The email popped up in my inbox unexpectedly one morning. A man named Greg had written me about a gig. One of my friends had recommended me for it, and was I free? It was for a show in Leesburg, FL, the pay was good, and we’d be flying down the day of the event. And oh yeah, it’s for one of the most influential modern worship leaders in the world, Meredith Andrews of Vertical Church Band.
My heart started racing as I scrolled down through the email. Why were they contacting me? Didn’t they know I’m just getting started here in Nashville as a sideman? I could completely suck. I could break under the pressure. My hands started sweating as I dialed Greg’s number.
Greg picked up and I quickly agreed to do it, expecting that any minute I’d here Greg say “hold on, mister. There’s been a mistake- you’re just a no-name keyboardist from St. Louis. You haven’t earned this.” He’d have been right, and I’d have agreed with him and hung up.
Incredibly, he treated me like an equal and explained all the details. I would fly down the day of the event with the rest of the band, we’d play a 90 minute set, then fly back early the next morning. He sent me a list of the songs, and I dove into practicing.
Meredith had opted to do about 20 songs from the last few years, including a couple of new and unreleased tracks. I got a link to a Dropbox folder filled with mp3s of her stuff, and started charting everything.
I took a different approach than I have in the past and focused completely on learning the songs, and less on programming the keyboard sounds. I used Nashville Numbers to chart out each song, banking that they’d be playing everything in the same order as on the album. We wouldn’t be rehearsing as a band until sound check the day of the event, and I wanted to be ready.
As I dug through the tracks, it struck me just how much synths have taken over modern worship music. In Meredith’s early stuff, there were mostly string lines and piano. Her new tracks were covered with synths (partially because her husband and producer is Jeremy Camp’s former keyboardist). As I wrote out the progressions, I re-fell in love with many of her tracks including “Open Up The Heavens” “The Gospel Changes Everything” and “Come Home”.
Two days before the show I got another email from Greg, and realized they had reserved a Yamaha Motif for the set instead of the Nord Stage that I love. I looked back over our conversation about backline gear, and realized I had miscommunicated with them about what kind of keyboard I would like to play. The Motif is a great keyboard, but I know the Nord like the back of my hand.
I made a quick phone call to Greg, but it was too late to change it. He apologized, but explained that there wasn’t anything he could do at this late a date. I felt so dumb for not being more clear. By this point it was 6 PM the day before I was scheduled to leave, and I immediately jumped into the car and made a mad dash across town to Guitar Center for some hands-on experience with the Motif.
Guitar Center had one working model of the keyboard I was going to use, and it wasn’t plugged in. I got an associate to plug it in, and after just 30 seconds of playing the keyboard went dead. After messing with it for about 10 minutes, we figured out there’d be a software malfunction and the keyboard would have to be repaired. It was 8 PM by this point, and I rushed back across town to my studio to catch a few youtube videos about how to use the keyboard.
Things went downhill from there. My audio interface became unstable (perhaps taking a cue from me), and I ended up having to jerry-rig my Roland Aira synth as a makeshift audio interface. The 25 note Aira took on the roll of midi controller as well when I discovered my midi controller had an error in the key action which made all sounds either too loud or too soft. By this point I was trying not to panic, and with Guitar Center closed, I knew there would be no last-minute purchases to bail me out.
After figuring out that the Aira only operates at 96 k (really, Roland?) which was repeatedly maxing out the CPU on my computer, I had to redo all of the patches from the ground up with less CPU-intensive patches and ditch all of my awesome Native Instrument Piano presets. I would have to rely heavily on the Motif for piano and strings sounds, and that made me VERY nervous. It was midnight now, and I had to get up at 4 AM to get to the airport.
As I walked by the mirror on the way to bed, I realized I hadn’t dyed my hair like I’d planned to earlier in the day. I’ve been dyeing my hair regularly since I was 20 and started going platinum white. I hadn’t dyed my hair in awhile, and I had grey shocks on the sides of my head showing up. Insecure about not appearing youthful enough, I talked my wife into dyeing my hair for me.
Everything went great until I hit the shower. I’d used a new hair dye, and it wasn’t coming out of the skin in my forehead and neck where it had run. I scrubbed it hard with a towel and got it all off, then went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror, I had giant red burn marks along the top of my forehead and neck where I’d scrubbed the skin raw. As the skin created scabs, I looked like I had been in a fist-fight the night before. On three hours sleep, I sleepily drove myself to the airport.
I got through airport security, stopped in to grab some makeshift suave from an airport gift shop for my burn marks, and settled into a chair to wait for the rest of the band. Nashville’s airport is filled with sleepy musicians on Friday mornings, and I ran into several semi-well known country music acts while I waited.
The guys all arrived, and we made our introductions. Spencer was the drummer, and had just got off a tour with Brandon Heath. He’d been hanging out with Toby Mac the day before checking out his new show.
The other guys had similar pedigrees- no one was bragging, but they couldn’t help but name drop when they talked about what they were currently working on. I heard a lot of tidbits like “ Jeremy Camp’s new record is awesome. I was helping them do Ableton work, and .. . .” “Toby’s new stuff is so cool. They do this note bend on the guitar live. . .” I could have added “I was listening to Brandon Heath’s new record and imagining what I’d play on it if I actually worked with him.” But somehow it felt less impressive.
Meredith showed up pushing a baby stroller with her young daughter in it. She looked exhausted (she had a bad cold), but was incredibly kind and friendly to all of us despite her feeling pretty poorly. We chatted about the set as we walked to the airplane.
The rest of the band were warm to me, and very kind. No one seemed to care that I had never worked with top flight talent like they all had. The only thing that mattered was that we put on a great show together. As we shuffled into baggage claim, Spencer held back and struck up a friendly conversation with me about drumming and keyboards. He’s the kind of guy you could picture playing major league baseball, with a lanky muscular swagger and flat-brimmed baseball cap. When he thinks something’s entertaining (which happens a lot), his face lights up with a huge toothy, mischievous grin. I liked him immediately. We touched down in Orlando, grabbed our luggage, and piled into the van for the hour drive to Leesburg.
When we arrived at the auditorium everyone rushed the stage and started assembling gear. Spencer and I were the ones that had the most to set up- he’d brought his cymbals and would be running Ableton backing tracks from a laptop. I checked out the Motif (it was an older model), set up the Aira and my laptop, and generally tried to learn how to use the Motif.
I ran into problems right away. The sustain pedal for the Motif was broken, stuck in the sustain position. We popped it open and were able to jerry-rig it with some soldering and a piece of paper. Once that mishap was fixed, the band ran a few of the songs to get sound checked. Meredith waited until after the sound check to join us, since she was still feeling like crap from her cold.
When she joined us, I was blown away. This lady was having a hard time talking, but when she took the mic and belted out the start of “Open Up the Heavens” she was crystal clear and powerful. Meredith is only around 5 and a half feet, but there was more power in that little vocal cord than you could imagine. The rehearsal went very smoothly with only one mishap- I had learned the wrong version of one of her tunes, and we had to stop and chart it out. They were very gracious about the delay, and in a few moments we were finished.
The event was a Baptist women’s conference, and they treated us to a wonderful buffet before the show. We all ate and hung out, laughing about how in heaven Reese’s Pieces would be good for you. There were a lot of security guards around, more than I’d seen at an event like this. Apparently a month or so ago they’d had in another Christian artist who’d been a bit controversial, and someone had tried to attack them backstage. They weren’t taking any chances from here on out, and had hired a dozen security guards.
Meredith came to me about two hours before the show, and asked if we could do an acoustic set at the end of the show of about 4 songs to save her voice. I agreed, and we ran the songs together on an old upright piano in the back. Meredith musical instincts are amazing- she fit her voice to what I was playing perfectly.
After a short prayer backstage, we took our places and waited for the count. “1, 2, 3, Intro. . .” in my earbuds, and I started the set. In the split second before I hit the notes to the first song, “I’m so blessed” rushed through my head. I looked over at Spencer on the drum throne. He was grinning that toothy smile. I relaxed, and launched into the first verse of “Open Up The Heavens”.
The set went flawlessly until we got to the acoustic set. I was starting to feel the effects of 3 hours sleep, and my concentration broke for one chorus in the middle of the song. I played a slightly wrong chord, and I immediately corrected. Meredith didn’t even twitch, and nailed the part as if I’d done nothing wrong. The rest of the set went amazingly well, and we exited the stage on a high. I apologized to Meredith backstage, and she told me she was happy with the way I’d played, and she was impressed that I could memorize 20 songs in that amount of time. So gracious.
We rode to a Hilton hotel in downtown Orlando, and I slept the sleep of the dead-beat tired. We flew out the next morning, and I drove home and collapsed.
There were so many wonderful things I learned about myself at that gig, and how to work at this level of sideman work. It would take an entire blog to go over all of the details, but here are the bullet points:
• Have your gear ready before you get the call to play. Don’t wait until the night before to work out tech issues.
• Focus on the songs first. One of the smartest things I did on this set was focus on learning the songs, rather than programming the keyboard parts.
• Don’t be vain. If you have grey streaks in your hair, own it. Don’t try to overcompensate at the expense of sleep.
• Practice long, often, and regularly. I spent dozens of hours going over the material, and it paid off big time with the ability to make switches onstage, and the ability to play the entire set from memory.
• Relax. If you ever are blessed enough to play a gig like this, it’s because God wants you there. He’ll get the job done, not you. Relax, and trust in his strength to get the task done.