Paul Andersen: My big musical moment at Steve’s
Last month, I got a call from Frank Martin. “You wanna get into some trouble?” he asked playfully, like a kid taunting his buddy with an illicit firecracker.
“Sure,” I said without a moment’s hesitation. “What kinda trouble are you talking about?”
Frank asked me to open for him at Steve’s Guitars, the coolest musical venue in the Roaring Fork Valley. Frank plays there regularly with a variety of local musicians in an ambiance reminiscent of Greenwich Village during the ’60s, a hip musical refuge.
“Can you handle half an hour onstage?” he asked. “Do you have enough material?”
Do I have enough material?! Ask anybody who has suffered my campfire repertoire and they would say I have too much material. Once I get started, it’s hard to shut me up. It isn’t every amateur musician whose guitar and voice can be considered weapons of mass destruction.
I told Frank that I would be honored to open for him and his band du jour, then hung up feeling a flush of anxiety. I drafted a play list, then began rehearsing more seriously than I had rehearsed for the “Gong-sköl Show” a few months before.
At that debacle, before a full house at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, abject humiliation from the omnipresent gong prompted me to hurl Hostess Snowballs into the audience. There would be no gong at Steve’s Guitars, and I doubted there would be any foam sugar projectiles within reach onstage. The only thing I would suffer the audience to endure would be my act.
The songs were all my own, with the exception of one Tom Lehrer song: “The Folk Song Army.” I selected Lehrer’s tribute to the folk song because Lehrer has been a hero of mine ever since I first tuned into his satire on my dad’s hi-fi as a kid in the 1950s.
Lehrer’s seminal recording during a live performance at the Hungry Eye in San Francisco in the early ’60s lives in my treasured archives as a brilliant display of cynical savagery, artfully executed and well-deserved. Who could forget “The Vatican Rag” or “Send the Marines”?
Inspired by Lehrer, my song writing has focused on local issues like the commute on Highway 82 (“The Downvalley Shuffle”) and mountain bike mania (“Ghost Bikers”). I dusted off these standards and added a few environmental tunes and political ditties. When it was done, my act was not exactly Hungry Eye material, but it was complementary to the folk atmosphere at Steve’s Guitars.
Steve’s is a small, intimate room that formerly served as a guitar showroom. According to Steve, the gregarious owner, the guitar shop business was marginal, so he opted to transform the shop into a performance venue featuring local talent.
Steve’s philosophy calls for equal opportunity for area musicians who play for free while a voluntary collection at the door pays the rent. The audience brings their own drinks and sits on an odd assortment of chairs while sipping wine and beer. Homemade cookies and brownies are provided free during intermissions.
As my big musical moment approached, so did a classic case of the jitters. I hadn’t been so nervous since my wife was wheeled into the maternity ward. My apprehension began to sabotage my memory and I was hard pressed to remember songs I had sung hundreds of times.
On the appointed night, Steve introduced me as “local talent,” which was a generous acknowledgment. I stood in the lights, gazed out at 30 pairs of eyes and began to sing. My fingers rebelled and occasionally played the wrong strings and my voice sometimes wavered, but I made it through the appointed half hour with minimal pain.
My trembling fear was de rigueur for an amateur musician facing a rare live performance, but the polite applause and the warm reception from friends and family were reassuring. There was something cathartic about doing what for years I have wanted to do in exactly the right place.
Now that it’s over, it may never happen again. The angst was all-consuming, and my capacity for public performance may be limited hereafter to the impromptu audience around a crackling campfire. At least then the audience can simply go off to bed when they tire of my tunes, and if I become too disgusted by my amateurish playing, I can slide the guitar into the flames and sing a final torch song.
[Paul Andersen is not headed for the Grand Ole Opry. His column appears on Mondays.]
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