Friday, August 02, 2013
anatomy of a solo performance
I know my material. For that matter, I know I have more than enough songs: ten originals, at least eighty five covers. I have played music for ages, and there are songs I will play tonight which I have been playing for a quarter of a century. I should be certain, sure, solid, confident. Instead, I am afraid, and none of my knowledge helps the fear.
I eat some chocolate, hoping it will give my blood sugar wave a boost to drown my nerves, but it only leaves a bitter cocoa taste in my dry mouth. So I concentrate on my task...then I concentrate on packing...then I concentrate on trying to be sociable to my wife and father, who drive me to and will watch the show.
We exchange pleasantries for a few minutes while I unpack. I head to the bar to get some drinks and introduce myself to the bartender. While it's a general rule to be nice to bartenders if you want to get your drinks in a timely fashion, it's especially smart to be extra friendly if you're performing. If the bartender thinks you're a jerk, there's going to be very little chance of you getting invited for a return show. I grab my beers and head back to the stage for the sound check. I try to always be very easy going in these. I'm always amazed at how many musicians become Stalin-esque in their demands to the soundman. In addition to making you look rude and pretentious to the crowd in general, it also tends to tick off the soundman. People running sound hold way too much of a musician's fortunes in their hands. Yet some people seem to want to simply annoy and piss off those in charge of getting the PA to work and making them sound good. Me, I want them to like me.
I've timed it tonight just right, so I have no time to wander or get even more nervous before I start. As soon as the soundman gets my levels right, he heads to the bar to turn off the house sound. I look around at the crowd. There's a lot of people in the bar, but the only people I know at this point are my wife and my dad. The crowd seems older. I have no idea by looking at them if they're even going to care that someone's playing music.
It's time to start, and my nerves have done nothing to settle, so I start off with the easy, the I-could-play-this-in-my-sleep songs. This means that for the first twenty seven minutes or so, I sound more than a little like a minimalist classic rock radio station, particularly after opening with an Eagles song. As the crowd is on the older side, "Lying Eyes" should be a great fit, but save my wife and father, no one really seems to care or is even listening to the music...and for the first few songs, the only applause I get is from the people I brought with me.
This, of course, doesn't help settle the nerves. To top off matters, I tend to sweat when I play. I mean sweat a lot. So by the start of song two, my shirt is already soaked with sweat. I jump into a Uriah Heep number, and I see one member of the bar staff who I sort of know smile a bit. I'm over-thinking everything at this point, but it does really help when I earn perceived coolness points in someone's eyes...so I start to relax a little.
In between verses, I steal glances at my song list, trying to figure out what to play next...and of course, sweat drips directly into my eyes. Through the stinging, though, I see a few more friends filter in. I remind myself to talk to them during my first break and thank them for showing up...but of course, there are a few people to whom I don't get to say more than three words. It's a failure on my part, but it's an unavoidable one.
About eight or nine songs into the set, most of my nerves have dropped out. I run out of beer and make a plea for another, but everyone thinks I'm joking. I notice a couple I know at the bar: a former professor and a former boss. I've already started my next song, so I give them a knowing nod. I'm finally relaxed enough to pull in an original song (albeit a very easy one called "A Song About Drinking"). I stay on safe ground for the rest of the set, even though I've finally started to loosen up and have fun.
About an hour in, I take my first ten minute break. I have to say quick "hello"s to a few people on my mad run to the bathroom. On my way back, I prioritize and talk to my former professor and former boss for five minutes, as they're the ones I haven't seen for the longest amount of time. I get a couple of drinks, quickly say hi to a few others, and get back to the stage. As I jump into the second set, I realize I forgot to changed out of my sweat-through Piggly Wiggly shirt.
I start set two pretty loose, able to funnel any residual nervous energy into the songs. Whereas my vocals were tight and nervous in the beginning, I now feel free to let it rip (that is, at least as much as my limited range will allow). I get more adventuresome in my song choices and am much more willing to be silly; my somber cover of Huey Lewis & the News's "Walking on a Thin Line" is case one. I think it's a hilarious re-framing of a pretty cool pop song. What strikes me as more funny, though, is seeing my friends's faces as they realize they know the song but cannot for the life of them figure out who did it orignally...which tells me I scored.
Quickly into set two, I break out my kazoo. One thing I have figured out from watching and doing solo sets is that, regardless of how good one might be, sooner or later the sound of an acoustic and single vocal gets to be sonically dull. So it's a good idea to add textures to the aural palate. I'll frequently throw a tambourine on my leg and kick in rhythm. Of course, the standard solo artist's accompaniment is the harmonica, but I never learned how to play one...so I got a kazoo instead. It's a nice one, hand-made out of wood. I do ape harmonica parts, but I also try to get more adventuresome with it such as when I copy the guitar solo in Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home." It changes up the tonal landscape of the performance...and, at the very least, is a little funny." Eventually, I plan to add both hi-hat and mandolin to the repertoire.
Some of my friends I didn't really get a chance to talk to during break one unfortunately leave during set two. The bar crowd also starts to thin, but several other friends show up. I'm now feeling pretty good. One of the remaining bar crowd asks for the standard live music cliche "Freebird." I warn him I actually know it, will actually play it, and will even do the solo to the live version...on my kazoo, no less. I do the verses in a pseudo-reggae style and play the solo straight...as straight as one can do on a kazoo. Unfortunately , my lungs give out before anyone begs for mercy or bribes me to stop. I also attempt the falsetto background vocals on Thompson Twin's "Hold Me Now" to intentional bad effect, eliciting a certain amount of laughter...which pleases me greatly.
I chat with friends during break two. The bartender assures me she will be on alert for my tortured "I need beer" wail, so I don't need to stock up on adult beverages. I take to the stage and rip into set three, getting stranger and stranger in my cover song selection while incorporating more originals into the mix. One of my friends (a big fan of my band) is seeing me play solo for the first time, so I do my only repeat song of the night. I play "Little Sister" for the second time, and because she's a monster Elvis fan, I put special emphasis on the "haw"s.
Eventually, I check my phone and discover that, where time was crawling during set one, it is flying during set three, and I only have four minutes left. I decide to end the night with a brand new,never played in public original I wrote about my daughter. I apologize in advance for it, because it starts with finger-picking...and I am horrible at finger-picking. Somehow, though, I get through that part with utterly no issues. I mess up some of the chord changes, but as no one has ever heard the song before, my mistakes aren't noticeable...so I'm okay with them.
The soundman/booker is long gone, so I can't thank him...which is generally my first post-gig move. I talk to my former prof and boss, and they are both very effluvient in their praise...and I get the impression they are actually impressed beyond the "hey, you did good for a friend" level. My wife and father are similarly honestly-sounding complementary.
This will all probably make me feel really good eventually, but after I play, I'm really not in the mental position to process praise....particularly from people I know. I am pretty happy I only made one or two noticeable errors. I am admittedly not thrilled with my nerve-wracked first thirty minutes...my voice was weak and unassured. It was, though, only the second time I did the three hour show, and it is undoubtedly demanding. But I feel the pre-show nerves will decrease once I get more of these under my belt. Right now, though, my voice is close to burnt-out and my fingertips hurt. The main casualty, though, is my brain...I am utterly mentally fried.
Yet it was indescribably nice to see my friends who came out to see me. It was especially lovely to see my wife and father enjoying themselves. I utterly love seeing my friends puzzle over the Huey Lewis number,giggle of the Thompson Twins background vocals, smirk whenever I played kazoo, crack up over the "Freebird" solo, and generally have fun on a night where I was the entertainment. My wife liked hearing me. My father got my Townes Van Zandt number. My former professor and boss loved my kazooing. My Elvis fan friend liked my "Little Sister" cover.
After packing up my equipment, I went to thank and tip the bartender. I got two more beers and a nice Scotch to finish out my "performer" bar tab. The bar manager thanked me before I could thank him and then, more importantly, paid me. I went to my friends's table and was thrilled to find out dad liked my drummer. We chatted, drank, and enjoyed ourselves.Eventually, we sound out we were done, and I hauled my stuff out to the car, but on the way out, I hunted down the manager to shake his hand one more time.
From that point onward, it was just a desperate hunt for the elusive french fry on the way home, and a brief pre-goodnight chat with my mom before crawling into the bed next to my lovely wife and sleeping the sleep of the just.