Shane Fontayne on The Who Kennedy Center Honors
nakedeye10--- via TheWho
thewho at igtc.com
Wed Jul 22 20:23:26 UTC 2015
Last night I saw Graham Nash at the Boulder Theater. More on that another time, maybe.
Performing with him was guitarist Shane Fontayne who I originally know as Bruce's guitarist on the 1992 tour (his first and only big tour after firing the E Street Band). Since then, I've seen Shane with a variety of artists over the years. Like Pino, I always notice when he pops up on a tour.
Anyway, in poking around online, I stumbled on the fact that he was the guitar player in the tribute to Roger and Pete at the Kennedy Center Honors. He has a long and fascinating first person account on his website. I've copied it here, but I don't know if it will be readable. If not, it's well worth going to his website to check it out.
12.28.08 Kennedy Center Honors.....(newsletter)
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of December, I had the immense pleasure and honor of performing at the Kennedy Center Honors show in a segment that paid tribute to Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who. It has proved to be one the singular highlights of my career thus far.
The whole experience really appeared as a gift, beginning with the invitation from Rob Mathes (musical director, arranger and performer on guitar and piano). Rob, being a gentle man and I suspect a genius, set the tone for the quite wonderful world I entered at his behest.
I flew with my girlfriend Maria, first class, to Washington D.C. That's always a good beginning! Flying West to East in this vast country often necessitates the day of travel to be just that. So we started rehearsals the following day - Friday, December 5th. We convened in a rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center, one floor up from the stage.
With Kenny Aronoff (drums), Zev Katz (bass), Michael Beardon (keyboards), Tabitha Fair and Cindy Mizelle (vocals) and Rob, I began running down the selected Who songs which the star performers would be singing. The singers who were scheduled for after dinner on this day were:
Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, singing Won't Get Fooled Again
Bettye LaVette singing Love Reign O'er Me
Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foofighters, singing Who Are You
The other two performers who would arrive on Saturday were:
Joss Stone singing My Generation
Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty singing Baba O'Riley
Rehearsals were as much fun and relaxed as they were intense and passionate, and the innate power of this wonderful music was immediately unleashed. I took it upon myself to uphold the guitar playing mantle of Pete Townshend's enormous contribution to this music. He was of course almost exclusively the composer of the Who's material, and an iconic guitar player in addition. I was well aware that I would be performing in the company of the honorees and while I didn't want to feel any self-imposed pressure, it ups the ante and was in my consciousness.
But the music seemed to play itself. In a situation like this, one can prepare by familiarizing oneself as much as possible with the material, but there is so much that happens at the last moment. Apart from this tribute, Rob was also responsible for the tribute to George Jones, being in contact with all the singers on both tributes, finding out how they wanted to perform the songs, what keys they would sing them in and liaising with them on arrangements. Most of this occurs during the three weeks prior to the event.
Because Townshend created these songs, they are naturally primarily guitar based in their creation. That lends a song a specific sound in many cases, reflecting the key that the song was written in, and the position that sounds "right" for it to be played on the guitar. One concern of mine while learning the material was the choice of keys and was wondering what would happen if I needed to find an alternative way of playing something which had such a defined signature sound.
It was hard to imagine Won't Get Fooled Again or Who Are You being played in a different "position" on the guitar. If the key of either one was higher by a semitone or two it would be possible for me to use a capo, which can be like an additional finger at times. If the key was lowered, I would have to decide if I was going to tune my guitar lower to accommodate the change.
It transpired that all three of these songs would be performed in their original keys, and that Love Reign O'er Me would be rendered as a torch Gospel performance by the wonderful Bettye LaVette. The other two songs would stick closer to the original in the way we would play them.
Each singer was scheduled for about 30-45 minutes of rehearsal time on this night. Chris Cornell was the first to arrive - a tall, dark and very handsome man who has a gentle intensity about him. I had brought my Gretsch RocJet guitar with me. I had tried various guitars of mine in preparation for the trip and this one, a beautiful black instrument similar in appearance to a Gibson Les Paul, seemed to be the most appropriate for the occasion.
Chris told me that he also has a RocJet. They are not common guitars and it was a point of contact between us. He had used one on the demo of Black Hole Sun, the massive Soundgarden hit. He spoke of the recording of the demo which he said was very similar to the released version, other than that it was very lo-fi and that the drums on the demo sounded awful because he had played them!
With each singer, Rob would first verbally run down the arrangement and any changes he was considering - maybe because of time constraints - before trying the song. We ran through Won't Get Fooled Again with Chris two or three times and his whole delivery was as effortless as it was powerful. This is a man whose physique very much mirrors the beauty and strength of his voice.
I had not heard of Bettye LaVette until a couple of months ago. I found some video of her on YouTube and I thought, "She looks and sounds like a cross between Ella and Aretha." It turns out that Bettye was on the early Motown scene. I was very much looking forward to meeting her after hearing her sing, and I watched as the mouths of the production people in the rehearsal room opened in awe at the way that she sang this song, with Rob's gorgeous piano accompaniment and harmonic rearrangement for support.
She was happy, as was her husband Kevin, and before departing she thanked and kissed everyone on the "stage" including the monitor engineer! How beautiful is that?!
During the break after Bettye left, Dave Grohl's guitar tech, B.B., set up Dave's amplifier and tuned his quite signature Gibson Trini Lopez-styled guitar. Dave is as friendly as can be, energized in a very youthful way, ready to tell a joke, and wore a very warm and embracing smile. His easy-going demeanor perfectly matched the totally full-on aspect of the impassioned delivery in his voice and on his guitar.
Dave consulted me on how I was playing parts of Who Are You, and when he asked me how to play the single note line that the piano and guitar play in the more ethereal bridge section of the song, he just laughed and gave a hands-off look to me saying in essence, "I'll leave that one to you!"
Our equipment, amplifiers, keyboards, drums, spare guitars were all rented from a company out of Philadelphia, Centerstaging, who also supplied two wonderful young men to take care of us, Matt and Chris. When I had asked about available amplifiers, I had been told that Centerstaging only had one of what I wanted. I replied that one was all I needed, but I was then made aware that we would be splitting our time between the rehearsal room and the stage and would require two independent set-ups.
Saturday began for Maria and me with a subway ride to the Capitol. We wanted to see the site where the inauguration will take place and we were able to watch as that "stage" was being built - the bleachers on one side were finished and they were working on constructing the other side atop the Capitol steps. It was inspiring to be there at this most historic time. From there, via a brief trip to the botanical gardens which are just adjacent, we walked down the Mall towards the Washington Monument and on to the White House, where we paused for a few moments prior to returning to the hotel in time for me to be picked up for that day's work.
Our work day started with a rehearsal of My Generation with Joss Stone. Zev, Kenny and Rob had been rehearsing the George Jones set in the morning and Randy Travis and Shelby Lynne had been on hand for those rehearsals.
Joss is a twenty one year old, six foot-plus tall Englishwoman with a gravelly, soul-powered voice. This was probably the hardest song to deliver, because of its place in rock history. How can one do this song justice without sounding like a cover band? Ultimately, you listen to the singer and go for it. The song has several built-in key changes - modulations - and Rob had figured out how he wanted to address those. Joss was relaxed and playful and with repetition, we played it more confidently.
We then moved to the stage - the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. Various people were used as stand-ins for the performers and also for the honorees as everything was being prepared for television. The honorees along with the President and Vice President are seated in the first row of the balcony and various names were on seats in the orchestra section - Clint Eastwood and Quincy Jones were a couple I noticed on the aisles.
We rehearsed with each of the performers and for the first time with Rob Thomas. We actually never rehearsed with Rob in the rehearsal room - only on the stage. His song, Baba O'Riley was scheduled to close the segment. After 9/11, The Who played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden where members of the police and fire departments of New York had participated onstage as a way of honoring them and they were again invited to appear here, during Baba O'Riley, flanked behind us towards the end of the song.
Sunday's schedule was for a full dress rehearsal and then the show that night. This was going to be my last opportunity on this trip to do any sightseeing and since I had some down time after our run-through, because of the George Jones tribute rehearsals, I walked with Maria by the Potomac right behind the Kennedy Center to the Lincoln Memorial where one has a lovely view of the two mile stretch towards the Monument and the Capitol. After walking past the Vietnam Memorial I returned to the venue to make sure my gear was reset as I wanted, in readiness for the show.
Some of the George Jones performers only rehearsed for the first time with the band on Sunday afternoon and it was an extra workload for those musicians. Garth Brooks was particularly friendly to everyone he encountered and also seemed to be a joy to work with.
I asked Rob Mathes if one typically was able to meet the honorees and he said that sometimes it happened, but it wasn't typical. The show was to be followed by a Gala dinner and dance in the foyer of the Opera House.
The Townshend/Daltrey tribute was scheduled to close the first half of the show, which was set to begin with a tribute to Morgan Freeman and then a tribute honoring Twyla Tharp. We would be on next and then after intermission tributes to George Jones and Barbra Streisand would close out the performance.
During our dress rehearsal I had heard Michael Stevens, co-producer of the show with his father George Stevens, playfully exclaim from the audience, "SHANE -WINDMILL!" in reference to Townshend's signature arm movement. I had resisted all thought of doing that up to now, but decided I might have to give it a go - and so I did some last minute practicing/posing in my hotel room!
And so we were almost at showtime. The audience had taken their seats and we were now waiting for the President to enter, which would signal that the show could commence. I was watching from a TV monitor at the side of the stage. One of the crew guys - and they were all so extremely kind - moved the TV so I could see it better. I said, "You don't have to do that" and he replied by telling me that he and his co-workers were all practicing moving the way I move onstage and he gave me a smile and a shimmy!
I was as nervous as I have been in I don't know how long as we stood on our stage ready to be wheeled into place as a video introduction was playing on a large screen, detailing for the audience The Who's career. "Three minutes"....tinker tinker....adjust my tuning one last time......"two minutes"......adjust my tuning another last time....."one minute!".....make sure my zipper is zippered - adrenaline was definitely pumping....."twenty seconds!".....take a deep breath....and then the curtains open and we are playing an intro to Pinball Wizard as the names of the musicians are announced and then Joss Stone is on for My Generation. I'm dressed in a pinstriped dark suit and white shirt and we're playing, rocking, listening and responding.
I don't know when I first looked out into the audience and up into the balcony, but I'm onstage and looking up at Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Morgan Freeman, Twyla Tharp, George Jones, George and Laura Bush, and Dick and Liz Cheney. This is not a typical gig!
Chris Cornell is next, followed by Bettye LaVette, Dave Grohl and Rob Thomas. The band is sounding great and each of the singers receives an equally rousing welcome and congratulatory applause from an enthusiastic audience and each of them sounds marvelous. Roger and Pete have a visibly moving response to Bettye's soulful rendition of their song and Dave Grohl ends Who Are You with a signature Townshend leap into the air which was just preceded with my one and only windmill! Townshend crosses his arms over his chest and extends them towards the stage.
The audience responds with great appreciation as the folks from New York's fire and police departments take their positions as Rob Thomas sings, "Teenage wasteland...they're all WASTED!"
The curtain comes down and it's intermission. I'm soaked! After a while I'm in the green room, a "pipe-and-drape" construction at the back of the stage where there are TV monitors and I watch George Jones's tribute set as Jack Black, Quincy Jones and Clint Eastwood chat. Jack had introduced our segment and he is complimentary and kind. Caroline Kennedy is seated on a couch and Glenn Close is practicing an introduction she will give. I walk back in to the stage area through security at the same time as Dave Grohl who tells me that he has been around various dancers and that I'm the best dancer he has ever seen!
After the show finished I made my way to the lobby area to find Maria and our table for the Gala dinner. The tables are numbered and though I'm instructed to go in one direction, I notice that the numbers are going in the opposite direction and so I reverse course. I see Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens enter and Rob just says, "Follow me." I thought he was leading me to my table as we made our way through the crowd, but I look up and I see Pete Townshend, to whom I am introduced. He asked me if I had had a good time, as did Roger Daltrey when I am introduced to him too. Little do they know that I was playing Substitute on my guitar in my bedroom in London when I was eleven or twelve years old.
They were mobbed and I was so glad to at least make a point of contact. I found our table and my bandmates and Maria. In between courses the two of us ventured through the hall and we came upon the performers who were seated close by each other. I had connected with Joss Stone after the set in the green room and now I was able to talk briefly with Chris Cornell who had been so kind and supportive throughout the weekend.
I wanted to say goodbye to Dave Grohl and we chatted for a few moments. He had his arms around the two of us telling us of his experience being introduced to the President at the White House earlier that day and the protocol surrounding the introduction, when Bettye LaVette made her way to where we were, telling me how she had been so moved by the solo I played during her song and how it had spurred her on for the final chorus. She hugged me and was so thankful - as was I. When Bettye departed, Dave picked up and finished telling us about his Presidential introduction.
As we walked back to our table I passed Newt Gingrich who looked like he recognized ME! I laugh! This is all so wonderfully weird and magical.
Back at the hotel I had the opportunity to say goodbye to everyone in the band, musicians for both The Who and George Jones and at about 2a.m. we turned out the light prior to our 5:15a.m. lobby call for our flight home.
Of so many wonderful experiences in thirty five years of being a professional musician, this was one of the most honored and humbling events I have been a part of. I have been flying high ever since the show on December 7th.
One never knows how these things translate onto television. They usually appear "less so" than the experience was in person. When Bettye spoke to me after the show, she was in part explaining how she had been told that the TV folks were planning on cutting the guitar solo from the song, because of the need to edit the show and how she had pleaded with them to cut some other part of the song. Regardless, I will always treasure this magnificent experience, as I don't know if anyone ultimately felt more honored on this night of Honorees and than I did.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all. May we all inaugurate a wonderful new beginning in 2009.
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