My afternoon with Brian Vander Ark
A few weeks ago, I got an email newsletter from Brian Vander Ark. You may know of him as the former lead singer and songwriter for The Verve Pipe, a Michigan band from the 90s that had a Billboard #1 called "The Freshmen" in 1997. Brian has been solo for a couple years now, and has released two studio albums and two live recordings. His email says he's signed up "legendary producer Bill Szymczyk" to produce his third studio album. Mr. Szymczyk produced "Hotel California" for the eagles, among others.
But the bad news - touring the country in the air stream with his pianist, his wife, and his 2 year old child, was more about building a fan base than making money, so he had no money to record the new album.
His solution - an unusual one to say the least - was to spend the months of July and August playing in living rooms and at back yard BBQs - birthday parties and family gatherings of his most dedicated fans. Dedicated in that they'd be willing to fork out some $$ for him to do so.
Yesterday afternoon was my turn. Brian had scheduled 2 shows in this area, so he flew into RDU from Grand Rapids, rented a car and got a hotel room near the airport... then headed out to my mom's house in Fuquay-Varina (about 10 miles south of Raleigh). For me, it was a birthday party - but I really didn't need an excuse. Those of you who know me know that I've been spouting off about The Verve Pipe - and Brian - since 1993. After getting a little mixed up thanks to mapquest, and with some help on the phone from me, he found his way out to the house around 4 o'clock. I gave him the tour, he talked with some family members, enjoyed my dad's huge garden train (his setup is probably around 3000 square feet!). We started the show around 4:30. Brian brought only an overnight bag and his Gibson guitar. He sat in a chair on the patio, and we all sat in lawn chairs nearby, or on the stairs up to the house. Brian played for about an hour, being interrupted between songs by my daughters fascination with his guitar (he let her strum it a few times and was very good natured about it).
After he was done playing - around 5:30, I lit up the grill and started pulling meat out of the cooler. After Brian saw the package of Beddar Cheddar smoked sausages, his eyes got wide and he exclaimed how good they were, so I offered him one, and he naturally accepted. He played another song or two while I was cooking, and then we worked on getting him some directions to his next gig in Chapel Hill, which was at 7 o'clock. Finally got him on his way around 6:15pm, and I guess he made it to Chapel Hill about 5 minutes late.
It was one of the coolest experiences of my life, and worth every penny of the $$$ it cost me to have him come down and play.
On his web site, he wrote the following in his journal entry after doing several such shows last weekend:
after this amazing weekend, i have such little desire to go out and bang my head on the wall in places that could care less that i was there. this is a DRUG. this is what it should be about. it's just music, being played on an acoustic guitar. why do we need a stage, and lights and amplification? why do we need that seperation between performer and crowd? i get very little satisfaction out of it. i don't need to be four feet above everyone's head as i play. just give me a living room, and chair, and some fans, and i'm the happiest songwriter, ex-rockstar that ever lived.
You could argue that playing birthday parties is lame. I think, if some musician played private parties only for teenage girls whose rich parents could afford it.. well, that might be lame. But you can't read the above comments and not have anything but great respect for him - and his reasonings for doing these shows.
Only you know what great music is. Don't let recording executives or corporate radio statiosn tell you what's great.
I'll be posting pictures from the party soon - respond to this blog entry if you'd like to see them. Make sure you click the "subscribe" button when you reply.