You are the weakest link…(or what motivates a musician?)

Anne Robinson

Tonight I’m off to play with the Shunters Blues band for the Norfolk Blues Society. The society has been running the blues jams for several years now, and it’s about to stage the Dereham Blues Festival for the third year. It’s been a massive success. I’m not playing this year, but Workhorse (my last band) played last year and it was a fantastic event to be part of.

But back to tonight. I’m playing Hammond tonight, not something I’m overly proficient at. In fact, with only 7 months experience, I’m very much punching above my weight with a such a great band. And that started me thinking about what motivates musicians, and especially what motivates them to step outside their comfort zones and do things that push them to the edge of their abilities?

I started thinking seriously about Hammond and Piano when I injured my left hand last year. I invested in gear, took advice, got a great rig together that I’m still working on. But my hand is now healed, I can play guitar just fine, so why persist with something I know little about?

The best musicians, and the people I grew up admiring, had one thing in common. They didn’t play it safe. Players like Rory Gallagher for example, no two nights were the same – the band jammed every night. Deep Purple, the interplay between Blackmore and Lord, it was spontaneous. Any time you play that way, you step into the unknown.

The guitarist in Ned Kelly’s Ambush, Bob Youngs, said something after a gig not long ago that stuck with me. He said ‘this band is best when it’s not playing the songs’. And I understand what he meant. It was those gaps in the arrangements where we were just jamming out the groove that created extra excitement.

So I have reached the conclusion that while most of us have very diverse reasons and motivations, there’s a group of us that have one driving force in common:

Fear

Seems a strange motivation but bear with me a minute while I explain.

Fear creates adrenalin, not the kind of numbing fear that leaves you debilitated, but that level of fear that it could all go wrong while still being driven to take that risk with lots of people watching.

I have played Cabaret, after the fist few gigs it’s just play, repeat, play. It was largely money for old rope. There was  no fear. The audience would drink, dance and go home. We would get paid. Then we’d do it all again next weekend. No Risk, No Fear, no Adrenalin. It was a good job, undertaken in good company, and I learned a lot from it. But I have never repeated the experience, because I earned more money driving a truck, so for a job of work that made much more sense.

So maybe it’s not fear so much as risk itself. But with any risk comes a degree of fear that it might go wrong, and that fear then heightens the reward. So that reward can only really exist if there is fear of failure, which means the player has a healthy respect for his audience and for his fellow musicians. We care, it’s important to us.

So we’re basically ‘Junkies’ – but in a shared experience. Basically, there’s a good number of us for whom playing a gig often feels like jumping out of an aeroplane at 5000ft with nothing more than a Union Jack Hankie for a parachute. And that’s more than healthy, it’s vital.

And maybe that’s why I still love that era between the mid 60’s and the mid 70’s, where bands like Cream, the Hendrix Experience, Taste, Deep Purple and others were constantly pushing the boundaries every night, forcing each other to constantly produce something more exciting than the last night. It was an era of dangerous music. It’s the kind of music I want to play, loose, interactive, risky. EXCITING!

And that brings me back to tonight – and the NBS Blues Jam. I am the weakest link, the least experienced member of tonight’s house band, just as I am with Ned Kelly’s Ambush. And I’m already buzzing, 12 hours in advance, because I know that I’m going to be working with great  musicians who will lead me to the aeroplane door, hand me my Union Jack Hankie, and then in the nicest way, give me a gentle push!

Does it feel 100% safe. No, but the generosity of spirit that is a driving motivation of the NBS means that I know I’ll be guided to a soft landing spot. And so will you if you come along and play. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, You’ll be amongst friends, the Shunters will welcome you in and look after you.

But the thrill on the way down will be unmissable.

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