Michael Engberg / Blog

Susan’s Smile

I’ve done some thirteen shows in the last fourteen days. Pretty much all of them (with the exception of one) are now repeat venues; places I have played a few times, at least. It’s been a good streak of restaurants, wineries, pubs, and nursing homes. There are lots of new fans, more than a few CD’s sold, and a lot of good moments. There was the Blue Room Bar, a couple of weeks ago, where a little old lady was grooving along to my renditions of “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay”, “Stand By Me”, and “Hand Jive” (she actually got up out of her chair to dance to “Hand Jive”, and sang right along to “Dock of the Bay”). The latest new gig was the Hidden Bay Café, where it was music and mimosas for Mother’s Day. I played for four hours on a fine, Spring day, and was having so much fun, I almost forgot to take a break. Did I mention nursing homes? I’ve been playing nursing homes for some years now, starting back when I used to visit my mother and would play for her and her fellow residents during the dinner hour. This has grown into a somewhat parallel career of casual music therapy. I play songs the residents are likely to remember, and they often sing along. Since last October, I have built up a handful of what are called Adult Foster Care Homes. These are houses engineered to provide a level of assisted living for about half a dozen residents who will share the living room and kitchen in common, while enjoying the privacy of their own bedroom and staff on hand to help as needed. As I said, I have a little over half a dozen of these homes that have been employing me to come in every other week to play and share a few stories with the residents. Since these are ongoing gigs, I’ve taken to asking the residents to suggest songs they’d like me to work up for upcoming performances. By the way, one of the houses has been asking for a lot of Eagles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Fleetwood Mac (maybe just let that sink in for a moment). This last week, circumstances were such that my audience at one of these houses basicially consisted of an audience of one. Her name is Susan. She is not as old as some of my other audience members. She is disabled; confined to a wheelchair, and not really able to speak (although she can write messages from time to time). A couple of her fellow residents recently moved to another facility in California, thus it was my playing just for her. She can’t really clap. As I mentioned before, she can’t really talk. But she can smile. She has a really beautiful smile. I played for those smiles. And honestly, I found working for those smiles as rewarding as the applause from a room full of folk at some of my other gigs.

Lindy Olson
Lindy Olson  (about 2 years ago)

Wow. How touching. (And that comment about The Eagles is pretty scary!)

Fire And Rain

I had just finished doing three shows yesterday , and was heading home, when I thought to stop by a café on Hayden Island that I’d been talking with over the last week or so. They host some outdoors live entertainment in the summer months, and I had been talking with them about being part of their plans, so I figured I’d stop in and follow up on previous conversations. Plus, since I had the guitars with me, I figured I could give a little sample of what I do. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw the remains of a fire that had struck the nearby marina, destroying well over a hundred boats. There was still a bit of smoke and I could see a little bit of flame that persisted. Overhead, Portland was building up for another bout of winter rain. Neither the owners or the manager were there, but there was a handful of customers, including a gal named Kelly, who, it turns out, organizes various sailing events around Hayden Island and all the way up the West Coast (as far as Victoria, in British Columbia). She was there with her daughter and grandson, and they were all interested in hearing me play a bit. I started with an instrumental arrangement of George Harrison’s “Something”, then, keeping with the mellow mood, I went into a rendition of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”. The next thing I knew, I looked over to see Kelly and her daughter with tears streaming down their faces. When I finished the song, they explained that Kelly’s mother had just passed away this morning, and my singing that song had proved a catharsis for them, giving them leave to grieve. I have talked before about how I learn from playing cover songs. I realize that there are some who would say Fire and Rain is such an old and worn out thing. It’s true, it’s been more than forty years since James Taylor penned that tune. But songs don’t really know how old they are; only the singers (and the audience, sometimes) do. And a good song doesn’t know who wrote it, either. If you sing it true, with commitment, it has the power to touch something in someone, like what happened last night. I learn something when I play a song like that. I get a sense of the timeless quality that has helped that song live in people’s hearts over the years. I can aspire to do something that fine with my own songwriting. Years ago, when my own Grandmother passed away, I attended the funeral. One of my uncles felt it important to persuade me to reconsider my idea of trying to make a living as a musician, and we ended up having a long conversation on that topic. Later, with various relatives gathered around, I sang one of my songs (“The Land Of Remembering When”). When I finished, I felt my uncle’s hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see tears in his eyes. “Don’t give up just yet,” he said. That was about twenty years ago. And whether I am playing one of my own songs, or learning from the artistry of someone like James Taylor, I continue to give it my best shot.

48 Hours

There were a couple of days last week that represent a lot of what life in the Portland/Vancouver area has been for us of late. Last Wednesday, I had three shows during the day, at what are known as Adult Care, or Adult Foster Homes. These are places that typically have about half a dozen residents, so they are not like the larger facilities that take care of dozens (or more). Still, they enjoy entertainment. Some of these places have decided to hire me on to come every two weeks to play. I’ve been doing this for some months now, which has afforded me a chance to really get to know my audiences, as it were. This has been good in a variety of ways. We’ve got to the point where they ask if I can work up this or that song for them, which is giving me some valuable guidance for expanding my repertoire. And just the benefit of a regular gig gives me a great outlet for working on chops, presentation, audience rapport, and all that. On Thursday, I visited with Robert Russell: an extraordinary violinist and mighty fine recording engineer, to make a demo of a couple of newly-composed songs that I am submitting to the Newfolk Songwriting Competition (part of the Kerrville Folk Festival, in Texas). Some 32 semi-finalists are chosen each year, and invited to come perform for the audience over Memorial Day Weekend. Three judges then pick six winners (there is no First, or Second place, or anything of that sort, as they do not wish the competition to become that competitive, so to speak). The last time I did this (quite a few years ago), I made it all the way to being one of the six winners. I am hoping that lightning may strike twice. After the recording session with Robert, I headed for Maher’s Pub, to play for a few hours on Thursday evening. I have mentioned Maher’s before: it’s a genuinely friendly neighborhood Irish bar in Lake Oswego. The place was bustling last Thursday evening, and I enjoyed a familiar give and take with the audience (as well as some nice drops in the tip jar). Tomorrow night (Monday, February 22nd), I am back at the Blue Room bar, in Cartlandia. This has become another of several repeat venues that I am enjoying very much. It’s a comfortable place, with a stage that features some fine in-house sound and lights, and some very appreciative audiences. I have been doing a fairly regular thing of playing every third Monday of the month, but in March I will be the “Songwriter In Residence”; playing every Thursday evening, from 8-10pm. As the title would suggest, I will be using those nights to introduce a lot of my original material, although I will do my best on the 17th of March to blend in some Irish/Celtic fare, as well. And if the weather starts cooperating, we may even take some of this outside.

New England Transcendentalists and the Tempo of Mastery

I have had the benefit of several fine teachers over the course of my life time. There are a couple I want to mention at this time: Alice Artzt and Ricardo Iznaola. I spent the Spring semester of my senior year of college studying in New York City, and getting to work with Alice Artzt was one of the most enriching experiences of that time. As sort of a side note, I had first met with another classical guitarist, had one lesson, whereupon this person said, “I can’t help you.” A few days later, I had my first lesson with Alice. She listened to me play, and said, “How hard are you willing to work?” By my reckoning, this is the mark of a true teacher. Alice had a saying that she burned into my brain: “If you play too fast, too soon, you will make mistakes And then you will be very good at playing mistakes, because that’s what you practiced.” In her book, ‘The Art of Practicing’, she described how a great guitarist makes everything look easy. “It looks easy because, for them, it is. And they practiced to make it so.” Ricardo Iznaola has taught for several years at the University of Denver, and, in many ways, has established a standard of excellence for guitarists in Denver, and anywhere else in the world for that matter. His remarks are similar to those of Alice Artzt. “An audience does not want to go to a concert to see an artist suffer,” he said. And when you watch Ricardo perform, he demonstrates in a very vital way that the guitar is no obstacle, but a vehicle by which he communicates his soul to an audience. But again, in a manner comparable to that of Alice, he would describe the need to practice “The Tempo of Mastery” while working on an exercise, technique, or piece of music. “You must practice at the speed that allows you to play without mistakes,” he would say. Another side note: in my freshman year of college, I took an acting class where one of the exercises was to pantomime various actions extremely slowly. The lesson in this was to observe all the small details that go into any movement. But there was the additional lesson that doing something very slowly forces you to pay attention to an incredible degree (perhaps intolerably so, for some people). I believe it was Emerson who said in learning to do one thing very well, you learn to do all things very well (or, to quote a scene from the movie, ‘Il Postino’, “it seems as if everything in the world can be a metaphor for anything else”). Sometimes, I feel that we desire too much speed. Sometimes I think our yearning for speed removes our capacity to observe, to focus, to pay attention. And I believe our speeded up lifestyle can often invite many mistakes. But like hitting a skunk on the highway, we feel if we are going fast enough, we will be long gone before there’s a smell. Myself, I continue to learn the value of doing things in a deliberate and thoughtful way; with intention and consciousness, and, hopefully, at the tempo of mastery.

The Gigs and the other Waking Hours

Admittedly, part of the problem for musicians is that the public sees the really fun part, when we’re playing. And, after all, there is that whole thing about calling what we do “playing” music (we don’t say we “work” music, after all; or at least not usually). The goal of any entertainer - whether musician, magician, dancer, or ventriloquist dummy – is to make what you do look easy and effortless. That’s what you want the audience to witness. What the audience does not see is what goes into all the other hours off the stage. Most days (whether I am playing a gig or not), I am practicing. There are some technical exercises that are a regular part of keeping the muscles in shape and able to do what I ask. Then there is brushing up on old repertoire and working on new repertoire (which includes learning cover tunes as well as writing new stuff). There is also a good deal of business that goes into the mix. Again, most days, I am sending out emails or making phone calls to venues; booking repeat gigs at places I have already played, while constantly reaching out to new potential venues. There is a certain amount of cultivating publicity; keeping up with social media, reaching out to local papers and radio stations, and even this blog. I have not yet adopted Twitter, despite the fact that I have all manner of folk telling me I must consider doing so. At this point, it’s just one more thing to add into the mix, and I haven’t been able to justify doing so as yet (slacker that I may be, I think I’m doing a lot better in trying to put out a blog at least once a week at this point). There are a couple of related activities. One is going on walks with Rufus, my personal trainer. One of my more successful efforts at multi-tasking is singing/memorizing lyrics as we walk, or thinking up lyrics to new songs. Fortunately, Rufus doesn’t complain about any of this. November is NaNoWriMo (an abbreviated form of Nation Novel Written in a Month, or something along those lines). I have a novel that I’ve been banging away at for a few years. So, in addition to my usual routine, I am trying to finish the first draft this month. While I don’t expect clubowners to pay for my efforts as an aspiring novelist, the other stuff is all part of running a business. One of the pluses of being in a band is that you can potentially distribute some of these administrative/business duties among the various band members. But there’s a reason I named my business Many Hats Music. And I live it pretty much every day. Oh, and for the record, I still like my job.

My Blue Room Heaven

When receiving emails from the Blue Room Bar in Portland, they would include the tag, “Cartlandia”. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant until I arrived to play my first gig there last night. The Blue Room Bar borders a lot filled with at least a dozen or more foodcarts, offering all manner of culinary delights. There was a crepery, various purveyors of tacos, sandwiches, ethnic foods (both traditional and fusion-inspired), and much more. Sitting at the front of the lot, streetside, was a cart for Voodoo donuts. My wife and I had been hearing about Voodoo donuts long before we ever first visited Portland, so now was my chance to sample their wares. I picked up a “Triple Chocolate Delight” (chocolate donut with chocolate icing and a sprinkling of Cocoa Puffs) for Pony, and settled for a somewhat more conventional raspberry jelly-filled, powdered donut for myself, then tucked them into the car to take home after the gig. The Blue Room Bar itself is a fairly spacious place, with a stage that could comfortably handle a four or five-piece band (so more than enough room for a solo singer/songwriter/guitarist). They have a decent house sound system, with mains and monitors and a 12-channel mixer/amplifier, and some pretty fine house stage lights. I had given myself ample travel time and arrived with more than an hour to get set up and settled in. It was a good night. There were the folks trying to decide which of my CD’s they wanted to buy (and me playing tunes featured on each of the CD’s, to give them some sense of their options). There was the guy who called his brother (a fine guitarist in his own right, I was told), so that he could hold the cellphone in front of me and give his brother a good listen of what I was playing. I felt the spirit of St. Steve Goodman upon me last night. I was very much “in the moment”; making each song ring and shine through the room. It was one of those natural highs that one hopes for with each and every gig. Annika, the bartender, told me how much she had enjoyed my playing, and that she was going to let the owners know. I look forward to returning to the Blue Room Bar. And next time, maybe Pony will come along, so that we can both enjoy some of the delights of Cartlandia before my show.

Jar Head (The Tip Jar, Part Two)

I went to grad school at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. In the nearby city of Dayton, there was a sandwich shop that I would play at about once a month or so. Once, while playing there, a guy dropped a ten into the tip jar and said, “You remind me so much of Jim Croce!” I took that as the high praise it was meant to be, and enjoyed the rest of my gig. About a month or so later, a gal dropped a ten into the tip jar and gushed, “You are so much like Harry Chapin!” Again, I appreciated the compliment. But about a month or so later, another customer in the sandwich shop dropped a couple of fives into the tip jar and said, “You really remind me of Steve Goodman.” About this time, I was a little nervous, because, as great as all three of these songwriters are (and I play songs written by all of them), by this time they were all dead. However, it’s been years since that sandwich shop in Dayton, and I’m still kickin’. I mentioned in the previous blog post about the Native American tradition of counting coup. To count coup was to earn honor; typically by showing that you could kill an opponent, but deliberately refraining from doing so. I realize that the tip jar is a far cry from that tradition as such, but I regard the tip jar as a musician’s form of counting coup. Getting someone to drop a little something in the jar is a very real and obvious affirmation. What you are doing as a musician has pleased someone to demonstrate it in a noticeable way. I was playing at the Feckin’ Brewery, in Oregon City, last Saturday. Besides being my second time playing at Feckin’it was my birthday, and playing a gig is definitely one of my preferred ways to mark the occasion. Within the first twenty minutes of the first set, a guy dropped a twenty into the tip jar and flashed me a big grin (turns out he especially like the blues that I played early on). In addition to that, when the bartender drops money into your tip jar, I find that a real vote of confidence (after all, they hear everyone who plays there). And the same with the cook asking to buy a CD; that, too, makes me feel I had a good night. As I said before, I think it’s important for the venue to show a basic respect to the musicians by paying them something for their service. That leaves the tip jar to serve as a gauge of what sort of energy you bring to the show, and how you do connecting with the audience. Like I said: counting coup.

Jar Jar Chink

Shortly after I first arrived in Denver (many years ago), I had a conversation with two ladies who owned and ran one of the more popular coffeehouses in the Highlands neighborhood. At the time, they were featuring live music three days a week (Friday and Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons), but musicians were playing strictly from what they made from the tip jar. “I have a masters in music,” I told them. And to be fair, that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean much under the circumstances, save to suggest that I had spent a fair bit of time, effort, and money learning my craft. “ I have thousands of hours invested in working up my repertoire, and thousands of dollars invested in my instruments and equipment. With no disrespect intended, I have a lot more invested in what I do, and doing it well, than your barristas running your espresso machines. And yet, I can imagine if you asked those barristas to work for just tips, they would likely be laughing at you as they walked out the door. So, again, with all due respect, why do you ask this of me?” My argument worked; after that conversation, word got around that this coffeehouse was paying musicians. Maybe not a lot, as such, but more than just playing for the tip jar. It was a small step. So I have been on this soapbox before (you can see my footprints, right there). In a society where there is debate about a working wage, or a minimum wage, there are plenty of venues that still ask musicians to play for tips only. And there are plenty of musicians willing to do it. They think they need to do it, to get exposure, to build a following, to get experience. All of those reasons are a good argument for open stages, which I feel is a different situation. An open stage is usually run by a designated host (who is paid by the venue to run the show, and fill in any gaps, should it be a slow night; occasionally, they are asked/expected to provide the sound system for the evening). Audiences will often see the gamut at an open stage: everything from gigging professionals who are trying out new material (and maybe building that all important following), to fresh, new talent working out the nervous jitters. Open stages provide a vital service in this context. But if you are booked to play the evening at a place, if a venue is using your music as one more feature to attract customers, then you should be talking about some level of guaranteed compensation. And the places that do pay expect a professional performance (after all, you get what you pay for). So by all means, negotiate some guaranteed compensation; something more than just the tip jar. Then show up on time, with a solid repertoire, ready to play, ready to connect with your audience. Then the tip jar becomes something else; something (to borrow from Native American culture) I call counting coup. More about that in the next blog.

Return to the Merry Widow

We first visited the Merry Widow campground, in Basin, Montana, about a year ago. It is just off Interstate 15, almost exactly halfway between Butte and Helena. It was a wonderful experience the last time around and we had a few days between playing some dates in Bozeman and heading on to Missoula, so we decided to spend a little time at Merry Widow again. We arrived on Thursday, set up camp, and I had parked myself next to the RV and started to play the guitar, when I was introduced to Bobcat Jack Everitt. He is a session player who once played for the Steve Miller Band (before Boz Scaggs took over that gig), and has spent the last twenty years or so touring with Van Morrison. In between, he plays a circuit of wineries (particularly in the Northwest), while also representing Gibson and Bose (he has endorsement deals with both those companies). We had a great time talking shop. One of the features of the Merry Widow campground is a large, barnlike structure that has been turned into a Rec hall. They have potluck dinners there on Wednesday nights, and the last time we visited, I played for one of those dinners and managed to sell nearly a dozen or so CD’s. One thing led to another, and Bobcat Jack and I decided to put on a show for the other campers last night. I was the opening act, and Jack very generously set me up to use his Bose sound system, as well as his wireless headset mike. Everything sounded wonderful. Once again, I sold nearly a dozen CD’s at the end of my show, with Jack doing the same after his set. It has been a real delight making the acquaintance of this man, who cut his teeth learning Chicago blues from the likes of Luther Allison and Buddy Guy (and all manner of others). I have been regaled with all manner of stories, as well as learning a few additional road tips from the man. A rather important side lesson: in the past, I would have felt compelled to try to emulate, or otherwise compete in some fashion with such a musician. I made a very conscious effort not to do so this time around. I reminded myself that I am who I am; my music is my own, and it has to stand on its own. I received what, for me was one of the best compliments I could have asked for. At the end of the night, Jack said, “You’ve got your own sound, and it’s good.” We’ve traded business cards and all, and I will look forward to chatting and hanging out with this guy for another day or two, before we head our different paths. This is one of the real treasures of our new gypsy existence: meeting some other fine musicians along the way.

Good thing I’m Not NASA

I am playing a batch of gigs in Casper, Wyoming for the month of June, while we enjoy the hospitality and grace of our friends Rebecca and Geoffrey Hunt, who have again allowed us (humans, kitties, dog, and guitars) to sojourn at their cabin on top of Casper Mountain. On Monday, June 9th, I played a gig where everything went off without a hitch. The next day, at another gig, I went to turn on my amplifier and nothing happened; no light on the back of the amplifier, no soft, barely present hiss of power in the speakers. Nothing. I checked power chords, outlets; everything I could think of, to no avail. I was forced to play “unplugged”, as it were, and fortunately, it was a smallish room, and a somewhat intimate-sized audience where that worked well enough (besides, I remember seeing Andres Segovia play Carnegie Hall without any amplification, so I figured I ought to be able to pull this off. After the gig, I picked up Pony at the Natrona County Public Library, and we hit a handful of music stores in the town of Casper. The one that was finally able to help us was Gigworx, in the Eastridge Mall. They introduced me to a new, incredibly compact Behringer amplifier; small enough to mount on a mic stand, and yet packing some 150 watts of power. Initially I was going to rent it for a few days, to cover the next couple of gigs, but it worked out so wonderfully well that I purchased the unit (the folks at Gigworx were kind enough to apply the rent I had paid to the purchase, and were just wonderful, friendly people to work with in all ways). I still hope to track down the problem in my Roland sound system. The lesson I have learned from this is to have a back up. And I have prided myself on doing so to a great extent (extra audio cables, power chords, and two guitars at any gig). But I was made keenly aware of where I had failed to carry through in this strategy. Fortunately, in my case, no one dies from such an oversight. Meanwhile, we are most glad to be back up on Casper Mountain. Wyoming, like many parts of the Rockies and the Southwest, has been getting an abundance of rain. This has resulted in a profusion of green grass and wild flowers of all sorts on the mountain. Our friends, Rebecca and Geoffrey, have joined us for a couple of weeks, along with a couple of their grandkids: Rhys and Owen. Rhys and Owen have taken to joining Rufus and me on longish hikes through the woods. The dog and the boys do a good job at wearing each other out. I have found some needed solitude each day in what is called the Sun Room, where I have set up computer, guitars, music books, calendars, and whatever else I may need to do my business. I manage to spend some hours of each day practicing, making phone calls and emails , working up new repertoire, and writing some new songs. Evenings usually feature some excellent meal that Pony, Geoffrey, and/or Rebecca cobble together in an excellent way, along with a movie, before sending the boys off to bed. So, any equipment failures or other setbacks notwithstanding, the pluses still very much outweigh the minuses.