Bob likes to say that there’s a lot to be said about training in the saloons. It was there that he learned how to read his audience members and reach them and move them with his richly varied music, created on the spot and tailored to the mood of the moment.
Bob is an internationally renowned ragtime and boogie woogie pianist and he showcased his talents in Long Lake on Saturday evening, June 13, 2009 in the Town Hall.
Bob Milne’s performance is peppered with ragtime songs, boogie woogie blues and a treasure trove of anecdotes and historical facts instructing the audience about “ragged time”
He kicked off the show with Scott Joplin.
Mr. Milne talks throughout his performance, creating a sense of intimacy with his audience. The audience in Long Lake on Saturday night was attentive and curious to learn about the music he played. Bob played a medley of songs including Casey Jones (familiar to some as a Grateful Dead classic) but the song was written in 1902 based on a true life legend when Casey Jones was instructed to get his load of freight to hustle down to Mississippi and get there quickly. Everyone on the line radio’d down to clear the line and Casey got his train up to 80 miles an hour and crashed into the one train that didn’t manage to clear out in time. As Bob’s fingers danced up an down the keyboard he segued into Folsom Prison Blues and discussed the irony that the man “who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was serving time in Folsom prison in California. He suggested Johnny Cash may have been toying with the audience when he constructed his lyric.
Bob played the Honky Tonk Train Blues written by Meade Lewis in 1922. He talked about he doesn’t follow the guitar lead, but his left hand perches an octave behind middle C and plays the train up and down in a rhythm so the left hand doesn’t move other than to punch in the major and minor Chords. Meade Lewis was also known as the “The Prince of Luxenbourg” The Honky Tonk Train Blues was written to commemorate a journey down to New Orleans on the old party train from Chicago. Meade Lewis wrote the song in homage to a barrel house box car to capture the unbridled raucous energy of the crowd as the trip wore on into the night.
As Bob played the tune his right hand chased down the ivory keys, twinkling, kicking, jamming, pulsing in an emotive fury. His foot banged on the pedal of the piano and those of us in the audience were on the journey heading to New Orleans with Bob and the Prince of Luxenburg.
The dynamic energy of Bob’s performance explodes off the keys. His demeanor after the song is relaxed, as if we’re at a fireside chat and he’s sitting with a few of his intimate friends sharing a special evening. He tells us that “we are true students of music”
Bob waxed on about his love of pool, Mozart and Beethoven, but he’s equally interested in the world… he considers it a special category. He regaled us with the worst music joke in history…
“Sombrero Verdi who?”
He sings “Som- bwhere – ooooo ver da rainbow…” Chip Lee stood up to walk away, but Bob heckled him and Chip obediently returned to his seat. Bob talked about having gone to a media seminar and learning a very important trick… “always get the audience on your side and get them to lighten up.” He certainly had that in spades with his audience.
One gets the sense he takes breaks between songs to catch himself that if he doesn’t stop to touch base with his audience he’d disappear into “ragged time”
Some of his fans in Long Lake, Carol Day and Helen Kentile never miss his performance… well Helen did this time, so it looks like we have to invite him back and there is an aim to attract a bigger audience because based on his performance, his skill, his ease, his energy, it’s a show one doesn’t want to miss as he travels the country performing over 250 times a year. Bob did mention he’d like to ease off his journey. His traveling mini-van which doubles as his mobile home has over 500 hundred thousand miles and one engine replacement, but traveling takes its toll. Bob hails from Michigan, but the sense is he doesn’t spend much time there.
His finale story was an answer to a question posed to him as he had just finished playing at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. An audience member asked him what the worst piano was that he ever played on. Bob coyly mentioned that the piano at the Town Hall in Long Lake was a fine instrument.. .but the worst piano he ever played..
He had been invited to play for President George Bush Sr and First Lady Barbara in a pole barn in Kennebunkport Main in August 2008. They had rented a catering hall which sat above the water. Bob spotted an upright, ragged looking piano in the corner of the hall and look to his friend and muttered under his breath “I hope they don’t expect me to play on that” Upon first glance he noted that half the piano hammers were still stuck on the strings on the top of the piano. All the keys were stuck. He had to lift them up individually to get them to make a sound. He played a chord and he knew the piano wasn’t in “tune” but turned out the piano was in tune with itself in B-major.
All three pedals were broken and on the floor. Bob having played in saloons for 25 years could handle a piano without pedals. So Bob played Canal Street Blues and half the notes would stick so he’d reach his arm into the body of the piano and pull the hammers back. The audience loved him. Bob wooed the visitors (mostly from Texas) by informing them that Scott Joplin was born there. So Bob played Maple Leaf Rag and continued to reach his hand into the piano to pull back the hammers. While he was playing he felt something crash against his limbs. A rod on the right side of the piano had come toppling down and the rod was thrashing and banging and Bob was still reaching in to pull out the piano hammers and a guest saw the piano falling apart and crawled along the floor to clear out the rod.
Bob finished out his third song with much relief as he had worked so hard and was so glad the performance was over when George Bush Sr. stood up and announced “That was great Bob, do it again!” And the crowd roared… so Bob rounded out his encore with a sing-a-long song about Texas. And that was the worst piano he had ever played in August of 2008.
Bob wound the evening down playing 1901 classic “Frankie and Johnnie” from St. Louis and a tune about murderous “Stack-O-Lee” which was a soulful, whimsical beautiful song. Most people are familiar with “Stagger Lee.” Bob commented that lots of beautiful soulful songs were written about Stagger Lee and he just couldn’t quite understand the homage paid to such a treacherous murderer. “Why would a beautiful melody be wasted on a guy like that.?”
As Bob played the audience members danced in their seats. Frank Pine wiggled in his squeaky seat in time, his elbows flopped and the audience smiled and hooted and cheered as each time Bob would play a song.
Bob’s performance was a real treat, his smile infectious and his joy palpable. The largest audience he’s ever played for about 5000. His smallest.. as he said he played in saloons for twenty-five years and he would play at 1:30 in the morning for one customer because one person is just as important as 150. Couldn’t be more true as he played for an intimate audience of twenty.
Bob doesn’t get nervous. He never has. He tried to study nervousness. He ascertained that nervousness is the fear of the unknown “I know what I’m doing, I’ve never been afraid to do this”
He plays everything by ear. He has a music degree from the Eastman School in Rochester for the French Horn. He has difficulty reading piano scores, they baffle him. Privately he wanted to know how badly he was offending the music teacher in the audience because he knows he breaks every traditional rule in the book about rhythm and timing.
He learned about the history of ragtime through attending Ragtime Festivals and meeting the greats including Euby Blake in 1975 and he was lucky enough to learn and study him for the last ten years of his life. Bob would stay up late nights talking “ragtime” and Bob would say “I don’t play the way its written” Euby said “screw those people, who cares?”
Music is a shared experience and those of us in the audience on Saturday night certainly had a special time.
We hope Bob Milne returns to Long Lake soon and that you come out with your family and friends and share in a once in a lifetime experience. . The incredible Bob Milne. He is a “National Treasure” there’s no doubt about that.