Friday, November 20, 2009

And Again: Following the Red-Brick Paved Road

Taking yet another trip down the bricked walkway of the downtown mall leading up to Miller’s Bar/Restaurant, I was once again captured by the sound of the music. Reaching the doorway, I immediately notice that the atmosphere is very different on this night than the last time I’d come to listen to some live tunes. To my surprise, the place was not as ‘packed’ as the time before, having a few spots open at the bar, an open table down stairs, and the perfect spot for observation at the only bench and table that my friend and I were able to occupy.
Playing mostly funk/jazz/blues mixes over the course of the night, the Houston Ross Trio gave a performance that showcased shear skill and technique. The trio consisted of a drummer, bassist, and sax player where each musician is somewhat of a soloist in that each instrument adds a unique sound to the band and is not in competition with the others. Being that the band was so small, in my opinion, the bassist was the most influential in the way in which the overall sound flowed. He used a lot of picking, plucking motions (revealing a staccato dynamic) and occasional reeling, creating the “funkadelic” atmosphere the band appeared to be portraying. The drummer set and maintained the overall tempo of the music, holding mostly at a slow to moderate pace (as one would expect from the “flowetry” of a funk/jazz/bluesy band). On the sax, the only non-minority member of the band maintained a groove of his own, often closing his eyes while blowing into his reefed mouthpiece. The finger work (that I was able to observe) was amazing as the notes he created definitely contributed to the jazz/blues feel the band also gave. The first part of the show appeared to be comprised of original selections, where the band grooved based on the chemistry between them. Lots of improvisations were used and I even heard a few depictions of the 12 bar blues mode. Returning from intermission, the band played more familiar tunes (one Mavin Gaye song and a few others that I am not so sure of the titles or artists), which finally allowed the audience members to engage in the music more, as I will reflect on later. In my opinion, the absence of a vocalist may have been to the disadvantage of the band in the first half of the show because of no true connection being established between the band and audience members. Creating a ‘familiar ground’ in the second half essentially built a connection and made the rest of the night a “less awkward” experience for the band (as I assume the beginning may have been with the lack of audience engagement).
Reflecting back to our entrance of the bar, in walking through the crowd, it was not easy to identify the audiences’ “make-up”, but once we were seated, it was obvious that the difference in the atmosphere of this night may have been in part due to a change in the audience. Once again the audience was comprised of a 99.9 white population and having only 6 ethnic minorities (including my friend and I, the drummer and bassist of the band) but there were a significantly lower number of female to males having maybe a ratio of 1 to 5. Looking further into the audiences’ framework, a subtle change caught my attention. Being that most of the bands that perform at Miller’s are often playing some rendition of funk/jazz mixes, they usually tend to attract more middle-aged listeners (as I have before observed). Tonight however, probably because of the weather, the “older folk” decided to stay in and were replaced by a younger crowd of mostly graduate school students and a few undergrads. In that light, the response from this younger crowd to the funk/jazz/bluesy mixes of the band was not as interactive as I have observed on other occasions. As each song concluded , I noticed that the most response they received from the audience was a vacant applause by maybe 4 or 5 people (except for the one drunk, middle-aged, female “fan” sitting next to the stage saying “I love you” to the bassist). Later on into the night, I did however observe a slight change in the audience response to the band as a few of them began to acknowledge the band’s presence by bobbing of heads and more rounds of applause. For a greater part of the night, the audience members just carried on conversations within their small circles of friends and had little to no interaction with others outside of their “bubble” (except for the ordering of drinks with the bartenders or waitresses). Closer to the end of the night, a few of the young audience members (a white female and 2 male friends) along a strange man who lingered around the bar(black) began to dance next to the stage, as the band played a few contemporary tunes that they were able to identify with.
Returning to the band, the HRT itself was more diverse in comparison to the audience members as far as age, race/ethnicity, physical appearance and even stage presence. On Sax, was a white male about 35 years old dressed in what appeared to be “everyday attire” of a plain,worn, washed out t-shirt and stonewash denim jeans. On bass, was a black male, with a long beard having specks of gray and long dreadlocks that is much known around Charlottesville for playing at the local live music spots. He is an older gentleman, looking to be about 50, wearing a t-shirt that may have been from a music-related event he attended not too long ago (since the letters an animations looked fresh). The drummer, a young black male about 24 years old wore a low-brush cut hair style, with fresh and very “hip” fashions of a color-filled t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, displaying his engagement in youth culture (in opposition to his much older band-mates).
Observing the mannerisms of each other the performers, I saw that there was a slight difference in each of their stage presences. In performing gender, each of the men displayed their masculinity/sexuality in different ways, while maintaining ideal symbols of blackness/whiteness, or the lack thereof. To my surprise, I found that even “older” men hold true to the age-old idea of expressing sexuality through performance. The male bassist held the guitar close to his body, swaying back and forth as he cranked out the “funk” and swung his “ethnically styled” hair. Placing his guitar just low enough to reach, the older ‘gentleman’ further bounced and bobbed, displaying an extreme appreciation for his instrument. He stood clear of being ‘too sensual’ in that he did not caress the guitar nor was he overly aggressive, holding it just enough to sustain ‘control’ and carry no signs of weakness. Then there was the young drummer who crashed the cymbal, boomed the bass (drum), and consistently attacked the snare creating a climactic feel at the end of each bar being played. Although the tempo of the music tended to be moderate to slow, the drummer took advantage of the moments where the music built up to a high point. Throughout the performance, I noticed that the drummer also used his entire body when playing, as opposed to being robotic or inexpressive. He managed to sustain his “cool” composure as though it is expected from him (with the straight-faced /edgy gestures). Through the nod of his head and pump of his torso, it was easy to make the connection between his interpretation of the music and his stage presence. Finally, the sax player was unique in his portrayal of gender and symbols of race. As he played, he lightly held his instrument (which could have been the result of having the strap so tight) almost embracing its essence. With his eyes often closed, he kept a close connection with the sax and skillfully fingered the valves without missing a note. In his performance there was no obvious display of “masculinity” yet no sign of its counter, as he showed no weakness, but created a sense of comfort and calmness.
Overall, the performance encompassed the art of creativity, a blend of lifestyles/cultures, and unity while still displaying symbols of each musicians’ embrace of their sexualities and blackness/whiteness or the lack thereof. Through improvisation and ad-libs, the musicians, were able to perform the music as though it were not rehearsed, but as if it were freely flowing between them as a non-verbal form of communication (call-n-response). Moreover, as each of them held different stage presences, it seemed like the combination of each of their personas allowed their lifestyles to cultivate a sense of unity. The young black male (drums) portraying his engagement in hip hop culture through his attire and masculinity with his ‘tough’ demeanor; the older black male (bass) displayed his connection to his African American heritage through the ethnic hair style he sported and sexuality through his gendered performance; and the almost middle-aged white male (sax) exhibited his sexuality in a way unique to himself, not necessarily characterizing any signs of blackness/whiteness nor masculinity or femininity just encompassing his sexuality and its fluidity. In finalizing thoughts of gendering, it is worth noting the placement of men versus women in the performance atmosphere. The only women I mentioned earlier served as the clichéd ‘fans’ or ‘groupies’ of the male band members on stage. This was the only way in which women were involved in the performance, unfortunately perpetuates the male domineering intentions for the music industry.

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