Signs of the Times | Music | Salt Lake City Weekly

Signs of the Times 

The Deaf and the Musician deliver live music performance with an ASL twist.

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When Cindy McAllister and Ben Brinton—aka The Deaf and the Musician—play at a venue, a few interesting things tend to happen.

For starters, Brinton will kick off a set by conversing with the audience, sketching out the basics of their act. That might include information about his looping pedal, or how many originals they'll spot amongst the cover songs. Mostly, though, he'll start out by mentioning in clear terms that McAllister's going to be engaged in American Sign Language (ASL) throughout the set, accompanying Brinton's sung vocals. Only after that, they'll begin a song.

Then some new people will enter the room; these are people who're not familiar with the act, who missed the introductory comments. They tend to look over once, twice, maybe more, ascertaining that, yes, there's signing taking place. This pattern repeats about as long as they're onstage, about 90-120 minutes depending on the venue.

That group of newbies, we should add, is offset by friends and fans of the band, some of whom also live with hearing loss, and who show up to engage in a bit of in-set banter with the duo.

The last near-guarantee involves applause. In his intro comments, Brinton and McAllister note the ASL version of applause, hands raised and rotating. When the first song ends, clapping still occurs. Then a little less on the second rounds, with some folks now adding in applause via the requested, ASL method. By the third song, or so, Brinton mentions the best way to applaud again. Most in the audience finally find that "click," and applaud ASL-style for the balance of their stay.

"The feedback of that is typically positive," Brinton says of his opening comments. "I like to think that we're hitting our goal. I'm from the Mr. Rogers generation. I think that people enjoy seeing how things work, or taking a peek behind the curtain. Things like giving a real simple explanation of 'signing and applauding' is an example of offering more than just music. You're offering a little tidbit of information."

For as much as Brinton chats on the mic during shows, he's content to not do that for solo gigs, suggesting that "one of my favorite things is just to be a guy in the corner. I'm background music. I'm going through my list of songs, and I can always tell when it's going well and people are enjoying themselves."

For The Deaf and the Musician, Brinton typically plays guitar, then begins adding loops through his loop pedal. In the span of a minute or two, he can have a nice undercurrent of sounds built beneath his vocals and McAllister's signing.

The songs they play are quite a mix. Radiohead's "Creep" is a regular on their setlists—not an uncommon cover, but when it's paired with the omnipresent "Wagon Wheel," followed by "Ghost Riders in the Sky," "Hallelujah," "Just Like Heaven," "Royals"... well, you've got a curious thing going on. McAllister suggests that the cuts that're known, but aren't the most-known songs, are the ones that draw in a listener.

Brinton—again reinforcing the idea that his duo's about a wedding of education and entertainment—says that his and McAllister's act has "a really specific niche that's really about playing music just underneath the conversations. I've been performing for 10-years-plus, and I've come to learn that there's a bad taste left in some people's mouths when they see live music. It's too loud, or they go to a venue and it's not what they expected. To isolate a lot of those problems, my strategy is to play much more chill, more-lyrically-oriented songs."

In time, as in the next year, the duo hopes to play some dates outside of Utah; in various states of booking and/or research are places like Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado. Meanwhile, gigs around the region are maintained at a pretty busy clip, with two gigs a week not uncommon.

"Our show is a bit of deaf or disability outreach. We're trying to change the notion of what's acceptable in enjoying a performance," Brinton says. "It's always surprising how people are really drawn to Cindy's sign language. And when they talk to us afterwards, there's usually a much deeper story involved. It could be about knowing someone who's deaf or how they learned sign language back in school and it made them suddenly think about when they were in grade school, learning the A, B, C's."

"Older folks, even in the middle of a set, will tell us how much they're enjoying it," Brinton says with a chuckle. "That's that sense of enthusiasm. We share this sense of appreciation for the songs with them, this same appreciation for music, this same appreciation for sign language. It's generally quite touching."

For more information on The Deaf and The Musician, plus Brinton's originals, you can check:

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Thomas Crone

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