January 26, 2017 - Duquesne University

It seems odd to start blogging about a project some 15 years after its creation.  

But these are the circumstances: this post is about the 208th performance of my one-man musical retelling of Homer's Odyssey, a piece most of which was written in late 2001.

Chronicling the performances of my Odyssey in writing is something I sometimes wish I would have done from the beginning, especially now that I'm working on a book about my quest to perform it in all 50 states (I'm at 31 states as of this post with 3 new states booked before next school year) but there's also a part of me that appreciates writing about the first 200 or so with only my memories and some scattered documentation and relics as my guides.  

Oral tradition embraces the subjectivity of its mouthpiece (and its audience) and I'm not sure I was ready to start to commit my story to something more fixed (as fixed as a blog is) until now.  

I've also enjoyed (and benefited in some sense) from keeping what I do and how I do it fairly anonymous: in a digital world ever-populated with the sharing of even the most mundane details of people's lives through social media, I feel like through The Odyssey I've been able to live in an older time characterized by legendary mysterious peripatetic performers: somewhere between Homer and Robert Johnson (only with air travel and nice hotels).

Because I plan to write about every show I perform from here forward, I need to fight the urge to try to tell my whole story in this first post.  I'm also hoping this blog will help me organically develop my writing voice as I've struggled to find it in the formalized process of writing a book.  

2017 is a little strange in that I have only a couple of Odyssey performances in the first quarter of the year. Starting in April there is a much, much more extensive schedule, and I'm really looking forward to writing about that period of activity: there will be much opportunity to chronicle new experiences while reflecting on past performances as well, as I hit a stretch with more numerous shows and vigorous travel.

So for this post, a little straightforward story about my first Odyssey performance of 2017, my first in almost exactly two months.

As my performance schedule has gotten more complicated over the last few years, I've taken my share of early flights and suffered through some brutal stretches of "up-before-dawn" mornings.  Luckily, for this one-off show in Pittsburgh at Duquesne University, I was able to structure civil travel: a 9:00 a.m. flight out of O'Hare, which is a simple 30 minute train ride for me on the Blue Line.  The other benefit of a one-off is that I can travel light: a gym bag's worth of clothes and equipment, and my guitar.  Mix in the blessing of TSA Pre-Check (the true Theodore, Gift of the Gods) and I arrive in Pittsburgh after a hassle-free morning of travel.

A driver in a beautiful silver Mercedes (arranged by my host at the University) picks me up and during the 25 minute ride to downtown Pittsburgh I'm treated to some excellent local enthusiasm about the city: I immediately feel at home in its rejuvenated Midwest industrial atmosphere and can see why the Batman franchise was able to split itself between Chicago and Pittsburgh.  

Local trivia: Pittsburgh has the most bridges of any city in the world (almost 500).  So, there's that.

I'm dropped off at the downtown Cambria Suites, also arranged by my host, a hotel far superior to anything I would ever book for myself.  One of the things I value the most about my Odyssey is the hospitality I receive.  Compared to the way I travel for regular original music gigs (long drives, Super 8 motels, limited nutrition) my Odyssey has afforded me a "travel-to-perform" lifestyle almost comparable to that of a major label musician: airplane flights, chauffeurs, nice hotels or even university guest houses, excellent food and drink. Again, another way in which I seem to live an in-between life of my own making when it comes to The Odyssey.

After some down time at the hotel, I'm picked up by the Duquesne department chair of Classics, another colleague in the department, and the department coordinator, for an excellent lunch near the campus of Pitt, with its imposing "Cathedral of Learning" building hanging over the restaurant.  I learn the Cathedral of Learning is over 40 stories, the tallest education-related building the country, and a contemporary of the post-WWI Wrigley Building.

Following the lunch, we head to campus so I can see the performance space and get set up. I'll be in the Genesius Theatre, an excellent black box space that holds about 100 people.  It's a nice sounding room: not quite as live as I generally prefer but acoustically detail oriented.  Additionally, the tech director is fantastic and prepared for my simple but specific demands.  Set up is easy and performing without a microphone or amplification means soundcheck is just running a couple minutes of the performance so the tech director can set lights.

After soundcheck, I return to the hotel to get cleaned up and rest for an hour before being picked up and shuttled back to campus.  I double check my set up, make some tea with honey, and do some easy vocal warmups in my dressing room.  Just like that, it's 7:00 and show time. The room is about 3/4 full, a nice turnout for a cold rainy January Thursday, and seemingly filled with a mix of students currently studying The Odyssey, classics majors,  and faculty.  A brief introduction from my host, a brief introduction of my own, and I'm off and into my 30 minutes of song.

My voice is worn from morning air travel but I feel good about the performance, especially given the layoff: I don't generally practice The Odyssey much but I have been singing quite a bit in anticipation of a February EP release show for my original solo EP Record of Loss, and my voice feels relaxed and easy.  I've learned that these isolated shows can be a bit challenging: I'm at my best when I'm doing The Odyssey a number of days in a row and I can really build off of each performance.  But this one is good and I find a couple new musical things to explore (more on this in later posts).  

Following the musical portion of the program, I open the floor to audience questions and they are eager to discuss what I've just performed, in fact my host says that despite Duquesne's reputation as having reticent students, this was the most engaged and animated she'd ever seen a group of students in a discussion. The tech director confides in me later that he had several questions prepared just in case the audience was too timid but he didn't need to jump in: we easily fill 20 minutes with a conversation around my romantic portrayal of a hero who often gets maligned for his (by modern standards) ethical shortcomings.

Following the Q & A we adjourn to an adjacent room for a catered reception in honor of my performance, attended by maybe 40 of the audience members. I autograph a beautiful show poster and continue the conversation with students and faculty, of particular note a student who is Greek by nationality and is effusive about how I represented the most important story of his heritage.

After a ride back to the hotel, I grab a seat at the mostly empty bar and watch the end of the hockey game while nursing a beer. A guy sits down next to me and we begin to chat: his name is Donny, he's from Georgia, lives in North Carolina, and he's at the hotel for a work meeting (he manages call centers). He's an identical triplet, divorced, two kids. This is an aspect of traveling for The Odyssey that I have come to love over the years: meeting people I would never otherwise meet and hearing their stories. After we finish our beers, I try to excuse myself but he proposes another beer and a shot.  Which I oblige. And an hour later we're still chatting and drinking. 

I finally excuse myself, eyeing the 11:30 time and noting my 5:45 a.m. wake up call and 6:30 a.m. pick up.

A quick rest and reassembly of my travel bag and I'm back into a car at dawn headed to the airport and being regaled by another driver about the redevelopment of Pittsburgh with tech money and speculation on natural gas.  Back through TSA Pre-Check, I grab a bagel and coffee and board the plane at 8:00.  Another eventless flight and I'm back on the ground in Chicago almost exactly 24 hours after I left.

This trip and show had a bit of everything I get from the Odyssey: the blur of travel, the intrigue of a new place, the energy of brief but intense personal connections with strangers both in the context of my host and outside of it, the uncertainty of the venue, the surprising calm of the performance followed by the thrill of reacting to unexpected questions and lines of thought and being challenged to integrate new ideas into a story I know better than I know my own... 

That's my Odyssey.

Much more to come.

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