The Path of Most Resistance

As I'd mentioned a few blogs ago, I'm back in sporadic contact with the guys from my very first band, which ceased to be around the time Brian Mulroney was a new Prime Minister. Despite our all having moved off into very diverse musical directions, it's still a pleasure to hang out or jam with these boys, and none of them ever hung up their instruments in the intervening years. Last month, in fact, I called upon one of them to bring in his current band as a special guest for a Mike Luno Band show at the Railway Club. Sharing a stage again after a 29-year hiatus...

Back in the day, Bruce was the other guy in my first band who wrote his own tunes, and in fact he was a lot more prolific than I was. He also had a greater appreciation for rock's DIY, keep-it-simple, rebel-yell ethos. He probably listened to the Kingbees back then as much as I was listening to Rush.

That difference between our approaches to guitar-based rock was on full display at the Railway Club. Big Backyard, as his band is called, has still got all that fun garage band spirit I remember fondly from years past, and Bruce is still distinctly Bruce in his songwriting, vocal approach and stage performance; he writes stuff he can play pretty effortlessly, and his personality shines through as a result. I can ball-park his band's general style, but there's nothing imitative about his sound. He's very much his own category.

None of this was news to me last month, as I'd seen Big Backyard last Spring at the Princeton – I knew what to expect. Bruce, on the other hand, had never seen MLB live until last month. I suspect I'd be a bit more of a wild card stylistically, as well; back in high school, Bruce already had his sound and approach, while I was all over the map, and a pretty weak singer to boot. My tastes had leaned toward hard-hitting screamy stuff with lots of fancy guitar solos, but that's hardly a cohesive 'sound' in itself. Much has changed since then.

Most of the Big Backyard band stuck around to hear all of the MLB set, and there seemed to be plenty of mutual admiration amid the hand-shaking and back-slapping between the two bands when we got offstage that night. Bruce did, however, make a comment that stuck with me: to paraphrase - “you sure didn't choose the easy way to go!”. I'd have to agree.

Certainly, no one has held a gun to my head and told me I must write material that requires me to sing in a demanding vocal range, to coordinate vocal rhythms against disparate guitar rhythms, wander into strange key signatures, or even play in a 3-piece band. A second guitarist or keyboardist would certainly lighten my load a lot. Likewise, I could probably de-stress gigs somewhat for Curtis and Jason, my drummer and bassist, if I wrote something much more straight-forward. Perhaps a more relaxed, effortless band would be more accessible to a typical local audience?

The truth is, I have occasionally tried to write music that is much less demanding. Ironically, I don't seem to be completely comfortable unless I'm a little uncomfortable; if I the playing gets too easy, I feel oddly powerless.

To use a couple of analogies: Pete Townshend once said in an interview that he has his guitars strung lightly for casual playing and rehearsals, but with heavy-gauge strings for his live performances. The higher-tension strings provide the resistance he needs to fight against when he's out sweating and windmilling all over his instruments. Gene Simmons says he prefers his Destroyer-era costume (the one covered in large plates of body armour and spikes)– not for esthetics or comfort, but because it annoys him; it pulls his hair, makes him angry, and brings out his most demonic stage performance. At the height of his heroin addiction, Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing with string gauge starting at .18 on his high E string, which is double the width of, say, that of Edward Van Halen. To put it less technically, this would be like trying to steer a dump truck without power steering. Likewise (and with the same monkey on his back), Charlie Parker played on #5 Rico reeds during his darkest days. Likened to popsicle sticks, most players can't even make a sound on such thick reeds. One could argue the thicker reeds and strings have quite an effect on tone, but I believe that's true only to a point; the resistance factor is far greater than the tone factor in both cases.

I'm not likening myself to these artists per se, or confessing I've developed a fondness for heroin, but I am suggesting it's not unusual for an artist to grow accustomed to a certain threshold of push-back. It's fair to say I don't write easy-listening music. Some artists, such as Mark Knopfler, can wrap a bitter, urgent message in a laid-back, conversational tone and make it that much more effective for when the listener peers through the camouflage. Perhaps because I'm a pretty laid-back, easygoing guy offstage, I have a greater inclination to try to grab listeners by the lapels when I'm onstage. It just feels right to me. Granted, I musically came of age listening to bands like Boston, with stratospheric vocals and virtuosic guitar performances – a virtually impossible set of skills to be possessed by one person – but I did get used to trying. Hey, while I've finally lost all hope of singing like Brad Delp, at least I've also determined that nobody else can, either.

This may come down to a sense of esthetics. I like the sound of a little strain. Perhaps in the way that you can gain insight to a person's character by seeing how they act under pressure, hearing a voice or an instrumental technique under some duress can bring forth a stronger sense of the player's character – or perhaps a more primal element of that character. You'll probably never hear a completely slick performance by Mike Luno Band because I'll simply keep writing material that keeps the players – myself most of all – pushed a little beyond the comfort zone. Just last week, we debuted a tune that had resulted from a rather strange jam a year ago. A non-musician listener may find 'Descend' sounds upbeat, funky, perhaps a little quirky in the choruses...but it's an absolute bitch to think through while playing. Curtis and Jason are about as capable musicians as you'll ever find in this town, but it's fair to say it made 'em sweat a little. I thank my lucky stars that I have musical colleagues who appreciate a challenge once in a while and always rise to the occasion. As a bonus, getting through 'Descend' in a live setting is almost as elating as a near-death experience. Cheaper than sky-diving and bungee-jumping, too...

That being said, I appreciate an artist who can write exciting music that is still simple and easy to execute. If there's plenty of conviction and originality behind it, it'll have my attention and respect. One could argue that it's actually more challenging to be distinctive if you restrict yourself to simple ideas, and I certainly try to avoid sounding complex; but for better or worse, I need a little onstage struggle. It's been fascinating to watch how two songwriters such as Bruce and myself proceed from a common point of origin to such disparate places (while, coincidentally, writing on common topics from time to time). Perhaps it would have been more of a surprise if, after all these years, we sounded exactly like each other – but the variety of music is far better this way. It's good to hear the results of travelling the paths of least – and most- resistance. Especially all on the same night.


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