“It’s not going to get any lighter.” –Performance @CommonPlace, July 2015
To start a review of a musician, I will start with a consideration of a sociologist. Brene Brown, a TedX viral hit, studies vulnerability and shame and how those things affect our ability to live full and meaningful lives. In particular, she untangles the ways we humans move towards (and thwart) “whole hearted living”. BrainPickings summarizes her philosophy this way:
“Wholeheartedness”: The capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivate courage and compassion, and embrace…the imperfections of who we really are.
I start with this because there is no other way to describe the music and presence of one Eric Ian Farmer, State College musician and creative caretaker. Eric is not someone you hear about through the records or EPs or radio buzz. Eric is a musician of presence. He is a man and a musician who lives whole-heartedly.
First, let me share some specifics. Eric sings and plays guitar. He writes music but also regularly engages the undervalued art of cover songs, exploring the depth of music and performance with his own person and style. He’s a regular in the State College music scene. Eric Ian Farmer is a regular in the State College music scene. On any given weekend, he can be found performing in sometimes five different events. Over Arts Fest Weekend, his ubiquitous presence continued. He was seen in his regular spots like the Tavern as well as on the main stage with Urban Fusion, the People’s Choice in Boalsburg, and a special two-hour concert at CommonPlace.
In his other life, Eric is a graduate student at Penn State studying education and leadership. He’s a teacher by force of his genuine care, a force that becomes a kind of gentle mentoring and guide through his performances. And I’m intentional in suggesting that Eric mentors and guides through his performances. He can perform multiple times through a weekend and each time he brings his full self to the moment. The music invites you in and walks beside you. There’s never a lie in Eric’s presence or his music. He cannot be disingenuous. In fact, his presence and his music are the same thing. He only has a few recorded pieces. To fully engage his work, the experience must be live.
I met Eric Famer on a rainy day in 2011 as the invited musician at a church party for college students. His cheerfully yellow house seemed to smile under the gentle drizzle sky. I chatted animatedly as we drove to Boalsburg, disconcerted by the quiet and poise of the man beside me. Was he nervous? Was he standoffish? I failed to notice that I was not myself in hyper-hostess mode; I chose rather to assume he was not himself. The noise and movement of the event prevented us from really settling in to hear his music and appreciate what he was giving us. But he was kind. He let the event be what it was. I knew him first in that moment: here was a man who accepted what was with grace.
The following year, Robbie and I wanted to create a special dance showcase before I left for Bulgaria. Eric’s music had always inspired us to move and create in new ways, bringing an intimacy to our work that was just not possible with the recorded pop tunes we had used in other places. So we asked him if he would collaborate with us. The result was a song written specifically for our purposes and choreography that drew on the range of our abilities at the time. Performance wise, we lacked the skill to fully enliven his work. But the intimacy for the audience with the music and with the movement was new for our dance community. I grew as a dancer in this project more than at any other time in my dance experience. When a musician brings his full presence, the dancers and audience can bring themselves, vulnerable and dysfunctional and awkward and whole. That space is a great gift and the main reason his fans are rarely just fans: they become Eric’s friends.
This was vividly experienced in the two-hour concert Saturday night of Arts Fest. Eric brought his full self to the room, but it was heavy with grief. A friend’s parents had died the day before in a car crash. He sang a piece in memory of them and took an early set break to recover and be with us in the room. The night continued in this vein, a long lament for the grief and pain in the world. Some were protest songs, questioning the repeated deaths of black men and women at the hands of violence. Even the love songs, moments that in other sets are playful, became seasoned with sadness. After one such love song, Eric said, “And now for something somewhat opposite.” The room giggled derisively, expecting an angry rant against relationship. Eric strummed the guitar to begin but stopped and looked up. “Friends. Why did you think that? Wow. Do we need to have a talk about your lives? Do we need to close the door?” We all laughed. But he returned to that moment after several songs. “Please,” he said, teasingly but completely serious, “You can find me on Facebook. Come talk to me.” And I know he meant it.
Robbie and I often visit his performances to dance. This was not a dancing night. Instead, we sat with the room and were invited to consider our own grief through his music. I left the evening weary but vividly attentive to the sadness I must process and experience to be human and vulnerable and alive. Eric Ian Farmer gives the Great Gift of the Artist each moment he begins to make music: making the rooms where we can do the hardest work of our lives, beginning to walk as whole-hearted beings.
When we first had music, recording did not exist in even the wildest dreams. Musical notation is even recent in the history of human music. We’ve had the desire to pass down the experience of beauty but it was always the experience of in person music. The greats were not available from itunes for a few dollars and a few minute download. And there are musicians who are such that live is the only way to experience them fully. There are musicians whose in person performances of their own and others work changes something for the listener. Eric Ian Farmer is one such musicians. Something I’ve learned from listening to Eric Ian Farmer the last four years is that not all great music is recorded and preserved in one form. Eric Farmer is a man whose music requires presence, his own and yours. This is lost when his music comes in an mp3.