Fire And Rain


I had just finished doing three shows yesterday , and was heading home, when I thought to stop by a café on Hayden Island that I’d been talking with over the last week or so.  They host some outdoors live entertainment in the summer months, and I had been talking with them about being part of their plans, so I figured I’d stop in and follow up on previous conversations.  Plus, since I had the guitars with me, I figured I could give a little sample of what I do. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw the remains of a fire that had struck the nearby marina, destroying well over a hundred boats. There was still a bit of smoke and I could see a little bit of flame that persisted.  Overhead, Portland was building up for another bout of winter rain.

Neither the owners or the manager were there, but there was a handful of customers, including a gal named Kelly, who, it turns out, organizes various sailing events around Hayden Island and all the way up the West Coast (as far as Victoria, in British Columbia).  She was there with her daughter and grandson, and they were all interested in hearing me play a bit.

I started with an instrumental arrangement of George Harrison’s “Something”, then, keeping with the mellow mood, I went into a rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”.  The next thing I knew, I looked over to see Kelly and her daughter with tears streaming down their faces.  When I finished the song, they explained that Kelly’s mother had just passed away this morning, and my singing that song had proved a catharsis for them, giving them leave to grieve.

I have talked before about how I learn from playing cover songs.  I realize that there are some who would say Fire and Rain is such an old and worn out thing.  It’s true, it’s been more than forty years since James Taylor penned that tune.  But songs don’t really know how old they are; only the singers (and the audience, sometimes) do.  And a good song doesn’t know who wrote it, either.  If you sing it true, with commitment, it has the power to touch something in someone, like what happened last night.

I learn something when I play a song like that.  I get a sense of the timeless quality that has helped that song live in people’s hearts over the years.  I can aspire to do something that fine with my own songwriting.

Years ago, when my own Grandmother passed away, I attended the funeral.  One of my uncles felt it important to persuade me to reconsider my idea of trying to make a living as a musician, and we ended up having a long conversation on that topic.  Later, with various relatives gathered around, I sang one of my songs (“The Land Of Remembering When”).  When I finished, I felt my uncle’s hand on my shoulder.  I looked up to see tears in his eyes.  “Don’t give up just yet,” he said.  That was about twenty years ago.  And whether I am playing one of my own songs, or learning from the artistry of someone like James Taylor, I continue to give it my best shot.

Blue Room Bar – Artist In Residence

Michael will write about this in more detail but I’m so excited I had to let everyone know that for March, he is playing as Artist in Residence at the lively Blue Room Bar in Cartlandia (a part of Portland).  Every Thursday he’ll be there playing and sharing the stage with mates.  There’s a link talking about the Blue Room on the links page but just in case, here’s another – Blue Room Bar.  We’ll post every week to remind you but check out the venue and come visit Michael as well.

My Blue Room Heaven

When receiving emails from the Blue Room Bar in Portland, they would include the tag, “Cartlandia”.  I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant until I arrived to play my first gig there last night.  The Blue Room Bar borders a lot filled with at least a dozen or more foodcarts, offering all manner of culinary delights.  There was a crepery, various purveyors of tacos, sandwiches, ethnic foods (both traditional and fusion-inspired), and much more.  Sitting at the front of the lot, streetside, was a cart for Voodoo donuts.  My wife and I had been hearing about Voodoo donuts long before we ever first visited Portland, so now was my chance to sample their wares.  I picked up a “Triple Chocolate Delight” (chocolate donut with chocolate icing and a sprinkling of Cocoa Puffs) for Pony, and settled for a somewhat more conventional raspberry jelly-filled, powdered donut for myself, then tucked them into the car to take home after the gig.

The Blue Room Bar itself is a fairly spacious place, with a stage that could comfortably handle a four or five-piece band (so more than enough room for a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist).  They have a decent house sound system, with mains and monitors and a 12-channel mixer/amplifier, and some pretty fine house stage lights.  I had given myself ample travel time and arrived with more than an hour to get set up and settled in.

It was a good night.

There were the folks trying to decide which of my CD’s they wanted to buy (and me playing tunes featured on each of the CD’s, to give them some sense of their options).  There was the guy who called his brother (a fine guitarist in his own right, I was told), so that he could hold the cellphone in front of me and give his brother a good listen of what I was playing.  I felt the spirit of St. Steve Goodman upon me last night.  I was very much “in the moment”; making each song ring and shine through the room.  It was one of those natural highs that one hopes for with each and every gig.

Annika, the bartender, told me how much she had enjoyed my playing, and that she was going to let the owners know.  I look forward to returning to the Blue Room Bar.  And next time, maybe  Pony will come along, so that we can both enjoy some of the delights of Cartlandia before my show.

Jar Head (The Tip Jar, Part Two)

I went to grad school at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio.  In the nearby city of Dayton, there was a sandwich shop that I would play at about once a month or so.  Once, while playing there, a guy dropped a ten into the tip jar and said, “You remind me so much of Jim Croce!”  I took that as the high praise it was meant to be, and enjoyed the rest of my gig.  About a month or so later, a gal dropped a ten into the tip jar and gushed, “You are so much like Harry Chapin!” Again, I appreciated the compliment.  But about a month or so later, another customer in the sandwich shop dropped a couple of fives into the tip jar and said, “You really remind me of Steve Goodman.”  About this time, I was a little nervous, because, as great as all three of these songwriters are (and I play songs written by all of them), by this time they were all dead.  However, it’s been years since that sandwich shop in Dayton, and I’m still kickin’.

I mentioned in the previous blog post about the Native American tradition of counting coup.  To count coup was to earn honor; typically by showing that you could kill an opponent, but deliberately refraining from doing so.  I realize that the tip jar is a far cry from that tradition as such, but I regard the tip jar as a musician’s form of counting coup.  Getting someone to drop a little something in the jar is a very real and obvious affirmation.  What you are doing as a musician has pleased someone to demonstrate it in a noticeable way.

I was playing at the Feckin’ Brewery, in Oregon City, last Saturday.  Besides being my second time playing at Feckin’it was my birthday, and playing  a gig is definitely one of my preferred ways to mark the occasion.  Within the first twenty minutes of the first set, a guy dropped a twenty into the tip jar and flashed me a big grin (turns out he especially like the blues that I played early on).  In addition to that, when the bartender drops money into your tip jar, I find that a real vote of confidence (after all, they hear everyone who plays there).  And the same with the cook asking to buy a CD; that, too, makes me feel I had a good night.

As I said before, I think it’s important for the venue to show a basic respect to the musicians by paying them  something  for their service.  That leaves the tip jar to serve as a gauge of what sort of energy you bring to the show, and how you do connecting with the audience.

Like I said: counting coup.

Jar Jar Chink

Shortly after I first arrived in Denver (many years ago), I had a conversation with two ladies who owned and ran one of the more popular coffeehouses in the Highlands neighborhood.  At the time, they were featuring live music three days a week (Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons), but musicians were playing strictly from what they made from the tip jar.

“I have a masters in music,” I told them.  And to be fair, that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean much under the circumstances, save to suggest that I had spent a fair bit of time, effort, and money learning my craft.  “  I have thousands of hours invested in working up my repertoire, and thousands of dollars invested in my instruments and equipment.  With no disrespect intended, I have a lot more invested in what I do, and doing it well, than your barristas running your espresso machines.  And yet, I can imagine if you asked those barristas to work for just tips, they would likely be laughing at you as they walked out the door.  So, again, with all due respect, why do you ask this of me?”

My argument worked; after that conversation, word got around that this coffeehouse was paying musicians.  Maybe not a lot, as such, but more than just playing for the tip jar.  It was a small step.

So I have been on this soapbox before (you can see my footprints, right there).  In a society where there is debate about a working wage, or a minimum wage, there are plenty of venues that still ask musicians to play for tips only.  And there are plenty of musicians willing to do it.  They think they need to do it, to get exposure, to build a following, to get experience.  All of those reasons are a good argument for open stages, which I feel is a different situation.  An open stage is usually run by a designated host (who is paid by the venue to run the show, and fill in any gaps, should it be a slow night; occasionally, they are asked/expected to provide the sound system for the evening).  Audiences will often see the gamut at an open stage: everything from gigging professionals who are trying out new material (and maybe building that all important following), to fresh, new talent working out the nervous jitters.  Open stages provide a vital service in this context.

But if you are booked to play the evening at a place, if a venue is using your music as one more feature to attract customers, then you should be talking about some level of guaranteed compensation.  And the places that do pay expect a professional performance (after all, you get what you pay for).

So by all means, negotiate some guaranteed compensation; something more than just the tip jar.  Then show up on time, with a solid repertoire, ready to play, ready to connect with your audience. Then the tip jar becomes something else; something (to borrow from Native American culture) I call counting coup.  More about that in the next blog.

Return to the Merry Widow

We first visited the Merry Widow campground, in Basin, Montana, about a year ago. It is just off Interstate 15, almost exactly halfway between Butte and Helena. It was a wonderful experience the last time around and we had a few days between playing some dates in Bozeman and heading on to Missoula, so we decided to spend a little time at Merry Widow again. We arrived on Thursday, set up camp, and I had parked myself next to the RV and started to play the guitar, when I was introduced to Bobcat Jack Everitt. He is a session player who once played for the Steve Miller Band (before Boz Scaggs took over that gig), and has spent the last twenty years or so touring with Van Morrison. In between, he plays a circuit of wineries (particularly in the Northwest), while also representing Gibson and Bose (he has endorsement deals with both those companies). We had a great time talking shop.
One of the features of the Merry Widow campground is a large, barnlike structure that has been turned into a Rec hall. They have potluck dinners there on Wednesday nights, and the last time we visited, I played for one of those dinners and managed to sell nearly a dozen or so CD’s. One thing led to another, and Bobcat Jack and I decided to put on a show for the other campers last night. I was the opening act, and Jack very generously set me up to use his Bose sound system, as well as his wireless headset mike. Everything sounded wonderful. Once again, I sold nearly a dozen CD’s at the end of my show, with Jack doing the same after his set.
It has been a real delight making the acquaintance of this man, who cut his teeth learning Chicago blues from the likes of Luther Allison and Buddy Guy (and all manner of others). I have been regaled with all manner of stories, as well as learning a few additional road tips from the man.
A rather important side lesson: in the past, I would have felt compelled to try to emulate, or otherwise compete in some fashion with such a musician. I made a very conscious effort not to do so this time around. I reminded myself that I am who I am; my music is my own, and it has to stand on its own. I received what, for me was one of the best compliments I could have asked for. At the end of the night, Jack said, “You’ve got your own sound, and it’s good.”
We’ve traded business cards and all, and I will look forward to chatting and hanging out with this guy for another day or two, before we head our different paths. This is one of the real treasures of our new gypsy existence: meeting some other fine musicians along the way.

Good thing I’m Not NASA

I am playing a batch of gigs in Casper, Wyoming for the month of June, while we enjoy the hospitality and grace of our friends Rebecca and Geoffrey Hunt, who have again allowed us (humans, kitties, dog, and guitars) to sojourn at their cabin on top of Casper Mountain. On Monday, June 9th, I played a gig where everything went off without a hitch. The next day, at another gig, I went to turn on my amplifier and nothing happened; no light on the back of the amplifier, no soft, barely present hiss of power in the speakers. Nothing. I checked power chords, outlets; everything I could think of, to no avail. I was forced to play “unplugged”, as it were, and fortunately, it was a smallish room, and a somewhat intimate-sized audience where that worked well enough (besides, I remember seeing Andres Segovia play Carnegie Hall without any amplification, so I figured I ought to be able to pull this off.
After the gig, I picked up Pony at the Natrona County Public Library, and we hit a handful of music stores in the town of Casper. The one that was finally able to help us was Gigworx, in the Eastridge Mall. They introduced me to a new, incredibly compact Behringer amplifier; small enough to mount on a mic stand, and yet packing some 150 watts of power. Initially I was going to rent it for a few days, to cover the next couple of gigs, but it worked out so wonderfully well that I purchased the unit (the folks at Gigworx were kind enough to apply the rent I had paid to the purchase, and were just wonderful, friendly people to work with in all ways). I still hope to track down the problem in my Roland sound system. The lesson I have learned from this is to have a back up. And I have prided myself on doing so to a great extent (extra audio cables, power chords, and two guitars at any gig). But I was made keenly aware of where I had failed to carry through in this strategy. Fortunately, in my case, no one dies from such an oversight.
Meanwhile, we are most glad to be back up on Casper Mountain. Wyoming, like many parts of the Rockies and the Southwest, has been getting an abundance of rain. This has resulted in a profusion of green grass and wild flowers of all sorts on the mountain. Our friends, Rebecca and Geoffrey, have joined us for a couple of weeks, along with a couple of their grandkids: Rhys and Owen. Rhys and Owen have taken to joining Rufus and me on longish hikes through the woods. The dog and the boys do a good job at wearing each other out.
I have found some needed solitude each day in what is called the Sun Room, where I have set up computer, guitars, music books, calendars, and whatever else I may need to do my business. I manage to spend some hours of each day practicing, making phone calls and emails , working up new repertoire, and writing some new songs. Evenings usually feature some excellent meal that Pony, Geoffrey, and/or Rebecca cobble together in an excellent way, along with a movie, before sending the boys off to bed. So, any equipment failures or other setbacks notwithstanding, the pluses still very much outweigh the minuses.

And Who Before My Wondering Eyes Did Appear

He goes by the name of Bones. He has a big, beautiful, baritone voice. And he played a 12-string guitar with soft, nuanced expression while he sang songs by Pink Floyd, Nirvana, and REM. And as I listened to him, I got to thinking about the fact that last week marked the 80th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Aaron Presley. Presley died in 1977. Or so they say.
There are some who have always believed that Elvis faked his death and just went into deep, deep cover. Now I’m not saying I subscribe to this particular theory. All I know is, as I watched Bones sing and play, I got to thinking that if Elvis were still alive, and if he let his hair grow down to his shoulders and go to a pale, silver-grey, and if he grew a bit of a goatee……
Last weekend, Fiddler’s Dream was hosting concerts to raise funds for some of their operating expenses. I was asked if I might come out and play a set to do my part, and I was happy to oblige. In addition to Bones, I saw a lovely young woman named Mitzy, who sang traditional folk songs while playing the auto harp or the guitar. She told of growing up in a tin sheet and tar paper shack in Arkansas (she now lives in Tucson). She told of joining the military and playing Tuba in one of the military bands, while traveling all over the world. She was a very engaging performer.

I also saw Jason Dunn and the Open Graves; an old-timey/bluegrass trio of very fine musicians who took pride in specializing in up-tempo murder ballads. All in all, it was a wonderful night of music, and I was glad to be a part of it all.
I realize that it’s been a long, long time since my last blog post. I have been playing gigs, to be sure; and working hard at booking tour dates for when I finally pick up stakes and move on from Phoenix. I have been enjoying some invigorating swimming sessions in the pool here at the Mesa Regal RV resort, and practicing guitar, learning new songs, writing new songs, and generally getting on with the daily business of life. Oh, and I’ve been using the DuoLingo App on my smart phone to work on achieving some level of fluency in French and Spanish.
2015 promises to be an exciting and busy year. I will be playing the Nick Fest in Casper, Wyoming in June. In between and thereafter, we will be traveling through New Mexico again, spending the month of May back in and around Denver, and heading up north to Montana and west out to parts of Washington, Oregon and California. We look forward to catching up with many friends old and new.
And even though Elvis may have left the building, his spirit still walks among us.