The month just past was one I'd hotly anticipated, since I'd be serving Jenny Scheinman's musical project for the first three weeks and Mark Roberts's play the last week. From time to time I wish I got a little more sideman work on the calendar, so that I could step away from the center and stare at my fretboard awhile. And set my mind to absorbing musical ideas coming from other brains, with different quirks and vocabularies. And have a stronger excuse to sit and practice playing. And not meet/greet after, or settle with the promoter; and get into the back of the van and sit quietly while someone takes me to the hotel they've bought for me, and so on. While we were out with Jenny, every time some little issue came up, like where to eat or which road to take, I whispered obnoxiously to Robbie Gjersoe, "I'm a sideman! I don't care!"
That wasn't, strictly speaking, "blessing the leader," which is how one friend of mine who does a lot of sideman work speaks of the job. (He's a Christian.) Still, I was keeping the mood light, enjoying the ride, and -- a minimal expectation -- resisting any urge to complain aloud about anything whatsoever. Celebrating someone you appreciate is an easier and maybe more pleasurable pastime than organizing and pulling the caravan. When you add in the obligation of promoting your own work via performance and salesmanship, the role starts showing its heaviness. Also there's the gloomy fact that the money can be better, off to the side.
You can never not play like yourself, and it's good to have a leader who understands that and values it too -- anything less makes for second-rate music and a boring time onstage. So, given a smart leader and a context that allows a primary focus on music quality, the variance in expressive freedom between him/her and the supporting players is narrower than many onlookers probably suppose. On projects like Jenny's and Mark's I enjoy the freedoms, for instance, of using my own microphones, offering arrangement suggestions, influencing timefeel, and letting some impulsiveness loose on the music as it rolls by. That the material wasn't created by me or that my name's not on the marquee drops the intensity only a few percentage points, and not being the consistent center of attention and the dude-in-charge is a real relief.
But I'm guessing, after a month of sidemanship, that those percentage points gradually accumulate for the guys that do this work all the time. That little drop in intensity is a short-term gain in comfort but ultimately it reduces the payoff too. I'm about as eager now to return to the spotlight as I was to cede it a couple weeks back. The longer you live the more elaborate and (regrettably) rigid grows your set of values, and, childishly demanding though it may seem, curtailing as little as 5% of your impulses while you're on stage chafes -- ever so slightly but more insistently as one date follows another. A full performance isn't only a display of skills you've learned but of values you hold. Those values are of course embedded in the composition or layout of the music and in the lyrical storytelling, and are reinforced by the common effort to lift and love the central personality and the blueprint he/she brings in. It might be too shiny a gloss to put on a human activity with both ego-enhancing and money-making aspects, but I think the desire to move for a little while from side to center comes less from tiring of all the lifting and loving than itching to show in full what you yourself feel is beautiful and right.
I'll be leading my dates, me me me, all of them, from now through the summer, by which time I'll no doubt be ready to shift to the lift. Right now though, I'm excited to play my songs once again with my handpicked people, which I'll be doing in the coming week in Texas and Louisiana. A little more activity later in the month in the midwest, and in May things really get underway and stay underway till October at least, maybe through year's end. Upland Stories has been out a year as of yesterday, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm not playing in 2017 to move copies of it, but to play across my records, work on some new tunes, and experience a variety of players. There's a couple guys on upcoming dates that I've long dreamed of travelling and working with -- okay, that sounds smarmy, and I didn't actually dream about it, not even once, but I can honestly say that thinking about working with people you admire a lot and know only a little raises your pulse. It's probably the main reason I stay happy on the job year in and out. More specifics later, meanwhile come see me if you can.