Making Moments on Movie Night in Montclair (Part 2 of 2)

Here We Go!

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson


It was time to rock. Our first number is almost always “Jungle Gym Jamming,” and I gave Miguel the tempo by speaking the phrase “Jungle Gym Jamming” a few times at the pace I wanted. He counted us in and we were into the show. At the song’s opening I was making eye contact with the audience, which was nicely situated on blankets and lawn chairs in the street. I was trying to get a feel for ways to delight this collection of families, pre-schoolers, tweens and teens. Interacting with Judy and Casey on stage helped to maintain audience interest, as well as adding some physical movements that match the lyrics. In “Jungle Gym Jamming,” I encourage kids to “stomp to the beat,” “jump up and down,” “play some air guitar” and “spin in circles.” So I physicalized these words to the best of my ability while singing and playing guitar.


When I laid into the solo, Judy came to center stage to interact with me; I think that helps to intrigue an audience. And as with many good punk songs, I lead us out with several rhythmic chants of “HEY! HEY!” I’m used to hearing polite clapping between songs, but hearing young voices fully cheering was really something special! As I write this blog, I’m trying to remember the exact sound of all those kids going “WOOOOOO!”  and take that moment with me.

When I Say Marco, You Say Polo!

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

The moment when I truly knew we had the audience with us was in “Stay in the Pool,” which we performed second, when I got a call-and-response going: “When I say Marco, you say Polo! Marco! ____________! Marco! _____________!” – the shouts of “Polo!” back from the crowd were spirited and we kept that going for 4 times through (it’s only one time through on the record). This was our first-ever public, live performance of the full band arrangement of this song, and it went over as well as I had hoped. As soon as it ended, we segued right into “All Star,” and it was really gratifying to see all those kids and some adults mouthing the lyrics along with me.

My new guitar strings were slipping a little out of tune and I took a moment out to tune up. To make sure I didn’t lose the audience, I told the crowd what I was doing and I added a line I had picked up from another performer: “I tune because I care.” Now confidently in-tune, we launched into “Jackals on the Prowl,” which tends to be a crowd favorite in Montclair because the song’s namesake, the NJ Jackals play at the Montclair State University campus. This was our first public performance of this homegrown sports anthem with Casey in the band.

Our song “Window of the Train” was performed with dynamics – volumes rising and falling to give the impression of a train trip beginning, chugging along, and then coming to rest. I always get a kick out of looking over at Peanut during that song when I sing about “Grandma & Grandpa waving at me,” especially when my parents are with her, and I get to see them waving at each other.

Going Acoustic

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

The time was flying by and we reached the acoustic portion of our set. I quickly switched guitars and kicked us off into “Glass Half Full,” a song that deals with adult issues of sustaining optimism when things go wrong or our mood is off, but I feel it relates to everyone. Casey improvised a great call-and-response part in the verses and the band gave the song a great feel.

One of our great moments of connecting with the audience came as I introduced “The Pick Song.” I held up my pick and said “Don’t put the pick in your…” – then I heard all kinds of responses from the audience at once. The response that came out the clearest was “EYE!” – and with that I started strumming the intro and the band joined in. This song works like a good Pixar movie – it’s very kid-friendly and relevant to what we need to teach pre-schoolers when I let them strum my guitar – a friendly reminder not to put the pick in their mouths or drop it down the guitar’s sound hole. It works on the adult level too with clever setups to the variation of lyrics in the choruses that gets adults and teens laughing in anticipation of the punch line.

Photo by David Nelson
Photo by David Nelson

With time remaining for only one more song, but six more on the setlist to choose from, my inspiration to choose the last song came right from the sky. That beautiful waxing gibbous moon I could see rising over Manny’s Diner prompted me to play “Peek-a-boo Moon” as our closing number.

A Band on the Rise

It was clear all throughout the stage that as a band we continued to raise our game from one gig to the next, as we have since the beginning. This was only Casey’s second gig as a member of the group, and our previous full-band show was almost 2 months before this one. As she loosened up and had fun onstage, her vocals sounded freer and her harmonies blended with my melodies more naturally. She and Judy both continue to interact more with me onstage and create more moments. Miguel covered Ross’ parts ably and confidently and our band continues to improve as we work with both drummers. We’re heading into a busier time in our schedule with a growing confidence that we’re prepared for the growing opportunities ahead of us, one level at a time.

Packing Up and a Cool New Invitation

We quickly moved our gear off the street. I paused briefly to give Peanut a great big hug and got right back to moving equipment off the street so that the movie could begin.

On the sidewalk we started to pack up. During the packing, I was happy to be approached in conversation by Joann Smalls, a key player in the Montclair music scene. She invited us to perform at an outdoor festival for kids in September, which we’re now in the process of working out.

I could feel the benefit of having fulfilled Lisa’s request for live entertainment that night, and then having worked out the unique problems with the scheduling and physical logistics. Taking those obstacles in stride and then giving a heartfelt performance from everyone in the group led us to a good place and helped build constructive relationships with people who love the arts in our town like we do.

What requests have you come through on that ended up benefitting you? What challenges have you overcome happily, with gusto? What moments in doing your favorite things do you try to hold onto and remember? Do foresee events in your future where you can be more mindful of opportunities to soak up a little extra happiness?



The Thrill of Freedom, Kindie Music and Pancakes!

"I love when my music is an occasion for new friendships" - Jason Didner

Last Saturday night was a night of firsts: my first solo performance representing the Jungle Gym Jam, the Broad Street IHOP’s first engagement of a musician for its long-running Family Fun Night series, and my first time ever performing using a wireless microphone or guitar transmitter (I used both).

For years I had seen the flyers up in the IHOP advertising a family fun night with a balloon artist or face painter and had thought, “hmmm, they should have a musician. I’ll bet I could do that…” but left the thought there. Of course, I didn’t identify myself as a kindie artist at that time. In recent weeks I rekindled the thought since I consider IHOP to be a family-friendly tradition and a great place to introduce parents and kids to our songs live, in-person and with ample opportunities to interact in between sets.

After a few enthusiastic phone calls and e-mails with the brothers who own the local franchise, we made a go of it. Then began the considerations: Do I bring a speaker system? I knew that this was a restaurant, not a nightclub, so volume needed to be kept low enough for patrons to be able to enjoy dinnertime conversation. I also knew it was a big restaurant divided into two rooms that have little to no line of sight between them. The first consideration led me to think about bringing no amplification at all. The second consideration raised the concern that every time I visit one room in the restaurant, the other room would get no trace of my performance, which could have a disorienting effect for the audience, especially in the middle of a song. But even if I brought a conventional PA system with a mic on a  stand, that would raise the problem: where do you set up so everyone who wants to see you perform can do so, especially kids who would have their back to you in a booth? My answer was to get a wireless headset mic and a wireless guitar transmitter, so I could move freely around the space.

Jason Didner of the Jungle Gym JamFor the show, I wore my new green custom Converse sneakers for the first time and picked up a cool accessory at Party City – a red bracelet that lights up when you move your wrist. Perfect for strumming, I thought!

Setup went smoothly and Viola, the restaurant’s manager, greeted me very warmly, offering me coffee or anything I might want. I tested the wireless equipment in the larger space, sound checking with the Beatles song “Eight Days a Week.” The gear seemed to work fine with one exception: my range of how far I could walk with the guitar transmitter was limited. If I walked to the back corner tables, the signal would cut out and then come back as I got closer to the receiver. The microphone seemed to work from absolutely everywhere.

Just before showtime at 6:00, there were a few other families with kids in the venues, along with some all-adult parties. Then, my wife Amy, my mother Linda and 2-year-old Peanut arrived and got a table. I gave out some maracas and tambourines I brought for audience participation. Soon, I launched into “I’m a Believer” to start the set. The freedom of being able to move around among the audience was exhilarating! I was spinning, dancing, making eye contact with families wherever their tables were, in both rooms of the divided restaurant.

More families arrived during the course of the first set and going into the second set. One family had a middle-school aged boy and his younger sister. My first thought was to work in some songs that would appeal to the kids in the older range of our audience. When I launched into an Elvis medley, I was pleased to hear a maraca played with expert timing and a great flourish on the song ending. I asked our young teen if he was a drummer, and he said yes. It’s always great to jam with young student musicians and feed off their energy!

One couple with a young school-aged son and a baby daughter arrived. The mom told me between sets that they had seen our calendar entry in Baristanet and that they liked both IHOP and family music so this Family Fun Night was a natural fit for them. During that break I took Peanut around to all the tables that had kids and mingled a bit. Peanut was thrilled with this and kept telling my mom, “People! People!”

A great moment occurred during the second set when one mother and her three kids were getting ready to leave. While they were waiting to pay the check, her kids were dancing to my tunes. My mom took Peanut for a walk around the restaurant and my little one joined right in with her new friends’ dance moves. I love when my music is an occasion for the beginning of new friendships!

At the close of the set, I sat down to have my dinner with my family and reflect on the wonderful moments of the show. The next day I stopped back in at the IHOP to follow-up with one of the franchise owners and plan our next steps. I’ve been invited back to perform on Saturday, August 24. I gladly accepted and we will make a few adjustments. The challenge is to lower the volume of the PA system where it was set up by the front counter and still be audible at the back tables of the restaurant. I believe the answer will be the addition of more speakers in the far corners of the restaurant, with each one at a significantly lower volume. The challenge is to honor the wishes of people coming to their favorite restaurant to eat and enjoy their conversations while putting on a dynamic and engaging show that encourages kids to make new friends and enjoy a memorable night out with the family.

The Thrill of Freedom, Kindie Music and Pancakes!