If the name "Bobby Keys" doesn't ring a bell, I won't hold it against you. I didn't know who he was at first, either. Then about a month ago at a Mediocre Bad Guys rehearsal, drummer/singer Les Slate informs us that Bobby Keys will be in the area around Christmas. This is a big deal, I learn, because Bobby is a world-renowned saxophone player and is best known for his work with a little band called The Rolling Stones. Remember the awesome sax solo on Brown Sugar? That was him. How about Honky Tonk Women and Waiting on a Friend? Him too. Turns out he played on a half-dozen of their albums (Exile on Main Street, Sticky Fingers, and Some Girls to name a few). He's also shared the stage and studio with a bunch of other folks like George Harrison, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Joe Cocker (and that's just a few - lots more here.) The guy's a legend.
Pretty cool, eh? It gets better.
Not only is he coming to Mount Airy, Les says, but he's going to spend the holidays with a friend here named Skip. And Skip happens to be the guy who lends the band our practice space in the basement of an old warehouse he owns. So Skip and Bobby were talking and decided it'd be cool to do a show while he's here. Only thing is that he needs a band to play with. Well..... Yep, you guessed it. Bobby Keys and the Mediocre Bad Guys in concert - December 19, 2008.
So many things about this experience to chronicle, so I'll do it in two parts:
The night before the show we held a special practice session with Bobby, just to make sure we were all on the same page. Before he gets there you can imagine the extra energy about the place. When Bobby does arrive, though, he puts us at ease. I'm immediately impressed with not only his obvious talent but how down-to-earth the guy is. There's an unwritten rule in the music world that someone as accomplished as a Bobby Keys has permission to act a little "prima-donnaish," if you will - and everyone happily accepts it. I guess it's the same thing in other areas like the sports and political worlds. From the moment he got there, though, Bobby was anything but - talking and joking and laughing with us like he's some guy in town dropping in for a jam session. Nicest guy. Oh, and did I mention it was his birthday too (a birthday he happens to share with a dude named Keith Richards)? It's his birthday and he's spending it in the basement of some warehouse in Mount Airy with a half-dozen yahoos playing tunes. Can this get any better??
Yep, because we hadn't started playing yet. We kick things off with some songs he suggested: Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, and the Peter Gunn Theme from the Blues Brothers. Suffice to say they sound awesome. The sax solos are dead-on - which is understandable since the guy who actually recorded them is the same guy that's playing with us. Unbelievable. We then segue into our standard MBG setlist, not sure how some of them would lend themselves to sax. No worries. Can't picture sax in Ryan Adams' When the Stars Go Blue? You should - at least if Bobby is playing. How about Green Eyed Lady? It'll work. Jack Johnson tunes? Absolutely! On the fly this guy is coming up with amazing stuff; and those of us in the band (and a few other observers there) are just kind of looking at each other like, ".....wow."
One more thing about rehearsal. When we finish running through Brown Sugar, Bobby casually mentions that they recorded that song on his birthday. And since tonight was his birthday too, that meant that 39 years before, on this very night, Bobby laid that famous sax solo on one of the classic rock songs of all time. So surreal.
I actually had an earlier gig that same evening; a private party in Winston-Salem that I scheduled prior to this. Let me give a shout-out to "Hope & the gang" for working with me so I could play some music for them and duck out a little earlier than planned. I pull in the parking lot of the brand spankin' new venue that's part of Goober's 52 Restaurant and literally walk in the door and up on stage. Within 120 seconds of putting my car in park, we start playing.
Like any gig there are some technical glitches here and there - but all in all it's pretty obvious from the start that this show will be rockin'. The crowd of about 130+ is really into it. We start off with a few songs as just MBG and then welcome Bobby to the stage. We kick off Brown Sugar - and when he launches into that sax solo after the second chorus, you feel this jolt of energy shoot through the place. The guys are looking at each other with that same sort of "wow" look we had the night before. Now, though, it's the audience doing the same thing.
We play straight through for almost two hours, and Bobby gets into this routine of joining us for a few tunes and then taking a break. He sets his own pace, which is perfect. And anytime he takes the stage, it's a given that he's going to help us take the songs to a whole new level. Once again, Bobby works his magic no matter what we're playing. Ryan Adams in particular sounds amazing with the sax, as does Ain't No Sunshine. Anything this guy touches turns to gold.
Near the end of the show we're in the middle of an extended version of Miss You when singer and bassist Jerry Chapman comes over to me and asks, "We haven't done Peter Gunn, have we?" Oops. Gotta do that one - Bobby requested it. So we do this weird yet seamless transition from the Stones classic to the song the Blues Brothers made famous - different key, but somehow it works. Bobby goes off on his solo, and then he stops and starts pointing randomly at others to take a turn. Now I've never soloed on Peter Gunn. Never even thought about it. But when the former sax player for the Rolling Stones looks at you and says, "Okay, Preacher Man, take it!" you don't disappoint. Highlight of my evening (well, that and playing cowbell on Honky Tonk Women. Because, you know, you need more cowbell...)
All in all it was a most memorable show - certainly for the band and the audience. But the real neat thing was how memorable it was for Bobby too. He got as jazzed about the whole thing as the rest of us. I just think it's so cool that a guy who has seen and done all he has can get such a kick of out playing music with this little band called the Mediocre Bad Guys in Mount Airy, North Carolina. An amazing two nights for sure.
He says he wants to come back and play with us again sometime. I'd say he passed the audition.
THE BAND (L to R):
Jerry Chapman, Les Slate, Gary Manfredi, David Dixon, Bobby, Yours truly, Doug Davis
Ladies and Gentlemen, the newest member of the Mediocre Bad Guys