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Randy Lewis

A Critic Finds Himself on Stage, Savoring the Joys of Sax

December 27, 1987|Randy Lewis

Any performer who has ever been panned by a critic has probably dredged up the old saying, "Those who can, do; those who can't, review."

We critics, who work every bit as hard as those artists to think up all the nasty things we write, frequently hear the challenge: "If you're so great, let's see you try to do better."

So I did. I cast off my Dr. Jekyll cape of critical respectability to become a rock 'n' roll Mr. Hyde.

The occasion was a holiday benefit concert last Sunday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, where a dozen or so local bands played for free to collect food, presents and money for several needy Orange County families.

The only other "public" performances given by the Beat Pests, our ragtag band of two critics, two part-time musicians and a mobile disc jockey, were some holiday concerts at Fairview State Hospital in Costa Mesa, where we played to exceptionally enthusiastic but decidedly non-critical audiences.

The Coach House benefit carried considerably more tension because people we actually knew were there--even more so for me, on saxophones, and guitarist Jim Washburn, who is also a rock critic, because we have reviewed or otherwise written about most of the musicians on the bill.

It would be their chance to Skewer the Reviewers.

The first of many surprises was the audience itself. We had one.

Historically, county rock benefits for worthy causes have drawn poorly, but instead of staring out at a handful of ego-reassuring friends, we faced a couple of hundred people when we went on as the opening act.

Even when reviewing concerts, I've recognized the thankless task every opening act has: mainly, not be so awful that customers start lighting torches and storming the club owner's office uttering monosyllabic requests for refunds.

I was nervous, remembering that perfectly wonderful performers like Los Lobos and Joe Ely have been booed off stage simply for being put in front of the wrong crowd. And Los Lobos might even be better than us.

So other musicians must have loved the cosmic justice in a band with two critics opening this show--and for about 11 other bands at that.

Another rude awakening was looking straight down when we took the stage to see a woman in the front row wearing an expression like someone in her third hour at a Mark C. Bloome, waiting for her tires to be rotated.

I immediately recognized that familiar look as one I've worn at countless bad concerts. I made a mental note never to wear that expression in the front row, newly realizing that it might just trigger some incensed musician's fantasy of stuffing a human being through the bell of a tenor saxophone.

We began our 30-minute bid for rock 'n' roll immortality with a modest, solo keyboard rendition of "Jingle Bells" that segued into our Springsteenian treatment of "We Three Kings of Orient Are." (Hey, what other kind of treatment would you expect from a couple of rock critics?)

Next came our swing version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." I fleetingly wondered if any insensitive critic might be so rude as to refer to my solo--a homage to the sax solo in the Chords' "Sh-Boom"--as stealing .

That was followed by our fairly straight rendition of James Brown's "Think," also an important song for the sax player and one that brought another surprise--I heard fancy licks coming out of my horn that I couldn't explain. (True, I haven't heard tapes of the show, and I'm sure I'll retain a fonder memory of my performance if I don't.)

At the time, I figured this must be the inspiration of the moment, the adrenaline rush of "performance."

I also hit more than a few bad notes. Not enough sax in the sound monitors--yeah, that's the ticket.

But that was precisely my point in deciding to play. I've always thought it would be easy to get up on a stage when you're great and you know it--as easy as it must seem to musicians for a critic to sit safely enshrouded in darkness while surreptitiously scribbling invectives on a note pad. ("Hopelessly derivative . . . Excedrin Headache No. 365 . . . Bernhard Goetz had the right idea.")

What takes guts is going up there when you're mediocre and you know it. Trouble is, the critic in me would say, too many people get on a stage who are mediocre but just think they're great.

Yet, there were no catcalls, no shouts of "Next!" while we played. The only insult was being told, with two songs left on our meticulously crafted, exquisitely paced song list, that we were out of time.

"What about musical continuity?" I screamed. "What about artistic flow?" Those lofty ideals don't stand a chance against the magic words, "Time's up."

We still squeezed in our rousing finale, an original called "I'm a Christmas Tree" (which includes the immortal lyric "I'm a Christmas cheese log/Better feed me to your dog") before hustling off stage to what my ears took to be an ovation of Woodstockian proportions.

Our friends congratulated us; even musicians we knew only professionally had nice things to say. Maybe it was because they actually enjoyed our set; maybe it was because they astutely recognized that I'm still a critic, so they didn't want to be too honest.

The musician in me wanted to wallow in the praise.

The critic in me responded that our set lacked polish, displayed little social relevance, musical innovation or artistic vision and suffered in several spots--primarily the sax section--from amateurish technique.

To which the musician in me shot back: "If you're so great, let's see you try to do better."

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