‘Playing a guitar without gravity is messy’ — Astro-musicians talk space, upcoming Bandella shows
This month’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing is firing imaginations, rekindling curiosity about space and space exploration, and stoking our collective sense of wonder.
We watch vintage footage of astronauts bound improbably across the lunar landscape and hear them describe heretofore unseen sights, and we wonder, “What’s it like?”
What’s it like to do a spacewalk, or carry out tasks while floating inside a spaceship, or look out the window and see the sweep of our planet?
What’s it like to do mundane things like drink water or sleep while weightless?
What’s it like to play an instrument in space, or sing without gravity?
Houston-based quintet Bandella, which includes three astronauts and the spouse of another, will bring music, insight, and fodder for imaginations to California and Massachusetts audiences this month. The astronaut band will perform at The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif. on Saturday, July 6 and Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Mass. on Saturday, July 27. The Massachusetts concert will benefit New England Public Media.
“Playing a guitar without gravity is…messy,” said retired Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, Col. Chris Hadfield. “There’s nothing to hold it on your knee, or to suspend it by the strap, so it floats free, and every time you move your hands it wants to take off. I eventually learned to pinch it against my chest with my right bicep to hold it still. Even still, accurate picking was hard, and the muscle memory up and down the fretboard was wrong without the arm’s weight, so I overshot.
“Singing is also different,” Hadfield said, “as there’s no normal weight to your diaphragm, sort of like singing lying down or standing on your head. Also, there’s no gravity to drain your sinuses, so you’re always congested, and that messes up vocal quality, especially in the lower register.”
The astronaut, guitarist and singer recorded an album and a now-viral video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the ISS. He also played “a concert for the Russian prime minister, played and chatted with Neil Young and Peter Gabriel, did a duet with The Chieftains — (bandmate) Cady (Coleman) was playing with them on Earth — and recorded a duet with The Barenaked Ladies.”
Lead singer Micki Pettit said she and Hadfield cofounded Bandella in 2002 “in a basement — otherwise known as Shep’s Bar — in one of the cottages where astronauts stay in Star City, Russia” while the singer and her family were there for her husband, Don Petitt’s, training for his first mission.
Later, said Pettit, “Cady added her flute. Steve Robinson came with his guitar and banjo. First time Dave (Webb) played with us was The Palms (in 2017). His keyboard really adds to the sound and he’s a joy to work with.”
Astronaut and flutist Coleman recalled playing on the ISS.
“I played many nights when folks were already in their cabins, usually in the cupola. Our sleep stations are at either end of the station and the cupola is in the middle, so it’s like being alone on the station. Window covers were rotated down so that I could see the earth in every direction. I’d rotate around, looking through all the different windows while I played.”
While in space, Coleman played along with Bandella recordings, and even played with her bandmates once for an hour via video link.
“Our doctor brought them into Mission Control as a surprise for one of my medical conferences,” she said. “Instead of having a boring conversation about how great I felt, I got to play with my best musical soulmates! There is a magic that happens whenever we play together—even when one of us is going 17,500 mph!”
“I loved making music together from space,” she said.
That wasn’t Coleman’s only opportunity to jam with Earth-bound musicians via video link.
“Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is known for playing the flute while standing on one foot. It gave me great satisfaction to show him that, in space, that was downright easy,” she said, recalling playing a duet with Anderson via video link while she was on the ISS.
Coleman said the flute “doesn’t rest in your hands the same way” without gravity, “and that took a little getting used to,” as did not letting it float away.
“I loved playing with my eyes closed sometimes,” she said, “and indeed had to work hard not to bang the flute into anything. My flute came back from space with a few extra scratches from a very special place.”
Retired astronaut, current University of California–Davis professor and lead guitarist, banjoist and bassist, Steve Robinson, did the first podcast from space after completing a spacewalk to repair the Space Shuttle Discovery’s heat shields.
“That was, I would have to say, the most fantastic experience of my life,” Robinson broadcast from Discovery in 2005, describing his unplanned but successful spacewalk.
He also performed for crewmates while weightless.
“The guitar Steve and I played in orbit is still there,” said Hadfield. “It was put there for astronauts’ mental health by the NASA psychiatrists in 2001, a nice Larrivée Parlour acoustic, and by now has done 105,000 orbits — more world tours than Keith Richards.”
Pettit said Bandella plays folk, acoustic rock covers, some jazz, some bluegrass, and some originals, adding, “We are an eclectic bunch.”
“If we like it and it fits in Chris’ or my range, we try it. We even have a few songs from this century, although not many.”
Bandella shows include a rolling slideshow of the astronauts’ photos from space, and opportunities for the audience to ask some questions. The Greenfield show, which will benefit New England Public Media, will include selected scenes from Robert Stone’s new film, “Chasing the Moon,” in addition to Bandella’s images.
Looking ahead to this month’s concerts, Coleman said, “I think that folks will come away feeling like they have gone on a journey with us. There is something so hopeful about space, about exploration, about pushing the boundaries of our world. I think that when we play and share stories, it becomes clear that real humans are part of these grand efforts — and that’s hopeful too.”
Pettit said, “Astronauts eventually leave the office — although they will have to take my husband out kicking and screaming — and move on. Bandella is scattered (from the original Houston base). We had so much fun when we got together two years ago for the Palms booking that we decided to have a yearly gig. Last year it was in Sarnia, Canada (Hadfield’s hometown).
“We’ll only have a couple of days to rehearse, but it’s worth it. I’m sure there will be some sore strumming fingers.”
“I love this group,” Pettit said. “I can’t wait to make music with everybody and look forward to laughing my ass off.”
Playing together, said Hadfield, is “a rare delight that I love.”
Bandella’s July 2019 shows: