Tales from the Front Lines

Getting set up for the Tulsa Run, October 28, 2017

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from spending two years as a starving artist/musician, it’s this – always be prepared!

The first year I played the Route 66 Marathon was one long, two-day learning experience. I played for the 5K runners on a Saturday morning. I arrived thirty minutes early to the spot along the race route where I was supposed to set up. It was a little grassy triangle area where three streets converged in downtown Tulsa. I loaded out, set up my gear, then went looking for a power source.

The marathon had agreements in place with local businesses where they’d provide access to power for the musicians and water stops along the twenty-six mile course. However, it appeared that the business that was supplying me with power had forgotten all about that. I tried plugging in to various outlets, to no avail.

Fortunately, Myron, one of the race coordinators, showed up in the nick of time. He quickly found me a spot 300 yards further down the route, and helped me quickly load and move my gear to this new spot. I got set up and did a quick sound check just as the first runners began showing up.

Set up to play just in time!

The next day was a cold and miserable day, and I was assigned a spot near the twelve mile mark, outside of the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Tulsa. I arrived forty-five minutes early and quickly found the hotel manager, who showed me exactly where I could plug in and set up. Within fifteen minutes I was ready to go, and feeling pretty good about myself – compared to yesterday, this was easy peasy!

Until the first runners started coming by. It was then I realized that I had set up not only on the wrong side of the street, but far enough away from the actual route that runners would scarcely be able to hear me, let alone see me. I quickly broke everything down, made three or four trips across the street lugging all of my gear, and got set up again – all in under ten minutes. By the time the first crowd of marathon runners started trickling by – the ones that weren’t necessarily trying to qualify for Boston – I was finally ready to go.

Ready to go…on the wrong side of the street

My favorite – and I use that term loosely – equipment malfunction was when my guitar blew up.

A few weeks prior to my playing the Route 66 Marathon for the first time, I had the honor of playing for runners during the Tulsa Federal Credit Union Tulsa Run. This was the end of October, and it was a bitterly cold morning.

I arrived at my appointed street corner and got my gear unpacked and ready to go. I was assigned to play towards the end of the course, so I took the opportunity to go across the street and make friends with the EMT crew that was stationed directly across the street from me, as it would be a few minutes before we saw any runners.

As the first runners began showing up down the street, I scooted back across to my set up and began playing.

A quick word about my repertoire as it relates to playing these sorts of gigs, as opposed to an open mic or coffee shop or something along those lines. Whenever I’m playing somewhere where the patrons are seated for some length of time, I’m always reluctant to play the same song twice, even if there is some turnover in listeners. If someone is paying me to play for three or four hours, then they get three or fours hours of music, with virtually no repeats.

In the case of these running events, however, the audience is ever-changing. And the nature of the kinds of songs I play means I only have a few songs in my bag that relate in any way to running. So for events like these, my setlist looks something like this:

Eye of the Tiger by Survivor
I Ran by Flock of Seagulls
Run To You by Bryan Adams
Take It Easy by Eagles
(Rinse and repeat for four hours)

Both Tiger and I Ran have pretty catchy choruses, so I leaned on them pretty heavily – it is still pretty cool to watch runners go by singing along, giving me fist pumps or air high-fives as they passed. Those images will always be amongst my very favorite memories.

So on this cold October morning in 2017 just outside of downtown Tulsa, I began to play for the runners that were headed our way.

They began coming through pretty heavily ten minutes later, and that’s when my guitar decided to blow up.

More specifically, the electronics inside of my acoustic/electric guitar decided it was too cold, and they didn’t want to play anymore. I heard a pop and saw a wisp of smoke, followed by a burning smell and a loss of sound.

I panicked for about 30 seconds, then remembered that I had brought an extra mic – the P.A. I was using came with two of them, and I’d brought them both for some reason. However, I had no was to attach the mic to my guitar…

Then I remembered the EMTs across the street. I quickly ran across the street, picking my way through the crowd of runners, and borrowed some medical tape. I took it back to my set up and proceeded to tape the spare mic to my mic stand:

Tragedy having been averted, I continued to play for the rest of the morning, regaling the runners with the same four songs over and over and over again…

What I’ve Learned

All the preparation in the world doesn’t help when things go wrong. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches and make the best with what you’re given.

Lifeline, or How Not To Record a Performance Video

Writing and performing an original song is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot when trying to record a video of it.

Yet there I was at Robin’s Roast Coffee Shop in December 2017, trying to record a live version of a new song I had just written called “Lifeline.” In retrospect, I should have used a lifeline to phone a friend to record it for me.

The whole thing started off easily enough. I had what I thought was a catchy guitar riff, added a variation of that chord structure to act as the verse, then sat down to write the lyrics. I’d done this a number of times already, and figured this would be a piece of cake. The lyrics came pretty easily, and within a few hours I thought I had a pretty good song.

Speaking of catchy guitar riffs…another song I’d written around the same time, “So Alive,” featured another interesting chord progression. They say that there’s nothing new under the sun, but I thought I’d really hit on something special with this one. So much so that I recorded a number of different versions of it, and made it the title song of my first album:

Then, a few months later, I had occasion to learn the song “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers – I wanted to play it during one of my gigs at the coffee shop. Imagine my surprise, then, that as I’m learning this tune, I come to find that the chorus of that song was nearly identical to my song, just sped up a little bit and in a different key. I had unconsciously plagiarized the son of one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last fifty years.

Anyway, back to December 2017 – the setup I used at the coffee shop was your basic mic-stand-with-iPad configuration – you can see it exactly as it was in the picture at the top of this post. There was very little space to spread out and move around, so I had to be very compact.

One of the things I loved so much about playing at Robin’s Roast was that the acoustics were very good – I could play at one volume at the front of the shop and there was very little degradation of volume or clarity as you moved to the back of the store.

Another nice thing was that most of the clientele were there to drink coffee and work on homework (at least on the nights I played), so there was very little pressure to “put on a show” – I just played three hours of background music, basically. It really allowed me to experiment with new songs, arrangements, and sounds.

I also thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to record a video of me performing my new song in a live setting. The table right in front of where I set up happened to be empty, so by leaning my phone on the napkin holder and hitting “record,” I was able to record my performance.

Ordinarily I don’t take breaks during a gig, so if it’s a three hour show, I play for three hours, straight through. On this night, however, after about an hour of playing I stopped, set up my phone on the empty table in front of me, announced to the handful of patrons that I was going to play a new song I had just written, and launched into “Lifeline.” When I finished, I retrieved my phone, put it in my pocket, and proceeded with my regularly scheduled show.

The reception after the song was very heartwarming – everyone seemed to enjoy it, and I even received a nice compliment (and a $10 tip) from a couple that left shortly afterwards, saying they really enjoyed that song in particular.

After the show, I packed up all my stuff, finished my coffee while making small talk with the manager, Caleb, then loaded out to my car. Once I had the engine running and the car had heated up sufficiently (it was early December, remember), I pulled out my phone to watch my performance of “Lifeline.”

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go:

That is correct – I didn’t bother to check the alignment of where everything was in relation to the angle I was shooting from. For all intents and purposes, it is a four minute video of me singing my song from behind my iPad.

To say I was disappointed in myself and feeling pretty stupid is an understatement. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a rookie mistake. I’d recorded dozens of performance videos in my living room and at the bar where I’d been doing open mic. How could I be so dumb? It boggles the mind.

I resolved right then and there to do it again next week, but didn’t follow through. Then the gig ended when the shop changed owners, and the opportunity had passed.

Fortunately, I have a good friend who, aside from being a good sport, is a damn fine musician, and he learned the song so we could add it to our repertoire. So without further ado, here is our version of Lifeline:

Lifeline recorded Dec 10, 2017 by Hardwick & Caldwell

The song had finally made it to video, though not in the way I’d originally intended. However, the fact that I got to release it to the world with a good friend more than made up for my earlier screw up, and made the whole experience that much more meaningful for me. I wouldn’t change a single moment of the whole experience. It ended exactly the way it should have.