I occasionally miss the days before cell phones. Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience of my phone, and I wouldn’t know what to do without it at this point. But we have lost something in the art of listening to and experiencing a live music event, and I don’t know if we will ever get it back.
Recently, I went down to Mollusk Surf Shop in Venice, CA to see this episode’s cover subject, Blake Mills, play an impromptu show. When I arrived, the place was packed, and people were spilling out of the entrance to the shop. The crowd was on different levels, standing on tables, poking out from loft windows, and sitting on the floor, all facing the center of the room. Although I couldn’t see the musicians, I could hear and feel the music coming through the room. Over the next ten minutes, I slowly folded myself into the crowd, moving forward as others shifted around the room. Before too long I found myself standing next to Jackson Browne. He was holding a guitar case, and listening intently to the music. When the song ended, Jackson made his way to the center of the room and sat down next to Blake. He picked up a Gibson J45 and began to play, and like periscopes, cell phones rose throughout the room. It seemed like everyone needed a picture of Jackson at that moment. And I understand that—you want a little keepsake of the moment. But then it seemed like a lot of people needed to post that picture of that moment right away. Jackson was no match for Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Heads went down, fingers started tapping and swiping, and conversations started. And then it seemed like once those pictures were being posted, that was a good time for a number of people to check whatever sites they were on for any recent updates. Might as well do a little multi-tasking, right? Wow, am I old, or is that just distracting and disrespectful?
Now, the whole time that was going on, Jackson was laying down a great song by Roger D. Ferris. It started out with the narrator breaking the seal on a bottle of Jim Beam, pouring it into a decanter that looked like Elvis Presley, and then pouring that into a Fred Flintstone jelly jar. And then “Yabba dabba do, the king is gone, and so are you.” And this song, as simple as could be on the surface, was such a beautiful little sad funny story, and you kind of had to keep the whole thread of the lyrics in your head to really appreciate it.
Well, something was happening right next to Jackson. Blake was listening to the song, simultaneously interpreting the lyrics, and answering right back with his guitar. He had a 70’s strat, and a glass slide on his finger, as if he was going to play some blues, but the song was pure country and western. So Blake magically created his version of a pedal steel sound, finding harmonies that were at once so original, and yet so evocative of a pedal steel guitar, that the effect was quite stunning. Now, please understand, he was in no way playing known or worn out pedal steel licks. He was just channeling, in real time, a wholly original translation of this kind of language. And just as it dawned on me what was happening, he made a slight shift in style and suddenly it was as if a Theremin was in the room, or a Theremin player with a pedal steel, or a pedal steel player that was trying out a Theremin. It was magic.
I watched the other musicians gathered around Blake. In addition to Jackson, there was a guitar player, a bassist, a percussion player, and a saxophone player. They traded phrases, licks, and songs throughout the night. Every one of these players was at the top of their game, and each at least two decades older than Blake, but every time he soloed, or sang, or found a groove, these musicians leaned in, as if they wanted to absorb every nuance of this kid who was making brand new sounds come out of his instrument.
Blake plays like he is chasing down ideas, examining them from all sides. He is fearless, and has no reverence for perfection, preferring to make mistakes in the pursuit of a phrase or melody on the edge of attainability.
We talk about the pursuit of musical mistakes in this issue, but seeing Blake put these ideas into practice in the center of Mollusk Surf Shop was truly inspiring. All the great ones seem like conduits who channel melodies like pure voodoo into the room, and Blake is no exception. His voice matched his guitar, finding buried melodies that other artists apparently failed to dig up.
I looked up after a half-hour of concentration on these sensations. The room had a pulse to it. There was a guy standing on a bit of a ledge or table in the back, with what I would swear was a faded Fruit Of The Loom baseball hat and vibrant Hawaiian shirt, holding a can of Modelo and swaying to his own smile. Next to him was a girl with a faded floppy hat and freckles, and damn if I wasn’t in the center of Venice on a Sunday night hearing some of the best music I have experienced in a long long time.
I guess maybe the phones were out because everyone in that room knew that they were in on a very special scene that was coalescing right before their eyes and ears. Maybe everyone broadcasting those images out through Twitter or Instagram just wanted to say, “I am here, and something special is happening in this room.” And I get that. But when guys like Blake Mills and Jackson Browne are playing, you gotta pay close attention. Listening to music is an active art that rewards those who tune in. And Blake is the kind of guy that may unleash a piece of beautiful, transcendent music into that room that he will never be able to duplicate. You don’t want to miss that.