Thursday night was fun, but it could have been more fun, I think.  Or maybe not.  The folks who run SPAH are obviously well aware that they’re catering to at…

Thursday night was fun, but it could have been more fun, I think.  Or maybe not.  The folks who run SPAH are obviously well aware that they’re catering to at least two different audiences–the blues/rock (diatonic oriented) crowd, which tends to  be younger and like louder, rougher music, and the vaudeville/swing/jazz (chromatic) crowd, which tends to be older and like more “classic” mainstream  show biz styles.   It’s T shirts/jeans/long hair versus sport coats/polo shirts/white or no hair.

The solution to these dual audiences at the moment (and probably for some time now) is to put on parallel but separate tracks–so there’s a blues jam going on at the same time as the jazz jam, and a blues performance going on at the same time as a more jazzy, show bizzy performance.  This has obvious advantages in terms of trying to keep everybody happy.  On the other hand, it has one really big flaw, which is that it damages one of the really, really great things about SPAH: the opportunity to hear a lot of wonderful, inspiring players whose music has NOTHING to do with your own favorite style(s).  No matter what you’re into, you hear something different at SPAH that makes you think again about what you’re playing.  Unless, of course, you have the option of avoiding all that great stuff to concentrate on your own relatively narrow thing–which is exactly what happens when you have separate tracks for the two big audiences. 

I happen to dig a lot of music, including music that doesn’t have big electric guitars, bass, and drums, so I might feel the conflict more acutely than most people.  But it was a real drag to realize last night that if I went to the blues jam, I had to miss the jazz jam, and if I went to the performances MC’d by Randy Singer (which I did, because I was playing there) then I was going to miss the blues show. 

I’m not sure what the solution is. The implication in having these two parallel shows going on is that the harmonica all by itself isn’t enough to hold the audiences together.  That might be true.  Certainly most festivals are organized around a style, even if there’s a strong focus on an instrument.  (What do you hear at fiddler’s conventions, anyway?  Not Beethoven, I bet.)   SPAH tries to hold it all together with the harmonica.  Maybe it can’t be done.  Maybe it would be better to run two different festivals.

But I sure get a lot out of hearing all these different players.  It makes me realize too that none of us has the whole answer, the single idea that will rule the harmonica world.  I was blown away by James Conway’s set on Wednesday night–it was so fresh and original, and the harp playing was so sharp and focused and rhythmically potent (not to mention an amazing display of stamina), just so totally on.  I loved every second of it, and I could easily have listened to another hour of it.  Last night James was sitting two seats away from me at the blues jam, and his playing there was less arresting–obviously skilled, but just as obviously not the best blues in the room. It made me realize that having a voice also means not having every other voice in the world.

The blues jam last night had some really great stuff by Michael Rubin, who is  impressing me as a guy with a lot of very original ideas and a great sound on the harp, along with Jason Ricci (of course) and a few others.  Michael Peloquin wasn’t in the room, which is too bad, because I’ve really been getting off on his playing this week.    

My own playing last night sucked less than it did the previous night, which was a relief.  (If you suck two nights in a row, it’s a trend tending to an emergency.)  Randy Singer gave me two songs at the ballroom show, a duet with Ron Kalina on piano on my favorite Ellington ballad, “In a Sentimental Mood,” and a solo performance of my arrangement of “Billy The Kid.”  I was happy with both of them.  At the blues jam, my thinking was much more coherent than the night before, and I pulled off a lot of the stuff that I aimed for.

But the main thing I got out of yesterday was the realization that I get every time I go to SPAH–that there is so, so much more to learn.   That was one of the things Charlie Musselwhite said in his seminar too–he’s still learning.  In practical terms, that means I need to make more room in my life to practice my instruments if I want to take my playing up another level.  And I do. I wonder what I will give up to do it– nothing is free, after all, and ultimately you pay for everything with your time and attention, of which no one has anything like enough, maybe not even if death didn’t ultimately intervene.  Even if you live forever, you can only do one thing at a time.

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