Monday, December 6, 2010

The Wedding Strummer

When the Priest Gives You "That Look," You Know It's Time to Stop Playing

Friends of mine got married Saturday. They're a delightful couple, as their self-produced website shows through innumerable cute, darling and downright cuddly photos.

They'd asked if The Late Joys would perform at their post-vows reception but we couldn't get it together, which, given the size of the reception shack (and lack of space therein) worked out for the best. But I agreed to play some songs as part of the wedding nuptials themselves so off I went to College Station with the task of plucking some Christmas-themed songs while Shawn and Katie evolved into ShawnandKatie.

On the set list, a quartet of tunes to accompany specific sections of the ceremony. And Wagner's "Bridal Chorus," more popularly known, for ye of few weddings/little opera, as "Here Comes The Bride."

Having never played any of the five titles before, let alone as instrumental solos in a Catholic church before a hundred or so reveler/worshippers and their priest -- and HCTB was in tablature (finger picking for you non-classical guitarists* out there), just to add to the degree of difficulty -- my levels of nervousness, angst and dread rose daily as the blessed day approached. It's one thing to perform as the frontman for the band. And I find it easy to strum and sing on my own in front of an audience who, mostly, wants to listen to said strumming and singing. It's quite another thing, however, to be the featured solo musician in a wedding ceremony in a strange town in a strange church brimming with total strangers.

So how did it go?

Well the drive to College Station from Austin, if you haven't made that particular trip, is both a rural Texas delight and a peek at the accerelating decay of rural Texas. Forget the bit from Austin to Bastrop; Highway 71 is about as urban-meets-industrial as you can get on a modern inter-city corridor, with the few remaining fields begging for buyers to turn them into airport-convenient hotels and parking lots even as the cows stand around and chew.

Bastrop, rhymes with "gas stop," is just that -- a main road through a town that must have houses in it somewhere -- boasting Central Texas' three major home improvement stores each within spitting distance of each other and nestled among all manner of cookie-cutter big, medium and little box outlets, national chain eateries and auto dealers. Oh, and the pecan stand with the Bunyunesque LED sign. (Answer: Lowe's, Home Depot, McCoy's -- you could pretty much walk from door to door to door, except this is Texas, where we drive from door to door.)

Ah, but then you turn onto Highway 21 and head along the cool, moody pine tree lined road for a tranquil, woodsy spell, until the land opens up once more and it's rough fields with derelict jetsam and flotsam, peppered with ramshackle double-wides, light (or make that decaying light) industry and the odd hamlet-near-gas-station for a good 70 miles until you get to the outskirts of Bryan, Texas, at which point light industry gets shouldered off the route by heavier industry. For a college town that, to go by maroon bumper stickers seen around Austin, professes absolute hatred of all things to do with burnt orange UT (and, gulp, Austin), College Station is a remarkably low-key place, and rather pleasant. At least from the moving automobile.

At the church, then, I set up in the choir along the right-hand wall as you survey the dais. Out of the way. Out of sight lines. Behind the organ. Just in case. I practiced the songs again. And again. Finally the guests began to arrive. A word with the priest before the ceremony yielded enough information that I thought I knew what I was supposed to play and when. The rub, it turned out, was for how long I was supposed to play.

The first tune on the dance card was "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," music to cover the entrances of the families, groomsmen and bridesmaids. Oh, and the ring bearer and flower girl. Father David, for that was the priest's name, suggested I start plucking that melody at about two minutes before the hour, to get the attendees primed for the grand arrival of the celebrated couple and kin. So at two minutes to two o'clock, I began to perform quietly, while stealing glances toward the back of the church for the parties to process down the aisle.

At about 10 minutes after two I saw Shawn making his way down the side aisle toward me. I have spent enough time in the theatre to know that when the star/co-producer of the event approaches 10 minutes after curtain, something is amiss. What was amiss was Shawn's miss: Katie was still in the clutches of her makeup artist and hair designer at the hotel; could I just keep playing for the 10 minutes or so until she and her party arrived? No problem. So, "Hark!" went into a melodic loop-de-loop, sometimes louder, sometimes softer for about 10 minutes until I noticed a woman stalking down the same side aisle in my direction. A member of the advance team, she reported no progress with the hotel-bound Katie's hair and would I just please keep playing anything to keep the seated masses entertained. No problem. I trolled the catalog of my own songs for those with relatively decent melody lines that I didn't have to think too much about and started to pluck and strum my way through song after song after song. After song. After song.

Almost an hour after I first began to play the ladies in waiting and Katie finally showed up, the priest flashed me the "go" sign, if priests flash anything these days, and I hearkened back to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Round and round I looped as the various personages strode down the center aisle. Finally, everyone in their places, I stopped. Only to realize the diminutive flower girl and ring bearer were still mid-stride and I'd left them to march up to the dais in breathtaking silence.

Then Father David signaled to me once more and There Came The Bride. I haven't played tablature style since I was 12 years old. I had found a readable version of the tabs for Wagner's pop classic and had been practicing it for weeks, but it is such a foreign way of playing the guitar, seeing as I'm largely self-taught and have practically no technique to speak of. But the opening strains of the tune were clear as was the final flourish, never mind whatever took place between them, and -- finally -- I could put down the guitar and just sit for a spell.

The next number on the performance list was "We Three Kings," set to go, according to Katie, with the "exchange of gifts." Seeing as this was a Christmas-themed wedding, I thought to myself, "I wonder who's bearing gifts?" It wasn't until they started to exchange rings that it dawned on me that those were the gifts and I'd missed my cue to play what was probably the strongest song of the five I'd been entrusted with. Thankfully, from the church's bell tower rang out some sort of melodic performance for a Saturday afternoon, and that served as the underscore for the ring swap.

The next number was "Silent Night," to be performed, according to my directive, "during communion" and which was to last until "everyone goes through the communion line."

At this point I should point out a couple of things. First, I'm Jewish, so all I know about communion is that Catholics line up and the priest offers them a cracker and a sip of wine as part of the Mass and that these denote the body and blood of Jesus Christ and has to do with things everlasting, of which my ignorance is one. The second thing is that I've never actually been to a Mass, which meant that I was intrigued to witness it for the first time and that I had no earthly (or heavenly) idea just what was about to unfold, nor how it might affect my performance.

Father David signaled me to start the song as two children bearing chalice and dish of wafers approached the dais, gave the items to the priest and took their spots. I continued, as quietly as I could, to perform as underscore to the priest's prayers and preparations, until he shot me a look and shook his head in so understated yet punishing a manner I realized I was crossing into excommunicative territory even for a Jew. To any musicians who might get a similar church gig and arrive uneducated to the ritual of holy communion: When the priest gives you "that look," you know it's time to stop playing.

Once the ritual blessings received priestly airing, the good father turned to me and indicated I should start again, and I was damned sure to play and keep playing until the last pilgrim had tasted immortality and retaken his pew.


The last piece, the least imposing, was "Joy To The World," which I struck up a moment after Shawn and Katie were pronounced man and wife and turned to their adoring families and friends for the march up the aisle and out of the church to much applause. When the major players had left the building I stopped, relaxed for the first time in weeks and then quickly packed up my gear so I could head out to the reception and serve as emcee and DJ for the afternoon's party. Compering was a piece of cake compared to what I'd just done.

Suffice it to say that nothing gets people onto the dance floor like "YMCA" and if I have to pick my favorite moment of the day, it had to be when one of the sets of grandparents (I don't know whose) got up to dance to "Great Balls of Fire."

Katie and Shawn are a delightful couple; I'm honored and grateful that they asked me to play guitar for their wedding and serve as emcee for the reception. Thank you!

*You may add me to that list of non-classical guitarists out there!

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