Dan and I played our first duo show in a while at Crooked Can on Friday. Playing a duo show is kind of a different beast than a full band show. In our full band configuration we have percussion, bass, and two lead instruments (Sean’s guitar and my mandolin) to play around with and texture songs so that the arrangements don’t all sound the same. Cutting down a five piece band arrangement to a duo arrangement is an exercise in making choices.
My job in a duo is to do whatever I can to maintain the character of each song and add enough variety to keep the songs differentiated from each other. The “risk” in a duo or solo acoustic show is that over the course of a set, songs that are just chord strums and vocals can migrate to sounding really similar to each other and can strain the audience’s attention.
This is particularly an issue for Beemo because we don’t play all that many covers. The audience will use the familiarity of a well known cover melody to sort of mentally fill in the arrangement; you end up more suggesting the song they’ve heard before and trading on their familiarity with it than seizing their attention with a novel performance. With original music it’s harder to pull that off because most of the listeners won’t have heard the song before.
Some Beemo songs don’t require much if any tinkering to retain their character; generally straight up strummer songs (e,g. February Morning or Better Now) or ones where the most recognizable musical part is in the mandolin (e.g. Jennie or Laurel Wreath) don’t require me to do much extra work. In some cases I end up playing Sean’s guitar part (It’s Been Five Minutes or Bustin’ Out) or play a hybrid of my guitar part and Sean’s (Janice and Light).
Songs like Nova require the most re-arranging. The defining characteristic of that particular song is the bass line which I ended up transferring to the mandolin. I was lucky that it happens to lay on the mandolin neck fairly intuitively, something you can’t take for granted when adapting a part from one instrument to another. Sometimes you have to compromise between fidelity to the original part and playability.
Of course playing without Sean also means I take all of the solos. Occasionally Dan and I start a song and I realize about a verse in that there’s a solo that I don’t usually play and completely forgot to prep for but most often it’s something more subtle that catches me off guard. At Crooked Can I almost stopped playing during the last chorus of It’s Been Five Minutes because with the full band Sean plays arpeggiated chords there and I drop out. I realized it a split second before we got there, though, so I covered it decently if unspectacularly. I also extended the ending of Janice longer than usual as well, as I was waiting for Sean’s end queue despite him not being there. Making sure my autopilot is switched off is very important in a duo show.
Dan and I also used CC as a test run for a few new Irish traditional tunes we’re going to start working in so Black Velvet Band, Jock Stewart, and Wild Mountain Thyme made their first public appearances. I’ve only barely started working on proper parts for those songs so I was rather unambitious, sticking mostly to the straight chords and arpeggios while occasionally faking my way through a lead line. I got rather tangled up during Wild Mountain Thyme; playing something from memory in public is always different than playing it alone in front of the written out chords. In the slightly heightened situation of a live public performance, I never know something new quite as well as I think I do.
Overall I felt pretty good about the show. In the post mortem I identified some things that I need to do differently in a duo situation (I need to fill more space during Laurel Wreath, the proto-part I worked out for Jock Stewart has some rhythmic issues), a few things that worked better than I thought they would (Today and MacGregor’s Revenge ended up being fine as duos and I finally cracked the code on a coherent Whiskey in the Jar solo) and a couple things I straight up need to practice more (going blank on Wild Mountain Thyme and tiring out doing the guitar percussion part on Crazy were both preparation issues).
We’ll keep sprinkling in the duo shows now and again. While there’s a lot fewer places to hide and I have a lot more to do, I appreciate the excuse to fiddle around with songs I’ve played a bunch of times.
Hope to see you out soon