On Tuesday night I played the first gig of my trip at Madame Claude, a really great little venue which is famous for, amongst other things, all the furniture and household fixtures that are attached to the ceiling. I played there on my first visit to Berlin so although I was pretty nervous for only the third gig with my new setup it was nice to be in somewhat familiar surroundings. I was one of two acts for the night, the other being Jon Simons from the US who, while based in Berlin, was on the first stop of a European tour on which he is being accompanied by the guitarist David Goodheim. Together they perform a very atmospheric style of folk music with Jon’s Pink Flloyd’esque lyrics and mostly finger-style guitar playing backed perfectly by David’s subtle chords and sonics.
My own set went off well enough but one of the interesting things about the gig was how felt about my setup when viewed alongside Jon Simons and this very conveniently leads to part three of my catch up series of what I have been working on for the past few months,
Having had my eyes opened a bit to the nature of a bigger music scene (as detailed in my last couple posts) I felt that I had made a couple important realisations about my act and where I fitted into the music world in general. I realised that I was the level of performer who has some nice songs and can pretty much stand up on any stage – from an open mic night to a festival – and do a decent job. However, it began to dawn on me that I might not ever progress beyond that level – a level that can be essentially defined by an endless series of low to no-pay gigs where, while the audience is entertained and satisfied, few return for a second look and outside of these small and temporary audiences, no one is really paying any attention.
From what I could see, there are a few things that might elevate an act beyond this level to a point where they become memorable, those being: great songs, an exceptional voice, real mastery of an instrument, or an level of production that elevates the live performance above the usual. It is also not good enough to have one of these things for a couple of songs, they need to be there the whole way through the set. People will stand in awe of a great voice no matter how average the songs, and the same goes for brilliant guitar playing, or great songwriters with functional vocal and playing skills. Finally, for those of us who are not blessed or developed enough yet in one of these three, the slack can be also picked-up by adding and interesting element to the performance, be it a backing singer, a backing band or a beat-boxer. Having someone or something on stage to broaden your sound elevates your show.
With this in mind, I set about trying to restructure my act. Luckily, I already had a blueprint to work with. I had just recorded an album that – with all its extra layers of guitars and drums and synthesisers – was born out of my growing frustration at being an acoustically based singer-songwriter. So I had something to aim for, I just had to find the right equipment to bring it to life. After some research and some dead ends I eventually settled of basing my live performance on the use of the TC Helicon Voicelive 3 – a vocal and guitar effects unit combined with a loop station – through which I would run a small synthesiser/keyboard along with my vocals and acoustic and electric guitars.
This was all finally decided on just before I left Berlin. I came home with the equipment and began to put my new set together. It took a good three months of work but eventually I had 45 minutes worth of a new show based on the ideas and insights I had picked up from my Berlin adventure. The nest step would be to take it all back to Berlin to see what sort of difference it would make.
So it was on the back of all this that I arrived at Madame Claude on Tuesday with my big bag of gear and my two guitars, thinking that I was really bringing a lot with me only to find that Jon and Dave had brought far more of their own equipment! After feeling briefly intimidated I had the first inkling that I might have made the right choice. Here I was, playing with performers with a greater level of production to their show than anyone I played with on my last trip, knowing that my own performance had at least developed dramatically in that direction.
With the first couple shows now under my belt (I played again on Thursday and also got a good reaction) it is just a matter of seeing, once again, how things play out. My set still needs some improvement but so far it is a good foundation to work off and I feel like I am on the right track. Beyond the set itself, the next challenge is how to get noticed, both by the public and by people like booking agents and managers and publicists, which is something of a chicken and egg scenario, and also a story for another time.