Friends in the Band
Performing folk music may not seem risky. It's an established form. There aren't any stage dives. There is no smoke machine. But Girlyman faces a particular, acute challenge: Its fans demand an extraordinary level of engagement. It is not enough for them to play their instruments and sing well.
Girlyman fans are insanely devoted. Some talk about the music in almost mystical ways. "The three voices together are so moving I'm trying to find a way to bring it into a prayer service," says Lori Feldstein-Gardner, a third-year rabbinical student. (Catholics are moved too.) I've mentioned Girlyman on the Slate Gabfest, and several listeners have written to thank me for the music. "That band has brought me immeasurable joy," wrote Spencer Greenwood, "culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the US to see them play in a crowded downtown Manhattan bar."
In person, Girlyman's audiences demand a narrowing of the gap between themselves and the band. They seek an experience that seems authentic and personal. This is generally true of fans of acoustic music, which is usually performed in smaller venues. They don't like the energy to flag between songs, which is why performers stay engaged with their audiences between songs. On one live Paul Simon recording an audience member, angry the singer hasn't gotten chatty, shouts out: "Say something!" Some musicians are so good, their fans can recite the stories behind songs verbatim. Other musicians can't take on the added stress and only mumble a few sentences during an entire show. It's hard enough to expose your lyrics and singing to audience reaction. Becoming a comedian is just too much.
Girlyman has turned its stage patter into an art, joking with one another and the audience between songs. It's hard to capture how well this patter works in the moment of a live show, but listen to this clip:
After a show it may be hard for an audience member to convey to friends exactly what it was that made him or her enjoy a Girlyman show so much, in the same way it can be hard to re-create for others what made a dinner party so great. This leads to a lot of postings on their fan page of conversion stories of the previously skeptical. "My husband and friends saw immediately what I was talking about," said Andrea Hanelt O'Keefe after one show, "Now they're fans too."
Girlyman's lyrics incline toward heartbreak and confusion, so they use their onstage rapport to keep the show from getting too serious. They also do this by playing at least one unexpected cover like Loretta Lynn's "Fist City," a version of "Rock Me Amadeus" in German, or a bluegrass version of George Michael's "Father Figure."
Or they just improvise songs. Doris and Ty play in different tunings, which means there are necessary pauses while they prepare their guitars for the next song. This is one of the most regrettable things about folk music. The artist tunes, apologizes for tuning, the audience titters, and the gas goes right out of the show. Nate, who is a natural jester, fills the dead time by making up songs on the spot—topics have included the pope and antipope
The risk is that people who just want to hear music may find the chatter self-indulgent or just not funny. If you've ever tried to explain a funny experience to a roomful of people and felt that stranded feeling in the middle when you realize no one is getting the joke, you can imagine what a sustained evening of that might be like. "Who are these people who think they're so special," says Ty of herself. Reviewers of their live album on iTunes had just that complaint. The patter and tuning songs "smack of a band that thinks they are a just a little too cute," wrote one.
But the vast majority of the reviews of that live CD praise those same interludes, which means the bigger risk for the band is not being too clever but not being clever enough. They have to create something spontaneous and new and funny every night, in different towns, week after week, no matter how they are feeling. If they don't, they lose fans. As Frank Sinatra said, "An audience is like a broad. If you're indifferent, Endsville."
The greenroom at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., is larger than the entire Nightcat performance space. It feels like a suburban basement. There's an L-shaped sectional couch and just outside the room a washer-dryer. (For bands that live on the road, this is a crucial amenity.) On the wall a sign reads, "America's Greatest Music Fans await your professionalism, talent and art. We applaud your gift of music."
In the Birchmere audience is Hadar Pedhazur, a venture capitalist. Girlyman is his favorite band. He and his wife have brought 26 people with them to the show. He says it is his life's mission to get them heard and appreciated. He has the pitch down: "Extraordinary lyrics, harmonies and personalities that show warmth and humor. The shows draw you in to caring about them." Pedhazur, the founder of Opticality Ventures, is what the band refers to as a "road angel," one of the handful of people who have stepped in to help finance the band at various times when they ran out of money.