Articles by Ben Robinson
by Ben Robinson
I recently received a list of shows I have done over the last two years from a band I have been the opening act for. The band is called October Project. They were signed to Epic Records in the early 90’s and have now since sold a million plus albums. They’ve done 5 albums of different lengths. They have an ethereal sound that makes them memorable. Recently I was being checked by a doctor and he asked if I were busy and I told him that in October I did two shows with a band called October Project. He nearly dropped his stethoscope and said that not only did he know who they were, but that he really liked their music. I was gratified.
My role is that I open the show with about 12 minutes of magic. I have done everything from tiny wonders such as tearing and magically restoring a cigarette paper to cutting my arm in three or having Hamlet’s father’s ghost appear. It’s a tough order to work in a small space and entertain an intimate audience that expects the best. The shows I have opened all take place in a lovely loft in SoHo (that’s South of Houston for non-New Yorkers) and are hosted by artist and curator Steven Lowy. Lovely food, an open bar all contribute to an intimate evening where the $50 ticket buyers feel completely satisfied. I mean, really, in today’s market, where can you drink all you want, eat great food, and see three quality acts all under one roof for $50?
Now, I just mentioned three acts, but have mentioned only me and the star, October Project. After I do my set, a musical guest comes on and there have been some really fine musicians. My musical education has been greatly enhanced by the variety of great artists that have appeared since 2002. One in particular helped create what OP and I consider to have been the best of the concerts so far. That was the amazingly talented Richard Barone. I had never heard of this “Prince of Downtown” but I was enthralled by what one voice and one guitar can do. He has sort of an intelligence that washes over the audience, and makes everybody want to be like him. When I told the lead singer my opinion, she threw her head back and said, “Ben! He’s just written a book called ‘How to be Like Richard Barone.'” I guess I got it.
My job is a hard one. I have to get the audience ready to be entertained. It is kind of like a pitcher throwing the first pitch in a baseball game. You have to establish a tone, a feeling, a rhythm, and let everyone know what’s what. In my case, I dress according to how I feel that day. Sometimes it’s a tux or tails, other times I am dressed as something from my roots in the world of rock’n roll and circus, usually a black base and surrounded by something colorful. I have taken to opening with specially composed music by my pal David Grausman who wrote a tune called “Graus’ Place” for my multiplying finger ring routine. It gets the audience by surprise, mainly because I am the only one who does this naturally, because I invented it. Then I speak, and the finale rouses the audience to let go and participate.
What audiences don’t always realize is that the show doesn’t happen on stage. That’s right. Not on the stage. The show, if you really think about it, happens in the minds of the audience. Case in point: a little boy recently joined me on stage on a night where kids were admitted free because the special musical guest the wonderfully talented Francine Wheeler specializes in children’s music. The young man bounced up on stage to help with an ancient mystery and proudly told me, “I can do magic tricks!” I responded quixotically, “Then get the h— out of here!” It got a huge laugh, and the little boy was not offended, nor was anyone else. It was just the most outrageous thing I could say. Even the little boy found it very funny. Now, please don’t write in and tell me that I ‘m mean. I’m not. I’m just illustrating what unexpected things can happen in live venues. My small helper jumped around delighting in helping me with my big ring trick. The audience howled. One man fell out of his seat he laughed so hard. It was a memorable moment having done over a thousand performances for children all over the world.
The band, Steven, and I were talking about the show the other night. We realized that the impact of these concerts is more than simple entertainment. The evenings are transformative: A magician opens. A quality musical act comes on next, and then OP comes on after a brief intermission. The band features twin brothers who play drums and guitar, the two women singers are real sirens. The beat knocks people out and the lyrics move them. There is a natural ramp upward of good feeling which everyone feels.
These concerts are full of surprises and genuine mystery and while OP and I work separately most of the year, these evenings are very special and I look forward to them. We encourage you to see what has been called the best ticket for the price in New York when we perform in New York in 2006 on January 26 and 27. Tickets can be obtained by going to October Project’s website (www.octoberproject.net) in January. See ya there. I’ll be opening.