Last Call: Live, Without a Net
Take time to pick the strawberries.
With great relief, I'm wrapping up my 10th year as the bandleader and music director for the CMT Music Awards. Award shows, from a production standpoint, are terrifying. The network is hermorrhaging money as the meter runs at a frighteningly high union rate for an army of stagehands, camera operators, and lighting and sound people. Every tick of the clock costs thousands. To add to the chaos and expense, you have about 50 vocal mics, 20 sets of drums, maybe 70 guitars, and bass, keys, and percussion rigs—and enough XLR cabling to stretch to the moon and back. Then, there's all of the wireless RF from mics and in-ear monitors, and the tendency for tubes to die, strings to break, and shit to go wrong when you need it the most. Producing a show like this makes brain surgery seem relatively easy.
Because time is literally money, there's very little of it to dedicate to soundcheck and rehearsal. I leave every pre-show run-though wondering if there's a train wreck coming. It's as relaxing as landing a plane with both engines gone and one wing on fire. And yet, miraculously, it always works.
For example, two years in a row, Kristen Bell performed songs that were written that day with tweaks made right up until we went live, accompanied only by my guitar. Both times, we played an early version of the songs in the dressing room. I ran them over in my head during the dinner break. Then, about an hour into the broadcast, we performed them with her on a ramp in the center of Nashville's Bridgestone Arena and me 50 yards away on a side stage. I had horrible scenarios running through my head even after we started the performance: The distance might give us a time lag so we'd be out of sync, she or I might forget how the song goes, there could be a glitch with her video monitor and she might not know what to sing, RF could short out my guitar or her mic or pick up a walkie-talkie. Yet, it worked both years—probably because Kristen Bell is wildly talented and fearless, and the people tech-ing the show are ninjas of their craft.
In spite of this successful history, the pressure of 5 million viewers and a huge budget can totally undermine a performance. At times, my own personal Satan whispers in my ear, “You can ruin this for everybody." When that voice speaks, I take deep yoga breaths until my head is clear and I can focus on succeeding. You've probably seen people crumble under the pressure of a live performance. It's like they become drunk with anxiety: their eyes glaze over, their jaws go slack, and they make minimal movement, playing scared little notes or singing with a frightened tremor.
The previous CMT award show was a rough one for me. There were some tech issues and I was getting RF interference in my in-ear monitors that sounded like a jet taking off. Not only was it totally disorienting (like being hit by a foul ball when you're paying for a hot dog), but these hits were painful and probably destroying my already not-great hearing. Consequently, I had to turn my pack way down, nothing sounded right, and I was playing poorly and listening to the Devil. As time stood still, I was reminded of a parable told by Buddha that I read when I was 20.
“A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little, started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"
So, in the midst of all that, I concentrated on the feel of the long, cool, new strings under my hands—the tension I felt when I dug into the chords for a Nile Rodgers-esque part on my old Strat. And I felt so good I had to smile.
Often we walk around in a daze—zombies, losing entire weeks without one memorable moment. Or we get so concerned about possible catastrophes before us or after us that we miss the beauty of right now. Try living live without a net. It's terrifying, exhilarating, good for you, bad for you, but definitely alive.