- On The Other Side
- In A Minor Key
- Pulling Nails
- Train to Bad Places
- Heavy Lies The Head
I am of an age at which starting new habits or routines is unusual and often difficult. We become set in our patterns and are loath to change them – which is why when it comes time to make a change, having a supportive community around you is so incredibly valuable.
An institution of seven years came to a close this past Monday night. The Open Mic Jam at Bill‘s Pizza* – formerly at Terry O’Reilly‘s and at Smoken’ Joe’s before that – provided that supportive community for many songwriters, musicians, comedians, poets, and even novelists. It was on this stage 16 months ago that I first returned to performing live (after a break of few decades).
I will be eternally grateful to Terrance and Andrew for providing this environment, both for a returning performer to find his chops again, and also for providing a great workshop for trying out new songs and material as I was writing them. I am so, so pleased and honored to call you my friends!
Likewise, I now find myself in the community of some truly talented fellow performers, including (but absolutely not limited to) the up-and-coming Elliot Wren, the folk voice of Bob Greenwood, bassist extraordinaire Ethan Mackler, and theater composer/lyricist/blogger Danielle Pinals.
In the meantime, the revitalized Tunnel 18 is moving forward. I’m gonna be playing with a couple of interesting people over the next couple of weeks, including a drummer who I am really looking forward to collaborating with. Look for new music soon – I know I’ve been promising it for a while, but it’s on its way. Love to you all, and best wishes for warmth and fellowship this holiday season.
*Bill’s is still an institution on its own, and run by some damn fine people. Go and enjoy the food!
Ok, so it’s been a little over a year of performing live now. Have really been enjoying it, and just about every night out is better than the one before.
Just about, that is.
For those of us who tend towards the self-critical, one of the hardest things to do is to backslide. And yes, that’s the word we use sometimes. The we-were-doing-so-well and the it’s-just-not-there. And maybe it never was and we were just fooling ourselves for a bit and now we’re back to where we should be – amateur, dreamer, pretender.
Sometimes by a miracle (or a hell of a lot of work and therapy) we remember that in fact all of this feeling of inadequacy is a natural side effect of learning and growing.
What the hell am I on about? Well, I tried something new in my slot at the regular Monday open mic with Andrew and Terrance. Went with my Telecaster instead of my acoustic and also brought the small pedalboard (just to make it less twangy). Also didn’t really figure out which songs I wanted to do until the day before (not intentionally, but still).
And it was pretty bad, by my standards. Missed chord changes, weak voice, forgotten words, thin guitar.
Just about everything was bad, and all that after a week of feeling really great about how far my music and performance has come.
I’d forgotten that I’d spent all of Saturday working on a new song, including recording basic tracks and overdubs. At kind of the last minute I’d decided to do two original songs: one that I’d played live once, and one that I hadn’t quite figured out the live arrangement for. I was using the pedalboard out at a gig for the first time.
Had Sir Humphrey been nearby, he would have described my choices as “brave”.
On the way out, I ran into one of the comics who had also performed that night:
“How was your night? I think I missed your songs.”
“Well, there are good nights and there are learning nights, and I learned a lot.”
“Yup…. Same for me.”
Except he was great!
I have a lot of baggage.
Literally, I have a lot of baggage – see examples at right. Over one two-day period here in August I started the day with a hiking pack and an overnight bag, transitioned to a guitar case to play an open mic, and then grabbed my carry-on and computer bag to head to the airport at 5:30 the next morning.
- Hiking pack
- Overnight bag
- Guitar case
- Roller bag
- Computer bag
Not all of them at the same time. Not all of them useful in the same way. And at least one of them more beloved than the others (and P.S.: it’s not the computer bag).
The second favorite bag is the hiking pack, though that relationship is a little complicated. My son and I have been on multiple significant, multiple-day hikes over a span of years that goes back to about when he was 10 years old. Many of those hikes occurred in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and many of them were arduous, in the cold, in the rain, and with a pack that made me wonder if my shoulders would ever recover. Terrain has ranged from flat and grassy to alpine garden to boulder scramble to near-vertical ravine.
This past weekend’s hike was a one-day, but pretty difficult climb up the Hunt Trail to the peak of Mt. Katahdin, the highest point in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
It’s a hard truck. 5 miles in, 5 miles out, and 4400 vertical feet of elevation change. A good deal of that 4,400 feet occurs in what is called the Gateway – a near-vertical boulder scramble at the edge of an outcropping of the mountain.
We were in fog for most of our climb. This was certainly disconcerting as it could rain at any moment and become very slippery, but in hindsight it actually was very helpful. The fog kept us from being able to see completely where we were going or where the summit was, but it also made us feel a little bit more enclosed than we actually were. In those few moments where the fog cleared, there was a very distinct feeling that we were scaling the outside of the building. In the same moments, there was the realization that however we went up, we are eventually going to have to come down!
But, then we got to the top….
As you might be able to guess, it’d be easy for me to make the analogy to songwriting, or to my playing, or to performing. But you’re all smart and creative and feeling people – you can make that connection on your own.
Tonight I’m doing a different type of climbing. I am reliably informed that we are currently nearing our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet and will be making our connection more or less on time so that I may make it home in that vague in-between place that can be called either Wednesday night or Thursday morning.
It’s a pretty empty flight, and the attendants had us shift around for weight and balance – and I have found myself in an empty row as a result.
As an overly experienced flier, I almost always take an aisle seat so I can get out and make my next flight (or get the hell home or to the hotel). But tonight, look out that window….
…sometimes you’re reminded to stop, look around, and remember why the climb is worth it.
It’s been a lively and busy summer so far, and last night I just did my 21st open mic night since first getting back out on the stage last September. It’s been a transformative experience, and I am incredibly appreciative of the community of artists that I have been able to find, particularly in Newton, Massachusetts and in Edmonton, Alberta.
I can feel that my songwriting has changed in the last 10 months of performing. Being around all of these other artists is incredibly humbling. The depth and array of talent is astounding. It is hard not to think of it as a competition when these incredible artists get to the stage before you and completely blow you away with their talent, their depth of feeling and performance… and then, after you get over that little bruise to your own self-esteem and that hurt little being that is inside of you, you can take what you have seen and see it as inspiration for becoming a better songwriter, better performer, and even maybe a little more pleasant individual.
The hosts of these open mic nights can make or break them. In particular, I have found two events that have become very dear to me both because of the encouragement of the hosts of one and the opportunities that have been presented by the host of another.
Andrew Geano and Terrance Reeves host the open mic jam at Bill’s Pizza in Newton, MA. They were there when I first brought the guitar back out of the case to perform live, and both of them have been an incredible source of encouragement on songwriting and on how to improve my live performance. Please look both of them up – Terrance is a local music producer and mixer in addition to being a great open mic night host. Andrew is genuinely one of the nicest people I know, and also is an incredible singer-songwriter. You can find his work on Spotify and also find his live gigs here.
The other gig that has been a source of opportunity for me is Tim Ko’s open mic night at Tommy Doyle’s in Nonantum. In addition to giving local musicians a place to play, Tim uses his open mic night to find people to take on longer sets around the MetroWest area. It is through Tim that I’m gonna be playing my first longform solo gig on September 20 at Tommy Doyle’s.
I have to go catch a plane now, but I look forward to talking with you again soon. Please mark September 20 on your calendar, and I’ll get you more details really soon!
On the road again, this time through Cleveland and then on to Toronto and Edmonton for the second half of the week.
While in the Cleveland airport, I had a quick moment of déjà vu, and then of revelation. In the picture to the side you will see an area where I spent an overnight in the airport in April 1993. I was returning to Chapel Hill, North Carolina from my first trip to California. It was a long set of flights, and I didn’t quite realize what I was getting into when I made the reservation.
At that time American Express would allow students to get one flight anywhere in the United States round-trip for $199. So, I used mine to go out to San Francisco to a meeting where I hoped I might also find a job. The flight out was easy, leaving from Raleigh and making one connection in Newark. The flight back was San Francisco to Denver to Cleveland to Newark to Greensboro. Once I arrived in Greensboro, my girlfriend at the time was to pick me up and drive me back to Chapel Hill.
The whole return trip was a “direct” flight, meaning I didn’t have to change planes, but it was more like riding a local bus route.
What I’d also failed to grasp was that the flight would shut down and overnight in Cleveland. Again, this is a concept I would understand (and prepare for) better in years to come, but I had no experience to prepare me for it.
So, we got to Cleveland, they told us to get off the plane, get our bags, and check back in when the airport opened in the morning. Not realizing that this was part of the plan, and I had of course made no arrangements. So I slept right about where this picture was taken. And by slept, I meant dealt with a massive headache from not having eaten for the previous 24 hours except for the candy bar in Denver that gave me an initial sugar rush, followed by a migraine.
Morning came; I checked back in, and started off on my remaining flights. Got picked up by my then-girlfriend in Greensboro, met her parents for the first time (yup), and then drove back to Chapel Hill where I took a long shower followed by a long nap.
I tell the story because there were multiple points during that whole journey where I felt multiple flavors of “What’s going on? Why am I here? I’m completely screwing this up, I’m an idiot. If you screw this up, imagine what else you’re going to screw up.”
Walking through this part of the airport, that memory and those feelings came right back. And then I remembered they always go away. It usually turns out that I haven’t screwed up, or have done so only very minorly. And if I screw up, so what? I’ve learned something. And then I do better the next time.
So, maybe a long way around to share that song with you, but I hope you also see from this very minor example of stress and recovery that the sun always rises the next day. And then you get on the next plane and go to the next destination.