On Wednesday night at 8:30pm, I opened for Jake Armerding at the Lyon’s Den, Wheaton College’s student-run coffeehouse. It was my first public performance that wasn’t an open mic. And it felt like it.
I first realized how nervous I was when I picked up my water and took a sip. I wasn’t trying to quench my thirst; I was trying to put off performing. I was doing everything I could think of to buy time. Sip. Cough. Oops I lost my pick. Check the mic levels. Again. Eventually I had to start.
And I did–with a cover of Elliott Smith’s Condor Ave. I sang the second verse well, but also twice. My nervousness had manifested itself through forgetfulness, and there I was singing an unintentional reprise. At first I wasn’t sure if anyone would notice, but when I looked at my friend Ryan and saw the smirk on his face, I chuckled, and then so too did the girl on the couch in front of me. Because hey, it’s kind of funny.
My original So Susie Stopped Sleeping came second. Of my two original and complete songs, this is the one of which I’m more proud. Aside from some vocal shakiness, I was satisfied with how I performed this song.
Next came my other original, which currently lacks a title. For now I’ll call it The Song I Should’ve Left Out. My voice wobbled like it was walking across a tightrope, trembling so fast that my intro falsetto sounded more like a failed vibrato. Quantum physacists claim that the observation of something changes it. I see what they mean.
My fourth and final song was another Elliott Smith cover: Tomorrow, Tomorrow. This is the song of which I’m most proud to be able to play. I think it’s because I once saw Elliott play it, told myself I’d never be able to do so, and then wound up nailing it two weeks later. The crowd would never know that, however, because I did anything but nail it on Wednesday night.
In my own defense, it’s very difficult to do tremolo when your hands are so tense that your fingers are cramping. When I noticed this occurrance, I wondered what I could do to correct it. That’s when the other things went wrong. I missed the opening vocal line and blew the first verse riff. Then the bridge came. “Thank God I made it,” I thought. I should’ve been thinking about how the bridge went, because apparantly I’d forgotten. After an awkward pause and an off-beat chord change I stumbled my way through the last verse and played the three-chord outro.
I told people to stick around for Jake’s set and walked off the stage. At this point I’d learned my first lesson: playing for yourself and playing for others are two distinct things. At least for me, at least for now.
The next lesson I got was that a friendly crowd is going to give friendly feedback, regardless of whether or not it’s warranted. “You did great!” and “You were awesome!” are only meaningful remarks if there’s a chance that they won’t be made. When your girlfriend and your buddies are present, there’s no such chance. I knew this going in, and frankly I would’ve felt better and more at ease if I knew nobody in the room, but there’s really no kind way to ask your friends to leave.
Though not immediately recognizable, there were highlights. For starters, Jake was really good to me. He asked people to cheer for me again after he played his opener, and he later remarked that he himself didn’t know any of the chords I was playing. At times I wasn’t sure that I did either, but I could at least take pride in reaching outside the domain of major and minor chords–something I try hard to do. His bassist, Richard Gates later told me that he liked So Susie Stopped Sleeping. This too was meaningful to me because it was specific. I didn’t just “do good!”
I left the Den feeling like I bombed, but I didn’t. The truth is that I wanted to kill. I wanted to leave feeling as though I’d impressed everyone who saw me. I wanted to leave people thinking that some day they’d say “I saw Robby Grossman play when he was still a nobody.” Anything less would be a failure and unacceptable. That’s a pretty high standard for a first gig, I now suppose. It’s a good lesson to have learned. I should figure out how to do my thing in front of people before I try to blow them away with it.