some more about Advancement and my responses to his earlier post. He makes a number of great and challenging points that I would like to address. So let’s get started:
Athitakis went to the Newport Folk Festival recently, where he saw Levon Helm and his band (not The Band). He was troubled by their cover of “Long Black Veil,” about which he wrote, “There was nothing especially bad about it, but nothing especially good about it either.” He goes on to note that he isn’t required to like this version just because Helm is who he is, but that he shouldn’t reject it out of hand just because it’s slower than he might like or that the song choice is a cliché. Though he tried to like it, he found the experience not worth the effort because it gave him “no particular pleasure.” Finally he asks what, exactly, is the point of trying to find the good in something that he truly doesn’t like, giving two examples: 1)To prove that critics had it all wrong about Bob Dylan‘s Christian records? 2) To not appear “stuffy,” “tweedy,” “unimaginative,” “smug,” or any of the other adjectives people use when a critic dislikes something other people enjoy?
I want to start out by saying that it’s clear that Athitakis has made an honest effort to approach music with an open mind, or perhaps a mind rerouted toward Advancement (I concede that there is a distinction). But I’m not surprised he failed to enjoy Helm’s performance, if for no other reason than I believe that Helm isn’t Advanced. A cool guy, but not Advanced. However in my book, I claim that once you approach things with an Advanced state of mind, you can like anything, even if it isn’t up to genius standards. So let’s ask what is the value of reaching that state of mind in the context of this particular performance of “Long Black Veil.”
The song has been covered by just about everyone, including Nazareth, but I’m not sure why this should count against Helm. The song might have achieved cliché status, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad song or that it is necessarily a bad choice to cover it. And I would bet that some people in the audience were exposed to that song for the first time or at least had their interest in the song renewed. To expand out a bit, the festival itself is a cliché and Athitakis went to see it because it has some cultural value. I’m sure there are purists who would deride the current version of the festival and argue that it is no longer relevant. But that doesn’t mean the choice to continue the festival for those who are interested in it is a bad thing necessarily. The question is whether this version of the festival is good, and so it goes with the cover of “Long Black Veil.”
Aside from the idea that the song is overdone, Athiakis notes that it was done too slowly. This is the kind of judgment that is impossible to prove. Tempo was likely not the problem, but the performance within that tempo. Any song can be played at any speed as long as the musicians can find a groove that satisfies the listener’s particular needs. Which leads us to the question of how everyone else felt about the tempo. Some people are more inclined to slower music, and I would guess that many people in the audience loved it. Are they incorrect in their judgment? And Levon Helm knows just about everything there is to know about that style of music, and yet he chose that tempo (presumably, given that he is the drummer and it’s his band). Why would he make this error? If you’ve followed this blog or read my book, you’ll know that I think that there is no obvious right or wrong when it comes to art, and of course this is not a new thought. But I’ve added on a piece which is, if the choice is among me, other people, and a musician who has been playing music for 50 years, then I’m better off siding with the guy with the 50 years experience. If there is such a thing as right and wrong, then he’s probably right.
Okay, but why go through the torture of listening to music you don’t like so you can eventually like it? Coming in part two…