Before I continue my narcissistic meditations on myself, I should offer some details on the other fine people I was lucky enough to share some shows with.
The whole Bay Area jaunt is basically thanks to the work of Brian Kenney Fresno, a man whose performance truly challenges description. Here’s what his own website has to say:
“Armed with raisins, sing-along lyric sheets, and his giant super guitar, Kenney Fresno seeks to create a performance so dense, with a gravitational pull so great, that even light cannot escape. This black hole of entertainment is so heavy that it ultimately collapses on itself upon spewing the audience with all that is Fresno.”
Picture a very tall man, decked out in a flannel cape and baseball cap, delivering a hyperactive Frank Zappa-meets-Andy Kaufman-meets-Sam Kinison performance, singing some of the most side-splittingly hilarious and thoroughly bizarre lyrics you can imagine, accompanying himself on the Warr guitar (an stringed instrument based on the Chapman Stick, which is designed to be played like a piano, with both hands tapping out notes). His show is so outragous and relentless that it’s easy to overlook just what an incredibly accomplished musician he is, and as uproarious as his material tends to be, some of the funniest parts of his music for me are the subtle little musical in-jokes sprinkled throughout his set.
Brian and I met when we were booked on a bill together at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood, way back in April of 2002. We’d been talking about doing some more shows together since then, and it was very much thanks to Brian that these three Bay Area dates were able to happen. He’s an exceedingly gracious and generous fellow, and I’m seriously grateful to him for setting these gigs up.
Amy X Neuburg is an Oakland-based singer/composer who I also met in the Spring of 2002, at a point when I was still struggling to find a foundation for what I wanted to do with the Echoplex. I saw Amy do an impromptu performance of a few of her solo tunes, and walked away feeling both humbled and inspired by her example. She’s a fantastic composer, a virtuosic singer, and a compellingly theatrical performer, who makes wonderful use of her Echoplex as a principal focus of her live material. After hearing her music when I did, at the point I was at in my own Echoplex development at that time, I found myself thinking, “OK, Andre, it’s time to quit screwing around and get your act together.”
Amy had been kind enough to invite me to do some duo playing with her at the Berkeley gig, so the afternoon before the gig was spent working out synchronization ideas, so that our two Echoplexes could be locked to precisely the same loop length. We ran through some trial improvs, with Amy pulling off some fantastic North Indian classical-sounding vocal runs (which I’d never heard her do before).
After that, I did some solo practicing, and tried to warm up for the show – I say “tried” because I couldn’t seem to settle into anything that sounded good to me. My grooves felt unbalanced, the ideas felt stiff, and I had a really hard time coming up with anything that sounded inspiring to me. It’s an old adage that practicing material right before you’re scheduled to perform it is dangerous, because you can “psyche yourself out” – making a mistake right before a gig isn’t a good way to be confident when you hit the stage. So it can be a vicious cycle – the more you sound bad, the more you want to practice to sound better, and so forth.
I probably spent the better part of an hour trying to kick-start my inspiration, to little avail. I finally ran through “Entwined,” which is customarily the last tune I play in my set, as it’s usually the best-received by the audience and has tended to dominate my sets – it’s a hard tune to play anything after, so I’ve tried to avoid doing so. But “Entwined” was the only thing that felt good in my pre-gig solo practice session, so when the gig rolled around I ended up opening my set with it, just for the sake of trying to ease myself into the show.
After all of the reservations and doubts I’ve expressed, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the show at the Starry Plough. The one thing I wasn’t at all expecting was to have the single most relaxed and comfortable solo show I’ve ever performed – which is exactly what happened.
It’s tempting to look back and wonder what makes a gig like that work so well, and I think there are several factors – for one thing, the audience and the venue were both great. I tend to think of performance spaces as falling into two general categories – there are the “listening” gigs, where people go specifically to focus on the music and listen in detail, and there are the “entertainment” gigs, where the music is part of an evening out for the people there. The Starry Plough is a combination restaurant/pub, with a good sized stage and seperate listening area, so it’s sort of the best of both worlds.
The “tunes” I worked into the set (aside from the opener, I can remember “Interference,” “The Proposition,” “Serious Drama,” and “One Way Street” being played) felt better integrated into the improvisational flow than they ever had in practice, and the sound was very nice – loud, but not oppressive. “Signify/Song For My Father” ended up closing the set – an odd choice for a closer in some ways, as it’s a subdued and rubato tune(s) (and the first time I tried those two pieces together), but the audience’s attention was strong enough to make it work.
Afterwards, Amy joined me on stage for an improv duet, which went fantastically – it grew into a very heavy, funky jam, with Amy singing her head off over a thick slab of sound. I can remember sitting there with a huge grin on my face, specifically thinking that it was a very nice feeling to be alive right then and there. The audience ended up calling for a second duet tune, which was a very nice surprise, which we did – a more spacey, abstract affair this time.
So, after stressing about the show for days leading up to the gig, and nearly psyching myself out that afternoon, I ended up having one of the most enjoyable shows of my life. A pleasant surprise, no doubt, but I wish I could figure out how to get the good show part without the prior anxiety… The question now was, would the rest of the gigs be like this, or had I simply gotten lucky this time out?