Doc Stevens on Open Mic, Stage Fright and What Songs to Pick - Part Two

Wednesday, June 24, 2015 2:45 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: This is a continuation of the discussion that Doc, Big Dave and I had about  open mics, and how to do them better, even WHY to do them in the first place, and any and every other tip that came up.

Doc: When you get a new song that you think people would like - and it ain't just you that's gotta like it, you got to be thinkin' about your audience. Are they gonna be able to like that song from the first couple of bars they hear? 

You don't never want to play a song that it takes people a while to figure out if they like it or not. It's got to be one that from the moment they hear it, they like it.

I got a lot of songs what I like and might sing by myself, or with a couple of friends, but I would never play
them in front of an audience. Like we play "downhome" music - that mix of blues and gospel and country and rockabilly. That's what I like and play in public. But sometimes Marilyn might want to sing some song what isn't that kind of music, She'll nag me and nag me 'til I play it along with her. It could be anything, of any kind of music. But we ain't playin' it in public.

Tondeleo: What would be an example of a song like that, Doc?

Doc: Well, she might like to sing that song "Blue Bayou" by that Linda Rondstadt girl. It ain't our kind of music what we play, but it's a good song. Marilyn been singin' that since she was maybe 12 or 13. She got it inside her, so she could sing that anywhere anytime.  But we ain't playin it as part of a show. But we could, 'cause we got it inside.

Tondeleo: So why don't you sing it in public? 

Doc: Well, whatever music you play, people think of you a certain way. You kinda got to stick with that. We pretty much don't play anything newer than about 1954. We do that "downhome" music.  We ain't a cover band. Anything from the sixties is too new, 'specially if it was a hit. Now there is some songs what was wrote in the 60's but sounded like they was old and if they sound right, we'll do 'em. Some of what we do is "B" sides of songs what was hits. But they had to be songs what I liked from the first couple of notes. Then if I start to play one of 'em in front of my friends, they had to like it from the first couple of notes. And it has to SOUND like something we'd do. 

Tondeleo: Are you saying that it has something to do with your image? 

Doc: I guess. Basically, you got to look like what you sound like and sound like what you look like. If you look like just regular workin' folk like we do, then you need to sound like that. It would be crazy to sound like Elvis Presley or someone smooth and sophisticated. We're down to earth. The way we sound is just the way we sound. People ask where did we get our sound. That is just what it sounds like when we play guitars and sing.

I think everybody sings and plays things that's from another kind of music than what they might play in public. Country guys might sing heavy metal, or hip hop or jazz or whatever. Hippety hop guys might sing smooth jazz or gospel or whatever in private. But not in public.

Tondeleo: Now, you mentioned that Marilyn sings newer stuff at home.Specifically you mentioned Blue Bayou. Say, if she got dressed up in city clothes, and you did, too, would that song measure up in terms of being a song that people would like from the first few notes?

Doc: Well, yeah. An' if we didn't use our real names! I ain't goin' out there with my real name and play some kind of pop music or somethin'! But as for that Blue Bayou song, as soon as you hear the first couple of bars of it, you like that song. It's got a good beat, got a good sound to it and is easy to sing along with. It's a simple song, good tune. It passes every test of a song what  person could do in public an' people would like it and sing along, tap their feet and clap their hands to it. It's a great song, if you got it inside you.

We sang that song in Hawaii an' people liked it.

Tondeleo: HAWAII??? Are you SURE? You went to Hawaii? Do you even know where it is? 

Doc: Yeah, we went to Hawaii. Last year when you was  out there in that England. Someone paid for us to go out there, not the whole band, just me an' Marilyn. We got on an aeroplane and flew there. It took like all day to get there. But there wasn't no girls in grass skirts and coconuts though. It was real nice over there, an' the people out there was real nice to us. We was out there a couple of weeks an' then came home. We met a lot of people an' played a lot of songs. Marilyn gots some pictures from there she can give you. We can talk about it later. Not now.

Tondeleo: Why didn't you SAY something about going to Hawaii? That's fantastic. 

Doc: I was sort of 'barrassed about it. I hadn't never been there before an' wasn't used to it. I was afraid you'd ask me questions what I don't know the answer to. Them people wear flip flops an' Hawaiian shirts all the time, but they just call 'em shirts. We can talk about it later, Tondy. Not now. Get back to open mic. I know a little about that.

Tondeleo: Ok, so how about stage fright, Doc? How does a person avoid that?

Doc: By bein' too dumb to be scared! That's one way. Another way is if you are nearsighted, don't wear your glasses. Then you can't see nobody. Third is to know what you're plain' well enough that you aren't using your mind, but just playin' out of your heart. Like, you have played it and sang it so many times you can do it all automatically without thinkin'. That's what we done in Hawaii. We ain't know nobody out there, an' they all looked at us like we was from outer space or somethin'.

But, like, if you know the song is a good one and people are gonna love it, and you've done it so many times you can do it with your eyes closed, then they ain't nothin' to be scared of.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Don't try to sound like the person who made the song famous. You'll never sound like them, all you will sound like is you tryin' to sound like someone else. Then who are you gonna sound like for the next song? You wanna listen to the original just enough to kind of learn it. Then start playin' it and never listen to the original. By and by, you'll have changed a bit here and a bit there, and soon it will sound like you and not like the other person. Now, nobody has anything to compare you with, like "hey, on the second verse, you forgot to sing out your nose like Bob Dylan did when he sang that song."

Well, if I learnt that song 20 years ago and ain't  listened to it since then, I aint gonna sound like him on ANY verse! I'm gonna sound like Doc Stevens and Marilyn is gonna sound like Marilyn. And nobody is better at that than us! 'Specially over to that Hawaii.

Doc Stevens on Open Mic, Stage Fright and What Songs to Pick - Part One

Thursday, June 18, 2015 10:25 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas
Tondeleo: Sorry for the lack of blogs for more than a month. I have been on travel and then on holiday (Bognor Regis of all places! I travel everywhere for work and then stay close to home for holiday) and then had to deal with a backlog of work when I returned.

I asked Doc to take me to a local open mic so we could talk a bit about what it takes to do an open mic, and why would a person do them, as well as why would a person not do them. It so happened that Big Dave was performing at an open mic in Northern Virginia so we hopped in Doc's pick up and drove over.

Some of the performers were quite good, and others, well, one could tell that they really did not have any where else that they could get an audience to listen to them.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation we had about it: 

Tondeleo: Doc, that girl up there right now really seems nervous and doesn't seem to know her songs very well... and the audience is getting fidgety, which makes her more nervous, you can tell.

Doc: Well, she's probably in the worst three conditions you can have when doin' open mic... other than bein' crazy high or stupid drunk, which she isn't. 

First, she ain't used to bein' in front of a audience. She can't help that. She's facin' that fear right now, and the only way to get over it is to just do it. She's doin' it.

Second, she don't know that song real well yet. You can tell she's tryin' to get the chords just right, and the words just right, and hit all the notes just right. She ain't playin, she's workin.' And that takes all the energy out of it.

If she'll play that song till she's sick of it, then she can concentrate on the performing of it. 

Third, she's not used to that guitar yet. She just said she got it for her birthday on Tuesday. It don't have her vibes in it yet. She ain't got her sweat into the fingerboard yet. She is still tryin' to get familiar with it, and find where everything is. You can't be doing that in public!

When you get a new guitar, you want to play it all you can in private. Then with a few friends. In public, play your old one til your new one is soaked with your vibes and your fingers are familiar with it and where everything is.

You won't do good if you're scared, doin' a new song and tryin' to break in a new guitar at the same time.

Pretty much, you got to play that song over and over, and sing it over and over till it's in your heart. Play it in the dark, or with your eyes closed so you don't have to keep bending your head over to look at your neck and figure out where you are. Ain't nobody want to look at the top of your head or your right ear while you're up there s'posed to be singin' and playin'.

Like with Big Dave, when he gets up. He does a real good show. He's been doin' those songs for years and years, and can sing 'em in his sleep. In fact he DOES sing them in his sleep. I done heard him do it. He ain't thinkin', he ain't rememberin', he's just letting it flow. That is the most important thing, right there, Tondy.

I was talkin' to a guy backstage an' he was tellin' me that he was gonna do three songs what he's been learnin' THIS WEEK! He said he was nervous. One of them he only so-called "learned" it last night! He WILL mess it up, Tondy! It ain't inside him! He'll be tryin' to remember the words and tryin' to sing, and tryin' to play, and he ain't got NONE of it down! And he DESERVES to be nervous about bringin' that to an audience! But he ain't played long enough to even know that.

Tondeleo: How do you know when you have it down well enough to play it in public?

Doc: When you've played it so many times that you're sick of it. When you think, "if I have to play this one one more time, I'm gonna throw up." That's when you probably got it down well enough that you can perform it. Otherwise, it's disrespectin' your audience. Don't go out there and try to "learn" on them. Get up there and pour out for them what you have stored up in your heart. Then you will feel comfortable and they will feel comfortable. If YOU ain't comfortable, they sure as heck ain't gonna be comfortable. And if they ain't comfortable, you haven't entertained them."

Boils down to this: NO new songs. New to the audience, YES, but new to you, NO!

No new guitars what you ain't broke in good yet. Don't play with brand new strings. Give 'em a couple of days or a week if you can. That first day, they'll still be stretchin' and goin' out of tune.

Play your new guitar at home by yourself and then with friends, til it plays like an old friend. Then it's ready to be played in public. You don't see ANY professionals playin' instruments what they just got the day before! Most of them play old guitars what you can tell are years and years old. There's a reason for that. They can afford any guitar they want, but they are experienced enough to play the one that's got their vibe in it.

That guitar what Big Dave is playin' tonight has been with him for years! It was old when he got it! I think it is like a 1967 or maybe even older. It is filled with vibes, and he knows that thing inside and out. I remember when he first got it though. He didn't play it in public. He played the mess out of it at home, and over to my house, and other friends' houses.

I guarantee you he had maybe 500 hours with that thing before he played it in public. That's the way you do it right.