How to Mask Friends and Influence People: Reviewing My Friend’s Band

Clown-Mask-Card-8.5x8.5-FrontBefore you listen to this Jackie & the Treehorns album, before you share this review, tell me what your friend’s band sounds like.

They’re good, aren’t they? Your friend’s band? They’re always really good, not just because they’re your friends. I’ve always been a bit too fascinated with how we talk about music, why we attempt to write about music and put into words that which can’t and doesn’t need to be explained.

So the next question is how do we listen to and process our friend’s bands? What if it’s our brother, or our best friend, or just dudes we knew in college? And do we overvalue how “great” they are? Cuz let’s face it, some of your friend’s bands aren’t that great. But that’s awesome that you still talk them up.

When you hear your friend’s new demo (or soundcloud thingy or youtube “trailer” for their upcoming album), do you think about how your boy once rocked a C&C Music Factory cassingle in his car and now he’s got this super-serious Queens of the Stone Age hard rock vibe going? Our intimate knowledge of our friend’s life and known favorites and influences surely must taint our view of their music.

Wait, you can’t view music. This is how Jackie & the Treehorns trick you into using the word “taint” in their album review.

The point is, there is this indescribable difference in listening to your friend’s band versus the latest album from an actual famous rock star. For instance, I know Jack White is a minimalist rocker heavily steeped in and indebted to the blues. He’s a longtime champion of a truly “independent” business approach and has an extreme fondness for vintage, authentic recording gear and techniques. I know all of this because that is what he has presented to me on record and through interviews, etc. (And of course all of that is then remixed and regurgitated and re-imagined for me by all the people attempting to write about music.) I don’t actually know Jack White as a person, I didn’t hang out with him growing up in Detroit, I never worked with him as an upholsterer, and I’ve never been in any of his numerous bands or side projects.

But I’ve been in Jackie & the Treehorns. I was the original drummer, and also served as Jackie’s manager and confidant during such dizzying highs and lows of his career that there’s a documentary film about it. In fact, I’ve been in a few bands and side projects with my friend Steven Rubin, the guitarist, singer/songwriter, and mastermind producer behind Jackie & the Treehorns.

I know his influences. (I won’t name check them). I thought I knew his influences. Yes, I can hear some of them peaking out from behind the Clown Mask. And then there are new faces, or old faces with different masks on, and they’re singing too. I didn’t know he knew them. There are things about our friends that we don’t know.

Did you think your friend’s band would sound like this? What did you think they’d sound like? Do you feel guilty if, when your friend isn’t around, you tell people “They’re kinda like 311, but they totally don’t sound like them at all”? Are you a little ashamed that you’ve only made it out to see them ONCE, and you got there a little late, and honestly don’t even know what they sound like? You could always just mumble “sort of a Blues Traveler kinda thing” and hope the person either doesn’t get the reference or thinks it’s a good thing.

Have you ever lied to your friend? Or, more accurately, have you ever just not told the truth about how much you think they suck? Do you have a lot friends in bands? Are you reluctant to spread the good word about how great they are because the other friends you’re telling probably assume you’re only talking about your friend’s band just to let people know you’re the kinda cool person who knows people in bands?

So then what happens when your friend’s band makes a really great album? Your other friends are so tired of hearing about your friend’s band they might as well be called Cried Sheep. It’s not that they don’t care (yea, it’s cool, you know dudes in bands). It’s just that they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Seriously, read that last sentence again: they’re probably never gonna take the 14 seconds to click the one or two links to instantly listen to the whole album for free. Back in the day when no one would get off my lawn, we (the friends of yours who were in the bands) had to beg our friends (you) to purchase a hard copy compact disc of our band and then we inevitably just gave most of them away for free, in exchange for the promise or hope that you would tell all your friends about our band and then also get together with them and PLAY IT FOR THEM. Force them sit through My Friend’s Band’s CD. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that. We can do the here’s the link, go listen for free at the time and place of your choosing thing. But I will tell you this: my friend’s band’s album is really, really good. I’m not just saying that. And he didn’t email me bugging him to write something about it (full disclosure: yes he did). Fittingly, my favorite track is called “In No Condition to Explain.”

Please don’t ask me what my friend’s band sounds like. Aren’t your friend’s bands true originals with a unique style that really doesn’t sound like anyone else? It’s almost impossible to know, but even if it wasn’t my friend’s band, I’d still think this was a great album.

Do you believe me? Will you check it out? Do you mind if I wear a clown mask?

Zappa Plays Zappa As Good As Zappa

11mays.large2I consider myself a big Frank Zappa fan. Yet, just by looking over his discography, I realized that I am not that big a Frank Zappa fan. He has over 60 albums produced, hundreds of live shows recorded and released, tv performances, movies, etc. I would need three lifetimes of isolated listening just to digest (and understand) even half of his catalog.

So when I recently bought tickets to see Zappa Plays Zappa at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, I went into it fully realizing that I probably wouldn’t know half the songs they were going to play. So I cheated in order to tease myself: I went online and checked out some previous set lists from this tour and wouldn’t you know it, more than half of the songs in the list were ones I had never heard (I find it necessary to put a disclaimer in here right now because I know how crazy some Zappaheads can get: I am a Zappa fan, but not a fanatic. My preference when it comes to Zappa are more inline with his “serious” works vs. the “satire”, “improv”, and “humor” he often implemented into his music and shows. While I fully appreciate that aspect of his songwriting genius, I simply prefer(ed) to listen to him wail on the guitar while the Greatest Back-Up Band(s)-To-Ever-Walk-The-Face-Of-The-Earth went bat shit crazy behind him. Therefor, I am aware that my knowledge of his discography is limited yet still deeper than casual.)

I went to see a Zappa cover band a few years back (I won’t mention their name) and left after five songs. Not because they weren’t good (cause let’s face it, just being able to play one Zappa song–any Zappa song–makes you a pretty damn good musician in my book), but because it just wasn’t anywhere close to the real thing. It lacked authenticity. Dweezil Zappa heads up Zappa Plays Zappa, and Dweezil is as close to Frank as we as fans are ever going to get. It’s like watching Jason Bonham play drums: even if his last name wasn’t Bonham we’d still be impressed with his playing nonetheless. It just helps to alleviate any apprehension we have towards listening by saying to ourselves, “well, at least it’s his son playing!” While some children-of-famous-musicians go out of their way to avoid the shadows of their parents, Dweezil has embraced his legendary father’s music. Frank’s shadow is simply too long to avoid.

Right off the bat I knew the band would be good. How could they not be? I just wasn’t prepared for how good. Let’s start with Dweezil. Obviously we know the dude can play guitar (Franks Gibson SG to be exact). But come on, man, when did he get this good? (probably 20 years ago, I just wasn’t paying attention). I am rarely into the fast, shredding-type players (I appreciate Vai, Satriani, et al, but to me, it’s just dudes playing fast for other dudes to impress them with how fast they can play, dude.), but Dweezil inherited his father’s Coltrane-esque phrasing and sense of the musical moment. His guitar sounded sweet, he played it sweet, and he did his father’s music much justice. I thought during one of Dweezil’s (many) guitar solos, “Frank would be impressed.”

I’ve always said that you can take 8 bars of a Zappa song and any other band would make an entire song out of it. Within each song is basically 4-8 movements. The amount of concentration and memory it must take to perform a set of his music is mind-boggling. As a musician, when you watch other musicians that are this good, it makes you either want to quit playing altogether…or practice more.   I won’t list each member of the band here (drummer, keyboard, bass, two multi-instrumentalists/vocalists) because you don’t need to hear about how great each of them were individually. They were absolutely amazing in every sense.

The highlight of the show was an improvisational moment when Dweezil called up a young girl from the audience who couldn’t have been older than 7. He asked her, “do you play any instruments?” to which she replied, “the flute.” Dweezil proceeded to put his guitar around her shoulder and stand behind her as he helped her “play” it. The audience roared. He turned the distortion to ten, cranked out some AC/DC-type rocker riff and the band picked up behind them. This little girl was jamming onstage with the band and we, the audience, ate it up. It was classic Zappa showmanship. Once she was done–and the standing ovation died down–he asked her, “so…still want to play the flute?” You think that girl doesn’t grow up to join a band??? Let’s hope.

There were so many insane musical moments throughout the show that it’s hard to point out any one. It’s such a profound experience when you witness such great musicianship in a live setting. I have always known that Zappa’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be complicated and confusing to the average listener. The odd rhythms and weird instrumentation (and even weirder, often hilariously satirical lyrics) assured he would never have a #1 hit. Parts rarely repeat themselves. Shit, time signatures rarely repeat themselves. It’s not “easy listening” by any account. Dweezil and his band did a fantastic job of keeping the musical visions of Frank alive, and judging by the near sold out crowd and numerous standing ovations, there are still plenty of people out there that appreciate the Zappa catalog. As hard as that is to imagine, it gives me hope knowing that some music fans still want to be challenged by the artists they listen to.