i say it a lot, and it’s true – i don’t really get nervous for gigs anymore.
this gig, i was a sweatin’ just a little.
anytime i get to play with someone whos’ been an influence, a hero, someone that i’ve been listening to since a time when i couldn’t have really foreseen becoming what i’ve ultimately become – there’s a little bit of that nervous energy goin’ on.
especially when i know i’m going to be called on to do something that’s not one of my strong suits.
mike reilly from pure prairie league has become a friend over the past couple of years, and we’d talked about my sitting in with them for one or more of the shows on this run through central pennsylvania they were doing – but, as it had turned out, i had a show on saturday night with craig bickhardt, and when the opportunity to get jd malone into the studio with phil nicolo to do this record between phils’ stints on the road, that ruled out the possibility of the previous night’s show in scranton/wilkes-barre, too – so we were left with the carlisle show, a double-bill with the firefall guys – which once again included david muse, back out on the road again after some health problems that sidelined him for a while.
in discussing the setlist with mike, he’d mentioned that he’d like to have me play mandolin on two of the songs – pickin’ to beat the devil, and i’ll fix your flat tire, merle. now, i’ve never focused a lot of attention on my mandolin playing – it’s always been something of a secondary instrument for me, because i’ve never been in a position to have to lean on my skills in that department. well, now i needed to step up my game a little.
so, with plenty of notice, i figured i’d better brush up a bit and work on this a little…both of those songs were uptempo bluegrass-flavored numbers, and i figured i’d better work something out for those songs beforehand as opposed to hoping that i’d be visited by the ghost of bill monroe at the last minute or something.
well…i learned something very important about myself in the process, lemme tell ya.
now, a lot of you know that i’m left handed. if you didn’t, now you do. you may also be realizing, as i bring this up, that i play every instrument that i play in the traditional right-handed fashion. when i started out on drums as a young pup, i played drums the same way – right-handed. i did that for a couple of reasons…one being that every drummer i knew was right-handed, including the drummers that i saw at shows and on TV, and i wanted to be like them. as i started learning guitar, it was the same thing – i never had a formal teacher, so the people i was learning from were all right-handed, and i just thought it looked funny to play guitar left-handed…hendrix, paul mccartney, dan seals, the dude from air supply – not taking anything away from any of them, but the notion of trying to play guitar left-handed just didn’t appeal to me at all.
and besides – the thing that occurred to me then that’s stayed with me for all the years since was that, when holding the guitar in the normal fashion, isn’t your left hand doing the most complex work? i was certain that the fretting hand would need to be the hand that you were most adept with, and i thought everybody else had it wrong. in all these years, playing all these different instruments, playing right-handed as a lefty has never been an obstacle to me.
that is, until i started working on my mandolin picking technique.
i figured there had to be some trick, some shortcut, some technique i could practice to get that thing down, right? i mean, i’ve been playing mandolin for a long time, but i’ve never put myself in the position to get serious about perfecting that particular technique because…well, i haven’t needed to.
this gig, though – in particular, these songs – would require that i be able to play mandolin that way…with a degree of right-hand speed that i hadn’t ever really had to call on before.
well, ok…no big deal, right? i’ll just practice…when…well, when exactly?
between the studio schedule working on JD’s record, putting in my hours during the day at work, and making sure that my son would still recognize me when i walk through the door – well, that left late at night after everyone had gone to bed for a couple of days leading up to the start of the work on JD’s record, but not much else.
hey – i at least had the fact that both songs were in A going for me (easiest mandolin key EVER). whether that’d be enough or not remained to be seen.
so, after wrapping up overdubs on JD’s record and loading into the car to head to Carlisle for the show, i entertained thoughts of asking wendy to drive so i could at least run some scales and loosen up, but it was rainy and somewhat miserable out, and i didn’t want to burden her with driving in the weather as it was…and besides, i was gonna need to spin the wheels pretty quickly to get there in time for soundcheck, so i drove myself.
when we got to the theater, i spotted jon rosenbaum unloading merchandise from his car and taking it into the lobby – so we went inside and said hello before heading down into the room, where the firefall guys were already in the middle of soundcheck. i walked down and chatted with sandy, bill and steve for a bit before bumping into a newly short-haired david muse, whos’ looking and sounding good after returning to the band not too terribly long ago.
the PPL boys started trickling in not too long afterward, and we slid right into soundcheck after the firefall boys had finished up…i was originally only going to sit in on the two mandolin songs, but they extended an invite to play acousstic on anything else i was comfortable with playing on…so i ended up playing about 80 percent of the set. they opened with tears and kansas city southern, and i came out for early mornin’ riser and stayed up until let me love you tonight and came back for six feet of snow and stayed through the rest of the show.
so how did the mandolin thing work out, you ask?
well…ok. not great, not awful, but passable. i learned a few things about my approach, working up to this gig…in terms of what pick i should be using, what posture works best for me, and the like. i’ve built up my right hand speed significantly since starting to work on it, but i’m still a ways away from being the tremolo picker that i’d like to be. and, other than the combination adrenalin-and-holyshitness of the moment, i think i did a decent job. 🙂
and – there’s something of an open invite to come back and do it again, so that’s always nice to know. the guys in the band are such great musicians, and i got to stand next to john david call all night long and watch him play…that alone is worth the extra hours of mandolin practice.