Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 29, 2005

Doin' the Embassy, Eh?

I feel an enormous sense of relief as my dusty, BLUE car pulls up to the security gate in front of the Canadian Embassy. It is Friday afternoon, April 22nd. I took half a day off from work to come here. I would rather have taken the full day, but I couldn’t find anyone to swap out my two morning 7th grade classes, so I was stuck leaving as soon as fourth period ended…pulling out of the school at about 12:30 to try to make a 3:00 sound check.

Needless to say, I was tense as a high-E string as I headed for Tokyo.

As it turned out, I made pretty good time. Traffic wasn’t very heavy, so I was able to keep moving at a fairly good clip. I had also taken the measure of buying one of those Tokyo map books and spending at least an hour (but probably longer) in total poring over it, plotting my course and memorizing all the names and details along the way. I probably could have found my way here with my eyes shut. That turned out to be a very good thing. After the calm, smiling security guard greets me by name (after having verified my BLUE car’s make and plate number) and lets me through, I pull into my parking space to find the crew unloading the Stevemobile, which apparently has only just arrived. They planned to head out fairly early this morning, but I guess they had a bit more trouble than me in finding the place...

Yes, I’m playing the Canadian Embassy once again as part of the band backing up longtime fellow ex-pat (and chronic Canadian) Jeff Nicholson. The last time I was here was in 2000, when we were promoting his soon-to-be-released album, BANG!. Now we are promoting his just-released album, Who Do You Think That You Are?. The only constants, other than the venue, are me on keyboards/sax/backing vocals/whatever else, veteran pro performer Brad Johnston on drums, and Jeff himself out in front singing and playing his guitar and harmonica. The other two members, Steve Filiatrault on bass and Paul “Crusty” Lauritson on lead guitar, are different from before and lend quite a different air to the gig. However, unlike the BANG! gig, the same members are on the stage that made the new album. That makes it more authentic, doesn’t it?

The set this time is also markedly different from before. In 2000, we played two short sets that included more covers than songs from the album (especially if you included the little solo acoustic sing-along session that Jeff had between the two sets). This time we are playing one long set that consists almost totally of Jeff’s originals. There are only two covers, and both of them appear on the new album. There is some concern among the members of the band that the set might not be long enough to qualify as a decent gig. Jeff, however, doesn’t seem worried about that. He is worried about a lot of other things.

We load up the carts (and our backs) and head down to the Theater. Yes, the Canadian Embassy actually has a theater, an extreme rarity among the many embassies here. It’s not the biggest performance hall there ever was. In fact, it’s rather small. However, it’s still a far cry from the pub gigs that we usually do. When it comes right down to it, Brad and I are probably the only members that have a lot of experience playing on genuine stages with lights, curtains, and an audience that is stuck facing you. Jeff and Steve haven’t done that very much. Apparently Paul hasn’t done it at all, and he’s not sure how he feels about it. He and Steve, together with their blues/rock-and-roll combo “Cranky, Old Bastards”, have been doing a lot of gigging including some tours to other parts of the country (and they’re definitely good enough to be doing that sort of thing). However, it has all been in the intimate semi-apathy of nightclubs. Even the other gigs they’ve done with Jeff and me were at carnivals and dances where the crowd, though appreciative, tended to have its attention focused elsewhere. Not now. We will be up on the stage, under spots and gels, being faced squarely by everyone that comes.

Of course, that assumes that anybody does come…

Once again, our faithful sound man is Arai-san, the man who engineered the BANG! sessions and has done several of our performances. He knows his stuff, and even though he asks us lots of questions about what we want, we found out long ago that it’s better just to shut up and stay out of his way. We let him set up the sound system while we toss together our respective elements. It takes far more time than we expect, so the sound check is a bit behind schedule. That, however, turns out to be the least of our problems.

The first and perhaps biggest problem is the monitors. Though the main PA sounds fine, we just can’t seem to get the monitor balance right. It seems like there’s always a part getting buried, and if Arai-san tries to turn things up too much we start getting feedback (“howling”, as they call it here). Another problem, which seems to bug me more than anyone else, is the fact that we seem to have forgotten the songs during the time since the last rehearsal. Every tune we run through encounters a train wreck on account of someone starting wrong, ending even more wrong, or forgetting a change. Then Arai-san creates the ultimate disaster by complaining that Paul’s amp is too loud.

I can already hear alarm bells ringing.

You have to understand; Paul is definitely what I would call a virtuoso player. He approaches his instrument with all the ability, literacy, competence, and discrimination of any orchestral professional that I’ve met, and I’ve met (and even worked with) several. What do you think would happen if, just before a performance at Carnegie Hall, you asked a concertmaster to put away his expensive, Italian-made violin and perform a violin concerto using a cheap, half-sized student model? If he didn’t simply stomp out with a huff, he’d probably dump a brick in his trousers. He’d be whining about it for years afterward. There’s a reason why Paul uses a vintage Fender amp, and there’s also a reason why he plays it at that volume level. It’s something that only a real guitarist would understand. However, despite his (well-earned) nickname, Paul takes it with surprising grace. He turns it down as far as he’s willing to go, and makes it politely clear that it’s that or nothing. So we aim the amp offstage and mike it. Problem solved.

However, we aren’t able to solve the final problem that pops up. Only about fifteen minutes into the sound check, our official handler at the Embassy pops in waving his arms and promptly shuts us down. Apparently the paying tenants are complaining about the noise, and since they are paying tenants they have to be listened to. Our sound check is far from done, but that’s the way it goes.

I really wish we could go out and hit an Irish pub for a few hours, but this time that luxury is denied us. We still have a lot to do and little time to do it in. Steve and Brad, however, are pretty much done setting up and satisfied, so they go on a Subway run for us. As in the sandwiches. Hey, it’s a rare treat for those of us living up in Chiba/raki land! But before I can eat my sandwich, we’re taken up to the embassy lounge so we can drink Molsen and Moosehead, chat with some of the officials, and take a gander at the neighborhood (which includes a famous fashion designer’s mansion and the Iraqi Embassy) from the 5th floor balcony. Life is hard.

6:30. It’s time to open the doors, and there is already quite a crowd feasting on the wine and munchies out in the lobby. Jeff has prepared a really cool background “muzak” collection to play as the people are coming in. It starts out with some spacy, synthesizer music (e.g. Jean Michelle Jarre) and gradually builds up in mood until it suddenly mutates into an interview of Wayne Gretzky when he was just a wee lad. (*sigh* Once a Canadian, always a Canadian…) It’s a clever mood setter that Jeff has obviously spent lots of time putting together. Unfortunately, the people aren’t coming in. They’re too busy feasting on the wine and munchies out in the lobby! Already jittering and twitching, Jeff informs the light and sound crew that curtain will be delayed and sends someone out to shoo the crowd into the theater.

Finally, the people ooze their way in, and it’s showtime. We really are a sight when we hit the stage. All the way at stage left is Paul, dressed in a tux and derby Les Paul and bottleneck at the ready. Next to him is Steve, similarly attired and lugging his Yamaha 5-string bass. At the front stands Jeff, dressed the way he is on the cover of his new album and sporting his recently-acquired, funky-looking Parker Nitefly guitar (a rare, expensive, and sophisticated bit of gear that he got his hands on by sheer luck…how do these things always happen to him?). Behind him sits Brad, who is dressed to be comfortable on his drum throne. And on stage right? Yours truly, standing behind my Roland synth, holding my Keilwerth alto sax, next to a large music stand piled with various wind and percussion toys. What am I wearing? A funky, purple shirt, Levi’s, and a Rogue Ale baseball cap. From left to right, our lineup goes from dapper to anarchist beer connoisseur.

We start out just the way the new album does, with Paul playing a funny, wobbly arpeggio that kicks off the song “Who Do You Think That You Are?” The song goes well, but we look and sound tense. Concert hall jitters. The theater is packed, and all those eyes are fixed on us, no drinks in hand. Pressure, pressure… “Whole Lotta Nothing” sounds a bit more relaxed, but something is up with the background vocals. We are tight, balanced, and in tune, but either someone is coming in when he’s not supposed to, or someone else isn’t coming in when he should. Even so, it sounds fine, so the audience probably can’t tell the difference. Paul switches to his Strat, and we do “Back in the Day”, one of the more successful tunes off of BANG! (i.e. it actually got some airplay). Jeff could never remember the lyrics of the first verse during rehearsal, so he has a cheat sheet lying on the stage in front of him. It sounds fine. All in all, the song goes well, though the ending has always been, and still is, a bit uncertain. Our fadeout to leave Jeff playing the last couple of bars alone is a bit sloppy. Oh, well. That’s rock and roll.

Jeff sounds totally in control as he chats up the crowd and introduces the next tune, which is our (yes, it’s licensed) version of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. In the album version, I’m playing three different parts. This time I just have to do a lot of switching between piano, Hammond organ, background vocals, and sax. This tune rocks. It’s followed by another from BANG!, “Eventually”. The song goes well for the most part, but we never seemed to get the ending down pat during our rehearsals, and we don’t this time, either. Steve plays a nice, powerful ending note…in the wrong key at the wrong time. It’s fortunate that we added a funny, little keyboard break during the last practice, because that manages to cover for it.

Afterward, Jeff says, “Steve just had his Mulligan for the night.” That gets a laugh out of the crowd. Poor Steve. He’s a natural crowd pleaser, but I think he’d prefer not pleasing them that way.

Next is “Big Stupid Smile”, an interesting, easy-feeling tune. Actually, when we recorded it, the piano part I came up with was just a bit of spur-of-the-moment serendipity. (Jeff hadn’t even wanted keyboards in that song at first.) It wound up being perhaps some of my best keyboard playing ever. This song sounds good, and it goes over well…except for the inexplicable cymbal crash that pops up in a very strange place. (Brad later explained that he accidentally caught the cymbal while moving the stick upward to prepare for the proper crash. He figured that playing two crashes back-to-back would be overkill, so he left it at that. Oh, well. That’s rock and roll.)

Paul switches to a Morris 12-string acoustic with a strap-on pickup (Jeff’s, actually), and we play another BANG! tune, “Manitoba”. I play an Irish tinwhistle in this tune. My first solo sounds fine, but the second is way sharp. Either I hit the wrong holes and lipped it down, or I was overblowing. Other than that, the tune goes alright, but it feels tense again. The next one, “Indian Drum”, does not. I’ve always loved playing that tune, because I start and end it playing an extended, unaccompanied solo on an alto recorder trying to imitate Native American fluting (though I’ve been told many, many times that it sounds a lot like Japanese shakuhachi music…which doesn’t bother me at all. Actually, the two styles are uncannily similar). When Brad comes in playing that cool drum rhythm that he came up with, I feel strangely offbeat, so my switch from solo to lead-in doesn’t get played in the same manner. It gets stretched out, and it actually sounds cool. From there, the song sounds great, and the layered vocal/keyboard/flute parts that stack in at the end go very well. In the end, it’s just Brad and me again, and Brad fades out, leaving me tootling away in the dimming light, moving slowly away from the mike. It takes the crowd a while to realize that the song is over, but the applause that follows is hearty.

The lights come back up, and Ian comes onstage with his Guild pickup-acoustic. Ian and Jeff have an acoustic duo called “The Protractors”, and for a while he played bass for our band. Now he’s here to play his part in the night’s other cover, an Irish tune called “When Will We Be Married?” (which he also plays on the album). I play piano for most of this one, but in two places there is a duet between me on the tinwhistle and Ian on guitar. It’s a jig-style melody, and it goes all over the place. I’m not sure if I’m spot on with Ian or not, but I throw in lots of turns, crans, and bends, so it doesn’t really matter.

Now it’s time for the “final” number. Ian leaves the stage, and Paul picks up his Les Paul. He fires off that slide-guitar howl, and we launch into “Wild, Open Speed”, the most driving, upbeat tune on the new album. We had tons of trouble with this one in rehearsal, but this time we hit it brilliantly. It rocks, especially when Paul launches into his extended solo. I’ve worked with a number of different guitarists here, some of them good, some of them awesome, but none of them quite with Paul’s chops. Usually a traditional blues/rocker, he can still kick out the stops and go wild when the time is right for it.

The last roar of “Wild, Open Speed” wafts off into the night, and Jeff says goodnight. Naturally, the crowd, many of whom are Jeff’s students, immediately launch into a chant of “Hockey! Hockey! Hockey!” Yes, “Hockey” is by far Jeff’s most famous and most successful song, having been played in hockey venues across North America (apparently including Portland) and even used as an opening theme for Ottawa’s Hockey Night TV broadcast. We all knew the crowd would be begging for it. That’s why we aren’t doing it now.

Yes, you read that right.

Jeff’s encore is a cute, romantic little number he wrote for his wife called “Kimiko Turns 30”. However, it’s an interesting version that Paul came up with on his own between rehearsals (thank God). The album version is a strummed acoustic guitar and harmonica number with a beat...almost too tongue-in-cheek (sorry, Jeff). Paul’s version is a beautiful, finger-picked number which sets a different mood entirely. At Brad’s suggestion, Jeff and Paul do it as a duo, and it sounds great. The audience clearly appreciates it, but it seems odd to be doing such a quiet, lovely tune as an encore…especially when everyone still wants to hear “Hockey”.

But then the rest of us come in…wearing Toronto hockey jerseys (to calls of “Leafs suck!” from someone in the audience)…and Brad starts playing that very, very, very familiar opening beat. I do that “Yeeeeee-HAH!” yet again. The crowd goes nuts. “Yes, this is Canada on a Saturday night, freezin’-butt cold in the winter moonlight…” Half the crowd is up and performing a sort of dance routine. I’ve never seen the like in all the times I’ve played this tune. We’re tired as hell, but we’re also pumped up. The tune flies by…but when Paul launches into one helluva extended solo at the end, we just keep the riff going and let him play. Steve’s 5-string bass is pumping out that wonderful, seismic D, and Paul is sitting down on the edge of the stage, fingers still flying, and then he actually jumps down and starts moving around in front of the front row. He’s still going, going, going, kind of like a Duracell battery only different. I don’t know how long he manages to keep it up, but it definitely does not wear thin. The crowd is still going nuts. When “Uncle Crusty” finally comes back to the stage and signals that he’s had enough, it almost seems like a shame.

The show is over. We were afraid that we didn’t have enough material for a real gig. We somehow burned up well over an hour, and we are worn to a frazzle. The crowd is still in good spirits as it slowly oozes back out. It was a successful night, I’d say. Time to break it all down.

There are lots of old friends and surprising faces. Kishi, who played lead guitar on BANG! and bass at the 2000 embassy gig, is there with a gorgeous woman he introduces as his “girlfriend” (even though he’s married with children…hmm…). Tommy (actually Japanese), who was our drummer for a while, comes backstage to say hello. Several of Jeff’s co-workers at St. Mary’s whom I’ve met are there, loyal as always. And, outside in the lobby, Jeff’s wife, Kimiko, is dutifully gathering up the leftover wine and munchies (not that there’s all that much).

I’m actually asked to autograph a few albums. That’s a first. I hope it’s not a last.

As we’re loading up our cars again, our official handler at the embassy (the same guy that shut down our sound check) comes walking by tootling on a very interesting-sounding-and-looking flute and giving me a very obvious glance. I bite, giving in to my musical curiosity. It turns out that it’s a traditional flute from India, of which he apparently has several and has even had some instruction. He hands it to me and lets me play with it for a while. (I can blow it, but the fingerholes are in weird places, and I can’t cover them. Oh, well.) We say our thank yous and good-byes, he invites us to come play there again sometime, and then we all head off into the neon-lit jungles of Tokyo.

Time for beer.

Listen to or order BANG!
Listen to or order Who Do You Think That You Are?
See link to Jeff’s website at right. (Recently it hasn’t been working with Firefox or Netscape, only Internet Explorer, so good luck!)

3 Comments:

  • Nice one, Kevin. I really enjoyed reading this. You paint, as usual, a very clear picture with your words. Sometimes these kinds of events can end up in disaster. Not this one, thanks to you!
    Thanks again for contributing your musicianship and friendship.
    I owe you another beer...

    By Anonymous Jeff, at 4:02 PM  

  • By the way, Molson is spelled with an "o". All Canadians know this. And it's not Ottawa's Hockey Night, it's Canada's Hockey Night in Canada. Some Americans know this. Not that it bothers me much.
    Hehehe...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:02 AM  

  • "Well, this is Ottawa on a Saturday night..."

    Nope. It doesn't have the same ring.

    By Anonymous Relatively Exact, at 2:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home