How did I find myself standing on stage at the Washington Correspondents’ Jam playing beside Rolling Stones keyboardist, Chuck Leavell last Friday night? Well, it was one of those rare cases where ‘don’t quit your day job’ turned out to be music to this amateur musician’s ears!
If you’re as big a fan Tom Junod’s writing as I am, then you’ve read his piece in Esquire, Start A Band, about how a group of guys (all professional writers and me) formed a band and sang for our supper in the New York City subway on the coldest day of winter.
The Esquire story led Chuck’s media company, Mother Nature Network, to ask Cousin Billy to perform a 30-minute set at the very first White House Correspondents’ Jam, a party held in conjunction with the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The gig was like a Battle of the Journalists, with bands composed of writers from the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Fortune, and one band with an on-air personality at CNBC. Cousin Billy was up first on the line up and, miracle of miracles, Chuck had agreed to sit in and jam on a song with each of the bands.
We loaded ourselves and our equipment into a van and drove to D.C., making it to the Fairmont Hotel just in time for our sound check. All the bands – with the notable exception of Cousin Billy – were full-blown electric rock bands and would play cover songs. Cousin Billy, with its acoustic guitars and Tenacious D-style country songs, announced that we would be playing original music and only one cover, the early Stones song, Backstreet Girl (the song Chuck had agreed to join us on). Audacious of us, I know!
So what was it like to play with a Rolling Stone? I got the first taste during sound check. Chuck was as gracious as he was a quick study. We’d rearranged Backstreet Girl from its original version and Chuck got it immediately. As I walked him through the new changes, I was freaking out a bit – I mean me, giving him musical direction … Like I said, the guy is gracious.
After running through Backstreet, we asked Chuck if he’d join us later during our set for an original song. Again, audacious, but hey, you only go around once. He agreed and got the song in one run-through. The guy also has ears.
We opened with the Stones cover and Tom really sold the song. And there was Chuck Leavell on keys, tinkling away with perfect melodic counterpoint to our guitar-bass-mandolin arrangement. I remember thinking, Wow, someone pinch me. I just wanted to listen to him, but I kept my bass line steady. The next few songs flew by, then Chuck joined us again.
I’m pretty sure there were some bumps and hiccoughs along the way, though no train wrecks I can recall. But Chuck’s playing on this song – on Cousin Billy’s song – was so sensitive and right that despite my merciless perfectionism I decided then to accept this performance for what it was, warts and all. After Chuck left the stage, Cousin Billy played a couple more songs and our set was over. As the applause faded, I shook my head at my great good fortune, for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What a thrill, hearing that beautiful piano lifting up our music, always in service of the song, and knowing that the fellow sitting in on keys with l’il ol’ Cousin Billy also plays with the f’ing Rolling Stones! There was no show-boating, no rock star posing, just tasty musicianship. And I felt proud of Cousin Billy. We had acquitted ourselves well. About four a.m. the morning of the show, I sat bolt upright in bed, as a flock of butterflies flitted about inside me. By show time, though, all was calm – Chuck put us all at ease with his easy affability and chops.
After the set, I thanked Chuck for playing with us. He said it had been fun and told me to “keep plugging at it.” Hah! Did I hear that right? Did he just tell me, “Don’t quit your day job.” But Tom’s day job is writing for a national magazine, and that’s how we got this gig. Maybe it stings a bit, but the experience was still one of the great joys of my life.
Chuck Leavell is co-founder, with advertising wunderkind, Joel Babbitt, of Mother Nature Network, the world’s largest online network for environmental and social responsibility news and information. MNN hosted the shindig in Washington as part of its mission to “Improve Your World.” The website provides the most accurate and up-to-date information about the many different aspects that encompass “Your World” – your family, health, lifestyle, business, community and planet. You’ll find a rich and evolving trove of information, updated throughout the day. Please check it out.