On May 3rd, 2009, I found myself staring out at a sea of about 19,000 faces. Armed with a Bill Nash Strat, 65Amps London head/cab and a pedalboard, I was ready to rock them all. This special night held Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Celebration from Madison Square Garden – The Clearwater Concert. I was part of the house band, along with some of my SNL bandmates; we backed up a variety of music legends. Needless to say, it was a dream come true to play that stage with those artists.
The event prep involved two seriously long rehearsal days at S.I.R. studios. There, the SNL house band set up shop and artists came in and out like there was a revolving door. I used a 65 London head and a 2x12 cab for the rehearsals and gig. I ran it clean and used my SNL pedalboard to take me through whatever terrain I would need to cover (more on my SNL pedalboard in future columns). This event was being filmed and documented every step of the way. We ran through a slow blues and Bob Ezrin, who produced Pink Floyd’s The Wall
, filmed us. From that first musical moment, it all counted.
Following that, we went through about twelve songs and a few different arrangements for many of them, all before the actual artists showed up. We spent time tweaking parts, figuring out dynamics—who should play when, and what parts, etc. When playing with a large house band, you really have to make sure there’s cohesiveness. Bob was key for making this all happen. Always listen to the producer!
One major highlight that first day was getting to meet and play music with Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule). Warren has always been one of my favorite guitarists and musicians. I used to memorize and play some of his solos from Live at Great Woods with the Allman Brothers Band back in the day. Of course, I never said that to him. Had to keep some sort of cool, right?
The other highlight was playing with Roger McGuinn from the Byrds. He walked in, took out that famous sunburst 12-string Rickenbacker and came right over to the SNL band. He asked if we knew the song (referring to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”) and started to play it! There it was, “that” sound. He played it very quietly, and we all joined in, while he sang acoustically, un-mic’d, staring right at me. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life. I was hearing Roger sing those words with that voice, seeing him play that 12-string, two feet away from me. It was wild.
Arriving the next day, pretty wiped out, I walk into S.I.R. and who is sitting down soundchecking? Richie Havens, playing “Freedom.” That day was filled with a ton of work, and artists present to work on the material as well. I had never been involved in something of this magnitude. I was definitely excited by all of it and certainly worked as hard as I could to get the job done.
The third and final day, we arrived at the world famous Madison Square Garden. I plugged in and played one lone power chord. Hearing my guitar reverberate throughout the Garden might have been the most thrilling moment of all. That night, I saw, heard and played with such a wide variety of artists: Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Ben Harper, Band of Horses, Roger McGuinn, John Mellencamp, and so many more. I was just a tad left of and a few feet back from center stage. To hear Bruce Springsteen’s voice and harmonica blast in my monitor as he sang to a silent crowd in MSG was pretty intense.
Overall, the gig was a huge success. The SNL band was prepared and professional, as always. We certainly had our fair share of roadblocks. With any large event where tons of people are involved you have problems. No matter how much you rehearse, soundcheck at the venue, etc., it won’t go as planned. With this kind of situation, adaptation is key. Arm yourself with the proper tools you might need and always have backups. I brought an extra guitar, extra cables and pedals (in case my pedalboard went down) and a spare amp. A funny side note: I rocked MSG with a small 8-watt 65Amps London head with the volume on 2! Pete Seeger’s 90th Birthday Celebration from Madison Square Garden – The Clearwater Concert aired on PBS’ Great Performances and I believe there is a DVD available. I’m lucky to have been a part of it, and I’ll remember those three days for the rest of my life.
Jared Scharff has been the house guitarist for the legendary Saturday Night Live band for the last two years. A Native New Yorker, Jared is also a recording artist, producer, songwriter and highly sought-after session player, and has shared the stage with Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Kid Rock, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Roger McGuinn and Debbie Harry. For more information on Jared, go to myspace.com/jaredscharffmusic