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There's More to Think About in Weirdness

Monday, January 8, 2007

The drumhead. Bill said he felt he should be playing a dirge, "Paint the Drum Slowly," while I worked on it. There are a LOT of letters in The Swinging Orangutangs. Thanks to Katherine Koch for the great logo design. No thanks to me for putting the mic hole at the top. Durrrh.

I have been mum on the topic of New Year's Eve, mainly because BOTB did such a fab job posting Shila's wonderful photos and writing about the experience. It was mostly fun, but there's a reason the New Year's gigs pay more. It's hard, hard work. People come to a New Year's Eve gig with expectations already supersized, that they're going to have the party of their lives. Each wants to hear the music they prefer, and, while we worked overtime to provide the best experience possible, rehearsing for hours and tweaking the set lists, we couldn't meet the expectations of every person in the room. I'd daresay no band could. One person wants to hear Radiohead, and the next person wants to hear Bob Seeger. Almost everybody wants to dance--that's a constant. So we put all the songs we've learned together in what we hope is a cogent way, and we pour out everything we've got. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. They danced, they laughed, they seemed to have a great time. But one never knows for sure.

I've been chewing over something that happened the morning after, in the restaurant at the hotel. I've decided that having someone say something weird is almost always to be preferred to having the usual "You guys were great!" kind of comment, because there's nothing to think about in the latter.

The Music Critic January 2, 2007

Bill and I have this band, The Swinging Orangutangs. We've been playing in bars and nightclubs for 13 years, with a changing cast of other musicians. Five of us get together and rehearse before each job three, maybe four times, trying to get in ten hours of rehearsal for each performance. The pay is lousy, the work is hard, and the hours are terrible. We have a sign we tape on the bedroom door when we stumble home at three in the morning, a sign for Phoebe and Liam. “Mom and Dad had a bad night. Please don't wake us up.”Actually, we usually have good nights when we play, but it's awfully hard to be cordial to a bright-eyed kid at 6:40 AM the morning after.

Even with all that, we play music because we enjoy it, and because we can.

Our last gig was almost five hours, played pretty much straight through. It was our first New Year's Eve gig, and we were excited about it. The hotel management offered us triple our usual rate, and asked us to play high-energy dance music. So from nine to one forty-five AM, we played as hard as we could. There were lots of bobbing heads on the parquet floor, smiling faces and bursts of laughter.Note the gentleman in the green shirt, supersizing his bustline with balloons.

Twice during our music marathon, the events coordinator wove through the crowd and up to the stage with a worried frown. Each time she asked the same question. “Could you play something people can dance to?” Bill and I exchanged glances, looking out over the sea of bobbing heads. “Could you define DANCE?” he shouted back, over the thumping drums and bass.

All in all, though, it went pretty well. The next morning, the band members collapsed in the hotel's restaurant for a well-earned breakfast. Guests who'd also stayed the night stopped by to wish us well. One man pulled a wheeled walker up to our table and sat down.

“Y'all did a pretty good job last night. I enjoyed it. I used to play in a band around here--mid '80's. Rock bass. I had the long hair, the clothes, the whole deal. It was a good time.”

We compared notes, finding a few local musicians we knew in common.

“I can't do it any more. Can't hardly walk. I've got MS. Most people have to go out and spend a lot of money on drinks to walk and talk the way I do. I tell 'em I'm this way for free, all the time.”

He couldn't have been out of his 30's, this sidelined player. An uncomfortable silence dispelled the afterglow at our table. He seemed to have more to say, leaning forward.

“You want some constructive criticism?”

If five people can collectively stiffen, we did at that moment.

“Work on your vocals. Your vocals were shaky. All of you need to work on your vocals.”

With that, he rose, shook hands all round, and moved slowly off, leaving us to wonder. Had we been shaky? We hadn't felt shaky. What had just happened?

Of course, we crashed, our feeling of accomplishment in a job well done exploding like so many silver balloons at midnight on New Year's Eve. All the compliments we'd received were prodded into the background by one pointed comment. We finished our breakfast in silence. I found myself thinking about our critic all the way home, and in the middle of the night. As a performer, I know how hard it can be just to watch someone else performing. I'd rather be up there, dishing it out. That option is open to me. It would never be open to him again.Most of the people seemed like they were digging our music. Toward the end, nearing 2 AM, it got incredibly loud, with hundreds of popping balloons, pounding drums, and deafening bass and guitar. The monitors were completely drowned out, and we were singing by the seat of our pants. Had we been all that bad? The answer was out there in the music we'd played, swirling like smoke across a parquet floor.

Finally, I had no recourse but to lay my disappointment to rest. And to work on my vocals.
Many thanks to beloved Shila Wilson for her support, great photographs and for watching out for the youngest revelers. Sheels, you made it possible for the kids to be with us on NYE, and we're forever grateful.

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