Last Thursday, my roommate and I went to Union Hall, the Park Slope bar home to fireplaces and bocce ball courts, to see a band we’ve never heard of before. My expectations were friendly but low; I was exhausted and thinking maybe I’d leave early. There were about fifteen people waiting in the basement room while the band tuned up, equally low-key, sipping Six Point and Checker Cab. The band did a quick group circle-jump; a tall man with glasses mumbled a chipper introduction. And then a wiry, pop-eyed guitarist in a buffalo-plaid shirt kicked one denim leg over his head and blasted into a heart-of-rock-and-roll song tapped straight from the oak-barrel of Americana classic, the kind of song you think you’ve always known the lyrics to. The drummer was shaking my bones toward a new infrastructure. I wasn’t tired any more.
Jason Anderson and the 57th Street Band played their second show together that night, and their showy, soulful set was the first concert I’ve been to in a long time that left me exhilarated. In large part, this was thanks to Anderson, whose electric presence encourages hoarse singalongs and vehement clapping–two surefire signs of any good show in my book. He’s playing a role, and laying it on pretty thick with whispered tales of his Uncle Willy’s crazy love (an unloaded gun tucked into the waist of his uncle’s jeans as he lies in the bushes and contemplates his wife’s cheating heart). Still, what Anderson most wants is for the audience to have a good time. Throughout the concert, he played a unilateral game of Simon Says, urging the crowd a few steps forward until he’d credibly recreated the feel of a room full of wall-to-wall sweaty, cheering fans–unless you happened to glance behind you and see that the adoring mob went just three rows back. Then too, there was the rest of the band: a pianist who bore Anderson’s antics with wide-eyed bemusement, an eager bassist, and a kickass drummer who sang along, mic-less, with the songs as loudly as he could. I lost time at that concert; I couldn’t stop smiling. But I also suspect that the band, on CD, might sound unremarkable. Their live energy is their lifeblood; the music itself may not be rubbing down sunsets with panda bears on the blogosphere anytime soon.
Which makes me wonder: how much does innovation matter, anyway? Does it have to matter all of the time? Lately I’ve been thinking that, for me, a big part of settling into adulthood is accepting the ordinary. If the music I love or the clothing I wear or the thoughts I think are unoriginal, maybe it’s a relief after all; once it’s established that I’m unoriginal, there’s more space to move around in. The anthemic, expansive, everyday-jeans songs by Jason Anderson and the 57th Street band, which sound like a great many things we’ve all heard before, are exactly as good as the audience chooses to believe they are.
“This is your night!” Anderson shouted halfway through the show last week, looking like a lumberjack’s crack-addled kid brother after ninety-five pixie sticks. Sweat poured off his face, a convergence of the world’s ten greatest rivers. “This is serious now. This could be the best Thursday night of your month.” He was right.