After breakfast, the workshops started. There were still folks registering for NERFA
Vance Gilbert’s Collision Course (2nd attempt)
I wanted to try Vance’s course again. This time I didn’t have a schedule conflict. He wanted to get as much in as possible. Since a bunch of people had heard the course before he gave the speed-Vance version of the intro (see my description above). Now all the performers that forgot their instruments yesterday were there. I learned a lot listening to the other critiques.
One of the first acts was He-Bird, She-Bird. They were at NERFA with an upright bass player. Vance really worked as much on the “arrangement” of the song as on the stage presentation. Maybe the bass doesn’t need to come in at the beginning. Maybe it can start out just on the “one” beat and start “walking” later on the chorus. Getting an ensemble on and off the stage gracefully was a challenge. They were excellent. Nice harmonies.
He worked with a young singer named Ben Higginbotham from Texas on a song called “Chocolate and Cigarettes.” He worked with him to speak through a few of his lines. He coached a wonderful group called Piedmont Blūz. Valerie and Ben Turner specialize in Piedmont style country blues. In addition to their singing and playing, they try to educate about some of the artists and their lives. This part of the demo was interesting because they almost always perform seated. They got high points in the style department. Valerie had cool glasses and Ben had a cool hat. Their outfits seemed to go with their music really well without being “costumes”. Vance also fit in a very young singer named Alyssa Dann. Her father Mark Dann is a well-known recording engineer and bass player from the days of Fast Folk Magazine. Vance worked with her on stage. She performed well and her voice was beautiful. Her guitar playing was simple but well done.
My turn. I ended up being last. As I watched the other performers I kept second-guessing which song to do. He wanted songs that “needed work.” Not something you already had down. I ended up going with “Two Cents Worth.” He asked about it and I said I have recorded it but it needs work as a live song.
One thing I noticed but don’t remember Vance talking about was the mic stand itself. Most of the time when I perform the mic stand is directly in front of me a foot or two. The boom brings the mic straight back to my mouth. But before Vance even starts, the basic stand is positioned to his right side. The boom holding the mic came in from his side. This allows you to move around more and the mic stand isn’t blocking the performer. He talked about moving in and out of the “scene” for different parts of a performance. For example, moving further to the left for an instrumental. But I don’t remember him discussing that position and angle. Moving the actual mic stands at open mics can be tough to do without causing the sound person to have a heart attack.
I knew they were pressed for time. The workshop police had already interrupted him once. Another workshop was starting in that room and Vance had another to go to. I got on stage. Acknowledged the crowd. Plugged in. And started with a verse I had left out of “Two Cents Worth”. I started simply without going crazy with my jazz chords.
When I got to the instrumental verse I stepped to the left away from the microphone. I was holding my guitar the new way – like a guitar “slinger.” I was into the performance and not watching Vance. Next thing I knew he had snuck up behind me on stage and removed my glasses while I was playing. I kept going for a while. Then the workshop police returned and gave us all the hook. Vance was apologetic but it was fine. I was happy.
Organize Your Creative Brain Workshop
Next, I went to a workshop about getting organized to get your work done. Ellen Farber is a psychologist and she tried to describe how our brains work. There was talk about using different apps and FileMaker software to keep schedules and emails straight. How can performers keep sane while touring or working by ourselves? It was tough. Cheryl Prashker and Shawna Caspi are both touring musicians. In addition, Cheryl was one of the organizers of this year’s conference but she was here as a performer. I think Shawna wanted to discuss being a working introvert, but we never really got there. This workshop made me think there should be therapists listed as mentors. I am betting that a lot of my musician friends could use mental tune-ups. Or perhaps there could be a support group meeting. There is a 12-Step Meeting but I have a feeling many of us suffer from anxiety and depression. Maybe we are happy on stage but that is really a small part of our musical lives. Just thinking out loud.
Cuppa Joe. NERFA had their own phone app we could download that had almost everything. But I still liked using my Google calendar and the printed materials they gave us. There was even a bare-bones schedule printed on a folded card on the back of our name tags. No one could use the excuse that they missed dinner although I did arrive too early for coffee. My first showcase was the Cuppa Joe, First-Timers showcase. All of the guerilla showcase rooms were on the second floor. My actual performance time was 3:00 pm but I wanted to be there to see some of my friends. Joe Virga, the host was outside in the hallway. “I decided to make room for people to sit.” I gave him my name and said I was early. Everybody was planned for a 15-minute set and there was a clock we had to stick to.
It was interesting watching how the performers used the cramped space between the window and the bed. It was fine not having a sound system. Some instruments were allowed. Bass guitars, for example, could have a small amp on low volume. Pianos and keyboards were allowed if they had built-in speakers. One performer Andrew Alling used a bass pedal rig in addition to playing acoustic guitar and singing vocals. It was really pretty interesting.
Allysen Callery was next. I heard Allysen perform at Josh Farber’s Unity House series in Springfield MA about a year ago and had bought some of her music. We have since become Facebook friends. She is a superb fingerstyle guitarist and singer-songwriter. Although she is from Rhode Island you would swear she was British.
My conference roommate, Tom Smith was next. Tom is a wonderful songwriter and he is also known for finding and singing unusual songs. He has been a folk-singer at least as long as I have.
At 3:00 it was my turn. Or was it? Joe came in and announced, “Folks, I am really sorry but I double-booked this slot. I’ve never done that before. We are going to share the time slot. My apologies.” I was already standing in front of the hotel room curtains with my guitar ready to go. I figured that’s the way it goes and it could be fun. They moved a keyboard in for a songwriter named “Ann.” I’m sorry I didn’t catch her name. Then a four-piece band, Annie, and the Hedonists moved to the front of the room too. By then I was relegated to the bed. One member of her band asked if he could sit there so he could hear what the band is playing.”
I said, “Well, we must be triple-booked. Because I was scheduled for 3:00 too.”
The guitarist said, “Hey Joe you are TRIPLE-booked!”
Joe replied, “I would never make THAT mistake!”
Well, it turned out fine. Joe had double-booked the 3:15 slot. But not my 3:00 slot. I was able to stumble through my three songs. “The Huntington’s Waltz” received a nice response. Then I lightened it up with “East Longmeadow” and “Love on the Line.” My baptism was over.
Annie and the Hedonists were great and they performed with the other “Ann” doing swing and old-time music. I stayed for at least one more act, Piedmont Blūz, the couple that had been in Vance’s performance class earlier. And like everyone else I met at NERFA they were nice folks to talk with, too.
In between everything, there was a “Welcoming Cocktail Party” which I somehow missed. There was a complimentary drink ticket in my room that I found too late to use. Even the finger food was gone.
Access Film Music Blue showcase. Around 4 pm I arrived at the next showcase. I got to hear one of my friends from the Northampton area, Dave Dersham sing. My set was in the round with Lisa Austin and Chris Elliot from Western MA and Nico Rivers and Black Grass from the Boston area. Austin & Elliot have performed at my stomping grounds, Luthier’s Coop and I had met Chris at the Western Mass. Songwriters Collaborative showcase a few months ago. They gave a great performance at the DJ Showcase on Thursday evening. I caught Nico and Emily’s phenomenal harmonies at one of their earlier showcases. I sang my new song, “It All Depends.”
Keynote address. After dinner, Vance Gilbert gave the keynote address. It was a remarkable speech in rhyme, asking us to use our music for the good.
“All the folk money and all the folk fame
And community don’t mean a thing
If you got something to say
But you don’t bother to sing
Yeah you voted – so what now?
It didn’t get the job done
You want to bring folks together?
Then find a way to lift
All these voices as one.
After the Keynote I stayed for two excellent Formal Showcases in the big ballroom. Beth Wood from Oregon and the Andrew Collins Trio from Canada were incredible. By that time my butt was killing me from sitting too long. I know I missed a lot of great stuff. I went up to my room at about 9:00 pm to rest up for the “evening” and another showcase.
Late Friday night I had another showcase in the Access Film Music room. Actually, it was at Midnight, so it was Saturday. The group ahead of us was really wonderful. Jaeger & Reid write wonderful songs. Beautiful harmonies and tasteful guitar work. Sometimes Judi Jaeger plays a high-strung guitar and she was kind enough to answer my questions about where to get the strings. I’ve already bought a set of them, (called a Nashville set). I just need a guitar to put them on. After their set, I was in the round with Shawna Caspi and Susan Cattaneo.
I had opened for Shawna at Luthier’s Coop back in 2016. I remember that day exactly. The morning of the gig, the post office delivered my wife Kathy’s cremated remains. It wasn’t a surprise. I was told by the medical school that they would arrive within a week or two. But the mail carrier told me to “Have a Great Day!” as he handed me a box labeled “Cremated Human Remains.” There is probably a song in that. Shawna is a wonderful guitarist and songwriter from Canada. She was classically trained on the guitar. You can see from the way she holds her guitar. She had been one of the panelists on the “organizing your creative brain workshop” and is also an accomplished artist.
Susan Cattaneo had run a workshop for songwriters that morning on “Overcoming Writer’s Block.” Unfortunately, it was at the same time as Vance’s performance class. Susan teaches songwriting at Berklee and has won many songwriting awards. At first, I was a little nervous about singing with Susan and Shawna but they were both so nice. It helped me relax. We started to run out of time the last time through so I sang “It just depends” again. It is relatively short. I can’t remember which other songs I did but I think it was “Marriage of Convenience.” I was really trying not to repeat myself but the setlist kind of wrote itself. The audience in that room was great for both showcases.
After that, I went to several other showcase rooms and soaked in as much music as I could. There were a number of showcase rooms I had planned to go to but never visited. I was too lazy to dig out the showcase listings and see who was performing in some of the closed rooms. I know it is silly but I didn’t want to open any of the showcase doors that were closed. I guess I thought I would disturb them. And there was music I could watch by lurking and wandering. I think I went to bed at 2 am.
There was some sort of coffee-making contraption in the room. But I wanted real coffee. Saturday morning “Brunch” was at 9:30. It wasn’t close to being open yet. There were guards positioned. The Crowne Plaza didn’t have coffee service in the lobby like more expensive resorts like oh, Red Roof Inns. Or Motel 6.
Coffee! Coffee? When I am up, I need coffee.
I was going to need to go up the stairs to my room, to get my coat, so I could go across the street, to get coffee. It would have added an extra half-mile to my fitness app. But then I saw someone sipping a cup of “Holiday Inn” coffee. They pointed to an enclosed walkway to the lobby of the Holiday Inn next door.
I went. I begged. I received. No problem. They are part of the same hotel company anyway. Next year I might bring my AeroPress coffeemaker or something. But as my mom would say, “You would think…”
First Impressions: Video Workshop
This was a version of the “griddle” series where a panel watches or listens to a minute or so of a song. Then they critique it – give their first impressions. We were asked to submit a link to a video for review. I have to admit I didn’t read the Facebook post correctly and didn’t catch on to the 60 seconds part. I submitted a link to my performance of “Love on the Line“ at the Bitter End in New York City. It looks like I am comfortable. The resolution was good and the sound was recorded with my external mic. I thought it had a funny introduction and the audience was laughing. When I arrived at NERFA I re-read the description in the conference book. I realized they wanted to see a minute of me, performing. 60 seconds. A panel of venue booking managers would decide if they were interested enough to listen to more. “Love on the Line” has a 3-minute build-up to a punchline. The panel might not get to the music. I submitted a new link to “Don’t Be Discouraged” from my phone as I sat in the hotel lobby. It was recorded at the Infinity Hall Big Stage Competition.
At the workshop, there were some amazing “films.” They were more professional and beautifully filmed. Some had actors. There were other videos of bands recorded live in recording studios. There was one Tiny Desk Concert video. And there was one “music reel” – a medley of different songs. That was kind of entertaining to me because it reminded me of the K-tel TV ads for “The Greatest Power Hits from 1974.”
The panel said nice things about all the videos but in the end, they were not really what the VENUE needs to decide on booking. They were great for advertising an event. Or to show the capabilities of the performer. They said they generally don’t like the film reel but they did like the one submitted by “The Everly Set.” It captured the humor and energy of the duo “approximating” the Everly Brothers.
Don’t Be Discouraged was low resolution black and white and shot by a volunteer at the venue from the balcony. The audio was from the video camera, not the sound system. It wasn’t pretty. But I thought it was worth showing. At the actual event, the emcee had announced that “Peter is dedicating his performance to his wife who died of Huntington’s Disease.” The audience probably expected a sad song. The video starts right away with singing — a hymn to optimism. “Don’t be discouraged, when the future is not bright….” The audience laughed at the punch line, “Don’t be discouraged. It’s bound to get worse.” After the first verse, they started singing along.
They stopped the video at this point. Generally, the panel seemed to like it. They thought the song and performance were good. And it showed audience reaction, which was a plus. It gave them a chance to talk about actual video and sound quality. Matt Smith of Club Passim said we should try to record the audio from the mixing board at the venue. He said we are in the music business and if the sound quality is rough or tinny it is tiring or irritating to listen to.
I felt like I picked up a lot of things to try as I go along. I did get one follow-up comment later that afternoon. “The song and performance were really good… But, would it kill you to smile? Why so dour? I don’t know what that is about?” She isn’t the first one to mention that. I might have come up with an excuse (Kathy) but it would just be an excuse. I had a great time performing at Infinity Hall. I should let it show. Baby steps.
Submerging Artists Showcase. After the video workshop, I headed up for my first showcase. The name “Submerging Artists” was coined by the late Rachel Bissex. All of the big festivals had Emerging Artists but Submerging Artists needed a place too. Rachel was part of the Acoustic Underground the year I was in the finals. She had a terrific sense of humor but was also a wonderful songwriter. I was only able to perform with her a few times.
Hugh and Eileen O’Doherty were the hosts and they like to run a tight ship. My time slot was from 3:00 to 3:19 pm. Yes, 19 minutes. That was to allow a minute to switch places with the next act. I was there early and caught most of Cosy Sheridan’s set with Charlie Koch. I have two of Cosy’s CDs from my early days of folk. She has always been a wonderful guitarist and has written her fair share of funny songs. Hugh O’Doherty had the next set. I particularly enjoyed his song about gravity or the lack of it after the world ends. I traded CDs with him and hope to learn it. Next was Carolann Solebello a wonderful songwriter, guitarist and all-around good person. At NERFA Carolann was the guerilla showcase keeper. She organized it into a smooth operation. At least I think so. She has written some wonderful topical songs and was a founding member of the group Red Molly.
I sang “The Huntington’s Waltz” and two lighter songs.
After dinner, there was a showcase and presentation about the Connecticut State Troubadour program. Kate Callahan has been the troubadour for the last year or so. She was one of the performers at the Farmington Valley Acoustic Music Festival in October. I don’t know if other states have a troubadour program. I think I am the Hampden Troubadour but no one else knows it.
I stayed for the first few formal showcases. Mari Black & The World Fiddle Ensemble was a nice switch from the wall to wall songwriters. She and her band did some showy fiddle novelty tunes too.
My last showcase wasn’t until 11:45 pm so I was able to drink more coffee and mingle for a bit. Then I went to catch some of the semi-formal showcases I had put on my calendar.
Sophie Buskin is the daughter of famed songwriter, David Buskin (Buskin & Batteau, Pierce-Arrow, and many ad jingles). I met her at the Nacul Center in Amherst when she and David were the featured act there. I was surprised she remembered me. She is finishing up her first solo album and her set was wonderful. Her songs were very soulful and vulnerable and she backed herself with very simple flanged electric guitar and a percussionist. I loved the song “Sweet Creature.”
Next, I went to a showcase room upstairs and two semi-formals that I had on my list: Lisa Bastoni and Ernest Troost.
Lisa Bastoni is somebody I had heard a lot about but never heard in concert. She took time off from music for her family and has a new CD out.
Ernest Troost was someone I met at a lunch table downstairs. He lives in Los Angeles and writes music for films as his day job. But he shared a lot of information about traveling with guitars (two parlor sized guitars) and a small amplifier he almost always brings. He was a Kerrville winner and wrote some wonderful songs.
Singer-Songwriter Heaven. By then I decided to head to my last showcase at John Hamilton’s Singer-Songwriter Heaven. It is named after a song written by Kevin Flaherty. Here it is sung by Darryl Purpose.
I was first up. There were a few faces in the audience that attended my earlier showcases so I tried to perform a different group of three songs. My notes are so sketchy I can’t recall which ones I performed when. At midnight I was free to listen to other music.
I popped in and out of rooms. Listening to some old friends and other folks I had never heard of. I popped into Rob Lytle’s Heart and Hope Music showcase. Back in the early 1990s Rob, Dar Williams and I were in a “talent contest” at Del Rossi’s Restaurant in New Hampshire. Rob was the winner. Dar was bummed out, but she bounced back nicely.
Late Saturday night as I was going down the Second-floor hallway I poked my head into a song-circle. It was organized by Local 1000 AFM, the traveling musicians union. I hovered at the back of the room to see if I had anything to offer. I don’t think of myself as a topical songwriter or a “protest” singer. Folks were singing some great old songs and some funny anti-Trump tunes. I found an empty chair between some new friends I had met earlier at the conference. I joined in on choruses and added my guitar to the orchestra of ukes, guitars, cellos, and banjos. It was really a fantastic time. When it came around to me I sang my song about Jesus, called “Wrong Side of the Tracks.” But the highlight for me was singing ‘Guantanamera” with multi-part harmony and led by a singer with an autoharp. I think it is time to dust off my old autoharp.
(This is a link to “Wrong Side of the Tracks” recorded at Luthier’s Co-op)
Sunday (closing day)
Sunday morning after breakfast I finally had a chance to go into the exhibition hall before they started dismantling it. It was never open when I had time to go in. I did a quick walk around and left some of my sampler CDs in the radio DJ “mailboxes.” We had to check-out of our rooms by 11 am before the conference was actually over. Then I ran to the final workshop of the conference for me.
First Impressions: Social Media workshop
I had submitted links to my website and Facebook music page to Dino Cattaneo, a web, and digital marketing consultant. We bumped into each other in the lobby of the hotel and he went over some of the good parts of my web presence and some things that still needed work. I have already made some of the changes he suggested.
The workshop panel included Dino, Courtney Rodland and Jess Phaneuf from Club Passim and Louise Baker, a talent buyer for a music hall in Asheville NC. Jess is also a folk DJ at WUMB-FM in Boston.
One of the websites that got high marks was that of Tom Smith, my roommate at the conference. The things they liked about it were the photography and his tagline (PERFORMING SONGWRITER AND SINGER OF OLD SONGS) which is easy for a venue to use as a one-line description. On his press kit, they loved that he had bios in several different sizes and lengths. It gives the venue options for publicity – a blurb, or a newspaper. Tom also provided his photos in two sizes: high-resolution (for printing in newspapers, programs or posters); and screen resolution (for use on websites). Anything we can do to make the venue’s job easier helps.
On my website, they liked the professional photography (by Julian Parker-Burns) and they liked that my Facebook page address was “Stand-up folk”, not my hard to spell name 🙂 But one problem was that my show schedule was hard to find. I told Dino that was because I don’t have any at the moment. I have fixed that in the meanwhile.
Dino explained that people expect certain conventions when they visit a website. Smartphones encourage vertical scrolling and many websites are now one-page designs.
After a farewell lunch, I headed home. Sunday happened to be one year from when I scattered Kathy’s ashes at Lighthouse Point. But I decided to head home to get Marty and get back to regular life.