Read Matt Steele’s Apology to David Bazan if you haven’t already. Most thought-provoking post of the week about the Mission Creek Festival. A week in which I feel good about all the writing the LV-ers contributed. If you happen to read this and haven’t read the posts, peeped the pics and watched the videos, it’s well worth browsing through the blog for the past week. Keep in mind that the only payment anyone received for covering events was getting on the guest list. Uploading pictures/audio/video, sweating to find the mot juste while sweating out last night’s bourbon, building up a sleep debt: It was all a labor of love.
Mission Creek Festival puts Iowa City on the map when it comes to annual festivals. Sorry Arts Fest and Jazz Fest, but as great as you are, you’re no Mission Creek. Its main disadvantage — being a week long, spread across several venues, in a town with no affordable hotels/motels — is also crucial to its flavor. The audience was mostly local, leavened with out-of-towners here for a single night. A few people probably stayed for the duration, couch-surfers with local friends, but it couldn’t be that many. Mission Creek Festival is not Pitchfork or Bonaroo — it’s not a long weekend revel for affluent kids. As was pointed out on the Mission Freak Blog you could have had an extremely rewarding week for free. In talking to the LV crew and others, some amazing music took place at Public Space One and in free shows elsewhere.
The academic tie-ins orchestrated by everyone’s favorite tenured prankster Kembrew Mcleod also distinguished it from the normal sort of festival. The Public Enemy panel discussion, followed by the Bomb Squads stunning Yacht Club show were the axis the Festival pivoted on. Less-noticed, but every bit as significant was Michael Field’s lecture on Dub Reggae Friday afternoon. My point being that while the events of last week were entertaining and fun, they mean something beyond the moment. They are events a shared culture worthy of reflection and discussion, doubly so because they happened in public, with people trading sweat, removed from the glow of their computer screens.
Which brings me back to Matt’s piece I mentioned at the top. I think of Matt as a young guy — I have a son his age after all — and his mini-essay is remarkable because it describes Matt arriving at a cusp in his reaction to and appreciation of music. A seminal experience in my life as a producer and consumer of art was Jacob Brownowski’s documentary series The Shock Of The New, whose essential point (to my understanding) rhymes with Matt’s experience: Art, when it is doing it’s job, disturbs. It finds the beauty in the things formerly thought ugly. In some way, large or small, it makes the way you think and feel about the world differently than you did before.
‘Disturb’ is a great word in this context, because it means literally to move something at rest, as well as ‘to bother’ a person. When something disturbs, it unsettles, it shakes up, it rattles. Anyone who saw Acid Mother’s Temple or the Bomb Squad were quite literally disturbed — your insides got rearranged by the sound pressure. But if you were willing to surrender to what they were doing to you, it was exciting in ways that — Sorry Greg — Greg Brown couldn’t match*.
Artists like Brown, David Bazan, etc have rather a different purpose. People look to pop and folk music for reassurance and comfort. They make you feel good because no matter what they do, it is familiar to you even if you’ve never heard it before. In Matt’s piece, it seems he lost patience with that kind of music, and mounted the barricades with the revolutionaries. I, on the other hand, having spent 40 years on those barricades, have a slightly different impression, in that I believe there’s a place for both the disturbing and the reassuring — so long as they both tell the truth.
Whether David Bazan, or any of the other musicians that failed to excite Matt, are ultimately worthwhile as artists, I can’t begin to say. I can say for sure that what they does works for their fans, and ultimately they are the only critics that matter. A huge amount of work and creativity goes into merely sounding reassuring and entertaining. Whenever I see a band play that I don’t really enjoy, I remind myself how hard the worked just to be competent enough to underwhelm. Just because it doesn’t excite or disturb me, doesn’t mean there isn’t something there I’m missing. To someone else, it might be crucial. Everyone needs to follow their nose and find the things that speak to their condition; some artists may actually be providing a valuable service by being stepping stones to more challenging music.
Plus, one generations pap might be another’s gold. Heck, Doris Day’s work, which, when she was in her prime, was a byword for WASP blandness, is undergoing a critical re-evaluation. I’ve lived through so many repudiations followed by rediscoveries (ABBA, anyone?) that I think any sort of artistic evaluation is by definition provisional. Who’s next to come back to the top of the ferris wheel? Air Supply? Starland Vocal Band?
*for me, an artistic high point was Brown’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” (available from Red House Record) on which Brown set the poetry of William Blake to music. The combination of Blakes loopy ecstatic poems and Brown’s voice was something a few critics loved, and nearly everyone else HATED.