I was watching on YouTube clips of Toto live in concert. Toto, to educate the uneducated, are/were an American band formed in the 70s by the best, the very best, session musicians in LA. You’ve heard their playing on countless hit records made over as many decades. Phenomenal cats the lot of them. Of course, they were always roundly derided by people who believe that punk was and continues to be the zenith of popular western culture. Musicians, though, hold Toto in high regard.
There’s a simple way to test whether or not you’re a musician. Do you respect Toto? If you don’t, because you’re a snotty nosed new kid on the block with the fastest chops, we’ll forgive you. You will grow out of it when you start working for a living. If you don’t respect them because you think they’re just a bunch of tossers, then you’re not a musician. Fact.
It occurred to me, while watching the footage, that I was looking at a very different kind of gig. The performers were old, they weren’t particularly cool or good looking, some were fat, all of them were wrinkly, they wore uncool clothes, there were no stage gimmicks, lasers, dancers, they didn’t ask the crowd to make some noise every fifteen seconds. The bass player, Leland Sklar, looks like someone’s demented grandfather. Or Gandalf.
I don’t wish to insult. Rather, I wish to make the earnest point that all the things the Toto gig was not about are the main event, the only event, in most other gigs. Correspondingly, the one thing the Toto gig was about is gloriously missing in most others. That thing is musicianship.
I used to wonder why in old footage of legendary bands’ gigs people just stand there or often just sit around watching the players play. I used to think that gigs must have been really boring back then. But it hit me this morning. They are witnessing and appreciating the craftmanship of an artisan. Just sitting there watching, appreciating someone’s handiwork is the whole point of the exercise!!
When it’s that good there is no need to make noise and wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.
Being an artisan has its benefits. It means that you can pretty much go into any old pub with your instrument and start entertaining people. You have their attention because your skill commands attention. Most indie bands, the kind who approach us with their tiresome, endless bitching about finding better and bigger gigs, can’t hack it in that environment. Instead, they insist they need the setting of a “gig with people who appreciate music”. What a load of bollocks!
It’s true that if you get a decent support slot with a big band the crowd is predisposed to going through the motions of what they deem to be correct behaviour at a rock show. The duly wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care every so often. They respond to questions of whether or not they’re having a good time with respectable gusto.
I remember this from my own touring days. The revelation that much of it is just a show, a pantomime, was kind of disappointing. One incident sticks out: somewhere in Nowheresville I threw caution to the wind and played a screaming guitar solo using two handed tapping and a lot of widdlydiddly…. the kids in the front row went ballistic. Maybe they hadn’t seen anything like it before. Dunno. But the t-shirts sold well that night. It didn’t hurt that one very drunk gig goer had vomited all over the other bands’ shirts and ours was the only clean stock in town.
In the end, the fact remains that unless you can hack it up close and personal at the local Frog And Radiator, it isn’t going to happen anywhere else either.
I’m not saying that being a virtuoso is a prerequisite to a career. It clearly isn’t. But being able to play is really really wonderful and cool. It’s an end in itself and watching Toto on YouTube reminded me about the reasons that got me into music twenty odd years ago. Actually, I was surprised that the same reasons are still so important to me. So much so that I spent five hours practising guitar last night. Got up at 7am this morning to do it again. My wife came down to breakfast saying that the last thing she heard last night is the first thing she hears in the morning.
I got that warm, fuzzy feeling. Nice.