My first experience playing with a tribute act. This post posits some possible reasons why there aren’t any tribute bands to Kansas (or if they are, they never seem to last longer than their debut show), however much it seems that practically everybody wants to make one.
Listen while you read to “Pegasus” from “10 Strings” (c. and p. 2008) by the Panache Orchestra. I’m soundtracking this post with this piece because working through the Kansas violin parts by Robby Steinhardt, and even more so, David Ragsdale, gave me my wings back. I’d lost them somewhere along the way….
April – June 2011
Sometime around the end of 2010, a musician friend of ours said that he had recently started playing in a tribute band to Kansas, and asked me if I would take the violin position since they didn’t have a violin player yet. I politely resisted since I was so overrun with my existing quagmire of commitments that I couldn’t even think of taking on anything else, but sometime later he must have asked Chi to cajole me into it, and I finally agreed.
A couple weeks went by, and I suddenly realized in a panic that it would be January 20, the date of the first rehearsal I was to attend, in just a couple hours and I hadn’t done a damned thing yet in the way of preparation, so I emailed our friend to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the rehearsal after all, and it so happened that it was cancelled that week anyway, and that I could come to the next one in mid- February when they would be auditioning keyboard players. Well, the ridiculously busy streak continued, and in fact, even worsened (submission deadlines for crazy-complicated applications for various performance-related things, a massive overhaul of the Panache Orchestra’s web presence that included a lot of new stuff I had to carefully think through and create, a lot of new music in a style I had no experience with to learn for another collaborative project we had been working on for the past few months with a band in San Diego, regular Panache Orchestra performances, day job craziness, etc.), so I found myself once again in a situation where the rehearsal was imminent and I hadn’t even so much as listened to the tracks, never mind tried to figure out the violin parts and practice them.
So in the practically nonexistent amount of time I had available between getting home from work and having to leave for the rehearsal in North Hollywood, I attempted to play one piece along with the recording while trying to read the piano reduction that had been .pdf’d to me, and it quickly became apparent that I had grotesquely underestimated the scale of effort involved, and this was definitely not the sort of thing I could just show up and sight read, especially since my sight reading skills severely degraded after I retired from side player and other musical work and decided to concentrate exclusively on the Panache Orchestra, where I perform all our music from memory and very seldom have any occasion to do much reading.
Well, I got to the rehearsal and did my best to sight read the piano scores that I had hastily marked up, madly flipping pages and blundering through the pieces as best I could. I was hoping the other players would be so intent on assessing the two keyboardists they auditioned that night that they wouldn’t notice how spectacularly unprepared I was. Turned out they were so elated to finally hear the “real” violin that they didn’t seem to notice the large discrepancy between how the parts should have sounded and how they actually sounded. They settled on one of the two keyboard players that auditioned that evening, and with the line-up intact, the band leader booked us into a showcase for tribute acts in mid-May, and decided to do a self-presented debut concert on June 10 after unsuccessfully trying to get a shared date with an established tribute band to Genesis.
What followed was several insane weeks of late, late nights spending hours at a time trying to transcribe the very chop-heavy violin parts from video footage and mp3s that the band leader had sent me on top of being crazy busy with my own band and day job. The videos were especially helpful for the Steinhardt parts, since the timbre of the instrument he plays sounds very similar to an electric guitar or keyboard, especially on the earlier recordings, which made it extraordinarily difficult to pick out the violin parts from everything else. I managed to get the parts reasonably well in hand for the pieces to be played at the showcase, and it went well. There were still another half-dozen or so pieces to get together before the debut show on June 10, so more ridiculously late nights of transcribing followed.
David Ragsdale’s playing inspired me to up my game. The more I listened and transcribed, the more impressed I was with his playing and musical approach. He projects such an exuberant love of playing that it shattered through the tough shell covering this badly discouraged, jaded, burned out heart and motivated me to get busy salvaging my embarrassingly rusty chops so I could get off the sidelines and back in the game. In fact, the Ragsdale study had the effect of throwing me a rope to fish me out of the sewer I’d let my life go swirling down for the past few years.
After a few weeks of fairly regularly attending 3-hour rehearsals with KanVas in the run-up to the tribute showcase and the debut show, it was becoming unavoidably clear to me that I was not going to be able to retain the position as KanVas’ full-time violinist, and regretfully would have to bow out. Why? Well, there are a few reasons, but for starters, it’s just too fucking loud! I have no idea how the actual Kansas violin players endured the volume of the stage mix since it is simply not possible to be a violinist and have hearing damage. Even with earplugs it was still oppressively loud.
A run-through was scheduled for the evening prior to the concert, and suffice it to say that what ensued was about six hours of indescribable torment. The dreadful acoustics of the venue plus the horrifyingly irresponsible and/or incompetent personnel who were hired for audio engineering and lighting/ stage effects and their faulty, decrepit gear (one might think the L.A. area would have better music support services on offer than that!) resulted in a five-hour knock-down drag-out ordeal of a tech rehearsal (that included completely blowing the circuits of the entire venue at one point – a classic “Spinal Tap” moment!). My original act, “the Panache Orchestra” had volunteered to open the show (thought it would present a good opportunity to debut our rock pieces we practically never get to perform since we almost always get booked for our genteel ambient music), but by the time Panache finally got to do our set-up/ run-thru at ca. 11:30 PM, we were so battered from being subjected to over five straight hours of maddening katzenjammer that we could hardly be bothered with it.
The show was even worse! Even though by the bitter end of the previous night, the mix, although deafeningly loud, was at least clear and balanced, but apparently when the other support act who wasn’t able to do the run-through the night before arrived and did their sound check, the engineer must have forgot to readjust the settings for TPO and KanVas. When KanVas sound checked, equipment that had been (sort of) working the night before was no longer working, so that had to be sorted out, which left practically no time for TPO to get an adequate sound check before we went on.
Despite it all, the Panache Orchestra still managed to give a characteristically strong performance, but the assholes at the mixing board talked loudly all the way through our set, which ruined the audio and prompted several people in the audience to go up to the board and tell them to STFU. The KanVas band leader had planned on taking a multi-track audio recording of the whole show, but the sound guys apparently fucked that up too, so all we got was whatever we could salvage from the video that Panache’s team had shot.
As much as I would have liked to hear the other band, I had to retreat to the dressing room, both to change costumes for the KanVas set and to protect myself from another salvo of aural abuse. When I finally went back onstage with KanVas with my feet aching from playing the 50-minute TPO rock set in over-the-knee 5-inch stiletto boots that weren’t completely broken in yet, not to mention still badly fatigued from the protracted nightmare the previous evening, I was nonplussed to find that the stage mix that had been at least tolerably clear at the run-thru was now an ungodly loud, muddy wall of din. I also made the astounding discovery that even with the really expensive stand light I had bought especially for this show, my pencil transcriptions of the Kansas pieces were nearly invisible since I’d never got around to overwriting them with ink. All I could do was put on a brave face and steamroll through 90 minutes of total living hell.
At the butt-end of that night in Gehenna, I learned that TPO had indeed picked up several new fans and sold some CDs, and everyone was effusively complimentary of my playing, but I have never felt so utterly knackered and demoralized. I scurried off stage to the green room with my feet feeling like classified documents going through the shredder and mortified at having given such a fucking awful performance. My playing was shit, and most disappointingly, I played the shittiest on the pieces I love the most (the battery of my wireless transmitter even died in the middle of one – another Spinal Tap moment). But it gets even better.
On the way back to the truck after the last trip to load out TPO’s equipment, Chi demanded that I tell the band leader at that moment that I quit, which I flatly refused to do. Even though it was patently obvious to me independently that I would not be able to continue working with KanVas since I absolutely could not afford to ever be subjected to anything like that ever again, I did not think that was the appropriate moment to drop that bomb on the band leader. He’d been through enough already, and I wanted to be able to think this through carefully in order to deliver this piece of unwelcome news as diplomatically as possible and work out anything I could do to facilitate the transition, which I obviously was not in a position to do right then and there.
Apparently his failure to coerce me into doing his bidding upon his command sent Chi into a control drama rage, compounded by his elevated blood alcohol content and his not-yet-vented animus at having been subjected to such an unwarranted clusterfuck, which cued me that I should not under any circumstances allow him to get control of our vehicle however much he abused me (1), and abuse me he did, practically the entire way home. It was a long, tormentful drive with him screaming in my ears at the top of his lungs and blasting the radio as loud as it would go, doing his usual thing of vituperating at me with every manner of deranged, juvenile nonsense, and basically doing everything he could to try to cause an accident. Fortunately a couple friends of ours from San Diego who had come up to film the concert and were staying with us that night arrived back at our place at approximately the same time we did, and to my not-so-great surprise, Chi abruptly switched back to his most ingratiatingly charming self for the balance of the night!
Soooooooo, after all that, I have been thoroughly bitten by the Kansas weevil, and astonishingly enough, even Chi later expressed that he would like to be able to see me perform those pieces again once I really know them and have them memorized, rather than trying to read my chicken-scratch penciled scores in the dark, so there’s a possibility that I might be able to do some “job sharing” with whoever takes my place. The experience inspired me with new musical vocabulary that I’ve been incorporating into the Panache Orchestra’s music ever since, and stretched me out and revived my technique to a level I haven’t hit in quite a few years. I also benefited from Chi taking the initiative to dig up some more vintage violin rock for me to add to this listening study, like Dixie Dregs (Allen Sloan, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Goodman) and Mahavishnu Orchestra (Jerry Goodman, Jean-Luc Ponty), which further expanded my growing palette.
(1) The previous fall we had gone to a wonderful concert by Ornette Coleman at Royce Hall at UCLA and as we were walking back to the car, some innocuous, random trigger set Chi off and he turned on me with another spoiled toddler temper tantrum. Unfortunately I misjudged how drunk he was (he has a habit of bringing hard alcohol with him to every concert/performance we attend) and in my sleep-deprived, beleaguered fog, I made the disastrous mistake of letting him drive home, so he proceeded to threaten both of our lives and those of untold hundreds of other drivers all the way from Westwood back to Chinatown. To my astonishment, we did not encounter a single CHP during that death ride even though I was fervently hoping we would, and that he would get arrested, charged with felony DUI and deported as he so richly deserved, and I would finally be liberated from this crazymaking bullshit.
KanVas unfortunately folded around winter of that year. They were not able to find another violinist, and then the bassist quit too, and also one of the keyboard players, and the band leader finally ran out of energy and motivation to try to keep it going, citing lack of interest from promoters and other musicians as the main reasons. It’s a shame, since he put so much work and time and money and effort into that project, and Kansas has such a vast catalog of great music that is really fun to play 😦