The string of shows from last week had been looming in my mind as a giant question mark for quite a while. In fact, it had been a long time since I’d approached a series of performances with as much uncertainty and mixed feelings as I had in store for these dates.
1) The last “real” solo shows I had played were on my East Coast tour in January, almost five months prior to the June Bay Area gigs. The only other solo dates for me since then had been a few low-key coffeehouse gigs, which I ended up finding to be pretty dispiriting events – a general lack of interest from the people already there, a definite lack of anyone showing up specifically to hear me play, and a layout/vibe to the place that left me feeling like I was projecting cryptic transmissions into a void of indifference. Not exactly a prescription for optimism.
2) A lot of my energies in the last several months have been focused much more on the electric guitar itself than on looping in particular. Previous blog entries have talked about my quest to find new instruments, and my interest in getting back in touch with the guitar in its most basic, unadulterated form. So gearing myself up for a series of solo Echoplex dates felt a bit odd in some ways – was I backtracking? Was playing solo like this diverting myself from what I really wanted to do? Was I going to sound halfway decent when I got on stage?
3) The dates would find me sharing the bill with Brian Kenney Fresno on all shows, and we’d be joined by Amy X Neuburg for the show in Berkeley. Both Brian and Amy are some of my favorite performers around; they both have an amazing command of the stage, deep catalogs of highly-composed original vocal material, a healthy dose of humor to their sets, and a track record of lots of gigs in the recent past. If that wasn’t enough, the Berkeley show with both Brian and Amy would be the first date of the tour, so there was no possibility of “warming up” before “the big show.”
In other words: kind of an intimidating prospect for an instrumental guitarist who hasn’t gigged solo in close to half a year, typically improvises the bulk of his shows, and wasn’t sure what he had to say with looping anymore.
4) And lest I forget, I was also going to be performing with a new guitar, in what would be the first gigs I’d done without my Steinberger (aside from a couple of Stratocaster shows in 1996) in, oh, about 14 or 15 years.
The new instrument? A Godin Exit 22 – a new guitar model, released late last year, which I purchased barely a month before the first June gig. I haven’t found a picture online that does it justice, and I don’t have a camera, so for now think of a cross between a Telecaster and a Les Paul (both visually and, as it happens, sonically), with a slightly Dali-esque squiggle to its contour. It’s a totally unpretentious, bare-bones, workhorse guitar – which is exactly what I like about it. (The fact that it’s all naturally-finished wood doesn’t hurt either, nor does the fact that I walked out of the store with it for less than $500.) The pickup configuration is the same as the Steinberger (bridge humbucker, middle and neck single-coils), but the neck is 22 frets (as opposed to the Steinberger’s 24), which is a significant change.
And of course, unlike the Steinberger, the Godin has a headstock, which means it uses normal guitar strings (rather than the special type used by Steinbergers). Being able to walk into my local Guitar Center and buy normal guitar strings was nice; trying to string up a conventional guitar for the first time since my middle teenage years was a different story altogether. (Anyone looking for blackmail material on me should set their time machine to materialize in my apartment during the first time I tried to put a new set of strings on the Godin – the embarassment factor was astronomical.)
The closest I came to hearing the Godin in a live context prior to the June solo shows was at a classic rock cover band rehearsal, held the week before the gigs. Happily, I was knocked out by its tone and presence – I really wasn’t used to hearing my guitar deliver in that kind of manner, especially for more visceral rock material. I don’t mean to knock my prior instrument – Ned Steinberger is a genius, and I played his guitar happily for nearly half my life. But the all-wood, passive-electronics, mahogany-bodied Godin has a warmth, presence, and roundness that the graphite-neck, phenolic-fingerboard, maple-bodied, active-pickup-equipped Steinberger simply doesn’t – at least, not for me, and not in its current state.
So I was quite optimistic and excited to do some gigs with the new axe. But my solo style makes use of no effects processing – everything is completely dependant upon the natural sound of the guitar, and what I can do to it with the Echoplex and the amp. In other words, everything is based on the guitar’s tone and playability in its most basic sense. And there wouldn’t be any “breaking it in” gigs prior to the Bay Area shows. So I’d be getting to know the new instrument very well, in great detail – for better or worse, along with however many folks happened to show up to these gigs.
Add it all up, and you have what’s commonly referred to as a “trial by fire.” Stay tuned…