It is 5 minutes to showtime.
The band gathers at the stage to decide what is going in for this set. We have 3 sets tonight at this private party in Dallas.
With 4-5 well-versed vocalists, the question goes from member to member, “what do you want to sing?”.
We build sets this way each set. 5 minutes before. Every set is different, every show is different. There are currently 1500+ songs in the book to choose from.
Once a decent game plan is established, we kick-off. As we play, we read the room and members will add or change what’s coming up next. It’s always on the fly and tends to be a rapid-fire situation song-to-song.
Providing the best musical experience to the audience is high on the priority list, so you are going to hear plenty of meaty grooves, danceable hits, eclectic musical highlights, and all the live harmonies. We do this 250-300 nights a year for an average 3 hours of show time. This is not work, it’s a lifestyle.
Bass, drums, keys, guitar, 2 lead vocalists, and a sound engineer. We add up to a 3 piece brass section and our percussionist, Juan when possible or requested.
Behind the scenes, we have employed some typical tools of the trade. Everyone is on IEMS controlled through personal mixers and tablets, so each member is free to set up their mix. (Another musician’s life skill!) Small screens are readily available on stage for lyrics, and I have one to mirror our computer to see what’s coming up. This allows me to pull up charts when needed in advance, and also to consider when to musically connect songs. For example, for a big rock tune, we could use a big rock ending, basically fermata until the next tune loads in our system, allowing me to start the next track, and tag the ending while the next count-in happens. I’m kicking off each tune from a foot pedal on my left.
Each track in our computer has been built from stems from a site we use. We drop the stems into a Logic session, record any extra parts needed, then split the audio L and R to add a click on the left side. This allows us to have count-ins/count-outs for every tune.
We run under 5 monikers with 5 varieties of shows.
Time Machine is our well-established main band. Top 40s, from 50s – current. Playing Pop, Rock, R&B, a handful of Big Band tunes, and Country.
This band also has a live band karaoke show that runs 3 times weekly. We are the live band, and people sign up and sing with us. We also have a higher-end Total Request show where the audience can select our songs in real-time.
Haywire is the second most established. Led and fronted by long-time associate, Shonna Bonds, this is a country-focused band.
24K Kountry is pure country, mostly from the 90s when writing was at a particular high.
Station 9D is our all-90s group, playing alternative rock and pop hits.
Endless Summer is our Beach Boys variety tribute show. It’s more of an experience than a dance party. Led by Allan Conner, who has long-standing ties to The Beach Boys.
Each of these has a setting that determines what our approach is. Club gigs, casinos, private parties (including weddings, functions, holiday parties, corporate events, wineries, etc). Karaoke and Total Request are also a component of this area.
THE DRUM CHAIR:
There is a legacy of well-versed drummers here in Time Machine. I am currently 4 years and 2 months in, so working on completing year 5 in the band. As a musicianship-focused group, the drum chair is a major defining factor in how well the bus is driven and the overall feel of the band. The MD reads everyone’s strengths and goes with songs that will best highlight those strengths.
As far as drum arrangements, voicing, and parts go, the MD is somewhat particular about what is played and not played. We are a hybrid of the original feel and parts of songs and developed arrangement ideas from the previous decades of the bands’ history. Although leadership is laidback and extremely friendly, there are certain established work protocols and ways things are done here. This is a well-established, serious working band, so slopping your way through tunes will not cut it.
Jumping into the band was no easy feat simply for the sheer volume of the book. My approach of pre-preparing the material thoroughly in a detail-oriented manner went out the window. Instead, I learned to adapt and developed three new skills:
1) playing songs I have never heard before on the spot in front of a live audience with confidence.
2) skimming through a new song in about 10 seconds and performing it.
3) retroactively learning songs
Basically, you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Growth abounds in this arena.
The best way I can describe the hot seat in my band for a newcomer is to consider any anxiety you have experienced associated with stage performance. For musicians, at the highest level of mastery, you are so comfortable that the music is almost playing itself and you are in the moment and simply emoting. Now, imagine if at that level, on stage, in front of an audience, you are about to play up to 3 hours of music you are either barely familiar with or some songs you’ve never heard of.
How would this be possible without train-wrecking song after song?
Simple, it just takes a few tools, a clear head, and open ears to read the band. Of course we are also well versed in the top 300 or so common go-to songs every cover band knows.
About those tools…
I have inherited a list of charts that I am continually updating. I methodically work through them and clean or note every necessary detail. I’ve become somewhat efficient at the process and currently, it takes me 3-5 minutes to chart a new tune. So I always have a map.
Road maps help you not get lost and act as a visual reminder of added cues.
The next most important part of the learning curve I had to overcome was memory. How do you remember what happened through all those songs all night long so you can play them well the next time they come up? What if they don’t come up again for 6 months?? There is no room for on-stage repetitious learning if a song doesn’t pop up for another 3 – 6 months.
The solution? Easy. When I started, I would simply record every show. The next morning I would sit down with my coffee, charts, audio, and break down any forms I missed and iron out any speed bumps. This approach also allowed me to analyze where I was sitting in the mix (groove, timing, what fills set things up the best, etc). Record, record, record. I did this for my 1st 3 years or so.
These days I’ve taken a break from recording to grow more organically. I’m excited to check-in in a few months to hear my progress and continue to build.
One pivotal point to these types of gig situations is since your processor is overloaded, it puts your brain in survival mode. I’m sure my amygdala is lit up like a Christmas tree during shows. It’s fight or flight time. That means that your senses are heightened, thus your memory of events is way more acute. Make a mistake and it is instantly imprinted, or get a cue for a figure and you’ll automatically recall the experience the next time you hear it coming.
Speaking of your processor being overloaded, I’ve developed my chart system to combat this. The less I have to actively think about in the moment, the more I can attain my desired state of clarity and sense of calm. I’ve chosen to use an A4-sized iPad for my charts, and PDF Expert to notate. I can make updates on the fly to my charts, and it is all organized with my naming system for fast and accurate quick recall.
On the bandstand is when it all matters most. That’s the point of the damn thing. Provide a great show, a great musical experience, elevate the room and the audience will want more.
The long hours spent prepping gear, charting, practicing, driving, setting up, etc, don’t mean squat if you choke on the gig or choose to let your ego drive the bus by overplaying all night or not reading the room. This particular type of gig requires a sense of finesse and musical maturity. I’m most proud of being the reliable foundation in the back of the band to help elevate the front line to bring their A-game. And that’s my gig!
From 2004-2017 I was a resident of Tokyo. In many ways, my transition to Dallas was both swift and drawn out. Tokyo was my home