Last night at the Rockit Room

Last night I played a show at the Rockit Room in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco. I don’t know that I have anything particularly profound to comment about it, other than that it was important to me, and that as a result I’m sleep-deprived and a little sick today, therefore not feeling particularly moved to do any other deep analysis or commentary.

I’d been excited about this show ever since I landed it a month and a half ago. Truth is, though I’ve considered myself a serious musician for over ten years, everything I’m doing now is pretty new territory for me. It’s the first time in my life I’ve devoted nearly every spare moment to music, and actively sought to create as many extra spare moments as possible. It’s the first time I’ve tried to actively and unabashedly self-promote, the first time I’ve really hustled for gigs. And this was the first paying show at a specifically-for-music (as opposed to food) venue that I’d landed without having any preexisting contact.

The night before my band had our first rehearsal with everyone present. Guy Brown on guitar. Erika Oba on keys. Sarah Thompson backing me up with the vocals. For sure I was nervous about it coming together on short notice, but they’re all superb musicians, very responsive and present with what’s going on in the moment. Just as important, they’re all totally serious about making good music and not dicking around. We got everything together with about three weeks of hastily scheduled rehearsals. We came up with our band name, or rather I suggested four or five I’d had floating around in my head and they ranked them. Right now we’re Shareef Ali and the Radical Folksonomy, which basically speaks to my own obsession with categorizing/relating all that I encounter (see “Wikipedia Brown” as an example) and my belief in the right of common folk to reframe the world in drastic departure from tradition. Anyway, I think we all like the name pretty well, and I hope that some version of it sticks. We agreed to all wear button-downs and jeans, and I brought a supply of bandannas the day of the show so that they might better relate to my own presentation.

I am a fan of all of the groups I asked to play, and none of them disappointed: many thanks to Scotch and Bones, S.A. Bach (and Jonathan and Allie) and the Tenderloins for joining me on the bill last night. For my set, I was joined by the band on four songs: “World’s Oldest Profession”, “The State Of The Garden”, “Red Balloon” and “Broken Record”. It felt amazing to have all these other subtle musical elements woven throughout my songs, adding color, nuance and touches of each of the other players’ personalities. Simply put, the songs are sounding more like they were meant to than they ever have before. I was perhaps even a little distracted during the solo portion of my set because I kept thinking about how great whatever song I was playing was going to sound with everyone else doing their thing on it. As we were playing last night, I was feeling thrilled that we had pulled it off, and even more thrilled by the knowledge that if we could sound that good after just three weeks, how much we had to look forward to as a band. After our set ended, we had a big group hug onstage. I meant it, guys.

Also making my night totally special were all my wonderful friends who came out, not least of all two people who drove up from L.A. (not counting Sebastian and Co.); a buddy from middle school whom I still owe a drink; another friend who lives in SF but I stink at getting back to; and Cortnee Rose from the Starry Plough.

I had sensed earlier in the day that my throat had been feeling a little ticklish, and mid-set I knew that it was getting thin. But I powered through, and promptly afterwards I lost my voice. Today I’m alternating between honking and whispering. I should go to bed and really get serious about recovering, because we’re maybe going to have band practice on Saturday. But I’ve just given myself license to quote Conor Oberst:

You should never be embarrassed by your trouble with livin’; because it’s the ones with the sorest throats, Laura, who’ve done the most singing.

I’m changing the name of my blog.

So it looks like last night I lost the blogging challenge with Cyrus St. Rid. Humph. We’ve discussed it and probably we will continue to hold each other to an every-other-day schedule, since the impetus to continue churning out content that seems at least marginally worthwhile is a positive pressure on both of us. We’ll have to set another challenge goal, and certainly suggestions are welcomed, although I have some doubts as to whether this competition has any followers or interested parties aside from Cyrus and myself.

I’ve been working pretty hard (and I hope, continually harder) at pursuing my musical vision for about the past year. It was in August of 2008 that my good buddy Leif helped me record my demo “Music From And Inspired By Our Doomed Love Affair” at his then-recently acquired Studio 1510. Since then, I’ve been working my way through open mics, cafe shows, and on Wednesday, my first show with the possibility of earning me a small amount of cash (which of course would never be the driving factor but is definitely welcome). But what was I doing between when I graduated with my degree in music in 2005 and August of last year? Some of you know, of course, but I want to document it and reaffirm my commitment to this path that I’m on.

(NOTE: I’ve been sleepwriting now for three hours. I’ve just got to go ahead and publish this imperfect account now and worry about tweaking the history later. You understand.)

Let’s go back to my last two years at Oberlin, when I was in the midst of receiving an excellent music education and well as undergoing a profound transformation of my political consciousness. It was in this time that I realized that my life was and would always be governed by three forces of apparently equal (and immense) strength: the need to work for social improvements, the need to create meaningful art, and the need to pursue personal relationships. More plainly: to fight the good fight, rock out, love and be loved. That last one, Love, had been driving me from an earlier point in my life than either of the others, and I understood that it would always be necessary when working towards either of the other two. But at this point I was torn as to which deserved to be my priority. The simplest way to reduce my qualm is the question, “As much as I love art, how can I justify spending my time creating it when there is so much injustice and oppression in the world?” When I talked about it with other people, whether artist, activists, peers or teachers, the most common response was, “Maybe you can combine them”; a nice thought, although I was and remain skeptical of a lot of art superficially aimed at social change, which, when it fails to inspire, fails doubly, both as an agent for change and as truly moving creative expression.

After graduating, I reasoned that since I had spent four years earning a degree in music, I owed it to myself to pursue that goal, and at the beginning of 2006 moved to L.A. to start a band with S.A. Bach. Although we only played one show, we were totally decent and I’ll always be a little sad that this didn’t work out. Without getting too much into the boring details, by August of 2006 I was working thirteen-hour days, six days a week for an awesome small nonprofit working to provide rehabilitative and support services to homeless women, children and families. This was the beginning of a three-year long ‘career path’ in nonprofit work (specifically fundraising) that came to define my everyday life. In the year between August 2006 and August 2007, I wrote only two songs, and performed not once, nor played music with any other soul. In early 2008 I went to a different (equally worthwhile) organization and worked less insane hours, but my existence still seemed to revolve around my work, where I would often put in extra hours as well as fret about once I went home for the day.

I eventually left nonprofit work, at least for the time being, in May. I realized that as important as the work being done at these agencies was, it wasn’t where I needed to be spending my time and energy. For three years I had been valuing their mission and vision above my own. I had somehow gotten into me the belief that creating art was less valuable than plain honest shoulder-to-the-wheel social justice and activist work. But what I’ve come to realize is that I have a gift, and that (despite my own self-criticism, as well as criticisms from other people of my work) my art is the single most valuable thing I have to offer this world. I’ve known for awhile that I find no other pursuit more personally satisfying, but I would not feel justified in devoting myself to music if it were for that selfish feeling alone.

Although sometimes I feel frustrated or as though I’ve got to make up for lost time, I’m very grateful for the path that I did take through the nonprofits: the crazy hours, the constant self-sacrifice. I learned so much about myself, what I was capable of, and ultimately I credit the journey with turning me from a scrappy, awkward kid into a (still young) man. This journey brought me here, to the Bay Area, where I know I need to be. I’m finally starting to understand what it really means to believe in yourself and commit to your dream. No matter what kind of difficulties I might be facing on my path, I never wonder, “Is this what I should be doing with my life?” So here’s my mantra, and what I’ll be renaming my blog:

No Gods Before Music.