Putting the Devil in the Room

The first level a musician goes through is learning to play well. How do I execute this passage? I place this finger here and this finger here. If I practice enough I’ll learn to do it really fast and everyone will be amazed how quickly and accurately I can place my fingers. It’s a narrow focus, all on one’s self. Every musician knows this phase. Some people become expert at it but may play their whole lives and never grow any further.

The next level is widening the focus to include the other musicians on stage, to play parts together that add up to something larger: a song, a jam, a sound. In Delta Moon, Mark and I like to say that the key to playing double slide solos is to pay more attention to the other guy than you do to yourself. When it works we don’t know where the music is coming from. Easy to say, but sometimes we slip. If one guy gets inspired and starts to wail, that’s okay. Then it’s the other’s job to hear it and make some space. But if both guys close their ears and take off, the magic disappears. It sounds like a cat fight.

There is a third level: throwing the focus wide open and engaging with the audience. In every live show there is energy flowing both ways, on and off the stage. A good entertainer taps into that energy and takes it somewhere. I had an epiphany a few years ago when Colonel Bruce Hampton told me about the time he, as a teenager, met Muddy Waters.

Hampton said, “Mr. Waters, you’re my favorite singer.”

Muddy Waters didn’t say anything. Hampton said, “You’re my favorite guitar player, too.”

Muddy Waters said, “I’m not a singer. I’m not a guitar player. What I do is put the devil in the room.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be the devil. (I’m as big a fan of the Staple Singers as of AC/DC.) We each choose the spirit we want to put in the room, on stage or off. And we do it all the time. The key is to be aware.

(Photo by Joerg Neuner.)

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