Davis Mitchell is a Knoxville, Tennessee-based musician who channels musical talents with a Christian ministry. He is equally at home in front of a church crowd in Naples, Florida, or at a college dive bar in Tuscaloosa Alabama, where he and his band Dishwater Blonde mix in plenty of secular covers to match the mood of that bachelorette party bouncing a risque balloon around the crowd. Here he is doing a solo gig at a church function.
Like all performers, Mitchell is reluctant to criticize his fans too much; every performer appreciates the people who love his work. But, like all performers, he finds that life on stage has a unique set of trials.
Like the eternal live-show joke, “Play Freebird!” Mitchell, with his dual goals of ministry and entertainment, says his take on actually playing the song “depends on why you’re there. If you’re there to entertain, you should play Freebird. If you’re there to promote your material, you don’t have to.”
Here’s a longish clip — 8 minutes, but worth it — in which band members talk about their love of funk music. Oh, and they’re playing it, too.
Keep your eye on the guy with the bro-fro — that’s Cozmo Holloway, who’s now playing with rock and roll band the Dirty Guv’nahs. You need to hear them.
As for Mitchell: there’s also the problem of recognizing people he’s met before. “In general, as a musician, people just assume you know their name if they come to see you once. I’ve played probably 40 shows in the past few months and I’m genuinely sorry, but I don’t.”
And he is, he’s genuinely sorry about stuff like that. He’s that kind of person.
There’s also the matter of fueling up before performances, and winding down afterward. I asked if he ever wants to keep people at arm’s length a little so he can breathe. He says sometimes “you’ve got 10 minutes before you go on and you’ve just gotten your piece of pizza” and there’s scarcely enough time to wolf it down, while people approach and want to talk. “As I get older,” he says, “I just appreciate my personal space. There’s an overstimulation that happens; there’s something about the way musicians are wired. We get in a social setting and we lose our focus.”
And there are stage-crashers. When you play cover songs in bars, they happen. Mitchell takes it in stride. His advice? “Just play it off like it’s fun, part of the show. Over the years, you learn to handle it better. And the people who are there really to appreciate your music, they know when you’re getting a curve ball thrown at you and they appreciate it.”
The problem with letting someone sing, however, leads to the problem that one song is never enough. The solution? First: “Let’s give it up again for [fill in the blank], people!” And if that hint doesn’t get the “guest vocalist” off the stage, start playing a song he or she doesn’t know.
We also discussed balancing fans and friends. Fans may want more access to the performer than he or she can reasonably provide, whereas the real friends — for instance, the musicians Mitchell plays with — understand a person’s limits. Often, because they’re in the same position.
Frankly, that tension is difficult for us fans too. If you do meet someone you really admire, it’s really difficult, isn’t it, to keep the admiration at bay and act like a regular human being? It’s like a crush: we’re always wanting a little too much, and we know it, and that doesn’t make it any easier to keep things normal. Like Mitchell says, “it’s a delicate balance.”
I also asked about the pressure to put out new original material, either from one’s label or from the fans. The curse of doing really good work is that people want MORE really good work, and the creative process is unpredictable. Good ideas don’t always come just because you want them too. When fans ask when Mitchell is going to put out his next record — and it has been a couple of years — he says, “It’s flattering. But if you’re in a dry spell and they ask for it you get more sensitive about it. But other times they’re right, I do need to push myself a little bit more.”
If he’s going to keep writing songs like this, then yes.
For a musician like Mitchell, who still works a day job to pay the bills for himself and his young son Bowie, that’s particularly difficult. He says it’s “really hard, especially with bivocational artists. We’re working 40 hours a week, and in between there, the creative time — we have to make time for it. The older I get, the more responsibilities I have. I have to budget my time like a bank account.”
And here we are as fans, appreciating performers’ efforts but at the same time wanting more. For us, a great performance or a new song from someone we love — that’s payday, buddy.
Be good to the artists you love, people. They may make it look easy, but it ain’t.