I was looking forward to opening for Tom Paxton for several reasons. The primary reason was to showcase my ‘adult’ performance skills on the relatively major stage in the Lehigh Valley. Many of my contemporaries have done a multitude of shows, as openers or as part of theme-oriented collaborations with other locals folks on this stage, and I’ve been percolating to myself that I could (and should) be doing this gigs as well. I also thought that a Tom Paxton audience would eat up my folk material as well.
Tom Paxton is a consummate performer: charming, witty, great original songs and entertaining stories, and backed by a great player Robin Bullock. His set was great, long and diverse and engaging as one would expect from his 55 years on folk stages around the country. I was more than honored to be part of this evening, though disappointed that he didn’t acknowledge my set. But then, he doesn’t have to. I’m okay with that.
I did get to hang out in the green room with him and Robin for a good time, swapping stories about common experiences (mine on the local level, and his on a much bigger arena), common friends we have on the circuit (Anne Hills, Geoff Bartley and others who have collaborated with him) and our Martin Guitar heritage. I did get to share my local efforts doing radio, schools, Godfrey’s, etc. and he was most gracious, listening and responding to me. Great conversations. I really enjoyed chatting with him. I excused myself to prepare for my set.
I had done a sound check earlier at 4 pm for my 7:30 set and had got to link up with the two sound engineers who I had met at the LV Music Awards in March. It’s nice to have the respect of these guys as well, since we have to work together for a good show. I know I’m not up the higher echelons of the people they usually work for, but the pros, like Mark and Matt, work well with whomever they work with.
The stage was set up as I had left it three hours before so I was able to plug in my mandolin and guitar, set up my picks, capo, Thunder Tubes on an extra stool, check my tuning and wait for my introduction.
There were about 300 folks in the audience and Patrick, head booking honcho, introduced me. I came up and settled in (I took off my shoes) and said hello. No guitar. After some noodling around, the sound came in…bammm. So much for a smooth beginning. No problem though.
My aim was to present Folk Music in it’s present and local nature. Tom is the epitome of the world folk scene, and I decided that I would do my best to represent my own community’s folk scene – through my own artistic journey and through the Godfrey’s journey as well.
I wanted to start strong with Don’t Call Me Early in the Morning which I usually preface with, “How many of you have to work tomorrow?” Seeing the relative elderly Tom Paxton audience, I added, “but then most of you are retired.” It was a good and fairly benign reference to the ages in the crowd, and it was a good way to start. I played it well, encouraged folks to sing along, and finished with its strong guitar ending. I was on my way.
I followed with July, a Geoff Bartley song that is a great singalong. I mentioned Geoff’s relationship with Tom as a back guitarist. The audience was somewhat lethargic in singing along but I have a good technique in humoring them. When I give it up to them to sing the chorus, and it’s weak, I mumble along the last few lines in the chorus. A subtle jab but not obnoxious.
I did Me and Martin Growing Old, another connection with the folk scene and the local iconic business in the Lehigh Valley. I did it well though the acoustic lead is still not flashy enough to my satisfaction, but adequate for the meaning of the song. Again, folky, local.
I decided to follow with my mandolin medley of Voodoo Chile and Irish Spring. I like to break the dynamics of the set by changing instruments, and have recently played on the Gibson/ Martin dynamic by picking up my Gibson mandolin and then turning my Martin guitar around in its stand so that they don’t see each other. People picked up on the play. I introduced the medley as an Afro-Appalachian-Acid Fusion song without naming the tunes. The surprise happens when I start singing Voodoo Chile and those of a certain age nod in recognition. I have had trouble with staying in tune on this one, but tonight it was spot on and allowed me to play with some freedom. It was strong all the way through and a pleasure to perform. I think I bent a few minds in the process and showed I could extrapolate on the folk theme of the evening.
I followed with my greatest hit (I mentioned how this pales in comparison with Tom’s tunes) The Cat Came Back. I was able to tie this in with playing at Holy Infancy in the afternoon, establishing my ‘teaching artist’ creds. It was a shortened version, seeing how I did a couple of verses in the wrong places (amazing that this song still surprises me constantly). The ‘kids’ verses were delightfully accepted by this older, folkie audience, as I had expected. Big laughs at all the right places. It really had become a performance piece, singing along to a great folk song, good storytelling and a killer chord progression. A really killer chord progression. Really.
Time for Lessons from Pete. Serious folk. Seriously personal songwriting. After many, many times playing this in fairly intense situations, I finally feel confident that I can nail this song. I did it tonight as it was finally meant to be: in front of a major local crowd, with a great sound system (god, I love my guitar), an audience that understands and someone who finally learned the song. Here’s where I landed on my artistic self. Bang.
I then drove the local folk scene home with Legends from my friend John Gorka, I mentioned Godfreys, Musikfest, Mayfair, Touchstone’s recent production on the Greenway (I wish I had mentioned the Bach Festival) keeping the art’s scene alive in our community. I had worked on this one this week, to tighten it up, put the bridge in at the right places, and nail the fat, fat guitar arrangement I’ve worked out in fat E. I even hit the mega fat E plus something chord at the end. (Beatles 101, fat ending chord). Again, a very nice response to a serious song. Boy, I’m taking some chances here.
I had considered ending here but felt I should leave on an up beat so I went to the closer, Giants, as solid and friendly ending, in contrast to the last ‘serious’ tunes.
I asked my friend Dave Eshbach, a primal supporter of all of my musical endeavors, and someone he didn’t know, a relatively corporate volunteer type, to come up and play ThunderTubes. The newbie didn’t quite get it, and Dave, the obvious hippie, showed him how. Great theater. Class warfare victory. Only at a Paxton concert.
The song went great, with the audience spookifying, the ThunderTubers rocking, my salute to Rob Stonebeck’s real trombone on the CD, my set came to a relatively appreciative close. I thanked everyone, including ArtsQuest and said I look forward to Tom’s set.
The lights went down and I unplugged, packed up my stuff, thanked the sound guy, and headed out into the audience to thank folks who are my good, true friends. Godfrey’s people, folks who have raised their kids on my music, supporters from many days past. It was really nice to surf the reactions the rest of the night. This was the really good stuff for me, kind of coming out of the atmosphere. I usually find it uncomfortable, but tonight was nice.
I finished the evening enjoying Tom and Robin’s set, picking up my stuff and The Check, signing one CD, collecting $54 in sales (cash dollar), catching up with good friends, thanking Tom and the AQ staff. The kicker was, as I struggled off to the parking lot too far away, one of the wait staff and her boyfriend asked if they could help me carry my stuff to the parking lot. I said, “Sure!!” As we walked, the newly hired and young AQ worker told me how much she liked what I do and how I did it (!!!!), It had nothing to do with what music I played, but how I played it. Isn’t that exactly what my Art is all about? Coda.
A wonderful experience that is part of my DNA nowl