Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #3: Play the Drums at Buddy Guy's*

Some of the best advice I have ever been given was to seek out frightening situations and take risks in life. So when I saw that a landmark Chicago blues club would be hosting an open jam night while I was in town last month, I knew I had to participate.

I already figured that at some point in the week I would drop by Buddy Guy's Legends to hear some great music take some great pictures. Founded by one of Chicago's most beloved bluesmen, the club was only a couple of blocks from where I was staying at the south end of the Loop, and I knew from previous experience that the place would deliver. But now the question became: could I?

According to the club's website, open jam night would feature volunteer musicians who were welcome to drop by and sign up to play for free. You just had to bring your own instrument and sign your life away at the door in exchange for a waived cover charge and a chance at public humiliation. At least that's what the bouncer told me when I signed my name on the list and took a seat near the left side of the stage.

The first half of the night was filled by The Jimmy Burns Band, who played a regular set with Eric "Guitar" Davis on lead axe. I took a bunch of pictures and enjoyed some great blues music, all the while wondering if I would take the stage myself by the end of the night. My nerves jumped a level when at the tail end of the opening set, Buddy Guy himself showed up to sing a few tunes. Somehow I kept my composure, thinking, "well, if I'm going to humiliate myself, I may as well humiliate myself in front of the best."

After Buddy's cameo, the night shifted to open jam mode. Only the jam wasn't quite as open as I'd expected. Instead of a bunch of random musicians improvising, the MC kept calling up people who seemed very familiar with each other, and very rehearsed. In fact, the songs they played sounded more polished than the songs my band had been playing after months of practice. I started to get the sense that I was out of my league.

But hey, I couldn't back out now, right?

As the evening drew on, and more seasoned musicians took their turns wowing the increasingly intoxicated audience, I began to wonder if anyone would even call my unknown name off the sign-up list, or whether I should even hang around to find out. Even Buddy had already left for the night. Maybe signing up and hanging around for four hours would be enough of a frightening experience by itself?

Wrong. I had to go the distance.

So I did what any rational, level-headed underqualified drummer would do: I approached the MC and talked my way onto the stage. At the moment of truth, I found myself sitting at a foreign drum kit, surrounded by unfamiliar musicians, staring into the bright lights and smoky haze of one of Chicago's most celebrated blues clubs. On a far wall, a row of guitars autographed by the likes of Jimmy Reed and Eric Clapton hung silently. I clutched the souvenir DW sticks I had bought earlier in the day at the local House of Blues and tried to smile, praying I would pick up on the beat quick enough to avoid total humiliation.

I got in unscathed for the first number--a solid 4/4 beat--and even managed to recover when one of the souvenir sticks slipped out of my hands and rolled around on top of the kit before I grabbed it again. When the song ended, I looked around nervously, but no one was glaring at me or waving me off stage, so I stuck around.

In retrospect, that probably would have been a good time to sign off.

Song #2 was more of a 2/4 beat, at least that's what I thought. From the looks I started to get from the other guys, I might have been wrong on that one. Still, no one ran me off at the end of the song, and the crowd was still cheering and dancing, so I figured I was OK.

The wheels came off on song #3. For the life of me, I had no idea what beat to lay down at the beginning of the song, so there was a good 10-second stretch at the beginning where I tried to tap my way in and generally made a mess of things. Finally the bass player looked at me and started mouthing the count, which I would have appreciated more if not for the condescending manner of his delivery, and I finally got off the ground. At the end of the song, the MC walked up and offered an awkward handshake. It was time to step down.

As I walked offstage, I passed through a gathering of musicians, none of whom so much as made eye contact with me. No one said anything, but they didn't need to. I lingered for a moment, awkwardly wanting some moment of closure with someone around me, even if it was only to apologize for not being up to the standard of the rest of the guys. But no one came up, and the band was already into its next song, so I just turned and walked out the door.

Two hours later, I was still sitting up wide awake in my room, trying to make sense of what I had just done. I took the risk, I faced the fear, so why did I feel so terrible? I wondered if I should ever pick up the drumsticks again, let alone show my face in Buddy Guy's club in the next two decades. I wondered what would have happened if Buddy was still there when I played...would he have pulled me off the stage by my ear, enraged that I had defiled the quality of his precious club? Or would he have offered the closure I sought as I stood offstage afterward, putting his arm around me like a knowing grandparent and telling me to keep at it?

Over the next few days, the shock wore off and I started to get a little perspective on what I had done. Clearly I wasn't ready for the big time, but there was no doubt in my mind that I had done the "right" thing by getting up on stage. Maybe I didn't bring the house down, but I definitely made a memory for the ages.

Besides, as time goes by, the stories of the failures are a lot more fun to tell than the stories of the triumphs. And eventually they all blend together anyway.


*This is a great example of the "living document" nature of The List. When I was brainstorming ideas for the original list, I knew I would be spending some time in Chicago this summer, so I thought "photograph a Chicago blues band" might be a logical option. But since technically I already had taken some pictures of a Chicago blues band (back in 2008), I wound up placing this option on my back-up list. However, about 36 hours after arriving in Chicago last month, it was time to make a change.