The Vortis Diaries: The view from the other side

August 9, 2012

The point may seem obvious, but it’s one many people don’t think about, musicians included: When you’re onstage playing with a band, even though you’re an integral part of that gig and every one it does, you never actually see the group performing. And, as any fan of live music will tell you, video after the fact is not an adequate substitute.
 
Though I’ve been playing with them for a decade, I’ve only ever seen my band mates Tony and Louie Vortis and our second guitarist/bassist emeritus Chris in brief glimpses when I’ve glanced up from the drums and caught a narrow slice of the action moving between my cymbals—and it’s been a view of their backsides at that.

In mid-June, the band shared a killer bill at Quenchers with its pals Die Time and Like Like The The The Death. But the most memorable aspect of the night for our current trio was that for the first time since the call of doctoral studies claimed him from the cause of rock, our friend and former member Chris was in the audience.

Quite some time back, in the New York/New Jersey rock scene where I came up, I had a few experiences watching bands I’d been a part of later playing without me. As these diaries often have noted, making music together is one of the most intimate acts human beings experience; at its best, it’s a sort of shared telepathy. When that intimacy ends, the emotions can be… a little confusing, to say the least, and all the more so when you as watch your replacement playing songs with parts you developed, rehearsed, recorded and played live a hundred times with people who, until recently, you were ridiculously close to.

Think of watching someone you loved marry another partner, and how strange that might be even if the relationship cordially progressed from romance to friendship. Now think of how much weirder it would be if ending the romance hadn’t been your call, or if there’d been any measure of duplicity, awkwardness or ambivalence involved. You can’t go home again, we all know that, yet still the questions linger: What if I could have or should have? And: What if it was me up there with them? Should it be?

In other words, to cite an extreme scenario, imagine you’re Pete Best, with all the pride you can claim for having been the Beatles’ first drummer conflicting with all the regret from having missed the best part of the ride. Or, on the flip side, picture yourself as Bill Wyman, who enjoyed every second of the Stones’ greatness, but quit not long after the band became a never-ending parody of its once bad self. He got all the gold and glory, and he never embarrassed himself onstage—the best of all worlds.

I asked Chris Vortis what the change in perspective from being onstage to being in front of it had been like for him. “It might be different for the drummer,” the soon-to-be Ph.D wrote back. “I’ve often wondered what your vantage point is or what it is you look at, if anything: Just mentally wandering into some ‘sightless’ zone, I always assumed?” (Yep, pretty much.)

“When I came out, it wasn’t weird at all because we already have so much camaraderie both on and off the stage. And we so often broke the imaginary line between stage and pit-area that there were times that either I was in the audience or one of the other two were and I was looking at them. I think the biggest difference was the sound: I am so used to hearing/feeling it (the songs I knew) in a certain way—embedded in the wash of noise on stage that is generated from the amps, monitors, drums, etc.—that hearing it relatively ‘clean’ and mixed (however much Quenchers mixes things) was strange. Particularly the drums—not feeling your kick drum on my lower half, after being so used to it, made me feel slightly disembodied. Or ‘unanchored/unmoored’ is probably a better word for it.”

Much as I appreciate the praise of my mighty right foot, I’d venture to say that rudderless feeling had to do with more than just the bass drum, but then I’m with Dr. Freud in thinking that a cigar only rarely is just a cigar. In any event, I got to once again be the one watching a band mate from the other side last weekend, when I saw Tony Vortis perform in the very different setting of his new low-key side project.

Tony teaches high school English and partners for a course with a history teacher, examining particular eras from both perspectives. As part of their European studies segment, they began playing a few Medieval ballads in class. Diane is a classically trained singer who hasn’t had much chance to perform since career and children imposed, while Tony is one of those musical savants who never seems fulfilled unless he has a guitar in his hands and who, though he can’t read music and isn’t able to formally distinguish a C sharp diminish from an open E chord, can pick up and play almost any melody he hears.

The classroom exercise led to an acoustic duo that both educators embraced as a welcome outlet, covering punk-rock songs in the unlikely, reconfigured form of lovely acoustic ballads—the epitome of that classic, unexpected but wonderful mix of sweet and sour. Think of a postmodern hipster coffeehouse version of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.  In fact, when they recently were at a loss for a name before their second gig (after a promising premier at the Viaduct a few months back), it was the one I suggested that stuck: Some Velvet Evening.

As we overdosed on nearly nonstop coverage of the Olympics, interrupted only by local TV’s ceaseless Lollpalooza cheerleading, my wife and I decided to split town, spend the weekend in Milwaukee and catch Some Velvet Evening on Saturday night at Vortis’ favorite out-of-town dive, the Circle-A CafĂ©.

A local singer-songwriter named Anna Bee opened with a pleasant-enough, Jewel-like set of mostly solo-acoustic originals. “Having started playing the guitar a few years ago, she started writing songs to get the attention of a boy,” according to the bio on her Website. “The love between the two lasted a few weeks, but ended with heartache on Anna’s behalf. This didn’t stop her from writing songs.”

Indeed it did not: Nearly every song Bee played to a small but attentive crowd of her parents, her best friend and us visiting Chicagoans was about a fellow who’d done her wrong. Such is this case with many a young folkie, but the best soon branch out, and she shows promise of doing of that. (Get over it!)

Some Velvet Evening had no such problem with limited repertoire, ranging far and wide with an inspired choice of covers: Bad Religion’s “21st Century Digital Boy” to the Rev. Horton Heat’s “Liquor, Beer & Wine,” the Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd” to the Spits’ “School’s Out,” with nods to Leonard Cohen and Sinatra/Hazelwood en route. Which is not to say the twosome didn’t have a few growing pains of its own.

From my Vortis-centric perspective, the duo made two mistakes that I thought we drummed out of Tony Velvet long ago: talking too much between tunes (stage patter sucks) and playing too long (ditto; a leaky version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” simply was one song too many, and the freaking Titanic sunk in half the time it took for them to stumble through the tune).

 “We’re still getting our s--- together,” Tony said afterward by way of apology. But honest, Some Velvet Evening was much, much better than that: It provided one of the best nights of live music I’ve had this year. Sure, I got to see what my longtime band mate looks like from the front: He’s every bit as intense in a semi-plugged setting as he is when unleashing the Vortis onslaught, but the looser vibe allows more of the overwhelming joy he finds in making music to shine through. Yet that was only part of it.

As it would have if Tony hadn’t been involved at all, Diane Velvet’s gorgeous voice won me over. Who knew that lines like “I guess I let my health go/Since you quit bein’ mine/But there was nothing to replace you/’Cept liquor, beer and wine” could sound so delightfully seductive? Who cared who was strumming along behind her?

Yes, there were twinges of, “Hey, I should be up there with them—I could add conga or doumbek!” But they passed in a second as I remembered that conga and doumbek are two of the lamest instruments ever, and the sheer pleasure of watching someone you love do what they love to do was the prevailing emotion, with no jealousy or weirdness involved.

Then again, “Vortis will always be my main thing; this is just something that’s fun to do on the side,” Tony maintains. It might well be different if that wasn’t the case.

How did it feel for him, watching his drummer watch him from the other side of the room instead of at his back? Did playing with Some Velvet Evening feel at all like cheating on me or Louie Vortis?

 “You know, I thought about that, and I might have felt that way if what we were doing wasn’t so completely different than what Vortis does. As it is, I feel like I did when we’ve done those shows for your book release parties.” (Vortis members past and present have done a few gigs over the years with me and other musicians covering songs to celebrate the release of, say, my Flaming Lips biography or my history of psychedelic rock.) “Every time we did that, I felt like I was learning something by playing songs that Vortis never would play, and that I brought something new back to the band after doing it.”

And wouldn’t you know it? The new songs Vortis recently recorded and mixed at Wall to Wall Studios include one with (gasp!) an acoustic guitar.

THE VORTIS DIARIES

July 2, 2012: Fun in the sun

April 8, 2012: Rahm’s rehearsal space

Jan. 19, 2012: Ghosts of bands past

Sept. 12, 2011: Everything Falls Apart

July 27, 2011: Record Release Party

May 31, 2011: Rock 'n' roll rituals

Mar. 9, 2011: Stage patter sucks

Jan. 27, 2011: Finding catharsis at Cal’s

Dec. 15, 2010: An evening at Pancho’s, the new (and far superior) Ronny’s

Nov. 14, 2010: A trip to Milwaukee

Oct. 11, 2010: Dance Fever

Aug. 30, 2010: A road trip to Madison

July 26, 2010: A weekend at Wall to Wall

July 12, 2010: An evening with F*cked Up

June 21, 2010: Six hours at Ronny’s on a Saturday night