Have you ever been at a concert where the performer has the entire room mesmerized, where every note is golden, and every word from their mouth is perfectly charming, hilariously funny, endearingly bold, brilliantly witty, warm, wise, and wonderful? Have you ever said to yourself, “I'd give my right leg and firstborn child to know how to do that?” Haven't we all. Allow me to cite some examples from the world of acoustic guitar.
The first time I saw Keola Beamer in concert was at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington. He and I were playing the same night on the oh-so-intimidating Arena stage. I don't know how many people they can pack into that place, but it must be a staggering number. The place is enormous. The seats seemed to never end and I got dizzy looking up to the back row. But Keola Beamer walked out on the stage and spoke directly to me and every other person in the room simultaneously—seemingly one-on-one—and everybody fell in love with him. He not only played beautifully and brilliantly, he had grace, charm, and incredible mojo. He transformed that giant arena into his living room—I kid you not. He created an atmosphere of total intimacy for several thousand souls that night and it was truly magical.
On another more recent night, I saw Catfish Keith do much the same thing in a smaller venue. He has a voice like a canon and a bendy, funky, barkin' and snappin' guitar-style that I've never heard anyone imitate successfully. He shouts, growls, grins, and stomps his foot, and the music rolls out of him like an avalanche. It's one of the most erotic things I've ever seen anybody do with a guitar. It's hypnotic and beautiful, dark and pure, and nobody can do it like he does it. The chords are strange and not at all what you'd expect, yet the rhythm is essentially blues. It's a beautiful blend of tradition and creation, and I get flat-out jealous of him as a player every time I hear him play. Like scholars on Catfish Keith, people in the audience discuss what he's done after he does it. But when he's playing, there's nothing else going on in the world.
Stephen Fearing is a performer that seems larger than life, yet makes you feel so comfortable that you forget where you are. His mighty Linda Manzer guitar sounds like an orchestra and his voice could turn a heart of stone to jelly. It doesn't matter if he's playing a house-concert or performing in front of tens of thousands of people on Canada Day—every eye is glued to him. He's not a handsome guy, but that doesn’t matter. He's gorgeous anyway, intensely kind, and his devotion to his craft is like a beacon. Those that don't want to be him want to be around him.
There was a time when I would have given my right leg to know how to do all these things, but I was (and still am) pretty attached to my firstborn. So I have had to work a little harder in starting to understand what secrets I have been able to pry loose. Let’s see if we can break them down a bit.
Step 1: Set the Mood
That night in Seattle, Keola Beamer was wearing a nice pair of jeans, cowboy boots, and a beautiful— probably silk—Hawaiian shirt. He was gorgeous. Catfish Keith is also a seriously snappy dresser, and even when he's all sweaty from bending those strings, he looks like he just stepped out of a catalog. And Stephen Fearing always looks wonderful, whether he's wearing a suit, or jeans and an untucked cowboy shirt. If these guys made a practice of going on stage wearing torn up and faded-out jeans along with ripped-up sneakers and flannel shirts, we wouldn't take them as seriously. While they are amazing players, compelling performers, and we would put up with it—it would severely diminish their effectiveness. On the flip side, if they didn't pay such careful attention to the image they present, they might not take their gigs as seriously as they do, and wouldn't be so compelling.
How many bar bands does it take to produce one single pair of decent pants and a shirt that doesn't have a beer logo on it? Do we have to invent a new kind of math to calculate that? I tend to think gigs are a lot like dates. Plans have been made, reservations or tickets may be involved, dinner, drinks, deserts, and quite possibly—dancing. I want it to be special although I'm certainly not going to be wearing a prom dress. The point is that I try to put a little thought and effort into what I'm wearing, even if it's a nice shirt and clean jeans without holes in them. It's a way to show the audience that I respect them, even if they don't know it.
Step 2: Set the Stage
I've been gigging lately with my buddy Tommy Bruner. We're both ridiculous neat-freaks. When we set up, we're slow and methodical, everything has a place, and every cord has to be uncoiled and draped in a particular way. We don't want a snake pit on the floor around us. First of all, both of us function better, stay more focused, and have fewer distractions if the stage is uncluttered. Second, the audience doesn't have to sit there looking at a mess while we're playing. Once again, it's a way to show the audience that we respect and value them. It's also a way to simplify teardown. It takes a fraction of the time to coil and pack cables that are neat and not tangled with other cables, rather than to having to figure out what cable is which, where it goes, who it belongs to, what it's caught on, and how to get that knot undone before you can put stuff away and go home for that sweet, post-gig shut-eye.
Step 3: R E S P E C T
I have mentioned having respect for the audience more than once, and now I'll devote some real attention to it, because this is fundamental. Keola Beamer, Catfish Keith, and Stephen Fearing are charismatic people, as well as brilliant players. Natural charisma is a huge part of what makes a performer successful or not. That means people want to look at them, listen to them, hear what they think, and be around them. When a seasoned performer takes the stage to do what they do best, magic can, and usually does, happen. But they have to earn the loyalty of the fans, and that takes time and respect.
You cannot discount the fact that these three particular players honestly want to be there, and that they are profoundly and obviously grateful for the sometimes-reckless combination of talent, determination, dedication, and sheer luck that got them where they are. They're also grateful to the fans that show up to see them and buy their records. Their rapport with the audience, the warmth they exude, and the way they smile and express their thanks to them, makes the audience feel like their presence is important and genuinely appreciated. Dressing well, being on time, treating the supporting staff well, and being accessible and generous with time and attention to the fans—those are all things that tip the balance in favor of the serious artist. The late, great John Hartford never cooled his heels in a dressing room at a gig. He was out in the lobby, hanging out with people, talking to fans, and astounding people when he remembered not only their names, but where they met and what tunes they may have played together.
If the folks didn't show up to see live music, we'd be out of a job. If a performer disrespects the audience, they're breaking trust. Part of the reason that live music is such a rough gig lately is that many performers are neither commanding nor offering respect. When a performer walks out on stage— particularly if people have paid money to see them—they better bring it, whatever “it” is. We earn respect by treating people with respect, and that means showing up prepared, on time, lookin' good, and putting on the best show possible.
Speaking of charismatic and gifted players, I saw Leo Kottke in concert once when he had the flu. Kottke played two shows, back-to-back in one night, because the venue sold-out twice. He was fantastic, and nobody knew he was sick as a dog. He earned it that night, and even though he probably went back to his hotel and questioned his sanity, I'm sure he slept like a baby knowing he hadn't disappointed anybody.
Step 4: Profit!
Okay, I know it's not that simple. We don't just walk out on a nice, neat stage in our Saturday-night-best threads and kill. No. We rehearse, plan, study other performers that put on a great show, think about how to use some of their tricks, practice introducing songs and telling stories, make notes, and stay healthy. Those who take it seriously run it like a business, and work almost as hard before the show starts as they do while they're onstage. Why do you think they call it “show business?” Anything less and it's just a hobby.
I'll leave you with one last example of statesmanlike proportions: Tony Rice. Impeccable suits, unquestionable dignity, and undiluted charisma. And he’s a monster guitar player. Rice has such amazing chops and incredible musicality that he should be able to just show up and play in his dang pajamas, but he doesn't. He works at it seriously—and whaddaya know—his fans are in awe of him. Are we in awe of the suits, of the man, or the chops? Or do we recognize the vital relationship between image and ability that creates legends and ensures immortality?
So, I'll ask you. How bad do you really want it?
Gayla Drake Paul is a guitarist, songwriter and writer, working as a soloist and with the Gayla Drake Paul Trio. Her CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, is in the Ten Essential CDs for Acoustic Guitarists at digitaldreamdoor.com. Her new CD, Trio Plus Three: The Luckiest Woman, can be purchased at CDBaby.com.