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The gig is the thing

The troubles I have had with music over the years have mostly had to do with context.

When I was a kid, I played guitar all the time — but I didn't sing or learn songs and I never felt like I knew very much.

I played in some garage bands in high school. This consisted mostly of getting together at the drummer's mom's house and conducting experiments in group dynamics. Nobody knew much about how to play or what to do. There weren't gigs, really. Such gigs as came along were unglamorous at best — and often simply absurd.

I once played, as a 16-year-old, at a fifth-grade graduation ceremony. The principal of the school said to the assembled kids, "OK, boys and girls. We have a band that is going to play for you, and while they are playing I want you all to sit perfectly still and be completely silent!" Then the drummer counted off the song by clicking his sticks together over his head and we launched into an over-rehearsed version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Later, as we were packing up our meager equipment, one of the dads walked past and said, "Keep on trying, guys."

Twenty-odd years later, I have come to understand that context is everything. The gig makes the band. Advancements in entertainment technology have fundamentally altered the role and purpose of bar bands in our society. Thirty years ago (I am told), club bands could make a living playing the hits of the day. That's not quite the case anymore, but it doesn't have to be a completely bad thing.

Though I have not attended many house concerts — and have never played one — we seem to be living through a great era in the history of these shows. Touring musicians are, of necessity, great networkers. Somebody talks to somebody and says that the so-and-so band is going to be passing through next month and, rather than trying to place them in an established venue, they put the show in somebody's living room or on the back porch.

The beauty of this performance model is that, though the crowd may be small, it is apt to be a listening audience. Certain types of performers aren't interested in or able to compete with the room noise in a crowded bar — crack of pool balls, whirr-and-crunch of the margarita blender, etc. Some music is best enjoyed among a small audience of enthusiasts.

That was certainly the case two weeks ago when I attended a performance at Paschal Winery in Talent that was billed as "The American Guitar." Winery tasting rooms can be a cross between the intimacy of the private house concert and the older nightclub model. Paschal in particular has put on quite a number of excellent concerts in recent years. On this night, four prestigious local guitar players combined forces to showcase a variety of musical forms that were more nuanced and refined than what they would have been able to get across in a noisy bar.

James Edwards and Michael Philbert played nylon-string classical guitars. Cyd Smith played a steel-string resonator guitar, and Bil Leonhart played his signature seven-string, hollow-body, electric guitar. (For those who may be wondering, the seventh string is an extra bass string — the B below the usual low E string.) During the first half of the evening, each guitarist took a turn playing solo. The second act was given over to various combinations of the four performers collaborating with one another.

The music was fantastic and so was the audience. I suspect the crowd was heavy with guitar players. It was a room full of folks eager to be impressed and ready to enjoy the music. The players on the bill represented a good percentage of the Rogue Valley's top-shelf guitarists, and the whole evening came off as a celebration of the guitar and its devotees.

I don't mean to imply that the more traditional music venue model isn't alive and well in Southern Oregon. There are plenty of good bars and restaurants that work hard to create a viable context for live music. There are so many, in fact, that I do a terrible job of trying to get to them all.

I'm also sensitive to this issue, as I was once, years ago, in a band that was photographed on stage by a newspaper reporter who then used the picture — without naming the band or venue — to illustrate a story on the death of live music!

All I really mean to say is that live music doesn't happen in a vacuum. It may be that one of the most important jobs of a musician is to help create a context within which to play.

Reach musician and freelance writer Jef Fretwell at jeffretwell@yahoo.com