Like scaling Everest, we do it because we can.
By the time you read this, I’ll have played the annual South Carolina Oyster Fest. It will have been an outdoor show in late November—a time of year when most of us only go outside on a penance walk for gorging ourselves on meals thick with carbs and gravy. It will have been during the afternoon, outside of a historic house museum, for an audience laser-focused on shucking oysters, drinking things, and staying warm. It will probably have been relatively cold, wet, and drizzly, although the last few years here in Columbia the highs on the date in question have tended to be in the low 60s. Northerners, you are welcome to hate us.
This event will have broken many silly rules I have about performing sets of original music when the band isn’t famous and people don’t know the songs. Being outdoors eliminates the dynamics of the room and its note-massaging sources of compression and reverb, and introduces environmental sources of discomfort. A nice sunny day can make a pedal tuner worthless. It will be a family friendly event, which compromises audience behavior and attention. Most of all, it will be for an audience that isn’t specifically there for original music. This is perfectly fine. There are plenty of times I’ve gone to events and not necessarily been in the mood for original music. Most of them were sporting events or movies.
A smart, experienced musician or reasonably sensible human being would evaluate this event and venue and make a series of basic recommendations. Play some covers that people will know. Keep it simple. Don’t be offensive. Get people dancing. They aren’t there for your tones, art, discovery, or virtuosity. Just bring a minimum of functional gear, get onstage, play some nice sounding stuff, get paid for playing music (Yes kids! It does happen!), and then quickly pack up your stuff, go eat some oysters, drink some beer, have fun, and once you’ve run out of people whom you know well enough to make some good small talk with, quit while you’re winning and call it a day.
I, however, am a stubborn, foolish, and unreasonable human being. For playing a 40-minute set of music at an outdoor oyster festival on a Sunday afternoon in November, I will bring north of $5,000 worth of gear. Much of it will barely be used. The signal chain will triangulate terms such as “unnecessary,” “grotesque,” and “gratuitous.” I will worry about the reliability of the tube amp. I will stress about where I’ll be able to store the guitars and pedals before and after the show. I will probably spend some significant portion of my increasingly rare and valuable free time making patch cables. And for covers, the only tunes we’ve agreed on are “Fairies Wear Boots” by Black Sabbath and “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead—each a departure from our brand of Americana into short torrents of sonic rust and wrought iron that will fail to endear a band to this crowd while consuming valuable set time.
So why would I do this? The truth of the matter is that most of us, regardless of professional acumen, artistic pedigree, technical ability, overt snobbery, or consistency of ethos, still find making loud, strange noises really, really fun.
I have zero delusions that my use of any of this stuff will strike anyone’s deep sense of artistic fancy. I wouldn’t wager that somebody simply searching for a bottle of Tabasco sauce will think, “Wow, this guy really knows how to use a Bit Commander or Pitch Grinder in interesting ways.” There’s no way the timely use of a vintage chorus pedal will seem really vital to anyone’s experience other than maybe my own.I recently restored a vintage Small Stone phase shifter that was full of pet hair, dust, and grime. The only possible explanation for its condition that I can imagine was that it had spent its lifetime stuck under a leaking AC unit in an attic full of feral cats. But after a solid hour of rust removal, a firing up of a wet/dry vac, scrubbing the board with alcohol, replacing parts, and retouching solder joints, the pedal pulsed and throbbed with a vitality that is as close to magic as anything I’ve encountered in my lifetime. This thing deserves to be heard, even by people who have better reasons to be there than listening. I have just the venue for it to make an appearance.