Java J's 12/28/04

As expected, it went much more smoothly than last week’s performance. Not only did we get our groove back, we learned that the groove isn’t something that comes and goes mysteriously, but rather something that can be captured and improved through paying attention to the details.

There were still glitches, though, mostly my fault. For a couple of new songs I hadn’t spent enough time on the lyrics, and so I blanked out twice–even had to keep a lyric sheet handy as we played one of them. But aside from that the new songs went well, and we also did a decent job on a few that we hadn’t played in awhile.

It’s still awkward to do MC work, so I haven’t; folks are still much more interested in their own conversations than in listening to us. But we did see signs of attention–tapping feet, an occasional glance. For most of the evening the crowd was sparse, but then as we started our short final set at 9pm the place suddenly filled up with schoolgirls. Some of them were already fans (they’d seen us during our first Tuesday performance, and asked if we’d be available to play a birthday party), and were nice enough to applaud our songs and to dig deep for some change to put in the tip bucket.

The main goal is still to settle into a routine, getting used to regular performance and using it as an opportunity to polish our act. We’ll add another four or five Stanley Brothers songs this week, then keep them in heavy rotation so we can get them down pat.

Woodshedding

Woodshedding is the name musicians give to a session of intense musical practice. It can be an hour spent learning a lick, or days spent picking a song apart, or months spent studying an artist. Someone asked Doc Watson how he came to play fiddle tunes on flatpicked guitar. He replied that in the early 50s he was often called upon to play square dances without a fiddler; not knowing how to play fiddle tunes (nobody else knew either), he spent a summer woodshedding to develop the necessary techniques.

Neither Chris nor I are that intense yet about practice, although Chris has started to spend an occasional hour with a program that slows down music, using it to study and practice licks and breaks he particularly likes. But after coming back from West Virginia we decided that we needed to do a deep study of the Stanley Brothers and their singing. So we queued up some of their songs for upcoming Java J’s setlists, some new and some we’ve sung for awhile, and set out to learn them in fine detail.

It turned out to be much harder work than we expected. Especially for me, since I have been pretty sloppy about learning melody lines exactly, and as a result I have a lot of subtle mistakes to unlearn. We had three ninety-minute sessions over the weekend, and worked through only four songs, studying them line by line to hear all the notes and ornaments right. There are four other songs we’ll be working on; once we’ve studied them, we’ll use Java J’s as an opportunity to perform, review, and perform again until we have them learned thoroughly.

Java J's 12/21/04

It’s becoming more routine now. Our week was busy enough that we didn’t have time to prepare specifically for the evening, except that I wrote out new set lists. We arrived around 6:30 and only took about fifteen minutes to set up. Amy, the manager who agreed to let us play weekly, was there; we chatted briefly, and she stayed to hear our first set.

We never did find the groove last night. But the good part is that we started without it, and spent the evening trying to figure out what was wrong. By the end of the evening we had improved a bit, and we had also gotten a lot of practice playing even when we felt a bit out of control. As I constantly tell Chris, “They only know what you did, not what you were supposed to do.” I don’t think we sounded bad, just not as tight and polished as we do on a good night.

No other performances aside from the weekly Java J’s date are scheduled for awhile, so now we can get back to practicing new material. The next phase is to do a close study of the Stanley Brothers; tonight we ran through five Stanley songs we had played before, plus a couple of new ones. We’ll spend the week listening to the originals and practicing them ourselves.

Christmas in Appalachia

Chris and I drove to Whitesburg, Ky. last night to be part of the Roadside Theater’s Christmas in Appalachia program, held at the Appalshop. It was a great night of local music, put together by Ron Short. And it was pretty popular—the small auditorium was packed, maybe a hundred or so folks in the audience.

The program consisted of short sets by local performers, interspersed with Christmas singalongs led by Ron. Chris was very impressed with a Christmas carol performed by a small choral group that turned out to have been written by Ron. We’re always talking about whether it’s possible to write a new “old-time” song, and to Chris’ ear that carol sounded pretty old.

Chris and I helped out at a couple of points in the show, and performed three songs by ourselves to end the first half—Cherry Tree Carol, Corpus Christi Carol, and Lullay the Son of Mary. All three of them were well received. We heard lots of comments later about the third song, which is really the simplest of lullabies, but still very powerful.

That’s it for our scheduled performances for now, except for the weekly date at Java J’s. But we’re hoping that something else will come along at the Appalshop. It’s a two-hour drive, but it is also our favorite place to play by far.

Java J's 12/14/04

Last night was our first Tuesday appearance at Java J’s. We planned to show up at 6:30 but actually arrived at 6:15—good thing, since we had some trouble figuring out how to get the sound working properly (Brandon Story had set it up at our first show). There were quite a few people for a cold Tuesday night, 23 degrees and snow flurries.

We start our sets on the hour. I had increased the number of songs in each setlist, figuring I wouldn’t be doing much MC work. And I didn’t; people were rightfully involved in their own conversations and paying little visible attention to us, so stage patter would have been awkward. We finished the first set around 7:50; the second set ran long, ending around 8:55.

As we were about to start the 9pm set, the main counter guy came by with a broom and asked, “Are you guys just about done?” Not an unfriendly question—the shop closes at 10, and they like to have the music stop with enough time for people to finish up and leave before then. We asked him what would work best for him, and he said that ending by 9:30 would be best. So we played the better half of the songs on our third list and called it a night. It took about fifteen minutes to pack, and another 25 minutes to drive home.

Even if folks are ignoring you, there are still many things about playing in front of them that can’t be replicated at home. For one thing, some of them might be listening, and that pushes you to do a better job. For another, there are lots of little things you have to learn about playing live on a stage—how and where to stand, how and where to move, how to set the tempo for a song reliably, how to work the microphone, how to play through mistakes, how to stop gracefully when a fatal mistake happens (e.g. Chris’s guitar strap coming loose).

And we weren’t totally ignored. During the first set a group of four high school girls watched us very closely, asked occasional questions—and pointed a cell phone at us while we were playing. It turns out that they are putting on a party for a friend who likes bluegrass a lot, and they asked us if we would be available to play at the party. (The friend was listening through the cell phone.) We said sure, and gave them a card in case they decide they want us. And there was another fellow who walked in, smiled to see us, and came and sat in a comfy chair so he could watch and hear us while he did some studying.

All it all, it was a good first Tuesday, and we accomplished some things. We hadn’t had time to practice specifically for the performance, and I deliberately waited until the last minute to put together the setlists, starting with the setlists from last time and changing about half the songs; I wanted to see how we handled a performance with minimal preparation. We also did three new songs that we need to have ready for Friday; they were rough, but it helped to try them out. And I wanted to see if we could be relaxed enough not to burn out when we play weekly.

And my back cooperated. In fact, it may have benefited from three hours of mostly standing upright; I felt no worse at the end of the night than at the beginning, and I feel pretty good today.

Regular appearances

Ever since Chris and I started performing, we’ve read and re-read Pete Wernick’s “How to Make a Band Work”, and we’ve never regretted taking the advice he has packed into that book. One of his suggestions is to try to secure a weekly performance somewhere; not only will you learn things about performing that can’t be learned at home, but it also gives people an easy opportunity to stop by and check you out.

Our first regular date is now official, and we can tell people “Stop by and see us Java J’s in Abingdon on Tuesdays between 7pm and 10pm.” We’ll be starting tomorrow night. We’re also checking into a second possibility for one or two Saturday nights a month, at a venue that already has regular live music and so will provide a bit more of an audience than we’ll start with at Java J’s.

Singing the Old Way in Kentucky

Saturday was a big day for us. Ron Short had invited me and Chris to accompany him to a singing at an Old Regular Baptist church in Blackey, Kentucky. Well, sort of–the church no longer meets there, and the building has been donated to the local historical society, which uses it for community events like a monthly singing. But a number of the folks who put on the singing were in fact Old Regular Baptists.

The singing was part performance, part singalong. Chris and I did three songs on our own, and we backed up Ron as he performed a few and then led some Christmas songs. After some encouragement, two Old Regular Baptist elders agreed to line out a hymn for us (“lining out” means that the leader chants the next line of the verse quickly, then leads the congregation in singing it veerrrry slooowly). It was a powerful experience; at the end of the hymn, I wanted to walk over to those fellows and beg them to take me home with them and teach me to sing like that.

The second best part of the trip, after the hymn singing, was the opportunity to talk with Ron at length. The drive from his place to the church took about 90 minutes, so we had three hours to get to know one another. Ron has been a professional peformer for thirty years, and is steeped in the culture of the area, so he has a lot to teach us. And we’re pretty eager students.