Stage fright: My memorable musical guests

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 7/7/11] 

As any musician who’s played out in Rutland — or anyone who’s ever set foot into a bar, for that matter — can tell you, this town has no shortage of characters. To be sure, Rutland’s not unique in this respect; any city is bound to have it share of these (mostly) lovable folks. It’s part of what makes gigging so much fun.

Sometimes it can be a trip — a harmless, amusing interaction that will make your night, like when someone asks to sing a song with you. On occasion, I’m inclined to indulge these requests because the results are often spectacular sonic car wrecks. Plus, I’ve also found that, if denied, most of these people will just stand nearby and attempt sing or harmonize with you while you play, which is far worse.

Among my past guest stars, two performances stand out.

One took place on a summer evening a couple years back at the old Center Street Saloon. A woman approached the stage to ask if she could join my friend Chip and me for a song. Having endured her unsolicited harmonies for the previous two songs, we acquiesced realizing that she was going to do it either way.

Prior to joining us onstage, she rattled off her “big city” bona fides, which led us to believe that she might have some decent chops once she got warmed up. To say she oversold it is an understatement. What followed was an atonal, scat-heavy rendition of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” which was the musical equivalent of watching a puppy cry.

Another memorable experience took place this past winter at the same venue, though since renamed Last Call. This guest was actually a friend of mine who had been nudging me for some time to let him join me onstage. Normally, this request would be easy enough to satisfy I it weren’t for my friend’s proclivity for hardcore metal.

Finding a song we both knew, I proceeded to take part in what I hope is the only acoustic hardcore version of “Werewolves of London” the world will ever hear. All throat and roar, there wasn’t enough overdrive in the world to match my acoustic guitar to my friend’s voice.

Needless to say, we had everyone’s attention halfway through the first verse and had practically cleared the room by the chorus.

While these guests can lead to a few laughs, other times it can be a nuisance. My biggest pet peeve — and I’m sure other musicians will agree — is when someone tries to talk to me while I’m in the middle of a song. I’m not talking about someone saying hello or goodbye or giving me a word of encouragement. I’m talking about people who will attempt to engage me in a full conver sation.

In these cases, I stifle my extreme irritation with a polite smile and a nod hoping they’ll take the hint.

They almost never do.

Case in point: Recently, during a gig at Downtown Tavern, I had such an encounter. From across the room, I could see an older lady making the telltale approach. I avoided eye contact, aware from past missteps that any acknowledgment will lead to an inevitable exchange.

She began to speak, but I couldn’t hear her — you know, because I was playing a song at the time. I nodded and smiled politely. She kept talking. I could make out that she wanted to by me a drink. I declined, focusing back on my playing to sing the next verse. “Do you wanna play pool?” she then asked me. “They’re kinda paying me to play music so … uh, no,” I replied.

At this point, she cheerfully ambled back to the bar where she listened for a while longer before heading out.

Maybe, other musicians don’t have this problem. Maybe, it’s me. Maybe, I’m just a magnet for chatty weirdos with no boundaries. I don’t know. But it does make for some good stories.

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