I was thinking specifically of the time when a band I was in got to play a few songs at our own high school dance as a preview of an upcoming variety show. It was a hell of a moment. Our signature cover song “Jesse’s Girl” - yeah, I know - was all me for the first couple bars. I cannot describe the feeling when people started dancing. That was the thing. That was rock n roll. All kinds of kids in my school got the mistaken impression that I might be cool; instead of just awkward and goofy.
Some towns are football towns; some are basketball or soccer. I grew up in a band town, where it was cool to be in the band. Just like in sports towns, the recruitment and training started deep in junior high and funneled the best players into the Marching Band and the Symphonic Band. The more I thought about my friend’s picture, however, the more I realized that my rock n roll moment came a couple years before that dance.
The Charlotte High School Marching Band got invited to participate in Edmonton Alberta’s Klondike
Charlotte Band career because they needed members to go to Edmonton. There was lots of practicing to be done. We had a tradition to uphold and, eventually, judges to impress. Under the tireless leadership of Director Karl Wirt and with a really good show - a halftime show - based on the band Chicago’s Greatest Hits album by a recent Charlotte grad, Keith Richardson.
In addition to the main show, we had to prepare a variety of other music. I think there was a main parade. There were these cool showcases in downtown Edmonton where four bands would march toward an intersection from different directions. When they met, one band would march out into the intersection, play a song or two, and retreat. Then each of the others would do the same.
The marching band competition was inside an arena. We were the only high step marching band among corps marching bands and corps marching judges. They didn't know what to make of us; we didn’t do so well. Mr. Wirt got a kick out of reading us our scorecard where one judge thought it was inappropriate that we had played “Proud Mary.” Apparently, the judge didn’t know his Chicago from his Creedence.
My rock n roll moment came at an Edmonton Eskimos Canadian Football game. Somehow, our high school band got the gig to play the halftime show. We sat in the stands during the game behind one of the end zones. All the low brass players were sitting in the back row; where we usually were. In fact, most of us low brass players were the kind of guys that sat in the back row in class anyway. We put on airs as slackers, but when the chips were down, next to the drum section, we were driving the band and could be counted on to do so. If I remember right, Karl Wirt and Keith Richardson were each low brass guys; they would understand.
Right behind us in the stands was a group of taxi drivers enjoying the game on a company outing. When they heard that we had a kickass marching band tribute to the band Chicago, they were very excited. In my memory, they told us Chicago had just been through the area, but I found an archive of Chicago’s tours and there’s no mention of Alberta. Maybe it was Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Keith Richardson’s show was incredible; the score and the marching routines running through a selection of Chicago’s hits. At one point, three soloists stood in a triangle, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, and shuffled in place for each to face the crowd as they played their part. The finale of the show was brilliant.
(I’ve Been) Searching So Long was the final number. On the band’s recording, the song begins quietly with strings, then the horns come in with just a hint of the power of what’s to come. The ending is a blast of power; a Midwest Rock n Roll Anthem. We played the somewhat dreamy main part as the band marched slowly, corps style I think. The song slowly intensified and the band ended up in a single file line along the edge of the other side of the field. The music swelled, we turned toward the ‘home side,’ all our horns snapped up on angle, and we blared the finale of the song slowly, strongly, the full width of the field (starting at 2:54 in the youtube above). Some of the lyrics are interestingly appropriate:
“As my life goes on I believe
Somehow something's changed
Something deep inside”
Now, when we nailed that in practice, it was fun. All the low brass guys, and the drum section, gave all we had to the thrumming bass line and rhythm of the song; a song that we still heard on the radio. The vocal melodies were filled in by our trumpets and woodwinds. In band, we usually didn’t play music that we could recognize, music that was ours, music that we listened to on our own. It was a thrill. I literally tingled with delight though all our practices.
To do this show, this same music, in a packed football stadium was something else entirely. In my memory, the show went well. ‘Searching So Long,' the finale came, we marched slowly, entwining the field and ending on the sideline. When we all snapped our horns skyward, nailed the song’s surge, and marched, victoriously, the full width of the field - roaring - the crowd went wild. We could almost feel their approval physically. They roared back at us. The taxi drivers threw their hats in the air. The crowd was with us, yelling and screaming the whole march across the field. That right there. That is what Chicago knows. That is what Mick Jagger knows. That is the power of rock n roll.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. We nailed it. The crowd loved us. With each breath, each step, I felt less and less of the field beneath me; floating on the power of that moment. It was literally out of this world and I have never felt that again. Except in the telling of the story, and writing this now, I can feel the emotional pressure in my eyes, the knot in my stomach, a little catch in my breath. The magic is still there. I only have to tell the story to feel that surge again.
“There's a strange new light in my eyes
Things I've never known
Changing my life
Thank you, Mr. Wirt. Thank you, Keith.
Rock. and. Roll.