Queen on stage, quiet off stage.
A handful of friends from UNT and myself were called to play in the horn section for Aretha Franklin back in September 2014. This would be my first time performing live with a national act. We were booked to play ACL Live (Austin, TX), Winspear Opera Hall (Dallas, TX), and Arena Theatre (Houston, TX). The last show was cancelled for logistical reasons most likely involving tickets sales or attendance numbers. Needless to say we were extremely excited for the opportunity.
We arrive in Austin early to rehearse the show. The music director is HB Barnum and his resume is stacked. All of the horns are sight-reading. The charts look like originals from the '60s, but that doesn't stop us from playing our best. This would be our only rehearsal. MUSICIANS ADVICE: If you are new to the band, an auxiliary member, not the MD (musical director), etc. then do not speak unless spoken to. In this particular instance all of the horns were contracted together as one unit so when someone shows up late, says something irrelevant, plays out of tune, etc. we are all held accountable. Unfortunately we were doomed from the get go. Many face-palms occurred during this, but the show must go on!
Both shows were sold-out and I had the time of my life playing bari sax. They had me blasting through the main speakers in Austin and Aretha (72 at the time) completely destroyed both nights. It is interesting to note that she does not perform unless the air is completely shut off in the entire building. This might have something to do with her vocal chords or just personal preference. Keep in mind the audience is seated and sweating well before the show starts.
Backstage is a different story. We rarely witnessed the queen, but when she arrived everyone knew. It felt like the entire building would go on lock down. At one point we weren't allowed to cross a hallway because she was nearby. I did see her pass by once heavily guarded with security wearing a dark hoodie with small posture as if she was conserving energy for the show. She was very friendly and quietly asked a few of us how we were doing.
One of Aretha's managers spoke to us after the first show and said "out of all of the horn players she has played with you all were definitely..." he pauses as if to imply "the best/greatest/solid" but instead finishes with "the most recent." He then proceeds to exit the room as we all laugh and realize he just clowned us and was actually implying we weren't all that great. We were great, but that doesn't matter in this business.
My mantra as of late has been musicians are replaceable. This was one of my first experiences with that. To clarify, musicians that provide no value beyond the task of performing music are commodities to a certain degree. Aretha isn't the only national act that hires horn players locally to save money and I don't blame them for a second. They even paid in cash (less $$ than you might think.) Regardless, I will never forget this experience. I am grateful for the opportunity and look forward to many more in the future!
Until further notice,