Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rock-It Science, Pt. 2

L to R: Dee Snider, Tim Sommer, Joseph Shireman, me (no idea what to do with my hands)
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As I sit in the glare of morning coming through the windows of LaGuardia airport, I'll try to reconstruct the somewhat surreal aspects of the Rock-it Science show last night while it's still fairly fresh in my bleary mind. This nice cup of Au Bon Pain coffee should help (I think).

I cabbed from the Park Central Hotel to the Highline Ballroom on the far west part of 16th Street. There was a lot of crosstown traffic (cue Hendrix) and took a lot longer to get there than I'd expected. I arrived with my NORD and my little Les Paul at around 2:30pm and marched up the stairs to the ballroom proper, which was actually more of a club with no perceptible dance floor. It was already a small ruckus of activity. I saw Tim Sommer there, probably nearing the height of his anxiety about this show he was putting on for the conference of eminent scientists.

Then Pete Kennedy and I spied each other and hugged, having not seen each other for several years. Pete and his wife Maura are a rockin' duo I have known for quite a while; I played on their album Life is Large, an all-star affair that came out in 1996. Maura was deep in iPod concentration under noise-cancelling headphones at a table nearby. I did the Rick Neilsen/Mark Bryan pick fling at her, connecting after four attempts. They invited me and Stuart, the house band bassist, to play on a few songs including their take on "Matty Groves" (Fairport Convention arrangement, minus the furious fiddle tune that abuts it on Liege and Lief) and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows". They wanted to draft Linda, our drummer, as well, but she had not arrived by then.

Maura and I went to a deli in the Chelsea Market to get coffee for me and lunch for her and Pete. We passed the directory to the building and realized that EMI Music Publishing, who own songs by both me and the Kennedys, was on an upper floor of the building. She told me that the English division had arranged for them to visit Abbey Road studios when they were in England; I couldn't think of anything EMI did for me, apart from an advance that kept me alive for a year in 1992 and held a dozen songs from my catalog for perpetuity (I did swipe a flat steel bottle opener from them once at a Hootie acoustic performance).

When we got back to the venue, Linda was at work setting up the drums. Will, the house sound man, was trying to find out what amps were to go where; they were set up in a row along stage left, looking like the bars of service in a Verizon ad. Daddy, Mama and Baby Amps. I chose a Fender Deville, but quickly handed it off to Lenny Kaye when the little Ampeg J20's came out. I'm a sucker for an Ampeg guitar amp, having owned an ancient Jet and a less ancient VT22 over the years. The J20 solved a potential cord problem I was confronting. It has a very usable tremolo which allowed me to use a small patch cord for the volume pedal on the NORD.

Alex Maiolo had come up from Chapel Hill to stage manage the show, at Tim's request. Smart move, as Alex was already making lists and taking requests for mics and monitors.

Everyone in the house band was finally up and ready to check. We were already running late, despite our best efforts to stay on top of things; such is the way these big crazy multi-artist shows, I guess. I'll let you know how it stacks up against Carnegie Hall next week.

It was suggested that we do a verse and chorus of a Steve song, my song and Lenny's version of "Gloria". Steve had set up the other J20 in front of the acoustic piano that Rufus Wainwright would be using later. Linda was trying to get some of Steve's guitar in her monitor, but the monitor engineer had not realized that there were two Ampegs up there by then. He had my guitar cranked up to an intolerable level, so when I hit the first notes of the signature lick of "Tell Me When It's Over", Linda threw down her sticks and grabbed her ears in pain. I felt horrible for her, as I was the guy playing said lick, even though I was not technically responsible for the situation (although I realized later, in a moment of clarity, that I was not to blame).

We got things straightened out and managed to get through that uncomfortable time, even working on the songs for Rock Of Ages and the Dee Snider tunes. Gary Lucas and Dan Levitin came up and we had the five guitar army going for Dan's instrumental. Everything seemed to be working fine after the blast to Linda's ears.

Anna Copa Cabanna and her troupe of dancers were hauling in bags of costumes and props. Ana was our hostess for the show, equipped with her small, pink-lighted, xylophone-ready podium. She is a tiny woman with an energy that belies her size. She said there were sixteen costume changes for her and her posse that night.

It became evident after a while that we wouldn't be backing up the Kennedys, unfortunately. That just meant I got to watch them play, which is always a fine experience.

Gary Lucas told me a tale of meeting Peter Green, the former Fleetwood Mac founder, and getting him to sign his copy of Then Play On after asking "am I on this?" We agreed that TPO features some of the most wonderful guitar tone ever committed to tape, both from Green as well as Danny Kirwan.

I drank lots and lots of the coffee in the dressing room. We were instructed that the small, internal room was Rufus' and that we should clear out of there when he arrived. Oh boy. Were we not to make eye contact with him, either? Naw, Rufus showed up and was very nice. Anna and her group had their costumes all over the little room, and he made no fuss whatsoever.

The whole shebang: L-R: me, Steve Wynn, Rufus Wainwright, Lenny Kaye, Gary Lucas (back row) the Amygdaloids (front row)
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The show began with Coles Whalen, a wonderful Nashville singer-songwriter. Her voice and songs are contemporary and compelling, and the audience agreed.

I did spend a lot of time up in the dressing room, looking at the charts for the Rock of Ages songs and trying to remember all the cues to all the other tunes as well. It was busy up there. Three steam tables held chicken parmesan, some fish dish, steamed vegetables and, my favorite, couscous. I had a scoop of couscous and more coffee and was set. Did a little internet time as well, and I watched people drift in an out of the room.

The Kennedys ended up changing their set a little. They did "Matty Groves" (Linda and I were singing along on the side of the stage) and they steamrolled through "Eight Miles High". It was great to see and hear them again, and they bolted after their short set, having spent the better part of the day at the Highline.

Rufus did a forty-minute solo set, alternating between grand piano and acoustic guitar. I was thrilled to get to hear him live. His performance was sterling. He did a couple songs from Poses, my favorite of his records. I couldn't stay to watch the whole show, but I'm glad I got to see as much as I did.

The house band guitarists were summoned to the balcony to meet Dee Snider. Tim was undoubtedly pulling my chain when he said that reportedly Dee had enquired as to whether it was "THE Peter Holsapple from the dBs" but frankly, I have my doubts that that actually happened. Nonetheless, Joseph and I went up, met Dee and sorted out keys and endings (the YouTube video I'd seen of "We're Not Gonna Take It" was in E flat, but Dee assured us that E was fine too). I thanked him for testifying in Congress, and he remarked that he felt he took flak for it, like Zappa ("No one ever said a bad word about John Denver, though.")

Returning to the dressing room, Tim once again summoned us with acoustic guitars to rehearse with Constantine in the alley. In the alley? It's freezing cold out there, so whatever guitars were going to get taken out there were going to go to hell tuning-wise. Plus I didn't have an acoustic so Dr. Joseph LeDoux, the guy who came up with this concept in the first place, loaned me his Guild, and I led the chorus line downstairs, through the crowd to the door. There, I found Constantine and his Broadway buddies talking with Tim, saying "Well, it'd be better to go back upstairs to do it." About face. To the rear, march.

We got out the guitars, and Lenny, Joseph and I played the two songs from Rock of Ages, and the stars sang along. I stood right next to Constantine, and boy that guy projects--he projected right into my left ear a lot. There was much high-fiving between him and his co-stars, and Coles was tapped to join in on the NORD. Which meant I also was tapped to write her another chart for the two songs right before we took the stage.

House band in place, Anna did her intro thing and we were off. There, in all his six-foot-one glory, ran Dee Snider, and we started "We're Not Gonna Take It" like we'd played it all our lives. It was still amazing me to look to my left and see Lenny Kaye shredding. Linda said the expression on my face during Dee's songs was priceless, which I take to mean 'slack-jawed'. Dee was dragging us out to the front to rock out with him, and I went willingly. "I Wanna Rock" was also flawless, and it's got to have been the strangest backing band Dee's ever sung over. I didn't get to say goodbye, as he also split while we were onstage, but I hope he had as good a time as we all did up there.

Next up were the Rock of Ages folks. We started with "High Enough" which we executed well, I'd say. It was a drag to have to play acoustic guitar through the little Ampeg, but time got tight and we didn't really want to assault the sound crew much more than we already had. Then the Bon Jovi song, which was okay with a small flub toward the third verse when the singer didn't count the drum break correctly. Oh well, he'll have weeks, months, years to perfect that on B'way. More high-fiving and they were gone like a cool breeze.

Onward into "Gloria". Lenny was great. He made the breakdown section into a small science/romance lecture before the crowd found itself spelling her name again.

Steve's songs were huge fun for me to play. I remarked to him that I finally found myself occupying the same role as Karl Precoda, Paul B. Cutler and Robert Mache had defined over the years. Hope I was as happening as those guys, because it was a gas to wail loudly with Steve and Linda. I cranked the tremolo for "Amphetamine" and tried to find a suitably irritating setting on the Turbo Overdrive, hoping all the while that I wasn't compounding any auditory damage to Linda.

We stormed through "Neverland", my bright shining moment in the spotlight. People were drifting out by then, as it was getting sort of late in the evening.

Dan and Gary got up, and we did "B.O.C." and the "Wicked Game" parody. That was also big fun and way loud, especially with Dan, Gary, Lenny, Steve and me all on electric guitars.

We left the stage to the Amygdaloids, Joe LaDoux's band of scientists. It was geting very late by now. But we hadn't done "Hot Child in the City" and Anna was not pleased with the concept of cutting the song. Alex ran interference, and we in the house band were informed that we had to jump up onstage the second the Amygdaloids were done or we'd face an ugly and violent revolt from the house sound crew.

As we headed back down the stairs to the stage, I had to stop. Linda and I watched Anna in her bikini festooned with Australian flags as she grooved along to the band. It was a fittingly strange and lovely moment to end a thoroughly weird night.

Anna and her troupe danced a final dance as she sang the Nick Gilder song and we were done.

I headed back to the hotel after lots of hugs and business cards were exchanged.

I'd given one to Dee Snider, saying "I have absolutely no idea what you might need this for," thinking perhaps he could floss his teeth or fold it to even out some table legs with it, to which he responded "Well, you never know." No, Dee, you're right, you never do.

Postscript: when I got back to the hotel, I turned on the television to wind down. There, on the Jimmy Fallon show, was Jon Bonjovi himself, enjoying a karaoke version of "Wanted: Dead or Alive". I admit having been completely ignorant of the song until days ago, and now I sense its ubiquity. Now if I can just get that ubiquitous chorus out of my head....

L to R - Constantine Maroulis, me (again, with the hand issues), Tim Sommer, Lenny Kaye

5 comments:

Bob Collum said...

Peter,
Whats a NORD?????
You need to get over to the UK sometime.

Mike said...

Is Rufus Wainwright one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last decade or so, or what? That's great that you had a good time and got to share such good company!

Deaconlight said...

Andy Boller posted the video of "We're Not Gonna Take It" on Facebook. I loved it! Dee Snider has really impressed me over the past couple of decades - he's one of the sharpest knives in the drawer. I actually dropped in here tonight to see what you've been up to. Didn't expect to see my birthday buddy Tim's mug up there! Anyway, I've been wanting to talk to you about something for a few weeks regarding "Black and White." Drop me an e-mail when you get a chance. - DDT

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter,

Great story! I met Peter Green once in the early part of this decade and he signed my copy of Then Play On saying "people always want me to sign this!"

He a was a very funny guy actually... and the best guitarist I've ever stole from.

Bobby Sutliff

Tim Armstrong said...

Bob, the NORD is probably one of those very cool piano/organ keyboards from Scandihoovia...

Peter, great story!

Cheers, Tim