In 2012 I wrote a piece about what I had been doing after I quit working. It was all about my interests in music and what songs I had been learning. I continued these endeavors and finally reached the point where I started thinking about performing. My previous experiences with playing guitar in front of people hadn't gone well. In earlier times, I played strictly finger-style guitar and when I became nervous, my right hand turned to stone. I began experimenting with a new style of playing guitar and I had tried a few things to face my fears. But before I discuss the new style of playing, I want to talk about the baby steps I took to begin confronting the fear of playing in front of people.
Sometime during the spring of 2012 I had a dental appointment in DeKalb and I began thinking about the park which is near the dentist's office as a place to play while outdoors and exposed to people. I had been giving thought to where I might pull out the guitar and play to people passing by. I thought about going into Geneva and playing on the bench in front of the music store. I even walked over there once and sat on the bench in front of the music store and realized that the passing traffic was really loud and it discouraged me. I had some crazy thoughts about driving to the airport and playing in the hallways connecting the parking lot to the terminal - naaa, too far away. The idea of playing in the park, where I knew there was an outdoor amphitheatre popped out when I knew I was going to the dentist. So, after my dental appointment, I drove to the park. It was a nice warm day. I parked right behind the amphitheatre and with my heart beating wildly and feeling crazy and stupid, I grabbed my guitar case, walked over to the amphitheatre, layed down the case and fished out my ax along with my slide and finger picks. I know I played "I'm Going Home," which is one of the first slide-guitar songs I had learned. I don't recall what else. There weren't many people around but it was very strange just playing outdoors in front of God and everyone else. After a few songs, I packed up my guitar and headed home feeling really proud of myself. I had done it. I had taken the first baby step towards confronting my fears.
I continued thinking about where I could do similar exposures and went to a mall in St. Charles where my daughter Lisa was employed. I remember walking through the store where she was working and we talked a bit before I went out onto the mall, found a bench and started playing. That was more intense as there were people walking by and I had to learn to not pay any attention to their presence - just ignore them and just keep playing dude. This was another big step forward and I returned to do this again in the same mall.
Then came the UUSG picnic. I went over to the park in Geneva, sat on a park bench and played before I went to the picnic where I played backup with Tracey McFadden and Brian Joose. But it wasn't until 2013 that I finally took the jump into an open microphone (open-mic) performance.
At the beginning of 2013, I began playing with a style where I used the right thumb to thump the guitar while my fingers picked. It created a rhythm I liked and was comfortable with. It was a macro-movement with my right hand and I felt much looser with it. I wasn't trying to pick the guitar with the thumb - I was beating on it rhythmically. In the spring I noticed they were having open microphone (open-mic) nights on Mondays at a nearby bar called the Blackberry Inn. Beth was in Europe and I stopped by to have a hamburger and check out the scene. I thought, what the heck, this is my chance. The MC's name was Dave Hanson and he was a very nice fellow. I played "When The Levee Breaks," "Baby Please Don't Go," and "Pamela Brown" on my Taylor 12-string. I had planned on sitting on a stool that was there and had not taken my strap which was a big mistake. I was not comfortable and had difficulties keeping the guitar in proper position. But I guess my biggest problem was my microphone technique. One needed to be right on top of this mic and I wasn't able to continue singing without changing the position of my head to look at my guitar neck. Wow! But I had done it! I came out of this experience exhilarated and knowing that there were many more things to learn about performing. I wasn't thinking how awful it was and that I'd never do it again. I was feeling eager to learn how I can be better. I was also thinking about the very beginning and how difficult it had been to drive to a park, pull out my guitar and play with hardly anyone around. Now that seemed like nothing at all - I was learning how to do it and the only way to learn that was to do it.
For my first open-mic performance, I played my Taylor 12-string which did not have a pickup at the time. I went to Rick Cremer and had him install a pickup in my Taylor Leo Kottke-signature 12-string but it took several weeks before he was finished, so I did several more open-mic's with my Gibson J-50 and my CooderCaster. These performances were all at the Blackberry Inn.
For the second performance, I played "O'l Red,"
"Ghost of Tom Joad," "Man in the Long Black Coat," and "Folsom Prison Blues" on my Gibson J-50. The good things about this performance were that I was able to play breaks on guitar without any paralyzed fingers and I was surprised by how good the guitar sounded. The bad things were that I need to learn how to focus while still staying loose. I was distracted and forgot some lyrics and missed some chords. I still had problems with the sound system, my voice dynamics and use of microphone. It was fun having the Frost family there and I felt like I was still making progress.
For the third performance, I played "Dear Doctor," "Dim Lights Thick Smoke," Intro: "Dust in the Wind," "White Rabbit," and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I played the Gibson J-50 and was still confused by the sound system. I had just started finger picking the beginning of "Dust In The Wind" between songs and wasn't having any problems at all. This experiment led me to thinking that I was getting used to the exposure.
For the fourth performance I played my CooderCaster in open-D tuning. I played "Walking On A Thin Line", and "Spade Cooley." Then I retuned the guitar to DADDAD tuning and played Steve Still's "4 + 20." Kathy and Tracey McFadden were there along with Beth.
For the fifth performance, I now had the Taylor 12-string with a pickup installed and was excited to play it. I played "Act Naturally," "What Was I Thinking," "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off," and "Tennessee Stud." I also used my foot stomper and that worked out great. I played a little Leo Kottke's "Vaseline Machine Gun" and felt like I was doing OK.
But after five performances at the Blackberry Inn, they changed the schedule and they were now going to have the open-mic night later in the evening on Friday nights. This didn't sound good and I was tired of being fooled by the sound system there, so I decided to look for another place to work on my performance skills.
In the fall of 2013, I did my sixth open-mic at Gabby's Kitchen in St. Charles Illinois. I played my Taylor 12-string and sang “My Brother's A Sailor Too,” “When The Levee Breaks,” and “I Will Wait.” I had intended to remove my hearing aids to experiment with mic difficulties in the absence of extrinsic amplified tones rendered by the hearing aids. Although I was much more comfortable with the sound system, I was still having difficulties zeroing in – depending on which registers my voice was in. I decided I wanted to do a gig where I'm not using the hearing aids. It was a bad idea to use the jacked-in tuner to change from the minor chords (My Brother's A Sailor Too) to major. I should have just used my ears to adjust the tuning. I stupidly pulled the amp jack from the guitar and popped a huge cracking sound … very dumb … and boy did I feel bad after that one. I played this gig standing up and definitely was into the performance much more so than ever before. This made the guitar playing much easier as I felt so much more connected to it. I played without finger-thumb picks and this helped minimize my nervous concerns. I had practiced singing with a mic and playing while standing up which definitely helped me stay on top of the mic. Tracey was there that night and we did a couple numbers where I played the CooderCaster ("Hot Rod Lincoln," maybe "Hey Good Lookin").
The seventh open-mic was at Gabby's Kitchen near the end of 2013. I played “When The Levee Breaks,” “Baby Please Don't Go,” and “Pamela Brown.” There weren't many people there that night and so, when I finished my three songs, Sam (the MC) said I could go on but I didn't because I hadn't prepared more songs. I should always be ready to perform extra songs. I used the foot stomper that night and it worked very well. I forgot to turn my hearing aids off.
The eighth open-mic performance was on April 3, 2014 at Gabby's Kitchen. I played “When The Levee Breaks,” “Baby Please Don't Go,” and “Pamela Brown” on Taylor 12-string with foot-stomper. There were many performers there that night and Sam was quick to pull the chain on me after these three songs. Overall, I felt my performance was lacking mostly in how I played the guitar. I had been playing a lot of bass and guitar and just hadn't kept up my 12-string slide skills – particularly from the right-hand finger-picking aspect. I realized that if I'm going to do these gigs every now and then, I must keep my finger-picking skills up. I felt like the mic was too close to my mouth and it was standing me up too much. I should pay more attention to the position of the mic and the foot stomper at the very beginning so I'm not uncomfortable with it during the performance.
A week later, April 10, I did my ninth open-mic at Gabby's Kitchen. I played the Gibson J-50 and, in preparation for Father's Day Service at UUSG, sang 4'D's: 2 dads, 1 dust, 1 death which were:
"Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," "Dust in the Wind," "Old Man" and "Gravedigger." I sang the first three with hearing aids off and turned them back on for Gravedigger. I was finding that because the speakers were so loud, I was overwhelmed by external sounds and not sensing internal sounds. The external sounds were lacking in the higher frequencies and so I felt like I needed to turn the hearing aids back on for Gravedigger. This was when I began wishing I had a personal monitoring system and wonder how much they cost. I did better than expected finger-picking dust but would get a little nervous after making slight error. I need to get past that. I must stay loose even when I make slight mistakes. At least the fingers didn't turn to concrete.
The tenth open-mic was on June 6, 2014 at Gabby's Kitchen. I played my Taylor 12-string and sang: "Dear Doctor," "What was I Thinking," "Tennessee Stud" and "Cover of the Rolling Stone." Sam Wyatt wasn't there and the MC was a guy I'd never seen before. He plays guitar in the band Toast and may be Dale Lewis but am uncertain about that. He stayed up there to play with me so I thought I'd give it a try. It worked OK for "Dear Doctor" and was fun playing with him but it screwed me up when we did "What Was I Thinking" and I lost track of the lyrics. The rest of the songs went OK - probably as good as could be expected. Overall my impression of my singing was that I sounded so low - like I was singing everything an octave lower - pretty weird. I played the 12-string and it felt OK - I had been playing it consistently and it worked as opposed to the 8th open mic when I felt I wasn't playing well. I used the foot stomper too.
In August of 2014 Beth and I sang "You've Got A Friend" at Kady McFadden's wedding. I remember thinking just before we started the song as I was standing up there in front of the microphone that if I hadn't gained the experience doing the open-mic performances, I would have been freaking out right at that moment. I'm still having great difficulty singing while hearing my voice over an amplified system. It's fooling me during the performance and it affects how I sing. I know this because I recently listened to the recording of the Father's Day Service performance where I sang "Desperados Waiting for a Train" and "Old Man." I had sung and recorded both these songs many many times and knew them cold. Still when I listened to the recording I heard me singing these songs differently than what I had practiced. I need to find a way to solve this problem.