Nick Messitte

Writer / Composer / Lyricist / Engineer / Producer / Sound Designer / Multi-instrumentalist

A compendium of all things Nick Messitte

Celebrating Red Hook - A Review And A Video

There is an inherent contradiction in being both a musician and a music critic. It’s a similar position, I’d imagine, to that of certain Wall Street regulators--the more nefarious ones, the sort who used to operate inside (and sometimes beyond) the boundaries of Wall Street and are now charged with policing it: how could an objective review be even remotely possible given one's intrinsic connection to the industry?

Pushing that question to the limit is another series of interrogatives undoubtedly posed by other musician-cum-critics in the past:

“How do I go about reviewing myself? Is there a way to even do that with any objectivity whatsoever?

In point of fact, there probably isn’t.

But this will not stop me from trying, for I believe a detailed critique of the following performance will serve a much larger purpose—that of illustrating what was so beautiful and special about Celebrating Red Hook, an inaugural festival held last Saturday, July 12th, on the pier of Brooklyn’s quaintest neighborhood (It’s so quaint, I almost wrote “village”).

Here is a video of me covering Soundgarden’s “Spoonman.”

Now, let’s start with what’s wrong with this performance. The most obvious transgression is that the singer (me) has mangled the words: he opens with the second part of the verse first—an obvious lyrical mess-up—and frequently misplaces the location of key phrases in the chorus as well.

More problematically, I would label him a stiff stage-presence, far more obsessed with his own finger placement - or with cuing the band behind him - than with connecting to the audience.

Then there’s the band: loosely playing behind the singer, they are obviously not familiar with the song; “Spoonman”’s time signatures migrate between climates of 7/8 and 4/4, something the musicians do not account for here. At a certain point, you can see the singer completely abandon the notion of strumming his guitar in 7/8, opting for blend with the band over accuracy of material.

Lastly, you’ll notice that all the energy of the song peaks roughly 2:25 minutes in. Why, then, is there another minute of music—a full sixty seconds of nothing but chorus repetition and screaming? As a concert goer told me after the show, “[he] already impressed us with that one high note, why did [he] have to do it again?” (Full disclosure: the concert goer was my girlfriend, and since she's an in-demand Mezzo Soprano on the opera and lieder circuit, I believe her opinion to be a qualified one).

Yet it is my position as a music critic--not as a musician--which allows me overlook these obvious problems, to shrug them off, in much the same way as one shrugs off the admittedly corny dialogue of a sentimental favorite TV show: sure, it may not be the best and most polished version of what it could be, but something in this performance connects regardless. Something about it lands, for all its hiccups.

What is more, I believe this connective tissue—for lack of a better phrase—is the perfect metaphor in summing up Celebrating Red Hook’s inaugural event: a work in progress that was, nonetheless, a beauty to behold. 

Above, you’ve read what has to be the most distanced account I could muster of my own performance. Now, read the more personalized story behind it:

My job that day was to play fifteen minute sets every hour while the next band set up behind me. I was the entr’acte, a face and a voice to fill up dead time, to keep people milling around.

Now, here’s the thing about musicians: we’re an antsy bunch.

Example: if I’m playing drums in a band, and I’ve set up my gear before anyone else in the group--and, what's more, if there’s some dude playing songs right in front of me, songs that don't sound all that hard to accompany--well, that's a bit of a sticky situation; to quote Keema Greggs from The Wire, "If I hear the music, I'm gonna dance."

It’s going to be nearly impossible for me—indeed, for any musician—not to test the waters: I’m going to start marking a beat on the high hat, or hitting the kick drum in certain key places (such as I hear them), or finger-tapping something on the snare. In short, I'll do anything (within reason) to warrant the singer’s attention, to see if I get the nod or the fist—the tacit okay, or the cut-off gesture.

Now here’s another thing about musicians: the chemistry behind our union is a bit like love--or more accurately, like sex: you’re going to know pretty damn quickly if you’re feeling what you’re hearing, and if you’re comfortable with the idea of allowing it to happen, of sharing in it together, of ceding control of the “I” and the “You” in order to become the “We” and the “Us.”

So when the drummer behind me started marking time at the beginning of my set, I knew very quickly that I dug his style, so much so that I turned around and said “play more.”

By the beginning of "Spoonman" (the second song in this particular set), we had already played one impromptu tune together, and now a bass player had materialized to my right; he too had found himself warmed up and ready to go. 

So what did he do? He tested his waters also: he took note of the song's key (D), understood its basic two chord structure (two chords in the broadest possible sense: it's possible for a good bass player to pedal one low D over that entire descending figure in 7/8), and he started to mark his way through the tune.

Which brings us to the snag: the competing time signatures. While these musicians had never heard the song, I couldn’t very well stop the tune to turn around and say, “no guys, this number is 7/8 for the verses--with fermatas held out in between each phrase--and then we switch to 4/4 to for the choruses, which just so happen to end in 7/8 again."

No. That wouldn’t do. To quote Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, "This [was] no rehearsal." 

Instead, we had to feel each other out, and this accounted for the weird rub in moments where I’m playing one groove and the band inhabits another—moments that are innately messy, yet are overcome fairly quickly as well. 

And that, right there, is my point: what you do see in this performance are a couple of talented musicians figuring out, in the spur of the moment, how to back up a singer whom they’ve never even met; by the end of the endeavor, music was made—good music, I’d wager to say.

This too accounts for why the tune went on longer than it needed to: the end of the song wasn’t for the audience, it was for us; we had found the groove we wanted—the groove we needed—and we found it necessary to stay firmly within its pocket for a little while longer. 

Similarly, the festival itself did not need to go on from 12 to 8pm in the baking sun. But still, people stuck around for the vibe--the warm, embracing mojo of the whole event, complemented by a final barrage of fireworks sending us off into the night. 

So here's the corollary between the microcosm of this performance and the event as a whole: This was the festival’s first year. It was pulled off in a scrappy, run-and-gun style. Many were the times I was pulled aside and asked to perform an ad-hoc ten minute set in order to accommodate time suddenly allotted for a local Politician's speech, for instance.

Another example of the festival's make-shifting: port-o-potties had not been set up for general use, so those in need of the bathroom had to hike it all the way to Ikea only to get lost forever within its cumbersome maze (my father, a child of the second World War, likened the superstore to a “consumer concentration camp” after going around and around the floors, trying to find the exit, and missing one of my sets in the process).

Yet despite any cosmetic issues, beautiful music was forged there—and by that I don’t just mean literally: deeply personal relationships were established between members of the community and outsiders; family-owned businesses attracted an otherwise remote clientele; Ikea and Fairway seemed to team up with the mom-and-pop shops, rather than compete with them--this is the music of which I speak.

Undoubtedly, next year’s festival will be more put-together, more organized, because the experience of running a festival is, by its nature, a cumulative learning process. But part of me is going to miss the frenetic energy, the messy conglomeration of life, that made the day what it was—that gave every musician the safety and freedom to hop on stage, not to show off, but to help each other out. I surely hope they preserve some of that ethos.

Red Hook being what is is, I suspect they will.