You Roll With The Flow

Red HenryWe played music for a local restaurant last Saturday, and I thought that the job was a good illustration of things that can happen when you're performing. The gig was outdoors, in a shady location next to the restaurant, which was billing the event as "Bluegrass and Barbeque." Our friends Charlie and Charlotte and their Sweetwater String Band were playing three sets in front of us, and then we were to play from 7:00 till 10.

A big complication for us was that Murphy and I had an out-of-town show the next day. We needed to get on the road early Sunday, drive for seven hours to North Carolina, and perform with Murphy's sisters at a church service that evening. So even starting on Saturday, we had to allow for the time and fatigue factors so we could get through the two days and have plenty of energy (and voice) left to perform well on Sunday evening.

Since this Saturday event was outdoors, a sound system would definitely be needed. To save some time and energy, we arranged for Charlie and Charlotte to let us use their sound system---that was a big help. We wouldn't need to lug our own equipment out of the house, set it up and take it down at the gig, and then move it back into our house late at night. (That kind of sound-system hassle is normally a BIG part of playing music.) Instead, it was easy. We just arrived at the restaurant at about 6:00, got tuned up and warmed up, and got up on the stage to play. Charlie and Charlotte drove away after they finished playing, saying they'd be back for their sound system at 10.

Now, it really helped, since we were playing music in a place where we hadn't been before, that we had a band we could depend on. Murphy was on banjo, of course, and I was playing mandolin. In this case we had really strong pickers with us: David McLaughlin played bass, and Scott Brannon was on guitar. Those guys have been playing music about as long as we have, and have also seen a multitude of performing situations. So we knew that we could handle whatever came up.

The stage? It was a flatbed trailer---a standard bluegrass performing venue. The first set went fine, as Murphy, Scott, and I alternated vocal numbers interspersed with some instrumentals. The listening crowd was on a pleasant, shady patio right in front of the stage, feeling good and digging the music. (This is important---the closer the crowd is to you, the better they will usually like you.) It was a really enjoyable job so far.

But something will always happen. As we took our break after the set, it began to sprinkle lightly. That was ominous, because there were thunderstorms all around. Of course we got our instruments in the cases right away, but then, what were we going to do about the sound system? It belonged to Charlie and Charlotte, and we were responsible for it. And the weather couldn't decide what to do, either. It sprinkled, and then quit. Sprinkled, and then quit again. There were still thunderstorms nearby, though, and we couldn't take a chance. So when it started sprinkling the third time, we decided to move inside and play without the sound system. It might start raining very heavily at any minute. So we quickly packed up all the sound equipment, with the help of some bluegrass fans to move the large, heavy speakers and amps. We put the stuff under a well-secured tarp, and put an awning over that. It ought to be safe, we figured, unless a really big storm came in and blew the tarp off of it.

Now, of course, we were behind schedule, but primarily, we'd had to put a lot of attention and energy we didn't anticipate into dealing with the weather and the sound system because of the weather. We had been warmed up singing and playing our instruments, but now we'd been packing up mikes and cables and speakers and amps until it was much like starting all over again. We were a bit out-of-breath from moving stuff, and (to put it mildly) our hands were de-sensitized from the instrument necks. But we got inside the restaurant---still with a good crowd even after that break, the place was nearly full---and started our next set, playing without a sound system.

Since our environment changed from playing outside with sound to playing inside without it, our band's sound (both as the audience heard it and as we heard it ourselves) changed a lot. One advantage to playing without a sound system is that sometimes the band members can hear each other better. Another plus is that there's no sound system to put a barrier between you and the audience. Disadvantages include having to project more with the vocals, and having to play quietly to avoid having the instruments drown out the voices. But we'd all done this many times before, so we jumped into it. Murphy sang some of her original songs, and several great old bluegrass numbers. Scott sang some fine old Reno & Smiley songs, and more. David and Scott sang a few very nice duets. Murphy and I traded licks on some good old banjo and mandolin tunes, and the crowd loved it all. We played those last two sets indoors, and wrapped it up. Everybody had a great time, and Murphy and I were all ready to drive to North Carolina the next morning.

And the rain, which had caused all that commotion in the middle of our show? After those first sprinkles, it never came back.

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