He rolled his son over in a mechanized wheelchair with several tubes, wires and blinky machines attached. I’d been working on not letting surprise or pity cross my face. I gave a big smile, a hardy hello and some small talk about the quality of hospital food. Though his son was small and frail he was 10 years old. I apologized that I only had preschool tunes to offer. I thought to myself of course I also know tons of raunchy pub tunes but those would likely get me disinvited from playing there again.
They looked at each other, both a bit disappointed but not wanting to be rude said, “Oh that’s ok. We’ll just hang out for the show with the little ones anyway.” A few seconds of odd silence hung over us while I kept setting up. Then I spastically blurted out “I do a James Brown version of wheels on the bus you might like?” I suppose it was a bit prejudicial to assume he would appreciate an homage to Soul Brother # 1 over say, Rupert Holmes’ Pina Colada song but I was desperate for a connection point.
The father said, “What’s that now?” with his left eyebrow right up against his hairline. “You want to hear it?” I tried to sell the idea with excitement in my voice. The boy shrugged his shoulders with his palms up and eyes down.
So I bust into it and ask them to tell me when to do the stop time breaks. They were sitting side by side about 7-10 feet from me. By the end of the first verse they were both singing with some volume, looking straight at each other with faces that acknowledged the silliness and awkwardness of the moment. By the third verse I had stopped singing, it was just them, singing to each other, having their own moment without me, laughing and dancing in their seats. Their moment must have been about a great deal more than my version of wheels on the bus. But it was that stupid song that gave it to them. I was just a six-string karaoke machine in the background of their moment together at that point.
I’d always thought I had to be the show, fill the room with my presence and take over all of the audience’s senses. This experience showed me that I could provide something special by not trying to fill it all up myself. It was one of the best musical experiences of my life.
In that instant I really felt like I had given them a gift, something they shared together. I have to acknowledge that the power of the moment was of course born out of their traumatic circumstances. But that only underscores the importance of making sure things like the gift of a simple silly song are brought to those who need them.