George Burns once said that what he missed most about the days of vaudeville, when performers toured the country doing four shows a day, six days a week, was that modern entertainers no longer had the chance to be bad. If every show is a showcase, there’s no inclination to stretch out and risk falling on your face. Yet it is in those stretches and falls that great acts are often made.
Fred Allen started in vaudeville as a mediocre juggler. But audiences laughed so much at his wisecracks whenever he dropped something that he became a comedian.
The Marx Brothers’ act was born in Nacogdoches, Texas, when the entire audience left the Opera House to check out a rumor that there was a mule kicking in the street. Alone in the theater, the brothers started spoofing their usual skit. When the mule tired and the crowd filed back in, Groucho tried to insult them through puns and rhymes. The audience liked this show much better than the one they’d walked out on, and the Marx Brothers never followed a script again.
Delta Moon’s first regular gig was Monday nights at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Atlanta. Sometimes the audience for the second set would be six guys in ties drinking beer with their backs to us. We’d make rules for the second set like “no songs we’ve ever played before” or “start with this lick in D and see where it goes.” Our repertoire grew and developed from week to week. I wrote one song in my head while driving to the club, told the guys the key and the beat, and sang it for the first time on stage. That was “Like My Baby Can,” and we still play it.
Rehearsals are nice, but what’s missing is an audience. The audience tells you what’s working and what’s not. They may be loud or quiet, rude or polite, but as a performer you can feel whether or not they are connecting.
To break in some new material, we’ve booked a couple unadvertised “open rehearsals” at Shorty’s Pizza in Tucker, Georgia. The first one last Thursday was a lot of fun. Our new original songs went well, but a version of T. Rex’s “Mambo Sun” – a song the bass player and drummer had never heard before – gathered only polite applause. I know now where we went wrong and how to improve it. We might try it again this Thursday, or we might try “Bang a Gong” as a shuffle, kind of Tony Joe White style. I don’t know exactly what we’ll do. But I relish the freedom to fall on my face.
If you’re in the Atlanta area, we’d love to see you this Thursday, February 2, around 8:00. There’s no cover. The pizza and beer are excellent. We’ll play a few songs from our regular show, but it will be Anything Can Happen Night, and we need some people to cheer or jeer.
(Photo by Carroll Morgan)