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

Many GREAT replies.  I have some chewing to do before commenting
further.  Thanks for the insight on and off list.  Also, thanks for
the kind words!

On Aug 22, 3:30 pm, Michelle LeFree <mlef...@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
> 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!
> Michelle

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