As anyone who has read my A&E writing over the last decade in the old Message for the Week or here in the Outlook knows, I've always focused on either local musicians or on that second tier of performers referred to as Indies, Roots, Americana, alternative or Under the Radar. Quite frankly, it's simply where the best musicians and songwriters are making the consistently most authentic music, with the bonus that a lot of the players can easily be heard at area venues.
Music is always changing, and change keeps things interesting and exciting. What has made rock and Indies and Roots music interesting and exciting for a long time? The beat and rhythm, the drive of the melody, with guitar and drums the essential elements. The look. Rock has long been about leather and denim, hats, jackets, rings, necklaces, scarves and kick-ass boots. You want some flash and attitude, because it's not just art, it's also entertainment.
But above all, it's been about story. On all levels, great songwriters - Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Richard Shindell, Jack White and a thousand others - have given us a good story well told.
It's hard to find a lot of that in much of the up and coming Indies music.
Musically, so much of what I hear coming along is Roots-lite, full of ambience and even sensuality, strong in mood but a little bland and lacking in muscularity. I miss a little growl in the vocal, or some blues and distortion in a guitar solo. Trust me, I'm not asking for the return of the extended, self-serving shredding guitar solo. Let it RIP. Just maybe a little gritty guitar work in a minor pentatonic?
And the look? Flipping through the latest issues of Paste and Under the Radar magazines, the current look for an alt band is just, well, boring. Bed head hair, two-day beards, t-shirts or button down shirts, argyle and pullover sweaters, and tie up dress shoes or sneakers. How is it that hipster slacker chic looks like your un-hip, nerdy dad before he shaves and showers?
I mean, even Wilco's touring in Nudie suits, and Dylan's band works that vintage hats, jackets and boots thing. I like my rock stars, even the under radar ones, to look like, well, rock stars.
As far as the great storytelling song writing tradition, Roots Rock performers seem to have gladly inherited that and are running with it for all they're worth. But the rest of the Indies scene? I like a "my heart is broken and am I depressed" song as well as the next person, it's just that I also want the story of who broke your heart and why.
Don't get me wrong, I love some of the changes in the Indies scene. Vocal harmonies with performers like Grizzly Bear, Imogen Heap, Rusty Belle, Yeasayer and Taken by Trees are probably at an all time high. The diverse instrumentation is also a big plus. A band no longer means guitars, bass and drums, and I've long felt that the cello should be a lead rock instrument and not just for backing up ballads.
Perhaps the biggest change made by Indies music is that the guitar is no longer the dominant instrument in the way it was from the 50s on. Not a bad thing.
It's just that I'm looking for where that rock and roll edge went.
Lucero is one group that has maintained it's roots and punk sensibilities - it would be almost impossible for them not to, what with Ben Nichol's whisky-raw vocals and song writing in the genuine storytelling tradition. I'm open to suggestions. Know of any other up and coming Indies bands like that giving the Under the Radar scene a little needed kick in the ass?