I use the rest of the Valentineâ€™s Day weekend to put the new amplifier through its paces. It produces a bowel-loosening roar that pleases me greatly. When I turn the volume up past three, every window in the house rattles; Iâ€™m pretty sure I see God at one point.
Over the next couple weeks, I set about rebuilding my chops. I play for a couple of hours in little twenty-minute bursts throughout each day, running through every song I know and learning a bunch that I donâ€™t. My calluses come back. And all the while, I ponder what to say in my ad.
Rochesterâ€™s a good-sized city â€” with 200,000 residents, it falls just outside the U.S. top 100 metro areas â€” and itâ€™s got most of the ingredients for a good band scene: several universities, including a world-class music school; tons of bars and clubs; a couple of good college radio stations; thriving visual arts and theatre; and a free alternative weekly newspaper. Itâ€™s also got a Craigslist page, and thereâ€™s where I will start my search for a musical situation.
I was already safely married before online dating apps were a thing, but I imagine this must be how filling out the profile feels â€” trying, in just a few words, to find suitable partners for a fulfilling commitment, or at least a few wild nights. How do I sum up the musical influences and affections Iâ€™ve picked up in five decades above ground? I like New Wave and spaghetti westerns, classic songcraft and discreet psychedelia; I like Joni Mitchell and John Cale, Nick Cave and Dire Straits; I like singer-songwriters and widescreen guitars, hoary old classic rock and weirdo experimental noise. I like Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, and U2; I like the Waterboys and the Byrds, Steely Dan and the Church, Chris Whitley and the Stones and School of Seven Bells and Nina Simone. I like it all â€” like to listen to it, like to play it. What do you make from that? What do you do with that?
I take stock of all this, and of the catalog of songs Iâ€™ve written over the years. At around the same time as the bass amp, I got myself a little USB cassette rig and set about transferring twenty yearsâ€™ worth of home recordings to digital, sifting through dozens of hours of noodling and riffing to unearth the songs â€” well over a hundred in all, of which maybe ten are any good. And as I listen, a certain folk-rock strain keeps glimmering out. Between my time with We Saw the Wolf and my years leading a choir, I became something of a scholar of traditional music and hymnody. Itâ€™s a deep well from which to draw, and there are strange things living in its depths that come up occasionally in oneâ€™s bucket; it changed the way I write, helping me find my own voice as a songwriter.
I wrote â€œJack oâ€™ Diamondsâ€ â€” my first new song of 2016 â€” right around the time I started looking seriously for a gig. It was meant to be a statement of purpose, a calling card, a theme song. The instrumental break and some of the lyrics are derived from an Appalachian folk song called â€œThe Coo Coo Birdâ€ (sic). Words, music, all vocals and instruments by Jack Feerick.
With no better tag to put on it, I call it â€œAmericanaâ€ and call it a day.
(As a sidenote, this process of pinning down oneâ€™s influences is how labels arise in the first place. Itâ€™s a miniature recreation of the process: a bunch of unrelated bands with common touchstones get identified as a scene, then a genre, then â€” finally â€” a brand. And by the time it becomes a brand, itâ€™s lost a lot of what made it distinctive in the first place. Most of what gets sold as â€œAmericanaâ€ or even “alt-country” these days sounds like an extension of what we used to call â€œjangle-popâ€ â€” i.e., rock songs that would be perfectly adequate if somebody bothered to write real rhythm guitar parts, instead of just playing BOOM CHANG shanga langa over and over on a 12-string acoustic from the needle-drop to the run-out groove.)To cover my bets, Iâ€™m answering ads, too â€” for singers wanted, as well as for bass players. Muhammad meeting the mountain half-way, I guess. I do this for a couple of weeks.
I compose gentle let-downs for a lonely experimental keyboardist who wants a studio buddy to help him with his aimless noise paintings. I donâ€™t want to go down that rabbit hole; we have invested good money in this, and I want to get out and gigging.
And then, as winter starts giving way to spring, things start coming together. I find myself booking auditions.
Next month: Cattle Call