Dear friends and supporters,
I want to let you all know about my trip to New York for the MusiCares show honoring Bono as Person Of The Year. I was asked by Rob Mathes, the musical director, to play guitar in the band that would be accompanying some of the top artists in the world, who would each perform a U2 song. (There's more about this incredible event at the following link.)
It's not as though there aren't many wonderful guitarists in New York, but Rob went out on a limb and a gut feeling to have me be involved. He was familiar with me from some years ago and had a sense of the essence of my style of playing. Phil Ramone, the legendary record producer was producing the show and was swayed by Rob's pitch for my presence. The rest of the bandmembers were, Rob Mathes (musical director, guitar, piano, arranger), Shawn Pelton (drums), Tom Barney (bass) and Philippe Saisse (keyboards, Hammond organ).
Going in I was aware that the performers and
songs would be as follows:
Two additional songs were added, both with Bono and - a lovely surprise for me - The Edge, U2's wonderful guitar player. The songs were "Night And Day" of which they had done an almost techno version and "The Hands That Built America", the song from the Martin Scorcese movie "Gangs Of New York", for which they have received an Oscar nomination. Other performers would include No Doubt and Garbage.
THURSDAY - rehearsal
Bono and Edge rehearsed with us for a couple of hours. As a member of Lone Justice in the '80s I had made their acquaintance, performing onstage with U2 at their invitation in Paris on the last day of our portion of the European leg of the Joshua Tree tour. In the early 90's I was a part of a band called Merchants of Venus and we were managed by Mambo Management, a division of New York's U2 office. On Thursday I met again with old management friends as well as Bono and Edge and also their manager, Paul McGuinness who gave me a warm hello, telling me that he had never seen Bono perform with a big band. Then there were also crew guys from U2 and other events and gigs from my days living on the East Coast, all of whom it was a pleasure to be around once again.
Rob Mathes had done a gorgeous big band horn arrangement for "That's Life". Bono was easy-going but meticulous about the dynamics of the song, wanting to make sure he could perform parts of it at a whisper. Edge came up to perform on "Night and Day", entering in the middle of the song to launch into the guitar solo. I have always shared a affinity with him over the use of echo with guitars and how it can create a rhythmic element that can provide the foundation for a song. After the rehearsal one of U2's crew remarked to he and I that we were "separated at birth". How wonderful to share the stage with both he and Bono.
Bono was often passionately demonstrative in rehearsal responding to something that he liked. He would turn around to me and point or smile, or just come over and listen, then mouth with an emotive, slightly bemused look, "Wow!" He and Edge played "The Hands That Built America" at first as a duo with Edge on acoustic guitar then deciding to incorporate the band. They were evidently enjoying themselves.
After a break we continued rehearsing, with Sheryl Crow. Sheryl had called me several years ago about auditioning for her band but I was on tour at the time and we never met. She gave me a look of surprised recognition when we were introduced. "All I Want Is You" began with just my guitar playing behind her vocal in the opening verse. It is a short song with verses and choruses only. The U2 version has a lengthy instrumental section, so this was one song that was a bit more of a challenge to make into a good vehicle for a performer to make the most of.
One highlight from rehearsals was the experience of being around B.B. King. He and Wynonna had not met before and she was addressing him as Mr. B.B. "Will you stop calling me Mr. B.B." he said to which Wynonna replied that she was raised in Tennessee and if she didn't refer to him so, she would have to call him Mr. King! He laughed, saying that he too was from the South, raised in Mississippi.
He wasn't sure how the song went, saying that Bono had brought him into the studio after they had already recorded the track for the song, and so we ran it down several times. "I've made over eighty albums and not one of them's been perfect" he proudly proclaimed. When the rented amp that had been provided for him started squealing from some malfunction he repeated this statement! Wynonna graciously helped him through the song and in between run-throughs the two of them chatted, both seated and on their microphones, B.B. saying how he had been a fan of hers for a long time and Wynonna behaving with enamored Southern grace and respect for her elder. It was beautiful to watch.
Before he left, B.B. came over to the band and said, "You know, I just do this one thing and that's all I do." He thanked us each directly and with such humility and a kindness that came from so deeply within him, telling us how great we sounded. "But I guess you hear that all the time, don't you?" he added. "Actually, no" some of us responded! It was very important, it seemed, that he convey the depth of his gratitude. He was beautiful, charming, gracious and childlike.
Patti LaBelle was ready to tear it up with "Angel Of Harlem" joined by a gospel choir of local boys and girls. We started out in the original key, C, raising it to D. Wynonna said,"You sound like a man. Take it higher!" We went to E. Patti asked of Wynonna if she still sounded like a man and Wynonna responded, "Take it higher!" So we went to F and the spirit started moving in the room! Patti was so grateful to Wynonna for pushing her to test her limits. She sang great even though she was lightheartedly complaining about the amount of words in each line and wrestling with the way to phrase it and she danced and looked joyful and happy, sharing her exuberance with us, the musicians.
We were running a little behind schedule by this point and Mary J. Blige had been observing things for a while. She came up and sang "One" appropriately just once, giving everything to the lone performance. And "everything" in this regard was a performance that was so emotional, I knew as soon as it was done that we wouldn't see her again until the following night. She was shaking as she left the stage. There was no point in "rehearsing" it any more.
FRIDAY - more rehearsal
I had particularly been looking forward to this and it was no disappointment. He was like a prize fighter, pacing, impatient, a little petulant. He was ready to play and his microphone wasn't turned on. The crew hustled to get things up and running for him. He was playing his beat up Gibson acoustic through an electric guitar amp with a grungy distortion pedal and started singing. What a voice! He unsmilingly exhorted and conducted how he wanted the band to dynamically respond and it was one of those occasions for me where I had to just turn it up and let it loose.
FRIDAY NIGHT - the show
The front and center table included, amongst others, Bono with his wife and daughters, President Clinton, Salman Rushdie and Robert De Niro (the real Mayor of New York, according to Bono), at the next table David Bowie with The Edge and over to the other side a table of industry execs including Tommy Mottola and Jimmy Iovine. They were joined by Sean "Puffy" Combs. Ashley Judd was MC.
President Clinton came up on stage to present Bono with his award, acknowledging us, the band, as he took his place. He had no prepared text and spoke with beauty and clarity about Bono's achievements, including how, during his term of office Bono had managed to accomplish something he, the President, had not been able to - to get Jesse Helms to sign on to a specific piece of legislation. I believe it was the Debt Relief provision for Third World countries. He credited Bono with single-handedly being the standard bearer for this crucial bill. The former President conveyed his thoughts with reverence and great respect.
Bono came up to receive the award, remarking how he made a point of not standing around tall people! He spoke of the President's Debt Relief bill and how two and a half million people will die in the coming year in Africa without further aid. He spoke of the inexorable link between terrorism and poverty - how much less expensive it is to prevent fires than it is to put them out.
He talked of Ireland and how in the early 70's there were maybe 300 IRA members and as the British troops moved in and internment became a policy, 300 became 300,000.
He said he was, like everyone, a fan. He looked around the room. "I'm a fan of Robert De Niro, I'm a fan of David Bowie...." and spoke of how fans get disappointed if the one they hold true messes up, releases a sub-par record etc. He said he was a fan of America. He praised Orrin Hatch, who was in the room, as a progressive Republican senator.
So the show was under way and as is often the case, in the moment one is wrapped up in the work and not able to take it all in as it is going down. But as always, the show goes on and it had a vital spark of energy that celebrated this unique evening in accordance with the weight of the occasion.
The Children of Uganda performed in traditional costume, dancing, drumming and singing - each child having lost at least one parent to AIDS.
B.B. King and Wynonna got our part of the show underway without a glitch, nailing the big ending Wynonna had asked of the band.
No Doubt with the legendary Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie performed "Sweetest Thing". Norah Jones sang in her beautiful, husky tone.
Personally, I felt particularly responsive accompanying Mary J. Blige's performance of "One". The song has such a natural build and in that moment it went to a very high place and soared. "Love is a temple, love the higher ground....."
There were performances by the young bands Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Trail Of The Dead. I think that Bono had invited them to perform with his typical magnanimity, providing them with a wonderful opportunity to be heard. And this was a "tough room"!
Sheryl Crow sang starkly atop the brooding accompaniment, befitting the song - building through the first two verses, breaking back down for the repeat of the first verse, then rising to a crescendo for the ending.
Patti Labelle's performance with the choir was loose and soulful. We were all in church for four or five minutes!
Garbage gave a rendition of "Pride (In The Name Of Love)" that had Bono on his feet when they hit the first chorus.
Jimmy Fallon gave a very funny stand-up "roast" based around, "Another award for Bono. What a shocker!"
Elvis Costello was as he was earlier in the day, impatient, tightly wound and sounding loud and wonderful. He paced the stage after his performance and then in bringing Bono and Edge to the stage to perform, exhorted that we cut to the chase and "...give him the fucking Nobel Peace Prize NOW!"
So we wrapped up the evening with Bono milking the big band rendition of "That's Life" with all its kitsch and schtick. "Night and Day" was a show-stopper and we closed the "The Hands That Built America". The fat lady had sung and it was all over bar the shmoozing!
Soon after I was asked to attend and be a part of this, various magical little tie-ins transpired to let me know that this was a divine gift to me. In this period of my life where I am promoting my CD and if you are still reading this e-mail God Bless you(!), opportunity is wrapped in these treasures and gifts that manifest it seems, through the power of me seizing my autonomy and expressing myself as truthfully as I can today- each day.
I was able to pass my CD onto Bono, Edge and Norah Jones. Bono gave me his advice as to where he believed would be good places for me to expose the CD and have it heard. And to tell them he said so! I was witness to a special, heavyweight world event - with a ringside seat.
I have never viewed myself as a session musician per se. I don't read music well, though I read chord charts. Ultimately I try to commit the material to memory. I have never run in those circles of going from gig to gig, session to session. But I have worked with the best artists and musicians in my field. One confronts one's doubts and fears all too often. I was asked to bring what I naturally do to this event and in my exuberance made a royally big gaffe in one tune. But it's live music and the moment is gone. It is easy to be afraid to fail and in that line of thought, one's life is played safe. I am learning to live without fear and doubt. Each day. May each one of you be blessed to find your own way and in so doing maybe peace will prevail.
May music and art enrich your life with beauty and love.
© February 2003, Shane Fontayne