SO YOUR GOAL IN LIFE IS TO BE AN OPENING ACT?
Actually, no one's goal in life is to be an opening act....except maybe me in 1973, when touring Blues Legends like Muddy Waters would start show with some rock band out front, and I'd say: “Wait, how about somebody who actually FITS on this bill! I can do the job better...and cheaper”. I was cheaper all right! One time early on, James Cotton came up to me with a handful of hot dogs, straight from the club's steamer (they can't yell at HIM for dipping into those, he figured) “Hey, I saw your check when I got mine, and I figured you might need a little help... might as well get SOMETHING out of this gig” he said.
Speaking of the legendary Mr. Cotton, he was the second blues star I ever opened for. John Lee Hooker was the first, and, while was, after all “THE HOOK”, his pickup band was not that over-awesome. Cotton was another matter...I rehearsed my bandmates ruthlessly (current sidemen should have seen how driven I was then!)....I threw every arranging trick up-to-and-including the kitchen sink, I chewed the scenery, I stood on my head, I played slide with a shot glass......and it took about a minute for me to realize I was gonna get DESTROYED!!!! Afterwards, after watching the legendary band leader referee a minor dispute between bassist Charles Calmese and Kenny Johnson (do gods have minor disputes , I wondered?), I asked Kenny how much rehearsal it took to perfect all the special hits, and tricks of “Cotton Boogie” . “What rehearsal?” he replied. “When we left Chicago a year ago, that was a simple shuffle....as we got bored we added stuff, 'til it became the way you heard it now”. At first I was positive he was playing “put on the white boy”, like the time he told me professional musicians don't drink at all....and was interrupted by Calmese complaining “They want us to start, and we're not even DRUNK yet!”, and I'm still not sure...but now, after 40 years, I could see how it COULD have been true....interplay between high level blues musicians is kinda like that game that used to advertise “Minutes to learn....a lifetime to master”. Anyhow, the power, interlock, and immediacy of the music made me slink home, vowing to do better next time...or the time after that....or the time after that.
I recently sent a Youtube video of that band (actually just before that tour) playing “The Creeper” to someone passionately interested in blues, but relatively new to it...and she asked me if that performance was a special “magic moment” for the Cotton Band. I think she thought I was playing “put on the white girl” when I told her that I'd seen them play that song 100 times (former road manager Muggsy used to let me into a lot of shows because I once loaned Matt Murphy a Twin Reverb in an emergency) and it was always that good ..usually Calmese was driving the bass boogie and re-arranging his “Big Apple” cap while the whole thing was going crazy...........but, several hundred words later, I digress.
Point is, Don't Even Be Thinking: “ I'm gonna cut the headliner”....it ain't a competition, it's an exhibition.......also the audience paid for tickets with THEIR name on the top, they LOVE the headliner....also you're likely to be more of an annoyance than a help to the show, thinking that way........................and NUMBER ONE: IT AIN”T GONNA HAPPEN!!” About 15 years ago, I opened for an up-and-coming Rock (but Blues-based....yes, I hate that term too) Band, just endorsed by Rolling Stone Magazine. At the end of my set, 4-5 guys approached. “WOW!” , they said. “That was incredible! We've seen the headliner half a dozen times, and they can't TOUCH that set you just did.” Yeah, Right.....45 minutes later, as I was lugging the Supro thunderbolt (I remember now that the rock band's harp player wanted to buy it!) to the car, I paused to say good night to these guys.....who were now PRESSED up against the very front of the stage....mesmerized....their faces flashed no sign of recognition whatsoever....had they met me somewhere? Faces seemed to say they didn't remember.....can I get a “Poor Poor Wildcat” here?
So, why do we do it...open shows, I mean? Well, let me count the ways:
- We get to see an idol for free....and name drop... “he used my guitar” afterwards
- We get to see exactly HOW the legend gets over/destroys us...usually you'll note that whatever the star does best, he finds a way to make a particular feature at key moment of show.
- We may get some name recognition...even pick up a few fans... (although, when they show up at our next gig at Joe's Dive, they may be underwhelmed!)
- We can compare gear. Blues people like OLD! One time, I showed Debbie Davies a part guitar I was building (she had admired my battered Tele, which is a '65) and, out of habit she asked me what year it was. “If I finish it soon, it'll be a 2000” I answered.
- It is an important fact of local band life that, when there's publicity about a show, a LOT more people will see the publicity than will see the show. “You just played with Bo Diddley, didn't you?” they'll say....sometimes a year later!
- There's always the chance they'll say “ Start late, and run over”....or “can you loan me an amp?”
- Or maybe, just maybe….someday you WILL cut the headliner…..if they look like someone hit them in the head with a shovel, aren’t very friendly, and the crowd still remembers who you are at the end….to quote Scotty, “It JUST MIGHT WORK, Captain”
- Here's me pretending I'm Charles Calmese....minus the hat!