Photo by Anuradha Khanna
The first drafts of my set lists often end up as a tangled mess of cross-outs, re-writes, and arrows weaving in and out of the lines.. I have a tendency to think about the show in terms of the narrative arc of the stories- what messages ought to be shared in what order. My bandmates have to gently, oh-so-diplomatically remind me that other factors matter, too.
Nope, the songs can’t all just be slow ballads elaborating on my guilt, or enumerating the ways that the world is screwed up. Even the songs that tell stories of people overcoming challenges can be cumbersome to weary ears. We want people to have a good time...right? That’s the whole reason they go out to see live music in the first place...right? We’ve got to have some that are upbeat, that leave you in a good mood (however lofty a goal that really is).
Is it better for live shows to be an accurate reflection of my concerns, or is it better for people to have a good time? These things aren’t fundamentally at odds with one another, and I always strive to strike the right balance, but I’m the first to admit that sometimes I miss the mark.
At its heart it is a philosophical question that I have yet to answer; and it’s a spiritual question about how hopeful or fearful we are to be for the future. If we’re all to be swallowed by the sea in a matter of years, then by all means, let’s clap and dance and take refuge in pretty melodies about flowers and whiskey while we wait for the rising tides. If the oncoming train can be stopped, though, which stories would move us to lock arms and march in its direction? What about the people who have already been swallowed by the sea and hit by trains, so to speak? Or perhaps even as we endeavor to change the course of history, we still need the joy and respite that music offers in the process.
A friend of mine is a minister for a small church in Virginia, and she shares the struggle that she feels in preparing her sermons. There are many weeks when she feels despair for the state of the world, but she can’t just unload it all onto her congregation. She has to muster up her own conviction that things will get better; she has to give people legitimate arguments to have faith in themselves and in God. And they can’t be fake or empty; people can smell fake-ness a mile away. There are thousands of good reasons to be skeptical, but there are even more and better reasons to be hopeful.