August 30, 2004
Philadelphia Folk Festival
My name was on the flier of the Philadelphia Folk Festival for many years since the mid '80's. My perenial role there was as a song leader at the late night fire circles in the campground. Midnight to 3:00, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. In 1994, when The Modern Folk Musician first came out, I got to play their "New Faces" concert on Friday afternoon when my face was pushing 50. And I've appeared from time to time since then in various workshops. But this year, I got a position I've been agitating for for about 4 years: that of the "tweener", the performer that shares emcee duties with folk radio DJ, Gene Shay. My job was to perform between acts while they're changing over the stage and sound system to accommodate the next act.
The gig was extremely challenging, very tiring, and mostly an over-the-top success. I performed to maybe 15,000 to 20,000 people. The sound was generally pretty good, and there is a full-blown 3-camera video setup with huge projection TV screens flanking the stage. (That helped me a lot, because it allowed me to use a lot of small-stage techniques of facial expression to good effect. But only after it got dark enough for the screens to be seen.) While I performed, there was frantic activity right next to me as stage hands and sound people moved microphones, pianos, platforms and musicians around. The next act was sound-checking right next to me. (Note to self: Acapella material is risky. You could be singing in E while the band is sound-checking in G.) I never knew how much time I needed to fill. They would give me an estimate before the changeover, and then change that estimate twice before I went on, and three times during my performance. The upcoming act, the stage manager, and the sound techs all had different opinions as to whether I needed to fill more time or not, and how much. It was easy to get rattled.
I was scheduled for the Friday and Sunday concerts. I was well-prepared on Friday. By all accounts, including my own, I knocked the ball out of the park! The "tweeners" are often ignored by the crowd, and met with desultory polite applause, but I grabbed them from the get-go, got them on my side, and could do no wrong. There's a great satisfaction, and no small measure of power, in getting 15,000 people to sing. And laugh. I got Gene Shay to sing on the condition that the audience had to stand up and sing along too. There's a story entitled The Piper In The Campground I had been wanting to tell from that stage for 10 years. It's a true incident that happened to me at Philly 17 years ago that I essentially formalized into a rehearsed monologue that absolutely brought the house down. Walking around the grounds the next day, I was continually being accosted by acquaintences and strangers with glowing accolades.
Pretty heady stuff, but pride goeth before a fall. It didn't last. I had one session on Saturday, an 11:00 AM (opening) session called "Tunes and Tales". It never really jelled. There wasn't much connection between me and the other performers in the session. There didn't seem to be any focus of the event. The daytime sessions are held on smaller stages down at ground level, but still with potent sound systems and capable of accommodating many hundreds of attendees. The day proved oppressively hot and humid, and it really wore me down. Sunday they had me scheduled just about continuously from opening to closing with just a 2-hour break to eat and pee. So I left the site on Saturday about halfway through the evening concert, headed back to the hotel (about a 40-minute drive), skipped the big party (darn!), and turned in.
The Sunday opening session (Chorus Songs) also never got any momentum. It was very sparsely attended, and was hard to get the feeling of people singing together amongst the scattered attendees. Immediately following that I had a Meet The Performer session. For a while there, I wondered if I shouldn't have brought along a deck of cards for solitaire, but eventually a few people did come. Then, after a 2 hour break, I had two back-to-back sessions, Parodies (that went OK) and Ballads (also OK). They had me hosting the Ballads session, which seemed a little odd, considering that John Roberts and Tony Barrand (the two Englishmen that introduced me and half the American folk audience to traditional ballads) were also on the panel. And then immediately following that, I was to assume my "tweener" and co-emcee duties on the Main Stage for the Sunday Concert.
Well, if I knocked it out of the park on Friday, it seemed that I popped up to third on Sunday. (Or at least that's what I thought at first.) Realizing that I would have to rush over from the Ballads session directly to the Main Stage, everyone agreed that I needn't be there from the very beginning. The opening act was already set up, so no filler would be needed. The first performer I was to introduce was a songwriter with no big stage setup, so no music would be needed from me. I was not well familiar with him, so I went to talk with him beforehand to get some facts. When he found out I was going to do the introduction, he got somewhat upset. He had been hoping for Gene Shay to do his intro, and he was going to be filming the performance for some important video. Gene was nowhere to be found, so I had to do it. And I absolutely flubbed it, forgetting a number of the points he wanted me to mention, and stumbling over my tongue. The only way I could have done worse would have been to forget his name.
And things went downhill from there. During the early part of the concert, which was still in daylight, I didn't have the aid of the video screens to help connect with the audience. The sound crew failed to turn on my monitor speakers, so all I could hear was the upcoming act's sound checks. I had had the foresight to use ear-plugs, so I could at least hear my own voice. But I could barely hear my guitar, and I got absolutely no feedback from the audience as to whether there was any reaction. Well, there was one last good opportunity: The final act, John Prine, had a very long change-over scheduled, and I had planned to do "Jake And Molly" there. That's a sure-fire crowd pleaser, and I could do that in my sleep, so the tech issues wouldn't be a problem.
And then I got the word that the Prine's management had told the Stage Manager that under no circumstances would I be allowed to go on before him. Why? I was "distracting and annoying".
I staggered into the hotel around midnight to find a few folks, including the organizers, still hanging around in the Hospitality Suite. I took aside the Program Chairman, and asked him his take on my exclusion from the stage, wondering if I'd ever be booked there again. He revealed that the objection was not to my playing or material. What was "distracting and annoying" was the fact that there was to be any music going while they were sound-checking. Prine had brought his own monitor sound system with him, and they were installing and checking it during that long change-over. What was "distracting and annoying" was not me or my material, but the fact that any sound at all was going out over the system. OK. That's maybe understandable. And certainly did not speak badly of me personally, which was my fear. Well, I learned a lot. I have some suggestions to pass along to the Festival. I'd like to do it again, and I think the word will get back to them that I did a good job for the most part.
April 1, 2004
This year I've been chosen to perform in three major folk festivals in the Northeast
Thursday - Sunday, May 20-24: The Spring Gulch Folk Festival in New Holland PA. I will be opening the Friday night concert, with Eddie from Ohio and Tom Paxton to follow. I'll also be doing workshops over the course of the weekend
Friday - Sunday, June 25-27: The Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY. This is a real milestone for me. I have attended every one of these events from the first one in 1981(?). And now I finally get to play the Festival. I will be performing on the Sunday Afternoon concert, and participating in several workshops over the course of the weekend. It has been for me the ideal concept of a folk festival: It is not so large as to be impersonal and daunting, but large enough to have a wonderful roster of performers and huge variety of music and dance over the course of the weekend. I really enjoy the balance of traditional and new music. The grounds are condusive to getting to all the events easily, while avoiding sound bleed. There is shade for the outdoor events, and many sites are under cover. Camping is conveniently on site. I'm really happy about this one
Friday - Sunday, August 27-29: The Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwencksville (Bucks County), PA. This is a huge event with some major stars in and out of the folk world. I will be co-host of the main stage on one or more of the evening concerts along with folk radio icon Gene Shay, and will be participating in daytime events throughout the weekend. Part of my emcee duties will be to provide music and sparkling repartee inbetween the acts as the stage is reset. I've been angling for this spot for several years, and this is my year. At this early date, some of the other performers I know of are John Prine, DaVinci's Notebook, La Bottine Souriante, and Taj Mahal.
I'll put details on my scheduled events on my SCHEDULE page as I get them. Hope you can get to some of these.
March 1, 2004
In the Winter 2004 issue of Sing Out wherein, on page 80, appears an article I wrote, entitled "Is It Live, Or Is It Memorex". The article deals with technical enhancements to live performance. If you don't get Sing Out, click on the link above for the text.