No Listen No Try

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine September 2017

Solo acoustic artists are a courageous bunch.  They’re alone in a corner, like they did something wrong, playing to an audience that is most likely there for the food or the conversation with their friends.  Venue owners hire musicians to stand in corners so they can get more people to come out to their establishment.   “Live Entertainment Tonight” on the sign outside is better than “Tonight – the Franks and Beans Special.”

These guys playing in corners (and I say guys because most of the time it is a guy and not a girl, but I’ll save that discussion for another column – or maybe a book –  Yes –  a WHOLE book about it – stay tuned,) anyhoo, I’m here to tell you that those guys or rare girl in the corner are not having an easy time.  There’s this time-honored belief that as a performer you’re supposed to “draw the audience in,” “make” them listen, “connect” with them, then you’ll “have them.”  But it’s actually pretty darn hard to get their attention, at all.

And don’t even get me started on the TVs blaring when a performer is trying to perform.  This will be covered in the upcoming book, at length.  TRUST ME.

Some venues are built for entertainment, and they’re different.  Playing in “listening rooms” that have actual written or un-written rules like “Don’t Talk,”  “Be Quiet” or  “Listen” are rare gigs to get.  And they usually don’t pay.  Your “pay” is “exposure.”  Sell your merch.  Get people on your mailing list.  Dream of your big break.

So for most of us who are actually trying to make a living playing music, we get the stand in the corner bar gigs, and hope for the best.

sologuitar

We start the show by scanning the crowd trying to read their minds so we can play something they might like; something that will garner some sort of reaction – a smile, a clap, a hoot or a holler.  Then what that doesn’t work we try to pick just one person out who is glancing our way once in a while and try to figure out what she would like.  We try and we try and we try.

A lucky break is when the audience applauds after every song (because the room goes quiet and they figure it’s the right thing to do.)  But most of the time, we have this strange feeling that they don’t know what we just played.  Or what wonderful high notes we just hit.  Or they can’t appreciate that we spent weeks learning a super difficult chord structure that kills our fingers.  They are too busy talking!  Or eating or whatever.

Playing with a band is different.  You have each other.  You play off one another, you have people to joke with and it’s more like a team sport.  It’s fun.  If nobody’s paying attention, it’s not a big deal.  We’re rockin’ it for our own enjoyment.

When I play solo acoustic, for me, it comes down to this:  If you ain’t listening, I ain’t trying.  I know this perpetuates the problem of trying to get the audience’s attention because you’re actually sucking, but it is what it is.  I can only try so much.

Here’s how a recent scenario went down.

I was sitting in the corner of a bar with my guitar.  Nobody was listening so I closed my eyes and tapped open the chords to a random song on my IPad 2.  The song loaded and off I went.

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day

I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay” blah blah blah.

I fuddled through two verses and just…stopped.

Some people at the bar erupted with applause.

“Um thanks,” I said.

“That was great!” somebody said.

“But I wasn’t even trying!” I implored.

“But it was great!” they all hollered back.

“What song was it?” I daringly asked.

“Who cares!  It was great!”

See what I’m saying?

So feel our pain people!  Pay attention!  (even if it’s just a little).  Ya never know what you’re missing.

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Moosting Salad

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine August 2017

Sometimes at gigs we get requests.  This is a given.  We are there to entertain, and it’s kind of our job to give the people what they want.  However, there are some songs that churn my stomach for reasons I can’t explain.  It’s difficult to pry my mouth open to sing them.  My responses to these types of requests include:

“Oh sorry, we don’t know it.” – THAT’S A LIE.  WE CAN LOOK UP THE CHORDS ON OUR PHONES.

“Oh sorry, I can’t sing that high.”  – THAT’S A LIE.  WE CAN CHANGE THE KEY.

“Oh sorry, I couldn’t do it justice” – THAT’S A LIE.  IT CHURNS MY STOMACH.

But sometimes, due to circumstances beyond my control (ALL CIRCUMSTANCES ON THE PLANET), songs I despise do indeed vomit from my mouth.

Here’s how a recent scenario went down:

We were doing a gig at a lovely outside venue by the beach, and everything was hunky-dory.  A couple hours in, a tipsy jolly older gentleman with a huge wad of black curly hair approached me.

“Young lady, if yous please, play moosting salad for moi.”

“What the heck are you saying?” I asked as politely as I could.

“Please play moosting salad!”

A woman who was desperately trying to keep him from falling by holding onto his arms said, “He wants to hear Mustang Sally!”

O…..M…..G

“Oh, not possible, sorry.  We don’t know it.”

“I vill give you one hundred dollars to play moosting salad!” the inebriated man said.

“Sir,” I laughed, “There’s not enough money in the world for us to play that.”

“Then I vill give you shots!  Lots of shots!  I vill be right back.”

Filled with dread and with a sinkhole in my stomach I turned around and yelled to the guys, “There’s no way I’m singing Mustang Sally!  I will die first!”

Mustang

The guitar player, amused by the proposition, started playing the opening lick.  Such a show-off!  The bass player yelled, “What key?!” and started hammering away.  The drummer got a beat going.  The sax player added some lovely tasteful fills.

I had been had.

I let the intro go on and on for what seemed an eternity because I was determined not to sing the most wretched over-played song of all time.  I looked out at the ocean.  I dreamed of brighter days.  I wished with all my might that I could get the heck out of there.

Then the tray of shots arrived.  Tequila I think.  I drank four.  I think I WAS actually determined to kill myself.  Since I had been paid, I assumed it was now time to deliver.

Now that I think about it – couldn’t I have just encouraged the crowd to sing the song karaoke style?  You know, everybody sing it but me?  But no.  Hindsight is 20/20.  Could have, would have, should have, blah blah blah.

I sang the first line.  The crowd went ballistic.  The song went on excruciatingly for ten minutes.  I am not proud of these ten minutes.  I was singing (well…barking) the same thing over and over and over.  Was I dead yet?

But alas, this is why we do it right?  For the roar of the crowd?  The happy faces?  The drunken stupors?

We all survived the night somehow and the next morning when I opened my phone, there were the lyrics:  “Ride Sally Ride…”  UGH!  KILL ME!

Festivus

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine July 2017

Summer is here finally. Time for outdoor music festivals, beach concerts, rockfests and mega jams. I run into people and they ask, “Excited for summer? You going to have lots of gigs? It’s your busy time right?” Well, not so much. You see if you’re in a band, you have to think about the “busy season” way before temps reach 70 degrees. Like way back during the “Christmas season.” If you don’t start hounding summer festival organizers, chambers of commerce, parks and rec people, vineyards and beach bar owners by Jan. 1, you are out of luck by the summer solstice.

It’s embarrassing. I’m bored to death so I go to every event there is and get the same question, or the polite ones: “Got the night off for a change huh?” Um, yeah. The whole freakin’ summer thank you.

Even if you are a good little doobie and manage to contact these purveyors of all things musically fun in the sun in the frigid winter, if you don’t check on your application or package or whatever at least 1.5 billion times, you’re not getting the gig. Most of the time, it’s impossible to find out who these leaders of the Federal Reserve-like institutions are so you can even get your stuff to the right person. It’s like when Richard Dreyfuss in that movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is thrown into a van and then into a tent with the French speaking dude and the nerd and he yells, “WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE?!?!?”

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE dictating the summer music schedules anyway? It’s this big fat Area 51 mystery to me. And asking other bands how they “got in” doesn’t help either. They say, “Oh, a guy in the band is married to a a girl who’s mother’s ex-boyfriend has a niece who interns for the chamber during the summer so that’s how we got in.” Or, “You have to send a package to the organizing committee,” or, “You have to contact the owner at his place down in Florida in the winter.”

WHATEVER!

I am not a bugger. I am not a beggar. It’s too……. Complicated!

And what’s worse is, if I do manage to have a gig in the summer at a regular bar, nobody’s there because they’re all outside at some festival! That I’m not playing at! It’s exasperating!

The one festival gig I do have this summer is because somebody canceled at the last minute! OK Fine!

One year I was asked to help book the bands for a summer festival and was guaranteed a slot. Word spread magically like wild fire that I was a member of this prestigious committee and so therefore I was ceremoniously deemed “the contact.” Well let me tell you, some people are really good at inquiries, following up, or I as I like to refer to it as: “Bugging the crap out of you.” I give the musicians the utmost respect for their persistence and tenacity, however, OMG – did I ever want THAT THING over with!

So I get it. I understand why it’s all a big secret. It’s a never ending exercise in responding to emails and chats and voicemails – or as I mastered – the art of ignoring the whole world.

You may think of this month’s column as one big pity party for me. Au contraire! It’s a call to arms! We must unite! We must demand that all festival organizers and beach concert and outdoor music people publish their names, addresses, what kind of wine they like, what their favorite sports team is, details on their family lineage, and where they spend their winters. That kind of thing. To make it fair, ya know?

But alas, I know, you’re all too busy playing your fifth night in a row under warm moonlit skies with a lovely ocean breeze blowing through your hair. That’s OK. I’ll be there cheering you on.

Noise

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine June 2017

From out on my back deck in the woods of Stonington, CT I hear all kinds of noise.  Tractor trailer truck tires hitting the highway’s shoulder rivets, dirt bikes whirling the grounds of a backyard, Ninja motorcycles racing for a thrill, various yelps and squeals from the woods which could be a deer giving birth or a human working an electric saw for a tree house.   An 8-year old kid learning the saxophone, coyotes fighting, the boom of a fireworks finale, my dog whimpering in the closet, weed whackers and water cannonballs from a nearby pool.  A camera drone, a piper twin, a generator during a power outage.

I can deal with all these noises.  But one I cannot fathom, or accept, is the thunder of a suicide bomb inside a concert venue.  Or, the sound of my 22-year old daughter who has already attended over 50 concerts, telling me she’s afraid to go to concerts now.

STOP THIS NOISE.

My first concert was The Beach Boys at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, CT.  Everybody remembers their first concert.  I plan to go see Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds tour at Foxwoods Resort Casino in September to make it all come full circle.  Concerts are sacred things.  When I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert for the first time, it changed my life.  (This happens to a lot of people.)  The hope – the joy – the energy – the feeling you get that life is worth living, worth celebrating, worth screaming at the top of your lungs for.  That’s what concerts are for.

BUT NOT THIS.

We simply cannot let them win.

BritishFlag

Rockin’ in the Natural World

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine May 2017

Creative people put up with a lot of stuff trying to create.  From interruptions, to computer problems to writer’s block, it’s a wonder we get anything done at all.  But come springtime, when the natural world arouses from beneath whatever rock it was under, it’s nearly impossible to focus.  Birds and bees and ants and all the weeds you forgot about last fall are constant distractions.  But it’s actually much worse than that.

For me, it all starts when the pond at my home in Stonington, Connecticut defrosts and a couple of marlins show up.  One with a pretty green head and one with brown.  Having seen this sort of thing before, I know what they’re up to.  Before you know it, they’ve got three or four little versions of themselves.  They all paddle back and forth… back and forth… all hours of the day and night, like they’ve got nothing better to do.  It snowballs from there.

Then the Canadian geese arrive, like the pond is some sort of hotel or something.  Their incessant squawking and prancing around doing their business everywhere detracts from my more important art I tell ya.  Go back to Canada!  And heaven forbid I dare look out the window to see what they’re up to.  Oh look it’s a blue heron bothering them, blah blah blah.  Then I’m further distracted by Maggie the Magnolia tree with her huge pink and white flowers making a mess of the place and playing house with all the “oh look how cute I am” fowl including but not limited to:  tanagers, sparrows, purple martins, goldfinches, wood thrushes, yellowthroats, meadowlarks, Carolina wrens, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, quail and the stupid family of doves that comes back every year thinking they own the place.  Aren’t there plenty of other trees to choose from?  Don’t you have things you are supposed to be doing, like in Florida or something?  I did not authorize the filming of some cutesy Alfred Hitchcock movie!  Then the hawks gather by the dozens hawkin’ up a storm and it’s a REAL Hitchcock movie. Please lower your voices, some people are trying to think around here.

Oh but it gets much worse around that bordello of a pond (which is actually a man-made hole filled with water, but whatever.)  You see in May, the bullfrogs come to town, or rise from the mucky depths as it were, for their big dance.  These bellowing and bawling creatures of green slimy crud are so freakin’ loud even with the windows shut and air conditioners blaring it’s just impossible to think. AND THEY DON’T CARE WHAT TIME IT IS.  I’m trying to work here!

And don’t even get me started on the dogs.  Because they don’t have to slip and slide their way down the icy back steps they think it’s just fine to want to go out and come in, go out and come in, get a treat, wonder off, making me constantly have to check on them because of the coyotes, wolves, foxes, mountain lions and bears.  Dogs!

So one year I had this grand idea to get away from all the commotion of this den of inequity and went on vacation “to create” up at Squam Lake in New Hampshire.  I brought an assortment of notebooks, pens, pencils, and my guitar.  I imagined myself immersed in creativity and would be like Thompson or Hemingway penning the days away, and into the night, and then I would return home with a slew of songs I couldn’t possibly whittle down to an album.

Wrong.

First of all, Squam Lake is where that Katherine Hepburn/Henry Fonda movie “On Golden Pond” was filmed.  Yes, it’s golden, yes it’s peaceful, yes it’s romantic, and yes you can get in some pretty good fishing.  Much had been made of my first introduction to the beloved, sacred, highly regarded, Kings and Queens of the Lake – the loons.  My vacationing friends were all abuzz about it.  It would be a religious experience they told me.  Well let me tell you – THEY DO NOT SHUT UP!  I’m talking about the birds, not the other wackos on the lake. Their constant whining and crying and hootin’ and hollerin’ all hours of the day and night – Geez!  “Give it a rest!” I would scream.  How was I supposed to create under these horrendous conditions!

loon

So, as to be expected, I drank alcohol in an attempt to block out the darn things and to fit in with the other vacationers.  Somebody said, could have been Hemingway I don’t know, “Write drunk. Edit sober.”  So that’s what I did.   There must be some sort of art to drinking and writing because my resulting prose was indecipherable!  It was the worst combination of cursive and block lettering you have ever seen.  And using a computer didn’t help.  The gobbly goop typed in those documents actually shut down my spell checker.  A message came across the screen: “Are you sure you’re writing in English?  Would you like to change languages?”  The next morning, following the rules to edit sober, I dutifully opened the notebooks or computer and began to edit.

Didn’t have a clue what I had written, why I had written it, or have any semblance of the melody lines or intended key.  What a freakin’ loony disaster.  I came back home with a bit fat nothin’.

So here I sit once again, staring out the window onto that house of ill repute, at the turtles multiplying by the day, sunning themselves on the mossy banks, observing the snapping turtles leisurely making their way to the high grass to drop a goodie, and I ponder things.  I guess there are worse things to look at rather than my scribblings or computer screen.

Oh and Ode to Joy – here come the lawn mowers.

Big City Giggin’

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2017

I haven’t lived an extraordinary life. I haven’t survived horrific abuse or imprisonment, haven’t fought for democracy in any foreign wars, and haven’t saved the life of anybody. I’ve never broken a bone. I’ve never been homeless, mentally unstable, starving or unemployed.

But the one thing that has plagued my existence, worse than all these calamities combined, is that I have always fervently believed I would make it in the music business, since I was eight years old.

It was a given, I thought. I could sing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush, on key, A Capella and everything. I wasn’t put on this earth to save the world. I was born to be a rock star. I was the real deal the world had been waiting for.

Because of my eventual awesomeness, I would have the fame, the fortune, the freedom from the day job, and all the freshest salads and pre-cut fruit I could handle. But most importantly, I would have someone to change my guitar strings. This dreadful and sometimes deadly activity should be reserved only for people like my Dad who build antique miniature wooden boats with tiny little sails and rigging with cleverly painted cursive names like Oh Suzanna. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been whacked in the face with an errant high E string, or cut my fingers, or worse still – wrapped the tiny steal devils around the machine heads on the headstock the wrong way and had to start all over again.

Because I most certainly was destined to be a star, I also never learned how to change a flat tire, clean the floors, or get diesel stains out of workpants. Someone else would clearly be doing that stuff for me.

Things haven’t worked out, obviously. I wouldn’t have to write this monthly column and tell you about my monumental failure in judgment if they had. I would be saving the world instead, just like Bono and Springsteen.

After decades of trying, it finally became abundantly clear to me that I most certainly would never be “discovered.” I would never play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or Bonnaroo, or one of those fancy blues cruises. The epiphany happened one night in New York City, somewhere between SoHo and Little Italy.

My band and I had finally secured a gig in New York City at a prestigious club for original bands. My drummer and I arrived around twelve in the afternoon to check the place out. As expected, the stage was wicked small, the sound system was ancient, but the twelve dollar burgers were quite good. We headed back to our hotel and waited for the other guys. The guitar player picked us up and drove us in a harrowing cab-ride-like thrill adventure back to the club and we piled in. The place was jam-packed with young professional drunk New Yorkers. We were told to wait our turn (3 hours from our arrival time.) It was the dead of winter so we elected to wait inside, where there were five seats total. They were taken. So we waited our turn in the corner, with our coats and guitars and chords and water bottles. A lot of bars and restaurants in New York are longer than they are wide, so we were squeezed in behind some not-so-artfully placed poles, amid the hipsters, right by the bathroom. At 9:30 p.m., I used the last two squares of toilet paper in the one-stall unisex closet.

Tip: When doing a gig in New York City, you should always carry your own roll of toilet paper.

So I held the door open for the next customer and yelled, “There’s no more toilet paper!”

“Oh, I’ll survive,” the confident 20-something brunette simply stated. At 1 a.m. the toilet paper had still not been restocked. New Yorkers are incredibly innovative, super resilient, or just plain dirty.

So we waited our turn…waited, waited, waited. The band on stage, consisting of three females and three males (I think I have the gender right) wearing various expertly planned outfits of mismatched plaids and stripes, played an hour and a half over their half-hour time slot while the crowd screamed along to the songs.

We waited in the corner, with no toilet paper. Unforgettable tunes such as, “I Wanna Have a Three-Some,” and “I Want Your Boyfriend,” and the crowd favorite – “F U, F U,” rose to deafening decibels. They finally finished with a punk version of the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” the bar emptied out, and we were on.

So it was hurry up and set up and hurry up and play five songs, so the next band that came in from Washington, D.C. could hurry up and set up and hurry up and play. We played our five songs to the empty bar and collected our thick pay envelope of sixteen one dollar bills. We were paid a percentage of the bar sales that occurred during our set, and apparently a couple people had a couple shots. So between the train ride from Connecticut, the burgers, water bottles, parking, and the hotel, I was down, oh, about $500.

The drummer and I proceeded to hit up a few Irish pubs, drank, danced on bar tops, and put down, another $400.

So you see, it’s just not economically feasible, or hygienic, to EVER make it in the music business.

Besides, I don’t have the guts to say F U over the mic.

Get Outa Town!

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine March 2017

When you get nice and comfortable with your musical act and have a substantial fan base filling up the bar stools at your gigs, you mistakenly believe that these fans will be your fans forever. Here’s how it works when you’re a “bar” musician. Single people go out to meet people and maybe by chance your band is playing where people go to meet people. But once single people meet another single person they’d rather hang out with doing other things, they eventually stop going to bars. Two empty bar stools. Couples you manage to get and keep as fans eventually get married, have kids, and can’t get babysitters, so they don’t come anymore either.   Two more empty bar stools. Even if Bruce Springsteen was playing in my town every weekend I still wouldn’t want to go see him every weekend. I could be out of money, or sick, or taking care of someone who’s sick, or sick of his songs. So, your fan base is always changing, in other words, is always diminishing. I believe the solution to this unavoidable calamity is to get yourself outa town in order to reach out to new people who a) have never seen you before so you’re kind of like a novelty, b) they haven’t hooked up with anybody yet so they actually still go to bars and c) to keep your sanity and belief in what you are doing. Playing in new towns is like getting a new Barbie camper – with so many new landscapes to explore. I can re-use my outfits and meet so many new Barbies and Kens.

One of my favorite regions to play is down South in Georgia and South Carolina. I take an earned vacation from my day job and use it as an excuse to play gigs down there. What’s cool about down South is, they think because I’m from the North, that I must be some cool New Yorker with a cool accent, when in actuality, I’m just a bored New Englander who really just needed to get outa town because the bar stools are empty at my gigs.

I played this bar in Lexington, South Carolina which is the only bar for 50 miles. You would think on a Tuesday night that the crowds would be rather light. Not so! The owner asked me to start early, and play later. Ya’ll dig? The owner said, “Ya’ll let me know when you’re gonna be ‘round these parts agin, ya hear?” Easy money right there.

I played a bar in Georgia where it was all about the tip jar. Because I was from the North, people thought I drove all the way down there just to play that bar, so they were quite generous. We called it the “Love Bucket,” and man oh man, did they fill it. Two nights in a row I made enough money in that jar to pay for the whole trip. One elderly gentleman in a worn-out cowboy hat said, “I’ll done give ya one hundred dollers if you play me some Johnny Cash.” I happily obliged.

I went on vacation one year to Madeira, Portugal and met some nice musical people who even invited me up on stage to jam. It was disconcerting that they could sing in English and I couldn’t sing in Portuguese or do any of that Fado stuff, but they seemed to be OK with it. Through Facebook, we arranged an actual gig together for the following year when I would return to Madeira.

The night arrived, I was in town, and I was drinking heavily with my friends. The island of Madeira is an ancient, secluded place where kings and diplomats and sheiks hang out to let loose. Nestled in the North Atlantic near the Canary Islands, it rises up like one big mountain like something out of Jurassic Park. There’s a Pizza Hut on the island that gives out free samples of Madeira wine, which is more like a port, and potent as heck. Actually, this magical port is served everywhere, and if you don’t watch yourself, you can really get trashed, in about 20 minutes. There’s also this crazy drink called a poncha, which is more than a drink. It’s an event. People get together down back alleys and side roads and have a poncha. They eat peanuts and drink and drink and drink this concoction of fire water (really potent alcohol), honey, sugar, lemon rind and fruit juice. It’s like a scorpion bowl on crack. Yes I had one, or two.

On the island, there are also Irish bars, English pubs and Italian restaurants, all competing for the tourist dollar. We were happy to oblige. We tipped outrageously, which they thought was just hilarious. “Americanos – wasting their Euros again!” There was one local bar where all the cops hung out. They smoked weed right at their table, and passed the stuff around like it was completely legal or something. (I think it is.)

The gig time arrived, I walked up the steep cobblestoned incline to the venue (every road is uphill in this place!) and huffed and puffed right on past. I was plastered! I’m sure they did just fine without me. We’re still friends on Facebook.

But my very favorite place to play in the whole world is on my brother’s veranda in a cute little town in Georgia, which is also the hometown of Gregg Allman. Everybody in town knows Gregg Allman, and has guitars or pictures signed by Gregg Allman. When you play guitar on a veranda in Georgia, everybody comes over and it’s a p-ar-ar-tay. The pay isn’t good, but it’s good for the soul. Time to pack the camper!