Holy shit, Batman.
Last night was insane. I haven’t felt so exhausted since…well, I can’t even remember. But there’s bad exhausted, where you feel like garbage, and then there’s good exhausted, where you feel like you accomplished something and “earned” your exhaustion.
This is the second kind.
Let me try and set the stage for how completely my expectations were obliterated, and what a ridiculous success the whole thing was in the face of the very real possibility that it could have been a disaster.
I asked a bunch of people what they thought about my idea for this show a month or two before it was going to happen. Almost no one thought it was a good idea. Some of them said in no uncertain terms, “You can’t do that. You’re going to fail.” Playing twice as much music than is customary when a local act plays a live show was a bad idea. Not charging a cent for anything was a very bad idea. Having no opening act, no one else on the bill, and no other musicians to flesh out the sound was an especially bad idea.
I took some of this to heart for a little while. Then I decided I didn’t care about getting a larger draw from having a sparkly opening act, and I couldn’t for the life of me think of anyone who would (a) want to play for free and (b) make sense opening for me. In hindsight, I can now think of a few people who might have been up for it and could have been fun to get involved, but at the time I was preparing for the show no one came to mind.
I didn’t feel like I could play for any less than an hour if I wanted to make something approaching a valid musical statement. And it would feel wrong to cash in on all the support I’ve received over the last year and-a-bit by saying, “Well, the CDs have been free, but now you have to pay to come to this show.”
If I was going to play a show that was all mine, the only way it made any sense to do it at all was to do it my way.
I put up some posters, told some people about the show, and posted about it here, on Spyspace, and on Facebook. I probably could have promoted it more aggressively, but promotion is not one of my strong suits. It makes me feel too much like a pimp.
A lot of friends spread the word. CJAM — always a source of incredible support — plugged the show a lot, Dalson Chen wrote a really nice and unexpected article in the Windsor Star calling attention to it, Murad wrote a very nice little piece promoting the show in the new issue of WAMM, and some buzz seemed to be building. But I knew there was still a very real possibility that not a lot of people would show up. Lots of friends and not-friends say they’re coming out to something to be polite when they know they won’t be there. Some of them do mean to come, but then something comes up and prevents them from getting there. And some people are just flakes who almost never mean anything they say.
Buzz does not necessarily translate into a large audience. An all-ages, alcohol-free show meant some people who wanted to drink and preferred a bar atmosphere probably wouldn’t come. It was Oscar night. There was another show happening at Phog at 9:00 — which still gave people time to catch my show and then head over there if they wanted to see both, but some folks would probably want to hang out at Phog all night long. Some people disagree with the whole “my music is not for sale” credo and the way I go about things in general. Those people, even if they pretend to support me to my face, might not come to the show as a form of silent protest. I have no idea what kind of a draw I am, and this isn’t a place where people show up on a Sunday regardless of what’s going on.
If you were going to be there, it was going to be for one reason only: to see the show.
I’ve also been trying to get over some sort of non-contagious viral throat infection or something over the past few weeks. It hasn’t impacted my vocal range or tone, but feeling something there sometimes makes me reluctant to push too much, which leads to feeling like my voice is not at its most flexible. Singing and talking seem to irritate whatever this thing is, and I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to sing or for how long. But I wanted to try my best. If the singing wasn’t going well, I would at least be honest with the audience and explain why.
Going into the show with this throat thing still not all the way gone didn’t do a whole lot to ease my anxiety.
In the days leading up to the show I filled a huge cardboard box up with a bunch of copies of the last five proper full-length albums and put together five JohnnyBox sets. All told, there were well over two hundred CDs there. I thought maybe I would go through half of that at the most, and it would be convenient to have a bunch left over. We had a ton of bottled pop and coffee available too.
Mackenzie Hall is, it has to be said, an amazing place to play. The second we walked in at 5:00 when no one was there but chairs were set up and the piano was ready, the hardwood floor glistening, I said out loud, “Even if it really is a train wreck and I end up sucking horribly, it’ll still be fun. Look at this place! This is beautiful!” Ric (who tunes my piano) made sure the grand piano was tuned a few days before I played at the behest of wise Bob Ouellette, and it sounded phenomenal. The acoustics of the space are phenomenal. The people who work there are phenomenal, and endlessly helpful.
For what it costs to rent the space for a night and what you get, it surprises me more musicians don’t consider playing shows here. I imagine the price might rise a bit if you’re not playing a free show, but I still think it would be a steal. The place is beautiful. I wish I captured some video of what it looked like walking in before anyone showed up. Alas, I was distracted by the task at hand.
I had no idea how many people to expect, since no tickets were sold and I didn’t create a Facebook event to gauge the number of “planned attendees”. A lot of people who said they were coming didn’t end up showing (or maybe in some cases they were there and I just didn’t get the chance to see them). At about 6:30 there were maybe fifteen people there.
I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if no one else ended up coming out for the show. Might take some pressure off. Might be fun. At the same time, I didn’t want to only have the first row of seats half-filled and end up with egg on my face. Then all the people who told me I couldn’t and shouldn’t do this would be able to say, “We told you it was a bad idea.”
At 7:00 I heard someone shout, “We need more chairs!” I started playing about ten minutes after the hour. Lots of people actually came on time. That surprised me. More people came after that. By the time I was a few songs into the first set, I looked up to see the place was packed.
Sergio — a great guy who works at Mackenzie Hall and was a huge help all night — told me they started out with about eighty chairs set up, bumped it up to a hundred and twenty when those were filling up, and before long most of those seats were taken too. There were also people standing in the back. This means there were a hundred and fifty people or more there at the peak of it all. There was no opening act, and no other entertainment. Just me. All these people showed up specifically to see me.
That is absolutely insane.
If everyone who said they were coming had been there, it would have turned into a Radiohead song. You know the one. It involves sardines packed together in a crushed tin box. Somewhere around fifty people I was expecting to see were not there at all, and I imagine I really did lose some potential audience members by making the show all-ages, alcohol-free, and not having it happen in a bar.
And yet the place was still packed. Some people had to leave during the break after the first set, but about a hundred of them stayed until the very end.
My box sets were gone before I sang a note or announced to anyone they were available. Before the end of the night every single CD was gone, every single bottle of pop was empty, and the gigantic pot of coffee was bone dry. People listened. People applauded. When it was all over, people stood up while they clapped their hands. I guess some folks call those things standing ovations. I call them surreal.
The whole thing was demented. I’ve never felt such an overwhelming sense of appreciation and communal goodness in a live music setting. It felt like people had a genuinely good time, and I did too.
I took on a ridiculous workload, with no one else to lean on musically and no safety net, and I didn’t fall flat on my face. I proved to myself I can play a one-man show in a place like that and pull it off. I did it the way I wanted to, and it wasn’t a train-wreck after all.
I’m not thumbing my nose at the people who told me I was asking for trouble. I know at least some of them meant well, even if the whole “I was with you all along” thing where you pretend you were supporting me the whole time after the show is a success, when a few days ago you were telling me I was an idiot to do it this way…not cool. Not cool at all. But there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in being told you can’t do something and then doing it anyway.
In some bizarre twist, this was maybe the least nervous I’ve ever been playing a show, when it was also probably the largest gamble I’ve ever taken with my music. I’m not quite sure how that happened, but there you go.
Huge, huge thanks have to go out to Travis for letting me use his PA system (which sounded like it was made for Mackenzie Hall), to Jay Zeman for doing a great job with the sound and taking a gigantic amount of stress off of my stress-bearing body parts (right away he knew exactly the kind of ambiance that was needed and gave me just enough volume to hear myself well without the uber-sensitive ears being at all offended), to Johnny Smith for making sure everything ran smoothly and working the merch/refreshments table along with greeting people and getting the entire show on video (talk about multitasking!), to Adam Peltier for being the very first person to show up (he drove from Chatham to be there) and one of the last to leave, to Dalson Chen for taking these pictures, to Josh Kolm for also getting a good chunk of the show on video, to everyone at Mackenzie Hall, and to everyone who came out.
The response was far beyond anything I was expecting in my wildest dreams…and I’ll seriously tell you about a dream I had that relates to this show in a little bit. I messed up all over the place and felt like an athlete out of shape, but my voice didn’t let me down, and I ended up rejigging the set list on the spot, throwing out songs I planned to play and pulling out songs I hadn’t rehearsed at all based on what people said they wanted to hear and what I felt like doing, just kind of winging it.
I’m not sure I’ve had such a positive experience playing my own stuff live since back in high school. Even then, it was never quite like this. In school you’re obligated to attend an assembly, and when it gets you out of class for a period or two you’re not going to turn that down. In this case no one was obligated to come at all. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look out into a gigantic sea of people and see at the same time a lot of friends and a lot of faces you’ve never seen before in your life. And then to realize all these people are here to see you, for one reason or another. And then, on top of that, to have them applaud and laugh at your random banter.
It’s a gigantic cliché to say this, but you really could hear a pin drop in the place. I made the somewhat scary (and potentially dangerous) decision to sing one song a cappella with no musical accompaniment at all, and the silence in between the words was electrifying. That’s right! I’m pouring on the hyperbole! Hell, the first song I sang included the word “hyperbole” in the lyrics. That could have been a train-wreck right there, because it was designed as an open-ended vehicle for improvisation. But I think it turned out pretty well. And once that didn’t fall apart, I knew I was going to do alright.
I took some chances, and some things turned out better than others. “The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight” doesn’t work as well on solo guitar as it does as a fleshed-out piece on the album, while the spontaneous decision to add some percussive harmonic slaps to “Knee-Jerk Howl” worked out pretty nicely, I thought. But the unpredictability is kind of the fun of it all.
I’d scan and post my handwritten set list, but I think Adam took it home as a memento (with my blessing). I hope he gets a few bucks for it on eBay or Kijiji. You could call it “the set list that didn’t quite happen as it’s written” and really turn some heads.
Thanks, in addition to those already mentioned, and in no particular order, to Bob Ouellette, Dr. Sinclair, Bree, Amanda Goodface, Derek, Sergio, Joey Ouellette, Uncle Brian, Richard Langlois, Leesa, Mary-Lou Gelissen, Matt Rideout, Beverley Anger, Katie (my sister from another mister) and Matt and Nik and Mary, Murad and Stefan (who, like many people, I didn’t get the chance to talk to), my old partner in musical mayhem Gord Thompson, Adam Fox, Ryan Fields, the nice girl with blonde hair who had to leave during the intermission, Tara and Jonathan, Samantha, my partner in Smoo, Josh Kolm and his camera-wielding friend whose name I can’t remember, Max, Stephen Hargreaves for suggesting Mackenzie Hall as a place to play…the list goes on.
Thanks to everyone for all of the support, all the people I’d never met before who said nice things, all the people who stayed home to watch the Oscars when they could have heard me singing about eating old lipstick and oysters leading sheep to something foul-smelling (I know you’re out there!), everyone who wanted to be there but couldn’t make it for one reason or another, everyone who grabbed some CDs, the nice photographer fella who fixed the piano’s music stand for me, and on and on. I got to talk with some people during the break, but I wish there had been time to do more mingling. I was up for more at the end, and some chatting did go on for quite a while, but a lot of people had to leave when the music was over.
Sunday night and all. You gotta get up early Monday morning. I know how it is.
For those who weren’t there, or those who just want to revisit some random piece of something I said about tree frogs, here is the entire show in sequence, minus a few bits of banter and the beginning of one song. The camera being used changed after “Wait All Morning” at the beginning of the second set, as you’ll see. The sound is better with the first camera (the trusty Flip), but the second camera allows more closeups so you can see my exciting facial expressions and such. I also worked in as much of Josh’s footage as I could, which probably features the best sound quality of all.
That grand piano is a beast. The audio doesn’t do it justice. If you were there and you heard how that thing sounded in the room completely unamplified, you know what I mean. It didn’t make me want to trade in my piano (I still think my upright is pretty special), but man, is it ever nice to play a perfectly-tuned, beautiful real piano like that in a live setting, instead of the usual digital piano compromise. I could have just noodled around on that thing all night long. I found out it’s a Yamaha S400 that cost about $60,000 when it was purchased back in the 1990s. Not too shabby.
What impressed me the most was coming home, immediately sitting down at my piano (which is not a grand, and cost nowhere near that amount of money), and discovering I didn’t feel like I’d moved down in the world. It takes a pretty spiffy upright piano to hold its own against a grand like that.
There are some songs I meant to get to that I kind of wish I’d played — chief among them a few potentially interesting covers, including a Britney Spears song, and a few CREATIVE NIGHTMARES tracks. And I missed a few requests because it didn’t look like the requestees were there.
“Requestees” is so a word. Shut up, Firefox.
I did miss a few requests I wanted to play for people who couldn’t be there. My apologies to Maya and my sweet popsicle of smarf. I’ll just play private concerts in your homes for both of you to make up for the oversight. I also forgot to bring posters and my harmonica holder, though Travis saved my arse there.
Why did I never think to type “arse” instead of “ass” on this blog until just now? It’s such a fun substitute.
Thanks again to everyone who came out and was a part of it all. It’s surreal to feel so appreciated, but I appreciate the appreciation. Hopefully the gratitude came across. That’s what the whole show was about, really. When you clear away all the cobwebs, it was meant to be a giant thank-you to everyone who has supported the music, enjoyed CDs, given them to other people, used them as coasters, or whatever. When I did some rough calculations to figure out how much money might have been made if I’d charged even just admission at the door and still kept everything else free, it kind of frightened me. But I’m glad I stuck to my guns and did it my way all the way. One of my missions in life is to keep money and my music as far away from each other as possible. I may even have to take out a restraining order someday. But we haven’t quite reached that point yet.
Onward to the video action.
The original set list as I mapped it out looked something like this:
An Avalanche in Hell / Analyze the Oven
Beneath the Darkening Sky
Wait All Morning (Anna Atkinson)
Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names
Water to Town
Creepy Crawly Things
You’re Missing (Bruce Springsteen)
I Have the Touch (Peter Gabriel)
The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living
Wind Chimes Sing with Her (Travis Reitsma)
The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight
Blue Cheese Necklace
Thief of Idle Breath
No Reason to Get out of Bed / How These Things Tend to Go
New Oyster Blues
I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Frank Sinatra)
Bent Bird, Broken Wing
Abandoned House Burning Down
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
Revenge Is Sweet
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
In My Time of Weakness
Somewhere in there I was going to work in “Maya x 3”, “Highest G”, the Clone High theme song, and maybe “Condensed Journey of a Tree” along with “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money. That’s right. Eddie Money, bitchez. I was iffy on the Idaho song and didn’t think I would do it until the last second. I was tempted to do “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, but a lot of the covers ended up getting cut. A lot of the more uptempo material fell by the wayside as well. I was feeling the mellow vibe. Or something.
As you’ll see, things didn’t stick to the script at all, and the song order ended up getting shuffled all over the place. There were instruments I didn’t end up getting to (the ukulele! The National Resophonic! The lack of bluesy slide guitar! No!), but hopefully there was enough variety to keep it interesting. It was kind of fun going back and forth between two different areas to play different things. And I know I shouldn’t apologize when I make mistakes because most of the time no one would know if I didn’t say anything, but I can’t help it. It’s a knee-jerk howl I can’t contain.
(One of these days I’ll get around to giving the second set the same single-video treatment given to the first set, with the best footage and sound synchronized for maximum sex appeal.)
LIVE AT MACKENZIE HALL (Sunday, March 7th, 2010)
(Thanks to Larry Girard for saving the day once again and digitizing the show’s second half.)
Some of the highlights, for me:
- The improvised percussion at the end of “Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names” coming off better than I expected.
- The Springsteen song, which I always wanted to try playing. Even when I managed to completely forget the chords for the first part of the bridge section, it didn’t fall apart.
- “It’s Okay”. I think that song inspired some of my best singing of the whole night.
- Every time I played that 1940s Martin 00-17. Holy richness. The other guitars trembled in awe on their stands.
- Singing the a cappella U2 song and hearing dead silence between the words. In general, it was so quiet, when someone coughed it sounded like a thunderclap.
- Singing Travis’s song a lot better than I did at our Green Bean show last month.
- Getting people to sing along during the 7/4 section at the end of “Revenge Is Sweet”.
- “No Reason to Get out of Bed” not degenerating into a mess this time, unlike what happened when I tried including it in my opening set at the Field Assembly CD release show back in the summer.
There were some less magical moments as well, like the roughness of the completely unrehearsed “Crustacean Cancer Survivor” and mucking up the end of “Peculiar Love”. And I kind of wish I thought of more exciting, high-energy things to play for the encore instead of a ballad and another song that practically turned into a ballad. I guess “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” made sense to close with, since if I had a “hit” that would probably be it (I love how Tara cracks up when I make reference to that in my introductory spiel), but it seems like a bit of an odd version. Whenever I’ve played that one live before I’ve belted it out and held notes at the end for a crazy long time. This performance is more muted, without much in the way of belting.
I was pretty spent by that point, so maybe it was a fitting comedown after all. Who can say in these troubled times?
On the whole, I feel pretty good about the performance, warts and all. Some people told me they actually enjoyed the fact that there were mistakes because it made it feel more authentic and involving. Score one for butterfingers! If only the camera pulled back when I sat down before the encore so you could see the sitting ovation as it happened, and then more of the standing ovation at the very end. If only.
You thought I forgot about that dream I mentioned, didn’t you? But no. I was saving it for the right moment.
A night or two before the show, I had a dream some middle-aged guy was complaining about how if he was going to pay to see me play live he wanted to hear all new material that hadn’t been released anywhere beforehand so he would feel like he was getting his money’s worth. Lady Gaga told him the show was free, so he had no right to be prickly. He was left flabbergasted, with nothing more to say.
Who knew Lady Gaga would turn out to be the voice of reason?
On an unrelated note, what the hell happened to Hawksley Workman? That guy used to make some interesting, creative music. I’m really not feeling what he’s been up to since Lover/Fighter, though, where it felt to me like he jettisoned all the weirdness that made his music different and exciting in exchange for what sounded like a bid at more mainstream recognition.
I just heard a new song of his called “We Dance to Yesterday”, and unless it’s a piss-take on poppy stuff (hey, it could be), it’s…not encouraging. If I had a large European following and was invited to film a live showcase on Bravo’s “Live at the Rehearsal Hall” program, I would feel like I was on the right track blazing my own idiosyncratic path, instead of following that up by trying to contort my sound into something more appealing to pop radio.
Then again, maybe Hawksley just decided he wanted to try different things and this is really the music he wants to make for himself…in which case it simply doesn’t do it for me. But if it makes him happy, it can’t be that bad, right? Sheryl Crow? Bueller?
On another unrelated note, I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland yet, but what was he thinking when he got Avril Lavigne to contribute the title song to the soundtrack? Talk about a mismatch. Talk about wrong. Talk about…just make it stop!
These, my friends, are the painful things I think about in random moments of self-inflicted pop badness.
Oh yeah — I almost forgot. I have a ton of extra posters leftover. If anyone wants one, just let me know.
Finally, LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS is still hanging out inside the top twenty on the CJAM charts. That’s three weeks in a row. Madness.