Re: [Harp-L] Going Solo? [+ JamMan loopers; long]

Mike Fugazzi asked about doing solo harp gigs -

This subject is one that I think about a lot too, Mike. I live in a rural area that is far, far behind the Twin Cities area in terms of venues and the tastes of the potential audiences, so I have different constraints on the scope of my solo performances. My solo gigs are more likely to be in the corner at a private party, at an open mic or a bar in a small restaurant than a 3-4 hour gig at a venue where people specifically pay to see live music performed. None-the-less, here are a few suggestions to consider.

With any solo show, especially one that long, you've got to figure out a way to capture and hold your audience's attention. I've seen you perform and know that you will have no trouble grabbing the audience. Maintaining their interest will be your challenge. After you do your opening few songs and have the audience's attention, you have to keep "tweaking" them periodically by throwing something new, unexpected or even something very familiar at them to make sure you don't lose them. You want to make them think, "I better watch this guy closely so I don't miss anything..." To do that, you simply cannot play one genre, one type of harmonica, one type of "accompaniment," and so on for the entire show. A solo performer is like a pitcher in baseball -- you can't keep throwing the same pitch for the whole nine innings.

Here are a few ideas I've thought about in terms of building my own solo act that you might find useful:

1) Vary your instrumentation: Do you play chromatic, bass, or chord harps? What about echo harps? (Mickey plays 'em.) How about playing racked harp and some other instrument(s)? For example, rhythm instruments - one man band style with a bass drum and a foot-operated snare or high-top cymbal, along with a hand-held instrument like a guitar or uke. Maintaining the beat is key to a good solo act, so I'd think about an acoustic "stomp box." The commercially available "Porchboard Bass" or simple home made wooden box or even a piece of plywood that you can use to stomp out rhythm with your feet can be very effective and inviting to an audience. Various hand percussion instruments also come to mind. I'm into pre-war blues, old-timey, jug band, bluegrass, ragtime and so on, so rhythm bones are one of my personal favorites. But a tambourine, marimba, shaker or other hand instruments could come in very handy. I'll admit that it is a great challenge to play more than one instrument at a time and I am definitely still working at it. But when it is done well, it is spellbinding.

2) Vary your "accompaniment:" By this I mean different ways to back yourself up. I can think of three: simultaneously playing multiple instruments as suggested above, a "looping" device, or some sort of playback device like backing tracks or even "Band In The Box." Any of these can be used very effectively, but to my ear wouldn't they stand up to a long show unless you switched around the way you use them to good result. Also, unless it is done smoothly and transparently, there is the ever-present concern that the device will "steal" at least some of the show.

I'm experimenting with the "JamMan Solo" looper that coincidentally was recently reviewed by Richard Hunter. It is a very powerful device that affords an host of capabilities that will take me years to fully exploit. As an example, I am working towards layering different tracks starting with catchy rhythms with bones, washboard, and/or "jug," then adding some rhythm harp to support my live harp soloing and singing (probably my biggest personal challenge). A bass harp is a very cool instrument; it attracts attention visually and ads a whole other dimension to your sound. If you've ever heard Paul Davies or Peter Madcat Ruth get their rhythm harp playing into high gear, you know how effective they can be at grabbing attention. A 48-chord harp (or one of its variations) could be a real grabber, too, both aurally and visually.

As Richard mentions in his review (must reading if you are into loopers), both the JamMan Solo and Stereo both support uploading backing tracks from your computer. This opens an infinite array of possibilities like various levels of sophistication with drum tracks and other combinations of instruments and even vocal tracks. But, Son of Dave and Brandon Bailey do just fine with their looper-based acts using only a simple shaker and beatboxing to back themselves, respectively. However, three hours of even their virtuosic performance would definitely push my personal limits even though I love the both of 'em. BTW, I might mention that AFAIK, both of these terrific artists use older, simpler loopers. By that I mean that their loopers are basically limited to sequentially layering multiple tracks on top of each other. They build up one "summary" loop that the artist can then play and/or sing over. It constantly amazes me how much these two guys can get out of such a "simple" device. More modern loopers are capable of far more than than building up a single loop. They can store hundreds of loops that can be indexed to, for example, play a song with more than one key in it. (Ever notice how Son and Brandon play one-key tunes only?) As I mentioned, modern loopers can interface with a computer to upload loops, which can include entire backing tracks. Loops created on the devices can also be uploaded to the to a computer for later recall, give the option of building each and every loop live -- or not. Your choice, simple or complex. The possibilities are endless, but so is the homework and practice that must be done to use them effectively.

I must emphasize that these babies take a good deal of practice to be used ~smoothly~. You definitely need to be able to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time and then some. Don't plan on picking one up on the way to your gig tonight! How you use these devices is key to the continuity of your act. A well-known example: As enthralling as his looping work is, I find the way Brendon Power, God love 'im, uses his hands with his stand-mounted device to be very distracting. The device is right out in front and his hand actions are too (recall my "device stealing the show" comment). The human interface to any particular looper is key to its effectiveness. In his review, Hunter points out some interesting insights into the human interface differences between the JamMan Solo and the JamMan Stereo units. In truth, modern loopers are pretty complicated to use. Some actions are best accomplished with the hands; some are best accomplished using the feet. I find that the JamMan Solo, with the optional foot switch, offers the possibility of using both' This affords me the ability to choose foot vs. hand for many, but not all actions. Richard likes the Stereo unit, but that is integrated into one box, which obviously has to reside on the floor or somewhere on a stand. Bottom line: fully study how any particular looper is used. I downloaded and studied several "User Guides" for competitive devices before I chose the JamMan Solo. I discovered even more "nitty gritty" in actually using the device. Like I said do your homework!

Another idea is one of the vocal harmonizing devices that can make you sound like a group of singers. You are far more familiar with the vast number of "effects" boxes than I. Hunter is well known for his advocacy of the Digitech RP series of effects synthesizers. He contends that, for example, the RP's octaver works very well to simulate a bass harp. I'd leave it to you to figure out how to integrate the RP series or like devices into your act to broaden your "sounds." Using Richard's inexpensive patches for the RP's would certainly give you a "leg up."

3) Vary your genres: I know your past performances have included rock, blues, funk, jazz and so on. Unless you are booked into a venue that specializes in one single genre (like a hard core blues or jazz club), I'd advise exploring as many genres as your venue would permit. Putting the set list together "intelligently" is key. If you don't have a set act already, I urge you to consider cohesive, flowing sets in which the songs relate to each other in some natural way (see "tell a story," next). Were it I playing for 3 hours, I'd select sets featuring a specific composer or Broadway show like oh, say Gershwin or "West Side Story," or maybe a theme like "Theme songs from old TV western series," depending on your audience, of course. I suspect that you have a lot of more esoteric material, but people like to hear at least some songs that are familiar to them. Knowing your progressive attitude and bullishness about our instrument, methinks you will have to be vigilant in avoiding the temptation to make your act simply a showcase of your technical skills. The likelihood is that few in your audience will know enough about what you are doing to appreciate it. When in doubt, try to put more emphasis on what your audience might like to hear than what you may like to play to satisfy the inner harmonica freak in you. ;-)

4) Tell a story: Another important suggestion is to try to create a show with a "story" or at least a "theme" to it, preferably containing a beginning, a middle and an end. If you have a story to tell rather than just playing a set of songs, you are more likely to succeed in holding your audience. I'm thinking of a solo performance by, say, Leo Kottke who holds a banter between his songs that ties them all together, or Joe Filisko doing one of his "History of Harmonica" shows, with interesting stories about the old players and their songs to give the audience an historical background as he plays them. Acts that have an arc to them are much more interesting than just listening to 3 sets of tunes.

In closing, I would suggest that you remember that the vast likelihood is that your audience won't love the sound of the harmonica as much as you do. They are there to be entertained and to do that you need to be an entertainer. For a solo performer to do that for 3 solid hours is a challenge in anyone's book. That's why I think it is essential that you throw the "kitchen sink" at them over the course of your show and tie it all together and making it interesting by telling a story of some kind, either in music alone or including verbal storytelling.

Mike, please understand that I've just modified these things that I keep telling myself to better fit your situation. I won't claim by any means to have a fully developed solo harmonica act. Mine is definitely a "works in progress." I'm only telling you what I keep telling myself. Hopefully it might help some. :-)

Good luck and let us know what you decide and how you do as you go!


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