By Shane Fontayne
As you climb up from stage level, the small rooms are all individually assigned: Production, Sting, Band, Band Smoking, Band Women, Chris Botti, and so on.
The proximity of our confined, communal quarters was conducive to mingling and, at this point, we were starting to know each other better and we were beginning to get beyond the cursory, "Hi, how are you?" niceties.
Members of Sting’s crew were even addressing those of us in Chris’s band by our first names. There was a casual atmosphere befitting our host city du jour, New Orleans (the Big Easy), and I had been sitting on the stairs chatting with Dominic Miller, Kipper and Jason Rebello from Sting’s band.
Of the three of them, I knew Kipper best of all, having briefly worked with him in the studio during the recording of Chris’s Night Sessions CD, which he produced. Kipper always talks with warmth and interest, putting you at ease.
I had met Jason at the video taping for Chris’s Direct TV special at the El Rey theatre in Los Angeles in December 2001. We had established a connection via our mutual familial ties to Burma, the Asian country located between India and Thailand, which was under British colonial rule back when the British had the power to do that kind of thing.
I had met Dominic, Sting’s longtime guitarist and professed "right hand," upon my arrival in Florida one week earlier.
While sitting on the stairs chatting with the three of them, I had told them what I also had mentioned to Sting, which led to his comment to me. I was lamenting that, by my own choice, I was only going to be with the tour for another three weeks.
Sting and I were standing outside his dressing room next to the stage as we chatted. I responded to him, "Sometimes it’s hard to recognize what ‘the small stuff’ really is."
To tour, or not to tour – that is the question
Chris, as always, invested me with the utmost leeway, making me feel both needed and wanted – a powerful combination. He had told me that he would be happy to have me on board for whatever would make me comfortable. It is rare to work with someone as nurturing as he is, but you inevitably find that it is part of the package for one who commands respect and loyalty, both personally and also for their sure-handed leadership – and Chris is a superlative bandleader.
After some deliberation, I went back to him and Marc saying that what would work great for me would be to do the first month of the tour. That would take us from Florida, across the South and Southwest to the West Coast and I would finish up in Oakland, which would provide me an easy return home to Los Angeles.
L.A. would still be in the throes of Winter – a favorite season of mine in Southern California – and I would also bypass the snows of Winter in the Midwest and on the East Coast! Been there – done that!
The band was going to be different from the past and I had no idea how different, "different," might be. Would it all be as enjoyable as it always had been?
(As I’m writing this in an airport lounge, Chris’s Blue Horizon has just come on over the P.A. system. Synchronicity? No – that’s the other guy!)
Chris’s initial response to my comfort zone of playing for one month out of two was apparently a loud exclamation of "Gothic!" (an indigenous Botti expletive defining anything nagging, niggling or much more serious). Upon reflection though, he and Marc Silag realized that it was the perfect solution to keep both myself, and guitarist Marc Shulman in the fold, as Shulman was amenable and excited about doing the second half of the tour.
So, good. Everyone was happy.
Chris then made a very difficult decision. He felt increasingly – particularly in the context of the Sting tour – a need to represent his music with a jazzier, more soloistic approach.
Chris, as part of a recently completed Dave Koz "All Star" tour, was receiving regular ovations for a duet with keyboards of the standard My Funny Valentine. This tune and the keyboard approach to it had become crucial to his show. Without the financial luxury of taking out two keyboard players, he recruited Federico Pena to replace the equally brilliant, longstanding sidekick, Harvey Jones. Harvey is the quintessential ambient, dark mood, textural accompanist but someone who, by choice, is not a soloist.
The band would consist of Billy, Federico, bassist Jon Ossman and myself, to be replaced mid-tour by Marc Shulman.
Several Miami Overnight’s
Sting had been rehearsing in Florida with his band during the run up to the tour’s opening. There would be a dress rehearsal show for invited guests on January 22nd 2004, the night prior to the official kickoff.
We were originally slated to perform that night, but were subsequently scratched from the schedule. It may have been just as well because Billy Kilson was scheduled to fly in from Milan that afternoon from a gig that had been cancelled! And that’s after arriving in Milan! One rock’n’roll adage to describe the tenuousness of the business is that you’re never certain if you’re going (on tour) until you’re on the plane. Add to that, that you’re never certain if there’s a gig at the other end once you get there!
Chris, Jon, Billy and Federico had rehearsed in New York with Marc Shulman for a couple of days. Because of Billy’s "Italian Job," a few days lapsed between rehearsals and departing for Florida.
The set was going to be a tight, thirty-two minutes and since I was familiar with most of the set list, Chris didn’t feel it was necessary for me to travel to New York for the rehearsals. When our set at the dress rehearsal show was nixed, we rehearsed that afternoon in Miami and so I was brought up to speed with modified arrangements, one new tune and meeting and playing with Federico. Billy was still in transit from Europe.
As often is the case, a band can be made up of individuals coming together at the last minute to share a common language, albeit with diverse dialects and accents. In this case, the first time we all played together as a band was at the soundcheck, two hours before our first performance on the opening night of Sting’s Sacred Love U.S tour, 2004. Again, in large part you take your cue from the artist – and Chris was relaxed.
We had seen the previous night’s show – the dress rehearsal – and so I was now a little familiar with the layout of the James L. Knight Center in Miami. At the beginning of a tour like this, you naturally want to make a good impression. Chris is like family within the Sting camp because of both being a member of Sting’s band, on the previous Brand New Day tour, and also his personal closeness to Sting – as respected musician, friend, chess partner and bon vivant ringleader!
On this first day Chris was pointing out some of his old friends.
"Is that Billy Francis?"(Sting’s tour manager and resident Wizard of Oz figure) I asked, pointing to a white-haired gentleman that fit an impression I had been given.
I hadn’t met anyone yet! "No", I responded.
Roach is Sting’s "dresser" and personal backstage assistant for whom I developed a deep fondness. When conversing with Roach you are greeted with a Cockneyish London twang and a loving glint in the eye.
Trains and boats and planes? Strings and picks and things…..
He sat on the edge of the stage and we remarked upon how much fun this was all going to be and skirted over some typical "talk about the weather" guitar player kind of stuff – strings, picks and effects pedals. All the clichéd ice-breakers! Sophia took some pictures including one of Dom, Chris and myself to mark this first encounter.
Shortly after, Sting stopped by where we were chatting. We had also met at Chris’s Direct TV taping at which Sting had sung Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
Dom seated on the edge of the stage, myself standing at the foot of the stage and Sting standing above us, we chatted for a brief moment, me with my head craned upwards, Sting being politely courteous but not overly outgoing.
Now it was our turn to soundcheck and we set up for the first time in what was to become a familiar stage setting, around all of Sting’s band’s equipment.
Sting came to the front row of seats and chatted with Chris. Jon was playing his bass and checking his bass rig. "Can you turn it down?!," Sting proclaimed towards Jon, who evidently was drowning out their conversation. It was one of those uncertain moments of wondering where the boundaries were. In that regard, you can be prepped by those who have gone before, but you’re really only going to find out some things first hand.
Billy the Kid
The slightly blasé vibe of the previous night’s invited audience was replaced by the high energy opening night expectancy of real ticket buying "punters" – genuine, enthusiastic fans.
The uncertainty of how many of the audience would be seated when we took the stage (always on the stroke of the hour or half hour, depending on local showtime), was allayed by the sight of a respectable number of folks being in their seats as the house lights went down.
Days of wine and Scotsmen!
As was our mode, Sting’s crew and our crew (Dave Kuhn and Matt Lees) cleared the stage after our performance and we each took care of our individual instruments and bits and pieces at the side of the stage – the change over from our closing to Sting’s downbeat being a brief twenty minutes.
I was about to discover a boundary. His name is Jimmy Bolton! Sting’s longtime stage manager is a scrappy looking, stern talking Glaswegian (someone from Glasgow) who enquired accusingly in his thick Scottish brogue, "Who’s the culprit with the wine?"
His eyes found mine and I confessed that it was me. He let me know that never again would there be glass brought onto his stage. I agreed. Cut to thoughts of The Beatles in a railway carriage singing, I Should Have Known Better. (continued...)