Monday, September 1, 2008

Craziest gig, ever.

Summer of 2002. The last summer I spent in my parents house in St. Louis. I was working as a waiter and trying to find gigs wherever possible. With the amount of running around I was doing, I figured a cell phone would help people reach me for gigs, and within 24 hours of activating my first cell phone, while shooting pool and drinking beer at a friend's house, I got the call.

Me: Hello?
Unidentified Voice (w/ heavy Italian accent): You play guitar?
Me: Uh, yeah?
UV: You know some jazz chords?
Me: Yeah?
UV: You gotta suit?
Me: Yeah, who is this?
UV: How long will it take you to get to the Hill? You gotta car?

The Hill is the Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. Sort of like Little Italy in New York, but less touristy and in my opinion, a lot more authentic, so probably more like Arthur Ave. in the Bronx.

Me: Maybe an hour and a half. Wait, who is this?
UV: It's [not named to protect myself], I'm a jazz singer that sounds like Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Dean... you know, I'm a jazz singer. Meet me at [unnamed restaurant] in an hour. I need a guitar player. I've got all the music.

And so I asked a couple more questions to make sure I'd get paid, got something that resembled directions, and went home to get my suit. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

While sitting in traffic headed downtown, he called back to tell me that he and the sax player were running late (Ok, now I know there's a sax player), and he needs me to cover for them until they get there. In 2002 I could play about three competent chord melody solos on guitar. At least, there were three I felt comfortable performing. So I crossed my fingers that they weren't running that late.

When I got to the restaurant, a rough looking man in a suit named Guy showed me where to set up. "Where's [the singer]?" he asked. "Oh, he'll be here soon. Traffic. I'm going to play some solo guitar in the meantime." Gulp.

Nearly an hour later, they showed up. It was just the two of them. That meant I was the entire rhythm section, and would be playing plenty of chord soloing whenever the saxophonist laid out. After setting up the small P.A., a binder of music was thrown in front of me. Opening it up, I didn't recognize a single song. These weren't jazz standards, these were Italian songs. Half of them were written for mandolin! I was a goner.

The scariest moment in my life happened a few tunes later, when he called Mi Amore. Finally, something I sort of knew! Before I had a chance to look it over, he was counting off the tune. And by counting off, I mean he was doing some weird foot stomping, fist swinging motion while singing what I imagine was some sort of trombone part from the arrangment stuck in his head, "Bah, Bah-Dah, BOP!" As soon as I started playing my best boom-chick-chick waltz pattern, he got right in my face and while playing air mandolin, starting singing some high notes, wanting me to play that, doing some tremelo picking, at the same time. I don't remember the next couple minutes, but things seemed to settle in place. But then it all fell apart. The key changed or something, but not in my music. Wait, where's the final barline? Where's the rest of this lyric? I'm missing a page!

And that's how I fucked up Mi Amore in front of an all Italian audience in the most Italian neighborhood in St. Louis. I was pretty sure my car was going to blow up when I turned it on.

Yet ironically, Guy and everyone else loved my solo playing at the beginning that they forgave me, and just teased me about it afterwards. Plus, once we did get to the jazz standards, I more than made up for it. Literally, I played like my life was on the line. After the gig, which went until the last customer left a little after midnight, the chef made an amazing pasta dish for the three of us. The owner broke out a few bottles of vino and we kicked back, smoked cigars, had some lemon dolce, and shot the shit until about 4 am. My car started without incident and I felt successful.


Dave said...

I played almost the exact same gig at an Italian joint in Chicago in 2005. The performer called himself a gun-juggling Italian singer (I'm not kidding, he actually juggled guns as part of the act. Also: he was from Brazil). He showed up without any music and expected me to know Dean Martin's entire repertoire by ear. Also, I was supposed to have brought the PA system (I don't own a PA system). I also played for a hour at the beginning to cover for him, then totally botched a version of Begin the Beguine because he'd only given me half the music. Contrary to your story, though, I grabbed my keyboard and ran the hell out of there as soon as the gig was done.

Stratoz said...

great story