…K.C. was a finalist in this competition in 2006 and 2007, but was not chosen as one of the 6 winners either time), just blew me away. Lucy Wainwright Roche was a favorite also. Find her song “Snare Drum”. Sarah Sample was fantastic, and her records (also experienced on our drive home) matched our live impressions completely. Who else was awesome? The list goes on and on…John Wort Hannam, Susan Gibson, Butch Morgan, Joe Jencks, Jaime Michaels, Steven Bacon, Bettysoo, Hans York, Devon Sproule, R.J. Cowdery, Drew Nelson, Karen Mal, Brian Kalinec, George Ensle, Larry Murante, Erik Balkey…I could go on. It is interesting to me, though, that what I said about Joe’s record could apply to a number of the folks I mentioned above. The standard operating procedure of “folk record making” could use an overhaul, in my opinion. It’s just my opinion, you can take it or leave it. The instrumentation needs to be shaken up, the production needs to become more adventurous. Rock music learned a long time ago that ANYTHING REALLY DOES GO a lot of the time. Folk artists need to become more comfortable with the idea of taking chances (at least on record…most of these songs survive “as is” in a live context just fine. It all goes back to the lyrical devices I spoke of earlier).

Now that I’ve totally ripped the folk community a new one in regards to their records…let me remind you that I’m accepting submissions for music reviews! Ha-HA! Oh, the irony. No, seriously, I really do want to review your record, and I will, if you are brave enough to send it my way. If you want me to just review one mp3, I’ll do that, too. Contact me at to get mailing address info, or just email me an mp3. I’ll review pretty much anything, although if it’s something I hate so much that I don’t even want to make the effort, I probably won’t.

The title of this entry, “Compartmentalizing the Morass”, might seem a bit cryptic at this point, since I have yet to allude to it on any explicit level. In closing, I’ll attempt to illustrate. I suppose it refers to several things:

1) I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about Kerrville, very few of which I have really managed to express properly here. Compartmentalization inevitably leads to reduction in overall content.
2) I am currently struggling with the purpose and supposed boundaries of this blog. This is a blog about music, and my interactions with it, but ultimately I’m playing more music than I’m listening to as of late, and so many things in regards to Dr. Pants and K.C. Clifford (not to mention Weird Files, etc.) can and are becoming fodder for blog entries. I don’t anticipate this changing, but is this blog becoming an “official” blog for Dr. Pants?? That brings up a whole other mess of questions. “Am I changing the name” is one. I like “The Mixtape Jones Report”. I don’t want that to go away. Compartmentalizing the morass of music-related information continues to prove challenging.

Peace out, y’all. More soon, I hope.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I like your point about the different boundaries and expectations for song writing in different genres. Some of the most memorable songs are like short stories.