U2 Tribute Show, music theory nerd party

A couple nights ago I coordinated U2 tribute concert, held at Edina Community Lutheran Church in Edina, MN. Five acts each played a U2 cover tune as a prelude to the evening's main event, a lecture by Dr. Christian Scharen from Yale Divinity School who did a presentation on theology and the music of U2. At the end of the musical portion of the evening, all the bands jumped on stage and played a very rocking and slightly honkeytonk version of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Here's a picture of the big Farm-Aid jam session on that song:

(from left to right)
Gail Brecht (keyboards), me (electric guitar), Justin Rimbo (bass), Michael Morris (mandolin), Troy Alexander (drums), Micah Taylor (laptop noise), Nate Houge (electric guitar), Graham Peterson (percussion), Josh Brecht (acoustic guitar), and somewhere on stage or in the audience was John Kerns (guitar or vocals or something).

Here's the order of the songs we played:

Jonathan Rundman "God Part 2"
Michael Morris "One"
Nate Houge & Welaware "I Will Follow"
John Kerns "Until the End of the World"
Fuller Still "40"
GRAND FINALE: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"

It was quite a fun evening, and Dr. Scharen's talk afterwards was very thought provoking. I had finished reading his book One Step Closer: Why U2 Matters to Those Seeking God the previous week, so it was cool to meet the author a few days later. I like U2, but I'm not the hugest fan in the world, so I had a lot to learn about the history of the band. We watched a jarring and kind of disturbing video summary of the 1992 Zoo TV tour and we discussed the band's use of satire and irony in order to speak out against materialism, media overload, etc. And we watched a performance of the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" taken from the recent Vertigo tour of 2005-06 where Bono addresses the current tensions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims around the world. It's really incredible what these four musicians are able to achieve when they perform in concert...it's a kind of community-building that can only be described as church-like in the best and most profound sense of the word. Scharen pointed out oodles of Christian imagery and messages throughout U2's career...I had no idea just how much faith-based information, quotes, and references there are in their history and in their songs.

For example, I didn't realize that on the album cover photo for their 2001 CD All That You Can't Leave Behind, the "flight number J 33-3" listed behind the band is a reference to the Bible verse Jeremiah 33:3 which reads: "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." I think I'll always hear their songs with new ears and new appreciation from now on. And it certainly was an encouragement to me as I plug away at being a performing singer/songwriter who's interested in addressing ecclesiastical and spiritual themes in my own songs. U2 is truly a model of how to do it right, with artistic credibility and sound theology.

It was a challenge to interpret a U2 song for the musical portion of the night. They're one of the toughest rock bands to cover because their songs are so grand, and depend so much on a specific guitar riff or vocal performance. You can't really sit around the campfire and strum along on the song "Vertigo" or "Pride (In the Name of Love)." I picked their song "God Part 2" (from Rattle And Hum, my favorite U2 album...I bought it right when it came out back when I was in high school) because it's one of their most basic traditional rock songs...it's just 12-bar-blues with some super heavy drumming.

My favorite lyric from the U2 song "God Part 2" is "I heard a singer on the radio late last night / he said he's gonna kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight." The singer Bono is referring to is one my all-time musical heroes, Bruce Cockburn (he's one of Bono's heroes, too), and the quote is from the excellent song "Lovers in a Dangerous Time." (On a side note, there was a recent blog posting from drummer Pat Tomek who reported that his cat Beanie stepped on his computer keyboard and turned on iTunes, which proceeded to play a song by ME, followed by a song by Bruce Cockburn!).

The one arrangement choice that I just couldn't NOT use was singing the verses in different octaves. The album version starts with Bono singing low over bass and drums, and once the guitars come in loud, he sings the next verse an entire octave above. It's a really cool trick, and I knew that to deliver this song effectively I'd have to do the same thing. The problem is, you've got to choose a key signature where the early verses are high enough so that they can be sung with strength and accuracy, BUT they have to be low enough so that you've got enough room in your vocal range to take the whole thing up an octave for the later verses, without trashing your voice or missing the notes. I played the song in the key of E and it worked great...when I jumped up to the high verses it was at the very top of my vocal range...I had to hit a G above middle C without using falsetto, and I can only do that when I'm really screaming my head off, so it worked well for that particular song. Okay here's the amazing part....U2 does the song in A! So Bono is able to sing those high verses four steps HIGHER then I did...it's really amazing...he's hitting a C above middle C. He's a truly gifted singer...and I remember how impressive his vocals were while seeing them in concert.

Performing that vocal part on "God Part 2" was a reality check for me. Lately I've been realizing the way a true vocalist will arrange music, compared to a non-vocalist. I've done a lot of playing in Beki Hemingway and Michael Morris' bands, and these two performers are true SINGERS. They write the song, and then move the key signature around (and usually, the capo on the guitar) until they find a key that is optimal for their vocal performance. They want to find a key signature where the high notes, and long notes, and important notes have a special resonance...it's a sonic space where they can best emotionally connect with the song. That's why I spend my time in Beki's and Michael's bands playing in keys like B, and C#, and F, and Ab. The vocal range decides the song's key.

But me, I'm a crappy singer. Always have been, and I don't have any grand schemes to be a great vocalist. And I never think like a singer. I think like an instrumentalist...specifically a guitarist or keyboardist. That means, I'm always writing songs and arranging them around keys that are friendly to guitar and piano...keys like A (my favorite), C, D, G, and E. I'm always considering "How can I make this song work best for the band members?" And if it's not great for my singing, oh well, tough luck. Like "Librarian" for example...this song has a guitar part that works great in the key of B, allowing certain open strings to ring, and allowing the bounce of the low E string on certain riffs. So, the song is recorded and played in B, even though it's technically too low for me to sing. Ideally, I'd sing the song in D or something, but then I'd lose that lovely guitar riff, and it's just too cool to capo, so I leave it in B. That's why if you see me in concert, I'll almost always play "Librarian" very early in the show, 'cause if I do it too late in the concert by then I've lost my low vocal range and will be unable to sing it.

The first time I ever composed music with a specific concern for vocal range was when I wrote the songs for A Heartland Liturgy. Those pieces were written and recorded for normal people to sing on their own, so I had to put my own instrumental and vocal preferences aside in favor of writing songs for Joe Public to sing. It was tough...here's an example: I really wanted the song "Holy Holy Holy" to be based around the Am chord 'cause I had this really great guitar riff built around that chord voicing, but it was way too high for the average citizen to sing (especially men, who are really lousy at singing high, and basically lousy at singing in general), so much to my dismay I had to re-arrange the song around an Em chord instead. Thankfully I figured out a way to approximate the riff while using the Em voicing. The song really needed to come down half an octave for the sake of group participation.

So anyway, maybe as I write a new set of songs sometime in the future, I can experiment with constructing them around my voice rather than my guitar, and I can try to lock in to an emotional vibe with the vocal range, rather than a technically-convenient key for the band members. Look out Kerns, we might start playing in Db and F#.


Rimbo said…
Hey, that show was a blast, wasn't it? And the after-party was so rock-and-roll. To quote Nate Houge's blog, "Seriously, we were up to almost MIDNIGHT eating animal crackers and drinking juice." Crazy.

I think you're right -- I'll totally listen to U2 with new ears now, knowing how very deep they go into the realm of theology. I've been tempted to listen to them a lot more lately -- and I'll get to it sometime.

As far as vocal-song-construction goes, I've been riding the fence for a long time. Sometimes a guitar riff will drive the song, and sometimes I'll get the melody first, and it'll turn out to be in Eb or something. Strangely, it seems like sharp and flat keys sometimes work better for my range. Not sure why -- maybe something in my genetic code. G# is my favorite key to sing in.
Bridget Delaney said…
I totally respect musicians and the work they do. I understand enough about music theory to just understand it. I've tried composing songs. . .not good at it! I don't play any instrument "well." They are fun and hobbies and I need more practice, always. . .

Guess it's a good thing I stick with my writing :)

So. . .to you. . .and the others. . .just wow!

Stein Auf!
Bridget Delaney said…
Thought you would like this (music fan and a parent of little ones, that you are. ..)

Dylan Hears a Who

Download a zip file of the MP3s

Dylan Hears a Who: a six-song album of music adaptations of Dr Seuss storybooks sung in the style of vintage Subterranean Homesick Blues-era Bob Dylan. Sheer genius!

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