I had expected the bone-numbing cold to hold down the crowd. And maybe make some of the orchestra members reconsider leaving their homes on a night like this. Windy, a damp cold in the mid-teens feeling like the a lot less.
For me, I had to drive 45 minutes to the place where the dance was taking place, an historic barn deep into the next county set on a small historical pressure.
It may have been a barn at some earlier part of its life. I saw a large white clapboard structure glowing with light. The inside was basically one large room with nothing it but a few dancers. At the end was an actual proscenium set into the back wall. That’s where about a dozen band members were setting up and tuning.
They waved me over and I set up next to two guitar pickers. Between tuning and juggling chairs, music stand (purchased for the occasion), instrument stand for the alternate banjo making room for more members time began to fly.
A caller began to joss up the crowd… and I noticed they had become a crowd. He was instructing them in the steps and I noticed that their were a lot more and a lot more complicated than I expected.
And when I looked up, the few dancers had grown to an impressive room filling number. At least 60 of them.
The orchestra leader announces which set… they are all number J23, R32, W10 would mean the three jigs grouped for J23, the four reels for R32. Waltzes are one to a customer. One of the fiddlers kicks off a four bar introduction, the caller sets to work, the dancers are dancing and the orchestra is into it. About an eternity later… with several tune changes which for me means changing banjos. We’re finished. The dancers are whooping and hollering… everyone is grinning... and I realize we sounded good. Better than good. We sounded fine.
The evening progresses. The caller gave the mic to another caller and joined the dance. One of the orchestra members put down her guitar and danced a set. A ten minute break occurred sometimes during the night. That’s the time I went over to my bag o’ tricks for the plate resonator I made for the Vega LN I was playing in D. The Vega, beauty of an instrument isn’t very loud. The little Gibson open back was tuned to open G. It started life as a tenor in 1920, has been a 5-string since the 60’s with a Vega neck. projects better.
A note on playing. With all the chord changes these robustly and accurately pieces required frailing just didn’t do it. Playing at speed, changing chords and trying to sound good at the same time was a non-starter. I figured that out at rehearsal. While I did some frailing on one set that had three tunes (first in G, second in D, third in G) that I had written a note to frail the whole thing on the G-tuned banjo, it worked, but I wasn’t satisfied.
Mostly used fingerpicks and mostly played is a bluegrass style. The picks gave me the volume I needed and helped remind the dancers that they were listening to more than seven fiddlers. (One left early, I think she had a date.)
Six or seven fiddlers, hammered dulcimer, three guitars, keyboard, tenor banjo/octave mandolin (same person) and me on 5-strings. The orchestra leader said that controlling such a small group was much easier. Small?
We filled the stage. I don’t think we would have room for the penny whistler and the flute player, much less the bass, or the accordion guy.
The organization gives two of these dances a month if I understood them correctly. But it seems that there are at least two other bands besides this biggish orchestra that alternate the gigs. Just as well. Playing that often and with that intensity approaches something called works (Is anyone doing Maynard B. Crabs or whatever the character’s name was) at this point.
I worked just about enough for last night. The future hasn’t happened yet. I’ll probably be a member of this orchestra for the next whenever.
-- Sidebar: The guitar picker necked to me is a part time luthier and has theparts I need to fix an old cello someone out on the curb for adoption. Neat.
Thanks Erich. I wish they did record the performance. I'll ask. It is good stuff even if I say so myself. The had a sound setup with someone riding the gain on a few mics. There was one near me for the guitars that picked me up a little, I think. And at least one for the fiddles. Maybe another for the dulcimer which seemed to project pretty well for such a delicate instrument.
I'm told that miking for recording is different than for perfromance. So I don't know if a tape deck could be patched off the PA. Somethign to ask about. A reheasal is coming in a few weeks.
One of the callers actually fronts another and much smaller group. I wonder what his take on the size of this orchestra is?
I'm glad to hear the contra dance went well. Your event sounds similar to the weekly dances here in Louisville, though yours may be structured a bit more. The caller and the lead fiddler at our dances may consult briefly about the type of tune that would best fit a dance, but mostly the fiddler just picks two tunes right before we start playing. The dances run from 8:00 to 10:30 with a short break about 9:20. We play a waltz just before the break and one as the last dance of the night.
In addition to the weekly dances, there is a larger monthly dance with a featured caller and a hired band to provide the music.
By the way, I just picked up the Winter issue of Sing Out! magazine which has a cover story on contra dance. There's a fair amount of history covered in the article, none of which I knew.
I've played with this little volunteer band for nearly two years (with a year's break due to a class I was teaching). It has really helped my playing. I'm sure you'll find the same benefits.
Thanks Brad. You right. Neither the white (in my hair) or the white threatened on the ground) seemed to factor. The crowd dancers and musicans by the way, were all ages from teens to grandpas/mas.
Dbrooks. We ended the first half and the evening with a waltz as well. But in our case we have a rehearsed set list that the caller and the orchestra leader may (or may not) have agreed upon. There was very little spoken between them other than short hand signals. And they were obvious: slow it down, pick it up, two more choreses and out.
This was three solid hours of dancing, minus a ten minute break.
I have a stack of the small, old Sing Outs! I refers to every so often. I don't care for the politics that infuse the current editions. Albeit, their politics have remained constant. I think my tolerance has thinned. A friend passes along his copies of Sing Out!. I'll ask him for this one. That should be good for a raised eyebrow. Neither one us is a fan of theirs these days.