Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Son the Budding Minstrel

This is Giacomo the Jester. I think my son wants to be him.

A lot can happen in a year. Back in 2008, my family went to the Sterling Renaissance Festival as we do most years and had a nice enough time. But it was really hard to listen to any of the music because the kids just weren’t having it. They’d whine and complain any time we weren’t in constant motion or watching something really action-packed. But my wife and I go as much for the music as for anything else and getting to hear some of our favorite performers is important to us. One of those performers is Giacomo.

He’s been a regular at Sterling for years and years – longer than my wife and I have been going there and we started in 1991. I remember one of those first few years he stopped and “showed” me how to woo my love by serenading her on my behalf. I wish I remembered what song it was that he'd sung.

Giacomo had three different acts back then. He did his own “Giacomo the Jester” show, which involved juggling, sleight of hand, and humor. We saw him perform it this year and he literally hasn’t changed a single word in all that time, making the act familiar in a comfortable way like a favorite chair.

Next, Giacomo and his partner Franco would perform the “Double Indemnity Knife-throwing Act.” Somehow I seem to have only seen this show a handful of times, whereas I’ve seen Giacomo’s solo show often enough to have it nearly memorized. It was a good show, though, exciting and humorous and it looked dangerous enough to draw folks in.

Lastly, Giacomo and Franco were musicians. Giacomo sang and played the guitar and the tin whistle, while Franco was quite a good fiddler and violinist. Joining them would be Looney Lucy on the bodhrán and Gabrielle on the concertina, and together they were Double Indemnity, the band. And they were excellent. Their three albums featured nearly two hours of outstanding Celtic and folk/renaissance music, all performed with an array of (masterfully-played) instruments, spot-on vocals and a few potent harmonies. They spoiled me, quite honestly, as I’ve since had a lot of trouble finding similar music that I felt measured up in quality, consistency and pure entertainment pleasure. Sadly, those old albums are so far out of print as to be wholly unavailable. A search I conducted when I decided that I’d like to buy CDs in place of my old cassette tapes turned up only one of the albums on ebay, and for a whopping $150 used.

Part of the reason they’re so rare, I suspect, is that Double Indemnity went the way of the Beatles (except I’m pretty sure everybody’s still alive) and Eagles – breaking up in a blaze of glory that, at one point, featured a puzzling plea on their website for legal counsel as “Franco’s suing Giacomo!!” The result was two bands– Franco and Gabrielle (and others) formed Crannogh (which may be quite good, but somehow I’ve never heard their stuff beyond a clip I found online and didn’t like), while Giacomo and Lucy gathered some mates and became Empty Hats (which for all I know is a nod to the outcome of the aforementioned lawsuit). Empty Hats sounds a fair bit like Double Indemnity and the two albums I have are excellent.

So, to bring this back in the general vicinity of my original point, that’s one fine example of the music we like to hear at the Renaissance Fair, with a little bit of history (from our perspective in the cheap seats, anyway) thrown in. And there we were, with the kids, trying to listen to Giacomo sing a set of ballads, when my older son turns to us and says “Oh my GOD this is horrible!” Yep, sitting right there in the audience while a professional musician sings love songs five feet away. I’d like to hope nobody heard him, but that’s pretty unlikely. The joys of parenthood.

But for the 2009 season, I’d made up my mind that we were going to listen to some music at the Faire and the kids were going to be good. So about a month before we were to go, I dug out my old cassettes and started playing Double Indemnity whenever the kids were around. Sure enough, by the time we went they were hooked and even had their favorite tunes. My son, the one who had previously found the music “horrible,” preferred a ballad called “Beggars to God.” He was also very fond of the more lively “Star of the County Down.” Granted, these weren’t the songs that Giacomo and Lucy actually sang at this year’s festival, but it didn’t matter – the kids were well and truly warmed up and very excited to go hear their songs.

Ancillary to all of this, but ultimately related (I’ll tie it all together by the end, I promise), was the fact that in May my son and I started taking guitar lessons. We were able to watch Giacomo and others play at the Faire and we came away discussing nuances of performance from our limited perspective as total guitar novices (up to and including the fact that evidently Giacomo uses fake fingernails as guitar pics – one of them popped off during a set and caught the boy’s attention).

As a result, the 2009 visit to Sterling was a whopping success. We were there from open to close and the kids had a wonderful time (though they were pretty worn out by the final pubsing and not in an especially good humor). During the same performance of ballads as we’d seen Giacomo do the previous year, my son watched and listed with rapt attention, soaking in the music and savoring every note.

Some months later, he and I were doing our daily guitar practice and we got on to discussing what instrument he might play in school. Guitar’s not part of the curriculum, so he’ll need to choose between drums, brass instruments like the trumpet or trombone, some strings, and a few woodwinds. I don’t recall precisely how it came up, but I said something to the effect of “If you want to be the next Giacomo the Jester, you have to be able to play the guitar and the flute.” He’s a pretty agreeable lad, so it wasn’t too surprising to see him laugh and nod and continue with his practice. But, evidently, a seed had been planted. Lately, the boy has begun making balloon animals in earnest. Who ever heard of a 3rd-grader making professional-quality balloon animals? Well, you have now. He’s getting so good that his sister has offered to hire him to work her birthday party (though she seems a little vague on the notion that “hiring” implies compensation in some form. Sadly, my son may be well on his way to a lifetime as a starving entertainer). And he still says he wants to play the flute, because “Giacomo plays the guitar and the flute.”

He doesn’t know how to juggle yet, but it may well be that my son’s set his sights on being a wandering troubadour. I can hear the squeaking of balloons from upstairs even now. But then again, in a week he may well decide he wants to be a Transformer. I’ll try to be supportive either way. Still, it’s good to know that somewhere, perhaps somewhere very near, there may be successor to the inimitable Giacomo the Jester! Or Optimus Prime.

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