Gig Journal

Jingle Bell Festival. Medford City Hall. Dec. 7, 2002

Steve at Jingle Bell Festival

This was my second time playing in the City Hall Council Chambers, but my first time playing this festival. It's a fundraiser for some local community groups. The festival has two parts: a house tour, and the Christmas tree auction. Part of my payment was tickets to the house tour: six houses around Medford decorated for the holidays and open for the tour. My wife and I have only lived in Medford for three years, and there are parts of the city we haven't seen, so the tour was interesting. I set up my amp in the Council Chambers, and my wife and I boarded the first bus, which left at 4 pm, leaving us plenty of time to make the 6 pm gig. Or so we thought. The bus broke down at the fourth house. There were a few other busses servicing the tour, so we hijacked a working bus and headed for the fifth house. The driver dropped us off and went back to pick up another load of house tourists. While we toured the fifth house, we were told that a replacement bus was on its way. Six o'clock was approaching faster than the replacement bus, so one of the house tour hosts was kind enough to drive us back to City Hall, just in time for my gig.

I grabbed my guitar from the trunk of the car and went up to the hall. Both sides of the hall were lined with Christmas trees, decorated by local businesses and residents. There was a place where guests could buy raffle tickets for the trees. Tables filled the center of the hall, and out in rotunda there was food and drink available.

Since the busses had not yet begun returning from the house tour, I was able to spend some time doing a sound check, which, it turned out, I really needed. The wooden railing around the area where I was playing had been draped with heavy paper and ribbon. I felt like I was playing in a courtroom that had been turned into a giant Christmas present. The sound could not travel out directly, but was bounced back off the railing. I knew I'd have a little trouble filling the hall with sound without being too loud. People would be talking (maybe a little louder than usual, thanks to the complimenatary wine and beer). So I wanted to play softly enough that people could talk, but loud enough that the sound would carry out to the rotunda, to draw people in.

I started with a few chords and fills, to test the sound. Since the guests had not arrived, volume and projection was not an issue. But there was another issue: the tone was just not good. My guitar sounded nasal, mid-rangy. Sometimes it does that. I tried turning up the bass on the amp, and then turning down the treble, but to no avail. I thought I might have had the digital reverb set wrong. I checked it, and sure enough it was on plate 1 rather than the plate 2 setting I usually use. But even after adjusting the reverb, the next tune sounded just as bad. I bypassed the reverb altogether on the next tune. Same sound. Then I remembered that I'd left the guitar in the trunk of the car while we were on the tour, and, although it was not too cold (about 40 degrees), that might have been enough for the wood to contract and now expand, shifting the pickup. I pushed the bridge pickup just a tad toward the bridge. That did it. The bass notes took on body, and the nasal sound was gone. It's a weird guitar. Those cheap pickups are just screwed into the top, and they have quite a bit of play. My theory is that if I don't get the pole pieces at exactly the right point relative to the strings, I get weird harmonics. Once I got the pickup positioned right, I was able to go back to my usual tone settings on the amp, use, the reverb, and it sounded OK. But since I was playing very quietly, I added a little extra bass.

Just as I got the sound where I wanted it, the guests began arriving. As the room filled with people, I gradually turned up the volume. The extra volume emphasized the bass notes, so I rolled off some bass and added some treble. Once the room was filled with people, I was into about my fifth tune, and had finally settled on a volume, tone settings, and right-hand attack that gave me a pretty good sound. Throughout the night, though, I found that the melody notes were not singing out as clearly as I would have liked. Must have been that wrapping paper.

I played my usual repertoire. I had worked up a couple of Christmas tunes, and sprinkled them in, but when, halfway through the night, one of the guests requested more holiday tunes, I knew I hadn't prepared enough. For a holiday party in Greenwich Village two years ago I'd worked up an arrangement of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." It's mostly 2- and 3-note voicings, with some natural harmonics. Well, the room was just too lively, the guests just a little to boisterous, and it didn't go well. To delicate an arrangement for the setting. Bill Leavitt's arrangement of "White Christmas" did get a little applause, though. I also played his arrangement of "Christmas Song" (aka Chestnuts). I played it twice during the night. I also sight-read a few Christmas tunes from my fake book. I didn't like the way they came out -- I actually missed a few melody notes, which is not a good thing to do on such recognizable tunes -- but I followed Eric Leinsdorf's advice: "You must start well and end well; if you do that, the audience will forgive you for whatever you may do in the middle."

Since this was a 3-hour gig, I stretched the tunes out more than usual, did a little more single-line improv and a lot more chord-melody improv. During "Misty", a guy at the table in front of the stage (or the Christmas-package-courtroom, in this case), gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up. I don't know whether it was because it was his favorite tune, or whether he liked my playing, but either way, it was nice to see.

During the night several people said they enjoyed the music, some saying they found it "very relaxing." Good. That's what it was meant to be.

I ended the night with "Christmas Song." Bill's arrangement has a nice little tag on it: a quote from "Jingle Bells" over the progression Cma7, Fma7, Bb7#11, Cma7. Nice way to end the Jingle Bell Festival.

A nice note of thanks.

January, 2003: "Thanks for joining the Jingle Bell Festival 2002. Your music was wonderful and was just the addition we neeeded to make Saturday night's festivities special. We hoped you were pleased also and will consideer doing the same for 2003. We'll be in touch in the fall." Pat McCarthy, for the Jingle Bell Festival