Slide Advance Keyboard
June 25, 2020
I love music and am fascinated by good musicians.
I love watching the ones who make it look effortless while tearing out your heart or bringing you joy with their playing.
I've picked up various instruments over the years but either lack the talent, commitment, or both to make anyone feel anything except sorry that they can hear me.
It could be how I ended up in radio.
I could tell a story. I could touch you with my voice. But my main job was to serve as the smooth transition from one element to another. I would take you from one song to the next or from the news back into music.
It was like my time in theater. I was never much of an actor, but I loved being around shows and helping make productions special for an audience without being seen. I ran the lights, managed the audio, or stage managed. If I did my job right, no one noticed.
Before everything shut down, I'd started going to live theater again when I travelled to London. I saw Ian McKellen's one man show, the debut of Neil Gaimann's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane", and David Suchet in Arthur Miller's "The Price".
McKellen advised that if there's something we're thinking of seeing, go.
Don't put it off. Don't think you can do it later.
And here we are. We can't go. We're mostly at home - not going.
I don't take any of this for granted. From formal acts to street performers.
I remember an early trip to San Francisco where I'm walking around enjoying the day, down on some pier and I see a guy demonstrating the Stick. It looked so easy. You know, that so easy that tells you it's not.
Years later at a CocoaConf, Eric Knapp played the Stick for us as part of a James Dempsey and the Breakpoints Jam. I told him I'd only heard the instrument once when I was in San Francisco. Eric smiled and told me I'd seen Bob Culbertson. He said Bob was the best Stick player in the world and Eric had taken a workshop from him.
He was just playing on the street. Best Stick player in the world.
How many people had just walked by him?
How many musicians had I just walked by?
James Dempsey joined the CocoaConf circuit and would play a concert of the very funny songs he'd written about various Mac and iPhone programming topics.
He started at Apple's Developer conference with a song after his session. James created slides to accompany his songs. Sometimes the joke was in the lyrics, sometimes the joke was in the slides, often the joke was in the juxtaposition.
Next to James, on stage, was Victor Alexander.
Victor's job was to tap the space bar and advance the slides at precisely the right moment.
Victor was the world's first slide advance keyboard artist. He was great. You may scoff, but he was the best in the world.
These song performances became a thing. You'd see other sessions refer to sessions you might want to attend for more on a particular topic and one of those sessions would have a guitar next to the title and you'd say "Oh, this is where James is playing this year's song."
These were the days before WWDC was sold out and so people would leave other sessions towards the end of the time slot and crowd in to the room to hear the song and see the slides.
After James left Apple, he started speaking at various conferences including CocoaConf. He described it as modern day vaudeville because many of the speakers were on the CocoaConf circuit and would give the same talk in different cities for a year and then work on next year's act.
By then he had released a single on iTunes and later an album. He'd organized yearly concerts of James Dempsey and the Breakpoints playing music from the album and more with a full band and many guests. Over the years there were many guitarists, drummers and percussionists, bass and keyboard players, horn players, a cellist and a violinist, and a hit parade of guest vocalists.
But most of these people had real jobs.
They could join the concert each year near Apple's developer conference because they were in town for the conference or lived nearby.
But CocoaConf was a traveling show. These people with real jobs couldn't drop everything to play at a Holiday Inn outside of [insert town here].
So James came up with the Breakpoint Jam.
Folks who were speaking at or attending the conference or who lived nearby, would bring their instruments and join James on stage. It was very cool. The show was different every time.
Victor was one of those people who had jobs so James asked me if I would sit in on slide advance keyboard.
I was thrilled.
It meant I had the best seat in the house - and it meant that I was doing what I loved doing - working backstage to support the actual performers. Often backstage was on-stage but that's mainly because James is generous that way.
The last few years I was fortunate enough to advance the slides at the "LIVE Near WWDC" show.
And here we are. There is no WWDC this year. We're mostly at home - not going.
Many musicians have streamed concerts big and small for their fans. I recently watched Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt exchanging songs.
James decided to do the same. He would put together a video of his biggest hit, "The Liki Song" combining musicians who had played with him over the years.
I thought that was a great idea and looked forward to seeing the result.
James invited me to join in. There's no place for a slide advance keyboard in a video but he would have none of that. He asked me to record myself advancing slides and so I did. He was also kind enough to ask me to introduce the video.
It took me back to my radio days and all the fun I had introducing the next record or bringing bands on stage at concerts.
Check out the Liki Song video from James Dempsey and the Breakpoints LIVE-ish and if you're so moved, give to one of the causes on the page.
I'm honored to be among the elite slide advance keyboard players in the world.