The names of bands and individuals have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
Sometimes, when I’m depressed, I enter online contests. The prizes are never anything useful; typically they’re accessories for another, cooler life I’ll never have — fancy guitars, pickup trucks, giant flatscreen TVs. For years, I’ve read — and intermittently responded to — the Craigslist “Musicians Wanted” ads in much the same spirit. I never actually expect anything to come of it, but it makes me feel better to open up and invite positive energy into my life.
Now, though, I’ve changed my mindset. I’m not just browsing; I’m looking to buy. And I’m not going to quit until I’m in a suitable band.
Easier said than done. The thing about the Rochester music scene is the same thing about America as a whole. There are, by my conservative estimate, about twelve million bar bands in the United States, and a good 80% of them play the same three dozen songs. In the Roc, as in all cities, there are lots of boring white blooze bros and a passel of classic rock meatheads banging out covers of Seger, Springsteen, and the Stones. There’s also a surprising number of Southern rock bands — my former next-door neighbor drummed for one, in fact — and the city ranks among America’s top five municipalities in metal bands per capita.
But there seems to be a shortage of the kind of smart, eclectic band that will let me do what I love to do: play and sing deep cuts and less-obvious covers, and develop original material. I am determined, though, to make the best of things; I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And so I forge ahead, remaining flexible, guided by a simple list of dealbreakers. It starts:
- No interest unless the band is, or soon will be, ready to play out.
- I will not play with anyone I have to carry for any reason.
- I will not play with anyone I suspect of dishonesty or withholding information.
- I will not play under a Confederate flag; I will not play under a Gadsden flag.
- I will not play “Brown Sugar.” I will not play “Sweet Home Alabama.”
…and so on.
Thursday, March 3
Audition: The Dharma Teens
For a while, I think I’ve struck up a connection. Matt is a local drummer who’s looking for a bass player to round out an Americana project he’s starting with a guitarist pal of his. Open to originals, even! This idea suits me to a tee; Matt and I spend a couple of weeks exchanging e-mails, laying down ideas for the band, and everything seems simpatico.
Then Matt drops some good news/bad news. His guitarist will not be joining up after all because he’s ramping up his time commitment to his other band — so this project is dead even before it hits the water. But! Matt informs me that his other band, the Dharma Teens, is regrouping — and they’re auditioning bass players.
The Dharma Teens, as Matt describes them, are a “creative cover band” — a power trio plus singer who take girlie-pop songs and play them in cool rock arrangements. Now, transformative arrangements are kind of my thing, so I’m pretty excited.
I’m a little less thrilled with the rundown of the audition as Matt explains it. He gives me homework — songs by Pink, the Donnas, and Pvris — and soon I am trying to reimagine the tunes even as I learn them cold; I will meet the bandmates, walk them through my approaches, and run through the songs — and there will be a guy just walking out when I arrive and another guy walking in as I’m leaving. No pressure, right?
I hole up with my bass, a notebook, a Sharpie, and a tablet computer running YouTube and guitar tab sites, then cover the logos on my bass and amp with black duct tape, and down the basement steps I go.
Everyone is terrifically nice. Matt’s a sweet family man, a lanky guy with a shaved head. George, the guitar player, is an aging bleached-blond punk with a soul patch and a wheezy laugh; both are about my age. Kerry, the singer, is a bit younger; her reference points are all Adele and Gaga and Beyoncé, and it’s the tension between that song style and the rock modality that should make this an interesting setup. I plug in and we get ready to play.
First thing I notice is that George is playing a Les Paul gold top through a Marshall stack.
A Marshall stack. In a basement. An enclosed space with concrete walls. At screaming volume.
And Matt is hands-down the loudest drummer I’ve ever heard.
Kerry has decent pipes, but she’s hopelessly overmatched, so the PA is cranked to compensate. And what is initially merely uncomfortable soon becomes physically painful. My hearing actually starts to shut down. Everything disintegrates into a trebly squall of white noise, a high-pitched whistle as if my head itself were feeding back.
It soon becomes apparent that my arrangement ideas — which mostly involve breaking the songs down and opening them up — are nonstarters with this line-up. “Can we take the verse down a notch?” I ask. “Maybe a clean strum?”
George shrugs. “Marshall stack, dude,” he says. “I literally can’t play a clean strum.”
This rather limits the — well — creativity of this “creative cover” approach; everything gets run through the same hard-rock filter. George is unbothered. He often plays it subtle and tasteful in his other band, he tells me; the Dharma Teens are his vehicle for rockin’ out, and that’s how he likes it. Me, I have to abandon any thought of nuance and just fucking hammer it in order to even be heard.
We play a while, run through the songs, and then we talk. Kerry and I talk about Nina Simone, George and I talk about the punk ethos and socialist politics, and then it’s time for me to go. I don’t get a callback. I don’t really expect one.
Wednesday, March 16
Audition: Seven Day Weekend
My contact is the bass player, Larry. 7DW is an basically adult contemporary radio station in band form — all covers, mostly classic rock with a sprinkling of stadium-ready newer stuff; Tom Petty and ZZ Top and Grand Funk, yes, but also Jimmy Eat World and Sublime and Third Eye Blind. They’re looking for a singer, Larry tells me, because their former vocalist jumped ship to concentrate on his other band. Whatever. The set list is right in my wheelhouse; many of these songs, I’ve been singing for years in my solo act. And I get to pick my own songs this time! I book a 45-minute slot — this is another revolving-door audition — and polish up my top seven or eight tunes.
It’s another basement, a little too small for all of us, so I stand awkwardly at the foot of the stairs. Four middle-aged white guys with beards and glasses — well, five, once I arrive. Two guitarists (one of whom also plays keys), bass, and drums. The sound is clean and well-controlled. The drummer is using an electronic kit, so the volume is entirely reasonable. I’m in good voice. We do “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Authority Song” and “Just What I Needed” and “Bang a Gong” and “Squeeze Box” and “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” and “Glory Days.” Everybody’s competent and well-prepared, and I have a perfectly nice time. I’m the last hopeful of the night, so we have a little time to chat afterward. The conversation among the bandmates turns to the gear they’re using, what they’ve bought recently, where they found it, how much they paid for it. I smile thinly, and then I go home.
It’s a perfect fit. Easy, familiar, pleasant. So why do I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet when Larry tells me they’ve chosen someone else?
See, there are some guys — and they’re always guys — who kind of like being in a band, but what they really like is buying themselves a lot of fancy toys, and talking about said toys. Sometimes, they remember to play music; but it’s pretty far down the list. It can make a singer start to wonder if he’s a creative partner, or just a convenient alibi.
Sunday, March 27
Audition: Double Clutch
Back on the horse. I reach out to Patrick, the drummer in a modern country outfit, and set up a tryout. Double Clutch get plenty of gigs, because there’s an underserved audience out there that just wants to line dance all night long. They’re probably the most commercial prospect I’ve encountered thus far.
And they know it. They don’t condescend to the music, exactly, but there’s the faintest whiff of mercenary motive hovering over the whole thing. Patrick is big, exuberant mountain of a man; we bond instantly over a shared love for Steely Dan. Bandleader and guitarist Xander strikes me as gearhead who — at fortysomething — has finally outgrown metal. Reva, one of two lead singers who occasionally throw in on acoustic, is a singer-songwriter in her own right; scarcely out of her teens, she’s plainly doing note-perfect country covers for a lark (and for money), and it’s just as plain she’s having a ball with it. The other singer, Champ, barely looks up from his phone all night; he says maybe two words to me. Maybe he’s painfully shy; maybe he’s just an asshole. Ernie rounds out this motley crew on guitar. Quiet but friendly, he looks to be pushing 60 and plays with a solid rock attack.
“Modern country is the new rock ‘n’ roll,” says Patrick, laughing, but he’s not really joking. I didn’t pay much attention to the genre, coming up, but in my crash course over the last couple of weeks I’ve come to the conclusion that you can draw a straight line from classic rock to modern country that would have fewer twists and turns than a line between classic rock and modern rock. Stylistically, modern country is what rock would sound like if the 1980s had never happened.
But I’m also fascinated by modern country’s awareness of itself as a companion piece to mainstream modern pop — which is to say, R & B — which shows up as half-digested phrases from the R & B lexicon in the lyrics; a pop creole that country speaks as a non-native tongue. Of course, I’m a stranger here myself, so I have no idea what the intended effect of this patois is for a country audience. When Lady Antebellum croons “Mah gurls been blowin’ up mah phone” in a sweet Southern drawl, maybe it’s supposed to sound hip and fresh; to my ears it sounds charmingly dorky. It may be a winking gesture toward the language of The Young People These Days, or simply a byproduct of writing pop songs in the voice of modern pop.
In any case, I woodshed dutifully and go in with my four songs down cold. The one that gives me the most trouble, funny enough, is the one I know best — “Footloose,” which I learned years ago; but Double Clutch is specifically covering Blake Shelton’s cover of the song, which is a full step lower than the original, so I have to transpose and relearn it.
We have a great time, though. We’re in a garage, and it’s still chilly, but we play hard to keep warm. The band is tight and swinging, and I fall in easily; we kick up a pleasing ruckus. Afterward, Xander shows me whiteboards and charts he’s got set up; six months’ worth of booked gigs, a list of forty songs to serve as a base repertoire, projections of how many new songs we’ll have to add and how often in order to keep current. He’s a good businessman, Xander, and I admire that. For my part I am frank about my lack of familiarity with the canon, but continually emphasize my willingness to do the work.
And I mean it. I have a good time playing this stuff. Like, a shockingly good time. Not only are the members of Double Clutch (mostly) lovely people, but the music scratches a certain primal itch. I could, I decide, be very happy indeed in this gig. There’s not a lot of irony here; there’s nothing arty about any of it. The gestures of an earlier time retain a power in modern country that they no longer have in modern rock. A Kinks-style riff and a Bo Diddley beat still mean THINGS ARE GETTIN’ ROWDY OVER HERE. Compared to, say, the David Bowie I’ve been mainlining for months, it’s strictly meat and potatoes — but here’s the thing: meat and potatoes are pretty goddam satisfying.
Four days later, Patrick texts me to say they’ve gone with someone else. It’s a very gracious text. No real reason is given, but I can probably guess. This is a band with a finely calibrated business model, and given (a) my lack of track record in this area, and (b) the time and effort it would take to bring me up to speed on the set list, I’m simply not a good investment. No hard feelings. They’re still lovely people, and they have every right to look out for their own interests.
Besides, I don’t have any time to fret over it; I’ve got another audition later in the week, with a power pop band way over on the east side of town…
Next month: Beneath the Underdog