Brian Ray: my best and worst gigs ever
Continuing our series My Best And Worst Gigs Ever, Brian Ray, guitarist and bassist Brian Ray (who also leads his own group, The Bayonets), talks about one show that stands out in his mind as being particularly memorable – and one that he'd like to forget.
“I’m really fortunate to have played an incredible number of shows that could qualify as ‘best gig ever.’ It would almost be easier to do it by act. But if I had to pick one, a show that really stand out would be one of the two nights I did with Paul McCartney at the Hollywood Bowl in 2010.
“For one thing, it was a hometown gig for me. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, so growing up, I saw the Hollywood Bowl as being one of the coolest and most iconic venues around. To play the Bowl with Paul McCartney, who has, of course, done some very important shows there himself with The Beatles, well, that right there stands out as being monumental. If you wanna play anywhere in Los Angeles – and with Paul McCartney, no less – it’s at the Hollywood Bowl. And the Bowl is also significant to me because I got to see Jimi Hendrix opening for the Mams & The Paps there when I was 12. Crazy.
“That said, the first night of our two-night stand wasn’t the greatest. It was in April, and the weather should have been perfect, but we had a cold snap and it was absolutely freezing on stage. My hands literally felt like icicles. During a break before the first encore, we were backstage going, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t feel my toes. I can’t feel my hands.’ It was terrible. I think we still played well, but you know how it is – the mood just wasn’t amazing.
“The second night was still cold on stage, but there was something very different in the air. For whatever reason, whatever it is that makes for a great show – all of those X factors coming together at once – we had it all going on from the minute we went on till the time we left. Paul’s energy, his mood, the sound on stage, our playing level, the crowd – it was all perfect. Paul put on a master class performance that night, and I would say that we rose to the occasion, as well.
“Maybe it was because of the night before; we wanted to prove to ourselves that the elements weren’t going to get us down. With one not-so-great show under our belts, we got out of there alive but were intent on proving ourselves the next night. And we did. From top to tails, it was a magnificent show. Not one second of it wasn’t spot-on.
“I could tell that it was going to be great even at soundcheck. We do long soundchecks, sometimes an hour, an hour and a half – we don’t skimp. Paul will play a guitar lick, and we’ll launch into a jam and go for it. Sometimes we’ll play songs that aren’t even in the set, just for Paul to feel things out and get into a vibe.
"So on this day, Paul arrived and was in a super-great mood, really fun, funny and laddish. He had a real swagger and was confident, and that just spills over to everybody else. We just all knew, ‘OK, we’re gonna knock ‘em out tonight. This one is going to be different.’
“And it was. From our very first number, which was Venus And Mars/Rock Show, we just nailed it. It was especially nice for me because I had so many family members and friends in the audience. All of the Ray women in my family were out there. Luckily, only a few people from my contingent were at the first night; my real crew came on the second night. So thank God they saw that gig, because they saw a good one.
“It’s sort of unquantifiable what goes into a great show and how you can have one of those nights when everything is just so right. What's important to remember is, our thing on stage, our act, is very much a live show. It’s only five guys up there. We don’t have tapes, we don’t play to clicks – it’s just us. So our music is all made by hand in real time; everything is played by humans. When it all goes right, it’s almost as if somebody choreographed a ballet: The lights, the moves, the songs, the playing, the boss, the crowd – everything comes together and clicks.”
Brian Ray: my best and worst gigs ever
“As with the best shows, you have to shift through the file of worst or leave-favorite gigs. The one that pops into my mind took place in 1983. I was working with an artist named Nicolette Larson. People may remember her as a classic rock fave – she had a big hit called Lotta Love, among a few others.
“I was playing with her at some place in the Bay Area. It was a daytime show, and we were opening for the Jefferson Starship, a rather big gig for me at the time. The night before, I had gone out and ate sushi. Lo and behold, I got sick on the sushi – a bad case of food poisoning. And when I say 'sick,' I mean really sick – the kind of sick you just can’t imagine.
“This went on for something like 30 hours. I was sick the night before the show and the whole next day. Suffice to say, there was very little left of me by the time we had to play. I even said to the band, ‘I can’t do it… I can’t play. I can’t even stand up.’ They were like, ‘Well, what if we got you a barstool or something? Can you just sit there and play? We can’t do the show without you, and it’s too late to cancel.’
“They got a barstool for me, and I was able to pull it together – adrenaline kind of kicked in. Still, I don’t know how I made it – every song was a struggle. You’re going into each number thinking, ‘Can this be the last one, please?’ An hour-and-15-minute show seemed to take days. I was just physically shot. I was running a temperature and was sick in every other way. I was a shadow of a man.
“Nicolette’s band was great, though, and they all kind of rallied around me and helped get me through it. I remember the words of Etta James, whom I’d worked with for many years; she said in an interview once: ‘I don’t know what it is. I’m a survivor. It’s like, I call up the warriors within. If I’m having a tough day or a tough night, if things aren’t going my way or life is against me, if I’ve got a show to do and I’m sick, I call up the warriors within.’ Those words helped.”