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Cape May Singer Songwriter Conference

March 2008

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.
“The sound guy at Cabanas got a DUI, people are tearing the place apart,” random musician at Congress Hall, 9:30 p.m.
“The 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, 12:46 a.m.
“How can they bump Avi? That’s not right!” Daphne from Canada, 12:48 a.m.
“I have 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.
“I 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.”
“Well… that’s 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.

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.

Copyright © 2008 Cape May County Herald. All rights reserved.


Q&A: Jeffrey Gaines
Thursday, May 03, 2007

Of The Patriot-News

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 at all.

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.


Just found this. Very thorough and mostly accurate. A good read...


Dirty Linen

Jeffrey Gaines

photo by Annette C. Eshleman

Jeffrey Gaines

Putting Sound Into What Was the Silence

by Annette C. Eshleman

In a recent interview conducted following a show near his suburban Philadelphia home, Jeffrey Gaines opened up about his career, his music, growing up, and growing older. Gaines was born and raised in nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After graduating high school, he went to work for his father laying carpet. While the job may have developed a strong back and broad shoulders, music remained Gaines' calling. When the elder Gaines died in 1988, music became his son's full-time endeavor.

Energetic, fun, and self-assured, Gaines speaks casually and easily about himself. His answers to questions are not always the responses one might expect to hear. Yet his honesty is disarmingly refreshing. Bold and unpretentious, Gaines' personality is not so much something that he has, as it is something that he gives.

Gaines turned to music early in life as a means of expressing himself. "I'm the youngest of three kids in a loud family," he remembered. "I was like, totally the quiet person in the group. In order to get your point across when I was growing up, you had to be loud. It was about volume. That's how people got things done. If they were the loudest, they were listened to. And I was like, 'There's no way I'm gonna do that. I just can't yell over you guys.'

"I sort of began internalizing things at a very young age," Gaines explained. "And through music was the only opportunity that I had to finally collect all the information and then come back with, 'Here's what I have to say. In summation… boom!...Here it all is! Remember that conversation three weeks ago?... Well, I've gotten back to you and here it is,' " he concluded. "So, in song, it made the most sense. Because I was able to take some time and remove myself emotionally in a way and put it together with some real perspective. So my songs take into consideration both sides of the story, oftentimes."

This is an excerpt from the print edition of Dirty Linen #118 (June/July 2005). The full article is in the magazine, available on newsstands, by subscription, and at the Dirty Linen webstore.


Great article! Find out what else Jeff had to say. There are 2 more pages of JG insights and anecdotes. On newstands NOW...get your copy today!
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