Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On the Road with Joan Baez, pt. 1

Around 2 AM on the morning, of March 7, Joan Baez’s tour bus oozed out of the muck in the parking lot of the Barangus bar, where I, along with the rest of the Joan Baez band (including Joan herself) had been listening and dancing (or more like wriggling, given the lack of space in the crowded roadhouse) to the All-American Hell Drivers, a loose aggregation of hippie country rockers whose repertoire included Hank Williams classics, New Orleans boogie blues, and even a Michael Jackson hit (a countrified “Billie Jean”). Joan had joined the band on a rockin’ “Long Black Veil” and JB band multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell had spent most of the evening at the piano.

Thus ended my first night playing guitar and mandolin and singing harmony with Joan Baez, filling in for guitarist John Doyle while he goes off to play a few Irish festivals that he’d booked before getting hired by Joan as musical director/guitarist last summer. The evening had started at the State Theatre in Ithaca, New York, where Joan’s first appearance onstage had elicited the first of many loud, enthusiastic, and adoring ovations from the crowd of 1,600 or so. Though it was the first time I’d played through the entire two-hour set with Joan and her band, it went better than I could ever have expected. Yes, I’d fumbled a few lyrics, missed a couple chords, and gotten a few tempos wrong, but all in all it was a great gig, and by the time we’d finished our funky encore of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” I was grinning from ear to ear.

I’d approached these gigs with mild trepidation. Even though I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble locking in with the rest of the band (Dirk on mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and piano and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass, both of whom I’d recorded and gigged with numerous times) I’d been a Joan Baez fan since high school and I didn’t want to let her down. I knew that John Doyle’s shoes would be tough ones to fill—his guitar can be a whole band by itself and his rhythm is as varied and exciting as any guitarist in any genre. I’d also have minimal rehearsal time, so I assiduously studied the gig tape John had sent me, realizing at the same time that the band’s arrangements and feel on that early-November gig may very well have changed by the early-March gigs I’d been hired for.

I arrived a couple days early, so we could rehearse on the band’s day off and I could observe one show with John in action. At the first rehearsal, which Joan shyly wandered into about halfway through, I discovered that some of my fears were well-founded. John led the rehearsal, though of course he wouldn’t be at the gigs I played, and his guitar was definitely the rhythmic heart of the band. In addition, some tempos had indeed changed and details that had seemed potentially spontaneous on the tape turned out to be essential parts of the arrangements. But everyone made me feel at ease and I knew I’d have another day to regroup and work things out. Joan was particularly gracious. After one song, where I’d kind of weakly warbled the harmony line and stumbled over a few chords, she suggested that since I had so much to learn, I didn’t necessarily need to sing on every song, but after another, she said, “You seem more comfortable with that one.” (The next morning, while she had breakfast on the bus, she told me that she’d liked what she heard and asked if there was anything she could do to help me.) The thing that ended up helping the most, actually, was sitting in the audience and listening to John play a show with the band. After all that study, I knew the songs pretty well, but watching the show, I found myself thinking “OK, I need to be more aggressive on that intro,” etc.

After the next day’s soundcheck, at which Jason Raboin, the band’s soundman outfitted my mandolin with one of the new DPA clip-on mics and pronounced my amplified guitar sound as “pretty good,” and at which Joan seemed happy and confident, I felt good and ready for the first show. At dinner, Stephanie Hudacek, Joan’s assistant, asked if I felt “nervous? excited?” and I said, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”
--to be continued

photo (c) Anne Hamersky

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