AMBIcon 2013- post-show reflections...

In writing my post-event thoughts on AMBIcon 2013, I keep coming back to one simple sentence- "so much music, so little sleep".  Now that I've had time to catch up a little on one (sleep) and reflect on the other (music), I can reasonably attempt to sort through my memories and get them in written form.

The event itself took place in the convention center attached to the very fine Embassy Suites in San Rafael, CA.  The folks at Delicate Productions were hired to provide surround sound for the event, and they showed up at noon on Friday to start setting up in the main ballroom.  I went to hang out in (what we were calling) the equipment room, and Robert Rich was already there.  As usual, Robert had a big smile and a big hug at the ready.  He made some comments that all of us musicians on the bill are like a crazy family that has a reunion every ten years or so at events like this.

Also showing up early on Friday was Tim Story, one of my oldest friends, and a friend who, despite only living five or so hours from me, I've managed not to see for about 19 years.  And then Stephen Hill walked in.  I have a long list of people who have been supportive of my career- dj's, music reviewers, concert promoters, other musicians- and Stephen is on that list, having been playing my music on Hearts of Space since my very first cd in 1993.

After a bit, all the musicians started rolling in- Steve Roach (yep, haven't seen him for ten years), Michael Stearns (known him for 17 years, met for the first time), Hans Christian (known him for a couple of years, never met)

Friday evening was a meet and greet time, for the musicians and the attendees to mix and mingle and eat tiny little finger foods which contained no calories whatsoever (it's a law of physics, practically, that finger foods have no calories, which is why you can eat 200 of those little beef wellington things and not gain a pound).  It was nice to meet, face to face, some people that I've "known" for years, (like the incredibly musical Loren Nerell) and to meet new people.  However, there was a bit of initial apprehension among the attendees in approaching the musicians (which led me to seek out the most apprehensive people and try to draw them in to any group conversation that was happening- "hey, I don't bite, and if I do, it's ok, because I've had my shots!"

…. yes, I actually said that, I think….

Friday night was my soundcheck, and, as the old adage goes, "everything that could go wrong, did go wrong".  Fortunately, what went wrong was not on my end of things- the Delicate Production guys has a couple of pieces of wonky gear, which was quickly replaced (proving that they were a totally pro outfit by always having a back-up).  Before long, I was playing music and it was sounding pretty nice.

A late friday night quickly became an early saturday morning, thanks to some nice conversations with listeners of my music, and I had to get some sleep, since the next day was "show day" for me.

(a personal aside:  I hate the "F" word- "fans".  Oh, Lord, how I hate that word- and I see it all the time on Facebook from other musicians- "I have fans, I want to thank my fans, I have fans, fans, fans!"  No- you don't have "fans"- you have listeners.  And see how nice of a shift that is?  Suddenly, that vast mob of oompaa-loompas are actual PEOPLE who are supporting your musical endeavors.  They are LISTENERS, and that puts the focus back on creating music, as opposed to stroking your ego while repeating over and over, "I have fans!")

Short night's sleep, and I was at the hotel restaurant Saturday morning for breakfast.  The apprehension was starting to break, and other attendees were asking if they could sit at my table.  Of course they could!  I was glad they did- because, as a bonus, Mike G joined us.  Mike runs an ambient music review website in Australia, and he is, in all respects, "one cool guy", and I'm glad I met him.  I bumped into Phil Wilkerson and his wife in the hallway and had a nice chat.  Phil's also a musician and it was fun to "talk shop" a little.

Saturday morning at 10 was the artist panel discussion, and was also the first time I met Stephan Micus.  I had loved his music since the mid-80's, and was thrilled to meet this musical genius and legend.

…. I know that some of my more "business oriented" new age music friends are sniffing "but he's not been on the new age charts- and he doesn't use big name radio promoters".  Nope- he just has a career that any sane musician would consider themselves lucky to have (having recorded for well over 30 years on that little, no-name ECM label) and a talent that would eventually render all of us other AMBIcon musicians speechless after his Sunday performance- which I will get to…

The panel discussion started, and, thanks to the kindness and generosity of Scott Rouse, the discussion (as well as all the AMBIcon concerts) was streamed over the internet, and was free to anyone who wanted to watch online.  And that meant my wife and daughters were able to watch and laugh when Stephen Hill introduced me with a comment involving my refusal to wear big boy pants.  What can I say?  I dress casual when appearing on stage in a panel discussion in California in May- that's always been my rule….

I was surprised at how well the panel discussion went, and I decided to mentally "take notes", because it's not that often that there's so much experience- musically and otherwise- on stage.  Stephen Hill, when directing a question to me, mentioned that I was sort of the "baby" of the group, which is true, but odd, considering that the "baby" of the group is 45 years old and has "only" been releasing cd's for 20 years.  I had mentioned that my start, musically, was a little different than the other folks onstage, since I had been listening to Hearts of Space well before I started releasing my own music, whereas Hearts of Space came after the other musicians' musical beginnings.  And I probably said some things I shouldn't have, since I recall a lot of laughing during my answer segment.

…. another aside:  I called my wife after the panel discussion, and she said "Robert Rich is SO well-spoken".  And she's right- there's one question he answered with the kind of grace and dignity that he has in his music.  i also remember being QUITE impressed with an answer Hans gave when an audience member asked about the role of spirituality in music.

After the panel discussion, I ate half of a lunch, did half of a sound check, and was ready for my show at 2 pm.  People have asked me if I get nervous before I play a show, and I answer, honestly, "yes, I'm a little nervous, but I'm mostly anxious to get started".  And once I started playing, all went well- partially because of some preparation on my part, but also because of, quite possibly, the best audience I've ever played in front of.  They were SO supportive- there's nothing like playing a show where you feel the audience is "rooting for you" from even before the first note.

So I played my set (which clocked at just over an hour- all of the musicians had between 60 and 75 minutes to play their music), and would once in a while emerge from a kind of musically induced trance and notice how "intently" I was being listened to- this audience was full of virtuoso listeners, and I don't say that in a glib way- they really were superb listeners.  They didn't even run out of the place when I started playing my guitar with a paintbrush (a note to everyone who attended:  if I could have gotten that sound without using a paintbrush, trust me- I would have, because I know it looks geeky for me to play like that in a live setting)

It couldn't have all gone perfect, though, and about halfway through my set, I was startled out of my trance by some smooth jazz music- very quiet, but still there.  It turns out that some Embassy Suites employee turned on the sound in the ballroom ceiling speakers, one of which was right above my head.  The Delicate Productions sound guy, I was told later, shot out of the room, found the power supply for the ballroom speakers, and did unthinkably violent things to it, rendering it a large, expensive doorstop.

I closed my set with a newly arranged version of Brian Eno's lovely "An Ending (Ascent)".  I've played this for a few years on Chapman Stick, but wondered if it would work on electric guitar.  I felt pretty pleased with the version, and might do it again someday.  After the song, some enthusiastic applause, which turned into a standing ovation, which left a big lump in my throat and caused me to quickly leave the stage before the waterworks started.

Again- it was a great crowd, and I appreciated the generous and kind feedback.  But the feedback from the other AMBIcon musicians was unexpected- since I wasn't expecting them to attend my set!  It was tough enough to play my set knowing that an ambient guitar legend like Carl Weingarten was in the crowd, but had I known that Stephan Micus, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, etc… was in the crowd?  I don't know if I could have gone on stage.

Then I went out to the main lobby and who did I see? Forrest Fang!  HE was in the audience?!?!?  Man, I am GLAD I didn't know that- he's a superb musician who has been at this music thing far longer than I.  He was hanging out with Carl Weingarten, and they were both very gracious with their feedback.

So- one concert down, and a half of a concert to go, since I was going to be sitting in with Tim Story for part of his set later that evening.

I had told people that I was there to play a concert, and once that was done, I was there to attend "master classes" from all the other musicians, and that's the mode I switched into when Robert Rich started playing.  I've opened for Robert quite a few times over the years, and he's always been fabulous musically, but this time, there was something new I noticed- an incredible sense of "pacing" in his set.  I told him later that he really seemed to develop each piece fully, but then not work it too long, before moving on to a next section.  Some people think that it's the "big" things that make a great musician- big sound, loud, dynamic things- those are nice.  But the subtleties are where the life is, to my ears, at least, and Robert has mastered those.

After Robert's set, Tim Story and I did a quick soundcheck, I had a quick dinner, and then the evening shows started.  I've known Tim Story since the spring of 1988, when I was a junior in college and had sent him a note after purchasing his fine Windham Hill album "Glass Green".  Tim would eventually master my first cd, and I've been in his musical debt ever since.

The first part of Tim's set featured a great new version of "The Lure of Silence" from "Glass Green", and a couple of new pieces, one of which had quite a few people wiping away tears by the end of it.  Then I joined Tim on stage and contributed some ambient guitar to quite a few pieces from his "Beguiled" cd.  We switched instruments- meaning Tim was playing my guitar and I was playing his keyboards- for a song he did with the incredible Dwight Ashley called "Poppies (For Irene)", then we switched back to our original instruments for the closing song, "Glass Green".  I didn't mangle Tim's beautiful songs (not too bad, at least), and I considered that a success!

After a short break, it was time for Michael Stearns' set.  Michael is one of those "legends" in ambient music, and his set proved why.  Like Robert Rich, Michael designed his own surround sound presentation, and it was a magnificent listening experience; musically, it was superb, as everyone expected, but sonically, it was incredibly immersive; Tim Story and I talked after Michael's set, and we agreed that this one segment, which had thunder circling the room on the speakers, was one of the cooler bits of sound design we'd ever heard.

Since I was officially "done" as a performer, Saturday night was all about relaxation, and that relaxation SHOULD have involved going to my room, taking a nice long bath, and listening to some music before going to sleep.  Instead, I ended up in Robert Rich's room.  Robert is a man of many interests, and he took up wine-making a few years ago.  I don't have the palate to appreciate wine or any other alcohol, but Robert's a friend, and I wanted to sample his labor of love.  Others showed up, Robert poured the wine, and everyone was most enthusiastic about it's taste.  I took my half a sip, swallowed it, and what can I say?  I hated it, as expected.  On the other hand, I didn't taste any anti-freeze, and that's truly a sign that Robert used high quality ingredients!

Sunday morning started off with an alarm, and me saying "I stayed up WAY too late last night".  I had breakfast, and, again, I had more company at the table.  This whole "wall" between musician and attendee was breaking down quite nicely, which is a great thing.  Mark Prendergast was giving a presentation based on his fine book "The Ambient Century", and I knew that I could only catch a little of it because I needed to start packing my gear so it could be shipped back to Indiana the following week.  Instead of staying for five minutes, I stayed for- well, a whole lot longer- it was a fascinating and well-put-together presentation about the history of ambient music.

It was lunch time, and this time I was at a table with the aforementioned Mike G and Mellisa (who I had met saturday afternoon).  Then I dashed back to the ballroom and caught Stephan Micus' set.  I sat next to Forrest Fang, and we were both looking forward to a great set.

We were NOT disappointed,  I've seen a lot of concerts, but this one might have been the very best I've ever experienced.  There's such a purity of sound in Stephan's music, but there's also a purity of soul, and both came through in his concert.  One man on stage, with a few acoustic instruments and a microphone, took the audience on quite a journey.  Upon the end of the concert, I saw Robert Rich and Michael Stearns leaving the hall, and we all just looked at each other and shook our heads.  Someone said "well, THAT put everything into perspective".

(I had a chance to tell Stephan how much I had enjoyed his set, and you would have thought I paid him the highest compliment in the world.  I don't know if I've met someone as kind, gentle and humble as Stephan.  On Saturday night, I had asked him if he would mind autographing one of his cd's for me, and he just looked at me and smiled, and then said, with his beautiful German accent, "Yes, I will autograph a cd for you".  Leyla Hill was watching this unabashed demonstration of fan-boyishness on my part, and was smiling ear to ear.  Stephan asked why she was smiling, and she said, "I just love seeing this".)

After a break, everyone was back in the hall for the Steve Roach set.  It was everything that people expect from Steve Roach- quiet parts, loud parts, acoustic didgeridoo and electronic everything else- but there were also plenty of surprises.  Steve's music gave the surround system a workout, and the music took everyone from the desert to the sky to deep space to past, present, and future times.  I've always thought that Steve was a Delta blues player, it's just that those Deltas are on Jupiter.  He worked in subtle desert ambiences into the music, and, like Robert's set, it was a master class, only this time, a class in how to use dynamics to evoke a visceral experience with the audience.

Another break to decompress and grab some supper at the (really quite good) hotel restaurant- again, with a table full of good dinner company.

There were some people at the concert who had not heard of Hans Christian.  I can promise you that those people are now among his biggest musical admirers.  He took the audience on an hour long journey with his cello and some other "world" instruments that he seems to have mastered as much as the cello.  I've told people that his set was probably the most musical use of "looping" I've ever experienced.  Again, the other AMBIcon musicians in attendance were floored by what we saw.

Another break, another concert, this time with Stellamara- a "local" world-music influenced ensemble led by Sonja Drakulich.  They were presenting more of a "down-tempo" set, and it fit well with the other AMBIcon sets.  Sonja might be the "voice" and leader of Stellamara (and WHAT a voice!), but she was very generous with the spotlight, making sure that the other members of the group had some solo spots to show off their (considerable) ability.  The crowd loved them.

Stephen Hill called all the artists to the stage, and we had a final farewell.  Hands were shaken, pictures were taken, hugs exchanged- a lovely way to end AMBIcon 2013.

Since I was leaving early, I went straight to bed and didn't think about packing my luggage- which was a mistake and made for a hectic morning.  I was at the hotel restaurant Monday morning at 6:30 for breakfast, and sat with Michael Stearns and his (really great) 12 year old son Andrew.  We both talked about how much fun we'd had, and how great the shows were.  

After checking out, I caught a shuttle to the airport- a shuttle I shared with three AMBIcon attendees.  So you can probably guess what we talked about on the way to San Francisco international.  We were all in agreement that an event like AMBIcon recharges the batteries of both the attendees and the musicians, and that an event like this should happen more often.

Now that it's all over, there were two things that surprised me about AMBIcon:

1) As I previously mentioned, all of the musicians attended all of the other musician's sets.  I've not seen this happen before.  Usually, musicians will hang out in the green room and feel like big stars while the other guys are on stage.  Not in this case.  To know that musicians of that caliber watched my set?  It humbles me, but, as previously mentioned, it was probably for the best I didn't know about it at the time…

2) the total lack of "music business" networking.  There were no radio promotion people there trying to smooth-talk potential new clients, no record label guys (ok, Sam Rosenthal was there, but he was considered "one of us" by all the musicians, since he's also a fine ambient musician)- it was nothing but music, music, and more music.  For anyone interested in contributing to the health of the ambient music genre (or whatever you want to call it), you can't go wrong presenting something like AMBIcon, where the sole focus is connecting the musicians and the listeners.  Sure, if you want to wheel and deal inside an ego-fueled echo chamber, create an event where it's all about business and vultures- that approach is a popular one, in business, art, education, and so many other categories.  But don't be surprised when the "general public" stays far away.

Upon returning home, I was pleasantly surprised by the emails and social media comments about my set at AMBIcon, and I am now trying to carve a path to each and every email and comment.  In the end, I saw a bunch of old friends, and made some new ones, while hearing a whole lot of music, and getting very little sleep.