Playing with Charlie Major

 

As a full time musician, I feel that I have to take on different roles depending on what the job calls for. While my passion for music is always about writing and, singing and performing my own material, I also have been lucky enough to be called to lend my skills as a session player and a backing musician for other artists. This usually opens up different avenues and experiences for me and I have learned how to adapt my role according to what the job calls for. 

Less is More 

It may be hard to top the perfect summer night I had playing a show with Charlie and Todd at Westfest this year. I’ve had the privilege of playing shows with Charlie Major since 2007. While in his band I have played several different types of venues, big headlining festival stages, arenas, casino theatres, even school dance halls in the frozen cold of the arctic.  Back in 2015, Charlie Major, Todd Huckabone and myself got together to arrange acoustic trio versions of Charlie's songs for show in Kugluktuk, Nunavut. A year later we decided to put on a show here in Ottawa with the same format,  Charlie and Todd on acoustic guitar and myself on keys and accordion. I love the excitement and drive of the full band but there is something special about the pared down arrangements because first of all I get to be featured more in the mix and secondly it's fun to come up with a blend between the two acoustic guitars and myself on keys. You have to play differently to compensate for the lack of a rhythm section. You're a little more naked out there in a trio scenario but it gives you more responsibility and I like the challenge. And of course singing in three part harmony is always fun and that comes out a little more in an acoustic setting 

Westfest organizers 

Westfest is a free festival that is put on by volunteers and run by Elaina Martin. I had the pleasure of playing a set there last year with my own band.  It may be a smaller festival in comparison to others but it is so well run from the folks at the security gate, the backstage hospitality and Elaina Martin - the founder of the festival has got integrity and is on site and great to communicate with. All these elements make it such a relaxed and enjoyable experience form my standpoint. 

I'm sure the goal of most music festivals is to grow and become more successful year after year but  I think sometimes some festivals get too blown up that everything becomes more stressful. The security gets tighter, communication can become disjointed and simple things like parking or guest passes become a bigger ordeal which can lead to the overall experience being not as enjoyable. My two experiences at Westfest have been the opposite of stressful. The folks doing sound on stage and front of house were great. We went for a sound check at noon and Tyler Jaimeson had the monitors just right. That's always a big make or break for a good show because playing live can present all kinds of unwanted distractions. Hearing vocal or instrumental cues are crucial to keeping a song on track or nailing an ending or intro. Also the less distracted you are with the sound, the more you can focus on the delivery of the music and the performance. 

When the boss is your friend 

I know my role as a backing musician in this scenario. My job is to know the material and to accompany Charlie to the best of my ability. I take the role seriously and I intend to prove that every time I play. My first gig with Charlie was at the Calgary Stampede and I wasn’t aware of the stature he had as a Canadian country music star. It took me by surprise at first, but when you spend enough time with someone on and off stage and they become a friend and you become assured with yourself even if you make a mistake here and there. You can play a lot better if you are looking over at a pal rather than a boss - it puts the fun and the drive into the performance so that you're not worrying about the next note. Charlie and I get along off stage well. I think we share the same sense of humour and we have some great talks from time to time on the phone. There is a mutual respect there which strengthens the bond. 

And of course any time I am playing with Todd Huckabone on stage, I feel I can do no wrong. Just like any other gig I play with him, his raw talent and attention to detail make it a joy to be playing along side of that guy. And after playing with him for 17 years, we read each other well. Although it was funny when I went to look over at him early in the set and the stage smoke had blocked him from my vision completely!  

Sharing the Spotlight 

Charlie invited Dave Kalil up for a tune to feature Dave, Todd and myself as part of our Duelling piano show here in Ottawa. It was a huge piece of promo for our show. Dave and Charlie go way back. They’ve been friends for decades and it was Dave that introduced me to Charlie back when we played Fat Tuesdays. The crowd at Westfest gave us a warm reception and we gave them a rendition of Rocket man that had everyone singing along. Then Charlie threw the spotlight to me to perform one of my own tunes called "People People." That was a real highlight for me, a selfless gesture on his part and a cool opportunity for me to showcase my identity as a songwriter for a crowd of his own fans. It's a real proud moment when a successful songwriter not only believes in your own talent but gives you a chance to show it in front of their own crowd. 

The crowd was amazing all night, people filled the festival grounds to watch us, sing with us, dance, and listen to us do our thing. When it's all over I like to look back at an empty stage and grin at a job well done by everyone involved. It’s nice to get to a level of confidence in yourself and your skills where you know you can handle the responsibility, pressure, and excitement of playing with someone whose successful career holds a certain amount of expectation from their fans. I consider that a personal accomplishment and every time I do this, it boosts my confidence up there all over again.  

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