Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Funny Thing Happened At Chickfest

Today is Chickfest. 

Chickfest is an incredible annual concert that is put on by Veet's in Mobile.
(NOTE: If you are unfamiliar with Veet's. It is my favorite watering hole/live music venue/family operated business/place to hang, see friends and eat. If you are ever in Mobile Alabama you owe it to yourself to go.

So once a year Veet's turns the spotlight on the ladies specifically. And when I say the ladies I don't mean just any ladies. I mean some heavy hitting international celebrity talent as well as our local super talented ladies. Well tonight is the night. The headliners are JoAnna Berlage, Sirius Plan (incredible trio from Belgium), the legendary Donna Hall, and international star Beverly Jo Scott. (Beverly Jo is the kind soul that set my entire visit to Belgium up and hosted me the whole time. Love her).

Well this is the second year I've been asked to be a part of the backing band. I am unbelievably happy about this. Not only do I get to accompany some of the best female vocalists I've ever heard , I also get to play along side an incredible backing band. 

So tonight will be a great time. 
(Come listen if you're in the area. 7pm at Veet's. You will not be disappointed).

But this year's Chickfest got me thinking about last year's Chickfest and it reminded me of one of my favorite music stories. 

There were plenty of remarkable, memorable performance moments from last year's show but the memory I had this time was a funny one about rehearsal. 

Since the backing band for Chickfest is assembled specifically for one night, we are inherently unfamiliar with the material and hence require a couple days of rehearsal.  

A couple of rehearsals is a relatively short time frame to cram a concert the size of Chickfest together. It requires a very experienced band. Luckily Veet's makes sure we can assemble such a group. Because of the casting each year has been a wonder show. 

Last year the concert was a little ambitious with the amount of material that was to be done by the backing band. It was more than double the songs for this year. 

Therefore during rehearsals the band was sweating and scribbling notes. Due to the volume of material in that show we only had about 8-10 minutes per song to rehearse. Then we had to move on to the next one and hope we had written notes well enough to remember the previous song when it was show time. 

Well I've been in this type of environment many times. And when everyone in the band is intensely and consistently focused on song after song for hours, a simple song can be a lifesaver. It is a chance to stop looking at a sheet of paper and just play from familiarity. It is a beautiful and necessary relaxing point (during rehearsal and subsequently the show) that refreshes the band and helps them regain focus when they return to less familiar territory. 

It is with this in mind that I tell you seeing "Respect" by Aretha Franklin on the list made every band member happy. Whew. That would be a recharging spot for sure. We had all played that one enough times that we could play it in our sleep. 

So we thought. 

The artist that would be singing this song at the show was the very talented Carmilla Ali.  

Unbeknownst to us, she had intentions of playing a version of "Respect" that was so far removed from the original version that it might as well be another song. 

Uh oh. 

That's even worse than being unfamiliar with a tune. Since the band were so accustomed to the original version, we were having to focus extra hard to fight our instincts to play it like the record. (So much for the relaxing spot in the rehearsal and show. This instantly got flipped into the most intense section of focusing and remembering in the whole shebang). 

Well after me and my flustered brethren fumbled through the twisted version of the tune a couple times, I could see the uneasiness on everyone's faces This song was understandably shaky on our part. We were shell shocked by the odd version, plus (as I said before) we were struggling to NOT play it like the classic version everyone is familiar with.

As we were trying to soothe the shrapnel wounds we just received to our psyche, we were given a harder task. We were informed the song was going to have a syncopated James Brown type ending. 

Oh lord. This song was gonna be the death of us. 

But we are all experienced guys so we buckle up for the onslaught. 

We worked and we worked and we worked. 
The instructions for the ending were all kind of vague (i.e.-"when y'all do the DAA NAA NAA NAA DAA DAA part twice then come in with ....NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA!") but we were determined to get it right. We all tried things, asked questions and attempted to write out the actual rhythm notation for NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA! Or at least a notation that would remind us individually how the part went. 

Fast forward through a lot of toil and grief. We finally got it after about 40-50min. Remember that we had been spending 8-10 per song up until this point, so this "simple song" had eaten up a bulk of a rehearsal just for itself and most of that time was spent hammering out the 7 second ending. 

But all of our efforts were worth it. This surprisingly tricky song was locked in now. The band was solid on the whole thing, even the ending. 

Now Fast Forward to the show. We have a few equipment glitches initially but other than that it is smooth sailing. The ladies are all on their A game. They are dazzling the crowd song after song and we are providing the backdrop for them to do so. 

The band all looks on the list and see "Respect" is next. We exchange a quick smile as if to say "Hang On. We got this."

We kick off into it and the song feels good. Carmilla is putting on a performance that would make Aretha jealous. She is killing it. Her energy is infectious. The crowd is feeding off of it. The band is feeding off of it. 

The band really sinks into the groove and the tune feels great. I'm thinking  maybe this strange version of this tune was worth the brain hemorrhage after all. Well only if we "stick the landing". 

We are approaching the end of the tune. The eyes of each band member widens. I could see the anticipation on each of their faces. 
I gripped the guitar a little tighter and braced myself. It all came down to this. The NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA! Was coming in 4 measures, 3 measures,2 measures....

Then Carmilla (who was understandably wound up giving the performance of her life and having the crowd eat it up), turns toward the band and gives us the unmistakable , be all to end all hand gesture that she was about to end the song. In that millisecond I saw her hand held high I thought, "She's not about to forego the ending. I mean THE ENDING. You know the NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA! We spent most of a rehearsal (and untold brain damage) learning"

But sure enough, she swung her arm down and like any professional group of musicians would do....stopped on a dime. 

The bar before the NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA!

Well, the crowd erupted in applause (and they should have. That was a great rendition of that song and Carmilla had truly delivered a stellar performance). The audience felt no lacking because they had never been exposed to the NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA! In the first place. So they didn't miss it. 

The band however was staring at each other in a state of disbelief. Our ending. The hours of toiling. The chunk of soul with which we paid for the learning of said ending. All passed with one drop of a hand. 

In retrospect it is hilarious to think of those band member's expressions. It was part terror, disappointment, shock, and bewilderment. 

We were so knock back by that shock that it took a song or two before we really found the groove again but I have to commend that group of guys. 

Due to the amount of effort and that went into NAA........DAA DAA DAA .....NAA NAA.....DAA DAA DAA DAA! Without it ever getting performed would have caused lesser men to collapse in a heap. 

Although it was definitely jarring to them, the improv abbreviated ending didn't stop the band from doing our job. 

Although I know we are much more prepared for tonight's show, I can't wait to see what little magical moments await. 

Hopefully they won't entail a missing ending this year. 

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