The Best Gig I Never Had
I got a call once from the band Train. They were finishing a tour and had a problem. It seemed their drummer’s wife was nine months pregnant and someone hadn’t done the math properly. They currently had a week left with two shows landing just days before her due date. Scott Underwood, the drummer, had decided he wasn’t going to miss the birth of his baby, even if it meant jumping off stage during a show and peeling out to the nearest airport. So they chose an understudy; someone who could learn the songs, learn the show, and be there in case “nature called”. I was hired for the job.
Scott phoned me at home and we talked about the songs and worked out the dates. He was on the road and said they could record a couple live gigs and mail them to me. Great! There was two and a half weeks to get the stuff together and I had a couple of their CD’s already. So I listened to the music and tried to get familiar with the beats and arrangements while waiting for the live stuff to arrive. I made little charts for the hit songs, figuring they’d be in the live show, and listened to the music I had two or three times a day as I did stuff around the house.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know where these two shows were taking place so I went to Train’s website and looked at their schedule. The first show was in central California at a big fair, and the second was… oh my! The second was at the Greek Theater in Berkeley!
The Greek Theater is a beautiful 8000 seat bowl, cut into a mountain above the Cal Berkeley campus. I was raised near there and used to dream of playing “The Greek” as a kid. When my brother and I were young we used to lay in the soccer field next to the stadium and listen to concerts by Santana, REM, the B-52’s, etc. When I was a little older I got to see some shows from the inside and it was always a great experience. I’d almost played the Greek once when Counting Crows was booked there in 1994. I had forty people on the guest list and couldn’t wait for the night to come. Unfortunately, I was fired two weeks before the show, and instead of “rocking the Greek” I spent that night “sulking the house”. Now there was another chance and I couldn’t wait to get to work on the songs.
The recordings didn’t show up and when another week went by and I started to get nervous. Finally a Fed-Ex envelope showed up. I ripped open the package and there were two CD’s of shows they’d played the week before. I took one out and put it on. The first CD started half way through a song I’d never heard before. “Oh boy.” I thought. “Three second in and I already have questions.” But as the show went on I heard some of the songs I’d worked on and a few more that I was familiar with from the radio, so I started to relax.
Train is a very engaging live band and there were lots of stops, starts, and crowd participation moments to be aware of. Their show also included a long drum solo in the middle of the set. But I got really nervous when I found the second CD had four or five songs that weren’t in the first show. There was a lot of work to do and only seven days left to do it.
I had a fairly free week and was able to immerse myself in the music. I listened at home and in the car, and worked on getting the live arrangements written out whenever I had time. I compared the set lists and found that, between the two shows, there were eighteen songs total, so I wrote charts for all of them and played along to the CD’s a couple times a day.
When I started to feel like I was getting it down I tried playing to the CD’s without the charts. I was still missing some of the specific bass drum patterns and forgetting some of the breaks. So I made specific notes of anything that surprised me during my run throughs and played to the CD’s some more. On the day before I was to fly to L.A. for the first show I wrote a list of every song I’d learned. I made two copies; one to give to the band, and one to keep. On the copy I kept I wrote the tempos, beats, and who started the song next to each title. I felt ready. In fact, after all the work I’d done, I was hoping the baby would come early.
I flew to L.A. in the morning. The tour manager met me at the airport and we drove to a really nice hotel. He gave me a key and told me the band was leaving for the venue in an hour, so I went up to the room to relax a little before we left. I didn’t know if I had a room mate or not so I opened the door just a little and said “Hello?” But despite the immense size of the room there was only one bed. “Thank you, Train.” I was used to doubling up and sometimes having a third person on a roll away but Train was doing pretty well and there was none of that.
After an hour I went downstairs and saw the guys and we were driven to the venue. We drove for about an hour and had a good talk. The guys were a little road weary but overcame it with great senses of humor. After a while we pulled off the freeway and into a backstage area. It was a outdoor venue with a huge stage and about 5000 seats. A big country act had played there the night before and Kelly Clarkson would be there the next night. I did the sound check with the band so we could get a little rehearsing in in case Scott got the call, and was pleased to get through all the songs we played without a hitch. Then we had dinner and I went to the fair while they relaxed before the show.
The plan was for me to stay close enough to know if Scott needed to leave. I could sit side stage, back stage, or watch the show from the house. I decided to watch the show from one of the back rows. I played along on my legs at first but then just enjoyed the performance. They were a great live band and the crowd was really loving it.
Halfway through the set there was a three song acoustic section Scott didn’t play on and he went off stage to check his messages. I went back as well to see if there was any word from his wife. “Everything’s cool.” He said, hanging up the phone. So I went back to my seat and watched the rest of the show. When it was over they did a “meet and greet” with some of the fans, then we all went back to the hotel and crashed early. The next day we were flying to Berkeley – and the Greek Theater.
The show’s call time was 5:00 but I got there at 4:00. I wanted to soak it all in. I walked onto the stage and looked at all the seats. It was the first time I’d seen the Greek from that vantage point and it looked spectacular. I checked out the back stage area, too. Very cool. The opening act was Matt Nathanson, whom I knew from the bay area, and we were talking as the rest of the band arrived. We did a sound check and I was able to play the Greek for the first time. Kind of. After four or five songs everything seemed to be in order so we went to catering.
After dinner I explored all the confines of the venue while the guys got ready. I sat in the very front row and looked at the stage. Then the doors opened and the crowd started coming in so I walked around for a while and ended up in the very last row on top of the bowl. Abbey Road was coming over the house speakers and it was a beautiful night. Train was kind enough to put tickets at the door for my wife and kids so I met them when they got there and helped them find their seats. I checked in with Scott one more time. Still no word from his wife, so I watched the opener with my family.
I went back a little later and Scott was on the phone again. Could this be the call? He hung up and smiled. “No change.” he said. “Damn.” I thought. A few minutes later the lights went down, the crowd went nuts, and Train started the show. I sat in the crowd and played along on my knees. The acoustic break came and I shot backstage one more time. “Last chance.” I thought. Scott was checking his wife’s progress. There was still half a show left. He hung up. “Guess we’re okay.”
My wife had to get the kids to bed before the band was off so I watched the end of the show from the wings by myself. On the last song they blew off confetti cannons and it came down all around me as the crowd went wild. They finished the encore and walked past, sweaty and tired. They’d played a great show. I sat there on the side of the stage for a while watching the people file out. It had been the best gig I’d never had.