Lil Messengers

I love having young parents at my gigs because they always send their young kids tottering up to deliver tips and song requests on their behalf. This is already adorable but what’s better is that I get to watch the entire interaction play out: a mom stands her little boy out of his chair and looks him in the eye. She hands him the money and the request, gently folding his tiny hand around it herself as she explains their mission. She leans in and whispers instructions quietly, discreetly, like she wants the collaborative nature of their plan to be a secret. Then she points right at me, blowing their cover.

Almost every time, the kid looks at me, then back at her with fear and confusion in his eyes. “Really? ME?” he seems to say. “Yes,” she says, nudging him in my direction. Sometimes he gets halfway towards me then suddenly runs back, wrapping himself around his mother’s leg. She shakes him off and, seizing the teachable moment, urges him not to be afraid and to try again. He always does.

I’m in the middle of a song and there’s not enough time between lyrics for me to tell the boy everything I want to - that I saw he was afraid but came up anyway, that I’m proud of him, that my heart is a little warmer for witnessing his family today - so I usually say a quick “Hey - thank you!” and hope his parents know the rest.

With Great Power...

One drunk couple at the gig tonight - without consciously recognizing why - started making out every time I played something sexy and stopped whenever I broke the mood (James Blake = so many smooches, Fiona Apple = let’s get another drink). This went from fun to stressful in like five minutes. Do you know what it’s like to have to pace someone else’s makeout marathon? It’s a LOT of responsibility.

Pancakes

Sometimes people ask what's my favorite compliment I've ever gotten, and usually I can't think of anything in particular - but I will never have this problem again because of what someone said to me after last night's show: “If I wanted to seduce somebody, I’d play them your music and make them pancakes.”

Bill Withers

Last night I'd just started a Bill Withers song when an old black guy who’d been sitting quietly near the stage suddenly looked up at another old black guy all the way across the bar - they nodded, gave each other a thumbs up, and went back about their business. I don’t think that had anything to do with me but I’m going to pretend it did

No I Will Not Mention Your Dick Pics

Tonight’s gig was at a nice Italian restaurant where I’m used to seeing kids with crayons, old couples slurping linguine, etc. — but this time two middle-aged women sat with their backs to me and spent at least a full minute discussing the dick pic pulled up on one of their phones. I’m talking a serious dick pic too, full-frontal with no face but with everything else: shoulders, chest, legs, and especially dick. I’ve dealt with plenty of awkward moments in my life but pretending you didn’t just see a strange penis on someone’s phone when they come up to request a song takes a whole new level of personal strength.

No I Will Not Say “Beef Curtains” Into The Microphone

Supremely satisfying moment: Near the end of tonight’s gig a group in the crowd started submitting requests under obnoxious names like “Dickworm” and “Beef Curtains” hoping that I’d read them into the microphone for their amusement, which I didn’t find all that amusing. I was playing one of their requests (Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) when fellow pianist Alex Thompson tapped me on the shoulder - he was passing through and wanted to stop by and say hello.
“Feel like playing the rest of this song for me?” I asked slyly.
“Sure,” he said.
I stood up and kept the rhythm going with one hand; he took my seat at the piano and started playing and singing the second verse of “Toxic” without a single hiccup in the song.
I looked around to see who had noticed our switcheroo and I realized the group was still talking and laughing amongst themselves; as far as they were concerned that was still me at the piano. I walked over and sat next to them as stealthily as possible while their request continued in the background. I waited until they noticed me to say, “Hi, I’m Gabriel. So which of you is Dickworm?”

Like A Virgin

“Like A Virgin” was one of my first requests last night, from a giggling girl who dedicated it to her friend.

The friend was a semi-regular at the wine bar - I saw her about once a month - and I’d noticed she got this request a lot. Sometimes from friends, sometimes from herself, but always under her name. “Like A Virgin” is the sort of song where you can’t help but wonder what that means.

I took my break and talked to her for a little bit. After a while I mentioned my curiosity. “If it’s not weird to ask, why do you and your friends always put this song under your name?” I asked. “What’s the deal there?”

She smiled and flashed me her purity ring. “My friends do it to poke fun at me for saving myself,” she answered happily.

“Makes sense,” I said. “But then why do YOU request it too?”

She smiled again. “I just really love Madonna.”

The Murder Of Bohemian Rhapsody (AKA Accidentally Opening For The Police)

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I used to play at a dueling piano bar, which I suppose isn’t obvious based on how often dueling piano bars are proposed to me as an exciting new frontier I should explore. I usually lie to be polite and thank people for the exciting new suggestion rather than admit I tried and it wasn’t for me. It’s best to stay positive. I’ve been too honest before and it bums people out to be reminded that music is still a job, with varying levels of dignity and fulfillment based on what position you get, just like everything else.

Dueling piano bars are as such: Two huge pianos onstage, set up opposite each other. Multiple pianists, swapping out strategically so they can sustain party vibes for sets that run up to seven hours, ending as late as 2 or 3 AM. Every single song built around singalongs, audience participation, and the purchase of expensive alcohol. Depending on who you are this is either the platonic ideal for the concert experience or the musical equivalent of a monster truck rally - though everyone can agree it’d be improved by the addition of actual dueling. It is certainly a good time for the people who enjoy it, which sounds redundant until you realize there are things you can’t quite describe that way (documentaries, sleeping, Bon Iver).

Rum Runners is the name of the dueling piano bar in my area, on Moore Square in Raleigh, NC, not far from The Pour House and what used to be Tir-Na-Nog. It’s vaguely tropics-themed in a way that appears to have zero impact on their branding, and you can walk straight past the bathrooms into a dance club lit just a little too well. I briefly worked at Rum Runners but didn’t hang around long enough to reach a paid position, mostly because I could tell it would break my spirit long before it paid my bills. I hadn’t even heard of half the songs we were supposed to play but the audience liked me because I was cute by dueling pianist standards. All that really meant was I wasn’t old enough to have let years of alcohol and caffeine dependency melt my body like a candle. It’s a draining lifestyle - gamers get claw hand, wrestlers get cauliflower ear, and dueling pianists age like Meatloaf.

It’s a time responsible for many surreal performance experiences, but none more surreal than my brutal murder of Bohemian Rhapsody five feet away from an actual crime in progress.

I was doing my trial ten or fifteen minutes behind the starboard piano when the request came in: Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody. The big one. The next pianist, a seasoned veteran eager to push the newbie towards greatness, asked if I could play it.

I only knew the first three minutes of the song, and I figured it would take any audience roughly three minutes to come to the same conclusion. But we’d been encouraged to embrace mistakes in the training process.

So “Sort of” was my answer. He suggested I take it. I took it. The audience cheered in excitement as I started, oblivious to the disaster that lay roughly three minutes ahead.

“Mama just killed a man.” “I wish I’d never been born at all.” A guitar-less guitar solo. Three minutes passed in no time at all. Time flies when you fear the future.

My eyes squeezed tight with shame, savoring my last moments of human acceptance, I finally reached the bridge I didn’t know (“I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me”). Only a few chords in I could already feel a palpable tension and confusion taking over the room. The singalong stopped. My face got even redder. I can’t tell you exactly how I handled the rest other than banging messy chords at vaguely the correct rhythm and trying to act like it was intentional. I finally got to the next section (which I could actually play just fine), and was heartbroken to find that not a single person was still singing along; the show had stopped dead in its tracks. I’d ruined the moment. I’d ruined the song. I stepped down, defeated. “Okaaaaay then,” the next pianist said into my ear before getting onstage and doing his job correctly.

A few minutes passed. I nursed my pride in the corner where the audience couldn’t see me. Finally I came over to my boss, who’d been kind enough to have me on and likely needed to be reconvinced of my worth.

“That was so embarrassing,” I said. “I really lost the audience there. People stopped singing along and everything.”

“What?” he responded. He seemed distracted.

I leaned in to reiterate my apology and suddenly noticed the flashing police cars by the sidewalk, right by the huge windows behind the stage. Was I THAT bad? I wondered.

“What’s with the police cars?” I asked.

My boss explained that, in the middle of my rhapsody (right at the bridge, in fact), some people had gotten in a fight on the street right behind me. A real fight. A bad fight. A who’s-going-to-clean-the-blood-off-the-sidewalk fight. The police got called; the police showed up; the red and blue lights went up behind me right when I hit the second guitar solo (how metal is that?). Freddie Mercury himself would’ve lost the audience’s attention.

I short: I couldn’t have asked for a better diversion. Or a worse one.

“Oh,” I finally responded. “I… I wondered why no one was into the singalong. I thought it’s because I messed the song up.”

“What?” my boss said again. “The song? It was great. You’re fine. You can go home for tonight but we’ll see you next week.”

I walked back to the parking deck alone, weaving through streetlights and midnight strangers, moral compass spinning wildly trying to glean some meaning from the night. I tried to figure out what was worse: not knowing a bridge or being so consumed by your own role that you miss a human event happening right behind you. I decided they were both bad and that whatever shame I felt was better than none, and started brainstorming ways not to embarrass myself next week. I don’t think I ended up going the next week after all, which in retrospect covered the issue quite well.

Happy

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I love performing for children because they have the most genuine and unpredictable reactions of anybody. Just last night I played “Happy” to a restaurant full of young soccer kids. They danced between chairs and tables and parents and by the time the second chorus came they started taking the “clap along” lyric seriously. So they started clapping. Not in rhythm, not with the song, not to applaud me, just… clapping. Like seals, or popcorn, or a gas burner that won’t start. Just a whole girls’ soccer team running around a restaurant wildly clapping along to nothing for two minutes. And I knew they weren’t mocking me or my outdated-yet-cliche song selection - that was *actually* their idea of a good time. Props to those kids for doing happy better than anyone else.

The Love Bomber

I may have met the world’s nicest heckler at a gig this weekend.

I was barely into my set but he was already on my radar for his parody-level drunkenness - head dangling from his neck like an apple that barely remembered it was on the tree, gaze wandering aimlessly like a marble rolling across a table. Plenty of sitting room available around him, but still no one wanted to be his couch buddy. You know the type.

Yes, mothers don’t raise their sons to be this man - but no sweat. A fan is a fan. I can deal. But then he started talking to me.

And talking to me.

And talking to me.

First from the couch, then standing, then standing as close as he could possibly stand, terrifyingly sincere eye contact burning into me at full force. Scientists study water’s ability to erode soil when they clearly should be studying alcohol’s ability to erode concepts of personal space.

For what must’ve been forty or fifty minutes this man talked to me at varying levels of uncomfortable distance and volume, shouting declarations, asking questions in the middle of a lyric and earnestly expecting an answer. Yet, in this whole time, not a single negative word passed his lips. In fact, he couldn’t have been more positive. Where lesser men might insult your music and pretend to know your mother, this man would NOT stop trying to raise my self-esteem - every drunken “You’re amazing” was followed thirty seconds later by an even drunker “Brother you’re so good, why isn’t everyone singing along, here I’ll start BLACKBIRD SINGING IN THE DEAD OF NIIIIIIIGHT.” He took my general lack of response as a sort of emotional timidness, like maybe I was embarrassed because I felt unworthy of his praise. But he IS worthy! he seemed to say to himself. I will show him he is worthy.

And what do you say to a soul like that? How do you turn that sweetness and purity away? Suddenly I realized that mothers DO raise their sons to be this man - a human being who, reduced to his basest instincts and vocabulary, wanted to lift up those around him.

So I was trapped. The Love Bomber had found his target.

When all was said and done I tried and tried but I couldn’t find anything to say that meant both “I’m flattered” and “leave me alone forever,” so I just cried on the inside and wished you could kick someone out of a bar for loving you too much. And when the Love Bomber did finally stumble out the door, and his couch instantly filled up with several more functional listeners, I thanked my lucky stars that all that positivity was behind me.

Living With A Gluten Allergy (AKA Passion of the Glutard)

 photo by Ryan Cocca

photo by Ryan Cocca

“Is this gluten free? I swear I’m not a hipster, I actually can’t eat gluten. Well, technically I can, but it’d be a really bad time. I know this is super annoying right now. Sorry. I’m so sorry. Can we still be friends?”

Most allergies don’t require an explanation of your motivations and fears, but with gluten things are always more complicated. I spend most of my time in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, progressive towns where gluten-free living and posh hipsterdom often go hand and hand, so such qualifiers can feel necessary to make people understand that no, I don’t think I’m better than you, I just have this allergy thing I have to deal with.

The story of my diagnosis is pretty stupid: I felt dismally awful for two or three years, which I chalked up to the idea that I was just a shitty, defunct human being. Eventually I realized that having whooping cough and depression for 300 days a year was not normal, and maybe life could be better than this. The last six doctors had told me, “You’re stressed” or, “There’s a bug going around,” and pushed me back out the door, so I finally saw a specialist who would spend more time with me. They ran a few blood tests, and I finally learned the bitter truth a couple weeks later. A gluten allergy was the last thing I was expecting, but oh my goodness what a difference it made — after a month I was the happiest and healthiest I’d been since high school. In retrospect, my senior year is the only time in college I wasn’t a high-functioning idiot.

While my life has been immeasurably improved, there’s one nasty catch, which is the whole not eating gluten thing. Sure, I’ll take a gluten-free diet over a debilitating allergic reaction any day, but it’s a powerful sacrifice to make when gluten is apparently the secret ingredient in every delicious thing ever. Gluten is a sexy ex-girlfriend: I know better than to get back with her, but still, damn. It hurts, girl.

As you likely know, many people give up gluten for nutritional reasons, or as a way to one-up vegetarians on the stylish-sacrifice hierarchy. These people and I are different species. My diet before the diagnosis was characterized by aggressive consumption of all things gluten. I have eaten whole pizzas. I have gone to Cosmic Cantina three times in 24 hours. I have walked out of Rams Head dining hall with six cookies in my hand just because I could. This allergy is literally the only thing keeping me from eating a pound of pasta a day. Sadly, these are now fantasies, sepia-tinged memories that I look back on with gluten-free melancholy. No more Cosmic. No more Sunrise Biscuit. Goodbye beer; hello fruit and fake bread!

In due time I learned to live without — to adapt one expression, nothing tastes as good as not-having-an-allergic-reaction feels. But then a new perspective emerged. Now the thing I really miss about gluten isn’t the food itself, it’s the convenience; no food is cheaper and easier to prepare. I can still buy glutard allergen-free macaroni for four times the normal price if I feel like reliving a grimy, smelly version of an experience I used to take for granted, but somehow it’s just not the same. And dining out isn’t really an option unless I’m okay with inconveniencing my friends, who probably wanted to hold a conversation instead of watching me quiz the waiter on whether the chips and chicken strips have separate fryers. The sheer number of Chapel Hill restaurants named after bread (Noodles, Pita Pit, Sandwhich, Panera Bread) makes a mockery of my attempt to maintain a social life.

And again, gluten is a unique allergy in that it comes with the possibility of judgment. While the gluten-free movement has helped raise awareness and encourage restaurants to take gluten-sensitive measures, it has simultaneously cast gluten-free needs as a sort of superficial, elitist concern. Look no further than Rachel Ray’s“gluten-free” recipe where she paints gluten-free eaters as snobs then proceeds to fail at the whole gluten-free part (Corn flakes have malt flavoring. Nice research, Rachel!). Or you might read Kelly MacLean’s Surviving Whole Foods article that’s been making the rounds, in which MacLean skips the gluten-free aisle because she’s “not rich enough to have dietary restrictions,” and ruminates on the fact that “you don’t meet poor people with special diet needs.” Well, Namaste to you too.

It’s been over a year so I’ve gotten fairly used to things, and I look forward to becoming even more adjusted. Though I don’t really identify as a gluten-free person, it’s a part of my life and I’ve come to terms with it. But at the end of the day, if I have any advice for you, it’s this: eat gluten. Eat so much gluten. Eat gluten so that I may live vicariously through you, so that I may see the softness of a bagel and take solace in the fact that somebody will be enjoying it (it just won’t be me).

- originally published in Thrill City (Sept 25, 2013)
- republished in the Chapel Hill News (Oct 6, 2013)

The best/worst band bio I’ve ever written

I was fishing through some old high school documents when I came across what is, after six years, still unquestionably the best and worst band bio I’ve ever written:

One upon a time, Gabriel David and Colin Bradley were sitting through another boring on-campus lunch.
Suddenly Colin sat up from his slump. “Gabe, we should make a band,” he declared.
“Oh, absolutely,” said Gabe, who practiced no restraint whatsoever in forming bands. “Let’s think of a name.”
Colin stroked what would become a fearsome beard in the years to come. He belched meditatively. “The Homeowners’ Association,” he announced.
“Alright,” said Gabe, who recognized that there were very few circumstances under which the name of this band would actually matter. “What do you play?” he asked.
Colin shot Gabe a quizzical stare. “Play?”
The rest, as they say, is history.