Playing with Dan Bern last night at Babeville—Ani DiFranco’s venue in Buffalo—was a thrill, and a bit of an adventure. Dan had picked five songs for me to join him on, including long-running favorites “Marilyn” and “God Said No” and several I wasn’t as familiar with. So I’d practiced those songs, quickly finding out that his live performances were far different than the studio versions, and differed night to night as well.
Backstage during the last few minutes before showtime at Babeville, Dan thought of four other songs he thought I could play on as well—and then during the set he added one more.
Here’s a clip of “Marilyn.”
Onstage he’d kick off a song, I’d start reinforcing the chords or adding a bass line, and we’d settle into a groove. But then he’d suddenly drop to a whisper. Or stop playing entirely for a chorus. Drop or add beats. Skip over part of a song. Open up space for me to play a solo. Speed up into a crescendo. Shift the melody underneath my harmony. Everything was fluid. I sang a verse of “The Golden Voice of Vin Scully” and he stopped me before I was done, scolded the crowd for not reacting to the lyrics’ mention of the Yankees, and had me sing it again.
The only way to do this gig, I immediately realized, was to forget about what I’d prepared and about making mistakes, open my ears and eyes wide, and just go.
I’m sure I fluffed some things along the way when songs took unexpected turns, but the feeling, I think, was there. All I know is that it was a blast to play such wickedly good songs with such a fearless performer, in an intimate venue infused with the spirit of Ani, with an audience so generous toward me that some took home my CDs even though I had not played a single song of my own.
Tonight Wendy Sassafras and I will be performing together, making our own little adventure with and for whoever is in the room. This is both the hardest and best thing about playing live music: nothing ever goes entirely as planned.
Back in 2004 I did a feature for NPR’s All Things Considered about Ani DiFranco’s project of rescuing an historic church that was slated for demolition and turning it into the arts center called Babeville. Listen to the story below or on the NPR site.