Although it shouldn’t, it may surprise you to know that success in the music business, especially on a sustainable financial level, is extraordinarily hard to attain. Artists like PSY and Rebecca Black have their moments of fame with viral videos of questionable quality but all righteous music-loving folk rest easy at night knowing that their fame will be fleeting. Like most of the winners of American Idol or The Voice, they will soon fade quietly into our collective unconsciousness, only to arise as answers in a future version of Trivial Pursuit. In making success seem like it’s only a quirky dance or insipid phrase away, it’s easy to forget that a significant majority of worthy bands never get that moment and by the time many get around to seeing them on “the next time they come around,” their window for success has closed.
It was just last decade that The Secret Machines seemed ready to ascend the ladder of success, one of the many tabbed as “the next big thing.” Brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis and drummer Josh Garza, a veritable beast behind a drum kit, crafted a near-industrial blend of rock that found them attracting the attention of David Bowie and opening selected shows with U2 while still building their audience with tremendous albums like Now Here Is Nowhere and Ten Silver Drops. One night, The Secret Machines are playing majestic shows in the round and recording Beatles covers with Bono, the next, there’s an announcement that Ben Curtis will be leaving the band to devote more time to School of Seven Bells. A new guitarist was found, a new album recorded but the magic was pretty much gone and the band slowly receded into the “where are they are now” recesses of the musical world as interest turned elsewhere. Sadly, the story of The Secret Machines is neither unique nor archaic.
“Musical tastes are ephemeral and the time that any band spends in the critical spotlight is fleeting. With live taping no longer considered bootlegging and streaming sites and outright piracy cutting into sales of recorded music, the line between a band independently standing firm on its own two feet and one on the verge of collapse is thinner than you might expect.” – Schultz
The relatively brief prime for fledgling bands isn’t relegated to the so-called indie-scene or Pitchfork-minded artists. U-Melt appeared to possess everything that was needed to succeed in the jamband world. Classically trained musicians that mastered a style they proclaimed progressive groove, a wicked blend of electronica-style dance riffs, prog-rock intricacy and wildly compelling improvisation from guitarist Rob Salzer and keyboardist Zac Lasher, U-Melt built a following whose sense of community compared to the ones that grew around the Grateful Dead and Phish. Despite being one the few bands that could master the complexities of Frank Zappa opuses while also possessing the ability to send audiences into a rhythmic frenzy, it wasn’t sustainable. Salzer left the band and within a year, U-Melt was playing a farewell show at the Highline Ballroom.
Anyone who was present for U-Melt’s palindrome show or witnessed The Secret Machines blow people away with First Wave Intact knows that neither of those bands failed to prosper for lack of talent. It only emphasizes the importance of going to see a band perform when they playing at the local venue.
Earl Greyhound boasts one of the most electrifying lineups in recent memory and their energetic live show is an enlivening and invigorating experience. Ostensibly still a viable unit, your guess is as good as mine as to when they’ve last gigged. Backyard Tire Fire laid claim to Ed Anderson, one of the more prolific songwriters of the past decade. They played their farewell show almost a year ago. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that The Slip were going to break out on a larger scale with the jamband world getting behind the jazzy Eisenhower. Yet now, Mark Friedman plays bass with Big Light while Andrew and Brad Barr have been concentrating on The Barr Brothers. Cold War Kids, one of the first bands to ride the first true wave of Internet buzz to great success, isn’t immune: Johnnie Russell, their founding lead guitarist recently left the band. Same with Titus Andronicus who, despite near universal acclaim, seem to have trouble keeping anyone that isn’t Patrick Stickles in the band.
Supporting an artist doesn’t always entail purchasing tickets or going to a club. Chicago’s Willy Earl Beal may have found success with a peculiar brand of door-to-door marketing. Posting flyers around the city bearing his phone number and the message “Call me and I’ll play you a song,” Beal took the personal approach to its most literal level. There may be a bit more business savvy to Beal than the publicized story of a street busker getting a record deal – his debut Acousmatic Sorcery may be lo-fi brilliance – but it does bring to mind Ted Hawkins’ star-crossed rise in the mid-90s. Hawkins spent the majority of his life as an obscure but talented singer and guitar player. Although he had a bit of a break in the late ’60s, his career evaporated in a haze of heroin and multiple prison stretches. Remarkably, by the early 90’s, Hawkins had become one of the most popular street performers in Venice Beach, California with people traveling miles and waiting hours to hear him play. Michael Penn (a/k/a Mr. Aimee Mann) was one such devotee and he persuaded Geffen Records to get Hawkins off the street and into the studio. Hawkins grudgingly relented and the astounding result, The Next Hundred Years received extraordinary reviews upon its release but relatively little airplay. With his guitar in tow, Hawkins went around the country doing radio interviews and studio performances, mainly on the last vestiges of free form radio, and the album slowly started to sell. With renown about to finally come his way, Hawkins died, tragically never getting to enjoy the well-deserved adulation. No one that saw Hawkins play at Venice Beach regrets the time and effort it took to see him.
There is a misconception that simply because a band is talented or well-reviewed that every live show is an unmitigated success. Nothing may epitomize that better than Howlin’ Rain’s trip through New York City last spring. After receiving a modicum of good press upon the release of The Russian Wilds, the San Francisco based band came east for a pair of shows at the Mercury Lounge and Brooklyn Bowl. Booking two venues in the same market may have been overly ambitious, neither show drew well; all the New Yorkers that professed love for the album must have had other plans those nights. Perhaps everyone figured that they would just catch them the next time they came through town.
Musical tastes are ephemeral and the time that any band spends in the critical spotlight is fleeting. With live taping no longer considered bootlegging and streaming sites and outright piracy cutting into sales of recorded music, the line between a band independently standing firm on its own two feet and one on the verge of collapse is thinner than you might expect. Not every band is teetering on the brink but if you have an interest in seeing the artist you love continue to make the music you enjoy, go to the show next time they are in town. It’s infinitely more important than you think.
OFFRAMPS AND REST STOPS
As far as influential artists go, no one could be less interested in his own legacy or the meaning of his own work than Bob Dylan. Since his near-death experience in 1997, Dylan’s career not only experienced a renaissance, he vaulted into even more rarefied air than he had already been reluctantly raised. The renewed attention was well deserved with Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft and even Modern Times serving a remarkable fifth (possibly sixth, who knows, possibly seventh) act from a performer whose legend had already reached mythic status. In the rush to praise Caesar upon the release of Tempest, Dylan’s latest, nearly everyone seems unwilling to proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.
A stellar but otherwise pedestrian effort, Dylan does nothing on Tempest that he hasn’t done before. Even the meditations on mortality are roads Dylan’s traveled in the recent past. In recording a fourteen minute dissertation on the sinking of the Titanic, Dylan might easily be making an obscure political statement, offering a sly commentary on the role tragic loss of life plays within the folk ideal or simply conducting a history class in song. Such though may be Dylan’s genius; knowing that his every utterance will prompt critical and literary scrutiny and be subject to endless scrutiny, a titanic Titanic ballad might just be the master’s way of letting us know that the emperor still wear majestic robes and it is us that parades around in the nude.
If Eddie Money knew he couldn’t sing and was going to look grotesque while trying, why did he agree to film that GEICO commercial?