It became clear early on that this was a different kind of show. Really early on — like when we were soundchecking at 10am (thank you to our crew for loading in at 6 in the morning). I guess that’s when 85 unionized musicians who can sight-read Stravinsky like to soundcheck. I also knew things were different when our crew were walking around in black pants and black shirts. This is the requisitie garb for crew members at Symphony Hall, we were informed, so everyone had to go black-pants-shopping the day before. I never quite got used to it. Every time I passed one of them I kept thinking I was about to get a scallop wrapped in bacon with a toothpick in it or a mushroom puff pastry or something. The Pops nights will also probably go down as the only two shows in the history of Guster where every member of the band was wearing a collared shirt.
Sean and Josh and their catering outfits
Andy: “They didn’t say anything about shoes.”
We’d met conductor Keith Lockhart the day before during a run-through with Pat, the guy whose job it was to arrange all these songs for the orchestra, but we hadn’t met the members of the orchestra until soundcheck on the day of the show. And come to think of it, we didn’t actually *meet* them at any point, we just kind of nodded and waved at them and otherwise tried to come across as humble and unworthy, which probably somehow came across as rockstar condescension, but what can you do. We were out of our element, Donnie.
So we really had no idea what anything was going to sound like until the day of the show. Soundcheck was just one and a half hours and my recollection of it is pretty hazy. Half of it was probably spent trying to pin down the moment where everyone had to stop for Joe’s harmonica solo on “Backyard,” and it feels like the other half of it was spent yelling at me to play quieter. This became my challenge. To play the drums dynamically but much quieter than normal, so as not to drown out the unamplified orchestra. I would have to choose my moments, and I would have to gently graze the snare drum every time I hit it. We put some cloth fabric underneath it to mute the snares a bit, but then the bongo was speaking too much, so I was instructed to take a little mustard off my bongo hits, and ultimately I had to go get those wood rod bundles instead of sticks so that Keith wouldn’t make that horrified face every time I hit a ride cymbal.
Gently grazing the drums is much easier on the mitts
There were microphones on all my drums but we didn’t use any of them in the house, they were just there so that the four Gusters could have an in-ear monitor mix that resembled a normal show and allowed us to play together, which turned out to be challenging. There were several near-trainwreck moments during the show, where the orchestra was a beat off with Ryan’s guitar intro on Come Downstairs or Fa Fa, or where the arrangement came up a measure short on G Major and the four of us had to get all zen about things and just play, confident that Keith would catch on and direct his unit back on track. Just trying to hold it all together made for an exciting evening, nevermind the fact that a huge *wall of sound* would swell up now and then and take our music over the top. Nowhere was this more evident than on Two Points For Honesty (nice choice)… that song has always been difficult to replicate live, but Pat’s arrangement replicated it and then some. It was such a rush to feel all that energy.
It is customary at Symphony Hall to call the conductor back for several encores (I think), even if some of them are just for bowing and receiving roses at your feet and stuff. When our set list had expired there were still ten minutes left before the curfew for the night, and Keith didn’t want to close the show with their rendition of the Stars ‘n Stripes Forever, as they often do (I think), having sensed that the crowd was mostly there to see the Guster portion of the evening. Likewise, we didn’t want to go out there and play a song without the orchestra — we tossed around the idea of Happier (too boring) and Careful (too boring) backstage — then Keith had a little on-stage pow-wow with me and Ryan and decided we would just play Come Downstairs & Say Hello again, since it was pretty damn epic the first time. We were all on the same wavelength about skipping the front half (too boring) and cutting right to the fast part.
little on-stage pow-wow
The only problem was that our crew, not knowing that multiple encores were in the cards, were backstage cracking open beers and celebrating the first night at the Poops, I mean Pops, I will just leave that in there because it looks funny and my journal entries about poop are everyone’s favorite ones. So we waited a few minutes for Josh to sprint and hurdle his way through the crowd back to the monitor desk to get us back up and running, then kicked into the Come Downstairs & Say Hello reprise. With the help of this one dancing lady in the front row (thanks, former Guster employee Pasty, for finding her with the spotlight)… it turned into a big party. I got the feeling that people don’t dance in the aisles of Symphony Hall too often. We ended the night with a bow, which cracks me up. I will never ever be able to bow in earnest without a stupid self-conscious grin on my face.
You’re not flying, Brian, you’re just bowing…
Boston Pops Night Two (June 23):
So, feeling sky-high after a smashing first night at Symphony Hall, we took the stage Thursday night to a much more subdued crowd. At first I thought maybe a bunch of people had come to both nights and were acting more tame the second time around, but then I looked up to discover something unusual. Occupying the first 500 seats in the house were table after table of elderly people who’d been bussed in to see the shows from the Ben Gurion Jewish Rehabilition Center of the North Shore. I would call it a scheduling disaster, except that we met a lot of them after the show and they loved it. Here’s an unfiltered bit of an email I maybe wasn’t supposed to see from someone who works at the rehab center:
In general, our residents had mixed reviews. Some enjoyed it and were moving and clapping with the music, while others were covering their ears and complaining. The interesting observation made by the staff was that none of the residents fell asleep, a first for their attendance at a Pops concert.
The thrill for us is that we were invited backstage for pictures with Keith Lockhart. Following that, Keith said he had a special surprise and took us back to a room where the band was. The band members hugged the elders (great photos!) and talked with them about growing up in the area, then signed autographs. Really fun!
We finished the night with Jesus On The Radio unplugged, many thanks to Gerry from the Pops for joining us on violin and Brian-esque facial expressions. The musicality of everyone involved was amazing, as was Keith’s unique ability to be the glue between the band and the orchestra. If it didn’t cost a gazillion dollars to travel with an orchestra, we’d take the show on the road in a heartbeat. As it is, we’re working on some ideas for the future.
Very special thanks to those at the Pops who made this happen: Dennis, Margo, Pat, Keith, etc…