Monday, March 17, 2008

Built to Jam

What is it with aging indie rockers and their incessant need to jam? I have always been aware of the jam possibilities when electric guitars are put in the hands of creative, artistic people, but sometimes the jamming can go too far. I've even been blown away by ten-minute flourishes out of what is a three-minute song on record now and again, but enough is enough.

First there was the Stephen Malkmus album. You may recall that I gave the record a rather unsavory review (well, it wasn't that harsh) recently. SM's Real Emotional Trash is riddled with classic-rock style solos and ten-minute opuses. This is coming from a man whose first band didn't practice, live in the same city, and rarely finished a song much less turn it into "Freebird".

Then, there was the show last night at the Blue Note. One of my other indie rock heroes, Doug Martsch, brought his army of guitarists to the stage. The set started off well enoug
h. He mixed the old with the new and rarely veered too far from the songs' original structures. It was pretty business-like and was absent the Reggae vibe in their last show at the Note.

Martsch was never much of a showman and last night didn't change my opinion. I will say though that his personality comes out more in a small club, not a venue as large as the Blue Note. He mostly played through the set in a straightforward manner, pausing periodically to tune, thank the openers, and grab a drink of water.

What he does do, though, is play a mean guitar. He is maybe the only true guitar hero of the indie world, even if he is unassuming and somewhat shy onstage. He doesn't toss the guitar in the air or do bicycle kicks, but he plays the instrument like few other musicians can.

But with the good comes the bad.

I remember being pleasantly surprised that Built to Spill hadn't really gone into any extended jams through the entire set. Then, it happened. Without warning, the encore turned into a 15-minute-and-running, feedback-happy test of my patience. (I only wrote that the song lasted 15 minutes because I didn't stay to hear the end.) The song was so long that I had forgotten what it was when it started. This jam didn't ruin the night for me, but it did put a damper on the experience.

Why do aging indie rockers have to jam? Do they all have a little Jerry Garcia sitting on one shoulder urging them to extend the song into tomorrow? Conversely, is there a little Bob Pollard telling musicians to stop the song and get on with the next?

Indie rock evolving into jam sessions only sullies the genre's reputation. The ten-minute guitar solo represents the excess indie rock has always strived to stamp out. DIY doesn't stand for "Done In a Year". Let's get back to the perfect two-minute songs of Minutemen and Guided by Voices. Let's get economical and cram twenty-four songs on a thirty-minute LP. Aging indie rockers, you know you want to.

Other than my crabbiness over a concert-ending jam, the show was a nice diversion from my misery over tOSU not making the NCAA. The first band whose name escapes me (That long encore did a number on me.) was passable and played a concise yet effective set. Really old indie rockers Meat Puppets played all the songs I knew from their days following Nirvana around, hoping for some scraps. And I discovered that my new earplugs are the greatest inventions ever. I could clearly hear the music and not have to deal with ringing directly after the show.


Jake said...

We can at least be happy that these bands don't jam on the albums. There's nothing worse than professionally recording a jam session. It takes out any character or emotion the music had, and it just becomes the musician(s) intellectually masturbating to how technically advanced they are. I hate jam bands.

Having said that, jamming is okay live, but it seems weird when an indie band like Built to Spill would do that. Unfortunately, these guys age, and their music is stuck in a time that doesn't really evolve (and for perfectly good reason). So when you juxtapose the two, the end product, I imagine, is less than stellar.

This reminds me of when I saw Modest Mouse at the Note a few months ago and they went into this long jam session during Tiny Cities Made of Ashes. It was bizarre, seeing a band (that I once adored), totally transformed, twice the size than when they were cool, playing a song that only echoes what a great band they once were. That concert sucked, by the way (save a few songs, and the Man Man performance).

comoprozac said...

Well, i can't say that I'm entirely surprised that BtS likes to jam, I'm just disappointed that they jam so long. After a while, the song loses its origninal meaning and feeling. You get tired of waiting for the next song.

It goes along with my theory that sets should be no longer than 45 minutes. Anything beyond that is filler. the same goes for a song. A good song can reach its purpose in 3-5 minutes.

What's crazy is that I remember seeing Modest Mouse in 1997 jam with 764-HERO and it was one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. So, the jam can be good, but it's rare...or it's Sonic Youth.

I was also at that MM show at the Note. I enjoyed it, but I was expecting the worst. The Tiny Cities was annoying.

gemmanuel said...

I think you're either wired to like jammming or not. I love when a band like BTS (which is already a guitar-driven band), airs it out live. Doug does a few Neil Young covers, right? His guitar sound is perfectly suited for it. One of the weirdest "jams" I ever saw live was courtesy of My Bloody Valentine. Saw them in Philadelphia with Buffalo Tom in 1992 (I think). They play an extremely loud set of their whacked out reverb shoegazing pop and at one point they basically hold one single distorted droning note for about 15 minutes. It goes from annoying to transcendent and back to annoying. Crazy.

comoprozac said...

I think you're right, gemmanuel. I go back and forth on it all the time. I think BTS isn't terribly exciting or original right now and that's disappointing to me. I've been blown away by their jams in the past. I think of bands like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Modest Mouse, and others who just played songs forever and still blew me away.