Improvising is a crucial skill for jazz musicians, and the members of the Downtown Trio have found that the ability to think on their feet also comes in handy when performing as the house band for The Fan Show, KPLR-TV (Channel 11)'s sports program broadcast every Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. from the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.
"It's a live show, and so much of it happens off the cuff," says Trio keyboardist Mike Silverman. "There's no real rehearsal. Usually Rich [Gould, the show's host] will come over with an idea for a bit or two they're doing, but any moment of the show is available for us to play something. It's really loose. They just let us go."
Serendipity also played a role in the band getting the gig. "It was actually kind of a fluke," Silverman says. The day that Gould and the production staff were scouting the Casino Queen as a location, the Trio were there doing a performance of Bach to the Future, an alter-ego project that recasts classical pieces in modern settings. "Rich and the crew came in to survey the room, heard us play, and said, 'You guys would be great on the show.'"
Though live music was a staple in the early years of local TV, these days the Trio have the field almost to themselves. So they've drawn inspiration from, among other places, the bands on network late-night talk shows. "In fact, [David Letterman sidekick] Paul Shaffer is our hero on this show he's the guy we're trying to emulate," Silverman says. Like the CBS Orchestra, the Trio sometimes engages in musical puns "Last week, they had a basketball bit, so we did 'Jump' by Van Halen" but otherwise can find themselves playing in styles ranging from Middle Eastern to R&B to providing "some Wizard of Oz bits" for Mickey Carroll, the former movie Munchkin and frequent Fan Show guest. "Week to week, it's different," Silverman says. "Sometimes we have to make our point and get people to understand in ten seconds."
For added visual appeal, Mike Silverman uses a guitar-like keyboard controller while his brother Rob supplies drum parts via the Zendrum, a strap-on electronic percussion instrument that he wields demonstratively enough for Mike to call him "a real ham."
And while Rob Silverman may be the showman of the group, bassist Matt Bollinger is the most avid sports fan. "He knows the stats, the behind-the-scenes politics," and more, says Mike Silverman. Still, all three have found their enjoyment of sports enhanced by their experience, and "the show has given us a lot of credibility and name recognition, at least in the region. You never know where television is going to take you," he concludes. Dean C. Minderman
Cherub Rock Redux
Since becoming a parent, I've increasingly believed that if a one-year-old doesn't respond to music, there's a strong chance it's not so good. A nine-month-old won't try to tell you Thursday is really sophisticated pop. (It's not.) A two-year-old won't bore you with an argument that Slayer is one of the best rock bands ever. (It is.) A toddler hasn't had twenty years to get sick of the singles from The Wall, and there's purity to a newborn baby's response to Pink Floyd.
Which leads to the many issues of playing adult music for your kids. In addition to Neko Case and R.E.M., Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" and "Mother" are some of the best songs to rock your little one to sleep. But with much of the better mellow music, you're never too far from questionable lyrical content. "Mother, do you think they'll try to break my balls?" has a certain ambiguity i.e., testes or toys? that sends it over the kiddies' heads.
Thankfully Baby Rock Records' Lullabye Renditions of... series of albums gives you childproof renditions of your favorite songs. So far, the label's reconstructed favorites from nineteen popular rock artists by reinventing them as instrumental, chill versions. (The current roster features, among others, the Beatles, Björk, the Cure, the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Bob Marley, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Radiohead, the Ramones, Smashing Pumpkins, Tool and U2.) The records are pretty much a one-man show by Michael Armstrong who doesn't have any kids, though he's clearly on to something as he reimagines songs with glockenspiels, mellotrons and vibraphones. His adaptations pretty much all sound like Air playing John Williams' music-box Harry Potter theme. Many become unrecognizable, but Radiohead's Kid A material translates surprisingly close to the original, Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" redux is improbably upbeat, and its "In Bloom" is as creepy as a clown picture. And the Ramones disc that's pep!
While playing Eagles songs for a kid is considered child abuse in many states, the discs on the whole are worth checking out. Don't take my word for it, though; take it from my kids. We played them Portishead and Sigur Rós in the womb, so they've been bred to testify. The ten-month-old is loud and chatty, but not exactly articulate. That said, the Radiohead disc chills us both out, and she falls asleep to it, even when she's in a feisty mood.
However, to let you know where our four-year-old is coming from: She can't make it through four notes of "Moon River" without getting sad and telling me to turn it off. And in recent months, she's made the following comments to me: "I don't like metal," "Turn off that metal. It hurts my ears," "I like hair metal," "You like metal; I like princess," and "Is there girl metal?" Also, after bringing me a copy of Decibel magazine with Iron Maiden's undead mascot Eddie on the cover, she said, "Is this metal? I want you to put that away."
Her responses to some of Baby Rock's selections:
On the tinkling adaptation of the Cure's "Boys Don't Cry": "That's a little bit happy and sad."
On Radiohead's "No Surprises," mild-style: "It's a little happy and sad." Followed by a little pirouette.
On the Radiohead Rockabye artwork, a teddy bear with the pointy teeth from the Kid A's iconic grimacing cartoon faces: "It's happy and scary and sad."
On Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," which is just a tad more pleasant than Johnny Cash's version: "Turn that off it's sad."
Regarding NIN's "Something I Can Never Have," which is as eerie as the original. Me: "Do you like this song?" Her: "No, no, no."
On the Ramones' "Rock 'N' Roll High School," which improves on the original not a difficult feat. Me: "Do you like this?" Her: "Yes." Me: "Is it happy or sad?" Her: "Happy."
On Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated": "There's no words."
Baby Rock recently uploaded the series to iTunes and eMusic, and a compilation is now available at Hot Topic which, as any cool parent can tell you, is absolutely the best place to get a Social Distortion bib. Buy at least two: one for them, and one for you. D.X. Ferris