Working as a sideman for singer songwriters for the past few years has taught me a lot about knowing my place. At the end of the day, an instrumental musician is there to support the frontman and try to stay out of the way as much as possible, but despite my servile position there are a couple things I’ve learned from staring at the backs of singer’s heads.
I’ve noticed three distinct types of leaders. The first and most prevalent is the Superman type. These are the singers who come on stage for the attention, thank the audience for coming out for them and generally do everything but rip open their shirt to show the “S” on their chest. After the set is over they never come out into the audience, instead they lurk backstage basking in their own glow. From the crowd this kind of attitude feels like more than self-indulgence, it feels like we’re being excluded from the show. If you’re on stage for your own sake why are we here?
The second type of frontman is much more aware of his audience. He comes out with the intention of pleasing the folks who came to the show and most of the time the audience leaves satisfied, having seen what they came to see. It’s like Kool and the Gang starting and ending the set with “Celebration”. God knows how many times they’ve played that tune, but every night they revive it so that they can give the audience a chance to clumsily grasp at the excitement of hearing their biggest hit live.
The third type is by far the most rare. These are a select few performers who come on stage in order to serve the music, and not anyone in the room. I can think of only a few people who managed to keep true to this philosophy with any longevity. Joe Strummer reached euphoria while attracting the bare minimum of attention to the people on stage. Bob Dylan did it so well that the audience often felt ignored. Bruce Springsteen spent the majority of his performing career redirecting attention from himself to something bigger. There’s nothing humble about it, just a certain clear-headedness about the reasons we perform and more importantly the reason we listen.
At their best these musicians we follow are heralds for something bigger. Every one of us, from the folks on stage to the guy checking ID’s at the door, is paying tribute to something they find more important than themselves. After all it’s like the prophet said: You gotta serve somebody.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org