April 20, 2022
One winter after I graduated college, the drummer from my college band invited me to a New Year’s Eve jam session in Ithaca, NY. His buddy was throwing a party in this farmhouse out in the woods and my buddy was kind enough to invite me as his guest.
We drove down the winding snow-covered roads of upstate New York. Eventually, we pulled up to this beautiful old farmhouse. We dragged our gear up to the attic where we found a drum set and a ton of amps were already there. People trickled in as the sun when down and the jam session got started. We played all night, even when the ball dropped in NYC.
I’ve never been much good at improvisation, but I took a few solos. I embarrassed myself a bit… not because I was all that terrible, but because the caliber of musicians was really good. There were great minds and talents in the room that night and it was a blast. I don’t want to name-drop, but there were some people in that room who would one day become significant folks in the music business. Of course, none of us knew it then, but looking back at the talent that was in that room I shouldn’t have been surprised.
In the morning, we drove back through the snow to Buffalo and life went on, but I never really forgot it. It was very different than my experience playing in bands had been where we wrote and rehearsed every note (with just a few occasional sections for improv). I was enamored by the feeling of awe that washes over when everyone comes together to create those magical musical moments, out of nothing.
Flashforward 20 years- I’m playing in a band called Featuring No One. FNO is a band that rarely plays a gig. Instead, we’re focused on building a community of friends and musicians. Occasionally we write and record a song. Each time we do, we always invite a friend to be featured on the track, kind of like the hip-hop folks do. Except, for us, it’s not a cheap promotional stunt. We’re not famous, and I don’t expect we will ever be, but we’re going to have a ton of fun and share the joy with those we love.
The early days of FNO were in my DC apartment. We’d sit with acoustic instruments and write songs, then if we had something we wanted to record we’d move to another location where we could do basic tracking. Once we had the rhythm tracks recorded we’d recruit a friend to sing or play a solo.
I’m not sure how we never got a noise complaint. I think my neighbors must have been saints. (Thanks Quebec Housers!) We recorded a few tracks and dumped them onto SoundCloud. It was a blast. I still have vivid memories of Jehn tracking vocals in the bathtub of my studio apartment. Those were the days, and she rocked it.
Flash forward a few more years later, I bought a house with my wife. Suddenly FNO had the space to play, and enough distance from my neighbors so we could get loud. Our focus shifted more to building chemistry within the core group. We stopped writing songs for a while and focused on rehearsing cover tunes. Sometimes we’d experiment with different instruments. We had the freedom to learn and grow and develop our skills and chemistry.
Eventually, we started working on a setlist, but we still had no intention of playing shows. We just wanted to be able to competently play songs we loved. Eventually, we had 10 songs, then 15, maybe more.
This was great fun and very fulfilling, but eventually, we started to get detached from the community that we had when we invited Jehn, Alex, Ashley, and Drew into the sessions. There were five people core in the band and those same 5 people came to rehearsal (well 4 of us, one member moved out of town, so his role changed a little… more about that later). Our other friends weren’t involved anymore. I’m not sure if that bothered the rest of the band, but it bothered me. So, I started strategizing.
I recalled that night in Ithaca, NY. I wanted to share that live experience with my friends and family so I pitched an idea to FNO. I suggested a Hootenanny, where all our friends could join in and be a part of the band for the night- whether they had talent or not. They were in.
We sent an evite to 30-40 of our friends. We instructed them to bring whatever instruments they had. If they didn’t have any they could sing. If they couldn’t sing, they could still come and listen and party. We published our setlist and encouraged people to learn the tunes and plan to join in.
I set up the PA with a few extra mics and put all my extra guitar amps out. The basement was set up for a full five-piece rock band (plus special guests) and the living room upstairs was set up for an after-hours acoustic jam session.
The night of Hootenanny started a little bit like a house party gig. FNO jammed and our friends and family politely listened. After a little encouragement and lots of liquid courage, a few of our more daring friends started to join in.
The flood gates burst open when our buddy Josh showed up with his bass. He pluigged in and joined in as though he’d been rehearsing with the band for years. Josh is a gigging musician with a vast repertoire. He made it look easy, and when others saw him join in, they felt empowered to do the same. Suddenly everyone was grabbing a tambourine or a microphone, and then the party really came to life.
Occasionally someone would offer to lead a song, we’d do our best to follow. Sometimes it was ok, sometimes it was terrible. It didn’t matter, it was loud and fun.
That was early March 2020. I don’t need to tell you what happened about a week later. That’s all chronicled elsewhere. Our little Hootenanny was the last bit of socialization that some of us had for quite some time.
Now I don’t know if people look back at it nostalgically because of everything that happened after. Maybe they really had as much fun as I did. Regardless, throughout the lockdowns, people would chat me up over Zoom calls to talk about how much fun they had that night and to beg for me to host another one soon.
Well after about a year of lockdowns we started planning for the next Hootenanny. FNO wrote a setlist and started learning the tunes. We even added some fresh blood to the band. Now I’m happy to say that the second Hootenanny is about to happen next weekend.
It’s a really easy theme party to throw if you’re already set up for a band, even easier if your friends all play acoustic instruments. If you’re looking for a way to make music play a bigger role in your happiness, this could be a GREAT way to do it.
I’ll try to post the evite, setlist, and other information in the information below so you can use it as a template for your own Hootenanny. Trust me, you won’t regret it.