The biggest reason why I’m not doing more solo work (that is, other than desperately needing an accompanist) is that I won’t do anything to jeopardize my relationship with my band. Seven years ago, the band didn’t need me, there were two people who could sing well enough to earn the fee; and bringing me onboard would require splitting that fee five ways instead of four. My brother from another mother, Paul, liked my voice and liked the idea of the songs the band could attempt with me in the group, so he asked me to join. Over the last couple of years, I’ve had folks ask if I would sing with their bands, and I’ve always said the same thing: “I’d love to… but if there is a scheduling conflict, I’m always going to go with ETGB – they are my first priority.” That has always been a deal-breaker, and while I don’t blame the other musicians for wanting me to put their needs at the top of the priorities list, it just isn’t going to happen. ETGB is my band.
There are pros and cons to being in a band. The biggest pro is that synergy that happens when everything is firing on all cylinders, and the music that comes forth is something you could not have done all by yourself; that moment when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To say those few moments are magic is not an understatement; and it’s a alchemy that only musicians, dancers and actors in a troupe, or athletes on a championship-level team get to experience. The biggest con is that when something bad happens to one member of the group, it affects every member of the group. A band is a living, breathing, growing entity – it’s like being in a marriage, only with multiple spouses: when one spouse ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
When it comes to ETGB, one of our biggest draws is our dueling lead guitars. One guitarist handles leads, the other rhythm, and they swap out seamlessly depending on the song and sometimes depending on where they are in a single song. A few of our tunes require dueling leads, which both our guitarist can and do handle fabulously. The biggest reason we can do all this was Gary, affectionately referred to onstage as “The Secret Weapon.” Gary is the perfect second guitarist – he just wants to play. Doesn’t need the spotlight, doesn’t need the ego boost of being front and center – just wants to shred in a band. Which means Paul can head out and rile up the crowd and I can sing pretty notes knowing full well the music will never suffer.
Last year, Gary started having issues with his hand. Forty years of gripping a guitar neck in a strangle hold had developed into arthritis and carpal tunnels and anything else the doctors could think of that would end his playing career. After toughing it out as long as he could, The Secret Weapon finally said the words we were hoping we’d never hear: “Just can’t do it, guys. I’m done.”
Gary and I have almost nothing in common, yet I love the little dude like a brother; because he’s such a stand-up guy, everybody is the band feels the same way. We weren’t losing a guitarist – we were losing a family member.
The show must go on, though – the band had a couple of obligations in late September and early October. More than once, the idea was floated that we just not replace Gary. So much of the band’s appeal is we honestly like each other, and the joy we get playing music with each other on stage translates out to the audience. Bringing in someone new didn’t guarantee we’d still have that dynamic, but it was finally decided that too much of our music required that second guitar – dropping back to a three-piece with a singer would mean changing up our entire song catalog. Paul got on the horn and started calling folks, then went ahead and put out an ad in Craiglist: Veteran band with upcoming gigs needs a guitarist. Three folks answered the ad; only one showed up for an audition – Tim. Tim’s around Paul and my age, single dad, decades of experience in bands, and willing to drive to rehearsal. Paul jammed with him a bit, then invited Tim to sit in with the entire band. “Got to warn you – we have strong vocals.” The guys were screwing around when I showed up that morning running a little late. We started into my first song and Tim’s eyes shot open – Paul wasn’t kidding, our vocals are strong.
We scrambled together enough songs to get through the next couple of gigs, which went fine – not as strong as our last outing with Gary, but nothing to complain about. Mostly, Paul, Dave, JC, and I could tell we had some real potential with Tim joining the band. I had a solo gig in November for a friend I needed to prepare for, Paul had family obligations, and Tim had holiday gigs already on his calendar, so other than maybe a jam session or two, the band went on hiatus until after the new year.
The solo gig had been in the works for a year. Friends of mine and my parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary, and it had been requested that I provide entertainment. After convincing all the concerned parties that ETGB – and ETGB’s volume – would not be appropriate for such a setting, I went to work finding an accompanist. My first choice had recently told the world he we done doing music, so I called up my nephew, Kevin, and asked if he’d be interested in earning some sweet bucks playing for me – to my relief, he agreed. I cooked up an hour or so of songs I though he could do with little trouble, and we started rehearsing. It wasn’t long until I realized Kevin was FAR too good for my song choices – the young musician was BORED. So I began looking for harder songs, most of which he learned with no problem. A couple of songs he couldn’t wrap his head around – the music videos had dual guitars, so he couldn’t decide what he should or should not be playing. A couple of songs, he just flat out didn’t like, so trying to convince him to tough it out and learn the tune was like pulling teeth. We took a break so I could do the musical, then we learned the last two songs for the show, the two requests from our hosts. With no time to spare, we had enough songs to do the gig.
The musical introduced me to a lovely pianist and music instructor, Erin, who had been instrumental in getting the music portion of the show accomplished. As soon as the show was over, I contacted her about putting together a lounge/cabaret style act, hopefully with her doing half the singing. She said she’d be delighted, and I got to work trying to come up with not just songs, but a theme. Love seemed to be the only thing I could agree with myself on, so that became the reason behind my song choices. Erin and I got together to feel each other out as much as anything else – as much as we had in common, we had just as much as polar opposites. I located about half the songs I was after, then just as we were about to fall into a groove, I needed to put us on hold while ETGB got Tim into the fold, and I got Kevin and the November show behind me.
The anniversary party went great. Kevin was a huge hit, impressing everyone in attendance with his talent and skill, including a couple of professional musicians. My banter needed a little work – I’d gotten lazy, depending on my piano partner to carry half the banter load, so I personally thought I came across stilted, like I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. I paid my nephew his fee, and then gave him the bonus we’d received from doing a fine job, hopeful the experience had inspired him to want to do more.
No such luck. Kevin was a hard rocker. This adult contemporary stuff I’d been force-feeding him the last year just wasn’t his cup of tea. When he wasn’t playing rhythm in his dad’s AC/DC tribute band, Kevin was helping write songs with a lovely young woman with amazing pipes, Jett Moon. Jett Moon had been the act ahead of ETGB at one of the biker rallies last year, and she had impressed me – couldn’t hold it against the young man for wanting to play for her instead of me.
I let Erin know I was free and asked what her schedule looked like – she was working on an album of Broadway show tunes with some folks. I told her to not rush the process, do what she needed to do and enjoy herself, let me know when she was done.
Two accompanists in my rolodex and both were busy working with someone else – I was bummed. I spent ETGB’s hiatus doing nothing.
Well, almost nothing. I turn 50 in 2016. Years ago, I promised my counselor I would treat milestone birthdays with the respect such events deserve – I spent my 40th birthday out of state at a casino with some of my closets friends (which was fantastic, had a great time), hadn’t celebrated since; I was morally and contractually obligated to do something special this year. Two of my best friends, Michele and Kim, were turning 50 as well, just weeks within my birthday – Michele suggested (commanded) we share a birthday party, make it a three-way event – she’d drive down from Kentucky, Kim would drive up from outside of Houston, and we would rock out with ETGB for the night. So instead of learning my love songs and searching for the remaining sheet music or advertising for an acoustic guitarist, I spent my time researching locations and caterers. Once the new year hit, what had been pencilled in would be changed to ink – we’d have our shindig on March 12th, after Michele’s birthday, just before Kim’s, close enough to mine to still be considered my party. I shelved plans to include my 25th wedding anniversary; and plans to include my parent’s belated 50th wedding anniversary fell by the wayside when none of the family could make all of the event. My birthday bash would only be my birthday bash.
My original idea was to have my brother, Kelly’s band open for us – it would guarantee he and his family could make the event, and maybe we could get in a major jam in at the end of the night. Couldn’t work out the logistics: it would take too long to set them up just to tear them back down again; then ETGB would need to spend an hour at the high point of the party setting up. So I crossed my fingers Kelly wouldn’t get booked into a gig (lost that bet), and instead I contacted one of my favorite female vocalists in town, Kes O’Hara. Kes is one of my musical inspirations: when she isn’t knocking them dead with her originals band, Hush Money, she’s slaying with a covers band, Red Light Special; playing acoustic sets all over town; and hosting karaoke nights. If Janis Joplin was Australian and sang Bon Scott AC/DC tunes, she’d be Kes. The woman is a road warrior, and the fact she makes most of her money with MUSIC keeps me going when I fret I’m too old and unskilled to make this Rock Star thing happen.
Michele suggested we just have the party at the last place we all three were together, Chasers Lounge in East Dallas. If I booked the band that night, I would’t need to rent a venue, and if none of our friends made it to the event, the regulars would still have a band to rock out to all night. ETGB was down for playing on the 12th; the goddess who runs Chasers, Teresa, had an opening that night; we decided to forget catering and settled on chips and snacks; the ladies worked out their travel plans; my lovely Lady Fair cleaned house, I and the rest of the band got rehearsed up.
After such a long break, it felt amazing singing with the guys again. A new player meant new songs, stretching those musical muscles. Biggest obstacle in rehearsals was getting used to the new sound we were making. Tim has a different sensibility to the music than Gary; where Gary would go high, play a fifth or a full octave above Paul, Tim would go low, play a third down. Tim also custom built his guitar, so the quality of the sound was different – songs we’d performed since I joined the band suddenly sounded brand new. And he could sing – Tim could harmonize as well as handle lead vocals. For the first time in years, we had four vocalists again. Weekend after weekend, the music started pulling together. By March 5th, we were all starting to lose our minds – we needed to be in front of a crowd. I named the party “The ‘It’s All Downhill’ Birthday Bash and Concert,” not just as a play on the old adage about us having passed our peak, but from an old “Men’s Health” interview I’d read on Matthew McConaughey. He talked about how he’d finally learned how to enjoy running downhill – not only is it easier, but it’s easier for a reason: you can run just that much faster. I liked that thought. The hard part is behind me now: I know who I am, what I am, and who and what I’m willing to give it all for… everything from this point is all downhill. I can coast, or I can run that much that much faster.
Michele and her wonderful wife, Mary, came down Thursday to stay with me and the lovely Lady Fair. We spoiled them with Whataburger when they arrived, filled them up full of barbecue on Friday, then took them to our favorite taco joint Saturday for lunch before we headed to the gig. Kim and her kids drove up Saturday, making it to Chasers just as Kes was getting ready for her opening set. I’d set the party for 5, then scheduled Kes to start at 6, secure in the knowledge all my peeps would be at least 30 to 45 minutes late – I had miscalculated: at 6, none of my friends, included the birthday girl, Kim, had made it yet. I told Kes she could chill until 6:30, then if my co-conspirator was still not in attendance, she’d just have to miss the start of the show. Just as Kim and the kids showed, my peeps began arriving; and when I state my peeps, I mean MY peeps: friends I hadn’t seen in months and sometimes years, friends who had never been to one of my band’s shows, started streaming through the door. I stopped hugging my friends long enough to introduce Kes, then started making the rounds.
Kes was on fire. The birthday bash was the second of three shows she had booked that day, and evidently her first crowd treated her as background noise all afternoon long. We, on the other hand, were singing along and applauding, enjoying all the song selections. Kes fed on the feedback, and gave an inspired show, one the best I’d ever heard from her – she was not ready to call it quits when I asked the crowd to give her a final big round of happy applause. Kes gave me a big hug as she headed out to her last gig, and ETGB did our soundcheck – another huge round of applause. Evidently, the levels were fine.
The band hit the first chords of our opening set, and I looked out towards the back of Chasers Lounge, seeing my oldest friends smiling and laughing along the back wall. Any thoughts about the fact we had three sets to get through completely fled my brain – I opened up and sang like my life depended on it, showing off like a schoolboy in choir. By the end of the set, I knew I was in trouble – my throat was already on fire, and we hadn’t even got to the tougher songs. It came time to showcase Tim and our new songs. He started the opening strumming, then started hitting the chords to “Pinball Wizard.” Right on cue, Paul and Dave hit their power chords – the hair on the back on my neck stood up. By the next power chord, I was nearly in tears, I was so happy. Tim started to sing, so I snuck a glance at the crowd – nothing but smiles, people clapping along, and feet started to move. We had our new signature song.
We took our first break, and I headed over to my friends. “Holy Crap! I had no idea you were so good!” I hugged my buddy and thanked him – it didn’t matter I’d be mute on Sunday, I’d be singing my brains out the rest of the night after that.
The one downside of the night was a mistake in judgement on my part.
The day after I buried Bobby, the band had a gig out at a biker rally in East Texas. I wanted to dedicate a song to him that day, but the band hadn’t had any time to work something up; so in an act of inspired desperation, I picked the song in the dead center of our set, Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” I say “inspired.” because once the gig was over, Michele (who had been staying with me for the funeral and had come with me to the gig) wiped away her tears and explained “If you think about Bobby in context with the song, it makes perfect sense. It’s the perfect tribute song.” And she was right – so since that Saturday, any time the band had performed “You May Be Right,” I had dedicated it to him.
That Saturday, people who had never seen the band, people I had not seen since I buried Bobby almost two years ago, were all standing along the back wall as I raised my shot glass. “So we’re gonna dedicate this next song to our fallen brother, Bobby, the CRAZIEST MOE FOE I ever knew!” Paul played the opening licks, the rest of the band joined in, and I belted out:
“Friday night, I crashed your party. Saturday, I said I’m sorry.
Sunday came and we trashed it out again.
We were only having fun, wasn’t hurting anyone,
And we all enjoyed the weekend for a change!”
As I pulled the microphone away from my face, my oldest friends… who had been Bobby’s oldest friends… were hugging each other, crying. I’d been singing this tribute for almost two years – I was no longing getting choked up. Michele knew I’d been dedicating the song to Bobby, my lovely Lady Fair, Kristi, had heard me sing the song to Bobby, so they were ready – my other friends, however, were caught totally off guard. The love and loss and grief welled up inside them as they all but held each other up as I sang. Tears threatened to well up in my eyes, so I looked away as quickly as I could, fixating on Paul and Tim on my left, the bar crowd on my right. We ended the song strong, and I made a mental note I owed nearly everybody I loved an apology – so sorry I didn’t think to give you a heads up.
By the time we ended the night, I had nothing left – my high notes were gone, my low notes were forced, and I was tasting blood in the back of my throat. We called it quits early enough for me to enjoy a beer and a shot for a change, an indulgence I usually skip since I’m usually driving my Mustang home. I paid the band, enjoyed my shot, enjoyed a second shot, and nursed my beer as Kristi and I chatted with Teresa. Could not have asked for a better first gig of the year, could not have asked for a better birthday bash.
My journey to rock stardom is back on track.