Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Road vs. Studio Bands - Essay

Below is a lightly edited version of an essay published yesterday on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association web site. As always, I'm grateful to CBA for their years of giving me a monthly forum which encourages me to extend my thinking on a variety of things bluegrass. I look forward to your comments on FaceBook, Google+, and in the forums. For those who have had trouble commenting directly here, comments on Google+ posts are linked to my blog.

Irene often works for bands at festivals selling their merchandise while they're onstage or for longer, if they want her to stay. Over the years she's become adept at finding the CD on the rack containing specific songs the band has sung during their set. Often this means she sells older CD's on the basis of one song. Sometimes fans point to a CD asking her, “Is this the band I heard up there?” Sadly, she sometimes has to say that the band has changed, or that a studio band was used in the recording. In the past several years, the sales of band CD's have cratered. Formerly, bands toured in support of their latest CD. Today, it's more frequent that bands record to support their tour, as revenues from live performance have increased to surpass their recording incomes.

Recently I heard an agent who works with a top emerging band in the bluegrass and Americana world emphasize the importance of having the band reproduce accurately and consistently the precise renditions it had recorded in its live performances. However, I've also heard a number of bluegrass musicians say they never play the same break in exactly the same way as well as asserting the boredom that trying to do so would engender. Also, bluegrass bands frequently change personnel, which leads to different sounds, both vocal and instrumental. How does one square this circle? Since there has been revolutionary change in the recording industry over the past two decades, the parameters of both recording and performing have undergone a distinct change. A successful performance requires considerably more showmanship than merely reproducing the sound heard on a recording. A recording can never precisely reproduce either the sound or the immediacy of a live performance. Therefore, while the recording of a song should complement the live performance, it can never reproduce it, not even on live performance recordings.

Two models of recording seem to be at work here. In what I heard referred to as the “Country Model,”studio musicians are hired to back up the featured performer for a recording. Road musicians are hired to tour with the artist, seeking to reproduce the sound on the recording as accurately as possible. There are a couple of reasons studio (session) musicians might be used. Because of their experience in the recording studio, they can “get” the song more quickly and be prepared to provide the kind of performance the recording requires in fewer takes, thus saving both time and money in the making of the CD. Time is the conventional wisdom says. However, even with the finest of session musicians, a question arises as to whether they capture the vibe and passion a song worked up on the road through months of previewing that the road band can create. Another reason for using session (or guest) musicians is to add luster to the names of performers on the recording. There are a number of well known session musicians whose mere name on the CD may have the power to increase sales. The current practice of recording segments on their home system and emailing them to the producer may, however, reduce the immediacy and emotional impact of such playing.

The second model requires the road band to be the recording band. Bluegrass is known as a improvisational music. A tune is expressed or played and the musicians play off each other to enhance and relate to each others' interpretations. In this way, it's like jazz performance. One characteristic of such performances is that they change as the interpretation matures and develops through repetition and the further development of understanding both in the lyric and the tune. Many bands spend weeks or months on the road and in practice sessions developing songs they have carefully chosen and or written, developing an interpretation that grows. Even in covers, they insert their own understanding into the song, seeking to make it simultaneously recognizable and fresh. Bluegrass aficionados know and recognize side musicians, and appreciate their quality.

Some bands seem to be more effective as recording bands while others shine best in live performance. I must say the dynamics to this still manage to escape me. In some cases both recording and performance are exciting, even when they seem to me to be quite different. The Infamous Stringdusters strike me as such a band. We attended an outdoor concert of theirs at the Whitewater Training Center outside Charlotte, NC last spring. It was engrossing and lively as the power of the band, its volume, and the excitement they generated in the audience was palpable. The other day we listened to their new recording, “Let It Go.” We were both aware of their lyricism as well as able to understand the lyrics of the song, without being overpowered by the volume. The experience of the recording and the performance were quite different, but both satisfying. On the other hand, I have noticed that some bands we enjoy immensely in performance come across as flat, even listless in recording. I can't say whether this is attributable to the setting, the engineering, the lack of or presence of an audience or whatever else. But it does provide a very different experience. Fine recordings made before a live audience may help to bridge some of this distance.

As the technology of distributing recorded music continues to change in the years to come, the dynamics of the recording/performance relationship will change, too. New venues and ways to deliver live performance will continue to emerge. I hope that live performances in spaces where the audience and the performers are in the same place will continue to be important, but who knows. Meanwhile, the issue of making recordings that feel alive will continue to challenge engineers while the hard work of presenting previously recorded material in a familiar fashion will also remain. It's an exciting and demanding time.