September 2019 

Been digging in the past month or so, determined to finish some new tunes, and also finding fun cover tunes.  Sometimes we actually play more cover tunes than originals, particularly when we are doing what I call “ministerial” music, in order to entertain institutionalized audiences. This is the question haunting me this month:  When performing for institutionalized individuals, what is the place of cover tunes in the repertoire of artists who primarily play original music?  

There is nothing like playing a rock-solid-everyone-knows-and-loves-this-tune to open the door and shake hands with the audience.   Familiarity can be comforting as well as a lot of fun. On the other hand, it can also be really boring, whether you are listening or playing.  Armando’s in Martinez actually forbids the playing of “Mustang Sally.” As for me, I’ve come to the time in my life when the amount of notes left for me just might not allow for any more filler. I’m not sure I’m helping to make anyone’s life better by playing cover tunes at the expense of original music. I think it is all about balance. 

Playing for institutionalized audiences in particular represents a challenge in crafting a successful set list.  Must the ego crying out for self-expression and playing original tunes be spanked and put to bed without dessert? Of course not, but we must not forget we are there to serve others. When we perform original music, we are making ourselves vulnerable, and audiences sense that. This vulnerability is a great leveler.   

One solution to help balance the artist ego with the needs of the audience is to look for eclectic, maybe a bit obscure, cover tunes. Of course, if it’s on You Tube, how obscure is it, really?  Anyway, this solution may not always be the best one when seeking to provide familiar music, but it certainly doesn’t preclude the delivery of the comfort of music. Every so often what could be thought of as completely inappropriate (and perhaps even something you crossed off your regular set list years ago) actually provides a few moments of soul-cleansing abandon, for example playing “Jailhouse Rock” or “I Will Survive” in a prison. (Yes, we have done that. A lot. All praise to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Dept!) 

Ultimately, I just can’t help but think that the idea of dumbing down your set list is not always the best, or even the most therapeutic, way to go.  I feel strongly that just because an audience is institutionalized doesn’t mean their minds can’t be set free to wander and enjoy new experiences.  And opening your heart and mind to share music, whether original, familiar, or obscure, offers a mutually healing moment to everyone in the room.