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Meditations on Radiohead at Riverbend (part 1)



“All things are a-flowing/Sage Heraclitus said,” but rock musicians and rock journalists keep pounding home the same theme: rock and roll should be raw and basic, and whatever you do don’t clutter it up with your fine little subtleties. When Jack White waxed rhapsodic about performing with a drummer who had no experience behind a drum set you would have thought that he had gone where no one had previously traveled, but actually the notion that people who don’t know how to play should go ahead and play anyway had been around for some time, and in the end (actually, in the beginning) the White Stripes were just one more band that kept things brutally simple. And beautiful music has been made that way. Certainly Bukka White made beautiful music while banging an acoustic guitar with so much force that you wonder not only how it stayed in tune if it did stay in tune but also how it was that the guitar avoided being shattered to pieces.

Basic and simple are good sometimes but sometimes I want to be challenged. (Here I wonder if I used the wrong example, because Bukka White can be challenging in his own way. I mean he in no way invited calm, passive listening). I want to be challenged sometimes, and I want to be taken out of my comfort zone. The other night while listening to saxophonist Jackie McLean on a mid-1960s Blue Note date it struck me just how harsh the “harmonies” were; there was a deliberate dissonance (& maybe some atonality) that (although the music had changed in other respects) harkened back to the early days of bebop, when jazz musicians in New York got fed up with the touristy audiences and tried to create something to send them packing. And it worked. Thomas Merton wrote about how loud the music was. It had shock value. This is music that came at you. Jazz harmonies can be sweet (Tadd Dameron, for example), or it can sound like every notes is meant to clash with every other note, and the rhythms are jagged and the phrasing is too, and suddenly you find that the easy chair where you previously you were sitting has been pulled out from under you. And that is where I was sitting when Radiohead played Riverbend Tuesday night, and for that I am grateful.