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.



(This is a little Cliff’s Notes version of the gig – 9 songs in three minutes!)

This was my first time playing at Path Cafe (named in honor, I presume, of the PATH station nearby), a little spot in the far West Village. It helped to launch the Big City Folk series, as I understand it, and I thought I’d give it a shot as I’m still in search of the ideal Manhattan venue.

It was an inauspiciously rainy and cold night, but I was greeted warmly, by name, by the cafe staff and introduced to the soundperson, a rarity in these little venues. The stage is tiny – soloists or personable duos only – but nicely elevated with a good view down the extended length of the shotgun floor plan. The funny thing is the large booth and table tucked into the corner back and to the right of the stage, which holds probably ten people. You kinda need to divide your attention between the main table area, which is long and narrow and feels somewhat distant, and the large crowd seated to your right, so close that you might kick someone in the head with an errant foot-tap.

A good crowd of my peeps had braved the miserable weather, and I started off in high spirits, with Montage. This is a pretty old tune of mine that has mutated over the years, becoming faster and more rockin’, and now depends on a heavy four-on-the-floor backbeat played with the heel of my hand. I don’t think I’ve ever opened a show with it before tonight, but it proved to be a great one to start off with, it’s energetic and fun and easy to play. I moved on to If You Won’t I Will, which has become my standard second tune in a set. I keep expanding the end, trying out different things, and tonight I think I overreached a bit, it felt sloppy, though people always seem to like it and it’s fun to bring out.

I then hauled out a very, very old song – from my Maxwell Horse days – called Passover. It’s completely different now, based on a fast fingerpicking figure, and I’ve only played it a handful of times, but it felt good tonight. I’ve found When Pennies Go To Heaven (another tune birthed in that band) to be a reliable standby that people seem to enjoy, and it’s tempting to throw it into every set, but I like mixing things up as much as possible so thought I’d sub with this tonight.

(If you’d like to hear my old band treatment, here you go. It’s a whole different me!)

As soon as I started, I realized that the vocal mic was really cranked up, and in contrast my fingerpicking part was very quiet. I could barely hear the guitar, but my voice was very loud in my ears. It made for a very different experience, as I was focused on the vocal and played around with the melody, while letting the six-string very much take the backup role.

Next was my tribute to Tucson, AZ, Drink the Desert. I tend to start this one incredibly fast, then find it hard to untangle the tougher sections in the middle. I counted it off to myself this time, and took an actual breath before starting, and it turned out a lot better. Very fun tune, power chords and all.

The Barefoot Doctor is a pretty specialized kind of tune that I’ve only played live in a recital-type setting before, perhaps just once in an informal venue like this one. It’s rather long and involved, built entirely of nonstop tapped 16ths, and though I like playing it I feel like it’s a bit demanding on a crowd. There was a nice reception tonight, but it felt reallllly long, and maybe even that dreaded word…indulgent! I may put it back to bed for awhile.

After that, a big contrast with maybe the most straight-ahead song in my catalog, Steal Your Thunder. Felt like a relief after the esoteric Doctor. Again, the vocal got all of my attention, but not in a bad way. I don’t sing well when I can’t hear myself, and tonight I was actually enjoying the sound of my own voice (not always the case…).

Then another pair of instrumentals, Craquelure, now very different from how it was recorded on Body of a Poet, with a swinging feel and a backbeat, and then So Absolutely So, which is yet unrecorded but which has become a standby in the shows. Always feels great to play, and tonight I sailed through this little fingerpicking triplet section at the end of the bridge that’s been a bit of a bear. Whew.

The last vocal tune of the night, Stainless Steel, is also the newest tune that I’ve completed. I’m quite in love with it at the moment, as usually happens with the freshest ditty, and I added some goofy “doot-doots” which were fun to do, though not sure if they’re stick around.

By this point in the set, I think people are usually ready for something familiar, so I pulled out Across the Universe, one of my favorite Beatles funes. I sometimes rock out the solo section, but tonight the guitar was so quiet that I kept it pretty whispery. Despertada por la Madrugada to finish out the night, and I was done.

Afterward, celebrated my belated birthday with a pile of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and veggie sausage, a nice group of pals and liters of Köstritzer at Loreley. Great finish to a fun evening.

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Daryl Shawn: solo nylon-string guitar
released 23 September 2012

All music by Daryl Shawn except 500 Miles, Shenandoah and Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika, all public domain.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is dedicated to the memories of Marian Ruth Eby and Betty Louise Hershey.
Tracking by Pete Caigan at Flymax Studios, Woodstock, NY
Mastering by Dana White at Specialized Mastering, Portland, OR
Photos of Daryl by Frank J. Lee
Back cover photo by Douglas Witmer

copyright 2012 Tender Entropy