This is one of the great gigs that I get each year, for several reasons.
It’s Symphony Hall. Real stage, lights, sound, classy audience and a chance to work on communicating on a major stage. I would put this in the Philly Folk Festival Main Stage category, though probably not as intense. It’s still a local LV production, but pretty large opportunity to work the big leagues.
It’s also a gathering of many of the working professionals in the music biz, so it’s a great opportunity to catch up with the jazz cats, the blues and soul folks, the working class players who play the local bar scene, and some other surprising musicians. As always, I enjoy jawing with my friends, many of whom I only get to see at this annual affair.
I asked for an early set so I went on after the first group, a large steel-drum band with great sound and energy. I had to follow that.
I plugged in as they cleared the stage, and, sure enough, my chord didn’t work. As the mayor of Allentown slogged through my over-lengthy intro, we got it figured out and I launched into my short set. Hello, Allentown!
They scheduled me for eight minutes and I had prepared something a little longer. I decided to stick to my plans, but had brevity on my mind as I went through my set, snipping and clipping as I went on. Things on my mind, besides the full sound, bright lights and invisible audience. I’m actually comfortable doing this, though the situation always presents performance challenges.
I started with Santa Assassin, a tune I’ve played two and three years ago. It’s clever, edgy and funny, but there wasn’t as loud a response as before. Hard to say, but the final “They call be the next BB King” never fails to end the song strong.
I had to capo up for the next tunes but I had one holiday joke: One snowman says to the other snowman, “I smell carrots.” Good reaction.
I had been working on Bruce Cockburn’s “Cry of a Tiny Babe” for the last three years, and I finally was able to put together a strong arrangement, nice guitar backup and memorize the words. I really wasn’t sure I’d have it together by Sunday but made good progress at home this week. I also had a brainstorm during the week to add “Mary Had a Baby” to the mix, taking a fairly intense piece of poetry and a beautiful song, with a more serious presentation and drive the piece home with a rocking’ gospel, vocal driven song. It worked really well.
Cry of a Tiny Babe is one of the more masterful contemporary Christmas songs I’ve heard. It really uses a more conversational look at some powerful parts of the nativity story: Joseph dealing with virgin birth, wisemen’s mistake of dealing with Harrod and the male genocide that followed and the parents ‘head for the border and get away clean.”
The chorus is pretty oblique so somewhat hard to present like I mean it. The last verses deal with the Christmas story’s connection with today’s society, the shepherds, the street people and bums….. and takes it right down to the future in a baby’s eyes. Deep stuff.
I really did pretty well on it, still with keeping it short in mind, but missed the landing. The last two lines I muffed, though not a crash and burn.
I then cranked in the drive of Mary Had a Baby, asked folks to clap along (and they did). As I set up the first 4 verses, I took time to split the audience to do the two vocal parts, and gave them the opportunity to get comfortable, and they snapped it up quickly. I didn’t have to stop the guitar drive. I finished strong, giving the audience the chance to hear themselves in this magnificent hall, but still had brevity on my mind and stumbled over the last couple. I made it rhyme though. The guitar ending landed perfectly and sealed the deal.
I got a very nice response as I bowed and left the stage. Strange that my thoughts aren’t on that sound of applause but on how I could have done it better. I look forward to seeing the video to appreciate that sound.
I also did the gig on my new hip and didn’t have to use the stool I had requested. It felt great to perform like I used to, before my arthritis over the last few years.
I’m particularly proud that I took on the challenge to do a completely new song and to present it in this situation. I think I did the right thing. I got their attention with a short and edgy blues. Folks picked up on my risk factor, I got to do a serious piece of philosophic folk music and get the whole place singing at the same time. The hard homework paid off and I was the only completely solo act on the bill. Pretty good. Feels good, thought I didn’t do it perfectly. Someday…..