Crescent City Bistro, Dover, NH. May 1, 2005
Not a good day for a gig. It's raining in Dover, as it has been for weeks. Worse yet, some of the streets downtown are closed for a bicycle race. I can't pull up anywhere near the club. In fact, I have to cut across the race path to get to parking lot a few blocks away. I park amidst the minivans, all bristling with bike racks. Mal and I unload the equipment onto the sidewalk, load up like pack mules, and head for the club through the drizzle, me pushing the Ampeg, black gadget bag slung over my shoulder, Mal carrying guitar, stool, bag of PR materials.
We get to the club in plenty of time to set up. The stage is spacious, classy. The restaurant is nearly empty. Unfortunately, it would remain so for most of the gig.
Mal and I had come to the Bistro for brunch a couple of weeks earlier. The sign out front said Jazz Brunch, so we were expecting live music. We asked the hostess about music and she said they usually have a keyboard player, but he'd cancelled that day. Our waiter, Kevin, said he wished they had live music, because he was tired of the tape that was playing.
After we finished brunch that day (I had crab cakes benedict, which were excellent) we talked to the bartender. As it turned out, he booked the entertainment. I told him I was a jazz guitar player and he booked me for two gigs, on the spot.
The Bistro has an unusual layout. You come in through a large entryway, then up a few steps. Directly in front of you is a tall fountain, gurgling gently and looking as if it belonged on the streets of New Orleans. To the left is a bar, the sides polished copper. Further to the left, a few tables.
To the right of the fountain, at the back, is the stage, a carpeted platform about six inches high. Above the stage is an atrium that rises several stories. On sunny days the stage is flooded with sunlight streaming from the skylight at the top of the atrium. On this rainy Sunday, the skylight provided a dim grey light.
The main bar is to the right of the entrance, extending partway in front of the stage. Further to the right there is a wall that separates the bar from the main section of tables. To get to these tables, you would turn right at the entrance and walk down a slight incline. So even though these table are directly across from the stage, the wall blocks visibility, and it blocks some of the sound. These table run along the tall windows that look out on the street. On warm days these windows are open.
I went to the stage, set up my stool and my amp, got out my axe, and tuned up. I had time to sit at the bar and order a cup of coffee. Kevin, our waiter from a few weeks ago, was tending bar. It seems he was just filling in as a waiter on the day of our first visit. I guess the keyboard player was not the only one who didn't show up that day. Mal and I chatted as I sipped my coffee. Kevin is a friendly, competent bartender, who enjoys his job. That's pretty rare. A good bartender can mean the difference between patron returning or walking past.
At noon I started my first set. As usual, I started with "Here's That Rainy Day." Appropriate, I thought as I gazed out the windows at the falling rain, every few minutes seeing a pack of bicycles speed by the window.
The Bistro is a huge room so I was playing louder than I usually do. Even so, after a few tunes, Kevin walked by, headed for the kitchen, and said, "I think you can turn up." I turned up quite a bit, and that seemed just right. The acoustics are a bit hard to judge. Some of the sound goes straight up into the atrium. The bar is directly in front of the stage. The copper sides of the bar combine with the atrium to create a slight slapback echo, but I found that by changing the position of my amp and my stool slightly I no longer heard that. After a few tunes I was adjusted to the acoustics and enjoying the room. A few customers came in and disappeared to the tables behind the wall. It was hard to judge whether the volume was sufficient to reach them.
It was only a two-hour gig, so I only had time to play a small percentage of my repertoire. I didn't think the audience would be too used to jazz, so I played a lot of the more recognizable tunes like "Girl from Ipanema" and "Satin Doll."
After a while Sheri & Jason came in and sat at the bar with Mal. A few other people came in and sat at the bar. Jason led off applause after every tune. The people at the bar joined in, and once I heard a smattering of applause from the hinterlands behind the wall.
I caught Mal's attention and asked if she'd walk around the room and see if the sound was carrying. Jason said, "Oh, I'll do it." I started into a tune and he walked around. He came back and gave me a nod. On a break I asked how the sound was carrying (yes, I was obsessing about it -- this place was huge and full of nooks and crannies). He said, "It's fine. I walked by those tables behind the wall and you can hear the music over there. The lows don't carry that well, but the highs do. Your playing s more about the highs than the lows anyway." I was somewhat taken aback by that comment, but I understood what he meant. When I went back on, I cranked up the bass a bit. During the next set his comment was in the back of my mind, and I thought about it later.
Some more thoughts on highs and lows: I play, whenever I can, through my Ampeg B-15, which is a bass amp. I bought it in 1965, when I was playing bass with the Blues Children. One night, playing at the Boston Tea Party (sharing the bill with Peter Wolf and the Hallucinations) I blew out the original Ampeg speaker. I replaced it with a Jensen Lifetime bass speaker, which has an enormous magnet (I'm reminded of the extra weight of the magnet every time I carry the amp up a flight of stairs). So this amp has some lows. Add to that the fact that I plug into the bass input. I usually set bass and treble controls at 5, but at the Bistro I had the bass on 6 and after Jason's comment I pushed the bass up to 7. I use very thick picks -- 2.0mm -- some people refer to them as bass picks. The stiffness of the pick tends to emphasize the lows. In head arrangements I usually have a bass line going. I try to keep the bass notes on strings six and five because the thickness of those strings adds to the bass timbre. An E-flat, for example, on the fifth string sounds much fatter, bassier, than an E-flat on the fourth string, even though they are the same pitch.
I go to some extremes to get some solid bass in my solo guitar playing. But having said all that, I must admit that Jason is right: my playing is more about highs. Melody is the essence of music, to most listeners. Play he wrong chords to "Girl from Ipanema" and only the trained musicians will notice. Play the melody wrong and everyone will notice. I always try to bring out the melody when I play heads, and I try to make my solos as melodic as possible. Even when I'm improvising chordally, I try to keep strong melodic content on the top.
So, although I was glad that the highs were carrying, I realized that next time I play here I'll try to bring out the lows more. Wooden platforms tend to be bass traps. When you're on them, the bass sounds full, but move a few feet in front of them and the bass sounds thinner. Putting an amp directly on a low platform allows some of the bass to be transferred through to the floor. We tend to feel bass more than hear it, so the trick is to get the floor to resonate with the lows. Next time I play this room, I need to take the amp off the wheels, and crank the bass a bit more. This is a lesson I keep forgetting and then re-learning.