by Susan Kepecs
I went to Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Freethinkers at the Cardinal Bar late last Tuesday afternoon. This year’s incarnation of said event began on Recall night, but this was the first chance I’d had to get down there. Just in case the news hasn’t reached you, the Salon runs every Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30 from now through August. Our world-famous homey’s joined by two more red hot Mad City musicos, both longtime collaborators who grew up playing music with Sidran’s similarly talented son, Leo – of course I’m talkin’ about Nick Moran on bass and Louka Patenaude on guitar. Rounding out the sound is versatile percussionist Todd Hammes. He’s new in town; I don’t know much about him, but a quick Internet search shows he’s been getting around.
On Tuesday fourteen new Sidran-penned tunes made their debut. They're for an album he’s recording in New York next month, a Leo Sidran production. The songs, though still in workshop stage, swung smooth as silk. Sidran can jazzify Bob Dylan, rock Jewish liturgical music, and serve up sustained spoken word music history lessons while tickling the ivories. But Tuesday’s two sets were classic, no frills – just those trademark conversational vocals over straight-up blues / boogie / bebop piano. Moran’s commanding standup bass and Patenaude’s inimitably inventive guitar licks synched seamlessly with Sidran’s style. I found it impossible not to dance, though I did my little jitterbugs in the hallways since the Cardinal’s lovely dance floor was totally taken up with tables.
“I’m unabashedly going back to simple,” Sidran said when the band broke between sets. “I’ve made 30 records. I don’t care how hip this one is. I’m going for a haunted sound. Miles’ Kind of Blue is haunted – you can memorize it, hear every note in your head. Same with Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” What I’m after is authenticity – that’s what’s gonna survive. The simplest chord progressions. Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” – that chord progression’s 300 years old. That’s why that new song sounded so familiar. Brand new music, same old song. What could possibly go wrong?"
That last line’s not just a rhetorical question, it’s a lyric – and maybe the title of the forthcoming album, too. It goes with a jivey, uptempo tune that riffs on sentiments straight out of the blues: “Hey, how’s that new car workin’ out for you? How’s that new job workin’ out for you?”
But the simplicity’s deceptive. “Harmonically, what I’m playing isn’t much more sophisticated than Jimmy Reed’s basic chord progressions, but there are moments in the solos that are like stepping into an empty elevator shaft,” Sidran said. “It’s the sly, ‘60s way of blues and bebop. Mose and Monk did it. Brand new music, same old song. The lyrics are familiar, but they’ve got a very contemporary feel. ‘How’s that new job workin’ out for you?’ We’ve been here before. People are panicked. These are tough times. But you know, the way we win is by feelin’ good.”
What feels good, Sidran contends, is clapping on the backbeat. And that’s what the last song of the second set was all about.
"There are people today who want us to be afraid,” he says into the mike, rocking out a blues on the keys. “The world is coming to an end. Tell you what – if it is coming to an end, the appropriate response is to clap on 2 and 4! That’s right! Rhythm!”
He tosses some Monkish, dissonant chords into the groove, then picks up where he left off with this improvised spoken word song that’s aimed smack dab at the still a little down-at-the-mouth, post-Recall audience: “I don’t know why, but I’m thinkin’ about Tommy Thompson right now. This man is tired – but he’s out there fightin’. Why? Cuz the spirit don’t die! I’m thinkin’ about Russ Feingold – he gave us 30 years, he got himself a girlfriend, he’s gone. It’s not forever – it’s about now! Let’s say a meteor falls on the Cardinal Bar – what’s the appropriate response?”
The people put their palms together and yell back “Clap on 2 and 4!”
Say yeah. See you there next week?