end of the residency
This Monday wraps up the (until now) open-ended series of shows at the Hideout that I started just over 7 years ago. I'll be duo-ing with Robbie Gjersoe, as I did on the first show. I'll resist the temptation to bloviate, as if it's the Mary Tyler Moore show ending rather than a sort of stemwinding experiment at a little Chicago club. But it has been front-and-center in my weekly doings for a long time, and I'm touched to hear (and read) sentimental words from some folks who feel a connection to it. Thank you for that.
I started it because I wanted a place to try out new ideas, some of which were offbeat and none of which I could see coming much in advance, at a place that was laidback and non-prominent enough that a loose and not always highly performative approach could be accepted. This was a direct outcome of my shows with Jenny Scheinman at Barbes in Park Slope, where we worked the little PA ourselves, squeezed in 50 people, and passed a cup for our dinner money. This was more fun than I ever expected. The Hideout wasn't ideal to extend that, in that its capacity is more than twice Barbes's, the PA is pretty tricked-out, the stage is a real stage, and the club's profile is a little bigger, proportionate to its home base and probably nationally as well. We tried passing the cup early on but didn't raise nearly as much as by charging $10 at the door. So it didn't end up being a very close approximation of the other experience, but, with the exception that a turnout of 20 people looked pretty limp compared to that number at Barbes, the environment fit the concept and the shows were able to sound good without, I believe, projecting much self-consciousness or bombast.
Here are some things I was able to do under the circumstances, things I hadn't done before: play Prokofiev; sit quietly for a minute between songs, tuning and thinking; play Charlie Parker; tell 10-minute off-the-cuff stories; try out tunes on clawhammer banjo, ukulele, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments not native to me; play a 15-minute noise-drone improvisation; reharmonize songs by Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, and the Monkees, among many others; listen hard for the first time to people like Leonard Cohen, Danny Elfman, Stephen Sondheim, Blake Babies, Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur Russell, Ty Segall, and Donna Summer; transcribe Doc Watson's version of "Beaumont Rag"; collaborate with Michael Shannon; jam with Jason Adasciewicz; take off my pants in front of a paying audience; back up Liz Carroll in time signatures such as 9/8; use guitar pedals like Plimsoul overdrive and something called "Freeze sound retainer" which is truly wonderful and flummoxes both accompanists and house sound people; improvise country underscoring beneath country storytelling; play Jimi Hendrix. Some of this I do regret. However, I see now that I deeply regretted aspirational actions like playing the bass guitar on "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," or trying to comp an unknown Gershwin piece at high tempo, in the moments I was doing it, then let it go immediately afterward. This marks clear progress for me from the days when I'd forget a lyric or do something stupid in public and then experience burning blood to the face when the memory arose months or years after. The little humiliations were so ongoing for me during this series that I normalized them and was able to get over myself, at last, here at age 53.
In early 2010, when we were first getting underway, I wanted to learn some Monk heads and do a night of them, but when I mentioned it to Gjersoe, he said, "How about Thelonious Monk meets the Monkees?" Thus was born a dumb yet intriguing series of mashups that included Leonard Cohen vs. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jerry and Lou Reed, and Fountains of Wayne Hancock. Once past the idiotic pun-conceit, the idea was to play both sides of each equation earnestly and in their natural habitat, as well as to blend them creatively (what if the Monkees' theme were accompanied by Thelonious-like piano and somehow merged with "Straight, No Chaser"? if "Satellite of Love" were fingerpicked instrumentally by Jerry Reed?) in a way that might go past an easy laugh into surprising places -- hidden musical links between cultural or chronological unlikes are reliably thrilling to discover or suggest.
So I learned a couple new tricks, which is especially valuable in middle or old age; and the other side of that coin is the expression of deeply buried skills and enthusiasms from childhood. After Jesse Winchester died, for example, I sat around for a few days thinking about how much I owed to that strange voice (bodily and writerly) of his, from back in the 1970s. A few days later I was on the laptop lining up a few friends to play his songs, laying out a set of them, relistening to the catalog and catching up with parts I'd missed, and writing a few paragraphs on him that allowed me to try anatomizing his approach and appeal. Around the same time, I was emailing with Peter Margasak about something or other, and Peter happened to mention that he was a fan of Bob Dylan's 1978 record "Street-Legal." I hadn't thought about it for some time, but boy, I was too. I think the indifference to that record of even some of Bob's most rabid aficionados had influenced me, unfortunately, but when the record came out I really wore the thing out, and I found that I still had about 80% of the lyrics internalized. Refamiliarizing myself with it (especially the late 1990s Don DeVito remix, holy cow), casting it (thanks to that audience capacity, I could hire 8 other people and pay everyone a little something), and reversioning it amounted to an insanely pleasurable couple of months for me. I'm midway through recording these new versions, and whenever I get it out into the world, probably within the year, I'll consider it a physical, replayable version of what I tried to do in the 7-year residency.
Other than the near-instant enactment of passing fancies, the Mondays let me play with friends, both Chicago-area people and pickers or writers passing through on tour, that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten to. In the Chicago category, getting to hang and make music on a semi-regular basis with Nora O'Connor, Don Stiernberg, Eric Noden, Steve Frisbie, Steve Dawson, the Hoyle Brothers, Jon Langford, Beau Sample, K.C. McDonough, Alex Hall, Greg Cahill, Gerald Dowd, Justin Roberts, Kelly Hogan, and many many others was a true privilege. Being either inspired or compelled to stretch beyond my social confines was a prime benefit of the gig too; I think about Anna Jacobson, Pat Williams, Bethany Thomas, Anna Steinhoff, Larry Kohut, Scott Tipping, Jason Adasciewicz, Freda L. Smith, Rita Ruby, and a few dozen others (pardon the singling out!) who live near where I live but travel in different circles. In the non-local box, I got to throw together fun shows with Rosie Flores, Jenny Scheinman, Eliza Gilkyson, Brennen Leigh, Greg Trooper, Phil Lee, Josh Williams, Shad Cobb, Ron Spears, Redd Volkaert -- all these people who otherwise I'd have had to caught up with, if at all, by coming to their shows and greeting cursorily with a slap on the back on the way out the door. Getting to make something on the fly with players and singers like this is without a doubt what I'll miss most.
Which reminds me to say, in case anyone's interested, that the reason I'm ending is that it just seems like the right time to. I had something to accomplish in starting the Mondays; I'm not sure I could have defined it precisely and not sure I did accomplish it after all, but whether I did or didn't, it's certainly past time to proceed to the next fuzzily defined idea or goal. If feeling more comfortable in performance was a goal, I can say without much self-love that I'm there! If it was to learn new songs made by other people, I suppose I've learned about 1,500 since 2010, and forgotten all but maybe 200. Not much achieved there, but a little. If it was to augment my guitar skills...hmm. Maybe. Probably not.
Oddly, a major focus of the series, from my point of view, turned out to be: how do you rehearse? For a one-time-only show, with material ranging from super-easy and event-free to pretty challenging and event-rich, it's an interesting question. For the first year or so, I tried to get folks who were playing shows on the more complex end to meet for a couple hours a few days in advance of Monday, and then again directly pre-show. I let that idea go pretty fast, because it's a lot to ask of people who you're paying $100, but also because I wasn't noticing much difference in two-rehearsal shows versus thrown-together-day-of shows. This line of thought led me to experiment with the opposite approach: let's meet up for soundcheck and hit some sections of some of the music to nail down anything ambiguous, but try not to play more than necessary in advance. Closer to the Paul Motian idea that a show works best if you don't hear anything beforehand! I never tried anything quite that radical, but got within striking distance. After trying various degrees of "preparedness" for these 7 years, my conclusion is: no conclusion. A lot of times songs that felt fresh and fine to play at 4 in the afternoon lost their luster a couple hours later, playing them a second time. Other times we prepared as diligently as I thought possible or necessary, only to have the most spectacular trainwrecks -- the treatment of Shania Twain's "Home Ain't Where His Heart Is," otherwise known as "The Horrific Bridge Collapse of 2015," comes to mind. All in all, I think the best way would be, if it were affordable, a single comprehensive rehearsal two days in advance, and not one advance note played the day of. Then it would be more like improvised soloing: free floating buttressed by solid advance labor.
Sometimes I read stuff in the press about the Hideout Mondays that bore little relation to the nature of the series as I've just written about it. Time Out: "a local roots singer who has spent much of his career recording obscure country covers...frequently digs into the catalogs of artists like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons...usually joined by a rotating cast of local guest performers—you never know who will drop by." Pretty wide of the mark! I heard more than once the notion that no two shows had the same repertoire, which is closer to the mark, but also a big exaggeration -- I'd say 3 out of 4 shows had at least a few songs that I had played before, some other Monday. But I really shouldn't complain, because, as I've learned repeatedly, a musician who's both solidly country at heart and very open to experiment in mind is difficult to describe, although there, I just did it. The Mondays were a laboratory for me, it's that simple. Sometimes people in the audience would tell me they'd travelled from New Zealand or Mercer Island or somewhere like that, and I'd think "Oh shit, they thought they'd hear something from my records, and instead I'm doing a night of ambient Stevie Wonder on the banjo...." In that sense, it'll be a relief to returning 100% to what I need most to be doing -- performing practiced versions of songs I made up and (mostly) have put on my records. That seems to be what most people do, and what is understood by an audience. Having the laboratory concept misapprehended from time to time has been a little frustrating, but I feel sure that people who were there more than once or twice got what I was going after, and I thank them, and Tim and Katie Tuten, most sincerely for allowing me the freedom and flexibility I've enjoyed.