For me and Chris, playing at last weekend’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Bristol was the biggest musical event so far. Early this year the both of us had been having a series of weekly lessons with Brandon Story, who was helping us to polish our performance skills and to set some helpful goals for the 2005 season. One of the goals was to get booked in some venues where we could play 45-50 minute sets for a crowd of a few hundred people who had at least paid to hear some music, if not specifically to hear us.
Brandon is a friend of the festival director for Rhythm and Roots, so he contacted her and arranged for us to play during the festival. One of the distinctives of R&RR is a heavy emphasis on local music; along with some very popular national and regional acts, the schedule always lists dozens of groups who are quite local and much less well-known. We would be playing for free admission, some complimentary tickets, and whatever hospitality was being provided to artists in general. That was more than enough for us; we were content that we would be playing a real festival before paying crowds, and would be able to put that on our resume.
Soon we found out that we would be playing three 45-minute sets, which gave us one of our major 2005 goals, namely to spend a few months developing three solid twelve-song sets, giving the songs full arrangements and practicing them to death. Everything else during the summer flowed from that—we focused intently on those thirty-six songs, played various combinations of them in public, and towards the end chose one of the three sets when a performance came along. And when we decided to record the CD, we had thirty-six well-practiced songs to choose from.
It was a long time from when our names first appeared on the R&RR website to when we drove into Bristol and tracked down our performer badges, and so by the time of the festival we were as ready as possible, and not particularly nervous. Our performances were Saturday and Sunday, so we were free Friday evening to watch mind-expanding performances by the Red Stick Ramblers and Junior Brown.
Saturday we had a little time to wander, but soon enough we had to cart our equipment over to the Manna Bagel Shop for our first set. The festival has three big outdoor stages, two mid-sized indoor stages, and five or six small indoor stages; this was one of the small ones. We watched the Minton Family play the last half of their set, then set up for our own. The shop wasn’t very crowded; maybe twenty-five people saw us play. But we did well, and even made a couple of fans that followed us down the street to our next performance at the Paramount Theater.
The Paramount is just a great place, a grand old movie theater that was renovated and now hosts plays and concerts. Recently they bought their own very good sound system, and so the folks we worked with were on staff with the Paramount and accustomed to doing the sound for performances there. When we had received our contracts there was a request for a stage plot, which is just a diagram of where each performer usually stands and what sorts of microphones or direct inputs he needs. We had sent ours, and later the crew made a point of thanking us for being one of the few to do so. Meanwhile, we felt like real professionals when we walked out on stage and found the microphones already set up just as we needed them.
That set was probably our best of the three. It had the strongest songs and the strongest sequencing. The sound on the stage was better than we’d ever had; we had asked for no monitors, so what we heard was the unmediated sound of each other, strengthened by the delayed and echo-y sound out in the auditorium. It all worked, and I think we were as expressive as we’ve ever been. Maybe sixty or seventy people were in the auditorium, and a few stayed afterwards to talk to us.
Our last set was Sunday afternoon, and we were back in the Paramount with an all-gospel songlist. Maybe ten or fifteen people saw us, but that didn’t disappoint us at all—it was the culmination of a months-long effort, and what mattered to us was how well we performed on stage. Again, I think we did pretty well. Afterwards someone told us that they had seen Tim O’Brien standing in the back for a few minutes; I suppose I’m just as glad we didn’t know that at the time. He hasn’t called yet.
We had received our CDs a week or so before the festival, so there were some available for purchase at the merchandise trailer (we sold three), and we gave a couple out to people who were in the music business.
We have two more festival performances to do this year, both a little different from what we’ve done so far. All of them together gave us a pretty full range of experiences with playing to the size and type of crowd we had wanted to play for this year.