Monday, September 26, 2011

It Always Worked Before

They walk onto stage for sound-check hours before the performance. It's a waste of time, but the promoter has been adamant. You guys of have got to do a sound check, and you have to give yourselves plenty of time.

It seems silly. They've played a thousand venues like this one. Sure, the addresses change, but nothing else.

Tony pulls the high-hat stand a bit closer to the drum throne and opens up the clutch assembly to ensure a nice splashy sound. Phil powers up his Ampeg combo, waits for the amp to light up, and then slides his bass cable into the quarter-inch jack like a navy pilot slamming the deck of a carrier. Frank flips the switch on his Stage 88 and dials in his favorite B3 while Steve gently torks the tuning machines of his original-parts 57 Stratocaster, his eyes fixed on the tiny strobe hidden among his multicolored array of foot-pedals.

Yeah, they've done this a thousand times before. Different address, same place.

The band launches into a familiar jam, something easy to get warmed up. However, like the engine of ancient Crown Victoria fighting for life on January morning in Minneapolis, the sound labors heavily, growing louder and more percussive, but refusing to catch. Where's that satisfying purr of a groove firing on all eight cylinders.

Not ever having had to establish a groove on their own, the bassist and drummer, in simultaneous (if not synchronous) and uncharacteristic displays of personal-accountability, each attempt to take one and three by force. The drummer's kick distorts the diaphragm of the D6 microphone that wobbles precariously each time he slams it to the floor. The bass player's strings vibrate wildly, physically slamming into EMG pickups, as he slaps them furiously, desperately seeking a downbeat. Their heroic attempts at synchronicity degrade into a tug-of-war for the beat that oscillates back and forth across the center line, a half cycle out of phase, the efforts of one canceling out those of the other.

Something seems different. The all-too-easy sound check has degraded into an impossible situation.

Steve raises his arms, sweeps his hands back and forth and calls for the band to stop.

"What's up guys? Stop goofing off. I wanna get this done and get some dinner before the show."

"Nothing's up. Something's wrong."

"What do you mean wrong."

"I mean, like, didn't you hear that. We sound terrible. What happened to our groove?"

"I thought you guys were just screwing around with me. C'mon, let's just take a breath and start again. I'll count it. One... Two... Three..."

Tony and Phil watch each other closely trying to lock in the kick-drum and bass. They form the foundation on which the rest of the music is constructed. But the foundation shakes and teeters, threatening to crumble at any moment. Steve strums a simple R&B rhythm, that bounces in and out of the pocket. Frank looks for a point of entry for an organ riff, but finds none.

They stop.

They've played together for ten years and nothing like this has ever happened. It's never not worked. Now what?

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