At 5:00PM on a Wednesday last month, I got a call from my very good friend, Brian.
He’s a drummer, we’ve played together a lot, and can read each other very well.
But I wasn’t expecting him to ask if I could play a show that night.
In three and a half hours.
With someone I’ve never played with, and songs I don’t really know.
Of course, I said yes.
The pandemic put the kibosh on all my gigging.
I played 61 shows in 2019 and only 9 in 2020. All 9 were in the first three months of the year. Then there was 1 gig in 2021 and none in 2022. Until Wednesday, December 14.
Brian and I met shortly after we each moved to Nashville in 2007. He’s almost 30 years younger than I am but he’s a drummer and I’m a bass player.
That makes us brothers. We’ve played in several bands together, from alternative rock to country, as well as pick-up gigs here and there.
A couple years ago, he met and married Laney Jones, who’s basically the female version of him.
Silly, happy, positive, friendly. They’re so similar that it’s now like I’ve known her for just as long.
She’s a singer, guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter. We’ve jammed a couple times in their basement studio, but never on her songs. It was just jamming.
Brian’s call came as a shock.
Sure, it’s only a few songs on a Wednesday night, but I’d want to do a good job. He said they’d be at our place at 6:00pm to teach me the songs.
My wife and I scarfed down some dinner and I set up a practice amp near the dining room table. I got some paper and a Sharpie so I could jot some notes.
Brian and Laney showed up. We had half an hour.
She had an acoustic guitar, and he mimicked drums by slapping his thighs and stomping the floor. The first song was easy enough. It was two chords the whole way through, so it was just a question of getting the dynamics right. I know Brian’s drumming well enough that I knew I could rely on him to guide me through it.
Some of the other songs were trickier. We threw one out immediately because I just wasn’t getting it. That was a small blow to my ego, but messing it up in front of an audience would be so much worse.
At 6:30, we packed up and went to the club, Brian and Laney in their car, me and the lovely Ms. Virgindog in ours. On the way, I said that I’d have to concentrate on relaxing and underplaying.
I said this to her. But I was really telling myself.
It turns out that the reason their regular bass player couldn’t make it is because he’s underage.
I don’t have that problem. Not by a long shot.
And sure enough, we were carded as soon as we walked in.
The other band was setting up. They were playing second, so they sound-checked first. That gave Brian time to introduce me to a guy named Joe who would be playing lead guitar with us. Cool, someone else to fill out the sound.
Brian also told me that they decided that Laney and Joe would do the first three songs without bass and drums. Then Brian would join them for a song on bass, if he could borrow my bass. Sure, of course. For the last three songs, he’d switch to drums and I’d join them.
Three songs instead of seven?
Count me in.
Especially since two of them had two chords each and the third one had four.
I can manage that.
We sound-checked and the levels sounded great on stage. It was 7:40pm, twenty minutes before the doors opened. Brian offered to buy us a drink, and we didn’t say no.
So we sat in the bar and talked about all the things friends talk about. Travel, health, other friends, music. And then it was time.
Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. I don’t usually get nervous but the key word there is “usually.” There was nothing usual about this. I knew just two of the three people I’d be playing with, I played only part of each song at my dining room table, it had been over a year since I’ve been on a stage, and I really didn’t want to let my friends down. Those are some good reasons to be nervous.
Maybe I had internalized that I needed to relax.
Laney’s great at engaging an audience.
She comes across as completely herself, authentic, a little goofy, and happy to play music for people.
She introduced herself and Joe, and they played the first three songs.
They sounded great. He was an interesting player, adding color and texture rather than guitar wankery. Underplaying. It was a good reminder for me.
Brian jumped up to play bass on the fourth song. He did a great job but didn’t take his eyes off his hands. He’s a drummer, not a bass player, so moving his left hand up and down the neck took a little concentration. His timing, though, was perfect.
Then Laney called me up, to a smattering of applause, and up I went.
Brian handed me my bass and went behind the drums. And Laney started the song.
I waited for Brian.
I’m not sure what happened exactly.
But there was a point where Laney paused and Brian clicked his sticks four times at a slower tempo than what Laney had just been playing.
Maybe she got excited, which makes sense in a situation like this.
But the drummer is always right.
We got into a nice, chilled out, groove, alternating between the chords. I knew I shouldn’t overplay but I occasionally threw in a third and/or a fifth between vocal lines. I leaned heavily on Brian for the dynamics. He’s excellent at changing volumes appropriately for the song, and does it without speeding up or slowing down. That’s harder than it sounds. Anyway, I did what he did.
The outro was loud and full power. It felt great, and the crowd, all twenty of them, applauded enthusiastically. Laney thanked them and introduced me again, saying that I was filling in and hadn’t practiced with them. That got some applause, too. I curtsied.
The second song was slower and less intense. It called for underplaying. Good, there’s nothing complicated about it. Just hit the root notes on time and everything will be fine.
The last song had four chords, and the last two were F major and F minor. For most of the song, I played F for both chords. But during the guitar solo, I tried playing an Ab under the F minor.
Ab is the third of the F minor chord, so I knew it wouldn’t sound bad, but I didn’t know how it would fit with what everyone else was doing.
It sounded great, adding just enough tension to make the next chord extra satisfying.
While it’s always tempting to repeat successes like this, it can also wear out its welcome. I did it a couple more times but only when I thought it would work.
This is the kind of thing only musicians notice, and I may have been the only person in the room who knew. Certainly no one said anything afterwards, but it gave me a small sense of satisfaction. With a single and unrehearsed note, I added some color and motion to the song. Maybe I haven’t lost my chops after all.
I have no gigs lined up in 2023.
But I’m not as wary of taking them now.
Photos Courtesy of Laney Jones
(Let the author know that your liked their article with a “Heart Upvote!”)