Am I ready to play in the Santana cover band?
Last Thursday started at 8 a.m. after a late night celebrating a friend’s birthday. Fourteen hours later I sat for the first time that day in my own house, cross-legged on the floor in front of the stereo ‘— one of those component affairs that has withstood 10 relocations since high school.
I opened the case of a CD my friend Zach had given me, feeling a bit like I was cracking a textbook for a homework assignment. In went the CD, and out through the speakers came clapping, then drums, bass and finally the bombastic guitar and keyboard riffs that open Santana’s ‘“Soul Sacrifice.’” Twenty seconds into the 13 minute opus, I skipped back to the beginning.
For an hour I listened and played along, stopping and rewinding the parts I needed to figure out. When I first started playing bass guitar eleven years ago, this is how I learned. Eric, the guitarist from my first band, showed me how to play Z.Z. Top’s ‘“La Grange’” and ‘“Longview’” by Green Day before I developed the ear to learn for myself. Many days I went straight to my room after school let out, attacking some new song and letting my homework remain undone in my backpack.
But since high school and the heady days of playing Weezer songs for the friends too unfortunate to have something better to do on a Friday night, my practice of learning how to play other people’s songs has slipped. I have played mostly originals for the last nine years, and when I pick up my guitar, it’s usually to noodle. That makes it a lot easier to deceive yourself about how good you are. Learning cover songs can be humbling, but also fun’… like a musical game of dress-up.
In a couple of weeks some of my friends and I will be joining forces with pianist Dave Fox and drummer Ian Davis to recreate Santana’s Woodstock performance within the comfortable confines of Greene Street. The theory is that if we fill the stage with enough percussionists and musicians who actually know what they’re doing, we might get away with it. We will share the stage with such luminaries as The Band, New Order and Guided by Voices, among others.
I have my own doubts about whether the Greensboro listening public is anticipating this replication of a historic performance as much as my band mates are. Santana was not my first choice for a cover band. In fact, I had never even listened to Santana before Zach handed me the burned CD.
Friday night I packed my bass and headed out to practice all my newly-learned parts with the rest of the band. If playing in a cover band is humbling in the first place, playing with musicians as good as Fox and Davis is just this side of humiliating. After listening to ‘“Soul Sacrifice’” for all of 45 seconds, both had their parts and transitions together better than I did after a solid hour of practice the night before. Those two give me hope that we won’t be laughed off Greene Street’s well-lit stage.
Local musicians have come together for cover shows a couple of times in the last two years. Every time it happens, a kind of giddy expectation takes over the city. Musicians ‘– from the hippest scenesters to those who’ve never played outside their bedroom ‘– start trying to recruit each other to cover favorite bands.
After the groups form and start rehearsing songs, the hectic scramble to get it together begins. Over at my friends’ house, I’ve heard the Band, not Tiger Bear Wolf or Health, playing in the basement. Joe Garrigan, local drummer and show organizer, is talking more about drum machines these days as he gears up to back New Order.
With two weeks to go until the performance at Greene Street, the panic and frustration are in full swing. But when the doors open the night of the show, most of that fear and aggravation will disappear, although some of the most stage-frightened might require a drink or two. Crowd singers who probably know the song better than the front man will drown out fumbled vocals and no one will notice the little details that get missed.
By the end of the night, I might even be a little nostalgic for my high school band and the early days of my musical career. Maybe I’ll try to learn a new song every week or so. But I won’t practice rock star jumps in my bedroom like I did right after I bought my first bass, an act that ended with a sprained knee. It is probably best to just work on filling the shoes of Santana bass player David Brown, shoes that are going to stay planted firmly on the ground.
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