Chris Neville: He Who Bringeth The Party

If you see Chris Neville on stage, you know you’re in good hands.  You're at a party.

The music is going to be smokin’.  You will be transported.  And you will laugh!  

The kind of laughing you did when life was just beginning, you were among good friends, becoming one with the music and each other: your hopes and dreams breathing in your ears, moving deeper and deeper into your imagination, transforming themselves and you.  Life right there for you to scoop up and fashion into something grand!  Or…to take home with you, tuck into bed, and cuddle up with.  You can't make a wrong move.  Whatever you do next, you do what you feel to do, and it feels good. Know why?

Because the music just reminded you that you have a perfect right to BE.  

Such is the power and influence of Chris Neville as a musician, bandleader, and human being.  He is in too many bands to count, including The Zimmermen (me too)  and of course, Tributosaurus.  

I first came across him as songwriter, not sideman.  I have never forgotten that evening at SPACE in Evanston, a concert organized by Ingrid Graudins with Naomi Ashley, Steve Dawson, Robbie Fulks, and Chris.  The well from which he draws up his original songs is deep, cool and refreshing. I am thrilled each time he says yes to being part of a Haiku Milieu concert. 

In the heart of the pandemic, he started presenting weekly shows.  Now, I do a monthly show and it feels like plenty. Somehow or other, he found time and headspace to work out the tech (and good humor) around broadcasting weekly!

He also does something near to my heart: he invites his friends to join him.  So not only do we get to see Chris perform, we get to experience his friendships, musical and otherwise, with lot of other bad*ss musicians and overall wonderful people. 

On New Year’s Eve, in a pandemic when we can't gather with family and friends, let's pretend we can and relive C-Nev's Christmas Spectacular.  Watch it here:  https://youtu.be/RrNYbapIhy8.

"When Jenny asked me to write this post about how C-Nev’s COVID Christmas Spectacular™ came together, I was a little unsure of what I could say about it beyond the technical process, but as always, she draws out things I didn’t know were in there….so here goes: 

I grew up in a family that celebrated the hell out of Christmas.  Lots of large parties, gatherings with friends every night leading up and following, trips to see lights, and all the trimmings (pun intended).  This has continued into my adulthood, with the added benefit of LOTS of musical performances - both performative and experiential.  It has become an integral part of the Christmas spirit for me - a chance to spend some time with the musicians I play and create with, the music fans that share in the love of live shows, and celebrate - I love it.  I don’t think I have had a holiday season without multiple gigs in the last 30 years - maybe longer.

This year obviously was like no other, and hopefully will be the last of its’ kind, but it meant that in addition to losing the family interactions that we all take for granted, the chance to perform and interact with the music community - my dearest friends - was erased entirely.  This is a loss that I know all musicians felt deeply, and I resolved to do something to capture at least a small taste of it. 

Since the pandemic hit, I have been doing a weekly live stream, and I have spent a lot of time learning and evolving the tech and the format to try and make it more of a “show” and less of a “guy on the couch with an instrument”.  Sound, video and production quality of the stream have become something of a white whale for me, and I try to learn and introduce incremental improvements every time I go live.  This requires daily studying on my part, and learning new skills - but it can be done.

I quickly realized that the most important ingredient of the experience was missing - other musicians.  Collaboration is the heart of it.  I mean, I like to play solo, and on occasion I can even be competent at it, but really what I was craving was interaction with my peers.  It is not currently possible technically to play in real time with another musician over the internet (on video), but at the very least I could start bringing on guests virtually, having a chat and then letting them play some songs - after all, any musician can tell you that the time spent backstage goofing around with the other players is often the best part of the gig.  So every week, I get to spend a little time with one of my friends and colleagues shooting the shit, and listening to them play a few songs - awesome!  I have even started doing some 2-person ‘In Studio’ performances, which are wonderful, if a little more difficult to pull off with everyone staying safe. 

Anyway, I digress…anyone who has ever worked with me can tell you I tend towards the large production.  I love a BIG show.  The weeks of work that lead up to it, the last minute stress and fretting the details, the incredible release of producing something that makes people say WOW.  I have had some pretty good success with that too over the years, and have filled some pretty large theaters in the process.  But again - COVID.  Shit.

Well, nothing was going to hold me back from at least trying to do something of magnitude to celebrate the season.  I had done a “TV Theme Show” a few months back, and had a lot of amazing people contribute a short video of them doing a theme - and it was a blast.  Using this idea as a template, I sent out an email to all of the folks who had been guests on the stream, and a few others asking if they could submit a Christmas or Holiday themed song video for this, right around Thanksgiving.  I thought I would get 10-12 videos, play a bunch in between to fill it out, and make a night of it.  I was humbled and touched at the reaction - I received 22(!) different Christmas and Holiday songs from both solo and small group musicians who wanted to be a part of it - and they are ALL amazing.  I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it is NOT.  I got simple beautiful solos and duets, huge multimedia productions, and everything in between - all performed by people who clearly cared about what they were sending.  It felt like every Christmas movie montage rolled into one.

So, I set out to stitch this all together into a coherent “Spectacular”.  (Side note:  I love to call these things “Extravaganzas” or “Spectaculars” as a nod to the big celebrity-laden TV specials off my youth, but also because it puts pressure on me to live up to it.)  I crafted my own songs for the show - now a challenge, because they had to be STRONG - and put together a show-flow.  Then I edited up all the videos for length, added titling where necessary, and equalized volumes.  Final Cut Pro is my weapon of choice for these tasks.  Then I got my green screen backgrounds and overlays happening, and designed all the scenes in the actual streaming software (Ecamm Live) so I could trigger things in real time, and get out of any jams that might, and usually do happen.  (Sure enough, I had a rare audio issue right at the start, but was able to fix it quickly.)  The video aspect adds a whole new dimension to these performances, and I have developed a healthy respect for TV producers this year.  It’s a lot to manage, but it is also immensely satisfying when it works.  I rehearsed my kids for their number, and it started to feel like this might come together on the afternoon of the show.

And it did - it was really something.  But the magic of it went well beyond the musical performances - it was a full chat room on both Facebook and YouTube, and most of the performers were there - it really did feel like a party!  Each performance garnered praise and interaction, and real time commentary - like a show.  I added my own segments in between, and I was truly touched and emotional by the end of it all - I wanted to continue the hang, just like we would in person.  And while we could not, it did me, and I hope others, a lot of good to feel that way again.  It keeps me hopeful for the future. 

I am still receiving notes and messages about how great the show was - a lot of people watched it with their families for Christmas, and I hope will still do so for a while.  Enough tips have come in that I can send a little something to all the performers, though not nearly what they deserve, and my love for our music community has grew 3 sizes that day.  It demonstrates again the resourcefulness, intelligence, and generosity of these musicians.  I would say talent as well, but I think that diminishes the work - talent only gets you half way there.

As we continue through this pandemic, and are still holed up for a while longer, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn some new things.  I know all of us in the music community will continue to use this time to explore and grow in ways we never considered before.  And when we can all be together again - soon now - these new skills will only enhance what we do, and help us to reach new audiences, and to better communicate with them and each other.  I am already working on the next big online show, even as the outlines of new live concerts start to take shape in the not-too-distant future - and I am looking forward to them all." - Chris Neville

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