Eric Lee

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, MA

January 26 2017

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From the channel of Northampton Community Television

“That sounds great, Jim. Yeah, I guess I’m good, then… thanks!” I say from the stage, concluding my soundcheck. I’m addressing Jim Frogameni, who has spent years meticulously sculpting signal frequencies from his sound board to be perfectly replicated, filling every possible listening point of Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall. It feels good to be back on this stage; where I’ve accompanied so many fellow artists and made sonic offerings to the Gods of Rock through my Mesa-Boogie dual rectifier on a distortion-drenched and pedal-laden electric violin played behind my back so many times before (in full punk guy-liner, to boot.)

Tonight is different, though; my name is on the ticket, and I’m singing my own songs, opening for Louisville singer/songwriter Joan Shelley. I play a few textbook bluegrass lines into the guitar mic, imagining the headspace I’ll be in when it’s actually show time, but also as a personal “ringing of the bells” ceremony to scare away the demons of my own anxiety that may be lurking in the now-vacant hall.

I go downstairs to the green room, where I’ll drink some coffee, water, or tea (more likely to alternate between all three, as I usually do) and warm up by playing the music I love: fiddle tunes, Alice ‘n’ Chains…. maybe some John Gorka and Dave Carter covers. Perhaps I’ll write a new song, or have a moment of bonding with the headliner like in that movie “Once.” I could envision us hitting it off musically, and I’ve even got a copy of my EP in my jacket just in case she feels like passing one to a friend up the ladder of music-biz success. I open the door and find Joan and her fiddle player out like lightbulbs on both of the greenroom’s two couches.

Back upstairs then, where I get a beer and examine the back of an envelope containing the tickets I was given to sell from the box office, upon which I’ve scribbled the names of folks that have tickets, that still want tickets, and that I’ve put on the guest list. I’m feeling pretty good, since I’ve surpassed my sales figures from the last time I played here, when I opened for the current queens of contemporary bluegrass, Della Mae. I’m not much of a business man, but I want to show the people that look for that skill in this town that my hustle is good, so they’ll want me to come back. With a few hours left until the doors open, I begin writing out my setlist to the preparatory sounds of clean glasses clinking and silverware being coupled into napkin wrappings.

I enjoy sculpting the arc of a set; directing the emotional landscape of the evening for listeners. Each song should compliment the next like movements in a symphony, and I begin charting the balance of sad-sack ballads with lust-for-life uptempo songs. I like imagining being someone who’s never gone to a folk show before, and thinking about what would get (and hold) my attention. I’ve never been the kind of performer who pre-plans their stage banter, (it’s usually more fun to see what kind of absurd, stream-of-consciousness ideas will pop into my head) but having a half-hour set as it is, my primary focus is to pack in as many songs as I can.

Soon after I get my set together the lights are dimmed, the doors are opened, and attendees take their seats. “You’ve got five minutes, Eric” Jim tells me back in the greenroom, and I make my way up to the side of the darkened stage. Two nights from now, I know that I’ll be headlining a great listening room in Willington, CT, called the Packing House, playing a good hour-plus set with my full band, but this show holds a place of special significance for me.

It was just over a decade that I left an unhealthy home life to live with my aunt, Mol, in Easthampton. Being a homeschooled kid from rural upstate New York, I thought the illuminated sidewalks of Union and Cottage street may as well have been the Boston Common, and I was gung-ho to get involved in the music scene (I once hauled a 50-lb. Fender amp the mile-and-a-half-distance from my aunt’s house to the Flywheel’s old location on the corner of Cottage and Holyoke street to sit in with a psychedelic doom-metal band!)

I remember Mol driving me through Northampton for the first time. “Down that street is a venue you should know called the Iron Horse. Anybody who’s anybody plays there… We’ll have to go sometime.” I looked down Center street, imagining what a place with such an authoritative name, where anybody who’s anybody plays, must look like, and envisioning a show of my own there; singing and playing songs that I’ve poured my heart into for folks that care to listen.

As I walk up the staircase onto the stage, I think (as I usually do before my shows) about what I’m really doing here, and why any of this is important. It’s about more than the ticket sales, the great sound system, or fulfilling my teenage fantasies. The lights come up, and there I am. There’s the setlist, full of the songs I’ve poured my heart and soul into. There are the folks that care to listen. Even my uncle is here. My late aunt, Mol, may not have a ticket, but I know she’s there just the same. “A bullet from the back of the bush took Medgar Evers’ blood…” are the first words I sing, from the only song in the set that I didn’t write. It’s Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game”, a meaningful protest song that I learned when I was about 14, and have recently begun incorporating into nearly all of my shows, alongside my own anthems of injustice.

Tonight is different, as are most nights (and days, for that matter) since the results of the presidential election. “That’s a song written in a far-gone time, when political corruption reigned in blatant defiance of the public’s interest and wishes… I can only imagine what that must have been like.” I say, to the welcome response of applause and laughter. Tonight is different, because I’m surrounded by people, some I know and love, and some I’ve never met, but we’re all doing the same thing… laughing, listening, eating and drinking, letting our guards down, and sharing each others’ company. I am exactly where I should be in the universe; this is going to be great show.

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To Submit a review or story for consideration hit us at [email protected]

Check out the Live Music News and Facebook page for updates and announcements.