Last night I did something I haven’t done in something like 8 or 9 years. Sing and play guitar for an audience. Additionally, last night I did something I haven’t done in probably close to 20 years: perform live with another musician.
How’d it go? All things considered, it could have been much, much worse. But let me back up and provide some context.
Blood from a Turnip is a late night puppetry salon that is hosted by Perishable Theatre. It happens every two months, September – May and usually presents 4 – 6 short puppet shows. Now these aren’t your children’s puppet shows and, sometimes, you might even end up asking yourself just exactly how what you saw was a puppet. The productions can range widely in artistry, with some being finely crafted performances and others being experimentations still in search of their final shape. The evening is loose and friendly, with the audience being a very sympathetic and kind one. Every show also includes a musician or musicians performing in between puppet shows to serve as a bridge for the set changeovers and to pack in even more entertainment value for your $5.
Perhaps because I’d been watching too much “Dr. Horrible”—wait, is there such a thing as too much “Dr. Horrible?”—upon returning from a BfaT show last fall, I decided to write a series of songs that would provide a kind of origin story for the existence of the program. Over the space of 3 days, I’d written 4 songs: “Paradise Falls: the Legend of Steve,” “When Puppets are Your Friends,” “Evelyn,” and “His Puppet Shows.” These songs introduce the town of Paradise Falls and the main characters: Steve and Evelyn. I started talking to Perishable’s Artistic Director, Vanessa Gilbert about the possibility of presenting this song cycle at one of this season’s BfaTs and she agreed. Several months later, I finally found my next song for the cycle and wrote “Her Name Was Sophie,” which tells the story of why a curse is placed on Evelyn. This curse is the cause of Steve’s final, heroic act which explains the reason the program is called “Blood from a Turnip.” At this point, I presented the material to those involved with curating BfaT. The response was positive and also helpful and we decided to present “Paradise Falls: The Legend of Steve” at the final show of the season. At this point, I was still imagining that I might find someone other than myself to perform the songs since, while I was . . . am proud of the piece, I recognize my limitations as a performer. However, it turned out that the performance was indeed going to be led by myself, along with Vanessa Gilbert on accordion and performing the vocals for Evelyn and the old woman who places the curse on Evelyn. Over the past few weeks, I wrote the final two parts, “Steve’s Final Show” and “When Puppets Are Your Friends, Reprise,” as Vanessa and I began rehearsing.
If I am confident in my abilities as a writer of words and even songs and a certain limited style of music, my technical abilities as a guitarist and singer are only serviceable at best and rather shaky when it comes to live performance. Still, I had a lot of fun working on the music with Vanessa and actually playing music with someone instead of just being stuck in my bedroom with my guitar and my computer.
So, last night, I performed.
It didn’t suck. At least not much. And I cannot stress enough just how fortunate I feel that Vanessa wanted to work with me on this project. If I had been by myself on that stage, I would have been far more nervous and my mistakes would have been far more obvious and the music would have been far thinner with just me and a guitar, and, truthfully, I would have had far less fun on the journey from writing to performing. So she has my sincere gratitude for her part in this project and last night’s performance. My dissatisfaction in the experience was actually ameliorated by her presence and talent and insight and support.
That said, I didn’t exactly have fun, nor do I feel particularly good about last night’s performance. Mostly because I really like these words and these songs and this story and feel that they deserve better than I could offer as a musician. Ideally, I would love to hear this whole project done by other people would could bring it to life in ways that are simply beyond my technical means. I think the spirit of the piece managed to get through to most of the audience, and I don’t think anyone suffered too much from my wrong chords and occasionally off-key singing. I would like to hope that I was able to offer a few moments of humor or joy or beauty last night.
And so, I am ok now with it all. Last night I was a bit down about my performance, even while I kept telling myself that, given how long it’s been since I’ve done anything like this, I did pretty damn well. Still, I do wish my songs could have been delivered with a bit more polish and expertise and that will probably not change no matter how much I make peace with my own flawed but sincere and heartfelt performance.
So where does “Paradise Falls: The Legend from Steve” go from here? Who knows? When I wrote it, I always wanted to provide a richness to the town and the people in the story that might inspire someone, sometime, to take a character or two and create their own stories. Perhaps a “Paradise Falls: Sophie’s Tale,” or “Paradise Falls: The Adventures of Evelyn.” I still hold out hope that someday I might be able to hear better musicians present it. But until then, I will share it with you.
The following recording is actually not from last night’s performance, but from our rehearsal the day before. Because we didn’t have any sound system for rehearsal, I recorded it on my laptop using a Blue Snowball Mic which, while not stellar, did a pretty good job of recording our work. I’m not posting the performance recordings for several reasons. First, the mics we were using weren’t the best and so the mix is not great. Thanks to Dave Higgins for doing his best with the limitations we faced, but the recording levels are just too heavy on the vocals and light on the guitar. Second, and more importantly, I was nervous and not having fun, whereas the night before, even though there are a few flubbed lines and some flat singing, I was really enjoying myself and it comes through. Despite the mistakes and the fact that I wish I had a bit more presence on Vanessa’s vocals and accordion in these recordings, the rehearsal versions came out better than the performance.
If you are a fan of Perishable’s Blood from a Turnip, or if are involved with puppetry and want to use this work or create your own spin-offs from it, please feel free. “Paradise Falls: The Legend of Steve” is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.
This work by Peter Wood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
Thanks again to everyone who helped make these songs and this story happen.