Requiem for Phoebe
I came home to the sad news that singer Phoebe Snow had died. I had not thought of her in years, and she probably didn’t think of me at all, but our paths crossed thirty-some years ago, and the news of her death brought those memories back to me tonight. This story may well describe the last time I saw her . . .
The year was 1977, and the show that’s clear in my mind was in the old Orpheum Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. It must have been summer, because I’d driven there in my blue Eldorado convertible with my brother. I wasn’t traveling with the tour, but they had my sound equipment, and I was in Boston to fine tune the crossovers, limiters, and equalizers. I was also swapping out some of the amps; that tour used Phase Linear 700s, some of the least reliable but best sounding amplifiers ever to do a rock and roll show . . .
Phoebe was two years from her debut album, Phoebe Snow. She had recorded another album, Second Childhood with producer Phil Ramone, but it had not sold as well and she was kind of struggling to find her way after changing musical directions and the birth of her child. She was touring the music from both albums, playing the “artsier” arrangements like No Regrets and Isn’t it a Shame, but the audience wanted the simplicity and beauty of Poetry Man.
Dan Hill had just found the biggest hit of his career with Sometimes When We Touch. That’s the only song of his that most people know, but he had other sweet melodies, like You are All I See and Still Not Used To.
We (the guy on monitors and myself) watched the whole show from the alcove on stage left, next to the monitor console. I stood at the edge of the curtains looking out across the stage. I remember each of them singing, and then the two of them together, at the end of the night. I wish I could remember what they sang together.
There was a nice perch I'd found by the amplifiers, which sat on the floor with heavy cables going forward to the speaker arrays on scaffolds to either side of the stage. I watched the needles swing in time to the music, never coming close to maximum power. I marveled at how little it took to fill a big hall with simple vocals and instruments. I’d had Black Sabbath in the same venue, a few months before, using ten times the wattage from the same racks of equipment.
I liked shows like those, because I enjoyed the melodic performances. I did a lot of heavy rock and roll, but I always felt my ears and my gear took a beating, while performances like Dan and Phoebe were comfortable and warm. And they were challenging . . . when you have a simple show, with one vocal and one instrument (a piano or guitar) ringing out, they must be clear, brilliant, and smooth.
Shows like these were among the most challenging jobs I did, because the sheer volume and distortion at a loud heavy metal concert hid many defects and errors; faults that were plain to hear at lower volume shows like this one. The simpler the music, the better it has to be delivered, to sound right.
Phoebe and Dan always struck me as solo performers, but both were backed up by bands. However, the bands were really in the background for the whole show. When I recall the night, I can’t remember the other musicians at all, though I remember the sounds of the piano and the guitar, and of course we were using a 24-track mixing console with all the channels filled so there had to be a other few musicians to feed it!
It’s funny . . . I can remember every piece of equipment at the show, and the car I drove there, and even the feel of the curtains behind the stage. But I cannot for the life of me conjure up the faces of the musicians.
I guess that’s the Asperger’s . . . I lived in a world of machines, not people, and the gear was my world. I wonder if I’m still that way today . . . so much has changed, but much is still the same; more than I know sometimes . . .
Best wishes to you all
PS: The photo I chose is not Dan Hill or Phoebe Snow; it's John Sebastian at a performance in 2008. I chose it because I felt it evoked the feeling of that night, so long ago. I could have gone and cribbed a "Phoebe photo" online but I don't do that . . . this blog is illustrated with my own photos, not stuff I find online.