Gigging at Costello's

Had a very fun gig at Costello's Travel Caffe last night. By the way, for those of you who don't know I had a gig last night, be sure to join my mailing list.

I ran into James Jeffrey-West at a couple of songwriting workshops earlier this year, and then we ended up sharing a gig at the Local Lounge on MLK. Shortly afterwards, Pete and I interviewed him for Acoustic Conversations, for an upcoming episode. James has a regular gig at Costello's, and invited me to take part.

Last month I headed down there to catch a show of his - the venue is really warm. The night I was there, it was a packed house. At the time I wasn't sure about playing there, because everyone is eating dinner and I'm never sure if I'd end up being background music, sitting down behind a keyboard at floor level. And if you've read my previous blog entry, you know how I can feel a bit conflicted about a couple of my songs needing more instruments.

But one idea I've been toying with has been to play standing up. I had never done that before. I also wanted to try talking while playing a little more - I went to a David Wilcox concert a couple of weeks back and he does a lot of that, it really adds to the experience. So I practiced both this week, and then there I was standing up behind the keyboard, talking and singing. And it worked great!

I biffed the piano parts a little more often than I normally would but I think that's just getting used to the new position. My pedal was squeaky under my boot and was also trying to get away from me - I think I can solve that at future gigs with a sticky mat and a sock. And I had a great time. I have had a couple of discouraging gigs in the past, but I do seem to enjoy gigging more every time I go out. I think it's getting a little easier now.

James puts on a very nice show. He has a great set, with wonderful stories behind his songs. He has different people playing with him every time he is there at Costello's. I definitely recommend signing up for his mailing list and attending a show there.

The Piano Scene

It's been quite a crazy experience trying to understand the pop and singer/songwriter scene as it applies to piano.

Here's the situation. You have a piano, some piano skills, and you can sing a little. You write some songs for the piano. In any batch of songs, you're going to have some songs that absolutely require a band, some songs that absolutely require a real piano, and other songs that are still just fine for a random electric keyboard with no backing musicians.

When you're starting out, you're basically limited to the third type of song. All your band songs (for me that would be Damn My Eyes and Not Today) can't really even be performed. Other songs that really should be played on a grand (for me that would be She Believes and Old Friend) sound more like a pale imitation of themselves when you play them on a keyboard pumped through an small sound system.

And so for piano songwriters, it becomes a sort of permanent treasure hunt to find where and how to play. Every once in a while you think you find a possibility and then you get a curveball. Here are some of the recents.

  • Jo Federigo's in Eugene - I traveled down there with Debbie, after hearing Lisa Forkish rave about playing on their piano and for their audience - their website said they were still open, but their telephone had a mysterious voice mail message explaining they were closed until further notice.
  • Martin's off Madison in Seattle - I heard there was an open mic night here with a real grand piano and was very excited to attend. Took Debbie and loved the atmosphere and the food, and they had a great pianist there. Soon it dawned on me, however, that all the piano music was loungy jazz standards, heavy on Bacharach and music theater, and that Debbie was the only woman in the entire place. And I confirmed with the waitstaff that "open mic" basically meant singing karaoke while the pianist backs you up. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but disappointing to find a cool piano bar only to find that it doesn't cater to your style of music.
  • 88 keys in Seattle - there is a monthly songwriting event here at a dueling piano bar. I attended tonight - it was pretty funny because the pianos aren't even real - they're digital keyboards in grand piano shells. It actually wasn't bad, because the stage and sound were quite good, but the event is on a Tuesday night when the area is completely dead - it's tough as a songwriter to sign up for a 30-minute showcase slot and have no one in the audience other than the other songwriters that have showed up. It's not a good way to build an audience.

I had a great meeting with Jake Oken-Berg recently and we talked about other venues in town that are good for various levels of local songwriters. There's a good piano at Wilf's Restaurant, but it is more for jazz musicians that can fill up a three-hour set - I'm not sure they are amenable for a shared bill where each person might have forty-five minutes. There are venues like Jimmy Mak's with a great piano, if you can guarantee that you'll fill the room pretty well. There's a nice-looking smaller venue in Seattle named Egan's in Ballard that might have possibilities for if you can't guarantee a big crowd. The entire question is how to get started and put on enough of a good show with the puny songs and the electric keyboard and the small sound systems, to gather up enough fans to be able to justify the nicer venues. Tough road.

What seems like a possibility is the house party circuit - finding a collection of folks with grand pianos in their homes and putting on small concerts. I've got some brainstorms in the works for that, as I get closer to having a good hour of original material.

Mississippi Songwriter's Showcase, 2/11/09

I got an email from Dan Lowe that tonight was the final songwriters showcase at Mississippi Pizza - I haven't been for a while and decided to attend. I went with Pete, with whom I'm co-hosting Acoustic Conversations (more on that later).

Turns out it's not really the final songwriters showcase in Portland, it's just happening at a new location now. It was a fun night, though. It was a sparsely attended open mic night (I still haven't figured out where the busy open mics are), so the people who attended got to play multiple songs. There were a few people there also that weren't there to play, so it was a nice audience of 15-20 people.

I didn't have any intention of playing; didn't bring my keyboard or anything. But after they got through the first round, Dan good-naturedly heckled me from the stage a bit and I agreed to go up and play a couple of songs using the upright piano.

I chose to do My Favorite Clown and She Believes. This was technically my third gig. It's fun how in these early stages, there are all these firsts. This is the first time I've performed live on a real piano, and I prefer it. Sound-wise I prefer even an upright to a keyboard, I think.

The audience was great and I was pleased at how comfortable I felt up there. I think I could get used to this!

Gig Report, 1/6 @ Thirsty Lion

So I had my first real gig tonight, or second if you count when I performed two songs at a songwriting competition last month.

After my gig last month, I was checking out myspace pages of the various other musicians who performed and saw that one linked to the PDX Songwriter Showcase. I've been curious about these songwriter showcases so I wrote them to ask if they accepted piano-based songwriters.

I only intended to ask for future reference but the guy wrote me back and said he heard my stuff off of my myspace page and enjoyed it, wanted to give me a twenty-five minute slot for 1/6. I hemmed and hawed a bit and accepted.

This last week I felt I was in danger of coming down with a cold and almost canceled but then I took a turn for the better. Plus I knew I'd like if I went through with it. I've got to get over these humps where it feels stressful to gig, it needs to become old hat.

The gig went pretty well. I like The Thirsty Lion - I've walked by on Friday and Saturday nights and it always seems packed. I knew Tuesday night would be different, but was still looking forward to checking out the venue.

There were four musicians total tonight, plus the host - there was one cancellation, but another guy stepped in to replace him. I was third on the list. The other three guys were solo acoustic guitarists. Unfortunately, the sound inside seemed more suited for big acts; it was a bit of a challenge to understand the lyrics on many of the songs.

It reminded me that it can be a bit soul-crushing to go through this process of playing out, at least if you aren't prepared for it. There were about 15-20 people total in the audience, mostly people who came along with the other performers. As for me, I had heard that some of the folks on my mailing list might show up but I didn't spy any of them in the audience. Tuesday night after New Years is a bit of a tough time in the schedule.

The gig went well - I played five songs, I didn't keep my eyes closed the entire time like I did last month, and talked a bit between songs. It seemed the strongest ovations were for I Have A Cold (which still mystifies me), Damn My Eyes, and She Believes, which I closed with. My Favorite Clown was really fun to play with the upright bass, supplied by Chris Gustafson, who also played with me last month. Balancing Above The Air went well too, but it wasn't really the right fit for the venue, I need more of a captive audience for that one. I have a rough sense that Damn My Eyes, Clown, and She Believes are the ones that have the inside track for "moving ahead to the next round" for me.

I listened to the recording I made of it later, and was surprised to find that I played all of the songs at a faster tempo than I usually practice them at. Chris mentioned they seemed faster, too. I'm not sure how much of that is because of nerves, and how much of that is because of me being used to playing on my grand piano, where there's a huger body of sound. With the keyboard it's all attack and then nothing so it might have made me rush a bit so things didn't feel empty to me.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how my voice sounded live, especially since I actually did start coming down with that cold tonight. I no longer think my voice is my weak point - now it's just my songwriting - I gotta come up with some more material now.

Got a couple of unsolicited compliments afterward. Good experience overall. I'm looking forward to playing for larger audiences later, we'll have to see how that goes.

Songwriter Showcase @ Thirsty Lion

I'll be doing a 25-minute songwriter showcase tomorrow, Tuesday, January 6th at the Thirsty Lion pub on 2nd and Ash. My slot is somewhere between 8:30 and 10:30. One of the songs is new enough that it's not on this site yet, it's called Damn My Eyes. I'll be playing with bassist Chris Gustafson.

Gig! Gig! Gig!

Tonight I had my first gig of my originals.

Well, sort of. It was a songwriting competition - eighteen songwriters, each performing two songs. I decided not to advertise this particular gig just because I felt like it was something of an experiment, but I had a couple of good friends in the audience - people who have been subjected to practically every little revision and roughdraft of my various songs over the months (including a few that are still too rough to post on this site - but fear not, they'll be coming soon).

So this was a real first for me. My first gig of singing/performing my own stuff. I've done classical piano recitals, gigs with my college a cappella singing group, gigs with my jazz band (both of which I've sung lead for on a couple of rare occasions), but I've never sung/performed my own songs.

I was 15th in the lineup, so fairly late in the evening. The event drew some pretty good songwriters in, so it was an entertaining night. It's interesting listening to raw songs - there isn't much people can do production-wise when you're limited to one or two instruments.

I was curious how nervous I'd be, because while I tend to be pretty comfortable on stage, I hadn't done my own songs before. But aside from an elevated pulse, I was all right.

I chose to perform Balancing Above The Air and She Believes. Balancing, because it's easy to play and because most of my friends recommended it as being the most artsy and singer/songwriter-ish... even though it's not one of my personal favorites - I like it musically, but it's just not really about anything. She Believes, because it's definitely my favorite. With the right production I still believe it will sound amazing.

I'm so used to a real piano though. The gig was playing a Kurzweil PC-88 through a sound system, when most people are used to keyboards being a supplementary instrument. It was quiet and without much dynamic range - wasn't able to get the musicality out of it that I needed.

But the performance went well I thought. I was surprised at how relaxed and focused I felt up there. Apparently I'm pretty comfortable performing. I had one memory slip in She Believes in the left hand, but no one noticed because I had my man Chris Gustafson playing the upright bass at the same time.

Afterward is when I got jittery, I seriously needed to shake some things out. Later in the night I was pleased to get good comments on my singing voice, of all things - after earlier in the day remarking about how I thought that was my weak point. And I met some other good players that I'm hoping to see playing out again - Chris Kokesh, Lupe, Paola Maya. Also some other players I've met before that did very well - Dan Lowe, Ron Shaffer, Dan Weber. Some other newer names that I haven't met before but I'll have to catch them at the next gig.

The next gig! Ulp!

Looking For A Bass Player

I'm looking for another bass player to do some rehearsing with. I have a couple of bass players that I'm able to play with once in a while, but both are also pretty busy and I'm hoping to do some more workshopping of my songs and also some jazz trio playing.

Here are some of the future plans:

  • She Believes - this is actually intended for a trio - me, bass, and drums. I've got a couple of great mp3s of me rehearsing it with a drummer friend, and it sounds great. A good bass part would really fill it out.
  • The Aaaaay Song - I don't have a version of this online yet (still working on the lyrics) but it's a bouncy shuffle that's great fun to play. Again, good for trio - me, bass, and drums.
  • All Aboard - this was originally intended to also have guitar, but with a good bass a drum section, it might work without it - I'm still working on it. It's an older song and not necessarily closely related to my more recent sound, but it's good filler and good to have around.
  • My Favorite Clown - this is probably better for a more produced sound - either solo, or with strings or something - but it would be interesting to have a fairly active upright bass sound to it, especially if bowed. I've got other instrumentalists that would be interested in being part of an ensemble for some of these arrangements.

There are a few other songs in progress. Of course, with a good trio in my back pocket, it motivates me to write faster!

There are also plenty of jazz standards. Ain't Misbehavin', But Beautiful, Desafinado, Have You Met Miss Jones, etc. Recordings available upon request.

I'm basically looking to split time between actually slowly working up a set, but also just using rehearsal time to play around and be a good trio.

I've Got You Under My Skin Video

So, yesterday I thought I would start experimenting with this video stuff. I set up my macbook on a stack of piano books on the corner of my piano, recorded the video (and room sound) through my iSight, recorded the audio through my mixer to my M-Audio microtrack, then used iMovie and Garageband to replace the sound with the mic'd version. Didn't pay much attention to dressing up my set or anything (which I might regret), just pressed record and sang into the mic like normal.

This is me singing I've Got You Under My Skin in my living room. Youtube downsampled the audio so it's in mono (and you can't hear the reverb either), but you can get the full-quality source audio if you're subscribed to my standards podcast.


With my jazz-singing trio and my more progressive trippy trio, helped out by Turmell and Morelli in the first, and Turmell and Morgan in the second, it just hit me - I am in two trios with three Steves.

Starbucks Gig

That was a fun little gig I had last night. My bass-playing friend Steve works at a Starbucks and they were having something of a Christmas party - open to the public, and with coloring books. So Steve asked if I'd be willing to play piano if he played bass, and I said sure - fine with me that it was for no pay since I didn't have any time to prepare for a real gig. It was a bit haphazard, we knew that one gal had designs on singing a couple of Christmas tunes, but no one could supply any music, either.

So, Steve ended up buying a fakebook of Christmas tunes and brought it along. I brought my M-Audio keyboard (the $200 one), my amp, and a microphone. I didn't really have any idea of what to expect. It turned out there were about 15-20 people there (it's a small Starbucks on Barnes and Miller in SW), and when it was time for us to start, everyone kind of turned and looked at us. Not quite background music!

So, we started with Frosty The Snowman, and all the cute barista girls started singing along, and it basically went from there.

Pretty fun overall. I'm glad I wasn't paid, honestly, because there was no preparation, and lead sheets for Christmas tunes aren't exactly the most creative. But I got thrown to the wolves a bit, always a good thing, the attention was very much focused on me and Steve, I did some singing and some crowd interaction stuff which I hadn't really planned on at all, and it turned out that it felt quite comfortable.

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