Friday, July 19, 2024

Korina Zambrano plays Union Tavern in Somerville’s Union Square on Friday. (Photo: Michael Gutierrez)

Apologies in advance for leading off this column with reference to artificial intelligence. Your waking hours are already saturated with AI propaganda. Every advertisement you see is either for online sports betting or artificial intelligence. It almost makes you wistful for crypto hype.

I can promise, however, that there’s no shilling for AI here. This is a column about music, and there are some serious questions to ponder with respect to music’s relationship to the latest supercharged “disruption” from venture capital and Silicon Valley.

The music industry spent most of May trying to wrap its head around the implications of the new song “Where That Came From” by country star Randy Travis, debuting at No. 45 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.

Okay, I’ll bite: Where did that come from? Travis hasn’t released a song since a near-fatal stroke in 2013 waylaid his career. No sense in worrying about the next album when it’s hard enough to navigate living through the next day.

Artificial intelligence to the rescue! Robots conspired to re-create Travis’ voice to produce the new hit song. (Presumably with the country singer’s consent, though he still can’t speak much in interviews. His producer and his wife do most of the talking.)

Except that’s not quite what happened. Another country singer named James Dupré was required to supply the vocals, and what amounts to a “Randy Travis” filter, powered by AI, was applied to Dupré’s vocal part to produce a defensible version of the country music star’s voice.

Musicians will point to this as proof that AI can never adequately simulate human artistry. Techno optimists will reply that it’s only a matter of time before the technology makes up the shortfall.

Either way, the thing happened. And the thing is going to happen some more. It looks like one major use of AI within the music industry will be to steadily detach the artist from the artworks they produce, keeping an ever-increasing share of the rights and royalties generated by that artwork.

Can you imagine what kind of future rights to your likeness that you need to sign away to break into the music industry with a major-label contract these days?

Of course, the artists don’t need to sign on the dotted line. Just like you don’t need to stream music via online platforms that shortchange musicians. But you do. And they do.

Something’s broken here that needs fixing …

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Saturday: Django Festival All-Stars (Regattabar, Cambridge)

Note: This is a band, not a festival. There is an actual Django Reinhardt Festival, honoring the legacy of the gypsy jazz guitarist, who made a name for himself playing all over Europe during the interwar period. The long-running festival takes place at the end of the month at Château de Fontainebleau, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southwest of Paris. Not making the trip? Mais non! Catch the cream of the crop warming up their six-strings (and accordion, and upright bass and violin) before they leapfrog the Atlantic for the big date.

Monday: Threat Level Burgundy, Futon Lasagna, Last Reel Hero, Riki Rocksteady, SkaletonCrew (The Jungle, Somerville) 

A five-band bill at The Jungle is no place for the faint-hearted. But if you’re going to go ska, go all the way. Immerse yourself, like your foreign language teacher was always telling you, in the culture. If you’re new to the genre, it’s a style of music that originated in Jamaica, loves horns and makes a lot of hay with the offbeat. There’s even a just-for-fun dress code. Google it and you discover that dressing ska is a “fashion choice that crosses mod and skinhead to create an unique mix of casual and elegant, with a penchant for borrowing from teddy boy accessories that were popular among British subculture.” Now you know.

June 20: Fantastic Cat, Fox & Bones (The Sinclair, Cambridge)

The Americana outfit Fantastic Cat glows iridescent with the memory of a thousand folk, rock and country acts that have come before, shining like a prism through which the best bits of Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Hootie & The Blowfish, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John get deconstructed and reconstructed into what feels like a peculiarly 21st century musical Frankenstein’s monster. Except this is a monster you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with at the local honky-tonk. Oregon’s Fox & Bones join the Americana fun in the opening slot. No fire allowed in the green room.

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Live: Hypnofruit, Clocked Out, Korina Zambrano and Allure at Union Tavern

You could hardly draw a stronger contrast between the forces of gentrification versus local yokelism than the scene that played out in Union Square on Friday night.

In this corner, weighing in at 500 tons, boasting craft beer, designer sandwiches and incubator retail, is current award-winning Union Square heavyweight Bow Market!

Its courtyard was packed for a special performance by Opera on Tap, a company of singers that takes the opera out of the opera house and into the street. Presumably to shake the aristocratic stuffiness out of the Old World art form to bring it to “the people.”

Another location frequented by Opera on Tap? The walkway between Simons Shoes and Paris Creperie in Coolidge Corner. Not quite Versailles, but not exactly Flint, Michigan, either.

These are audiences full of the upwardly mobile and aspirational. Some still on the university dole (whether that’s family or government money), others pushing around baby strollers with more resale value than many cars. So much to say, connoisseurs with inchoate taste and enough disposable income to explore new vistas of pleasure. If Opera on Tap can hook a few of these fish early, they’ll pay dividends as patrons of the art for life.

In the other corner, weighing in at a modest 50 tons, boasting PBR, the standard assortment of mixed drinks and a counter decorated with shellacked trading cards of sports legends from a previous century, the cagey veteran P.A.’s Lounge. Er, I mean Union Tavern!

The long-running bar hosted a bill of four local acts in a room with the unsullied glamour of a VFW hall. The crowd was full of friends and family, who jostled for the best view of their son or daughter or best bud as they wailed on stage, giving the night a peculiarly hometown flavor.

If you screwed your vision just right, and magic-erased all the latest smartphones, Friday night looked and felt like a night from time immemorial, before Union Square had T service and you had to be a local (or make a real concerted effort) to see a show at P.A.’s Lounge.

No complaints here. Public transportation is king, and the kind of rising tide that should lift all boats. But history shows that landlords, without countervailing forces, are very quick to upcharge tenants when their properties, by hook or crook, land within spitting distance of desirable amenities. A park? Plus $100/mo. A grocery store? Plus $100/mo. How much for a T stop? Calculate how much you would have saved per month not needing a car. That’s how much your rent is going up per month.

History also suggests that déclassé music joints such as Union Tavern do well in gentrifying neighborhoods. Locals and arrivistes alike enjoy a good value. A night of music with fun indie rock bands such as Hypnofruit and a couple of beers for less than $20? Yes, please!

A great night out, a great deal and a good time had by all. Until the rent raises just a tick too high, your favorite local spot closes forever and everyone sits around, scratching their head, wondering what happened …

Ah, well, there’s still the ax-throwing joint.


Michael Gutierrez is an author, educator, activist and editor-in-chief at Hump Day News.