SSometimes, the notes on the staff tell the whole story. A composition can be so beautifully conceived and well-written that, really, it wouldn't matter who played it. Just put the sheet of music in front of a good, solid, trained musician; hit record; and let the notes work their magic, as written. This works in classical music most often, obviously. It might work for certain nonimprovisation-based sections of jazz pieces, too, and it certainly has been tried in pop music, mostly with cold, dead, dreadful results.
Rock 'n' roll is not this type of animal, though. Particularly not the strain of it that first erupted in the '60s, as a Caucasian interpretation of African-American blues and R&B. In England, the sturdy tradition of music-hall ditties, pub-crawl sing-alongs, Celtic melodic fragments and Elizabethan folk, when added to the above recipe, produced some of the most gloriously shambolic music of the era that began with the invention of the electric guitar and ended with the ominous arrival of the digital sampler.
Yes, that red-headed stepchild, back-of-the-classroom prankster ("Would you let your daughter go on a date with one of these ruffians?"), eminently lovable outcast that is rock doesn't so much lean against the Doric column of composition as it slouches against the cash-only bar of camaraderie and collective good will.
There can never be any doubt that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts in this particular sub-idiom. How else could one explain Keith Richards tolerating Mick Jagger for all these years? This is where the concept we understand as the "band ethic" comes from. It's a model that stands in opposition to the more formal idea of songwriters and studio musicians crafting something they believe is guaranteed to simulate genuine emotion and generate excitement in the listener. (Of course, sometimes the latter model produces wonderful results, but go along with me here for a little while, just for the sake of argument.)
The Beatles had a lot of this magical "band of merry men" quality, at least in the beginning. The Stones did, too, although theirs was quickly supplanted by a weary acceptance of the fact that they were indeed stuck with each other, like a cranky old married couple. But in truth, no other ensemble encapsulates this ethic with more clarity and consistency than the wonderful, wacky, whiskey-sodden Faces.
In retrospect, the early-'70s formation of this beloved band can be interpreted as the founding of a supergroup. If you threw the Small Faces and the Jeff Beck Group in a blender, added some plentiful proportions of booze and served it over ice, you'd have the cocktail equivalent of Rod Stewart, Ronnie Wood, Ian McLagan, Ronnie Lane and Kenny Jones. This was no cynical, management-induced birth, however. These five lads genuinely loved one another and took endless delight in the loose but incendiary racket they could so effortlessly collectively summon.
On stage, the Faces appeared more like an English football team on a bender, as if they just happened to stumble upon the concert hall in between stops on a pub crawl, and they played like they couldn't believe they were getting away with the whole thing, naughty little schoolboys, all. It was too good to last forever, naturally, particularly with the allure of a promising solo career being consistently dangled like a golden carrot in front of Rod Stewart's face. Rod's best solo work was really the Faces in all but name, and his tenure fronting the band proved him to be, for a good while at least, one of the five best singers in rock.
All the Faces landed on their feet, pretty much, although Ronnie Lane never quite got the credit he deserved as both songwriter and bassist/guitarist. He succumbed to a battle with multiple sclerosis in 1997; only then, it seemed, did the full measure of the man's musical worth become apparent to the masses. We all know how Stewart fared. Ronnie Wood became a Rolling Stone and continued to play some of the most brilliantly scrappy guitar the genre has ever known. Kenny Jones became drummer with the Who after Keith Moon took his final curtain call. And keyboardist supreme Ian "Mac" McLagan?
Well, Mac has had what might be the most interesting, and is certainly the most variegated, post-Faces career of the lot. As a solo artist, he has come the closest to capturing his former band's eminently soulful R&B, particularly the strain that emanated from Lane's input. He has played with the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Taj Mahal, John Hiatt, David Lindley, Paul Westerberg, Billy Bragg and Patty Griffin, among many others. And now, he has released "Never Say Never," a record with his Bump Band that positively drips soul and moves along with the fearless sense of groove of the Neville Brothers at their best. Believe it or not, McLagan -- since 1994, a denizen of the incredibly fertile Austin, Texas, music scene -- has made Buffalo one of the stops on his all-too-brief "Never Say Never" tour. He'll play the Tralf on Thursday.
You can hear the Faces' influence everywhere, still. Among Buffalo-born musicians, the work of Terry Sullivan, Gurf Morlix, Jim Whitford as well as the younger breed of rockers like the (sadly defunct?) Roadhouse Gypsies, Handsome Jack and Chylde is redolent of the great Faces songbook. If you like, say, the Raconteurs, Jet, the Strokes and their ilk, you'd be well-served by forging a relationship with Rhino's wonderful Faces retrospective, "Five Guys Walk Into a Bar. . .," which was in fact overseen and produced by McLagan himself. (Sadly, the recently promised 2009 Faces reunion appears to be a bust.)
And if you want to hear what Thursday's show might sound like, by all means, check out www.myspace.com/ianmclaganandthebumpband. It'll do you good.
Ian McLagan and the Bump Band play the Tralf (622 Main St.) at 8 p.m. Thursday.