First off, lets start with a plug. This year on New Years Eve, forget about cursing the 5 boroughs from a rooftop and hugging the toilet the remainder of the evening. Relax with a beverage and a recipe Matt Shampine posts on iblogwhatieat.com, and listen to NPR. I was fortunate enough to be on the NY crew for their Toast Of The Nation broadcast and I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to a relaxing night of music and recording related fun, rather than spending an obscene amount of money in a bar I don’t want to hang out in, and feeling hungover the next day. Am I getting old? Possiblimente….but I digress. They’ll be broadcasting The Bad Plus, one of my favorite bands, live from The Village Vanguard in NY, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy live from LA later on in the evening. My first ever professional post college job was for the Toast Of The Nation broadcast in 2004. I had recently returned from LA, and assisted in the days leading up to the broadcast from Lincoln Center, but opted instead on new years eve to see Wilco and The Flaming Lips at Madison Square Garden, quite the mistake. But we will perhaps do a new years specific post next week or early January, recounting musical events past and present.
My point is, I got to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at the Highline Ballroom as an advance public radio scout. I’d like to think I was undercover, scoping it out, causing trouble. In truth, I was sadly not causing trouble. No swing dancers were tripped, no douchebags snapping had drinks spilled on them from above. I merely hung out and enjoyed what I could. Its an odd phenomenon, that Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Back in the day, anyone aware of popular music remembers the brief swing craze. Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Voodoo Daddy, all that. We’d like to think it stemmed from the also brief popularity of Ska, and took on a strange little revival. If you think about it though, that’s really the only time since the Ellington and Basie era in which big band music was a part of main stream popular culture. The difference being, this really seemed like a gimmick…i guess because it was? Really dudes, no one wears a zoot suit and says “daddy-o” and means it. You probably have a job, where they do not let you wear your zoot suit, and if you start a riot, you will be arrested.
But lets talk about this show for a minute, then maybe we’ll get all theoretical up in here. The band was highly proficient, if not too rehearsed. Yes, the horn section was adequate but they were certainly no Dap Kings. They played WAY too much Christmas music, the singer even alluded to the fact that he was well over it. Their stage banter seemed very scripted, as did the singers dancing, I don’t know, I just wasn’t buying it. They did play the hits, which were very entertaining to hear. Its kind of funny, as soon as they went into that “bottle makes 3 song” you could really tell why they gained such popularity at their height. Its a catchy tune, you can always remember the lyrics, the music is happy, everyone has a good time. But the rest of the set really did feel like filler.
Earlier in the week I had dinner with the iblog empire, and a few hundred people, and we briefly discussed the rise and fall of popular music featuring horn players in the late 90’s. Well, mostly Web Master Eric and I did, while Matt Shampine was too busy blogging what he was eating and got sauce all over his iphone. Anyway, it brought up some dilemmas. We all know the story of the One Hit Wonder, but what happens when you have a mild hit in a somewhat gimmicky style, and you’re stuck in that gimmick for the rest of your foreseeable career? Basically, what happens after the popularity dies down, and you’re left holding a baritone sax?
Having a band with horns is no easy task. Lets start out all business. Its an economic nightmare. You have a standard rock band, guitar, bass, drums, vocals. 4 People, 1 extra to hang out and help, traveling to a show. You can get away with traveling in a van or large SUV. You don’t get paid for the show, but hopefully you can cover gas money, if life is awesome, you can but 5 beverages. Add 3 horn players to the mix. You have another car to take to the show, god forbid they have girlfriends (which lets be honest, is unlikely) So now not only does no one get a beverage at the show, you are in the hole as far as transportation expenses go. At the height of our youth inspired shenanigans, we were part of a 9 person ska band. One night while playing Maxwells in Hoboken, the soundman said to me “so, after what you guys get paid is divided, you cant even buy 1 drink, right?” Yes Maxwells dude, this is true. But whatever, you’re 20, who cares. Once you start getting into real life territory…that gets a little more sketchy. Lets say a band like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or Reel Big Fish, or any of those guys, maintains a career, these days strictly off of touring. When it is your actual livelihood, transportation expenses are serious business. That’s extra hotel rooms, food, space in the van or bus or whatever, any number of things. Obviously I have no numbers to back this up since my accounting knowledge begins and ends with that fact that Oscar Kevin and Angela run The Office accounting department. At that point…hiring a keyboard player or something starts to make a lot more sense.
Lets talk about egos, shall we? A band is like having 4 girlfriends, with none of the positive aspects. A band with horns is like having 9 girlfriends. And while we all think Polygamy is totally awesome in theory, we’re also all aware that its just not practical, man. Same concept applies. How to keep a band together is a mystery to everyone. I believe along the way, nearly every one of these popular bands which once included horn players, has either fired said horns, or hired studio musicians to tour when necessary. Its impossible to quantify the contribution a specific instrument makes to a song, many a tambourine has completed a record, but if you have players only putting in a few notes here and there on a rock song…you could imagine some situations where problems could arise.
I don’t want to insult anyone’s livelihood, I have great respect for any touring band, especially one who has survived for many years. I just wonder what their career related discussions are like. Is it like “ok dudes, lets do another swing era big band album!” In truth, they’ve probably been a band longer than the actual swing era lasted. Its like those Beatles cover bands who have been around far longer than the actual Beatles were. Reel Big Fish did in fact write a song called “Don’t Start A Band” and I really think its the most depressing song I have ever seen (i dont even want to listen, I’ve just seen the lyrics) Here’s a little lyrical snippet:
And if you that the joy of playing
Will keep you going through the years
Wait till you poor and frustrated
And the fun just disappears
Nobody cares what you have to say
And noes gonna listen anyways
Rock and roll will bring you down
And it will kick you while your on the ground
Don’t start a band
Don’t even try you will regret it yea
Don’t start a band
You’ll be so disappointed that it was nothing like you planned
Don’t start a band
Oh yea yea yea
Damn dudes, really? Anyway. Having a large band seems tough not only for career oriented reasons, but simply for the creative process. Its nore difficult to get things done quickly with more people involved. Lets keep the process streamlined. If you can’t go solo, go duo, and so forth. And if you feel like hanging up the zoot suit, for the love of all that is holy, please do so.