Thursday, October 20, 2005

I play banjo in a Bluegrass band. Well, two bands, actually. It is a fun thing but for the fact that each band does a lot of original material so there are tons and tons of songs and chord progressions to know and remember. That can be a problem for the old (literal descriptor there) brain. Here's the deal; improvisation takes place over the basic chord structure of any song. If you know where the chords are going (knowing which chord is next and when) then improvising is really simple. But, and its a big but, if you don't know where the chords are going you are basically fooched because you are improvising but you can't because you are lost. Make sense? What is really interesting is that once you learn the progression and can accurately predict the changes, the song structure always seems so logical and you wonder how it ever could have been tricky to learn. The first band I was asked to join, I have learned pretty much all of the songs. The second band? I am still struggling with the repertoire. Now, this is not just your typical 1,4,5 cowboy chord stuff. Give me some credit. Some of these songs even have (gasp!) time changes! Oddball minor chords! Ninths and sixths and stuff! Non-resolving progressions! On banjo! Live! At least neither of these bands require me to sing, which is as much a relief for me as it is a blessing for the audience. Both groups already had the vocal parts worked out with enough voices that I just get to play banjo and be happy. In one group, Ivory Bridge, I am the only lead instrument other than the two guitars so I get to play just about all the fill and back-up stuff. That's huge. It means that, in a typical four hour gig, I am actually playing for about three hours and forty five minutes. Playing rolls that is, and not just keeping time by vamping chords on the off-beat (oomp-chunk, oomp-chunk, oomp-chunk). I would have to say that my back-up stuff is getting a lot better due to all the practice I get at it. The other band, The Middle Spunk Creek Boys, is your typical Bluegrass band build out with fiddle and mandolin, so I do a lot more time keeping and less back up stuff.

Last week I played a concert with MSCB and it was the first concert venue we played where the acoustics were such that everything could be heard. This is as opposed to a noisy bar or outdoor concert where there is ambient noise. In a situation like this, one really has to know one's stuff. There is no place to hide. I did okay, just okay. We had rehearsed the trickier songs but I had sort of a brain problem the night of the concert in that I could not remember stuff. At all. I think when I get tired and don't eat I start to lose some higher brain functions and that was happening. I recovered when we got onstage thanks to the adrenaline and years of playing. I remembered pretty well but more importantly I soft pedaled and hid well in the parts I was fuzzy about. The concert went well. Still, we practice tonight and I would not be surprised if many of the tricky tunes were simpler tonight than they have been in the past.


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