Gia Mora and I just played a couple of gigs in LA. She has a cabaret show called “Einstein’s Girl.” It combines some spectacular singing (hers), some unexpected song selections (e.g., “She Blinded Me with Science”) and Gia’s passion for astrophysics. It is an amazing piece of whatever it is…performance art, cabaret, stand-up science? But the two shows illustrated the sometimes-stark contrast between how a gig plays on Facebook and in your mind, versus how it plays out in real life.
The first gig was at The House of Blues. It is an amazing venue on Sunset Boulevard. It is the house that Dan Akroyd built out of vodka, voodoo, Persian rugs and outsider art. I loved posting our performance there on Facebook. In my mind, this couldn’t have been any cooler. But the reality of the gig was something else again. It started with a rock-and-roll sound guy who did not get what we were doing at all. There was a smallish crowd of hipsters—a bobbing swarm of hats and tattoos—who were largely uninterested in what we were doing. It hit me just fifteen minutes too late that this was not a listening room at all. This was a club with an entirely different agenda from mine. We played our set, and when it was over we felt worse about music than when we started. But—and this is a crucial “but”—it was great to say that we played the House of Blues.
Two days later we played a little club called The Gardenia. It is on Santa Monica Boulevard between La Brea and Sycamore. It has been there for thirty years. And it must look exactly the same as when it was first built: a bland “L” shaped room with seating for 80, max. There is a piano and a few mics and two ancient Ramsa PA speakers. The only thing that gave me a clue of what was to come was the lighting: a real theatrical spotlight in the back, theater lighting on the ceiling, and the LED standlights on the piano.
Our sound check was at 3 pm for a 9 pm show. The lighting tech and sound tech were the same person, Shauna. There was so much right, so soon. Shauna was a total pro. She knows her room and understands sound and lighting. The sound check involved mostly lighting cues. I loved this. The “sound” part of the sound check only took five minutes because Shauna determined that the piano was going to be loud enough without any amplification. How many sound techs will turn a mic off? Very few. She instinctively knew two things right away: One, that the balance would be OK and two, that the natural sound of the piano would be better than the amplified sound of the piano. Beautiful. The “lighting” part of the sound check gave Gia and me a chance to go over the beginnings and ends of all our songs while Shauna made notes about lighting changes, gel choices, blackouts, etc. I can’t stress enough how important effective lighting is in any presentation. Any theater person knows this. But so few music clubs seem to understand it.
The show later that night was terrific. Gia was totally on. I think I can say that I played really well. The club was completely full of appreciative fans who love Gia and love this style of music. It was a grand night. But when I talk about last week’s trip to LA, I will always start it with this: “I was in LA to play at The House of Blues…” It just sounds so good.
One of the best things about living in Washington DC is New York. If you have the great foresight to live anywhere in the BosWash corridor, you get New York as part of the deal. It is just a bus ride away. Or a train ride; or a relatively short auto trip. I feel lucky in that I can walk to the Vamoose bus stop and four hours later get off at Madison Square Garden. There are parts of the day when it would take me that long to drive to Alexandria.
I went up to NYC on the Vamoose bus yesterday. My daughter and I had dinner in the East Village at Supper (excellent food! N.B. cash only). Then we walked down to the corner of 2nd St. and Avenue C to The Stone, a club started by composer/arranger/producer/player John Zorn. They don’t advertise. They don’t serve food. They don’t serve drinks. It is all about the music. We saw an avant-garde string quartet called the JACK Quartet with composer Derek Bermel joining them on clarinet. First, they played a challenging piece of Bermel’s: challenging to play and even more challenging to listen to. “Adventurous” doesn’t even come close. And then they played a Brahms quintet. I hate Brahms, so musically that was something of a bust for me. But being in the coolest club in all of New York trumped anything musical. The place only held about 50 people, of whom 50 knew who the JACK Quartet was, and 48 knew who Derek Bermel was. There was a sense of exclusivity to the concert. We were suddenly part of “something”—something current and viable and exciting. I felt smarter for just being there. There is a lot of great music being made in DC right now, too, but I love having New York at the end of my neighborhood.
I live in a 1940’s vintage neighborhood. The lots are small and the houses are close to each other. We have zoning coded so antiquated that one is allowed to build to within 7 feet of one’s property line. There are zero covenants on house color, styles, roof tiles… nothing. It is a wonderful neighborhood.
My neighbors are from all different strata of life. One lady at the end of the street has been here since her house was built in 1942.
I have now been here so long that I am well known in the area. I am the music guy. I think what that means to most of my neighbors is that I am the guy who is always home during the day. If you need your battery jumped- I am home. If you need help moving stuff during the day- I am at home. I have a fairly steady stream of neighbor kids who show up at my door with a guitar that needs a string or a violin that needs tuning. The day before yesterday Talia K. showed up on my porch with her trumpet and played Hot Crossed Buns. She is 8.
Once a year I have a huge Christmas party. I think something like 250 people come. I hire a band. This year it was a Trad/dixieland group of upright bass,drums,banjo/guitar, trumpet,soprano sax and trombone. When they are not playing I play piano and everyone sings Christmas Carols. If I do say so myself it is a hella party. One of the great parts of this party is the reaction of my ( non-pro) neighbors to this music making. This might be the only time each year that they see and hear this level of excellence at close quarters. The musicians that show up are not as impressed. Mostly they are waiting for a chance to sit-in. It is the neighbors’ wide-eyed stares that make me so happy to put this party on. I think they all feel like they stepped into a Bing Crosby movie. To see great music being made with so much joy, and seemingly, with such off-hand effort. There is no printed music in sight. This totally bewilders the neighbors who may have studied piano in the past or played clarinet in high school band. This is a party that takes dancing and singing and generally merry-making seriously. That is,of course, what the party is all about. But what I love to see is that look of astonishment on the face of someone who thought you only got to see and hear music like this for fifty-five dollars at Wolf Trap. The ease of it all, the fun of it all, the free of it all, the excellence of it all is reflected in their eyes and their gushing comments. ” How did you FIND these guys?” is a regular comment. My answer is determinedly casual. ” Oh, these are just a bunch of guys I work with”. They are so much more than that. They are all guys who have devoted their lives to this craft. They all bring thirty years of diligent practice to this gig- just to make it look easy. It is really grand to be the guy that brings this, with a lot of beer and chili, to the neighborhood.
Looking forward to a great night of music with Chaise Lounge and my two AIRs (Artists in Residence) Owen Danoff and Deborah Bond.