On Spontaneity

I find my way to a local craft brewery for a gig, pedalling through Thursday’s somnolent summer sunshine down Victoria Rd, then along the Yarra River bike path. I overtake handfuls of people: the elderly couples walking their dogs, the active-wear clad mothers with prams with who walk side by side and pull off the path as I ding ding behind them, the group of teenagers who ride BMX bikes along the side of river, hopping between stones underneath the bridge at Dights Falls. Each group is left behind as I speed past, top gear enhanced by the gentle downwards slope from Northcote towards the city.

I pull up to Bodriggy, find a way to attach my bike to the fencing that lines Johnston St. My D-lock struggles to make the connection, mainly because my bike is held away from the fence by the milk crate I’ve attached to the back of it to hold my groceries, my jacket, my banjo, depending on the outing. This milk crate is a source of conversation at most social engagements oh man, I’ve been planning on doing that for years, I’ve got some milk crates somewhere, but wildly impractical. Due to the nature of the way I’ve attached it to my bike, the bike’s centre of gravity sits somewhere just behind my butt. This is totally fine if I lean forwards to ride, or if I’m rolling downhill, or if there’s nothing contained in the milk crate, but under less than ideal circumstances, ie pedalling up hill with a full contingent of canned chickpeas and silverbeet, this bike has a tendency to wheelie, front wheel floating up off the ground, Pegasus taking flight in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. The first couple of times it happened I imagined I’d mistaken the issue. Surely my front wheel was coming loose, or the handlebars had developed some fault, but then I realised this distinct lack of control was my bike subtly taking off below me, shifting from a useful mode of transport to a point of interest amongst the local kids. whoah look at that guy wheelie-ing with a banjo on his back, it looks… effortless.  No effort here, just this bike and me slowly drifting away from the Earth’s gravity.

Bike secured, I wander inside. I’ve come here with my friend Robbie to see Uncomfortable Science. This is peak Melbourne: world-class jazz-funk musicians thrown together in to a loose jam session with a ‘conductor’ who scribbles chords on to a whiteboard, claps occasional tempos and rhythms, mimics dynamics with his hands, sometimes takes the microphone and drops freestyle verses over the improvised beats. The beauty of this music is in the strength of the players: each week is a new line-up from today’s standard funk four piece to next week’s iteration, listed online as the ‘exotica edition’ complete with three percussionists. Today verges on 80s disco funk territory: bass high in the mix, kick drum a chesty thump that carries across the brewery to the back wall.

As we sit, I eye off people across the room. Where we’ve all been loosely connected by music over the last ten years, we’ve only seen each other via social media during lockdown. I’ve seen a million scattered fragments of live performances, all of my friends playing solo in their bedrooms. These performances have come together online: solo acoustic performances become lush full band performances via the magic of the internet. One friend’s enterprising lockdown project was constructing an entire big band, pulling together performance after performance from across the world and editing them into a seamless performance that wouldn’t go amiss on the bandstand at New York’s Village Vanguard or Fitzroy’s Royal Derby on a Sunday night.

The main detriment to these social media performances is the lack of immediacy. Where real life demands attention and focus and being in the moment to really experience the thing you’re experiencing, social media (and the internet in general) holds a permanent record of the thing. I can always go back and watch Frank Zappa at the Dub Room in 1983. But I will never be in the room with him to catch that performance.

The thing I missed in 2020 was spontaneity: the ability to turn up to a gig a like this on a Thursday night, wander in to a room filled with people I know, people I haven’t seen in years, people who can take a two chord vamp and stretch it into an hours worth of music.

I’ve thought a lot about how the past takes it’s structure from the big memorable things, the events that we can use to sign post our lives, and I’m slowly coming to the realisation that many of these life experiences that I enjoyed the most have been spontaneous. There’s an amazing joy in spontaneity and an after glow that carries through the days afterwards. The knowledge that I was there, at this place, and this thing happened concretes in to my mind and I sketch the past years around those moments. Each year holds a certain number of cairns, memorial landmarks. I flick back through the years and inspect these, like a museum of artifacts, where each exhibition is a thing I’ve done or experienced or been pulled accidentally in to, and it in turn has shaped who I am.

I’m taking a break from FWF for a bit, here’s a throwback to the first ever one with the delightful Bob Hutchison.

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