I don’t get nervous for shows very much anymore, especially Odyssey shows. I’ve done it so many times (over 240) and in front of so many different types of audiences that I’m generally confident in my ability to win over and hold the attention of a room.
That being said, I was nervous for my Humanities West performance.
I was scheduled right in the middle of a program that featured 5 college professors lecturing on everything from politics to poetry to the architecture of Archaic Greece (the time generally framed as roughly 800 - 500 BCE). The relevance of my performance is that Homer is widely believed to have lived around 750 BCE and the writing system that comes into being around this time is the reason we have The Odyssey.
I was the only non-Ph.d. holder on the program and I would be introduced by Stanford Professor Richard Martin, considered one of the foremost experts on Homer and Greek epic.
So I was a little on edge as I warmed my voice up in the beautiful Marines' Memorial Theatre on Saturday afternoon as the attendees of the program returned from lunch and gathered in the lobby.
The space was gorgeous: the only bit on concern to me was that the sight-lines didn't allow for a stage monitor. As I sound checked though, even without a monitor, I could hear my voice with almost perfect articulation bouncing off the back wall and then coming to rest hovering somewhere in the middle of the hall. I've learned that I need to have some sort of physical visualization of where my voice is when I sing through a microphone: it helps me to feel as if the whole PA system and even the whole room is part of my singing apparatus.
This brought to mind a beautiful extended passage in Neil Young's autobiography "Waging Heavy Peace" in which he writes about performing at Farm Aid in Kansas City in 2011.
Some singers today use in-ear monitors and listen to their voices pretty loud directly in their ears. I don't do this. I love to hear the sound of the hall, the echo off the walls, and the sound of the instruments onstage blending together... The night before the Farm Aid show, I had a sound check... there was so much echo that I really couldn't hear too well and the monitors sounded really harsh in my ears... so I asked Mark Humphreys to just turn off the monitors completely, which not many musicians feel comfortable doing. All I could hear was echo now, just the sound of the stadium. I sang "Sugar Mountain." Actually it sounded good to my ears; notes just lasted forever. I tried my harmonica. It was like floating on air. The echo was amazing... So the next day at the show, when I was watching everyone play, adjusting their monitors all the time, trying to find a good sound and struggling, I used no monitors at all... there was something about that set that still haunts me. I was ready for the echo. The sound was like I was in another world. Every note just hung there in space. I drew them out and felt them all lingering and fading... the place was not that great of a venue, really. It had everything going against it until I stopped fighting it and dropped the onstage monitors. When I did that, it was like the gates of heaven swung open. I swear the sound was like being in a hallowed place.
I had this passage in my head as I walked out to applause following a generous introduction from Professor Martin.
I sat down with my guitar and though I knew my time was tightly scheduled, I decided to say a few words before I started singing.
I could hear my voice sitting just above the audience as I said "Over the course of several hundred shows, I've learned that the three things you need for a performance are a performer, an audience, and a space. We're lucky enough to be gathered in a space today that is a memorial to soldiers lost at war. This could not be more appropriate: the Homeric poems were themselves memorials to soldiers lost both at war and trying to get home from war. It's an incredible honor to perform a memorial in a memorial."
With that I was off. The material and the space merged into one just as the hall became an extension of my voice. I was doing what Neil did and I felt the gates of heaven open up and I felt the hallowed nature of the place I was in, physically and spiritually.
My performance came to an end.
The last harmonic floated in the middle of the hall and seemed to go on forever.
I bowed and was called back on stage for another bow.
As Neil said, it was like I was in another world.