On the Northern Beat

By Jan Peterson

This year I missed the Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival, and you know it would take something extraordinary for me to miss that! Yep, flu. Like so many others in Colorado and around the world, this flu season got to me with an exceptionally debilitating form of the annual infection.

For me, it all started in Denver, where I was exposed to many more potential flu-carriers than I am used to—living in semi-isolation in the mountains does have its advantages. I was at a convention, complete with speakers, panel discussions, open-bar social mixers, and post-banquet entertainment. Usually, these events have either an “inspirational speaker,” or a band for post-banquet entertainment; in the past, I have attended some that had bluegrass bands including folks I know. I anticipated “the usual.”

As I was sinking emotionally and physically, coming down with the flu, I along with the thousands of other convention-goers attended the event’s main banquet where a musician—a solitary troubadour, entertained us. Listed in the meeting agenda as “Joe Stoddard, Entertainer,” it was a surprise to me when he walked onto the stage with his guitar. I thought “entertainer” would be different than “musician.” But I settled in, fighting nausea and the urge to flee, in the hopes that I could learn something from this musical “entertainer,” or simply enjoy his music.

He had white hair, and a pedigree read by the event’s MC, as Joe stood off to the side during his introduction, of having played with a number of California bands dating back into the ‘60s, that he wrote some songs for. So I figured that it would be natural for him to have evolved into a solo singer-songwriter act. 

He was addressing an audience pre-conditioned with liberal applications of free liquor (always good for a live performing act), but we were totally unprepared for what transpired. This “entertainer” broke through my growing delirium to elicit an intense reaction from me, and everyone else in the audience. Much to my surprise, he evoked one of humanity’s most powerful emotional responses: laughter!

Because he was not just a musician, but also a stand-up comic of a musician!

On his first number, he foreshadowed the remainder of his show by talking directly to the audience as he strummed his guitar creating “background noise.” He asked what genre of music folks wanted him to play, and his well-rehearsed solution to the inevitable cacophony of audience responses was to claim a split between country music and rock & roll, with maybe a few sprinkles of folk thrown in.

So he went to work.  I can’t remember or describe everything he did, but a few of the more memorable moments stand out. He did mention that almost all love songs from the ‘50s used the same 4-chord progression (think “Oh, Donna”), which he proceeded to demonstrate by playing portions of at least half a dozen of them.

At the end of that medley, was some song about being down and out, or getting knocked down, or something (I don’t remember).  What I vividly remember is his taking a pratfall with his guitar with me only being able to see a foot and leg sticking up from the stage floor!  So now you should be able to imagine my surprise when I first realized that he was not just a musician, but a stand-up comic as well.

He combined slapstick humor with music and more cerebral humor. I think the high point was when he said he could do an amazing imitation of a musician from the ‘60s, but only if he stuffed his mouth full of tissues first. And he did stuff half a dozen tissues into his mouth one by one as we, the audience watched. So whom did he imitate?  Bob Dylan, of course.

After his show, as the audience was filing out a single open door from the banquet hall, I happened to pass Joe as he was collecting his electronic gear from the back of the room.  I told him that I had called out “bluegrass” in response to his initial question about musical genres, but he obviously didn’t hear me. His reply, “Well, that would have been interesti...” was cut off by someone behind me in the line filing past, grabbing his attention with a compliment. So I guess I’ll never know if he could have pulled off his on-stage humor using bluegrass as his musical context.

But, as a result of this experience, I offer this as yet another option for aspiring musicians: maybe you want to become a musical stand-up comedian.


SPECIAL NOTICE:

As of 2018, the bluegrass jam at Avogadro’s Number, 605 S. Mason Street in Fort Collins, will continue to happen every Wednesday night, but now it is starting at 7:00 pm (or earlier, if you want to organize a group to meet earlier). Mason Street Bluegrass Band will no longer play on stage before the jam starts, so grab your early-to-bed friends and get down there early to pick and grin!

Mason Street will be playing a regular night show at 8:00 p.m. every second Friday of each month; come out and support bluegrass musicians!