Friday, February 18, 2011

The Little Counting Crows or the Richie Sambora Tribute Couple (Part 4, Final)

(Parts 1 and 2 were posted on 1/5 and 1/6; part 3 was yesterday)
When it was time for sound check, Bill led us to another larger conference room where we were playing. Furnished in rental CB2 furniture, a few of the Counting Crows were fiddling with their amps, getting tones. We knew the drill -- hurry up and wait. We took a seat on a molded plastic settee and observed.

Having almost forgotten about Adam’s (Singer of Counting Crows) weight gain, I was instantly thrown back into fray when I saw a roadie of theirs on stage who must‘ve been 300 lbs. plus. He was tuning guitars and arranging them into a very large guitar closet. From our vantage point it looked like they brought at least 10 guitars, a few mandolins, a standup bass and various other stringed instruments. They were definitely not phoning in this gig. I was impressed.

Three guitar players and the bass player were getting tones at full volume. They played a few chords, walked back to their amps, fiddled with the knobs and played a few more bars. They all shared a look of confusion and fatigue. They continued this ritual until their sound was right. With modified vintage guitars and well maintained vintage amps, their sound was impeccable. I was jealous.

The drummer appeared and checked each drum, prompted by the soundman. When all the players were ready, Adam appeared from the left side of the stage, wearing a black Joy Division shirt, dirty jeans, old sneakers and holding a notebook. He was not obese or fat -- just carrying an extra few pounds from decades of touring. It became clear that the chauffeur, who insinuated that he was obese, mistook him for the rather large roadie.

Most of the band carried an extra few pounds too except the drummer, who appeared to be new and 15 years younger than the rest of the band; one of the guitar players was gifted with a naturally svelte body.

They checked with a radio hit. All of them looked at their feet and shuffled around their instruments, except for the over-enthusiastic drummer, who spent his time playing the hell out of his drums and trying to catch the eye of Adam. He had to be new. No jaded, road-weary musician could feign this much interest in playing a corporate gig at a hotel/conference center.

Eventually the drummer caught Adam’s eye, giving him a big smile, eyebrows arched, as if to say, “Isn’t this the best!” Adam looked up from his slouch, held up his hand as if to say “stop” and turned away. This didn’t detract from the drummer’s enthusiasm.

They played another song about Omaha, which had a clever twist of phrase in the chorus. While listening to them, their success was obvious. They wrote catchy songs, played them well and Adam added his quirky lyrics and unique delivery. However, their appeared to be a disconnect between the music they produced and the band members. I imagine, at some point, they decided to write more songs like Mr. Jones, despite wanting to write what they wanted to write. I’m sure one of the members – the one that wasn’t writing the songs – spoke up at a band meeting and said, “Listen, I know we’re all into different things, but we’re good at making adult contemporary rock-n-roll. Middle-age women love us. Why should we deny them? If you guys want to make solo records that sound like Joy Division, feel free. This is our bread and butter, my bread and butter.” They would all shrug, knowing their deal with the devil was unavoidable.

As slowly as they appeared, their departure was just the opposite. Once “Omaha” was over, they quickly disappeared backstage. It was our turn.

In front of the right side of the stage, our rental equipment sat on the carpet. Bill introduced us to the stage manager, an innocuous woman in her late 30s that had that stressed look that only people who produce special events possess.

While we got sounds, she explained the order of the songs we were to play and any special requests from the singers. Since the advent of American Idol, our shows were more scripted and less Karaoke. Essentially, we were a bad backing band for really bad singers, but it paid well and required very little effort. That’s why we were here.

Drums, guitar, bass and keyboards worked. That was our sound check. It was fine with us, as the sound would totally change when we started.

With a half hour to kill before we played, we went back to our room. An open cot was in the corner for Lev. They held good to their promise.

Jim and I feverishly practiced the given songs, while Lev lied down on the cot. Lev was extremely talented and oblivious to preshow stress and anxiety so he didn’t need to practice.

Bill entered the room like he hadn’t seen us in a few days: “Hey, I’d much rather be hanging with the Embarrassonic,” his arms extended like he was giving the whole band a hug. It was obvious the Counting Crows or their people wouldn’t let him backstage. Jim and I continued to practice and Lev slept.

10 minutes later we were on stage, or in front of the stage. We were like a pit orchestra. The stage manager explained that there were changes to the first song. Jim and I eagerly listened while Lev played around with sounds on the keyboards. The first group was singing Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult. Easy song, hard to screw up. But there was a familiar twist that the singers wanted to do. Yes, they wanted to do the Will Ferrell “More Cowbell” skit from Saturday Night Live.

We said fine – just tell us what to do. Years of live Karaoke has beaten us down. She explained: “So, they want to do the Will Ferrell skit, you know. You know what I’m talking about?” Jim and I nodded. Everybody by now knows the More Cowbell skit.” She continued, “So, you’ll play the opening notes for about 8 seconds and then stop. Wait awhile, then play again and stop.” Since we were in front of the singers, far to the right of the stage and not facing them, and there was a pretty good chance that we wouldn’t be able to hear them, we suggested: “Why don’t you direct us? Let us know when to stop and start.” She said ok. Lev was still working on the keyboard, trying to get a synth tone for a Human League song we were playing.

We took our places for Don’t Fear the Reaper: Lev on guitar, me on bass and Jim on drums. There was a teleprompter with scrolling lyrics on stage and one in front of us. The stage manager crouched down, ready to direct.

On stage walked a handful of middle-aged men in ‘70s garb, cheap wigs and mustaches, holding blowup guitars. Jim and I intently eyed the stage manager, her stare franticly darting back and forth between us and the singers on stage. The music started and she gave the cue to start. In a whispered scream, Jim and I yelled at Lev. He was looking away and missed the cue. A few seconds later we yelled again for him to stop. He was about 2 seconds off. This was a normal beginning to a live Karaoke show.

Despite our missed cues, the crowd loved them. They were their coworkers, their drunk co-workers: David in Sales; Brigit in Marketing and Martin in R&D. It didn’t matter what they looked like, it mattered that they weren’t in workshops or team building seminars…they were drinking.

After the song, we struggled to adjust volume and complained to the stage manager that we couldn’t hear the singers.

To our left, the American Idol portion of the show was taking place. At a large desk, covered in linen, higher-ups from the pharmaceutical company, if not the CEO, were imitating and dressed like Paula, Randy and Simon from American Idol. Their criticism of the singers mirrored the characters they were playing: Randy (“Yo, Dog), Simon (“Dreadful”) and Paula (“Uh”). They would eventually crown a winner, but we’d be long gone before that happened.

White Wedding was next. A little more prepared, we navigated the intro and let out a collective sigh (Jim and I), knowing the bits were over and it would be a little less stressful from here on out.

10 women in various wedding dresses lined the stage, facing the audience. Like the previous singers, they were holding blowup guitars – a few with blowup saxophones. Directly in the middle of them was supposed to be Billy Idol. In reality, the singer looked more like a weekend Harley rider: leather jacket, biker boots and a bit of a belly. A middle manager.

Treating the microphone like a pariah, Idol and women in wedding dresses danced around the stage, barely attempting to sing, let alone sing into the mic. Not knowing what to do, we looked over our left shoulders, trying to get a glimpse of what they were doing. The person working the teleprompter was lost too. The lyrics sped up, slowed down and then went black. The singers were more interested in dancing and mugging for the audience. We ended the song early, dramatically sustaining the last chord.

Next was a similar group in size except the wedding dresses were replaced by fly girl, hoochie-mama wear and the main singer was dressed like Rick James: knee-high boots, jheri curl wig and a space age looking blazer. He appeared to be the only black man in the room. This wasn’t uncommon.

Like the singers before them, they really had no interest in singing. The teleprompter stopped and we employed the same tactic, ending the song early in a dramatic fashion.

The night ended with 4 guys in Tommy Bahama gear – cargo shorts, leather sandals and Hawaiian shirts – singing Margaritaville. Only 45 minutes into the gig, and it was over.

Within 30 seconds of the last chord, we had packed our guitars in their cases and grabbed our cords. It was a quick turnaround and they encouraged us not to stay and watch the Counting Crows. We had no problem with that.

After retrieving our personal belongings from our room, we moved toward the van, which would take us back to the hotel. The Counting Crows were on and Mr. Jones reverberated through the hallways. It was still early and we planned on sitting by the pool.

A new driver assisted us with our gear. As we pulled off toward the hotel, he said, “You guys in the band? I play a little guitar.” Jesus.

The End

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