One-man band Dan Henry begins his night with a few bare accoutrements. Existing equipment enticing the listener is minimal: he holds a guitar, his voice, and his accompanying stomp box, cymbals, and harmonica.
The music, mostly covers, is catchy, what might be called “household.” Calling upon an understanding of how solitariness and creativity often intersect, Henry introduces variations on these familiars, as the music builds in its own texture and beauty.
A road warrior of over-noisy bars and chattering brewpubs, Henry figures that his night is not always going to end in exuberant applause, and that there might not even be a single soul pressed there in front of him to cheer bravo. But that’s not dispiriting for Henry, since he’s playing these chords out of passion. Indeed, he has done the near impossible: he’s avoided the nine to five grind, while squeezing out a living as a professional working musician.
The decisive factors in Henry’s set-list may well be age and wistfulness, as the 31-year-old brines his material with the reminiscent sounds of Sam Cooke, The Drifters, The Platters, The Kingston Trio, and Cat Stevens. Many of these recordings he first heard courtesy of his father’s record collection, a mishmash of early Motown, topical folk music, and the output of rock n’ roll icons such as Led Zeppelin and The Eagles.
“I listened to anything that my dad was into, a cocktail of the 1950s through the 1970s,” says Dan Henry. “I’ve got a set list of 170, 180 to draw from. At some point in the show I’ll toss in Sublime or one-hit wonders from the 90s, songs that people know, as well as the ones you won’t hear every day. I have to update the list, which includes 20 originals.”
Ultimately, Henry is fighting a campaign against external sound. While the musician in him would love rapt attention, he’s aware that oftentimes he and his music aren’t at the center stage of the evening. Yet his face never shows tension or concern or boredom or annoyance; he’s immersed in the sounds. He strums. He picks. He performs. Backside on stool, he deposits his purest self in openness.
“At places like Miller’s Crossing or Lewis & Clark (Brewing Company), there’s more chatter than there are people listening, so I stick to the covers as entertainment. It can be trying at times when no one cares about the guy in the corner playing music. Sometimes you can play busy places, and no one pays attention. Whereas the Rathskeller is a more personal experience, with low to the ground chairs, and with people who are there to listen.
“You can sing originals and people listen to the words, and the music is not the filler or background. One of the best places is the (Ruby Valley) brewery in Sheridan, MT; it’s a good crowd and they get into it, and I can get into the storytelling.”
Henry performs between approximately 15 to 20 solo gigs per month around the state of Montana, and he recently has added even more shows to his schedule with the eponymously named Dan Henry Band.
“As a solo guy, I can jam for three hours or play until midnight or one a.m.,” says Henry, a native of Helena who earned a music-business degree from Montana State University Billings. In the past he worked at a concrete plant in Bozeman and researching desert tortoises in Nevada before returning to the state.
Several years ago, Henry overcame his initial pangs of stage fright while performing at the Helena Farmers’ Market. It was then that he realized that in times of uncertainty, everything is happening for the first time, so why not embrace the newness as its own learning construct?
“Whatever came along, I took,” says Henry. “Every beach bum, hippie and guy under a tree plays the guitar, and I figured that I could do something different, so I added in the harmonica and learned new songs and when I was invited to play at a pottery studio, I showed up.”
Henry’s curiosity and his talent are alive and now at age thirty-one, he’s still learning what he is after, though it’s clear that music is the source of his adventurousness and his explorer mentality.
“Sometimes I think that I should go to a big metropolis, like Austin or Nashville, and get seen for a little while, but I really like Montana. It’s hard not to overplay the venues in town, and that means that only a few people are coming to each show. It’s a struggle to convince venues that I’m not an acoustic act, but I’m a one-man band, and that a one-man band generates more sound than just an acoustic guitar. I’m not a solo act; I’m a band.”
Performing and being heard takes motivation, drive, and represents no average striving. The artist in Dan Henry has learned how to examine his audience, an analysis that at once can be exciting and wrenching and full of revelation.
“Some nights I’ll play ‘All Along The Watchtower’ more like Jimi Hendrix or more like Bob Dylan, depending on the audience. I can critique and sharpen the set list and no two (set lists are) the same. It’s all about what the crowd likes.
“I like to switch it up with songs I haven’t played before. I can fine-tune it fast or slow. The energy is make or break. The more the crowd has it, it hypes me up and I try to feed that energy back to them. I can do a free-range solo and stretch a song, or do a medley out of the blue, or fit the set list to how I’m feeling. I can do some foot stomping, hit the cymbal and harmonica, and get the guitar to start mimicking the bass.”
No matter the extent of the crowd, Dan Henry’s energy insures that he will never latch on to complacency as a solution. When the music touches him – and he can feel that it is touching others – Henry will disappear into it.
“Sometimes I forget that I’m playing music and I’m just people watching,” Henry explains. “(One show) at Great Burn Brewing in Missoula, they were digging it, clapping, singing along, and grabbing (business) cards. Every fourth gig people are listening and having fun. For me, I always say that one person and one clap is all I need to keep going.”