Circling back: A year of Dial Tones

Promo artwork by Nick Perdue.

Originally published in This Week in Sarasota


When I heard that this month’s End of the Dial Tone would take place upstairs at the Gator Club, I got a particular kind of excited. Aside from the fact that the antique moldings and old-style decorations provide a strangely perfect backdrops for the always fresh, always weird and unpredictable sounds of the Dial Tone’s “organized chaos,” this show would mark a full year since my first Dial Tone experience, which happened in this same place.

So this year-marker seemed a good opportunity to write a kind of retrospective, where I explore how the Dial Tone and I have unfolded from Gator Club show to Gator Club show, and ask the insight of a couple of other people, including organizer and walking “let’s try this” idea-generator John Lichtenstein.

For the “uninitiated,” Dial Tone is a super-unique music-art project that happens just about once a month in Sarasota. Its essence is pretty much summed up in its full title: The End of the Dial Tone Radical Experimental Collaborative Music Band Band. Here’s the latest promotional video:

I remember my first Dial Tone vividly. I arrived exhausted, bedraggled from a day of something or other. I was excited to finally witness this show because I’ve always had a thing for experimental combinations of creative forms — music, art, dance, etc. — and ever since I heard of this project, I wanted to go. I’d also convinced the person I was dating to come, and as he was equally as tired, we grabbed a cozy spot on one of the old-timey couches bordering the room and just took it all in.

When I think back on it, the show itself was sort of a blur. But rather than any one “song” or epic moment, what stands out in my mind’s memory was the pulsing, relentless, thoroughly gripping flow of it. There’s something about the flow that’s distinctly internal. That is, you’re pulled into something being created in that moment by 15-plus people who aren’t quite sure what they’re creating, but are listening intently to one another in a groping, churning engage-and-response. They’re not exactly playing for you … unlike most performances, they’d probably keep going whether you are there or not. It reminded me of a small house gathering I attended once with some magnificent jazz musicians, who had gathered with each other for some friendly improv. The non-players of us were there as an audience of sorts, but once the musicians got going, it didn’t matter in the least. They were there for the music, for themselves, and fully with each other in play. It felt like a rare and precious opportunity to be a witness.

Greg Bortnichak and Kyla Stevens.
Photo by Duane Schoon.

Looking back over this year of shows, I see two things that  have remained most unchanged and were the initial hooks to get me there: the concept and the quality of the experience itself. The concept is what recent participant and my friend Zachariah Skylab describes as a “kind of ecumenicalism — a trying to achieve a unity of the various arts through one event.”  Zach continues, “I’m really attracted to that, not just in Sarasota but in other cities I’ve lived in. Combining painters with poets with musicians. That’s what attracted me and that’s what kept me going, and it’s the only gig I know of in town that strives to incorporate that in all of their events.”

May 21 show. Photo by Duane Schoon.

The third thing that I think makes this project unique, and the aspect that has had the most personal impact on me, is its “soft borders” — the opportunity it offers to new people to participate as performers, players and artists. Given the kind of alternative “cool scene” vibe I got from my first show, I assumed that the Dial Tone must be something hard to get into. But once I made friends with John Lichtenstein, I found him delightfully open to bringing new folks into this churning monthly machine. I remember mentioning to John that my friend Zach Skylab is an awesome poet who loves to write on old typewriters. Zach tells of his ensuing involvement:

“John called me and asked me if he could use my typewriter for the promo event, I think for the event at the Rusty Hook. So I gave him my 1920’s Smith typewriter, and then he asked me if I wanted to be a part of the band as a percussive element. That appealed to me, and so I said yeah.

“[At the show] John basically plugged the microphone it. I typed spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness wordplay, time-stamping the event by doing brief descriptions of the players that were part of the show. There was a syncopation that the typewriter provided, and a kind of underwriting of the music that I liked. I also read some of what I wrote in the show and that was fun.”

Zachariah Skylab McNaughton on typewriter.
Photo by Duane Schoon.

Zach has since become a fixture at the Dial Tone. “I really like having Zach there and typing,” John says. “I think that’s an awesome addition to the show, acting as court stenographer and as a writer. l still get kind of giddy, like Santa Claus dropped something, when I find some of his writings. The few that I read — and I read very little — I can go, “Oh my god, I know the exact time he was writing this.'”

I was even more surprised and elated when John invited me to participate as a live artist.  My first time seems like decades ago, and putting my skills to work in such an experimental setting and role has helped me grow immensely as an artist. Each time, the loop of “try, observe and collect feedback” has helped me narrow down which of my unique set of strengths lend themselves to what particular kind of live art. I identify distinctly with John when he says, “I think that I’m walking away a better musician after each one of these Dial Tones,” because I walk away feeling like a better artist in a way I never would have achieved if simply left to my own devices or doing a more “normal” kind of commission piece for a client.

Artist Van Jazmin (R) and me, foreground.
Photo by Duane Schoon.

And of course, there’s a magic in the fact that each of us is undergoing some kind of searching, learning process all at once during each show — putting something in and getting something out.  When I ask John what stands out for him over these last months, he responds with praise for the efforts of the participants:

“I couldn’t possibly do these shows without [sound technician] David Byrd. Every time we set up it always feels like a college thesis … There’s a great kind of work ethic through everybody. Sara Stovall is putting her best in playing the violin, John [Ewing] is putting his best into the bass.  You are putting your best at drawing, Van [Jazmin] and Eric [de Barrios] are putting their best into drawing. All the people are putting a lot of work into all of this, and I really appreciate that.”

Erin Murphy and John Lichtenstein.
Photo by Duane Schoon.

As to whether John can track any kind of evolution or trend over this year, he says, “It’s kind of one show at a time for me.  As soon as each piece is moved out of the Gator Club, for me the focus now is [the next show on] June 25. There’s so much work that’s put into these things; it’s cool that people are seeing that. I’m generally happy with everything that’s been going on and there’s those moments of chaos — where everyboedy pulls together and stays together, and it gels, and everybody collectively does it in unison. There was a part [this last show] where we all just stopped playing at the same time. And just that little five-minute jam makes all of the nonsense that came before it relevant.  And I don’t think all the other stuff was nonsense, but that one section was so beautiful because you’ll never get to hear that again. The musicians will never be in that mindset — it’s hard to get five people together these days, everyone is so busy.”

It is, indeed these moments of “on,” when the “striving for unity” finds its flow among the many gathered spontaneous, collaborative players that seem to make each Dial Tone worth working toward and walking into.

How are things looking now, going forward?

“I’m happy with the shows,” John says, “happy with the caliber of players we’re having. We just locked in the location to burn a piano [for the next promo video].  Everything’s moving forward. I think the Ticket was awesome with their write-up. I don’t think I’d really change anything. There’s still some places I’d like to go — Beach Club, Cabana Inn, Five O Clock Club.”

To experience the Dial Tone for yourself in its latest incarnation, don’t miss the next show on June 25th. (You can stay tuned and explore images and clips from past shows via the facebook page.)

John Lichtenstein and Stephen McFadden

John and videographer Stephen McFadden making the May promo video.

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