There is 'good' background music, and 'shitty' background music, and talkers, despite their talking, are no fools in this regard. You gotta DJ the situation, and you gotta sound good in the room. It’s why I never have a set list anymore and why I have tried to have at least some variety in what I’ve written, the fingerpicking style songs don’t go with busy bars, and the loud-belted blues are not a good way to start in a quiet cafe. It’s not me who decides the tone of the night, it’s the room. You can call the audience to attention if you want to, but it’s not the only way in, and it’s certainly not always the best way in. When folks are talking before I start and nobody is facing me, depending on my mood and energy, I often just start playing, light at first.
I let a few songs go before saying anything. I wait for a smile or a nod or a head to move to the music, a foot to tap to the rhythm. Like pets and toddlers, I find talking audiences best to let come to you. Sometimes people are just out to catch up with their friends, and they can talk and enjoy the music at the same time, and if it’s that kind of place, it’s cool. That’s what the tapping feet are for. They let you know you’re still connecting.
I’m keeping my glance down or above and around. It's hard to know where to look when you want to be both good and small at the same time. You don’t mean to be coy, and nor do they, but there is a certain furtive glance thing going on between you and the audience, and that’s better than no glances, believe me. The glances are part of the connecting.
Tonight, and lately, I’m moving around uncomfortably while I’m singing, because I’m achy and the positions I have to be in to hold both the guitar and myself up in this chair, and sing right into the mic, are not the positions my body wants to be in, but I don’t want to stand either, let alone for an extended time. But it’s ok. I’ve learned a certain wiggle so that the pain wiggles too, never in one place too long. And it’s not serious or anything, you know, it’s just there on some nights, and distracting sometimes.
I can sing whatever I want. This is a good thing about ‘background gigs’ where I do no banter at first. I’m keeping it light for them, but also for my throat muscles.
Another couple walks in, I recognize the man, and I’m glad he’s come to the show. It's good and important to make connections with new pairs of ears, but it perks up the spirit immeasurably, the heart lights up when a friend walks in. It also makes me try a little harder. (though sometimes it sends a jolt of nervousness through me, like, “shit, now you have to be good.”) It’s a small enough place to be able to hear his praise, which is both lucky and awkward.
Turns out, at the break, that he’s a massage therapist, which is more lucky at this point, than awkward. “You were smiling the whole time through,” he says about the set I’ve just played, and I laugh that I was wincing, genuinely surprised I had appeared to be smiling. This utterance changes everything from a strained event to a much more relaxed one. If I appeared to be smiling, I must have been. My own perception must have been imperceptible. This is good news. He gives me a five minute massage, and the fact of the gesture is as gratitude inducing as the actual massage. A trade agreement is made, CD’s for massage appoitment. I am so pleased.
Set two, I’ve been fed, it was delicious and I was hungry, I’ve been massaged, and have regained some energy. I start with a ballad, because “I love your ballads,” was said at the break. I invite the whole room to sing ‘Happy Birthday” to the birthday group that is now leaving, and I give a hearty, “thanks guys,” as they go. I’m not sure if there was actually a door chime, but that’s how I remember them leaving.
Another couple comes in and sits, the songs continue to flow. This couple looks up more, have turned their chairs and bodies to face me, paying attention to the songs. Cool, I can talk now. I tell them about the next song, and by doing so, more about myself. They smile their engagement, and I sing it to them. I tell them more. The facial expressions are all good ones.
Time for three more songs, the kitchen’s closing, we’ll shut’er down soon, but three more songs. More smiles.
Two more songs. I sift through my brain trying to pick ones they might like, and I don’t mean covers, I just mean, songs of mine that might have words that will speak to them, but I don’t know them, so I’m just guessing. I bring them in by telling them about it.
One more song, and right before it, another couple appears at the door, I recognize them, friends. They’ve come to see the show, made it in time for one last song. The sign already says ‘closed’ but we let them in, of course, and they order cake and coffee, and I sing my last song, but then, they have only just begun their cake, so I can sing another two or so, and they request one. I tell its story and I sing it. And then one more.
And then I unplug, sit down with them, and there is conversation, smiles, names exchanged. They ask me about my unusual life. I have more energy now to talk about it than I did, before, to think about it. Well past closing time, we filter out, I get a ride to where I’m staying, even though it’s walking distance, the temperature’s dropped and it’s a good way to add on five more minutes of conversation. I get out and thank them. Getting a ride is high up there on the list of “reasons tonight went well.”
I plunk down on the couch of friends who’ve already gone to bed. Made enough dough til the next gig, which is tomorrow anyway, I’m still achy but with a massage appointment, I’m well-fed, made new connections, and old connections, was called ‘a really great artist’ and probably most importantly, I’ve made people smile. I ‘worked out’ my singing pipes and playing muscles, keeping them tuned up. What else would I have done with my evening?
My host pops out to say hi, and we chat a bit, and I can stay in the living room or retreat to “my” room, also a massive luxury.
“I want to see you at Massy Hall”, one of the ladies in the audience had said. “Well, I have no idea how to make that happen,” I said to myself in my head, as I always do upon such a remark. But if she pictured me there, I must have done alright anyway.
This wee place that was tonight’s gig was a “small scale” night for sure, but only by industry standards, by career milestone standards, or even when compared to larger scale nights of my own. It’s these kind of hangups that make me feel unaccomplished, embarassed. But then, this is a perfectly great Saturday night. Wishing it was Massy Hall is a bit like wishing I was skinny, blonde, wrinkle and worry free. It’s numbers. Sure it would be nice. But each pair of ears is like a starfish in that star fish story. Yes, sometimes I need to remind myself of all of this, and so here it is, my reminder. This is nothing to be ashamed of. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The evening took a bit of mustering and gave its own rewards. I was prepared for it with a hundred songs, relatively agile fingers and a singing voice, that even at 50% is good enough to get a “Massy Hall” comment. I love hearing things like, “I saw Townes Van Zandt play and there were only 6 people in the audience.” Making and sharing music is what I’ve come here for, come what may.
Sometimes a night opens itself slowly, like a reluctant flower. There was not only nothing wrong with tonight. Tonight was beautiful. Another gig tomorrow, what will it bring?