I’ve played at a couple hundred folk coffeehouses. This one was more brightly lit than some but the other trappings were the same – a harried group of over-40 hippies, women in big earrings and full skirts, and men in beards who want to talk about Pete Seeger. The warm scent of coffee and freshly baked brownies greeted me as I arrived on time for my 6:00 sound check. The sound guy was assembling mike stands, a confused look on his face. As he consulted with another volunteer, I settled into a front row seat and looked around.
The room could’ve been any school basement constructed in the 60’s, with a low stage at one end, dull white walls covered in posters and bulletin boards, and over head, a ceiling covered in yellowed acoustical tiles, some hanging on for dear life. Behind the stage a curtain held a sign proclaiming the coffeehouse name. It sported a few ragged tears and threads that dangled from the edges and screamed “low budget” but then, so did everything about this room. It’s not like I play at Carnegie Hall so I don’t expect plush theater seats and an orchestra pit anyway. It helps if there’s a little cozy ambience – candles and tablecloths maybe — but there was none of that in this dingy room filled with folding chairs.
One of the volunteers was scribbling the list of performers on a white board that would be placed outside the venue. She was carefully writing “J-a-i-m-e” when I pointed out that my name was spelled “J-a-m-i-e.” She told me that’s what the publicity said and isn’t that the most common spelling? She dutifully erased it. I walked away mumbling that I know how to spell my own name.
The sound guy wore a shirt that said “My job is not my life.” It was clear that running sound was not his as he sorted through cords, his brows knitted in concentration. He asked me twice what my sound needs were. It’s not like the one mike and guitar input I needed was complex.
I dutifully waited … and waited. I cleaned out my purse, answered a phone call, filed my nails. Finally, he asked if I was ready to sound check.
I pulled out my guitar and plugged it in. I adjusted the vocal mike to my height and started singing. After a few notes I stopped and told him I couldn’t hear a thing. The monitor speaker — the one pointing toward me — was dead. Raising his eyebrows, he asked “Are you sure?” He ambled over, put his ear to the speaker and said, “Hey, it’s not working.” He strolled back to the board, made an adjustment and asked, “How’s this?” “Still no sound,” I replied. He wandered back up, unplugged it, plugged it back in, then walked back to the sound board. He muttered to himself, touching various knobs and wiggling connections. He flipped a switch and suddenly, my voice filled the venue. I thanked him and gratefully stepped off stage.
There were two other acts. The coffeehouse folks told us that the performers decide the order. I called forth my inner diva and told the other musicians that as a solo, it’s hard for me to follow a band. After their wall of sound pumps through the speakers, no one is going to hear my little solo guitar (especially if the sound guy forgets to flip that one lever). I asked the other singer if she was a solo too and she replied that she’s got “one, two and three.” Three people? A recording pedal that duplicates her voice? Other personalities? Then she adamantly stated that she wanted to be second on the bill. I convinced the band that they should be last. That meant I was on first. Good.
We had some time so a friend and I slipped out to find a quick dinner.
We returned a few minutes before the start time. As I stuffed a burrito into my mouth one of the organizers said that she hoped I was finished because she was about to announce me. I mumbled through the beans that I just needed enough time to tune. I wrapped up the rest of my dinner and dashed up to the stage. I slapped the tuner on my guitar just as she announced my name. A calm look on my face, I plugged in my guitar and stepped up to the mike.
I couldn’t hear a thing through my first song. I asked the audience if they could hear me and they nodded yes. That meant the monitor speaker was not working again. The sound guy shrugged his shoulders. I left well enough alone.
Three of my friends sat in the front row, pleasant looks on their faces. Across the aisle were two people in their seventies wearing matching brown plaid shirts and such sour looks I was tempted to offer a laxative.
Slumped in a seat two rows back was a disheveled young man who I’d seen wandering about the room earlier, making repeated visits to the table with the cookies. He didn’t talk to anyone. In fact, he didn’t seem to engage with anything but those cookies. During a quiet ballad, he pulled out a newspaper and rattled it so loudly that someone in the row ahead loudly shushed him. During most of my set he stared at the ceiling. Maybe he was thinking about those cookies.
Further back sat another friend. Next to her was a guy who was stone faced through my entire set.
Scattered about the room I saw a lot of gray hair and beards, some nodding their heads in time with the music and some who looked like they wished I was Joan Baez.
My song “Your Mama Scares Me” elicited a few nervous chuckles. My funny between-song comments were greeted with uncomfortable silence. I did get some applause when I mentioned supporting independent music but mostly, I played to what could have been rows of wooden heads. Thank god my friends looked engaged.
I finished a couple minutes early then took my place at the CD table. I got some very nice compliments and sold a few CDs including one to the stone faced gentlemen who informed me that he was a comic too.
Soon the lights dimmed and the next performer was on. Wearing a short straight skirt, her skinny legs stuck into ankle high boots with sagging red socks, she launched into her first song, spreading her legs and sticking out her rear in a rock star pose, completely incongruent with the Woody Guthrie number she was warbling. Turns out she had only one accompanist, a guitar player who played about a half a beat off and sometimes in a different key. She ended with a screeching high note then strode over to the piano, yammering on about something that had nothing to do with her songs. She did another song with the guitar player. The guitar or the piano needed tuning. After that, she picked up her guitar and they started another tune.
One of the guitars distorted badly — perfect for a metal band, not so good for a folk singer. The sound guy darted up every minute or so to fumble with the cords. At one point I called him over and told him that maybe the electronics in the guitar weren’t working and suggested that he mike it. He scurried over and put a mike on the wrong guitar. Even my friend who wasn’t a musician was shaking her head. She tapped him as he rushed by and said, “No, the OTHER guitar.” He nodded, sweat dripping off his brow, and moved the mike to the other guitar. (Meanwhile, the musicians labored through a number, the guitars still out of sync.) The mike fell into a music stand, eliciting a big CLUNK. He pulled it back and it falls again. CLUNK. He worked like he was under an invisibility cloak. Dude, we can see you.
I was sure that I was in the middle of a Saturday Night Live sketch. I was tempted to yell out “More cowbell!”
After playing for an hour – we weren’t supposed to go over 40 minutes – she did her last song and for that, she decided to stand in front of the stage. The harried sound tech carefully picked up each mike stand. One fell then was righted. A long intro ensued and then we were commanded to sing because “three quarters of you know this song.” She sang an original I’d never heard while I moved my lips, wanting to look like a good sport.
After a second break, a six piece band took the stage. Every song had the same laconic tempo and featured three part harmony that wavered in and out of key. Almost every song was introduced like it was a grade school concert. “And now, we will do a song by Jane Smith … it’s about the environment … now we will do a song by Bill Greene … it’s about refugees.”
One of their singers, a cherub faced woman in a lace skirt, wore a tiny red velvet jacket that would’ve looked stunning on someone else but on her, it looked like she’d mistakenly put it in the dryer. She teetered on impossibly high heeled boots, looking very out of place in this laid back group of worn jeans and hippie skirts. When she wasn’t singing, her wide eyes scanned the room, as if she was looking for something far more interesting to do.
We again were instructed to sing. One of the words “hobo,” was changed to “homo” by one of my buddies. He’s going to hell for that.
Finally, the show was over. I collected my $63 – not even enough to cover my expenses — and went over to my group of friends. “I need a drink” I firmly informed them. As we traipsed out of the room and on to the street, I noticed that their sign still said “Jaime.”
I know it’s an evil little story but it’s the truth. If you were there that night feel free to make fun of me. I was wearing a floral print dress and sang a song that included a stellar car barf imitation.
Most of my folk coffeehouse gigs are wonderful. It’s the unusual ones that make for a good story.