08 February 2006

Rocking The Night Away

In writing about the Johnny Cash movie yesterday, I alluded to some of the cringeworthy moments I've had on stage with the Lookouts and the Potatomen. I was going to describe a couple of them, and then thought, "Hang on there, Mr Negative, why not put your energy into something more upbeat?"

That caused me to reflect on another scene from the movie, where Johnny and his band are nervously waiting their turn to go on stage at some sort of high school dance where the opening act is Jerry Lee Lewis. He's going wild, the kids are doing likewise, and you can just see the thoughts going through Johnny's mind: how in the hell is our poky little country band going to match up to this? Just then, Jerry Lee comes off triumphantly, and smirkingly says, "You boys wanna get yourself a pine box. Nobody follows The Killer."

Having shared a stage with amazing performers like Operation Ivy, Green Day, Screeching Weasel, the Offspring, Bad Religion, Luciano Pavarotti - okay, that last one wasn't at the same show, but it was the same stage - I could totally identify. But in the movie, Johnny and his band get out there and the crowd goes every bit as crazy for them as they did for Jerry Lee, if not more so.

And the way it happened was something I could identify with, too: at first the crowd looks a little uneasy, not sure whether they're supposed to like this band, this music. After all, they haven't heard it on the radio yet, so nobody knows whether it's cool to like it. But then something gets a few of them moving, and then a few more, and suddenly it's like someone's tossed a match into a tinder-dry brush field: everyone's up on their feet and dancing like there's no tomorrow, and if you're lucky enough to be in the band up on stage, you suddenly know that this is one of those moments you only dared dream of, one of those moments that makes it all make sense and all worthwhile.

I've had a few of those moments, and none so memorable as the one that started out to be an utter disaster. It was the last show of a pretty decent Potatomen tour, one that we'd shared with the Canadian indie darlings Cub. We were in Victoria, B.C., and we'd been promised a big crowd - at least 300, anyway - of enthusiastic students. It was "college night," the promoter told us, which, it turned out, meant cheap beer night and a large turnout of local university students, most of whom neither knew nor cared what bands were playing as long as the beer kept flowing.

I was fine with that. After several weeks on the road, we were playing really well, and I wasn't about to be intimidated by a bunch of know-nothing students. Until, that is, the bad news came: Patrick, our lead guitarist, had to fly back to Berkeley immediately, and we'd have to do the show as a three-piece.

I couldn't even begin to list all the problems with this scenario. Patrick wasn't just the lead guitarist; for all intents and purposes, he was the guitarist. I knew enough chords to write songs and strum along to them, but it was Patrick's ornate and unique stylings that made the songs come alive. Plus the whole Potatomen image was hung on Patrick's ultra-suave demeanour and gravity-defying pompadour. Without him, the Potatomen felt like little more than a three-piece street-corner busking outfit, which, coincidentally or not, was how we'd started out.

I've never been so terrified as when we stepped out onto that stage, and yes, it was a proper stage, all right, with a big old sound system and lights that were nearly blinding me. I felt like I was standing there in my underwear as all these curious college kids gawked up at me, and figured we'd be lucky to get through the first song before the boos and the beer cans started flying.

Oh well, I thought, might as well get it over with. At least nobody here knows who we are and we'll probably never see any of them again. "Hello, everyone, we're the Potatomen from Berkeley, California, and our first song..." They all cheered and applauded. "Well, I hope you'll still be cheering once you've heard it," I added, and hit the first chord.

I often overdo it when I'm playing on stage, getting so nervous that I practically spazz out completely, but for some reason I was able to maintain my cool that night. Maybe, probably, it was because I was sure it was all going to end in disaster and so I had nothing to lose, but I just sort of stuck out my foot in a kind of rockabilly stance and hunched over the microphone like I thought I remembered Buddy Holly or one of those old cats doing, and just sang my heart out (I figured the more I did that, the less people would notice that I couldn't really play guitar). I barely dared to look at the audience, but before the song was over I couldn't help noticing that most of them were on their feet and a lot of them were dancing.

That's strange, I thought. We didn't always get that good a reaction when we were playing for a room full of our fans. I started the second song and now everyone was dancing, and it kept on that way through the whole set. A couple of times I tried to apologise to the crowd, to explain that we'd be a lot better if we had our mighty handsome and talented lead guitarist with us, but nobody seemed interested, so I just went on playing. We played every song we knew at the time, and when we finished they were still cheering for more. Afterward, walking around the club, girls were coming up to us all dreamy-eyed and telling us how fabulous we were. I'd been playing in bands for over ten years at this point and I didn't recall anything like that ever happening before.

Unfortunately, whatever was in the Victoria, B.C. water that night seemed to have been a one-off. There were still many fine (and not-so-fine) Potatomen shows to come, but never another one quite like that one. I've tried numerous times to explain to Patrick what it was like, and what he missed, just as I've tried to explain to myself how we could have pulled it off without him. It was just one of those nights, I guess, where everything works and nothing has to make sense. You need those nights now and again in a world where much of the time the exact opposite seems to be true.


Tim said...

Would it upset you terribly if I called you a liar? I have just about everything the Potatomen released and I can't think of more than two or three songs that could be pulled off without Patrick's lead guitar. Certainly nothing from Iceland...except maybe Drown In My Beer. I believe that one was even a pre-Now track that was resurrected. Was there a piano on stage?

Larry Livermore said...

Call me a liar all you want, I was there and you weren't, and it happened just like I told it.

Also, I'm betting you don't have the Potatomen demo tape, released sometime in 1992 or 93. If you did, you'd know that for a couple years the Potatomen were a three-piece with Patrick on bass and me on acoustic guitar. That of course was from our sidewalk days, when as part of our principles (or schtick, if you prefer), we refused to play on stage or with more electricity than could be gleaned from a car battery.

You're right about Drown In My Beer; there's a version of it on that same demo tape. No lead guitar or pedal steel, but it features Paul Curran (Crimpshrine, Delightful Little Nothings, Onion Flavored Rings) on guest banjo.

Larry Livermore said...

P.S. I didn't mean to come off all rude or high and mighty (and God knows the Potatomen can't afford to go alienating what few fans we have). What I meant to say was that yes, it's difficult to impossible to imagine most of the Potatomen songs without Patrick's quintessential lead guitar. Which is precisely why that night in Victoria was so amazing.

tim said...

Yeah, I wasn't really calling you a liar. Just praising Patrick.

You're right, I missed the boat on the demo tape. I saw an offer for it once on the official Potatomen pages and just never got around to ordering it. My loss. I can't believe I couldn't be bothered to send the $2.00 plus shipping.