The Solo Gig
I felt myself squinting my eyes on the big notes, and getting extra breathy on the verse.
I was trying.
Too hard, not to take the whole rendition too far…
but it’s almost impossible not to go the full ham sandwich when you’re singing the theme from Titanic.
Oddly, that is not the reason I was not asked back to perform at Coconut Cove.
I’ll tell you the moral of the story up front: Sometimes you don’t win the room.
Sometimes the final act isn’t heroic.
Sometimes the whole point is just to show up, and do it.
Then you know you did it. And that belongs to you.
You see, it was evening, and I was finishing up my instant stove-top Palak Paneer at my desk, when I got the call from Sam, asking about the “solo gig”. My first thought was “Hell No!” I’ve never done a solo vocal/piano gig in my life! But then I stilled myself. I could develop this skill, and get better at it. This could open more performance avenues for me, if I could suck up the courage to do it. I looked through my slat-blinds, at the creepy dude across the alley on his balcony. Ever since he saw me accidentally drop my towel after a shower, he spent more time out on his porch. I needed to improve my circumstances. Maybe I should take the gig?
Let me back up a moment. So, for 4 years I did a gig at a popular place called Coconut Cove in Rowland Heights. Actually it was a family restaurant, full of large groups of parents and babies, and also pods of hip, Asian teenagers, with amazing hair. The restaurant was the tropical jewel of a strip mall, in an asphalt lagoon. It was a flat, stretched out hive of salons and boba places, next to the hulking rush of the 60 freeway, the asphalt ocean.
Felice hooked me up with the gig, because it was a two singer thing, and she was often the other singer. The other regular singer was a girl named Kat, and we all rotated with a few other singers. The band was pretty regular, headed up by a jovial and incredibly cool man named Mo Lincoln, on guitar. Ron was on v-drums, and Ben (who, as I understood it, was kinda famous in Thailand) was on keyboard, and key bass.
It was an easy, low-key gig, but after 4 years there was some kerfuffle on the business side, the place changed hands, and the band was cut.
However, the original owner set up a new restaurant in a location nearby. Really nearby, like across the parking lot, and he still wanted music, but not as big a group. So this was when I got the call from Sam.
Sam was an old Japanese man who always sat at the bar with a mug full of no less than 8 bags of green tea. One of the kindest people I’ve met, soft spoken, with a smooth but freckled complexion. I always thought his complexion was so thin, I wondered if I was seeing through the first few layers of his skin, like bible paper, or the paper of the tea bags he coveted. Sam was close with the owner and close with the band, and he suggested they just have me come back to do the gig solo, vocal and piano.
Ok fast forward again, back at my apartment on the phone with Sam. I turned the blinds down with my hand, to block out creepy balcony man. I don’t usually jump into musical situations, where I might be out of my depth - but I needed to move, and my funds were low. So I asked Sam if there would be a piano there, he said yes. So I took the gig.
Now to figure out how I would actually do it. I had a big jazz chart collection, but pop tunes are a different animal - and I hadn’t memorized the words to most of them (see my previous post about how well I know lyrics to pop tunes), so these charts would have to do double duty as music/lyric sheets. (for non-musicians, chart = sheet music). IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT RAYA IN THIS PARTICULAR SITUATION:
1) Raya is not the world’s best pianist. She does what she needs to for her own compositional purposes, and for teaching when needed, but when it counts, Raya hires a pianist.
2) Raya is confident singing, but may have a hard time hiding a certain amount of contempt/mocking-tone when performing songs she feels are high on the cheese scale. It’s easier to hide this with a band.
The Making Of The Charts.
My plan involved binder rings, plastic page covers, multicolored printing to make the chords pop out, and very big fonts. Very big.
I combed through my green, jazz-gig binders, my big blue top-40 lyric binder, and my student binder (full of music I would never run over with my car, let alone perform).
But here I was.
Staring at the theme from Titanic.
Hey, it’s a good theme. A great pop ballad!....for Celine Dion. Not me.
I sat in front of my computer, confusing my Word program. Lots of lines of lyrics, framed on both sides by chord symbols in blue. Much use of Tab button. Took a lot of pages, and I found myself taping edges of plastic sheet covers together to make a 3 page fold. High ingenuity. Low tech.
Putting The Book Together.
Order was crucial. You want a mix of ballads and “up tunes” to keep the people with you. Also, I did not have the luxury of another player to take instrumental solos to extend the length of the song (oldest jazz trick in the book), so I needed a quantity of tunes to fill the time.
Practicing On Mom’s Piano.
All I had at my apartment was a synth a la 1995, with non-weighted keys, and pedals I had to chase around the floor with my feet.
I threw my newly compiled “solo piano gig” book in Volvo’s passenger seat, and drove over to my mom’s house to practice on a real piano. I started with some R&B tunes, the kind with about 4 chord changes for the verses, and maybe two chord changes for the chorus. I figured out ways to approximate the grooves, and I actually got into it. When a song has only a few chords to think about, you can focus on your singing more... oh wait a second…
(In the voice of Morgan Freeman: “And that was that moment Raya understood pop R&B.”)
After practicing that set, I had some tea with mom, and discussed the goings on of the local squirrel population. Then we talked about her new book (a newer one can be found here), and how much longer she thought Volvo was fit to take on the kind of mileage I was demanding of him. I said I was sure he’d be fine for years. What, did she think he was going to break down in the middle of an intersectionor something? Moms worry. She asked if they had a piano there, and I said of course! Kind of a pre-requisite to a piano/vocal gig? Then she asked if I was scared. My performer’s practiced self confidence wanted to say no, but this was mom, so I let the mask fall. I was honest.
“That’s alright. Sometimes you need that.”
After tea, I went back to practice the harder stuff: jazz, Bossa nova, some Stevie Wonder, the tunes where I needed to use extra pedal to wash out my lack of improvisation skills. But hey, get those chords wet enough and noooobody knows what you’re getting away with. (pro tip!)
I was starting to actually feel good about the gig. Starting to imagine myself making something out if this. Sitting at the piano, getting all emotional, maybe straddling the bench like Tori Amos, taking requests and adding my own spin to them…finally my weekends might be worth driving an hour each way for $80.
The Gig (observe life-like rendering)
I confidently unloaded my little PA system, my speakers, my stand. I threw Gigbagover my shoulder, with my microphone and specially compiled solo-piano gig book. I was a professional. The room was mine.
The new Coconut Cove was spacious, to the point of being a bit cavernous. Apparently word hadn’t gotten out about the new location yet, so there wasn’t the usual bustle of touristy looking people, and the regular people with amazing haircuts, to absorb the bounce of sound. It was boomy, and everything was shiny.
Sam met me at the door, glad to see me. He brought me over to the owner, who also seemed glad to see me. Everyone was glad. I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, do my thing, and make everyone gladder.
Sam and the owner led me to the middle of the restaurant, where there was an area cleared away, about 20 feet from a section of booths. Spacious. There were other booth sections further away to my right and left, and I swear there was a sound delay from the clink of those dishes to my ears. I didn’t see the piano yet, so I assumed they were going to roll it in after they showed me the place. Then we stopped, next to some unused tables. Sam looked to me.
“There it is.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. He walked me around the group of unused tables, and there it was, the “piano.” I hadn’t been able to see it around the group of tables, because it was too short.
I had no idea what to say, as I faced the smallest, shortest, most 1989-tastic Casio keyboard, I had ever seen.
It made my home keyboard look like a 9-foot grand piano. It didn’t even have 88 keys.
“So here’s the piano.” He said, as if I had no idea what I was looking at –and I kind of didn’t. He showed me the on switch, the volume button, and the drum loop pad, which he clearly assumed I would be making use of. There was also a set of chimes. (I’m just gonna leave that sentence there.)
And then it hit me, even worse than what I realized they expected I would do, was what I realized I could not do - use the pedal. Because there was no pedal! My subterfuge was doomed. All would hear my horrible chord voicings and choppy attacks! I heard my mother’s voice in my mind,
“Will they have a piano there?”
O’ maternal intuition! Why did I not listen to thee!? “Piano” just doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
But I smiled,
and began to set up my music.
I released a quick prayer to the ancient Greek diety, Prechorus, God of Song Structure.
“May the carbs hit them quickly, so I sound better through the fog of calories.”
I sat down at the piano shaped object. It’ shuttered a little when I scooted close. If I’d sneezed it would’ve hit the floor. I looked over at the orange buttoned, key pad with pictures of various drums and percussion instruments. I looked away.
I started with Alicia Keys. There was some immediate recognition from the scattered family groups and little teen clusters. I leaned on the arpeggios to fill space. It worked. Then I moved on to some other R&B tunes which relied on short, specific textures. Did a Ne-Yo tune. Even got some some claps.
After 40 minutes, I announced my first break,
“OK, I’m gonna take a little break now, I’ll be back.. in..”
Absolutely nobody was paying attention me. I felt like continuing,
“…in a second after I toss this Ebola fecal matter I’ve got here into the salad bar. Ok enjoy your dinners.”
I went to the bar, Sam seemed unimpressed. Even he, behind his tags upon tags of teabags flapping out of his green tea mug, seemed nonplussed.
“Waiting till the second set to break out the rhythm?” He asked.
I laughed, instead of answering.
Second set, I got into the power ballads. Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Mariah…the good part was that the familiarity trumped all my mistakes, the bad part was I just couldn’t get through “My Heart Will Go On” without snark. Let me be clear, Celine Dion sings her butt off, she's an icon for a reason - so much so that it is almost impossible not to impersonate her. I sincerely tried not to affect the super quick Celine Dion vibrato, but I was doing it by the time I caught myself. I felt myself squinting my eyes on the big notes, and getting extra breathy on the verse. I thought I had it under control, but when I got to the key change I could not avoid the obligatory hair flip.
“…there’s NOOOOOO-THING TO FEEEEEEAR…”
I simply could not play the chord with out it.
Oddly, that was one of the only tunes which got applause.
Second break. Sam was not at the bar.
Third set, busted out my Astrud Gilberto voice. Didn’t matter. I was about as aurally interesting to this crowd as the air conditioning. At the end, Sam came over and handed me my $80 and some food I’d ordered. I knew it was the last take-out I would ever get from Coconut Cove.
Sam said thanks, and walked me to the door. I loaded my speakers, Gigbag, microphone, and self, back into Volvo. I looked through the front glass of the car, through the front windows of the room I had planned on entertaining. I had gotten so ready for this, only to be sabotaged by a featherweight piano-shaped object, with no sustain pedal. The diners could not have cared less that I was there, and I let down some people who thought I had a particular skill - particularly skills with 1989 drum pads - which I did not.
Back on the road, we rolled up onto the freeway ramp, and watched the night dissolve around the 60 West. We drove home through a tunnel of obsidian and headlights. Starless, full of echo. I talked to Volvo,
“Man, that sucked.”
Volvo released an upward whisp through the air vent, asking why.
“Because I wasn’t who they thought I was, and I didn’t give them what they wanted.”
Volvo puffed a warm, frowney sigh through the side vent.
“No, I’m not sad. I actually feel good. I did it…I really sucked, but I played the whole damn night. I played a solo, vocal/piano top 40 gig. And I never want to do it again!”
Volvo puffed in solidarity, and we listened to Steely Dan all the way home.
I didn’t win that room.
My final act wasn’t heroic, but it was courageous.
I guess the whole point was just to show up and do it.
And I’ll always know I did it. And that belongs to me.