Galileo, the new song and youtube video by McShane & Shaw, arrives on Thursday October 21. It’s quite different to our first video: Your Car’s Too Big and we hope you enjoy it.
Please subscribe to our youtube channel so that you don’t miss this – plus many more treats that we have in the works for you.
The recording of Galileo benefitted from the excellent acoustics of Thurlstone Church. Not only was this the place where I wrote the song about Father David our local vicar but it’s also where I attended many musical functions as a child, notably to see the wonderful Thurlstone Hand-bell Orchestra.
But there are pros and cons to performing unamplified and today I offer some of my thoughts on the subject:
My duo McShane and Shaw waited 2 years to play the Carlile Institute in Meltham. Due to covid our initial gig in March 2020 got rescheduled for September 2021 – a full 18 months later. And the new date has been looming ever larger in our sights like an approaching, but welcome, asteroid.
I’d never been to the Carlile Institute but Mr Pepper, the booker, assured me that the acoustics in the 130-year-old building were so good that we certainly would not need a sound system. This was music to my ears. For, when they work, they are the happiest of performances, combining intimate audience connection with complete freedom of movement: no electrical setup, no technical problems and a completely natural sound. In fact I love acoustic gigs so much that a part of me wants to stipulate that all my future performances must be presented in places that support acoustic playing. It’s a nice idea and, most likely, an impossible dream:
Around 2008 or 2009 a group of us in the teaching/performing faculty at the Portland Ukulele Festival were bemoaning the fact that modern audiences no longer know how to listen. As a group we grumbled that audiences of today are so used to hearing a beefed-up amplified sound that the natural quality of acoustic music has come to sound wrong.
I have to credit Del Rey for putting the talk into action by going onstage before a packed theatre at Reed College, Portland to do her set without a microphone. The theatre, with its low stage and raked seating, ensured there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Sight and sound lines were excellent. Del explained to the audience that she’d be playing without a mic. I was near the back and could hear her speech and her playing clearly enough. But many in the audience were not happy.
Irate would be a better word. I was surprised at the level of anger when some people shouted, “We can’t hear, use a mic!”
Whereas I was happy to participate in Del’s listening experiment (after all, her 1920’s and 30’s ragtime and blues tunes are perfectly suited for acoustic playing) you could also argue that I had not shelled out for a ticket. Those with genuine hearing difficulties, plus others who felt they had paid good money to hear everything with crystal clarity probably felt cheated with anything less. Either way, the experiment was abandoned and, even though the other performers and I supported the idea, no-one else attempted to go un-amplified.
In his autobiography, It Ain’t Necessarily So, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler wrote about his own amazement that in the 1920’s he would play harmonica in front of a full orchestra without a microphone. It just shows how different the audience expectation of the audio experience was in those days. They did not expect him to be loud so they listened with all their might. (It also helped that harmonicas are surprisingly loud and distinctive: playing notes outside the range of most orchestral instruments. When you watch our video of Galileo on October 21 you’ll hear the harmonica as clear as a bell above the other instruments.)
Being able to perform in a lovely acoustic space for a rapt and attentive audience hardly ever happens anymore. The world has become a noisy place and the luxury of peace and quiet is rare. Nowadays the audio competition includes cars, buses, aeroplanes, A/C units, generators, refrigerators, coffee machines and a population accustomed to thinking of all music as a soundtrack to their conversations. And the louder these things get, the louder the people around them get, resulting in a general cacophony that simply didn’t exist a century ago when the loudest sound would have been the clip-clop of the iceman’s delivery horse.
The fact is that amplification is now a necessary ingredient for most live-music. Last Saturday I performed in a small local pub but, because inebriated adults can be far noisier than overactive kindergarten children, it would have been impossible without a loudspeaker to lend a measure of control over the convivial racket.
As a street performer, at Vancouver’s Granville Island, I tried both acoustic and amplified playing, but it was no contest. Trying to be heard as an unamplified act was exhausting and profitless. People could barely hear me and didn’t care to try. I discovered that being amplified improved both my enjoyment of playing and my income.
This principle held true for most acts except for fiddle players. Violins have the advantages of being both very loud and visually engaging. If you can play the infernal thing, it really is the perfect busking instrument. It holds a high value in public perception as being virtuosic while simultaneously looking really cool. The intent lopsided look of the violinist’s face as the bow flies around make it such a spectacle that few instruments (except for maybe bagpipes) can compete with it.
If a violinist and a harmonica player of comparable skill went busking, I know the violinist would make by far the most money because: a) people generally have a sense of how difficult violin is to play but hardly a clue about the surprising trickiness of harmonica playing and b) it looks so darned exciting. The poor harmonica player has little, in the way of eye-candy, to offer: other than giving the appearance of someone blowing warm air into their hands.
And sometimes there comes a point when the audience has switched channels and tuned you out completely that there is nothing you can do about it – even with amplification. It’s tempting, as a musician, to take it personally when the audience has forgotten you’re even there. You try every trick and tune in your repertoire to break the invisibility spell but nothing works. This is when only the most serious of interventions will have the desired effect.
Like the time I was asked to entertain at the birthday party of a wealthy Welsh investor called Bryn in the pub that he owned. (I heard that he didn’t have a decent local pub so he built his own.) My act started off okay but, as often happens at parties, a few guests started chatting which gave implicit permission for others to talk. Except for Bryn. He sat, resolute, staring fixedly towards me.
All at once he stood up and looked around at his guests. All talk ceased as Bryn began to speak,
“When I was a small boy in Wales there would often be some form of entertainment. And, while the entertainment was being enjoyed, no-one spoke. That’s because we had respect for the entertainer. And I would thank you to do the same now.”
I’ll never forget the articulate emphasis with which he drew out the word respect. Bryn’s tone of voice was direct and firm. The sort of voice you don’t argue with – and no-one did. My face, serious and respectful, belied the fact that, on the inside, I was cheering and shouting, “Yes!”
An X-ray of my chest at that moment would have shown my heart doing a valiant fist-pump. His relatives and friends sat wide-eyed and silent as Bryn urged me to, “Please carry on.”
Never mind that he owned the pub. He’s a hero in my memory forever because of how he owned that glorious moment when he taught some people how to have respect for the entertainer.