You’re familiar with Murphy’s Law, yes? “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
I was invited to perform at a wonderful Mike Nesmith tribute show back in December. Several of my friends and peers would be performing, and it sounded like a fun way to spend an evening, playing music, hanging out with friends, and paying tribute to a great, underrated songwriter. I signed up, and was scheduled to play the song “The Crippled Lion” fairly early in the show.
Brian Marchese, the creator and producer of the show, scheduled a few rehearsals with those involved, including a “house band” of sorts that would back several of the performers. I spoke briefly with Brian and Ken Maiuri about performing a fairly stripped-down, “torchy” version of The Crippled Lion–think Harry Nilsson singing Mike Nesmith. I figured this would be fairly easy to pull off with minimal rehearsal. Well, it turned out that none of our schedules aligned, and we were going to need to pull this off with no rehearsal whatsoever. In fact, it turned out I had no idea who I was even going to be playing the song with…
What to do? Well, I practiced the song on my own, of course, and just trusted in showing up and having a good time.
The night of the show–a fairly cold, bitter night in late December–I drove to the venue, loaded in, tuned up my guitar backstage and felt my nerves come online. How was this going to go? Brian told me the “house band” ran through the song a few times, with him singing, in one of the rehearsals. That was good news. I checked in with Ken, and we confirmed we both learned the song in the same key. More good news. I checked in with Jason Bourgeois and he offered me use of his guitar amp. All settled, then. Ken asked if I still wanted to do the “torchy” version. I decided, “Let’s just do it the way you guys rehearsed it, and we’ll see what happens…”
I was scheduled to go on third, and the first two performers sang one song each, so before I knew it, it was time for me to head backstage, ensure my guitar was in tune, and be ready to hit the stage. I tuned up, had my cable ready to plug into Jason’s amp, and stood watching Jonathan Caws-Elwitt perform his song. Matt walked backstage as I stood waiting. “What are you playing?” he asked.
“The Crippled Lion,” I replied.
Matt, who had played percussion on the first tune of the night, asked, “What’s the percussion like on that song? You want me to play?”
“Sure,” I replied. As he was talking to me, I was vividly aware of the fact that Jonathan had finished performing, and Brian was introducing me to the crowd. This didn’t phase Matt at all, as he kept talking to me backstage:
“What’s the beat of the song?” Matt asked.
“Oh, you know,” I replied, and sang him the waltz country time as I began walking toward the stage.
Matt asked, “Well, what’s the percussion like on the recorded version?”
At this point, I’m no longer backstage, but in the club mounting the stairs to the stage, as I replied, “I have no idea.”
Not only were my nerves in full swing, but this last-minute exchange kinda threw me. I usually take a minute to center myself before performing, so talking right up until I was literally on stage had my head spinning a little.
Next up, I walk on stage and it is at this point I see who the “house band” is for my song: Brian Marchese on drums, Ken Maiuri on bass guitar, Bruce Mandaro (who I had never met before) on electric guitar, and Josh Sitron on keyboards. Brian intro’d the song to the crowd, saying, “Well, we’re going to try something a little different right now, and play a song that we’ve never played together before.”
I walk over to Jason’s amp, and Jason is standing there next to it. He says, “Maybe you shouldn’t use my amp, actually. They have this other one mic’d, so it’s probably better to use it instead.”
“OK,” I reply. I had my patch cord plugged into my guitar already, and coiled around my strap and arm for easy insertion into an amp, but now we had to unplug it and disentangle it so I could use the patch cord already plugged into the amp and various pedals. This felt like it took an eternity, with the band and audience waiting. And worse, after it was all plugged in, it made NO SOUND. Back to the drawing board. “I guess we should just use mine after all,” said Jason. We plug me back into that one, I strike a chord, and the amp is Spinal Tap loud! Jason turns it down a bit and we get a good volume.
Now I make to walk to the mic, only to realize the patch cord I’m now using isn’t long enough to reach the mic stand. So I reach out and grab the mic stand and simply move it closer to myself and angle it so I can both play guitar and sing. Comedy of errors indeed.
“Ready?” Brian asks. “Yes,” I reply. Little did I know.
We start playing the song and suddenly now my guitar is not making any noise whatsoever. While the band vamps the beginning, I madly scramble back to the amp and mess with the settings, but to no avail. As the band reaches an appropriate number of measures for a vocal to begin, I finally decide to give up on the guitar and hit the mic. At a time like this, you just have to improvise.
One never sings their best when they’ve got a lot of nerves and adrenalin hitting, but I went into the fray nonetheless, and two things made this moment great: (1) the tightrope walk of playing a song with people with no rehearsals behind us, which was thrilling; and (2) the audience’s reaction, which was very positive and welcoming. Knowing about the tightrope walk themselves, I think this was a great moment for the audience as well.
The band killed it. I hit more bum notes than I’d like, but I warmed up by the second chorus, I think. In any case, it was a blast. We all ended at the same time, on the same chord, and to much gracious applause. A few audience members even yelled out, inquiring what song we played and where they could find it, and of course our resident Monkees/Nesmith scholar Brian put them straight.
And after all of that, I could just relax and watch everyone else play great songs all night long.
And it just goes to show, face your fears head on. Get out there, say “yes,” and see what happens. Even when so much goes wrong, there’s an opportunity for it to go right, too. Maybe just not in the way you imagined.