Thursday, February 28, 2008

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

Well, there I go again. I’ve been lax. I’ve warned youse! I just haven’t had the time nor the inkling to blog too much! Not that there hasn’t been anything to bog about. We’ve had some great shows and some great times! I guess I’ve just been living them, and not really trying to remember them once the moment has past. That makes it hard to write about later.

And I’ve been getting hell for it, too. Old friend Carol cornered me the other night at Eddie’s, clamoring for a new blog. And, she had nice words about my writing as well, which is a pretty good carrot. So, let’s see if I can find some words to throw down.

After C.J.’s departure, we pretty much all three unanimously agreed to quickly find a replacement. In many bands I’ve play for in the past, once a member left, often the others would just go their separate ways. This was different. We knew we had a good working chemistry, and we’ve got a good calendar and staple of clubs to book. We needed to move forward and keep Rock Bottom going.

I quickly turned to Paul, my life long friend and brotha from anotha mutha. He reciprocated by offering his help in any way he could, but the stipulation was that he still wasn’t interested in any long term commitment. He’s had his fill of Weekend Warrior gigs, and loves the freedom to pick and choose when he decides to venture out from under his rock, so to speak.

Our shows with Paul were wonderful gigs. He’s my right hand man. Not only was he able to jump directly into any of the Rock Bottom regular songs (even those that weren’t standards that he’s played for eons), we were able to toss out some of OUR old classics, which brought a very fresh new feel to the set list. It was welcomed, and just what the doctor ordered.

We played around with some old classics from our Knucklehead days that still fit the mix, like Sammy Hagar’s Heavy Metal, and Fastway’s Say What You Will. Great early ‘80’s K-SHE stuff! We also would sometimes play Dokken’s Its Not Love, which always puts a smile on my face.

Yeah, also did some that weren’t quite in the mix, but very, very cool as well. Iron Maiden’s Two Minutes To Midnight really lets both Steve and Paul show off, so that was cool. Gives some of the real hard core ‘80’s metal fans a taste. We also played Sabbath’s War Pigs, and Rush’s Tom Sawyer towards the end of the night, which are a ton of fun to throw in. Boozie was rather upset when I’d pull ol’ Tom Sawyer out in the third set, because he’d be too buzzed to wrap his head around it! Just this past show, I surprised him with Fly By Night, and he was not amused. I think I have something coming to me; I’d better keep my head up!

But, in all, we stressed staying with the Rock Bottom model, the “brand” if you will, and not resurrecting Knucklehead. This group of faithful, awesome fans loves Rock Bottom. We didn’t want to send a message like “Hey, Rock Bottom is dead, enjoy some Knucklehead!” We want them to keep coming back to support what they have supported so strongly. I mean, everyone likes hearing some different stuff, and our sets were getting a tad stale, we knew that. But, we also don’t want to fix what isn’t broken!

I tossed a couple other tunes in there as well that we have the luxury of performing with Paul. I think Nickleback’s Figured You Out is a great money song that girls love and guys appreciate, but it’s tuned so low, to do it properly on bass you need a fifth lower string. With Paul, that was no problem. It was a hit everytime we played it.

I also took the luxury of having my long time right hand man in playing some blues, which I rarely get the pleasure to play much in this format. Again, probably not something we’re going to work into the Rock Bottom mix very much, but it was nice to play Stevie Ray Vaughan again. I can really open up my soul, and show a much different side to my style, and my voice.

I played The Sky Is Crying a couple times, and once, down at Schatzee’s, I even did Texas Flood, just because Sky got such a good reception. Good times. I think the Rock Bottom faithful really appreciated hearing us playing some different stuff, just for the sake of hearing us try something new. The reception is always warm.

But, we knew it would be short lived, and we were trying to decide where to go after Paul fulfilled his obligations to us. Many talented players had thrown their hats into the ring quickly, much to our surprise. The decision wouldn’t be easy. It was comforting to know we had choices, and flattering that without even putting out a call, we were getting interest in the position. And, there would be some who were disappointed, because we could only pick one, and all of these prospects were friends. Feelings could get hurt. That's the toughest part of the business, because at that point, it becomes business.

When Derrick Howard approached us, we were stunned. Derrick is a long time friend, dating back to the heydays of Stages, Granny’s Rocker, The Landing, you name it. We partied hard together for many, many years through different bands. He’d made a personal connection with Steve and I many years ago, just from having beers, enjoying the same music, enjoying performing, and enjoying life. He’s even an old hockey buff like Steve and myself, regularly attending Blues games. Our camaraderie extends past rock n’ roll. Whenever Steve and I weren’t gigging, whether two years ago at Eddie's, or fifteen years ago at Granny's Rocker, we were at his shows, having a great time. He’d kind of fallen out of the scene after Jagertyme split last year, but had resurfaced in the past few months.

None of us had ever been in a band with Derrick, but often have jammed together. In fact, Derrick was instrumental in the reformation of Knucklehead, putting us in touch with Scrappy in 2003, which pretty much led to Steve and I coming out of “retirement” and playing still today. Many times, Derrick ran sound for us in Knucklehead.

He’s a talented singer (former lead singer of Jagertyme), a front man in his own right, a solid guitar player and musician, and one heck of a sound man to boot! All qualities that we were looking for! A natural fit!

With one caveat. He’s not a bass player! That’s what stunned us. Why would Derrick ask to join the band on bass, when he’s not a bass player? Well, that in itself is flattering to us. He’s obviously willing to give it a shot, learn a different instrument, just to play with us. How do you say "no" to that? We talked it over, and if he was willing to try, then it all made sense. Our search ended.

That’s not to say Derrick was ready to just jump up and sail away with us. He wanted to practice. Practice? What the hell is practice?? Oh, yeah. Practice. We’ll, I guess we could. But where? None of us have anywhere where we can!

Steve sprung into action, and called up our buddy Jim at Club 111. No problem, Jim said. We’re more than welcome to come jam there. So, on a couple different Sunday afternoons, we set up at Club111 and, well, practiced! Imagine!

Now, mind you to those that don’t know (and as Derrick was soon to learn) there is a much different role on bass than playing guitar. Sure, there are only four strings. And being able to play guitar means you can PLAY a bass, but that doesn’t mean you really know how the songs go. Not only will the bass line sometimes run counter to the guitar part, or drone on a single note while the guitar fills in the accompaniment, the bass must lock in with the drummer, forming a vital role in the back bone of the sound, which guitar rarely does. While Paul Smith is the master of this and makes it look simple, it takes a knack, and rhythm.

And this is why Derrick stressed wanting to practice, because he was going to have to get the feel of this, and it’s not just a matter of “ok, what song? What key? Got it!” and off we go. I learned this myself when helping Ivory Tiger out on bass during Geo’s absences. It’s a different beast! I’d hoped that my experience there might help Derrick, should he need it.

We practiced, and Derrick worked hard. It was tedious at some points, because while we’re all playing songs that all four of us have played for eons, Derrick still requested to go over them, because this was a whole new animal to tame. With only a couple practices, I’d say we ran through 70% of what we know. And there was little time to work up much new material to boot. This was "get Derrick's feet wet, and let's attack!"

Practices were fun though, and very upbeat. We drank, we laughed, we screwed around. It was good times, and portents of things to come for us, I’d say. Derrick was very serious, though, as I know he was trying his hardest to hold up his end, and support the group. After the first rehearsal was over, we all traveled to Mac N Mick’s with friends that had came by to watch, and we all bonded, I suppose you could say, over pizza and beers. The chemistry began to solidify.

Derrick decided he was ready to jump in, and we kicked it off on a Friday night in early February at Rumors in Wood River. I set up in my tiny corner, fetched a beer, and ordered two Jagerbombs; one for me, and one to welcome Derrick into the fold. “Damn, man!” he said to me, “I’ve already done like, three!” Guess everyone was doing some welcoming to Derrick!

From the get go, things felt awkward, and different. We had a good opening crowd, and the types of throw away songs we normally play I felt were going to be too weak. Not polished. But, I didn’t want to go with Money Songs so soon, leaving us thin at the end. I was vexed.

The nature of the mix just didn’t bring out Derrick’s bass, which left me to cover most of the sound, it seemed like. I’m just so used to having that powerful bass pumping behind me, it makes me feel safe. Now, I felt naked and bare. Uncomfortable. I didn’t mention anything, just played as best I could, and hoped for the best. Derrick was a bit on edge, it seemed, pushing to do his best, which was making him a bit tight. Perhaps a touch nervous?

The crowd was a tad reserved, which can happen on a Friday night. With the tension hanging in the air between the four of us, it seemed that every mild reaction from the fans signaled something felt wrong, that all eyes were bearing down on us, and pressure was starting to build. I'm not saying that was what was actually happening, but for me, I felt that uncomfortable vibe. I did my best to shake it off.

We charged through the songs, and as the evening wore on, and the beer and shots flowed, we started to get a handle on things, and I loosened up as well. Started to enjoy myself. We got to the Money Songs, and the crowd began to light up. I knew everything would be alright. It’s just a learning curve. Just got to get through this night.

By the start of the third set, I glanced over at Derrick, who had begun to resemble Marty Feldman. One eye looking one way, one eye looking another, and a glazed look over both! Ruh Ro! This might not be pretty! As it was, he played a good set, and we managed to notch the first show under our belts. Not as effortless as with Paul, but we weren’t expecting that, either. This was apples and oranges.

Next day, Derrick called to tell me “dude, I promise I won’t get as drunk tonight, man!” I had to laugh. That’s like John Wayne Gacy telling Ted Bundy “I’m not going to murder as many people tonight, man!” We’re both sinners when it comes to partying it up! “I found out I must be out of practice!” I assured him there was no problem.

At the start of the Saturday night show, I again noticed Derrick’s bass wasn’t very strong in the monitor mix, so after a couple songs, I pointed it out to Carson. Derrick mentioned something about his bass amp head being underpowered, and Carson proceeded to dial him into my monitor. At last! Like a nice, soothing, warm blanket, those wonderful low frequency vibrations surrounded me, and I felt a gentle calm wash over me. It’s amazing how passively picky I am, but once I get what I’m looking for, I’m quite happy! I started to feel excited.

That alone put me in a much better mood, and from the get go, the show was better than last night. All through the night, song after song, Rock Bottom was emerging anew, and sounding as kick ass as it ever had, in my opinion. After one break, I made a point to pat Derrick on the back, let him know he’s doing a good job, and I felt it’s coming together. “I’ll get there!” Derrick promised, as though talking to his new boss.

He didn’t need to say it. I already knew that.