In this story, it’s not a magical key to the hitchhiking universe; it’s the maximum number of people in attendance at last Tuesday night’s Virgil Donati concert at Murray Hill Theatre. More people showed up for my wedding, and my wedding was tiny. (Those 42 included the seven musicians who comprised the two opening bands, so paid attendance was more like 35.)
A little background is needed to understand why the low attendance at this particular concert is an issue. Australian-born Donati is one of the world’s most technically advanced drummers, a composer and performer who has worked with Allan Holdsworth, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Scott Henderson, Branford Marsalis and others. With his own bands, he has pushed the boundaries of metal fusion and progressive rock. If that wasn’t enough to secure himself a limited audience, he’s one of a handful of drummers who has mastered four-way polyrhythmic interdependence, or the ability to play a separate rhythm and/or time signature with each limb, independent of the others.
But even with the reduced appeal that comes with all of this musical baggage, Donati has earned a legion of fans — musicians and non-musicians alike — who subscribe to his website, purchase his merchandise and attend his concerts. Among drummers in the know, he ranks as one of the greatest technicians alive.
And most of you are still mumbling, “Who gives a flying crap?”
For context, a year ago, The Aristocrats — Bryan Beller on bass, Guthrie Govan on guitar and another master of the traps, Marco Minnemann, on drums — played at 1904 Music Hall in Downtown Jacksonville. The band, which would fit easily on a bill with Donati, brought in 150-plus. Not long after The Aristocrats’ performance, Terry Bozzio, possibly the most respected and revered of all the drumming overlords, brought another 150 to a clinic I helped secure and promote at a local music store. So what happened last week?
In a Facebook thread, where I took to task my expansive groups of “friends” for not attending the Donati show, several people offered explanations — some reasonable, some not — for the low numbers. Most put the blame on Tuesday night, though both The Aristocrats and Bozzio shows were held on weeknights. Others blamed the venue, as Murray Hill Theatre is a Christian-owned business that caters largely to religious functions and concerts (very hip concerts, but religious nonetheless). Even as an outspoken atheist, I can’t imagine why this would prevent anyone from attending. The people at Murray Hill are always cordial, regardless of one’s religious inclination. Not going because it’s a religious establishment is an imbecilic excuse.
Some claimed there was poor promotion, though there were posters hung in every major music store in town, online Facebook ads and shares, mailing list spam and plenty of word-of-mouth. And for anyone into underground or obscure music or art, it’s a given that you have to actively seek out shows like this. You can’t expect someone to trot door-to-door making sure you are up on all the odd local haps. Get off your lazy ass and do some research.
A couple of my friends said they just didn’t like Virgil Donati. Fair enough. But there is a larger purpose here. In order to keep these types of acts coming to town, we need to support them. Young drummers unfamiliar with Donati could have learned volumes just by watching him play, whether or not they understood or even liked him. Jaded older drummers, or even purists, could have made a statement by purchasing a ticket, with the hope that drummers and other musicians would support another act they enjoyed, if and when the opportunity arose. Fact is, Jacksonville is not a destination for musicians. It’s a stopover for entertainers who need gas and lodging on the way to Orlando, Miami and Atlanta. We have to make it worthwhile for real acts to come and perform here.
It’s no secret that the Jacksonville Jazz Festival has been lackluster for years. The best musicians on the bill play at 4 in the afternoon, hours before the headline spots, and even those artists are few and far between. Independent promoters have been staging their own underground jazz events with local talent, as a piggyback to the staid and conservative Main Stage acts. But on the whole, consumers of national and international avant garde, progressive rock and jazz, and lesser-known artists of all stripes — well, we’re out of luck.
Unless, of course, we do it ourselves. And that requires connections, vigilance, sacrifice and support. From all of us.