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Be Yo' Sef - Some Thoughts On Playing Solo
By Mick Polich - 12/11/2010 - 01:52 PM EST

Be  yo’ sef………….

That’s all we can ask, in the naked reality of it, at any moments in our lives when we want to express how we’re feeling thru music, painting, sculpture,etc. – be yo’ sef, peeps.

I’m 52 years old  – in rock and roll terms, that could be long in the tooth. But I feel like I’m just getting started. Just like those folks who don’t get accepted into the drum circle in Ghani until they mature, I feel like there’s gas in the tank, and I’m just getting geared up.

Last week, case in point: I did a radio show over in Cherokee, Ia., about 25 miles from here. Cherokee has a pretty good music scene, and boasts a great jazz and blues festival every January (yep –not spring, not summer, not fall, but WINTER -  and I get the logic of it, in breakin’ those ol’ winta blooze…). This is my second time over in C-Town doing a gig, and it was great fun(shout-outs to Jomie Anderson and radio KCHE – thanks for the good time and hospitality). I was interviewed, and played two original songs,” Big Momma”, and “A Place At The Table”. AND… to top it all off, I got to help head up the jam session that happens every other Thursday evening at the Gathering Place, a hall in a nice old building that for jams, concerts, and shows. Got to jam with some fine musicians, and got some repair work out of the deal ( nice blackface Fender Bassman top, Jimmy Davis – thanks for the work).

Just be yourself – how can you play or be like anyone else except YOU? Sure, if there were any flagrant character issues with myself, I would be right on it, but I can get along to go along in a light social setting. People need to get to you, your abilities, and your character.

In order to play music like yourself, I think you need to take an honest, stark assessment of YOURSELF.

How are my music skills? Can I, or more importantly, DO I, want to cover a song EXACTLY as it’s presented? Is it possible for me to do? Believe me, more folks are swept away into a dreamy submission by their own self – evaluation. Nothing worse than listening to someone trying for the two-point conversion ,when chances are, the extra point is a the better bet (but we all roll that dice to a degree, right? Don’t know until ya try……).

Let me put it this way – years ago, I could barely sing “Purple Rain” in the key it was done in during my heavy gig days – what was I thinking? I could probably do a passable, bluesy ,acoustic rendering of it in a much lower key now – re-arranging the melody to fit my vocal range. Or…. I could scrap it all together to bad idea, and move on……..

Frankly, I’m signing more stuff now than I ever thought possible – by arranging the chords and vocal line to delve into the harmony part when needed (more so to avoid creaking in those high notes), then giving the tune my own little twist so I can play it while doing my solo gig, I’m able to not offend too many folks while eating their lunch, or sipping their drinks in the evening mist. And you know what ? I learned that if I only would have figured the art of transposing and arranging out sooner than later, I would have saved myself ( and any band mates who had to put up with my musical foolishness from time to time) a ‘hole lotta trouble,boss……….

In fact, while I’m still amazed by a great cover band, or artist, doing a perfect rendering of a cover tune, I’m even mpre moved when I hear a really cool, left-of-center version. Give it your own personal stamp, bruthas and sistas!

So……..what to do?` How do you proceed to make a cover song your own? First, pick the song, and see if you have the vocal and instrumental chops to do a solo version of it – don’t change keys for the vocal, or re-harmonize chords – just see if you can do it, and muddle your way thru. Case in point: I’ve always wanted to do an Al Green song (namely “Let’s Stay Together”), but damn Holmes, it’s AL GREEN – way outta my vocal range and style. What I did was download some tabs off the ‘Net to get a feel for the chords ( yeah, sit down, and TRANSCRIBE the puppy, but heck, I have less and less time these days to do those things, so why not skip a step? Some body else on the planet can do it, sorry…). Tried to warble my way thru while playing the arrangement – no way. So NOW I start to transcribe to comfortable vocal key.

Here’s where it gets tricky – vocally, can I keep on the melody line, or I dip into the harmony parts at times? I dip into the harmony parts. Musically, it’s me and my Telecaster ( love the sound of it for jazzier stuff), so I come up with a bass line/chord progression that seems to drive the rhythm of the piece. Hey, it’s starting to shape up –very cool. This is where it gets fun because I realize I can DO THIS. It’s passable – no vocal chops to blow anyone out the building, but that’s not the point. Yes, there are some technically gifted musicians out there – always will be, and they will always amaze me. But what is music judged on? Technical prowess always? It’s SELF EXPRESSION  -  so be it if it involves great technical chops.  But ultimately, it’s self – expression: argument blog to follow…..).  

Of course, playing solo cuts out a lot of fat in the arrangements – here, I lose that gorgeous string section break in the original recording – unless I trigger MP3, MIDI, or sampling files to back me up, that’s a dead question( did see a guy  from Cedar Rapids who played solo and sang at my wife’s Christmas  party that did a brilliant job at this – first, you could tell, even without the sampler and vocal harmonizer, he was great musician. But he was able to layer back-up vocal parts and rhythm parts with the aid of technology). So, it leaves that section wide open to interpretation – I fill in with finger-picked chords of the B section.

All that I’m telling you involves a critical analysis of yourself – don’t snow yourself into thinking  you can ‘over – achieve’ on arrangements. Plus, as time progress in your career, your abilities change naturally.

I think I do a better job vocally now than I did during my heavy gig days of 20 – 25 years ago. I’m more aware of what I can and can’t do. It's a different gig now,trust me. For example, I really don’t expect Robert Plant to hit those crazy high notes that he did in the Zeppelinese days of yore, do you? Come on, the dude is OLDER – the unbridled energy and chops that he had in his twenties have matured and changed. I mean, wouldn’t you have expected that? Pretty obvious. But what’s replaced from those olden days is something closer to the sense of blues – a deeper, darker, perhaps even scarier sense, a truer sense of hard won knowledge, loss, and mortality that makes Robert’s music even better at this point. He couldn’t have done the duet album with Alison Krauss, or the Band Of Joy album 35, 40 years ago. Gems happen when they happen in music…….

And this is what you have to look forward to in your pursuit of being yourself in making and playing music. What works best for you – if it gets you gigs, great. If the audience likes it, even better. But work it out for YOU.

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