The Peter Principle
Even when he's completely out of it, as he so often seems to be, Bob Dylan has a knack for putting together seemingly meaningless words and somehow stumbling onto profundity. Dylan has done as much for, or at least to, the language as any other songwriter. Local singer-guitarist Peter Betan opened for Mr. Zimmerman on April 27, 1991, at Sunrise Musical Theatre. Though Dylan spent most of the evening in his tour bus doing God knows what, he crossed paths with his opening act at one point, just as Betan was leaving to play a show at another venue, Musicians Exchange, that same night. "Hey, Bob, how ya doin'?" Betan offered. Dylan stuck a thumb up and responded, "Have a nice gig, man."
Have a nice gig, man. That's the story of Peter Betan's life.
Betan began writing songs when he was ten years old and he hasn't slowed down yet. "There's been a consistent flow of released material," he says. "It's not like turning on a faucet, but I'm already ten songs into my next album."
Since arriving in South Florida five years ago, the solo artist, who sometimes works with full bands, has played approximately 1300 gigs, from Coconut Grove cafes to South Beach clubs to Miami Rocks, Too! to Sunrise as Dylan's opening act. "I get a great kick out of conquering Miami audiences," Betan says. "You can have a fire breather up there and the audience will pay no attention. So if you can conquer a Miami audience, you know you're doing something right."
There's no question that Betan has been doing something right ever since he arrived from New York City. His next album, due in late June and titled Out of Love, will feature eight new songs to add to a catalogue that includes the six-tune Betan album and the remarkable ten-song package Short Stories, commissioned by a gymnastics company and co-starring jazzmeisters Marc Berner and Frank Carmelitano.
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The new album promises to bolster Betan's songwriting credentials. As usual he blends styles easily and smoothly - some jazz here, tropical pop there, a rock edge applied as necessary. "In the Night," for example, is as creamy as frozen yogurt, but it also nods to Van Morrison and the Silos. With the edgy, jazz-washed "Time to Go," the mellifluous title track, and the others, Betan has again crafted a masterful recording in Out of Love, although this time he accomplished it without the significant talents of Buzzy Jones, who produced Betan and Short Stories.
If there's anything consistent in Betan's work, it's inconsistency, which is a good thing. His songwriting is flexible, crossing effortlessly from genre to genre, and he possesses the vocals and guitar wizardry to deliver these gems polished and mounted. "I like to provide an alternative type of music," he explains. "It's something that's never heard in Miami, but people would like it to be. I've kept my originality - being original is my main motive."
He walks that line with no crutches - this guy won't get within ten yards of a sequencer or synthesizer. He also is self-reliant on the business end. When he and Marc Berner were invited to perform in France this past fall, Betan bombarded Europe with promotion for himself. "I took my whole desk with me," he says. "I'm my own agent and manager. I was making phone calls from the hotel, soliciting my tapes, hoping for a record deal over there." That didn't happen, but he adds that he had a "fantastic" visit, that he "loved every minute of it because the audiences over there are so receptive to American artists."
Betan has no complaints about those tough-to-please South Florida music fans, either. He says they've scooped up ten or twelve thousand copies of his tapes, and that their positive response to his live shows is what has allowed him to play regularly, practically daily, and thereby support himself through his music. He's also opened for major artists such as Michael McDonald and Styx, acquired an endorsement deal with the guitar company Takamine, and is working on a deal with a production company to provide music for one of those half-hour commercial programs.
Yeah, once again it looks like the Summer of Betan is about to begin. But before fans pop the cork, consider that in February of 1989 Betan told New Times, "I'm pretty sure something's going to happen this year." Around that time the Miami Herald profile of Betan, written by Doug Adrianson, stated, "Sooner or later success will begin to find you. It's happening for Peter Betan."
The meaning of "success," of course, is always debatable. Certainly his significant tapes sales and inimitable live rep are clear signs of achievement here in Miami. And Betan is garnering international acclaim - even Brazilians are dialing into the singer-songwriter's sound. Heck, The Brazil Review dubbed Betan a "singular talent."
One afternoon, while driving through Little Havana, musing about how to save the crack-rattled denizens of lower Calle Ocho, Betan remarks that he doesn't miss living in his native New York. But New York, and most of the rest of America, is still missing him. In July he plans a visit to his old hometown - to shop the new album.
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