Last night I played a solo gig for the first time in a lonnnggggg time. Years ago, I did the solo thing a lot but every since I began to perform with my daughter Alexis about 15 years ago, I've found myself playing the role of backing up a singer. Being a side player is a very different experience. It truly is a supportive role. You listen to the singer and wrestle with a song that is the singer's choice, trying to enhance his or her performance. It is a unique discipline to give your talents and skills for another's art. The upside is that you are responsible primarily to the singer rather than the audience. If a mistake is made or there was something lacking in the choice of material, that falls back on the singer. At the same time, to some degree you lose the joy of making your own choices. When backing up a singer, I clearly play my style, but there is always the possibility of the singer vetoing something that I feel works well.
As a solo performer, you are responsible for everything - the choice of material, the pater between songs, and all of the aspects of the performance. There is nobody else to blame for anything that doesn't work. All of that adds up to serious nerves for me.
In the two years plus of producing the Cambridge Drive Concert Series I have paid serious attention to which acts seemed to connect the most deeply with the audience. While depth of songwriting, skill of playing their instrument, and quality of a voice all count for something, that was only part of the picture. The best musicians and the best songwriters did not necessarily make for the best performances. There is an intangible connection that characterizes some performances that really makes a special time. The audience has an experience that enriches their lives. The best performers consistently enable that kind of experience.
You'll have to ask someone who was in the audience whether I was able to create that kind of experience. I do have to say that I felt that my guitar playing has been better when playing behind someone else. Still, I felt very good about what happened. I'll keep at it and try to do some more solo gigs.