If you’re playing a bar or a restaurant with an acoustic guitar, the usual approach to give people a good time is to crank out the hits. The casual music fan enjoys the songs they know, and it can give them the feeling of nostalgia or set the vibe to enjoy themselves.
For the past few years, Warwick native Mike Giammarco has become a pro at it by performing all over southern New England. Around these parts, he’s going to perform in his hometown at the Grid Iron Ale House & Grille on Dec. 13 and at Ted’s Stadium Pub in Cranston on Dec. 21.
Ahead of the shows, Giammarco and I had a talk about what led him to become a full-time musician, keeping the audience engaged and what’s in store for 2020.
ROB DUGUAY: What would you say was the first musician or band you started listening to that made you want to pursue music?
MIKE GIAMMARCO: Even though when you listen to my music you can probably hear some of my later influences more directly like Alice in Chains, STP, Pearl Jam, the first person that made me fall in love with music was Elvis Presley. I used to watch the documentary “This Is Elvis” so much I memorized the whole thing at the age of 6 or 7. It’s hard to explain why he would have such a profound effect on a young kid like me, but I just knew I wanted to do what he was doing for a living when I grew up. His voice, charisma, stage presence and, of course, the screaming girls just floored me to the point of no return. I remember crying at the end of the movie a lot when they played “American Trilogy” over scenes of his funeral.
His impact on me is still going strong in my shows now. I mix in as many Elvis tunes as my set list allows. Even though he didn’t write his own songs, he taught me the importance of singing from deep down in your “shoe souls” and being emotionally connected to not only my originals but to every song I perform.
RD: Before you went solo, you were in the rock act Those Alone. What do you consider to be the biggest adjustment you have to make performing by yourself rather than with a band?
MG: I think it’s being up there all alone and not having the other three guys to fall back on or turn to for support if something goes wrong. I was the frontman, so I was used to being the focus, but performing with just your voice and an acoustic guitar will make your weaknesses and mistakes stick out like a sore thumb. You don’t have the others or the distortion to cover up little mistakes, but I also think that’s the great thing about what I do now. It’s raw, stripped down and pure emotion. When you play originals this way, there better be a song under that distortion and noise or you’re in trouble. (laughs)
I think I also miss the camaraderie of being in a band, the “us against the world” mentality. We had a great thing going for a while. The sad state of the music industry today makes it very tough to make any kind of living as an original band. Not only is it tough to make money, but there are people out there who make it their business to prey on the hopes and dreams of bands by making promises and literally taking the last dime from bands trying to make it. Something like that can really take the wind out of your sails.
RD: You’re also part of the guitar duo Paradox with Fred Altieri. How did you and Fred meet, and how would you describe the musical chemistry you both have?
MG: Fred and I have great chemistry on stage and we have an absolute blast. He plays multiple instruments and our harmonies are on point. I was amazed at how good our voices sounded together the first time we jammed. We met when he and a few other guys were looking for a singer for their classic rock cover band called Back Then. They came to one of my shows and approached me on my break.
I figured I’d give it a shot. Well, the band itself didn’t work out, but Fred and I recognized how good our voices sounded together and how well we got along, so he switched from drums to acoustic guitar and Paradox was born. People can catch us performing often at On The Roch’s in Warwick, and our next gig there is on Dec. 27.
RD: When you’re performing at a bar for three hours, do you have any tricks up your sleeve to get the people there engaged?
MG: I’ll tell you Rob, it’s not easy at times. In this day and age, and I’m sure my fellow musicians will agree, people have short attention spans. Phones and other devices make it even more difficult, and it’s hard sometimes to compete with all the distractions. When you play at a lot of pubs, bars and restaurants like I do, people are going to be doing their own thing. They didn’t all come to see live music.
Of course, there are exceptions, but it’s a mixed bag, so you have to get as many folks involved as you can. I have been taking requests pretty much since I started playing full-time in 2016, but what has really made the difference is my song list. I print out copies of all the songs I play, which is around 300-plus, and pass them out to folks. It’s all alphabetized and looks a lot like a karaoke list. I did it the first time on a whim and saw people really getting into requesting their favorites. It has really helped me to be able to engage people and play exactly what they want. It’s gone over so well that I never leave home without them.
RD: That’s a pretty smart move. Do you have any major plans for 2020?
MG: Oh yes, of course. I’m booking now for 2020 and it’s promising to be another very busy year playing around New England both solo and with Paradox. The summer may involve some gigs outside of our area, maybe even at sea, and I hope to make those official soon. I have to head up to Boston and finish up my new album with the amazing Will Holland at Chillhouse Studios. The first single, “Spoke In The Wheel,” will be out before the end of the year.
The album is called “Stairs To Nowhere,” and I’m extremely excited about it. It’s my first solo release and it features a crop of new songs I wrote that I’m very proud of. I will be focusing quite a bit on licensing my songs for use in TV and movies and other business opportunities including presenting some to the reps for major artists for them to possibly record.
I don’t have a ton of spare time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention I also teach guitar, vocals, and songwriting at Ross Music on 1800 Post Road in Warwick a couple times a week for a few hours. Rod Ross, the owner, has been a friend and my guitar guru for a few years now. He’s saved me many times right before gigs doing a quick repair or adjustment, so I’ll be continuing that as well.
I am feeling very good about where I’m at for 2020 and I really hope to take a couple more giant steps forward towards where I want to be. I hope everybody has a great holiday season and a very happy new year.
To learn more about Mike Giammarco, follow his Facebook page, “Mike Giammarco Acoustic.”