Cape May Singer Songwriter Conference
So much for this being the “off “ season in Cape May County: this past weekend felt like an action
film in fast-forward. The hordes of you that came out for the Singer-Songwriter conference (they don’t call it a “festival,”
although with gigs all over town, that is what it felt like) can attest to the bustling activity in Cape May on March 7, 8,
and 9. On Saturday, I saw a genuine parking scrum… that’s not supposed to happen in March! It was impossible to
be everywhere at once, even for a trained professional like myself. Luckily, we had eyes and ears all over town.
Registration for the conference was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., Friday. I was there, in the
Congress Hall ballroom, at 10:30 a.m. Guess what? Musicians do not get up that early. But by noon, the lobby was already packed
with people checking in, getting their schedules, and finding quiet places to warm up. By 1:30 p.m., even with the driving
rain, it was beginning to feel like the dorms of the most talented music-school ever: there was music happening on the porches,
on convenient stoops, and issuing from the rapidly-filling hotel rooms all over town. It was also fascinating to see how people
were getting here: Zipcars and Smart Cars made their first-ever appearance in Cape May, and people were pouring off buses
from New York and Philly.
My favorite: Friday at noon, I saw a steady-blue pick-up truck with West Virginia tags carrying a hound-dog
and a guitar down Lafayette Street. It was beginning to feel like an invasion… the musicians are coming!
Friday at 2 p.m., I walked into the Vocal Workshop in the Ballroom, taught by Kay Pere (rhymes with “bayberry”)
for an hour and a half of mind-blowing vocal instruction. Why was it so mind blowing? Well, when you meet a woman who starts
out singing opera, then demonstrates how to change the dynamics of your voice for any genre, while “translating”
the notes for people who could read music and people who only knew how to play guitar, without losing her place in the lesson…
man. She was cool. She gave advice on how to preserve your voice for the long haul (water: good; ciggies: bad), how to brighten
your sound by strengthening muscles in your face, how to expand your range by strengthening the muscles of your torso (unlike
Pilates-instructors, singers need their stomach to come out).
Best of all, she taught diction as a songwriter, which Dan the guitar player excitedly told us was a better
way of rhyming naturally. (Instead of trite rhymes like “reason” and “season,” you could repeat emphasized
consonants in ways that please the audience without boring yourself to tears.)
“So what rhymes with Orange?” asked Mike, a lead singer from Wildwood - and bit of a middle-aged
wise-acre - who came to the classes, but did not perform. “Door hinge,” said Dan smoothly, thereby winning “cool
guy” cred before the first class was halfway through. Kay’s combination of vocal technique and songwriting advice
had everybody riled up to write new songs… just as Craig Bickhardt arrived.
Craig Bickhardt is something of a Nashville legend, in that he writes great songs that occasionally become
monster hits by other people. He introduced one such song, saying: “This one was recorded by Trisha Yearwood –
that’s my first name drop, right there,” and laughed at himself.
He stressed the use of cinematic imagery in songs, saying “show, don’t tell” before he went
through two versions of the same song to demonstrate the difference. You know what can be a decent song at first listen? A
song that tells you a story, and has a great hook. You know what makes the best song ever? One that sucks you in with details
you can relate to (small towns, dead-end jobs, loneliness and the taste of coffee) before blowing apart in your face with
a story you can’t wait to hear more of, soaring melodies, real emotion you feel each time you hear it, and – oh
yeah – a great hook.
So it was only 4 p.m. on Friday, and already we were hitting .1000 with guest speakers at this conference.
Then Craig cleared out to let Robert Hazzard take the stage… and literally all hell broke loose. All I can say is, if
what Heidi over at the Jackson Mountain Café says is all true… I am so sorry I missed much of the 80s. (Heidi was a
huge Robert Hazzard fan way back, as were many of the 100 people trying to ram their way in to hear him. The man himself was
remarkably friendly and easygoing, although his hair still has the power to intimidate.)
After that, I ran down to Cabanas to catch up with cute little Paul LoPresti and his band, for now still called
Apocket Bleu (we hear that may change). We had video of Paul playing solo on this very website last week, and I have to say
I was living vicariously through the adorable teens as they played their first really big gig. (I had to explain to more than
one attractive mid-20s bar-fly that the boys were, in fact, boys. Should I have? Well, I figured it was better to hear it
from me than the boys’ mothers.) Ahh, reporters, bar-flies, and booze: the perils of being a rock-star.
The next band scheduled to come on after the boys didn’t show up (oops!) so there was a delightful moment
when the band found out they still had the stage for another half an hour. Problem? Well, they had run out of songs. Ehh –
who cares about that! The boys ripped into a few covers, forgetting they were there to impress everyone and just enjoying
the moment. Midway through a solo, Paul threw himself on the ground and played from there.
The guitar player nearly pogo-ed himself into a concussion on the ceiling. They never lost the beat, or even
faltered. Young girls were screaming. Other musicians were pumping their fists and saying clever things like “Whooo!”
(But what would they rhyme it with?) A.B.’s families were screaming. It was a great moment to be part of, even from
the sidelines. Michelle Dawn Mooney (Channel 40 anchor) and Chris Jay (lead singer of Army of Freshman) and I (haggard, crone-like
reporter) sat back and basked in the glow.
Chris had mentored the A.B. boys on business for almost two hours earlier in the day, and seemed pleased with
their set. We looked at them – so young! So hopeful! – looked at ourselves, and then headed down to Carney’s
to drown just a few of our sorrows. Oh, and hear Lower Regional graduate Chris’ hilarious stories about famous people
he’s met as a bonafide rock star, and the steaks they’ve bought him. (You can take the boy out of South Jersey…)
Beautiful women were singing to us about love and life and all that stuff (two of them in near-heartbreaking
harmony… I had chills) but we needed more noise to keep energized. At this point, I fully intended to make it to Gordon
Vincent’s set at Jackson Mountain. We were just going to “stop by” Congress Hall for a few minutes…
And then, someone put the night in fast forward. Here’s how it went: you walk into a venue. Fifteen
people are screaming “You just missed it!” The latest sonic miracle is described. Someone remembers they wanted
to see someone they’d heard of, who started 20 minutes ago. Everyone runs! Next venue: You and 25 people (we inevitably
picked up more on the way) walk in. “You just missed it!” shout 20 people. Repeat as necessary for fifteen venues.
We became a wandering gypsy band of misfits, outlaws, and media types (the worst kind) hell-bent on finding
a venue to call our own. “Gypsy?” said Katie Panamerenko, who works in advertising at this very paper, after we
met up again. “Did you see the Japanese guy from Poland?” Ummm… “How much have you had to drink, Katie?”
“Nothing!” she said. “He played gypsy violin… and the band rocked!”
Instantly, six other people came over to tell me about this band. And how they rocked. And how I missed it.
We were in the Brown Room, otherwise known as Grand Central, where you had the best chance of seeing everything if you could
just stay really still. Somewhere in the night, Gordon Vincent was just ending his set… (Sorry, Gordon!) Now every woman
was talking about how hot Gordon is. (We know! But he’s really nice despite that fact.) I realized I had been defeated
by a failure to plan. Never again! I would be back the next night, and I would See Everything!
Phil Broder was supposed to call me when he started his special radio coverage for Cape May 101.5,
so I could film it. He didn’t, because by mid-afternoon Saturday, the chaos that was Friday night was back in full force
and growing. John Harris told me they had 120 conference-goers on Friday… and double that on Saturday. Plus, word was
spreading about how you could see all these great new bands, plus people you’d actually heard of, for free. (Free! In
Cape May? What the -!)
By five o’clock, people were cursing each other out for parking like it was Fourth of July. The rain
had stopped, and now there were only gale-force winds to contend with. Things were looking up! I went to hear Jeffrey Gaines
give his intensely optimistic keynote talk/comedy hour. After 20 minutes of him, I began to believe I was going to make it
as a songwriter. I don’t even play kazoo! That man is magic!
Somewhere in the blur came a moment of light and coherence. I was on the porch of the Virginia, where yet
another talented woman was singing her head off with passion and fury, wondering where it was I was supposed to be in five
minutes. Why doesn’t someone write my schedule to music so I can memorize it? Agghh!
Local personality Johnny Wawa walked by in full Sherlock Holmes regalia. That was surreal. (It was Sherlock
Holmes Weekend this weekend, among other events. I kept hoping somehow they would all get confused, and we’d have a
Gypsy folk band singing about Moriarty in the middle of Jackson Street while 25 talented children danced like a big MGM musical.
And then: fireworks!)
John interrupted my fantasy to remind me his friend Anj was playing, right now, at the Brown Room. I said
I’d go, but mentioned my scheduling snafus of the night before, and apparently, this night, too. “Stop thinking,”
said Johnny, suddenly turning into Mr. Miagi. “Just go… everywhere. Let the conference come to you…”
I executed a beautiful “crane” move, painted a fence, defeated a bully, and made it in time to
see Anj. She played piano, and had a voice that seemed 80% honey, 20% bourbon. She also wrote intensely personal songs –
I can see why Johnny “Overshare” Wawa digs her style. (So sayeth the pot to the kettle, John.)
Grand Central slowed down perceptibly: people looked hypnotized. Go, Anj, go. And then I went… to Carney’s.
Paul LoPresti was playing his solo gig beautifully. I talked to the crowd, including the luminous Jenny Cupp, who were enjoying
the music the way it was meant to be enjoyed: with cold drinks and light conversation. It almost seemed as if things were
settling into a kind of mellow rhythm…
Which was over as soon as I walked into Cabanas! Chaos! My boys from Court House, the band, the myth, the
legend known as Corrado, had brought what seemed like the entire population of Middle Township in with them. I ran into no
less than 20 people I knew from school, and everyone was stoked. There was a band playing before Corrado, and a mysterious
hold up in the festivities, so I promised to come back. Then I was off to the Mug and the Mountain, but not before stumbling
over an Australian practicing outside.
Here’s the thing I’ve figured out about Australia: at least half of their population is constantly
traveling, and they never just walk into a room, do they? They excel at entrances and exits, and Simon Shapiro (the man I
literally fell over while he was singing on the sidewalk) was no exception. With an 11:30 p.m. gig at the Mountain on the
final night of the conference, he was wasting no time enlisting new friends and fans to come hear him: as soon as I said the
words “I fell over an Australian” people were interrupting me to say “Simon? He’s great!” With
the accent and the sensitive yet world-weary songs he played to everyone passing by, he quickly became the Pied Piper of women
in town, who followed him everywhere. I asked Simon why he’d come so far. “I had to give it a shot,” he
said, mentioning the rumors of some Japanese guy here, but he’s like, Romanian? Did everyone but me see that band?
I ran through Congress Hall at top speed, stopping to greet Anj and Steve Lyons, a Cape May Stage alum and
also a singer/songwriter. Steve pointed out that I am a big fat liar: Paul LoPresti was not the only musician selected twice
for the conference (with his band and solo) Steve was performing twice, too. Well, la di dah,
Steve. I missed his set, but noticed people staring at him like a god. I apologized, and Steve was gracious.
He was also every bit as overwhelmed and dazed as the rest of us, God bless him. One of those Bermuda triangle things happened
just then: we all were heading in the same direction, and then we all got lost. Amazingly, no one was alone for more than
30 seconds before picking up a new batch of old friends: it was a bit like a square-dance writ large. I ended up watching
Jeffrey Gaines drag Laura Wershauer onstage to sing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” - whether she knew the
words or not – with Michelle Miller (she and her parents Jerry and Judy went to Ireland with me… but that’s
a whole other story).
Back to Cabanas, where Sound-Booth-Gate was beginning. Gossip is the chief pastime of Cape May, so I enjoyed
a new fun game with it over about four hours Saturday night. (Made all the more enjoyable because it’s new, and Cape
May had still been chewing the same old gossip round and round since November. Keep it fresh, peeps!) Here is my faithful
account of the Cape May Telephone Game:
“There’s no sound – we can’t go on,” Corrado drummer Tony, 9 p.m., Cabanas.
sound guy at Cabanas got a DUI, people are tearing the place apart,” random musician at Congress Hall, 9:30 p.m.
sound guy got a DUI, came here anyway, staggered and fell, the band won’t play until 10:30 p.m., so come back then,”
Kate, sister/cousin/friend of the band, Cabanas 9:45 p.m. (The Mexican band La 5 – that’s “cinco”
- was already playing, using Corrado’s instruments on loan.)
“Why don’t you guys come play at Congress Hall?” random 12-year-old looking guy who spent
the entire conference on his cell phone, to one of the bands scheduled after Corrado, 9:50 p.m., Cabanas.
“I was a sound guy for a few years… 20 years ago!” Mike the bass player’s dad, just
before being thrown into the sound booth, 9:51 p.m., Cabanas.
“I heard none of the bands showed up at Cabanas, or were drunk or something,” music fan, Jackson
Mountain, 10:15 p.m.
“Is Cabanas closed?” drunk girl, Congress Hall, 10:35 p.m.
“Great! They just started!” Kate, Corrado’s sister/cousin/friend, midnight, Cabanas.
“These guys can play as long as they want, as far as I’m concerned. Everyone’s here to see
them,” Chris Nagle, bouncer, Cabanas, 12:15 a.m.
“Whoooo! We love you!” random drunk girl, Cabanas, 12:20 a.m.
“You missed the reggae band that was here,” Katie Panamerenko, 12:25 p.m, Cabanas.
“The other bands aren’t ready, keep playing,” unknown “festival organizer”…
still on cell phone… Cabanas, 12:37 a.m.
“We couldn’t hear a thing. Did we suck?” Steve Corrado,
at the end of their incredible set, 12:40 a.m.
“You guys were awesome,” assembled crowd, Cabanas, 12:45 a.m.…
just before buying the band shots.
“John Harris said we could go on before Avi,” Real Be Easy band member,
“How can they bump Avi? That’s not right!” Daphne from Canada, 12:48 a.m.
a four year old daughter, and I haven’t been out in months,” Jennifer from Ocean City, 12:48 at Cabanas –
“I don’t care who’s playing, or why, I just want to stay out!”
“Can anyone find out why they changed the order?” Chris Nagle, bouncer, Cabanas, 12:48 am.
never said that,” John Harris, actual conference organizer, Brown Room, 12:55 a.m. - “Why would they change the
order? And what happened to their sound guy? I heard he was someone’s dad.”
rock and roll, kids!” John Harris, 12:58 a.m., after hearing whole story - “It’ll be better next year.”
*Update: “We rent that sound system, which is worth about $30,000, from a guy in Philly,” said
Will Knapp, the events-guru at Cabanas (among other things…) as he kindly drove me back to my car the next day. “The
guy who owns it needs to train people how to use it, so they all come from Philly. Clearly, last night was not a good night
to be on the road.” They’ve been looking for a local guy to learn the system, but so far no dice. (Maybe Mike’s
dad could come back…)
“Did you see the fight at Carney’s?” bartender, Brown Room, 1:30 a.m. “Shame about
Avi getting bumped by that other band… That’s not the spirit of the conference, is it? Did you hear Laura Wershauer
already got a record deal?”
From now on, when in doubt, just ask a bartender. They’re the only people who can
translate the gossip back into English.
Meanwhile, the weather carried on in true March style: the wind ripped an awning free and slapped Michelle
Miller and me right in the face with cold, wet canvas on Washington Street Mall. It occurred to me then, as we walked on the
brand new paving stones at the Mall, past boarded up buildings and dark store-fronts, that something new and vibrant to attract
new life is exactly what this old town needs. I’ll give John Harris credit for being right: it’s going to be even
better next year.
Something definitely woke up in Cape May. The town was hopping, people were talking, and more importantly,
people were helping each other whenever they could. Established musicians were heaping advice on eager young bands; kids were
jamming anywhere they could find space; musicians loaned each other instruments, shared hotel rooms, and in a few cases shared
the stage. Certain venues got too loud, some too busy, and at one or two… I’m not sure anyone realized bands were
playing there until they started playing in the street. Eventually, everyone came away with an average of one old favorite
they caught up with and one great new band they accidentally stumbled into (or, in a few cases, stumbled over).
At the end, Michelle Dawn Mooney, Daphne from Canada, Jennifer from Ocean City and I walked into a bar. Wait
for it! I went to the restroom, and when I came out, they had been secretly replaced with Johnny Wawa. I still don’t
know how it happened, but he had already ordered my drink, even though, at 3 a.m., the bar was supposed to be closed. I waxed
his car, defeated a bully, and celebrated with a tea ceremony. Old-school jazz was playing. “That’s nice,”
said a drunken bass player with dreadlocks, slumped over a chair. “Solid hook, man!” Sometimes, I love this town.
Sunday:Copyright © 2008 Cape May County Herald. All rights reserved.
On the Parkway, 11:30 a.m.. It’s checkout time, and no one set their clocks ahead, did they?
I watched as car after car piled high with instruments, cables, and posters pulled over the bridge. Something Kaz, the Japanese
guitarist from Kagero (which is a New York band… with a Bulgarian drummer, not, as rumored, a bunch of Japanese guys
from Poland or Romania) said to Phil Broder stuck out: “I cannot afford to live here, but I simply must come back.”
Yes, Kaz, you crazy, wonderful, eccentrically dressed, gypsy-music-making Japanese fiend – you and all your new friends
simply must come back soon.
Q&A: Jeffrey Gaines
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Jeffrey Gaines returns to Whitaker Center tomorrow for his annual homecoming concert, anticipating the usual running conversation
with the crowd and people awakening some long dormant memories.
"It's more than just the music fans who show up," he said. "It's the guy I went to school with, the guy I worked with,
that's what's cool about it."
This time the Central Dauphin East High School alum is paired with singer/songwriter extraordinaire Patty Larkin.
"That's a double bill," Gaines said. "I just hope she leaves something for me."
Q: Performing live is often the payoff for all the work you put into your craft. What is it about a concert that is still
exciting after having done it so many times?
Gaines: For me it's about being known. I'm also communicating things I'm thinking or I'm feeling. At a cocktail party I'm
not assertive enough to say those things. Without [music] no one would know what I was thinking. It allows me to be known
Q: How quickly do you know if it's going to be a good night or not?
Gaines: You can tell right way. What I've been doing is so stark you can tell very quickly. Before you go on you can look
around the curtain and listen to the level of conversation and you can tell if they're ready to have a good time. ... Someone
announces your name and I'm thinking, "They're clapping in anticipation?" You better bring it. If you respect yourself you're
going to deliver.
Q: You're in between albums, other then touring what's on the agenda?
Gaines: I'm definitely conceptualizing a new album. I've been on the phone with the boys from Boston (The Neighborhoods).
It's second nature to me to rock, but it's a new way to come out with these new songs. When you're touring acoustically it
would be hard to come out with something so jarring. But you've got to follow what you're musing. That's where I'm at, but
I may have to wait until I get a band together. The songs that I have won't see their full potential at these solo shows.