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Geeking Out over Taylor Swift's Eras Tour Movie 

Wow! Just…Wow! 

Taylor Swift - the Eras Tour official poster imageSo, last weekend Amy and I took our daughter and a friend to Taylor Swift's new concert film “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.” The show was in its second week, so tickets were attainable (in the front 2 rows). But the energy of the audience had a strong opening night/in-person at the stadium vibe. 

Girls were singing and dancing in the aisle together. My daughter said she nearly lost her voice singing at the top of her lungs with her friend. Clearly, Taylor keeps tapping into something big, now appealing to a second generation of superfans, with no sign of letting up.

A Method to the Moments

As a fellow musician who loves to perform live, I recognize that Taylor did not accidentally stumble into captivating and engaging and audience. In fact, I've benefitted from a book by the guy who produced Taylor's early concerts - Tom Jackson. In his book “Live Music Method” Tom compellingly argues for creating moments over the course of a show - not just playing songs. He lays out the case that if your songs all look alike, they will all sound alike to an audience - even in different keys, different tempos, different moods, with different themes, etc.  

Taylor certainly established distinct moments - lots of them! Sure, it helps that she had state-of-the-art lighting, set design and visuals, but even if you took that away, the artist made the moments. She acted out “Tolerate It” in heartbreaking fashion, ran the show like a boss in “The Man” and broke it down to just her voice, her piano and the stadium crowd on several occasions between the big pop song and dance moments. 

Of course, Taylor has long since overcome a key challenge Tom highlighted in his book. Taylor's audience (both the stadium crowd onscreen and the movie theater crowd) is absolutely married to her - they know every lyric to her 17 years' worth songs. Tom's book is for the unknown artist who is “dating” their audience - maybe trying to break through to a small crowd at a coffeehouse or opening for a more established act - an artist still trying to make those first impressions. 

This is the space I occupy. My application of Tom's method looks more like:

  • intentionally ordering my set list to create different moments (an introductory moment, a musical moment, a “different” moment, a “big fun” moment, a touching moment, a “raise-the-roof” moment) in an order that gives the audience a complete experience. 
  • getting out from behind the mic stand when not singing (in some instances, not all), 
  • introducing some of my songs while playing my guitar underneath my banter, 
  • working out transitions between songs as a key part of rehearsal, whether solo or with a band, 
  • using a looper pedal to keep an accompaniment going while I get away from the mic and play a solo, 
  • altering the lengths and arrangements of songs to prioritize connection with audience over reproducing my records, 
  • expressly giving my audience permission early in my show to enjoy the show in their own way, 
  • balancing eye contact with sections of the audience, 
  • interacting with the band when I have one, and much more. 

The Eddie Van Halen Connection

Taylor Swift guitarist Paul Sidoti playing his EVH Guitars replica of Eddie Van Halen's iconic Frankenstein Guitar while Taylor Swift rocks a Strat. If you know my story, you know that Eddie Van Halen is the reason I play guitar. So you can imagine how I geeked out at the maybe 2-second sighting of Eddie's iconic red guitar with the crazy white and black stripes - you know, from the “Jump” video! Taylor's longtime guitarist Paul Sidoti rocked his EVH Gear replica of Eddie's axe - the Frankenstein. This brief moment filled me with unexplainable levels of joy!  I later went down this rabbit hole and found that Paul endorses EVH Gear guitars and amps. 

This is not the only connection between Taylor Swift and Eddie Van Halen. Taylor is said to have had the “Eddie Van Halen effect” on the next generation of pre-teen and teenaged (mostly) girls buying guitars and learning to play, just as Eddie had on (mostly) boys of my generation. Guitar World ran this article about the phenomenon back in 2016

This concert film experience was unlike any movie theater outing I'd ever experienced. It reminded me of when I was a teenager captured by a concert video. It was 1986 and I watched “Van Halen Live Without a Net” repeatedly in the basement with guitar in hand, studying Eddie's wizardry and trying so intently to come away with even a fraction of it. And yes, Eddie was playing a replica of his own legendary striped guitar! 

My Key Takeaways

My overall feeling with the Taylor Swift concert film is delight at having seen my daughter have such a blast with her friend, and to have been in a setting where such sheer joy filled the space. 

Secondary to that, just as when I was a teenager learning guitar, hoping to harness a fraction of Eddie's magic, I found myself again studying Taylor's show for ways I can bring a fraction of that unbridled joy to my audiences. 

Watching Taylor apply Tom Jackson's onstage success principles gave me things to consider to enhance my live show, even if I have nowhere near Taylor's budget, cast and crew: 

  • Lavish lots of gratitude on the audience
  • Really, really, really take in the applause and reflect it back - don't rush past it! 
  • Tell a relatable story at a key moment in the show - just not before every song
  • When you give an audience member a special honor, that audience member becomes a stand-in for the whole audience - like when Taylor gave a girl her hat. 

Did you go to any in-person Eras Tour concerts? See the film? What were your takeaways? Discuss in the comments below. 

Sammy Ash: May his Memory Be a Blessing 

In Loving Memory of Sammy Ash - C.O.O. of Sam Ash Music

I never got to meet Sammy Ash, but I sure do have lifelong musical ties to the music store chain named for his grandfather. Sammy was the chain's Chief Operating Officer until he passed away at age 65 from skin cancer on 09.16.2023. 

I've developed friendly relationships with many members of the Springfield, NJ store on Route 22. There's George, the general manager, who is also a member of local funk/rock band KQ and the Sound Trip (more about this band later, I hope…). Then there's Reggie in pro audio, Michael, Jeff and Dave in guitars, and Rob in instrument repair. And Joe who calls me when a harder-to-get item has come in. These folks have been vital influences on the evolution of my sound as an artist. And it's Sammy's vision for the Sam Ash chain's modern presence that brought us together. 

This store has not only connected me to instruments, gear and supplies, but also to a beloved bandmate. Lou DiMartino ("Mr. Lou") was working in the store when he observed a flyer I posted on the bulletin board seeking a bassist for the Jungle Gym Jam. He called, and came over to audition. He was great! He also confessed that to cut down the competition he took the flyer off the board. I was flattered that he wanted that much to be in our band. We would share in Lou's talents along with his longtime band Joe D'Urso and Stone Caravan. Our projects co-existed rather well because our band for kids & families played by day and Joe played mostly evenings. =

Tragically, Lou's life came to a sudden end due to an asthma attack after only 3 months with us. But he brought so much kindness and love for music into our lives for the short time we had together. He taught us the phrase LLU, which stands for “Lou Loves You” which he placed at the bottom of all his emails to us. And he connected us to the Light of Day community, in which he was a passionate participant. 

My ties to Sam Ash stores go back before I ever picked up a guitar. In fact, my grandparents surprised me with my first-ever electric guitar as a Bar Mitzvah gift I never expected. Where did they buy it? Sam Ash in NYC! I still have that guitar and just picked it up to play recently. 

As I was nearing high school graduation I participated in a sight-singing competition, in which I was given sheet music for the first time and called upon to interpret the melody with my voice. I won the competition and enough money for a gadget that would transform my music-making: a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. Where did I go? Sam Ash of Paramus! 

These days I work in Mountainside, NJ, about a 5-minute drive to Sam Ash of Springfield. Most of my musical gear comes from this store. I've also traded in gear to this store as my musical needs have changed over time. 

Here's a fun fact about Sammy: he gave the iconic Ibanez Tube Screamer pedal its name. And I recently purchased one without having known that. 


Challenging White Guy Privilege in Rock Music 

Rock-n-roll is supposed to be rebellious. It's supposed to upset the powerful and scramble the default settings. 

Rock band Living Colour, from their official Facebook pageYet I often find myself gravitating back to establishment defaults in my selection of music in the car and to accompany my morning runs. And those defaults in my case largely consist of the generally accepted white guys as the icons of rock. The concerts I've attended in arenas and theaters have been overwhelmingly put on by white guys, with an overwhelmingly white audience. 

When I get intentional about it I seek out music beyond the defaults, and I'm richly rewarded. My fondness for Living Colour goes back to my college days when they lit up MTV and then rocked my school gym. dUg Pinnick's soulful voice in the band King's X does things to me no other voice does in rock music. I sit in awe of H.E.R.'s songwriting/multi-instrumental gifts. Yet it sometimes takes that push, my thinking “I haven't listened to a Black or female artist in a few days. Let's work out that muscle today.” 

Jann Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone Magazine and founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recently inserted his foot in his mouth on the subject in an interview with the New York Times.  When asked about a list of only white men as “masters” he answered that the most accomplished Black and female artists didn't “articulate” well enough for his purposes. He jammed his foot so deeply in there that he managed to get himself dismissed from the board of directors of the Rock Hall that he had founded. My diverse, artsy hometown's Montclair Literary Festival also rightly canceled an event with Jann as a result of his deeply un-rock-n-roll statement. 

Aside from playing into well-worn racist and sexist tropes, Jann also missed a glorious opportunity to upset the apple cart in a much more useful way - the way rock-n-roll is supposed to do. Had he answered that the industry holds built-in advantages for white men to run the table in rock culture, which arose from Black musical traditions, and that even Jann, a powerful industry tastemaker himself, is not immune to those defaults, that could have been thought-provoking. 

Living Colour issued an official statement critical of Jann's gaffe and the larger problems beneath it.

A  Nuanced Conversation

Bruce Springsteen, one of Jann's “masters” from his book, and one of my strongest musical influences, held a nuanced conversation with former president Barack Obama in their “Renegades: Born in the USA" podcast in their episode on Race in the United States. They discussed the intersection of race and music as part of a larger discussion of race issues. Together they explored what it meant that the E Street Band was integrated and that a white guy was the frontman, a composition mirrored in my own band. They also held a meaningful conversation on American music in the same series. 

My Big Takeaway

Jann's revealing blunder revealed something about me as well - that I've consumed the same pop culture that advantages white men. MTV, which I consumed voraciously as a pre-teen, stuck to a diet of only White artists until CBS Records challenged their default. I would learn much later that the record label pushed MTV on the matter, withholding videos by Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel until MTV agreed to play Michael Jackson's ingenious videos. 

So for me to experience the broader, richer spectrum of rock (and related genre) artists, I need to go beyond the obvious defaults - my “go-to's” like Bruce, The Killers, Van Halen and The Foo Fighters. I cherish these artists and yet I can hold space in my playlists for more of the music of H.E.R., The Black Pumas, Alabama Shakes, Miss Jill Scott, the entire Clemons family and so many other artists who speak to me. 

One great resource to check out is the Black Rock Coalition, a group Living Colour strongly advocates for. Its Artists A-Z section is a goldmine of legendary artists and those who may not yet have crossed your radar. 

Some will dismiss my claim of white guy privilege or get angry at it. But let's get this straight. This is not about guilt or self-loathing. Not even a little. It's about getting mindful and expanding what we listen to beyond the defaults provided by the establishment. Now that's rock-n-roll.