Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sub Sandwich

(l-r) Me with 3 subs: Nate, Will, Scott
Rusty Grape, 2011

This past weekend, I played one of my favorite venues with a band made up entirely of short-notice subs.

One of the original selling points I offered to the players who became The Men Your Mama Warned You About was flexibility. As much as possible, I try to book shows that I could ultimately play solo, and let the boys join in as they may. However, some situations and/or venues require that we appear as a band, and in those cases, if someone can't make it, we have to adjust.

Our first choice is to make do with a smaller lineup, which is typically possible if any one member of the band can't make it. Steve's role as lead guitarist is the easiest to compensate for in absentia. In the event that he can't make it, Tim, Evan, and I simply fall back to our old trio lineup and fulfill our "band obligation." Evan's absence is also easy to work around --provided that both Tim & Steve will make the gig-- since I can resume my Flip Nasty role as singing drummer, and let Steve handle the chord changes as a Speranzesque hybrid rhythm/lead guitarist.
John Speranza on guitar, me on bass,
Paris on the Platte c.1992

Tim is the hardest player to replace.  The bass player has to know the songs inside out, hit every chord, and fit every groove.  In theory, if Steve & Evan were available, either Steve or I would cover bass (probably Steve, since my ability to sing and play bass live has been "kind of" sketchy when tested previously in The Stunt Beatles and ROQUE).

But if 2+ players drop out of a show, I have to find a sub if the venue's expecting a full band. As mentioned above, normally, I wouldn't try to find a guitar sub --lead parts are optional in a pinch, and my rhythm (chord) parts are too complicated to master in time. Drums are the easiest element to sub, provided we have time to line someone up. As a drummer (and erstwhile sub, myself), I know how to evaluate players for the critical qualities our situation requires (great clock, decent chops, range of basic styles), and also how to modify our set to make it friendly to a cold player (no odd- or mixed-meter, I count off & keep time so they can just follow & react). Bass is a problem. As with drums, it helps to simplify. Lead time is even more important, to allow the player to get familiar with the material. But ultimately, the pool of available bass players is very small, and the burden of learning 20-30 unfamiliar songs (you know, besides my big college radio hits) is steep. My first choice would be a known pro, if the share was sufficient to entice them. Jonathan Chase subbed a 5-hour gig for Tim with minimal advance prep, and was fantastic, but expensive. My next choice would be anyone who already knew my material by ear --even if bass was a second instrument to them. But I don't have access to a John Speranza, Derek Sanchez, or Memphis Evans here in Portland. My next choice would be someone whose musical sensibilities I trust, with some familiarity, and a knack for winging it. Alex Arrowsmith would fit the bill here in PDX. Past that, I'd be looking for recommendations from other players I know, then turning finally to Craig's List, hat in hand.

So returning to my pickle from this weekend, here's how the events unfolded. First, Steve dropped out because of work. This was fine, as with our Tim/Evan/Cody trio, we could still cover any song in the set and also meet our obligation to the venue to provide full band "entertainment" for their outdoor series. The scramble began in earnest when Tim had to pull out 2 weeks prior to the show because of a scheduling conflict. First I ran it by Jonathan Chase, but the share was too far below his rate. Then I asked Alex Arrowsmith, but he wasn't available. Then I asked Tim for a recommendation, and he said his friend, Will, could pull it off. I floated the idea by him, and he was up for it. I crafted a gentle set list, sent him recordings & lead sheets of each song I planned to do, and scheduled a runthrough. In a situation like this, I don't really expect the sub on bass to reproduce the recorded bass lines of either my arrangements (the John Fried parts or what I played on LSF)--I just need them to hit the roots, maybe dance around the 5th or a passing tone here & there, and find some way to lock in with the drums. But it's still a lot to handle.

With about a week to go, Will gave me a heads-up that he was concerned about how much he'd have under his fingers by the gig. At our runthrough on the Monday prior to showtime, he was solid, but wisely conservative. To take some pressure off of him, I decided to find a lead guitar sub for Steve after all. I'd shared a few bills with Scott Brockett in the past and knew he was friendly, dependable, and a top-notch player. He was up for it, and I sent him the same stuff as Will in case he wanted to listen through. At this point, I'm picturing Evan & me locked in and burning, Scott creating some freely-improvised counter-melodic interest, and Will holding down the pocket. In my mind's ear, this was going to work out just fine.

Day before the gig, Evan gets orders that take him out of the picture.

So I turn to my list. With 24-hours, it is thin. First, I offer it to Jen Brockett, Scott's wife and drummer in his band. I've seen Jen play, and she's just what I'm looking for: someone with an unshakable clock and good chops. But she's only been playing for a few years, and doesn't feel confident to play the gig cold. Next, I turn to my neighbor Bill McDonald, current drummer for Budget Airlines, former drummer for Camper Van Beethoven, and someone who has played with me several times before. His response: "Well, I've got another show next night in Astoria. I could do it, but you might have to put me up for a few weeks when my wife finds out."

At this point, it's hours until the show. I read every ad on Craig's List for "drummer looking...." and try to make some evaluations.

And now, a Public Service Announcement for "Drummers Looking":
It would be helpful if you'd include a link to some kind of sample of your playing. Possibly even more helpful than the 30-band list of influences that is the current centerpiece of your resume. That's how I picked this awesome dude, once upon a time:

So I filter through those with samples, find players who have suitable chops and clock, look for clues that they're not afraid to wing it, then send them emails asking if they want work TONIGHT. I offer an equal share plus I'll provide drums, set-up, and tear-down. In other words, show up, play, get paid. With each, I ask that they call my cell immediately if interested. As the time grows short, I send the same message out to a few players who have no sample, but some other factor that gives me at least nominal confidence in their ability (beyond their influences, that is).

4:30 rolls around, and nary a nibble.

At this point, I decide to load up my drums anyway, just in case, and head out to the gig. I figure maybe someone will call, or maybe Jen will have a change of heart, or maybe Evan will go AWOL. These all seem like reasonable probabilities.

As I'm dropping my kids off with Grandma, I get the call.

"Hey, man, this is Nate from Craig's List. Do you still need a drummer tonight?" I remember his ad. No sample, but 11 years playing, and looking to do something with more jazz crossover.

"Yes. It's in Battle Ground, starts at 7:00, and I'm headed there now. I've got drums, and I'll set 'em up and tear 'em down. You got the address in my email."

(pause) "Cool. Cool."

"So, Nate, here's the deal. I'm a drummer, and this is going to be a follow-along type gig. I'll be playing guitar and holding it all together. So I'm going to let you self-select, here. If you watched the links I sent you, you know what I'm all about. If you feel up for it, let's do this."


And with that, I hung up and hit the road. I was relieved that the scramble to fill out the band was over, but nervous at the prospect of playing a show with so much unfamiliarity surrounding me. Will was comparatively the grizzled vet, having played with me for one hour in my living room the preceding Monday. On the drive, I tried to plan for disasters and anticipate where we might hit snags.

But then it all went off without a hitch. Scott was brilliant. He soloed with flair and endless sensitive creativity, bringing a captivating new dimension to the performance. Will was rock-steady, knew the route through every song, and needed no life jacket. Nate (formerly with All the Apparatus) kept the pocket neat and found good grooves with Will. What could've been a catastrophe turned into a truly special show.

And now I have three new names at the top of my sub list.


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