Art in Paradise: Playing with the Kids

A few months back, I followed formerly local musician extraordinaire Aric Beiganek into a dank hallway in a rambling Holyoke Victorian. (Bieganek is now a resident of Minnesota.) We wound our way to an inner sanctum where his band had set up. I was there to lend a hand on guitar for the evening. I had a few years on Bieganek, and he in turn had a few on the rest of the band. I suddenly knew how it must feel to be dubbed a “scene veteran.”

There are, of course, some advantages to being the guy who’s played a few hundred shows, though my few hundred are readily eclipsed by the gig count of far more experienced players. The whole notion of nerves has usually long left the building; grasping a song quickly is usually no big deal, the sort of thing that arrives by virtue of experience or by way of a brand of technical skill I’ve never possessed. Knowing how to fit in unobtrusively is likewise easier.

I unpacked my guitar and was offered a choice that stunned me: I hadn’t brought an amp, so I could plug into a ’70s Fender or a newer Orange. Both of them were impressive amps, and both bore a gleaming brigade of vacuum tubes.

When I started playing in earnest, my compadres and I knew only that tubes were supposed to be really cool. Few among us actually owned anything with tubes in it, but we knew that tube coolness was something we might one day possess. In the meantime, solid state equipment was the only thing we could easily afford or find. We just had to put up with the cheesy distortion and harsh sounds we had at our disposal. Knowing such esoterica as what lived under the hood of a tube amp wasn’t even on the radar.

The young guys I was playing with for the evening not only were conversant about such things, they knew them well enough to tell other people about them—most everyone there worked at Downtown Sounds in Northampton.

It’s also true that the cheaper amps available these days, wonderfully enough, reflect that kind of growing awareness of the finer points of old-school technology. “Boutique” amp builders have multiplied, and major manufacturers offer a staggering array of inexpensive, low-wattage amps full of tubey goodness. New musicians now have a much better palette of sounds to choose from, and, more importantly, they know how to use them.

After I plugged into that ’70s Fender, things got more interesting yet. Get a few years of playing under your belt, and you really do, probably inevitably, start hearing music differently. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but one day I realized I was somehow hearing all the parts of a song separately and together—all that attention to building songs had bled over into listening. And, at the end of the day, listening well is a vital, major part of being a good bandmate. I realized in that moment that I’d been flailing away for longer than I’ll admit, barely in control of my own instrument well enough to bother hearing what a bassist or drummer was doing onstage. Cacophony was often the result.

But the kids in Holyoke? They were doing all the right things, things that took me years to learn. They looked around, they listened to each other, they seldom got in each others’ way. They played, in short, like old hands. It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in the Valley—just listen to the early efforts by the likes of The Sun Parade, Who Shot Hollywood, Leah Randazzo, Jamie Kent and others—but I still don’t know what accounts for it. Maybe it goes on everywhere now, thanks to the Internet’s spreading of knowledge and sophistication in musicmaking. But I’d be willing to bet it’s a more local thing.

It’s one of the pleasures of living here that so many Valley residents take it as a given that the arts matter. Few places boast arts high schools, a load of colleges, ubiquitous art galleries, experimental theater and dance festivals and companies, even a noise music scene, and a massive number of musicians and artists of every stripe. All that stuff has to make its way into the Valley zeitgeist. If you don’t have anything to compare to, it might seem normal that young musicians who first set out to make their own sounds manage to do so with such grace and skill. I, for one, have a dusty box of cassettes that makes a singularly convincing argument to the contrary.

Author: James Heflin

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