The Night The Singer Forgot The Words

Van_Gogh_-_Trauernder_alter_MannI’ve been playing guitar close to fifty years now, both solo and in bands, and outside of an occasional harmonic background “ah ah ah” or “ooo ooo ooo”, I don’t sing. First off, I’d do it badly. No English accent, no Texas twang. But more to the point, I can’t remember a lyric even when I’ve heard the tune a thousand times and the words are written on a piece of paper six inches in front of my face. It’s been an issue for me like acne on a teenage girl’s face. And then I noticed that Lucinda Williams almost always has a stand with her lyrics sitting on it while performing on stage. And Frank Sinatra, when I saw him at the Sands in Vegas right before he died, used an old fashioned floor tele-prompter that rolled the words along and for much of the show it appeared he was staring at his shoes.

Most of us who hold regular type jobs have bad days at the office, studio or store. Shit happens. You’ll make a mistake, we all do. Inevitable. Destined. Unavoidable. You ship the wrong part, give a customer a steak when they ordered fish, tell your boss you saw his wife last night at a bar with some other guy, spill red paint on the white carpet or play in the key of C while everyone else is in E. You go home, feel awful, maybe have a drink or a smoke or watch the tube and realize maybe things aren’t all that bad. Perspective is a great healer of wounds,

So let me tell you about this show I went to…

I’d been wanting to see this particular singer-songwriter-guitarist for years, and as luck would have it, the show was literally down the street from me. Not exactly a house concert, but a warm-up for an upcoming tour that just happened to be at a house turned into a beautiful venue. And only twenty bucks to get up close and personal, rather than travel later to a larger venue in the city for probably five times that. What could be bad?

The room, which I would like to note was quite lovely with a great stage set and a state of the art sound system, was packed. Twas the usual crowd for a thirty-something Americana/roots/acoustic artist these days: mostly late-fifties to early-seventies, gray hair, baggy jeans, old t-shirts and chattering about the time they saw this band or that. Everybody kew somebody that knew Pete Seeger. Everybody went to Woodstock. You know what I mean.

So after a local warm-up act who you clap extra loud and a little too long for because her parents and siblings and relatives and friends are in the audience to see her and you want to be nice, the fairly seasoned, highly talented and well regarded singer-songwriter-guitarist comes out on the stage and proceeds to play. Songs that are so beautiful you tear up. Guitar playing that one can only wish they could emulate. Vocals that are crisp, clear, on the right beat and then…oops.

They forget the words, make a joke about it. We laugh. It happens again on the next song. Another joke. We laugh even harder. This is some night we think to ourselves. Not your polished hundred buck concert in the city…but a real exchange of human frailty and emotion.

After an hour and at least six songs that get mangled and maimed, there is a hint that perhaps this singer-songwriter didn’t practice enough. Or at all. My favorite line of the evening: “C’mon…if you were going to play a concert, would you listen to your old albums to remind yourselves of the songs?”

Uh….yeah. I might have. You didn’t.

Because this artist is so good and somewhat loved, he pretty much got a pass from the audience. With each song you held your breath in anticipation of the upcoming blooper, but of the twenty or so songs in the set, he only had to stop seven times because of premature memory loss. And if you’re a baseball player, you’ll be going to the Hall of Fame with that statistic.

With all the new technology these days, I still like this old fashioned way to remember the lyrics. And take this advice…when you’re on stage and make a mistake, don’t lose your head.

“Van Gogh – Trauernder alter Mann” by Vincent van Gogh – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.