plane
(My guitar got the first window seat of its life – thanks, American Air!)

The gig at the Casbah near the end of my springtime tour was my favorite night of the whole dozen stops on that particular trip. I had loads of difficulty setting everything up, but once I did it turned out to be one of those great shows where everything works. First starters, I was able to play unplugged in a room with fantastic acoustics, and not by design – it just so happens that the Casbah’s bar room sounds amazing. I really enjoyed the music made by the rest of people on the bill, and the people who came to watch were so warm and friendly to us all.

After an experience like that, of course I wanted to do it again, so as soon as I got back home I contacted the booker and set up another date, also unplugged, and with the same bill. With that nailed down, I set about trying to book another show or two to make a short tour.

Unfortunately, nothing else worked out for the strict date needs that I had. But I found a cheap flight down, and decided that it was worth it for this one show, since it was such a good possibility. Plus, I have a number of friends in the area, and seeing them would have been worth the trouble on its own. So I went ahead and booked the flight, and found a $3 Megabus ticket for the return trip (yeah!). All was looking good.

The flight down was easy as pie (I guess that’s the point, eh?). I got stopped briefly in security as they’d found something suspicious in my shoulder bag. When I got pulled over to the side of the line, the uniformed gentleman pulled out the offending item, a thinline condenser mic. He examined it for a second, then leaned over to me and asked, in an polite whisper, “This is a nose-hair trimmer, right?” I explained its actual function and was let go, dubious metal object in tow.

I caught an easy local bus into town, and was happy to find that the Casbah is located just two blocks from the main transit hub. I found a lovely coffeeshop in between called Otis & Parker, and settled in to guzzle some tea and catch up on computering for a few hours before walking over to the club in the shockingly humid late afternoon.

The bartender had just arrived, and she let me into the Casbah’s front room where we had played last time. The first thing I noticed was that weird overexposed glow that every club has in the daylight – these places are made for the dark. The second thing that struck me was the enormous pool table planted in the dead middle of the room. I went over and experimentally gave it a little shove, to see if it could be moved out of the way. It didn’t budge an inch. I slipped both my hands under the chunky rim and tried to lift one end. No movement whatsoever…the table was staying.

Trying to repress my disappointment, I asked the bartender how bands have been setting up for the other unplugged shows. She said everyone sorta does it differently, some even in the corner of the main stage room. That didn’t seem promising – that room is very industrial and grey, while the front room feels like a cozy neighborhood pub to me – so I scoped out the whole thing and finally decided to set up in a corner directly behind the pool table. It felt slightly ridiculous, but I would be able to seen from most of the room, and it would give the crowd unblocked access to the most important things – the bar and the bathroom. I helped her to set up some chairs, then laid out my merch and ducked out to grab a veggie kabob from the place next door.

When I returned, my co-performers had arrived. We caught up a bit, then I sat down in the back room and warmed up, enjoying the sound in the cavernous space. I don’t often get the chance to warm up properly on the road – the green room is a rare luxury – but when I do, my first tune of the night always comes out better.

Our crowd started to arrive, though as it got closer to 8 it became clear that it would be a slow night, another disappointment for me as I’d really tried to garner some press attention. Still, when Jeff and Adam started to play, on the far side of that enormous billiard table, I immediately started to enjoy myself. I felt enveloped in the warm sound and the inviting space, and by the time I was due onstage I was in a fine mood. Even the low attendance wasn’t bothering me, the room felt full of life.

My hands felt in good shape from the warm-up, and I think it helped me feel more relaxed starting out. I managed to play my opening tune at a much more reasonable tempo than the breakneck speed I often dive into, a good thing. Next was “If You Won’t I Will”, and the body thumps at the ended sounded so big bouncing off the walls. A blast.

The rest of the set flew by (with a nice reaction to the brand-new, as-yet-unnamed koto-bridge song) and I decided to end up with “Shenandoah” followed by the new “Dog & Kid”. It’s been quite a while since I’ve played that old folk tune, but it feels so comfortable, always. I used to play it nearly every show, and this reminded me why.

“Dog & Kid” was another fun one to blast out, and my set was over. I grabbed a local porter (impressive, the range of local beers that exist in this town) and settled in to enjoy the closing set by Anthony Neff. A great night, in the end, and totally worth the trip.

I’ve been checking out a lot of my peers recently. After playing the Singer Songwriter Cape May festival last weekend, I checked out every single one of the 150 artists who played it, with the intention of making connections with anyone whose music I liked. I soon realized that I had some pretty tough criteria when checking out someone online.

If I dig your music, I might subscribe to your newsletter, Like you, Friend you, follow your Twitter feed, subscribe to your Youtube account, add you to my Google+ circles, or send a friendly email. If you keep in touch, I’ll come see you play a show. If you’re really charming, I may buy an album, or help you set up a show in New York. I may, eventually, become a true fan.

None of this will happen, and I may bear a grudge against you forever, if:

– you require a Like to hear your music.
– your only website is a Facebook page and there is no easy link to hear music on it.
– your only website is a Myspace page.
– your only website is a Bandcamp page.
– the only way to hear music on your site is to follow a link to “Buy” it.
– you only have one song on your site.
– your bio includes hyperbole like: “amazing”, “stunning”, “peerless”, “awesome”, “hot”, etc.
– you feature more than one cover song on your site.
– your website is set to autoplay music as soon as the page is opened.
– you have multiple misspellings on the front page of your site. I’m sorry. It’s like a bad tattoo.
– the first 10 seconds of your first tune/video bore me. I’m REALLY sorry. That’s all you get in this day and age.

What’d I miss?

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How I roll, winter 2013. Green bag contains my Austin-bought boots and a bit of lunch, when times are good.

My suitcase on tour contains a ZT Acoustic amp (5″ speaker, 200 watts…awesome for a traveler, though heavy), a music stand I’ve converted into a mic stand, a merch table made of cardboard which attaches to the top of the suitcase, one box of CDs (I get more shipped to me halfway through tour), some extra batteries and cords, one pair of jeans, four t-shirts, five changes of underthangs and socks, a long-sleeve shirt, a razor and a toothbrush. Carrying along a full PA setup (mics and adapters are in my guitar case) means that I don’t have space for two weeks’ worth of clean clothing, so I count on doing laundry at least a couple of times per tour.

I had a five-hour ride from Jackson to Birmingham, but it started early in the day, and I was looking forward to arriving at 12:30. It’s very rare that I get many quiet hours in one place while on tour, and I was looking forward to an afternoon of relaxing while doing laundry. Some practice, a nap, a long shower…a dream.

I couldn’t find any hotel bargains in downtown¬†Birmingham, so I’d chosen one south of the city, but seemingly accessible by a local bus line. Piecing together a plan from the typically inscrutable local bus map (is it too much to ask that actual street names are used, rather than just the shape of the route?), I found that I could walk just two blocks from the Greyhound stop and grab the bus down to the hotel.

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(My hotel was located somewhere on the grey line just to the left of the red line on this map. Street names? We don’t need no stinking street names!)

The journey was painless, my Greyhound pulled into Birmingham ahead of schedule (!), and in just a few minutes I was waiting at the bus stop. Things were looking great for my afternoon. The local bus showed up about 10 minutes late, but that didn’t ruffle my feathers a bit. I got settled and pulled up the GPS on my phone so I could follow where we were going.

The bus seemed to be stopping awfully frequently, and when I looked at the distance between where we were and where we were going, I realized that this was going to be a long trip if this kept up. We soon left behind the downtown buildings and entered into the outskirts with their lawns and fences, but we continued to stop at what seemed to be every other intersection to pick someone up or drop someone off. I watched the minutes tick away on this bus, and before long we had been in transit for an hour.

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The golden lady of Birmingham.

The vagueness of the transit map meant that I wasn’t entirely sure where I should be dropped off in order to have the shortest walk possible to the hotel, though there was a loop that seemed to circle my destination so it seemed certainly I could get pretty close to it. I spoke with the reticent driver when we seemed to be getting close to the beginning of the loop, and she indicated that I should stay on the bus to go around the loop, because there would be a stop closer to the hotel on the return trip. Fifteen more minutes of driving, and she left me off by a Waffle House (a staple of the South), with a vague wave pointing in the direction of my hotel.

I descended with my gear, then had a good look at my phone, as I couldn’t actually see the hotel from where I was and there were several streets to choose from, all heading off in different angles. I probably spent five minutes with the map and a compass app, trying to figure out how best to walk there. I finally set off on the quietest of the streets, and soon spotted a tall sign advertising the Super 8. Cool.

Unfortunately, the small street I was on terminated in a whizzing four-lane highway, crossed by another four-lane. Not only were there no crosswalks, there were no more sidewalks. I headed towards a stoplight, and ran across after a few minutes when a break appeared between cars turning left. I cut through a parking lot, keeping the hotel sign in sight, and came upon a smaller two-lane road, which didn’t have a sidewalk either. I couldn’t roll my heavy suitcase over the grass, so I picked it up, sweating with the effort so far, and trudged up the road. It soon turned into an upward slope, the hotel itself appeared in the distance, taunting me from the top of a hill.

At points along the road, even the grass petered out, with nothing but road to walk on. I had to jog in between driveways and gravel lots to avoid the many trucks coming up and down this busy stretch. The hotel seemed to be receding from sight, but finally I found myself in its parking lot, panting. The office was far on the other side, of course, so another few minutes of walking and I fairly collapsed into the lobby.

It was nearly three o’clock by now. So much for a restful afternoon. I checked in, threw my clothes into a washer and sat down with the transit map to figure out how much time I’d have before I needed to leave again to get to the gig. Though I looked at every possible combination of routes, the only way I could get to the 7 pm gig on time, allowing 20 minutes to walk to the bus stop, was to leave again at 4:30.

Of all nights, tonight I had to bring my own PA, so I needed to bring all my gear with me in the suitcase besides my gig bag with guitar and cords.I pulled everything extraneous out to lighten the load (which wasn’t much), pulled my clothes out of the dryer, then headed back out again, cursing my decision to stay so far South and wishing I’d spent the extra fifty bucks it would have cost me to stay in town.

I realize I’m just begging for pity at this point, but this trip was even worse. I dragged everything down to the bus stop, and shortly after arriving it started to rain. I took shelter under the overhang of an office building nearby, then waited for an hour for the bus to arrive. When we finally arrived in the city itself, I got off at a transfer point, then called a cab to pick me up, rather than risking another late bus. But when the taxi didn’t arrive in 15 minutes (they’d told me “10 to 30 minutes wait”), I took the bus that came first, and arrived at the gig five minutes after my start time.

Rojo’s was a nice-looking Mexican restaurant, with a lot of people inside. My spirits rose at the thought of playing to a good crowd, but I was immediately shown to the bar area, a room separated from the dining area by a soundproof door, and deserted inside but for the bartender and one table of three gentlemen engaged in loud conversation.

Tamping down my array of frustrations, I set up my PA as fast as I could, ordered some veggie tacos, and started to play, hoping to draw some people in. Gradually a few folks wandered in, and by the set break I was actually drawing a bit of attention. I tucked into the tacos – which were excellent, packed with top-notch soyrizo – and had a bit of conversation with someone who had seen my bio and decided to stop by and check me out. I played another set, and though the place never really got hopping, I did OK by the end, with several people stopping to pay compliments or buy a CD. I finished up, enjoyed a great local lager, and called a taxi to take me home through the pouring rain. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in the hotel, dry and happy but swearing never to put myself through this kind of local transit hell again.

 

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It was a gorgeous morning in New Orleans, sunny and clear. I saw my friends off (a million thanks, S & J!), then decided to walk to the Amtrak station, about two miles away. Though I was lugging all of my crap with me, when do I ever get the chance to walk through the French Quarter? I hated to leave the city, and this seemed like the best possible way to say farewell.

I absolutely love the architecture here, and found myself stopping several times each block to shoot photos. I took so much time enjoying my walk that by the time I hit the business district, I only had a few minutes left to make my train. I hustled into the station, printed out my ticket, and ran aboard to take my seat.

When my pulse slowed and my breathing quieted, I came to the realization that I had an enormous amount of legroom, a table, and electrical jacks next to my seat. Oh right – the train. It was the first Amtrak of tour, and my coach seat felt like the height of luxury travel after all the buses.

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(Southern swamp, from the train)

An afternoon of sheer bliss, and I arrived in Jackson, my first time there. The station was new and beautiful, and as I emerged on the far side, I could see my hotel just a block away. Wow. It, too, was new and beautiful (and a bargain), and I checked in, took a shower, then practiced a bit while looking out the windows at the plains.

Too soon, it was time to leave for the gig. I pulled up a map and realized that Hal & Mal’s was less than a mile away. What a confluence of convenience! I decided to walk (as I usually do, unless it’s more than 2 miles) and hoofed it over, encountering no other pedestrians in this typically Southern car-based city.

Hal & Mal’s has a big performance area, but as this was a mid-week show, I was going to play in the restaurant itself. It was a nice arrangement, with a PA and lights, and the staff treated me very well as I got established. I also talked with several locals who greeted me warmly and asked how my tour was going, they’d checked out my site and my music beforehand. Always nice to welcomed in this way.

I ordered a bowl of the bouillabaisse, which was incredible (why have I never tried this in New Orleans?!), and their “tamale pie”, which turned out to be nothing more than a pile of molten cheese over a flattened tamal. Oh well. I devoured the soup and dug out the masa and beans from under the cheddar, then it was time to go on.

Most of the seats in the place were occupied by this point, with a tableful of well-suited gentlemen directly in front of me. I couldn’t tell if they were executives, developers or politicians, but they had very important things to discuss very loudly, and they didn’t let up a second when I kicked off my set. I got some scattered applause (though certainly none from that particular party), and continued on, ignoring the suits as they ignored me. Finally, they packed up and left without a glance in my direction. Good riddance!

By the set break, a lot of the other people had started to pack up and head home for the night as well. I had been warned that Wednesdays are slow here, and I could see that the tables weren’t being filled by newcomers. Partway through of the set, though, a nicely-dressed couple came in, and immediately showed interest in what I was doing. A few tunes later, I mentioned that I was from New York, and the male half of the couple shouted out, “What part?”. After I finished out my set, for their and just a few others’ benefit, we chatted and it turns out they live in the East Village, and were on a road trip through the heartland. They wished me well on journey, as I did theirs, and I promised to keep in touch about my shows when I got back home. Funny how things like this happen on tour.

I have only been to New Orleans once before, on tour in 2010,but I immediately fell in love with it then. I felt like there was something undefinable, that goes beyond the gingerbread on the shotgun shacks and the brass bands and the po’boys, which gave it a feel like no other American city.

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That feeling greeted me again when I disembarked from the Megabus, after a 5-hour trip from Houston. I decided to walk the mile and a half to my hotel, through the French Quarter and into the Marigny, just to enjoy it. I wasn’t even bothered by all the tourists (a group to which I belong, of course, more or less), with their plastic margarita glasses and bags of Cafe du Monde memorabilia. The city just exudes a welcoming, mysterious charm.

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I met up with some friends from Arkansas who were spending a few days in the city, and had a beer at Lafitte’s, the oldest bar in the USA. It certainly looks it, from the age of the building and the bar itself, though the whirling frozen daquiri machines behind the bartenders showed how it had been upgraded to meet contemporary demands on Bourbon St.

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I had an interview to do, so I returned to the hotel and connected with the journalist. It was a very in-depth conversation, with lots of questions about my various musical experiences before arriving on my current M.O., and was a lot of fun, though it went on for over 30 minutes and I began to wonder what kind of article she’d be turning out. (I hate to report that, as of this writing, I still haven’t seen any sign of the interview, which was to help promote the next night’s gig).

Then it was time to pull on my new boots, grab the guitar and head to the gig. I’d never been to Checkpoint Charlie’s before, and upon entering its prime corner location on Esplanade, found a yawning space with several levels and a good-size stage far in the corner. I plugged into their PA, noting the various signs declaring “$5 charge to use the PA – no charge if you don’t make $5”, which seemed pretty kind-hearted of them.

I was expected to provide 3 1/2 hours of music this evening, and I had resolved to not repeat anything, and to depend on originals as much as I possibly could. This meant bringing out a lot of tunes I wouldn’t normally play in a bar, like mellow fingerpicking pieces I’d written for weddings, but it seemed like a good challenge to mix them in.

When I hit the stage at 7 p.m., there were just a few people sitting at the bar, and a few in a raised area with billiard tables, none of them paying any attention. This is a tough situation; I didn’t want to waste my best songs on them, but I also wanted to try to grab their attention if I could. And at the same time, I wanted to make it seem like I was in control of the situation, so if someone walked in the door they’d be drawn in, not put off by the whiff of desperation. (Of course, I should be thinking about the music and the music alone, but these are some of the things that go through the head of a performer).

I decided to start out quiet, but confident, with some of the fingerpicking tunes, then tried out one of the few covers I’d planned to include, Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”. That, finally, elicited some glances and a burst of applause at the end. I ramped up the energy a bit and continued on, happy to see that some of the glances turned into actual listening, and before long a few other people came through the door to join them.

I finished up the first set, took a short break, then went back on. More people showed up, replacing others who’d left, and I pushed on through my back catalog. I got some nice compliments on the next break, and some CD sales, and during the third set there were folks sitting in front of me for the sole purpose of listening and watching. I played four Beatles songs, and “Shenandoah”, but otherwise stuck to my own tunes, and by the time I was done my fingers were aching but I was happy with the way things had turned out. I rewarded myself with straight bourbon and some brass band action up the street at DBA, then an oyster po’boy after midnight with my friends. A great night.

The morning after my gig at SquareRut, I had an early morning call to play at the lovely Gateway Guesthouse. I played half an hour or so for the guests, then was treated to brunch (flappers, their specialty – yeast-based pancakes topped with brie and a honey/brown sugar syrup…insanely good) and some lovely chat. Then, off to spend another day in Austin, scoring great Bloody Mary’s, tacos (natch), and a pair of honest-to-goodness, long-lusted-for cowboy boots. Put ’em on right away, too.

Monday morning, had a decent brunch of migas, kind of an Austin specialty (though they fall short of chilequiles, I have to admit), then caught my Megabus to Houston. I nearly missed it, as these curbside stops are often entirely unmarked, and there was no info on their site except the cross streets. But I finally saw the familiar towering blue double-decker pulled into a parking lot off the street, and ran on, sweating.

Houston is an impossibly sprawling place, with the metropolitan area stretching 50 miles wide. It was sheer luck that the venue was walking distance (about a mile, that is) from the bus stop. I hoofed it over through streets devoid of other pedestrians, and found a banh mi shop in the same strip as the bar. The venerable banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of French bread with meat, tofu or fish stuffed inside along with chiles, cilantro and pickled vegetables. This version was decent, especially for $2.71, and I hung out for an hour munching the food log and catching up on some diaries.

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Bow to the banh mi.

I had struggled mightily to come up with a gig in Houston. Monday nights are tough anywhere – a lot of likely places are simply closed until the next weekend is in sight – and I don’t really have connections in the town. But somehow I stumbled on Khon’s, and it sounded promising, an offbeat bar/gallery with a very local clientele, if Yelp is to be believed.

I was greeted warmly by the proprietor, Khon himself, and he helped me get set up in the front corner of the comfortable room, with local artwork on the walls and a big game table in the back. This table was filled with people playing something card-based and intense (bridge? pinochle? Magic?), and though there was not a single other customer in the place, their presence was lively and boded well.

By 9 pm showtime, however, not another soul had arrived, and I was feeling a bit embarrassed. I had tried as hard as I could to promote the date, hitting up all the newspapers and weeklies and public radio calendars, and even had gotten an Arts Pick selection for the night. But though the table in the back was still full of players, nobody was in the front except me and the bartender.

I killed time until 9:15, then figured I might as well play, for my own practice if nothing else. I plugged in and tested out a few tunes I don’t play very often, running them all together without breaks to avoid that shaming silence when applause should happen, but doesn’t (this is a frequent tactic). I continued in this vein for a little while, then took a break, stepping outside for a breath of Texas air before resuming.

A few tunes later, just when I was considering whether I should give it up for the night, a genuine customer arrived and plunked themselves down at the bar, expectantly looking my way. I started pulling out some of the tunes from my regular set, and after a bit a couple walked in, then another. The place was starting to feel a bit lively, and I even got a few rounds of applause.

Then, the group who had been playing cards broke up, and they started filing out. One gave me a thumbs-up and left a buck or two on my merch table, and then another chucked down a tenner, grabbed a CD and shouted “Thanks!”. They’d heard me after all, who knew?

A few more people filtered in, and though conversation started to drown me out, at least a few of the customers were still giving a good listen, and I was happy. Not bad for a Monday night.

 

 

 

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Austin: where the weird have already turned pro.

It’s not easy for an outsider to book a gig in Austin. I’ve never had a great show in the self-proclaimed (and frequently – the slogan appeared even on the plane’s exit ramp when I touched down) Live Music Capital Of The World. I think there are just so many professional musicians here, who make their living filling regular slots in the million clubs, bars and pizza joints around town, that there is simply no need for a touring musician in the economy unless they can draw hundreds of people. (Which I’m not. You know…yet).

This time, I tried the shotgun approach, sending out messages to about a dozen venues that seemed like they might stoop down as to make room for a low-profile troubadour, including one place primarily known as a hot dog take-out counter. (Which has three-band bills every night, but still, I’m a little ashamed). None of the dozen even had the decency to respond, even with respond with a No, except SquareRut Kava Bar, which kindly offered me a gig, on a Saturday night no less. Score!

Now, you may think that I’ve spelled “kava” wrong, and that it should be a cava bar. You may be right.

Kava is a Polynesian drink which, according to Wikipedia, causes “slight tongue and lip numbing, mildly talkative and sociable behavior, clear thinking, calmness, relaxed muscles, and a sense of well-being”. Also, it tastes terrible. (Here, Wikipedia is charitable: “slightly pungent”). SquareRut serves kava, and only kava (OK, and some tea). No alcohol, because it’s a really bad idea to mix kava and hooch, apparently.

A Saturday night show in Austin with no beer may sound like a contradiction in terms. I felt a little bad inviting people to the joint, in fact, knowing that they’d be trapped in my sound-world for two hours with no alcohol to assist with the enjoyment. But I went ahead and put out the word, and people responded positively, though none had heard of kava, and some were a bit leery of passing on the invite, knowing about the limited availability of adult beverage refreshment. But signs pointed toward a decently-attended show, at least.

I arrived on Thursday, and greatly enjoyed the foods, drinks and weather of Austin leading up to Saturday. It was a little hard getting used to the fact that it isn’t really a walking town, even though it appears that way on a map. For instance, walking from 6th St. to the strip on South Congress looks like a modest eight-block walk, which should take, I dunno, ten minutes at a good pace. But in actuality it will take you at least half an hour, and in the searing Texas sun you’ll probably expire before you make it. Buses generally arrive every 20 minutes at best, and the new metro rail system only has a single line which runs once an hour, and shuts down completely from 4 pm Saturday until Monday morning. So…when visiting, pack a car.

Saturday evening, I and a group of friends worked hard to find a dinner place that had an open table for seven people, but even at the ungodly early hour of 6 pm, everywhere was booked solid. I have to assume that everyone just makes plans to hit up one of the food trucks parked in every vacant space in the city (there are easily more food trucks than actual restaurants) after taking in their live music for the night. But we finally found a Thai place that had room on their patio, and under the glow of heat lamps (hot as the days were, the nights get chilly in the desert) ate an excellent meal.

Then we got in our cars and headed south. SquareRut is located on South Congress, but south of the strip. Four miles south, to be exact. We left behind the bright lights and passed through open fields in total darkness before arriving at a small strip mall, with almost nothing around it. This was the real Austin city limits.

The space inside was bright and friendly, at least, with a good stage and decent sound system. I got myself set up, and other friends soon started to arrive. Most tried the kava, with some bravely choosing the recommended dosage of three full servings, which arrived in charming coconut half-shells. There were various flavorings available, which made the stuff much more palatable, until they ran out of everything but the straight stuff partway through my set, I learned later. The general consensus on the taste: “bitter dirt”. Or, “the water left over from washing potatoes”. Slobber!

I didn’t find this out until later, of course. I’d been warned not to try it before playing, as the potion numbs one’s mouth and I didn’t want to be drooling onstage. So I plugged in and kicked off my two sets, happy to have a nice crowd of friends as well as a fair number of kava-sipping diehards scattered around the cafe. It felt great to be onstage again, and I felt like I was connecting pretty well, though some of those diehards sat with their backs to me the entire night, try as I might to get their attention.

People had nice things to say afterward – my newest tune “Conversation With the Spirits” got some high marks – and a group of us headed for the Hotel San Jose courtyard for a beer. None of my friends reported much of a relaxing effect from the kava, even after three half-shells. Before I left, I did in fact have a sip – my lips numbed, and my tongue recoiled at the distinctly bitter taste. But given the number of other people in the cafe who were drinking it all night, with gusto, it clearly does have an audience, mysterious as that is.

 

 

This show took a lot of time and effort to come together. When I booked it back in November, the booker asked if I’d like the opportunity to curate the night. Knowing that Tea Lounge is a generally well-regarded venue, and having so much time to work with, I thought this would be a good chance to put together a really interesting night of music that would encourage people to stick around from set to set. New York seems worse than many other places in that bands show up at their slot time, play, then pack up and leave, and their entire crowd goes with them. I wanted to create a bill worth sticking around for, at least once.

I knew that a night full of solo acoustic strummers is one way to guarantee the yawn factor, no matter how good the musicians might be, so I first resolved to avoid guitarists if at all possible. I started seeking out Brooklyn songwriters who used something else to accompany themselves. Before long, I found someone who seemed perfect – a violinist and singer with great tunes and a lot of experience playing locally. I dropped her a note and she wrote back the next day accepting the slot, and suggesting a friend of hers to play as the third act on the bill. I was already familiar with this friend, a very accomplished cellist with big ties in the new music world, and in fact am a fan of her stuff. This was gonna be great!

Unfortunately, the cellist soon wrote to say she couldn’t do it due to another booking. RATS. Still, the gig was months away, so I kept looking to find a third act to complete our bill. I found some interesting people – accordionists, more cellists, even a trombonist – who are doing cool stuff that relates somewhat to my song-oriented sphere (as opposed to, say, chamber music). I sent out five or six emails and Facebook messages, and people responded with interest, but everyone had a conflict that particular night. 

I searched again, found more folks (New York has no shortage of musicians, BTW), and shot out another round of messages. Again, the responses started coming back – interested, but not available. 

By now it was January, and it was high time I nailed things down. Just as I gathered another batch of names to approach, I heard from the violinist I had onboard; she had messed up her schedule, and had to back out of our performance. Oh…rats. Now I had nobody for the night and the Lounge was starting to ask for the final bill.

I started crawling through the calendars of other Brooklyn venues, looking for anyone – anyone – to join me. I still wanted to avoid other acoustic solo guitar players, but I was running completely out of ideas. I found a few more acts that seemed to fit the basic idea, and sent them a desperate message.

Miracuously, I heard back from one of the most promising people that had popped onto my radar, a solo acapella vocalist. And she was available, AND she said that she could find friends to complete the bill. Eureka! She was responsive to my followup emails, and we soon worked out a bill with not one, but two other acts – a freak-pop band, and a “cello-jazz guitar-drums” trio. A little different than what I’d originally imagined, but a complete bill of people who were happy to play.

I immediately wrote the Lounge, and at their request put together a blurb for each of the acts, digging through various Facebook, ReverbNation, and even Myspace (!) pages to gather info. They got it up on their site, and with barely two weeks to  spare, we had a night of music. Whew. 

I turned my attention back to booking my February tour, which badly needed some time investment, and moved February 8 to the back of my mind. But then, not three days after the confirmation, I got the bad news – the freakpopsters were backing out. I didn’t even try to suppress a hearty scream of frustration (good thing I was at home…), but almost instantly remembered a fantastic band I’d seen a few days before at Rockwood Music Hall, and whom I’d discussed a possible future joint gig. I dropped them a note, and they wrote back within an hour to confirm their involvement. Saved! The Lounge updated their site, and once again, I let the night go out of my mind. 

A few days into the first week of February, I began to hear conversations about an upcoming giant snowstorm. A hundred-year-storm, one for the history books. And it was due to whack New York City on the evening of…Friday, February 8.  Though I knew that snow could cut down attendance, I wasn’t too concerned – the fact that I had my bill solid for the night was all I really cared about. And one of my first shows in NYC was at Caffe Vivaldi during a blizzard, and it turned out to be a really fun show for me and the people who came out.

When Friday came, the city was beginning to batten down the hatches for the storm, which still promised legendary proportions. A couple of the other acts called me to be sure the show was still on, and I reassured them that it would be going on as scheduled (the Lounge had already told me they’d be open all night, come what may from the skies). The weather experts predicted that the peak of the snowfall would arrive around 10 or 11, but I figured by that point. everyone would already be inside, and we’d have a nice cozy little jamboree.

By mid-afternoon the snow had started to fall, very gently. It continued on as I prepared to leave home close to 8, with the wind picking up a bit and perhaps a inch or two settled on the ground. I stopped by my friend Pauline’s place near the Lounge, to rehearse a tune we’d planned to play together (she’s a great violinist). We blew through the tune a few times, then just as I was putting my boots on to go, I got an email from the headlining band. They were worried about getting home after the storm, and were bowing out.

I hadn’t considered this possibility, that a band would choose not to appear, at the last minute. I personally can’t imagine canceling a show for any reason other than emergency personal hospitalization. And if you’re actually promoting a show, you have to consider that you’re disappointing the people you invited to come. Worse, they had promised to bring half the drumkit for the night, which was going to affect the first band. But the show must go on, so I trudged over to the Lounge, thinking that, at least, I might be able to extend my set a bit.

The wind was now blowing pretty hard, and plenty of snow was falling, though there still wasn’t more then a few inches on the ground. I ducked into the Lounge to find people at most of the tables, sipping tea, plugged into laptops, or just chatting. A very welcoming sight. I began to set up, and soon members of the first band started to arrive, another happy event.

This first band, who were scheduled to do a short 20-minute set before the rest of us, was the only one I hadn’t heard personally, and which had been described to me as “jazz guitar, cello, and drums”. The first thing I noticed was that these were clearly a bunch of rock n’ roll dudes, and when the frontman plugged in his guitar, there was nothing jazz about it. He was rocking out. I didn’t see a cello in sight, either, and when I casually asked about it they had no idea what I was talking about, though the bass player admitted that he played an upright sometimes, maybe that’s what our friend in common had noticed. Oh well. The show, you know!

Just at that point, I got another email, from the solo vocalist (the one who’d set up the first band). My heart in my throat, I opened it up, and saw what I dreaded to find – she, too, would not be appearing this evening. She claimed she’d had the flu all week, and while that’s an excuse I could consider valid, hearing about it a few minutes before showtime is not, like, very cool. And right then, after all that had happened this gig, especially so.

So there we were, after all that, my grand night had boiled down to a power trio that knew four songs, and me. But, if I need to say it again, the damned show must go the hell on.

A nice little crowd of my friends had arrived by this point, as had some pals of the band. After scrambling a bit to put together a full drumset, the fellas plugged in and launched into a loud, grunge-oriented set, ending with a bruising cover of NiN’s “Hurt”. In truth, they were pretty good at what they did, but I was finding it hard to appreciate them. This band just were’t at all what I had imagined as part of the bill (I was picturing Clogs, and was getting Soundgarden…), and my resentment over the way things had turned out lingered on. But the last thing I was going to do was to put on a lame set, so I steeled myself, plugged in my guitar and put on a smile.

After a song or two, everything else melted away, and I started to thoroughly enjoy myself. I was playing pretty well and people were listening, what else could I ever want? Pauline joined me with her violin to cover “Gold” from the Once musical/movie, dedicated to a friend, and my enjoyment went even higher up the scale. I did another solo tune to finish up (a new arrangement of “House”, an old favorite), and my contribution was done. A good feeling, after all of that.

A friend of the first band had volunteered to play a bit of solo guitar afterward, since there was nothing else going on, so I had a welcome beer and enjoyed some of his drone-based music while catching up with friends. Then a few of us lit out to find food in the neighborhood. Pushing open the front door, we saw a winter wonderland, one of those amazing times when the city emits no noise and everything is white. The wind was nasty, and the snow had accumulated to at least six inches, but it was great fun stumbling through the piles, and when we found an Italian place open with good pizza and great wine, we had ourselves a perfect end to a pretty good night, after all.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday evening, I got an email from a promoter asking if I was interested in filling in for an open slot on Wednesday night at Wicked Willy’s, a club on the (in)famous Bleecker Street. Though I’ve never played there, just last week I went to the Red Lion, a club down the block from Willy’s, to see a friend play. It was the kind of scene I expected from the strip, a mix of tourists and NYU students, both enjoying cheap margaritas, pitchers of Bud and loud cover bands. So when this email came, after a quick glance at their site (“time flies when you’re drinking rum!”) I knew what I would be getting myself into.

Still, I was up for the challenge of trying to get across to a crowd in party mode, and thought it might allow me to play before a crowd I wouldn’t normally encounter otherwise. Moreover, I had no plans for the night, and there was no pressure to try to promote the gig in the 24 hours before set time. I wrote back and accepted the slot, albeit not without a few misgivings.

I arrived in the place to find abundant pirate-related decorations, unbelievably cheap drink specials, and an acoustic duo doing a decent version of “Bye Bye Love”. The last was promising enough, though after a few more songs I realized they were playing nothing but cover tunes, each in precisely the same style. They sound was decent enough, and there were a handful of people listening to them play, though as soon they finished both band and listeners repaired together to the back room, which is dedicated to beer pong (I wish I were kidding).

The soundperson got me going quickly, and I got going with my set, as upbeat as possible. There were people scattered around the place, and occasionally I earned a glance, but by and large they had their eyes trained on a conversation partner or a football game on one of the TV’s. 

No matter what I played, there was no applause. Whenever this happens, I try to just keep the music going as it’s just too embarrassing otherwise. I blew through my dozen songs, said a “thank you for listening, everyone!” from which I drained as much irony as possible, and was rewarded with a few listless claps.

I retired to the bar, and in keeping with the spirit of the place, ordered a Rum & Coke. The modest glass arrived, carried by a bartender who requested $3 of me. Now, $3 was the advertised price for this bottom-of-the-well-liquor special…really, I wasn’t even gonna get a free drink?!? I asked her, “Wait, I don’t even get a discount?” She replied, a bit embarrassed, “Sorry, not on Wednesdays.”

I threw back the drink and slunk out of there. I’d just been told that my 45 minutes of live music wasn’t worth even the few quarter’s worth of cheap booze that goes into this crappy drink. It was a bit shaming, sure, but more than that I was just amazed that they could keep a regular schedule of musicians willing to play for nothing at all. Moreover, though the musicians are all locals, and potential customers, you can be damned sure that I, for one, will never spend a dime in that place. Seems like bad business to me – then again, it was hardly a shrewd decision to take this gig. Now I know.