Opinion: Paying Dues Still Matters For Touring Bands

I’ve always admired longevity. Track record. History. In the era of viral videos and the 24 hour news cycle (probably closer to 4-8 hours), when notoriety can be gained overnight and lead to instant stardom and commercial acclaim, I’m reminded why the proverbial paying of dues is and will always be the true currency to staying power, especially when it comes to performers who make a living baring their souls on a nightly basis in front of a live audience.

In 2020 it feels like the flavor of the week has become the flavor of the day and then maybe even two or three. But, when I look at the music that I return to on a regular basis, and in particular, the acts I continue to pay money to go see, they all share a common thread of having put in the hard work when no one was watching, literally and figuratively. The countless hours of rehearsal. The monies spent on lodging, promotion and gear. The miles traversed east and west, north and south. The half-empty venues played to where the staff outnumbers the patrons. We’ve all heard these stories of growing pains. Yet, there is inherent value in these things that ultimately lend themselves to a gradual and healthy maturation of the art.

Show me a band who relentlessly tours, picking up gigs wherever they can find them, regardless of the size of the venue or the payday and I’ll show you a band that values process and vision. They uncompromisingly stay the course and hone their craft. They nurture their talents and when their opportunity comes, they’re prepared to rise to the occasion. They go from an opener to the top of the bill, an under-attended day time festival spot on a small, out of the way stage to closing out the main stage in front of thousands.

I find a real authenticity and humility in bands who work their way up from venue to venue and who are also willing to take risks musically. I may not always like a certain direction in which they’re going, but I can appreciate their inclination to step outside what is working for them and expand their palette beyond what is already in their toolbox, especially when it may not be popular. Hello! Heard of Bob Dylan at Newport Folk Festival 1965?

This factor endears an artist to their fanbase. There is a certain risk/reward correlation for a concert goer who follows and invests in an act over a period of time. It’s like investing in a stock. Many times, and I know I can vouch for it personally, fans can recall their first experience seeing a performer to the present day and take great joy in seeing positive growth along the way. After all, there’s hardly anything better than being able say, “I was on the ground floor when I saw so and so play in this small room 10 years ago and look at where they are now, playing huge amphitheaters and arenas.”

Additionally, in the lost year that has become 2020, touring acts have had another obstacle thrown their way, a due to be paid heaped onto them through no fault of their own. The COVID-19 pandemic has largely relegated them to their couches with the rest of us. At least initially.

Performers have gotten creative in recent times in finding ways to get their music out and connect with their fanbases. Initially, we saw a number of them take matters into their own hands, broadcasting themselves on their social media platforms or through other streaming sites, but lately, there has been a savvy utilization of previously unconventional, untapped or converted spaces for live, socially distanced concerts that from all accounts have gone over well.

It will be some time before full-scale, traditional touring will return. Some analysts and promoters suggest not until the summer or fall of 2021 and maybe not until early 2022. While it may not be a cliched stepping stone or due to be paid, touring acts will certainly have this time period etched into their memories and certainly won’t take for granted (if they ever did) what it is to perform in front of a packed house to hundreds or thousands of admiring fans.

All that being said, we do occupy a space in time in which our culture prefers if not demands immediacy and now-ness (I don’t know if this is a word), but there is a merit and I would even argue a necessity for dues being paid along the way for meaningful and lasting art to be made. 

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Reflections on Circles Around The Sun’s ‘Interludes For The Dead’

I remember the illumination of Chicago’s Solider Field as vividly as if it were yesterday. A hazy cloud wafted over the 75,000 faithful as we all settled in to celebrate a three-night Windy City run of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well spectacle.

The band, which included Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart alongside Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti had wrapped up their first set of the weekend and as the house lights came up, we were unexpectedly transported into what I would consider the most distinct set break and thereafter series of breaks I have ever witnessed.

As is customary during these pauses, one makes the usual rounds of hitting the restrooms, perhaps grabbing another beverage and a snack or visiting friends throughout the venue. But not this time.

A whimsy guitar tone hit my ear. Then the keys. The low end of the bass. The beat. What on earth was I hearing? It was reminiscent yet entirely raw at the same time. It had depth, not too much polish and an aura of mystery. As I would come to learn it was the music of Circles Around The Sun, spearheaded by guitarist and singer/songwriter, Neal Casal.

Casal had been solicited by Justin Kreutzmann, a filmmaker and the son of drummer Bill Kreutzmann, to write several hours of original material to accompany graphics that would be shown on the big screens during set breaks for the Dead’s Santa Clara and Chicago shows. A daunting task indeed.

With time at a premium and nothing prepared ahead of time, Casal went into the studio with keyboard player Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy and churned out some of the grooviest shit of his career. As he writes in the liner notes to the eventual commercial release of ‘Interludes For The Dead,’ “The idea was to not only show reverence for the past but to ultimately move it forward. If there’s anything to be learned from the Grateful Dead, it is to dissolve your boundaries, push your limits, and discover your own voice in this world. Search for the sound, press ever forward.”

With playful titles like “Hallucinate A Solution,” a phrase Casal actually picked up while playing with Dead bassist Phil Lesh, “Farewell Franklins,” “Kasey’s Bones” and “Space Wheel,” several of which that extend into the 20+ minute territory, I could not help but be an awe of how spectacular these jam sessions translated to a set break, which more times than not is a mediocre experience filled with scrolling through your phone and waiting in lines that hardly ever seem to move.

This sonic escapade was not pushed to the background, but rather, was made a crucial, centerstage piece to the larger production of the Fare Thee Well experience. A hypnotizing encounter to say the least. With each passing night of the three-night run I would sit in anticipation as the band left the stage for what was to a come: a trippy, psychedelic musical experience unto itself of which I had no idea if I would ever hear again. I desparately had to soak up each and every moment I could with it.

As I sit here writing this, more than a year has gone by since the untimely passing of Neal Casal. I consider myself blessed and very fortunate to not only have been witness to the aforementioned set break adventures but his live performances with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans and Phil Lesh & Friends I was able to take in.

In a 2015 Relix Magazine interview on his creation of ‘Interludes For The Dead,’ Casal remarked, “This wasn’t about advancing a personal agenda. It was just literally— without beating the overused term into the ground—giving back.” Casal gave back and then some. He forged memories for myself and countless other Deadheads who attended the Fare Thee Well concerts and those who have come into contact with his vast body of work. Let us only hope we can continue to give back to each other as much as Neal Casal gave us. We’re all the better for it.

Below you can listen to the Fare Thee Well set break music from Neal Casal and Circles Around The Sun.

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Sharin’ In The Groove In The Time Of COVID-19

The announcement came on March 23, 2020. The greatest product to come out of Vermont since Ben & Jerry’s, Phish, would present a weekly ‘Dinner And A Movie’ archival video series free of charge to their rabid fanbase, a response to their postponed summer tour that would be rescheduled for 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While no Phan would argue that couch touring is an equivalent experience to seeing the band live in concert, all these months later and 22 episodes of the series in the books, there have been some take aways I think that are worth sharing.

Phish is very near and dear to my heart. As a 3.0 disciple of the band (yes, go ahead and laugh), they have opened me up to a myriad of other genres and a never-ending list of musicians along the way. In many ways they have been my compass to music education and my tastes today.

The series, which has featured shows spanning the band’s three-plus decade career, has given the Phish community a chance to relive or discover periods of the band’s work that we may not been exposed to before. Sure, I’ve listened to some of their performances from the late 80’s at Burlington fixtures like Nectar’s and The Front, but to actually see the band in action during that period in the case of Episode 15 at the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton, MA (5/1/89) for example, had me in awe of the foursome just as much as when I saw them for the first time. The fisheye lens aside on the video, it was a wonderful portal into the band’s early exploits.

Likewise, to watch a show that I was actually in attendance for, like in the case of Episode 4 for their 2015 Magnaball festival, it brought back so many fond memories of the journey to Watkins Glen and all that ensued that weekend with some of my closest comrades – setting up the campsite, which in some miraculous way was about 50 feet from the main entrance, exploring the festival grounds and installations during the day and a late night set that left my friend and I in an absolute daze as we looked at each other contemplating what Marco Benevento tune Mike Gordon had just teased (it was “Fireworks,” by the way). There’s no other band in my personal experience that has given me as much as Phish has in so many unique ways.

The Dinner And A Movie series has also facilitated an activity that many would frown upon at a live show: discussion. While there is always a time and place to do so, whether it be post-show, Twitter, Phish.net, PhantasyTour or otherwise, being one step removed from the live show where the vast majority of the crowd is completely locked in to the music, these webcasts have given us the opportunity to do a play-by-play in real time of what we may have been thinking/feeling in attendance or hearing a show/song for the first time.

The prime example I would point to is probably my favorite edition of the series thus far, Episode 19 from Great Woods on July 8, 1994, the last full narration of the epic Gamehendge saga. While I’ve listened to the show before and for that matter Trey Anastasio’s senior thesis, ‘The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,’ it was a joy to watch it play out in motion. To be able to join in the commentary on Twitter with the community and simultaenously recognize and appreciate what we were witnessing, gave me a sense of normalcy that is difficult to come by these days. It goes to show we don’t necessarily need to be huddled all together up on the lawn or in the pit to take part in a shared experience. In the end, it’s the music and the community that unites us and keeps us coming back for more.

The last notion I would offer, unfounded or not, would be the exposure the Dinner And A Movie series has provided for non-Phans. I understand some folks just don’t “get it” or are skeptics when they hear something strange lyrically. Or maybe they’re hesitant to attend a live performance due to the negative connotations that sometimes are attached to the “jam band” scene. I would hope after watching even 5 minutes of some of the dynamic performances that the series has provided and considering the sheer excitement and happiness that the band exudes on stage that is matched if not exceeded by the audience, that they’d be willing to at least acknowledge that there’s a there there. Whatever it may be.

This Labor Day weekend, Phish will broadcast three shows from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, CO. The venue has become the preferred location for the band to close out their summer tour and has been site to a number of outstanding performances during this era. If we can’t be sharin’ in the groove together, in person, let us do the best we can virtually, as one united community.

Stay safe and take care of one another.

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