Dave Grohl’s “Sonic Highways” series on HBO seems to have split the crowd down the middle, at least on the local level. It’s an ambitious undertaking Grohl and his fellow members of the Foo Fighters have undertaken, one in which the multiplatinum arena rock band attempts to reclaim its initial position as a collective of indie-rock musicians who came from the underground, and are eager to celebrate underground scenes that mirror their own experience, in various cities around the country. They do so by visiting them, digging into them and shining a spotlight on the various idiosyncrasies that make them special, if not downright unique.
It’s all a feel-good experience, and surely “Sonic Highways” has offered folks who don’t spend their lives in the music industry’s various trenches a bit of insight into what it’s actually like to play music simply because you feel that doing so is what you’ve been called to do, whether you’re making 500K a gig, or 50 bucks and a few half-price beers.
So why would anyone have a problem with any of this? Much of the collective smirking and rolling of the eyes in the “Sonic Highways’” direction comes, naturally, from musicians. Many of them seem to see Grohl as a musical tourist to begin with – though the Foo Fighters have eclipsed the lifespan of Grohl’s former band, Nirvana, several times over, there is the sense amongst members of Buffalo’s independent music scene that the band has done so by sanding away all of the rough edges of the alt-punk-noise rock that made Nirvana significant.
I’ll avoid naming names here, but several prominent area independent musicians have suggested that, even though “Sonic Highways” is in general pretty cool, there’s something about it all that feels a bit, to borrow a phrase from one such musician, “cheesy.” Generally, this reaction can be whittled down to an aversion to what I’ll call the “massive fan blowing the rock star’s hair back” moments.
If you’ve every suffered through the bombast of big-budget rock, pop, country or hip-hop videos, you know what I’m talking about – that bit where the star’s hair blows back perfectly, perhaps the the drummer’s hits his snare and water explodes off the skin, and the whole thing is filmed in slow-mo. The band appears to be marching off to Valhalla, when in fact its members are probably miming to their own tune on a sound stage somewhere in Los Angeles.
“Sonic Highways” never quite stoops to these levels, but at the end of each episode, when the Foo Fighters perform the tune they’ve written that is supposed to encapsulate the specific city they’ve visited in this episode, one is justified for scratching one’s head and wondering just exactly where the influence of, say, a New Orleans or a Chicago is in the Foo’s well-written and exuberantly performed stadium alt-rock meant to represent said city’s influence. Grohl is a tireless advocate for the awesomeness of rock, and various other forms of music, too. But the final moments of each “Sonic Highways” episode do come off as a tad bit narcissistic, or so some members of the Buffalo music community have suggested, via social media.
Me? I get where they’re coming from. But I like the guy. And I’m glad “Sonic Highways” exists. That said, I’d like to invite Grohl to come to Buffalo and shine a little light on our deserving music scene. Maybe he could prove his naysayers wrong.
[A dark, beautiful strain of magic]
If Grohl ever does make it to Buffalo, the first person he should talk to is Bill Nehill. Through his many projects over the years – including with the Magi Chippie, as Tracy Morrow, with Barrel Harbor, simply beneath his own name, and with his latest endeavor, T.M.M.C. – Nehill has provided the most consistently authentic voice of the Buffalo indie scene.
He’s done so with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness, and a lyricist’s pen able to suggest hints of Bukowski, Lou Reed and Bob Pollard without ever aping any of them. Nehill simply tells his story, and because of who he is – an astute observer who has cast his glance toward most of the happenings in the indie world over the past 20 years or so , whether from the stage, behind the bar at Mohawk Place, or chin-deep in the stacks of music at the much-missed New World Record – that story ends up being one an awful lot of us recognize.
T.M.M.C. is a bit of a Buffalo indie-rock supergroup, featuring members of the Irving Klaws, Odiorne and the Magi Chippie, among others. The band has released a single, “Too Many Eyes In the Crowd,” which was tracked with the help of producer (and fabled Buffalo guitarist/songwriter) Matt Smith at Hi-Lo Studios.
Nehill, guitarist Dave Guitierrez, drummer Bob Hanley, keyboardist Ed Hallborg, and bassist Tom Dagonese craft an effortless brand of musical realism, marrying alt-country tropes to a folk-rock chord progression, with Nehill’s narrative taking us through a Sunday morning’s reflections on a Saturday night’s activities.
It’s dark, it’s beautiful, and it’s totally Buffalo. Check them out on Soundcloud, or through Facebook. For a through, and aesthetically impressive overview of Nehill’s work, go to http://billnehill.bandcamp.com.
-- Mark Norris, one of the finest songwriters in the indie and power-pop idioms in our city’s history, has made a couple of classic records of his own over the years. Girlpope’s “Cheeses of Nazareth” and “The Whole Scene Going,” and “Songs of Guilt & Revenge” with the Backpeddlers are all records I still listen to regularly, and I know I’m not alone. It stands to reason, then, that when Norris picks his “favorite Xmas record,” as he recently did on Facebook, we might take note.
His pick? “The Ventures Christmas Album.” Nice. I’ll see Norris his Ventures, and raise him one “James Brown’s Funky Christmas.”
-- Recent themes that have emerged during my weekly live chats over the past few weeks: People in indie bands complaining about cover bands. People in cover bands complaining about indie bands. Classic rock lovers dissing alternative rock fans. Alternative rock fans making fun of Bob Seger, who plays First Niagara Center this week. Bob Seger fans wondering what happened to that old time rock 'n’ roll. People who hate jam bands. People who love jam bands. Readers who love free streaming sites. Readers who believe that free streaming sites have destroyed an artist’s ability to make a decent living.
Hmmm. Can’t we all just get along?