Although I have played with five bands in my twenty-year musical career, I have always performed as a soloist between groups, and have enjoyed and respected those who are capable of standing solitary with their axes in hand and songs in their hearts. To me, there is something incredibly powerful in the delivery and presentation of a soloist. I feel that some of my greatest performances have been as a solo act.
But a few years ago I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of an individual (we'll leave his name out in the name of privacy and brevity) who had the auspicious title of "booking agent" for a very well-known club in Denver by the name of the Soiled Dove. This club had an astronomical sound system and a beautiful layout reminiscent of a theatre-in-the-round. The stage itself was indeed round and tables and other accouterments were also splayed in a semi-circular fashion around the stage. The sound booth, where a sole engineer was posed fearlessly and luminescent in the dark, stood directly across from the platform, visible and accessible to the performer. The main bar glittered golden and resplendent in the rear of the establishment and spanned 100 feet across.
Most musicians I knew at the time aspired to perform there although few had, due to the restrictive and selective nature of the gate keepers. Nevertheless, I had the good fortune to meet one of those agents responsible for the selection process and after he had seen a performance of mine at a neighboring club he announced that he would like to get me into the Soiled Dove as an opening act. I, of course, accepted without even inquiring who I would be opening for and in fact, I didn't care! I was so ecstatic to be invited to play there that it simply didn't matter. I later found out that I would be opening for a band called "The Nada's" a group out of Ames Iowa. I had never heard of them at the time, but later found out that they were quite popular and had a large following in Denver. I would describe their music as "pop" (whatever that means, right?) and reminiscent of a band by the name of The Bodeens.
The evening of the show arrived and the club was indeed packed. This was my first big opener and I found myself to be quite nervous. I have never had much of a problem with stage fright before but this was different, I was definitely anxious about getting up on stage. My palms were sweaty and my heart rate was higher than normal certainly. Nevertheless, the age old motto "the show must go on", familiar to performers and non-performers alike kept ringing in my head and besides, I knew that once I got up there everything would be fine. I got the ominous signal from the sound man that I was up; the hooded hangman in the gallows nodding slowly, ominously, soundlessly to me from his perch in the rear of the club, at least that was how I perceived it. It felt as if the whole bar was moving in slow motion with me plodding along, clumsily, on rubber-like-legs towards my inevitable demise. I removed my Martin M-36 from its black fur-lined case, re-tuned it (I had already tuned and re-tuned five times by that point in the evening) and walked slowly, tenuously up onto the stage. I eyed the crowd nervously who by that time had grown to a couple of hundred strong and moved slowly up onto the circular stage. I took my position on a stool which had been set there specifically by my request and labored to become comfortable in this alien environment. I spotted some familiar faces in the crowd, my people, and half-waved nervously to them as they eyed me expectantly back. I fumbled for my pick, a Jim Dunlop .60 mm medium grey, the picks I always used back then and still use to this day. With sweaty hands I picked up my six-string and started to play my song "Shine Like the Sun" in the key of D, pick moving gently but with purpose across the strings of the guitar. I took a last look at the crowd in front of me, some friendly and welcoming faces, others seemingly mocking and critical of the unknown soloist who sat before them. I shut my eyes and focused on my song the way I had been singing it for years, the way I would continue to sing it for years to come. I belted it out with all of the inertia and passion that I had available to me, with all of the fire that glowed luminescent in my belly, with all of the strength that I had in my sweaty hands. When I finished the last stanza of the song, resolved the A minor chord in the chorus to a major and let the final note fade away into silence, I opened my eyes to find the crowd erupting in applause. My allies were on their feet and previously cynical and questioning dis-believers (or so I perceived them to be) were showing their appreciation as well. The remainder of the show went off without a hitch and upon walking off of the stage, my booking friend approached me with a smile and a handshake. He said that he loved my set and wanted me to open for another upcoming show, a bigger act, a national act, a world renown act.... Jefferson Starship. I nodded yes with a smile on my face.
Show time arrived quickly despite a couple of tenuous months of waiting, preparing, agonizing at times. I was opening for Jefferson Starship, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, idols of mine since I was in knee socks (what are knee socks anyway?). I was still struggling to come to grips with this unprecedented good fortune so I prepared the best possible set that I could, the most powerful, moving, expressive songs that I could perform that would most accurately represent my passion for music. My set list was comprised of about 70% originals and 30% covers with no Jefferson Airplane or Starship tunes, I felt that it would be disrespectful to play any of their music in this situation and not representative of my musical style anyway. I was to play for fifty minutes, give or take a minute or two, before the legendary band was to take the stage to play their sets. And I was ready, ready as I was ever going to be, and as this was my second time on this stage I felt slightly more comfortable than the time before which helped me to relax. I had chatted briefly with the sound man, the same engineer as before who informed me that he already had my sound dialed in, although he eventually made some brief adjustments during my first song. I felt comfortable, confident even as I sat on the lone stool on stage staring out at the crowd who stared expectantly back. The stage lighting partially blinded me and I was unable to see more than a couple of feet beyond the first line of tables which in a sense helped me to concentrate. Had I been able to see all of the faces, the questioning eyes, the derisive, the hecklers, and the innocent disbelievers I probably would've walked off of the stage, got into my beat-up blue Acura Integra and driven home. Instead, I reached into my pocket, grasped my pick gingerly, and began to play.
Stress is a funny thing you know? It can transform you into a quivering mass of human jelly incapable of speaking your lover's name, or it can help you to attain moments of brilliance, even perfection in your life; it can destroy you or compel you to greatness, lay you to the ground or pick you up and embrace you like a child. Thankfully, on that day Stress drove me, pushed me, pressured and cajoled me to play one of my best performances to this day. Each song became an anthem of expression, a monument to the underlying emotion that makes song possible, tangible, real.
I soon found out that Jefferson Starship had changed some of its members and Grace Slick and Marty Balin were no longer performing with the group, at least not on that particular tour. Grace had retired to further her painting career and was replaced by a twenty-something diva with hair down to her waist. She had somehow inherited or emulated Grace's power, passion, even inflection down to the note and had you averted your eyes you might swear that Grace Slick herself was in the room performing "White Rabbit." Marty Balin, I was told, was unable to participate on the current tour although he was still a viable member of the band. There were other new members as well that I wasn't familiar with but later found out had been with the band for some time. Paul Kantner was still ever-present and sat appearing far-older-than-his-years, in a chair stage-right. He appeared dazed (and confused too perhaps) and his eyes spoke of the tireless fatigue of endless days of touring, endless nights in redolent motels run down like shacks, and rock and roll. He was accompanied by what appeared to be an old friend, a solitary and evidently diminished bottle of vodka which stayed within arms reach of him the entire night. The band performed a number of old hits including the aforementioned "White Rabbit", and "Somebody to Love" as well as some of their newer songs that didn't feature Marty. The band played two full sets, a total of two hours of material and then adjourned to their smoke-filled dressing room. In general, their performance was enjoyable but lacked the fire that I had heard they once possessed. Regardless, I enjoyed the show immensely and was fortunate enough to chat with Paul Kantner briefly before he receded into the band's dressing room.
Some say that opportunity knocks once and the door slams shut and I feel that I have been blessed with some unique and incredibly fulfilling opportunities in my lifetime. Opening for Jefferson Starship was certainly one of those engagements that I will never forget, and will continue to cherish the memories of it throughout my lifetime.
Mark Lincoln M.A.