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Monday, October 07, 2002  

Last night I walked up onto a stage, strapped on my bass guitar, and promptly stunk the place up.

Every Sunday night, Famous Dave’s in Uptown hosts its open jam. It’s a chance for dilettantes and wannabes from all over the city to perform in front of an audience with a real, live blues band. It’s kind of like karaoke with instruments. The bandleader is this skinny, old, balding guitarist with glasses, a long gray beard, and bib overalls. And I have no idea how he does it.

This is a guy who, week after week, has to put on an entertaining show while simultaneously dealing with genuinely talented musicians, show-offs, hacks, and slow-witted incompetents. He has no idea which category any given person falls into when he invites them onstage; he just has to make it work somehow. And it generally does.

That’s partially because it’s an open blues jam. An open speed metal or industrial jam would probably be less successful, but the blues has enough standards and conventions that in theory, anybody who can play a twelve-bar progression should be able to join in. In practice? Well, it’s still a good theory.

I’d been to the blues jam once before, in 2000. This was a couple of months after my band had successfully pulled off a demanding wedding gig and I was feeling pretty confident. I fouled up “Little Red Rooster,” then the piano/keyboard player let me redeem myself somewhat by calling out “Feelin’ Alright,” which we played while the bandleader changed a guitar string. I did quite a bit better on that one—all two chords of it—then the bandleader called the real bass player back onstage and I hadn’t been back since.

It was a humbling experience. I’d considered myself a fairly able improviser, as two of the guys in my band are pretty prolific songwriters and I’d never had trouble learning their tunes and coming up with bass parts quickly. However, it turns out that there’s a world of difference between “quickly” and “on the fly.” It’s an entirely different skill set. Especially when “quickly” applies to a basement practice session with three other guys, two of whom are also learning the song, and “on the fly” applies to a stage with professional musicians and an audience of a hundred or more, any number of whom are just waiting their own turn to blow the roof off the joint. The latter feels considerably less conducive to experimentation. Can you blame me for being spooked?

I didn’t mean to wait two years before getting back, but somehow its been pretty easy to find things I’d rather be doing on Sunday evenings than embarrassing myself in public. The last few weeks, though, I’ve been practicing at home a lot more (gig coming up), so I figured, what the heck. There’s only so much I can learn at home anyway, and I’m not going to become a brilliant live improvisational musician by playing along with the stereo. Not that my chances of becoming a brilliant live improvisational musician are much improved by playing live improvisational music, but they’re a little bit improved.

So last night I got there and put my name on the list. By the time it rotated around to me, the only member of the regular band onstage was the bandleader. The guy who’d come up to do vocals called out a slow blues in G, a song with which I was unfamiliar (and still am, to be totally honest). Slow blues sounded good to me, because it meant I could miss notes and still have time to find the right one. I was somewhat confused by the minor chords and half-step intervals, but I muddled through. Then he wanted to sing “Brick House.”

“Brick House?” I thought this was a blues jam. I didn’t sign up for no “Brick House.” Again, I muddled through, emphasis on muddle. I cannot honestly say that I brought the funk.

The bandleader, accurately perceiving that I was out of my depth, cut me some slack and called out a “straight-ahead shuffle in G, starting on the five.” Fortunately I knew what that meant, so I was able to pull it off well enough that at the end of the song, I could still walk off the stage under my own power. Overall, it was a little less humbling this time around, but only because I was more humble to begin with. I’ll probably go back before much longer. It’s the only way I’m going to develop the skills it’s going to take to actually make a contribution. Otherwise it’ll be like trying to learn how to bowl without ever going to the alley. Or some other stilted simile.

But I think I’ll wait a few weeks, just to give the bandleader time to forget me.

posted by M. Giant 3:33 PM 0 comments


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