This summer, I’ve been connecting more with my roots—I grew up in rural Minnesota on 45 acres—and am being pulled back to the country life little by little. This summer has included several visits to Wisconsin, including playing a lovely barn show at an organic farm near Dane.
Today I’m heading back to Spring Green, WI to see my first show at the Shitty Barn. Two eclectic Americana artists are on the bill: Paul Fonfara (Painted Saints, Brass Messengers) and Jim White.
I have yet to see Paul Fonfara perform since I’ve moved back to MN; I prefer songwriters who are a bit odd (or even really odd) and have a dark and/or quirky sound, so I appreciate his music. He’s an alumni of Denver greats DeVotchKa, 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, and an incredibly talented composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist in his own right. Why he’s not a huge star in the new folk genre mystifies me. Maybe because Fonfara choses to live in Minnesota. At any rate, we’re really lucky to have him (Check out 'Company Town' live from Cedar Cultural Center).
And then there’s songwriter, producer and artist Jim White, who rarely graces the north with his unique blend of roots music and philosophical (often sardonic) lyrics. Pitchfork had an apt description: “all the comparisons that can be made to Tom Waits, Lambchop, Grandaddy and Vic Chesnutt will only tell a small part of the story. What all these disparate elements that White pulls together add up to is White's alone, a style with no real name, American as barbecue sauce on apple pie.” (Watch a live version of 'If Jesus Drove a Motorhome')
Several years ago, as a brand-new songwriter, I came across this independent music documentary by White called, 'Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus'. Admittedly, it sounds trite to say it changed my life, but it did change the course of my music. The movie is a travelogue of sorts, dark folk song vignettes interspersed with eerie scenery and interviews of life in the south. The film—and its soundtrack—introduced me to artists that have had a profound impact on my sound and songwriting: 16 Horsepower, The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd and Jim White himself.
White’s film was a portal for me. It was C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe, Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole. One intriguing artist from the film led to another, who led to another, who led to another and so on. Somehow it tied me back to my country, Pentecostal upbringing in a way I struggle to explain. I saw how music—and life—could be married to the dark and light and all the grays in between.
Live music is powerful magic. It has transformative, healing powers. And I need to be transformed. Tonight my church is barn in southern Wisconsin, where I can listen and learn and be moved by the spirit.
P.S. Wanna see what I've been working on? Check out my new folk-psych music project, Bye Bye Banshee.
Viewing: Live Shows - View all posts
Masters of Performance: Chris Cornell, Part 2
Note: I just woke up this morning to find out about Chris Cornell's death. He was a music hero to me, mostly because of his phenomenal, expressive singing voice and partly because Soundgarden was one of my all-time favorite rock bands. RIP, Chris Cornell. The world won't be the same without you. 5/18/17 -JJ
7 live performance moves you should steal from Chris Cornell:
Create a Conversation.
One of the great things about watching Chris Cornell perform in Seattle was watching the ongoing, natural conversation that was happening between him and thousands of fans. While making that kind of connection with total strangers is more challenging, engaging the audience—asking them questions, answering their questions or just bantering like you would with a friend—makes a show personal and memorable. Janis Joplin was brilliant at inviting the audience to converse with her, as was Townes Van Zandt. When you listen to their respective live recordings, you feel like you’re part of something…instead of just listening to something.
Perform with Emotion.
One of the biggest gifts a performer can give the audience is to share their emotions in a genuine and raw way. I see this so rarely; Chris Cornell is pretty great at it. It doesn’t hurt to start out with a gorgeous voice, but plenty of great singers fail to move me emotionally. Conveying true emotion—and bringing the crowd along to feel it with you—is harder to do then most people think. It means vulnerability, letting go of ego so you can really ‘feel’ what you’re singing/playing. It also means letting go of self-consciousness and the need for perfection.
Perfection is not terribly interesting, especially if the song or performance lacks emotion. Some roughness is absolutely essential.
Provide some eye candy.
Cornell had an understated but beautiful set and visually it set the mood for the evening. Humans don’t just hear things with our ears, we “hear” with our eyes, too. I love it when smaller bands or individuals take the time to do this—it really adds magic to a performance.
Sure, it takes a little extra effort to create a backdrop or add a few stage props, some lighting effects, etc. but it helps your audience get (and stay) in the mood and feel more like they’re at a show, and less like they’re just watching some random band.
P.S. unless you’re as recognizable as Chris Cornell, you should probably have your band/artist name displayed on stage during your set. This is helpful for getting new fans to know who you are and for them to reference when they're sharing pics/videos of your show. If you’re looking for DIY backdrop ideas there are some excellent tips here.
Use effective transitions to tie songs together.
I think many artists (especially ones who perform solo) struggle with how to tie the songs together and keep momentum going as they switch instruments, tune, etc. This was one of my favorite parts of the Higher Truth show: I absolutely loved the transitions between songs. In addition to conversing with the crowd, Cornell had a record player on stage and his tech played snippets of vinyl sometimes between the live songs. In addition, Cornell used a loop pedal sparingly but effectively during some transitions and as a swelling cacophony at the end of the show. It really got the crowd pumped for the encore.
Invite a guest or two—living or dead—to join you on stage.
For this tour, Chris Cornell played mostly solo and acoustic.But he had an excellent cellist, Bryan Gibson, who joined him for several songs throughout the evening; he was absolutely stellar and gathered his own applause during the show. Cornell also told a very hilarious—but clearly fictitious—tale of how they met “back in the day”. In addition, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined him onstage for a couple of songs, much to the delight of the crowd.
But one of the appearances that impressed me the most was Cornell’s former backing pianist—and songwriter in her own right—Natasha Shneider, who died of cancer in 2008. Cornell had recorded her piano part years earlier and put it on vinyl. He explained this as he set the needle on the record; as her beautiful playing filled the auditorium, Cornell and Gibson rounded out the trio. It was a really lovely song and a fitting tribute to his friend.
Change things up. Frequently.
Honestly, when I first saw the stage before the show, I’ll admit I did a teeny tiny eye roll at the 7…8…9? guitars on stage. For a SOLO acoustic show, mind you. But it made sense during the show—Cornell kept the performance interesting by changing things up frequently. In addition to some of the things I mentioned earlier—such as musical guests and good transitions—he changed instruments (different tunings, different sounds, harmonica) regularly throughout the set. The show had a lot of variety, considering he was on stage by himself for most of the 3 hours he performed.
Oh, and wow: kudos to his hard-working guitar tech who barely stood still the entire show.
- Steal a clever idea from a master performer.
At some point in the show I realized that Cornell was wearing a harmonica rack around his neck—sans harmonica—and that he was actually singing into it, instead of a headset mic. I marveled over this clever idea before he explained how he saw Neil Young do it; Cornell stole the idea from him.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful. Please let me know if you have some additional advice for people looking to improve their live show.