For a few years now, I’ve wanted to play at the Stoughton Opera House, a beautiful old theater (built in 1901) where all the big country, folk, and roots artists play when they pass through Wisconsin. Folks like Lyle Lovett, Roseanne Cash, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Patty Larkin, and Robyn Hitchcock are all on the schedule this year. I remember looking through each season’s brochure, mentally replacing some artist’s picture and bio with my own.
When I got a call from my friend Biff Blumfumgagnge, offering me a gig playing with him at the opera house (opening for comedian Emo Philips, no less), my immediate reaction was equal parts elation and terror. This was a big opportunity – and with it came the opportunity to fail in front of hundreds of people. But the hesitation only lasted a few seconds. I was in! Biff and I had played together once before, when he sat in on my set for the Make Music Madison stage that he was hosting – and I had been hoping for a rematch. Thinking back to that performance, I had an idea – something that would perfectly balance the sound of Biff’s fiddle and my ukulele. I asked “can I bring my tuba player?”
And Pearl Handle was born.
Thankfully, “my” tuba player, Reid Johnston, was up for the gig. I had played music with Reid for 15 years in various conglomerations, and Biff is, well, legendary – in my eyes, anyway. I remember driving down the road, hollering and fist-pumping at the thought of playing this sweet gig with two of my favorite musicians.
So now we had a band – in theory. The thing was, we had 2 weeks to prepare for our first gig, and the 3 of us had never even been in the same room together. We picked some of my songs, some of Biff’s songs, and 2 Tom Waits covers that we thought suited our style and unique instrumentation. I had one separate practice with each guy, then we finally all got together for 2 rehearsals. Though that initial terror was still lurking in my head, I was not worried about the band. These guys were pros, and our styles and attitudes just fit.
As the show was scheduled for April 1, I was still wondering if the whole thing was some kind of a joke when I pulled up to the Opera House with my roadies (the wife and kids). But there was “supported by Pearl Handle,” right on the sign outside. And when we got inside, there was the “bio” I had written, right there in the program.
As we hauled my gear towards the stage, Emo was doing a sound check. But he wasn’t telling jokes, he was playing a recorder. He greeted me, asking what instrument I played, I told him I was the ukulele player. He wanted to know if I knew the song he was playing – I did not – and then asked what my favorite song was. When I told him it was “Pennies from Heaven,” he said “want to play it together?” So I sang and played my favorite song in the dark, empty opera house while a famous comedian tooted along on the recorder. I remembered Emo from the 80’s, but was really not very familiar with him or his work. Now here I was jamming with this sweet guy, minutes after we first met, and it was beautiful. Thinking of that moment still gives me a thrill.
After our soundcheck, we enjoyed a meal in our fully stocked dressing room (fresh fruit, cheeses, chocolates, wine, and beer – just for a start). It was Pearl Handle’s first show, but they treated us like stars.
Our set was like a dream. A close-enough-to-full house that applauded generously at our songs and laughed at our jokes. A picturesque old theater with great acoustics. A band that felt like we’d been playing together for years. And I remembered all of my lyrics! Thankfully, our friend Scott Roberts was there with his wife, Sue. And Scott had his camera:
It was my best gig of the century. So far. But this fairy-dusted April Fools evening was not over with our set. Will you check out the old blog in a few days for part 2?