Each year, when UT AMS returns to campus for the fall, we ask our faculty and graduate students to report on their summer activities. First up is doctoral student Nick Bloom who toured the country with his band Bold Forbes. You can check Bold Forbes out at boldforbesmusic.com and stream their new album, High Time, on Spotify and Apple Music. Here’s Nick’s thoughts on “Defensible Reasons for a Fiddle Solo”:
My three-piece folk band drove into Providence, Rhode Island three hours before showtime on a powder blue June evening. Here is what we decided we knew about Providence: the Italian mafia has historically controlled Providence; the Italian mafia owns restaurants as fronts; therefore, there must be good pasta and pizza in Providence.
“We will have to get some pasta, or at least some pizza,” said the fiddle player from the backseat. I nodded hard. The bass player next to me had regrettably moved on from thinking about Italian food, and was instead wondering aloud if anyone would be at our show that night, since we really didn’t know anyone in Providence.
I wasn’t worried about people coming to our show, because we had had pretty good luck on the tour so far. The night before we had played to a mostly full house at Club Passim, a legendary basement folk club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For four years we had been emailing Passim to get a show, and for some reason somebody decided to email us back last winter to let us know they’d take a chance on us.
Even though it turned out to be a Monday night show, it still felt a little bit like Moving On Up. This is mostly because there was a pleasantly decorated green room with free beer and salmon burgers for the artists; also, because we had lots of friends and family in the Boston area who came to our show to make it feel full, and so did the artist sharing the bill with us (fellow performing artists, please raise your voices in prayer: God Bless Our Friends and Family).
But there were also people who came to Passim that evening just because it was Passim. All the way from Green Bay, Wisconsin, an older man had come with his four sons-in-law to fulfill a lifelong dream of seeing live folk music at Club Passim. He bought a bunch of our CDs and told me, “the talent here hasn’t dropped off since Joni and Dylan were here.” Statements such as this, in the context of a famous folk basement, are liable to make a musician believe that no show he or she subsequently plays would dare go unattended.
Downtown Providence on a Tuesday night is the kind of place that can transform such optimistic notions into the stuff of the very worst supermarket sheet cakes. Mere moments after the substance enters you, as you find yourself both more nauseous and hungrier than before, you cannot believe your critical discernment of reality has failed you so.
So did my glory dreams seem to me—like a stale glittery supermarket sheet cake—against the backdrop of a weekday summer evening in downtown Providence.
Firstly, there was the landscape of downtown Providence itself: all sorts of buildings and streets and signs, i.e. the trappings of human community, but with hardly a human in sight. I thought, “this reminds me of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.” I feel great love for Harrisburg because I grew up near there, but there is not a city in this universe that wants to be compared to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Secondly, the pizza: the slices we bought from the corner market down the street from the venue were comparable to—perhaps worse than—the average slice of pizza in Austin, Texas. I have no love for the average pizza slice in Austin, Texas, and nor should anybody else.
Finally, the venue itself: set in a downtown backstreet row of office buildings, half of which were vacant, the venue resided on top of what appeared to be the most popular business on the block, a tattoo parlor.
Once we climbed the dirt-streaked gray linoleum steps to the venue’s entrance, we discovered that it was a capacious room, and almost all of it was painted black: the walls, the stage, the pool table, the arcade games, the bar.
“Most of what goes on here is metal, hard and dark kind of stuff,” the soundperson told me when he saw the fiddle player pull out his fiddle. He grimaced a little and said, “You guys might be the first acoustic act to get on stage here.”
We weren’t, because there were two acts before us, and they were both acoustic acts. The first to play was a relatively well-known singer-songwriter in Providence, and I wondered whether or not the people who came to see him would stick around for the next two acts.
This turned out to be futile question because nobody came to see him.
In the middle of his set, my old childhood friend from the Harrisburg area, who now lives in Providence, strolled solo into the venue and I said a very enthusiastic hello. In the ensuing two hours, nobody would follow her in. (Fellow performing artists, I again ask you to pray: May the Gifts of Happiness and Abundance Flow unto Our Friends and Family).
We listened to the first two performances and danced with ludicrous smiles and free beers. Nobody said, “hey, we’re about to play a show to one person.” The soundperson dutifully sound-checked each band, wearing a confidently concerned expression.
Then it was our turn to play.
Here is what getting on stage to play a folk music show to one person in a heavy metal club in Providence feels like: it feels like drinking two large beers without having eaten anything but a bad slice of pizza, the sun is just setting and burning the whole sky an indecent pink-orange, and you know you shouldn’t feel this free and full because soon you will realize that nothing, nothing constructive is occurring. In fact, you’ve already realized this, and also something else: there is no good reason to put on a musical performance. Ever. Not one defensible reason.
“Excessive, excessive, excessive…” I thought as the fiddle cut a gloriously surprising and meandering solo, an absolutely exhilarating sound which nobody besides a bartender, a soundperson, four musicians, and my friend from the Harrisburg area would ever hear; the powerful stage lights making me feel so shiny; amps stacked up three meters high so that the bartender half a football field away could feel like she was swimming through our rhythms; “…really excessive.” A shameful bounty.
Even though we cost the venue money that night, the soundperson handed us twenty dollars on the way out, and fiddle licks danced out of his eyes. We all went to a place informally known as the Home of Rhode Island’s Best Hot Wieners, because everyone including Yelp said it was the best place still open in Providence. We ate chili dogs and chili fries, and I felt smooth and warm as a piece of sea-glass on an early-evening beach in the summer.