When it comes to contemporary music, I like major headline performers as much as the next person, and accordingly I have spent my share of evenings at Roseland, the Nassau Coliseum, and Madison Square Garden. More often, though, I like cozier venues and lesser known acts.
Kurt Vonnegut once said that the globalization of modern media has been a little hard on the majority of creative folks. Thousands of years ago, in the typical ancestral village of 150 people, he observed, the best artist was regarded as a Picasso, the best tenor as a Caruso, the best dancer as a Pavlova, and so on. With urbanization later in antiquity, the competition among poets, musicians, painters, philosophers and the like stiffened but remained pretty lean. Even in such a major cultural center as ancient Athens, which attracted talented people from all over the Mediterranean, while it was very hard for an artist to rise to the status of Number One, it wasn’t so very hard to be a respectable Number Ten. The populations of preindustrial cities simply were not large enough to have many more than ten outstanding performers at anything: fifth century BC Athens – big by ancient standards – was about the size of Fargo, North Dakota. (This makes the Classical artistic achievements all the more remarkable, it must be said.)
In the modern world, all this has changed. Today, any new artist of any type is judged (and self-judged) against world champions, all of whom are readily available on demand on electronic audio and video. In most small towns and suburbs, the most prominent local musician most likely plays in a corner bar, if in public at all, and few even of the patrons know his or her name.
Nevertheless, a lot of the lesser-knowns are very good, and seeing them in smallish venues is closer to the ancient (or primordial village) experience. Their concerts are frequently more satisfying on that level than are big blow-out stadium affairs, and it is always easier to get out of the parking lot afterward.
Fortunately, one friend of mine (hi, Ken) is a lot more social and club-oriented than I am, He frequently seeks out live music multiple times per week, and often gives me a heads-up when some local event is especially worth attending. When I’m not in grumpy/solitary mode, I sometimes go. Yesterday he recommended a show presented by The Folk Project at the Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown: the show was an opening act of songwriter/performer Anthony DaCosta followed by the main act Dala (the duo Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine). Although yesterday, the 11th, in addition to being Veterans Day was Metal Day (as in “these go to 11”), not Folk Day, I went. I’m glad I did.
Identifying Dala (from AmanDA SheiLA) as “lesser-known” is not entirely accurate. They are fairly well known in their native Canada and they’ve attended folk festivals in the US for years, but it is fair to say that most folks in this country haven’t ever heard of them. It is worth hearing of them and hearing them, preferably in a smallish venue while that is still possible. They play and sing mostly their own material, but mix in a few covers (Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, for one). They are charming, clever, and talented. If you are open to easy-going contemporary folk, give them a try. If not, I urge setting aside the digital media for an evening and attending in person the live performance of some other lesser known. Getting in touch with one’s primordial village side is refreshing.
Global media have effects beyond elevating world champions to a fame that overwhelms local talent, of course. They also allow for the rise of stars (as on "reality" shows) who are famous for no other reason than being famous – but that is a subject for another blog.