Monday, August 4, 2014

Joan Jett - America's River Fest June 14th, 2014

Within the fabric of modern music it is easy to pick out female artists that have left an indelible mark upon the threads of that fabric.  The tapestry of music that has formed using that fabric is massive.  It is beautiful and and resilient but despite that, the fabric has flaws.  Inside that tapestry can be found the threads made up by women in jazz, R&B, popular music, soul, gospel and the blues.  Although those threads have solidified the fabric with its sheer volume it can be said that the earliest threads of rock music are as fine as spider web.  Huh?

The list of important women in the modern era of music is filled with wonderful performers that were intelligent, successful, driven, political and activists.  During that time performers like Carole King, Joan Baez, and Etta James were instrumental in making music that had feeling, it had teeth.  While the world encountered female musicians and acts such as Diana Ross and The Supremes made great music it lacked the darker, more powerful spirit of Carole King.  King and Baez were enigmas in the sense that their appeal was within a spectrum of "rock music" that was typically NOT rock.

The music Baez created had an edge at times but not the edge reserved to rock musicians while she would be considered folk music artist.  King too would get a similar label as Baez but she would also be considered a pioneer within "soft rock."  King is simply brilliant as a songwriter, musician and performer but she really can't be added into the world of "rock."  That's a conundrum really because despite her brilliance her immediate impact isn't visible in rock music.

As music progressed in the late '60's, and early '70's female musicians unfortunately were still not big on the "rock scene."  Thinking back on that time frame and the impact women had upon music it would be quite easy to discount them by simply insinuating that they created good "pop music" or that they were in a band with men in a rock band and that would simply be untrue.  The '70's did begin to see female acts such as "Heart", "Tina Turner", and "Pat Benatar" start to flood the airways with music that in many respects was much better than many of their male contemporaries.  But while many female musicians faced the misogyny and sexism of rock music there was one genre that was ready for them: Punk music.

Punk music is known as a non-conforming, kiss my ass kind of music that was always 180 degrees from the norm.  With little regard for what anyone had to say about them many punk acts became as influential as any other acts of the time.  Consider Debbie Harry for a moment.  Debbie Harry was a Playboy bunny, she was the member of a folk band "The Wind in the Willows" and by 1975 she became an influence to numerous "new wave" and "punk rock" bands.  I would dare to say that she opened more doors for female rock performers than just about anyone else.

When Sandy West was given the telephone number of a rhythm guitar player Joan Jett, by record producer Kim Fowley in 1975 things began to change for rock music.  What came out of that telephone number exchange was a hard rock band called "The Runaways."  By 1976 the band was signed to their first record deal and although they did have some success they had suffered the fate of many bands and broke up.  The Runaways didn't just fade away into relative obscurity in the bowels of rock history, instead several of the members stayed successful in music.  Of those members were Micki Steele (bass player for "The Bangles"), Lita Ford (solo performer), and Joan Jett.

I was 13 years old when Jett hit the scene with her first hit "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" (originally released by the band "Arrows"), and I remember my uncle Jeff playing it over and over.  It was an interesting song, it had this driving guitar and a violence to it that musicians today should feel.  Success in anything is easily defined by numbers and when you look at that song and the album it was released on (also titled "I Love Rock and Roll") its easy to gauge its success.  The song, which initially was recorded and released on Jett's first, self-titled album, spent seven weeks at number-one on the US Bilboard Hot 100 and the single then went onto "platinum" status with over 2 million units shipped.  While Jett made in roads into hard rock with the her "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" album with songs like "Crimson and Clover" (a Tommy James and The Shondells classic), "Bits and Pieces" (The Dave Clark Five) and the all-time Christmas classic "Little Drummer Boy" she wasn't far from her "Punk roots."

With the release of Jett's self-titled first album, we were introduced to what can only be described as a punk song, "Bad Reputation."  Bad Reputation serves notice to the detractors that she could really care less what she is thought of, and in many ways that in and of itself is punk rock.  Add to Jett's punk roots is the fact that when the song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll"was originally recorded and released with her first solo album two members of the "Sex Pistols", Steve Jones and Paul Cook performed on the album.  Jett has shown throughout her body of work that she has that fire in her eyes, snarl on her lip, and disdain for her detractors that only exists in a punk rocker.

On June 14th, 2014 I attended "America's River Fest" in Dubuque, Iowa to what could only be considered a curious lineup.  On the bill that evening was the band "Gin Blossoms," "Kevin Costner & Modern West" and "Joan Jett and The Blackhearts."  While the lineup was a head-scratcher at first excellent performances by both bands made the anticipation of Jett's appearance almost unbearable for some.  Okay for most.  Most likely for everyone.

I take notes incessantly while I wait for performances and one of the things I scribbled was the distance of the preceding bands and their drum risers and the proximity of the bands to the crowd.  Anyone that has seen more than a couple of acts in a night knows the procedure to breakdown each bands setup following the completion of their sets and the adjustments to the setup of the next band.  I made notice to how far the drum riser from the front of the stage the Gin Blossoms was and as the teardown / setup was taking place, the riser for Costner & Modern West seemed so far back.  I assumed that the drum riser would be moved closer to the edge of the stage but it remained static and didn't move an inch.  There was so much room between the front of the stage and the drum riser that I really expected a dance number or perhaps some live scenes from Costner movies to fill that void.  When Jett came on stage I expected that void to actually get larger but I was a little off, that riser got closer, much, MUCH closer.

I found something quite intriguing and something that I don't think 99% of the crowd realized was that Jett actually came onto the stage before the set started and did a little tuning of her guitar.  For many it appeared that they hadn't a clue as to who this black leather clad dynamo was but when she started playing that changed.  With the speed reminiscent of Dee Dee Ramone yelling "1 2 3 4" Jett came out with a blistering pace hitting the screaming audience in the face with "Bad Reputation."  While the energy that Jett and her band had was incredible, the crowd was animated and as crazy to a factor of 100 greater than them.

Jett and her crazed fans
© - 2014
With little prompting the entire crowd seemingly knew every song Jett performed.  That's a tall order as Jett broke out music from nearly every release, including music from "The Runaways" and a couple of those remakes from the second album.  I looked back at the crowd when Jett broke into the song "Cherry Bomb" and I was astounded by watching literally everyone sing the song along and back to Jett.

Its an amazing dynamic when you realize that you aren't hearing just the performer sing the music but you realize that indeed those are the voices behind you, beside you and in your own head.  Its a rarity for me to say that I am ever hoarse following a show, I try to absorb the surroundings, the reactions and the subtleties around the stage and crowd but I was more than a little hoarse.  That is exactly what makes Jett the ideal punk rocker and her fans being as rabid as they are.  That very first self-titled album houses the song "Bad Reputation" and with it that simple line "I don't give a damn about my reputation."

Earlier when I mentioned "Bad Reputation" I described it as a punk song and that's a pretty fair assumption and although not everyone at America's River Fest wasn't a punk rocker, or even knew Jett's qualifications as a punk rocker, that evening the entire crowd was.  Despite the fact that many of the audience members were merely there to have a good time they were there doing more than just that.  Its an eye opening experience when you know that all of these people, many of them reserved professionals, teachers, guidance counselors and bankers didn't care.  They were there to have fun and much like myself the reserved behavior went by the wayside.  The fact that so many people sang their hearts out, they screamed, danced, and drank to their hearts content was proof that like Jett, her fans don't care about their "bad reputations."

Joan Jett was more than I ever expected.  I knew I was going to be blown away by her, but I had no idea I would be blown away by her fans too.  I have made myself a promise that I will once again see Jett live and I will bring the same crazy people with me.  Make sure you see her live and for one night become a no-care-in-the-world punk.

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