Ilistened to a touring singer and songwriter named Matt the Electrician at the Wild Goose in Ashland last week, and it has me thinking about the nature of solo performance.
Matt (I think I'll call him Matt rather than "The Electrician") rolled into town alone in a small car with Texas license plates (he lives in Austin). He parked behind the bar and walked in with his guitar in a gig bag on his back — just like a local showing up for open mic night. Acting as his own sound guy, he set up the bar's PA system, turning knobs and pushing buttons and saying "check" into the microphone until he was happy with the sound.
Meanwhile, the bar filled with a mix of folks who were arriving specifically for the show and folks who didn't really know that there was going to be a show that night. That's the thing about bars as music venues. It's perfectly normal and good for there to be people in bars who have come to visit with friends, shoot pool or just unwind after a long day.
Personally, I love to play music to a raucous crowd of noisy bar patrons — if I'm playing with a full band behind me and the whole point is to make a lot of noise and get people moving. Trying to quiet a fun-loving bar crowd with nothing but an acoustic guitar and raw stage presence, on the other hand, presents far more of a challenge. Matt has built his career on finely crafted songs delivered honestly from the heart — interspersed with funny and insightful anecdotes about the nature of life in general, songwriting in particular. You may see where this is going ...
This was Matt's second visit to the Rogue Valley — he also played last fall at The Wild Goose. The first time he came, so many people showed up that the building reached capacity and folks had to wait outside. Inside, it was standing room only and, before the show started, so noisy that people had to shout to be heard.
That all changed, however, as soon as Matt the Electrician stepped on the stage. The room fell silent and stayed that way as he held his audience spellbound for the rest of the evening. He eventually took a set break, at which point the roar of conversation instantly cranked back up — only to quiet back down for the second set.
Last week, for his return performance, Matt again drew very well. Once again it was standing room only — a great crowd, but just a touch smaller. They didn't have to turn anyone away at the door and there were a few more folks who were there just to hang out.
I got there early to secure a good table and watched every minute of the show. I actually felt like I was trying to absorb as much of it as I could, it was so good. His songs are well crafted and arranged so that his solo guitar versions of his recordings with a full band don't feel like they're missing anything. He appears to have complete trust in his material. But as good as his playing is, I'm half-inclined to argue that his greatest strength is the storytelling skills he showcases between songs.
The crowd last week was attentive and fully bought in to the performance, but it wasn't dead silent in the room. It was quiet enough that I could hear every conversation that people were having while Matt sang. It wasn't too distracting, and it didn't feel rude, but it highlights a recurring problem in small-town live music. We simply don't always have the perfect venue for every different nuance of every different type of music.
In a different setting — a larger city, a folk festival or a songwriters workshop — Matt would play something more like a theater show. There'd be a curtain and an emcee to introduce him and a spotlight to make him seem larger than life. But he wasn't at a big folk festival last week. He was driving alone in a car across America playing to real-life people in real-life places like Southern Oregon.
If, in order to have him stop and play a show in our town, we have to share public space with people who just want to shoot a little pool and have a conversation with friends, I'd say it's a pretty easy compromise for the audience to make. Matt certainly made it look like it was an easy compromise for him. He played a great show. He told stories and jokes and interacted with the crowd. I was just happy to be there.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.