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Most recent vintage of eulogies for rock music: still premature

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

I’m a big rock music fan, so a couple recent articles on it have stuck with me. The first was from a couple weeks ago, and for the life of me I can’t track it down now. The gist of it was that the era of great guitarists is passing. The most celebrated are all old in rock and roll years; even the youngest among them, Jack White, is 37. And so on.

Lamentations about the awful state of rock music have been around about as long as rock music, of course. They are typically rooted in the belief that music was at its zenith when the writer in question was about 16, has been in decline ever since, and can only be rescued by going back to that golden era and entering a perpetual state of suspended animation.



I obviously don’t think much of that. Music changes; either deal with it or stop listening. Composers work with what’s available, and as that evolves so do the sounds they create. Forty years ago Thom Yorke might well have been a guitar virtuoso, but the possibilities electronic music opened up are clearly more intriguing to him. So instead of Who’s Next we get Kid A. Wondering where all the great guitar players went makes only slightly more sense than wondering where all the great Gregorian chanters have gone.

That said, there actually are a lot of great rock groups out there, they just aren’t front and center. Guitar-driven rock and roll doesn’t dominate the contemporary musical landscape, or get served up to the casual listener, the way it used to. But if you’re willing to go off the beaten path (and wade through a certain amount of uninspired crap) you can find some pretty amazing stuff. But you won’t hear Aladelta by L’Hereu Escampa, Amok by Bohemian Betyars or Meet My Maker by Howl Griff on the radio any time soon.

Still, the ability to hear such artists is an almost unimaginable improvement to anyone who grew up listening to a handful of local stations. Even better, you don’t have to go all the way to Spain, Hungary or Wales to find great rock bands. No matter where you are, you are almost guaranteed to have at least a couple fine ones in your backyard. Finding ways to discover and support them is important – regardless of what you (or anyone else) might think of their prospects for finding a wider audience.

Near the end of his “Winners’ History of Rock and Roll” Steven Hyden makes the case for a group near his hometown:

Part of me thinks we’d all be better off as rock fans to unplug and go local. I live in Milwaukee, and there are at least a half-dozen rock groups here that I love and can see for next to nothing at a corner bar. A couple years ago, a local band named Call Me Lightning put out a record called When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free that sounds like The Who if Steve Albini had produced Who’s Next. It’s maybe my fifth or sixth favorite rock record of the decade so far….I have a small hope that by mentioning Call Me Lightning just now, at least a few of you will be inspired to check out When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free and have your heads torn off.

(Memo to Steve: if you want to encourage people to check out a group, include a link like this! Help us out a little, buddy!) Sure, it would be great if a good word from a trusted writer could spur lots of sales. I actually bought the Call Me Lightning album on Hyden’s recommendation; it’s in my queue and I’ll get to it in a few weeks. But it seems to me that what local groups need at least as much as increasing sales is local support.

High quality music doesn’t sell itself. If that was all that mattered The Donkeys would have busted out of San Diego about five years ago, and Free Energy would plotting world domination from Philadelphia. Instead they and groups like them release albums and tour as they can, often times playing any venue that will have them. Showing up to those concerts and spreading the word is also a big deal. Even in the Internet age there’s still a lot to be said for face to face contact and word of mouth publicity.

Going to live shows can also make for some pretty great experiences. Sometimes you might be packed in with an enthusiastic crowd at a club, sometimes you might be Bobby, and sometimes something totally out of the blue and wonderful happens. That last one happened to me this past Friday, for example.

It actually began last year when I stumbled on The Ready Stance. I bought their album, loved it, and kept an eye out for live dates. A couple months ago they announced a night at a small bar in Columbus, so I circled the date. I did more than go to the concert though. I got in touch with the band a few weeks before and we ended up hanging out before the show.

Think about one of your favorite albums from the last few years. Now think about sitting at a bar with the group and knocking back beers with them for an hour or so. Then they say “OK, time for the show,” walk over to the next room, pick up their instruments, and blow the walls off the place. Wouldn’t that be fucking awesome? That’s exactly what I got to do.

So when I read about how there aren’t any great guitarists any more I just think, well sure – if what you’re waiting for is the next supergroup of established stars. But all the bands above have really talented guitarists. Listen for yourself! Internet distribution lets anyone with an interest hear a huge variety of new artists, the kind of thing previously reserved for those who worked in or near the industry. And while it would be nice if enthusiasm for an artist by itself could spur sales, there are more direct ways to show support. The artists themselves will notice and appreciate it, trust me.

Photo from malias licensed under Creative Commons

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