The Guest Shot

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How many times have you attended a concert (regardless of the genre), and at some time during the performance, they announce the presence of a “special guest” who’s going to join the band for a song or two. Depending on the stature of the special guest, there may be gasps of delight from the audience, or heads swiveling back and forth saying “Who? Who?” The “special guest” usually seems to slip smoothly into the band’s performance, without doubling vocal lines or stepping on solos.

As a young concert goer (this would have been rock’n’roll, way back then), I always thought this practice was cool in the extreme. As I often did, I tried to imagine the event from the perspective of the performer. How did these guest shots get arranged? How did the guest stars always seem to do so well? How much planning went into it? Most importantly, how could I someday become a guest star?

Well, years went by and the concerts went from rock’n’roll to other forms of music, but the notion of the “guest star” seems to cross all musical boundaries. Over time, I began to understand some of the mysteries of the guest star. For proficient musicians, it’s not
terribly difficult to absorb a crash course in the song you’d be playing, and professionalism and good habits will limit the likelihood of stepping all over the other musicians.

As for how it gets arranged, I have seen this process firsthand now, too. You’re playing a gig and someone spots another player in the audience and the notion of inviting them up for a song comes up. Then, the invitation is made – either as an unexpected invitation from the stage (which has its own dangers – what if the guy’s drunk or just doesn’t want to play?), or someone taps the person on the shoulder and brings up the idea.

Playing bars, there’s a seamy underside to this practice, however: the dreaded “Hey, can I play a few songs with you guys?” inquiry from the audience. Rule of thumb – the guy who asks usually has no business being on a stage –anywhere. But, over the years, we have been weak and acquiesced against better judgment. If it’s the groom or the best man at a wedding, it’s hard to say no. If the guy plays good at all, providing good back up for him will create a treasured wedding memory.

Too often though, the requestor has way more guts than chops. For every “guest star” who comes up and dazzles the crowd, there are six guys who you regret within seconds. Be especially wary if the instrument offered doesn’t match the genre well. Harmonica players are deadly, because they carry a concealed weapon. If they’re good, great, if not – yikes!

One time, at a pub gig, a guy asked to join in with his accordion. Well, we’re nice guys, and this band features occasional accordion anyway, so we thought “Why not?” Within 4 bars of the first song, it was obvious that this guy had no idea what he was doing (or what we were doing). It didn’t slow him down though – he pumped that squeezebox for all he was worth and demonstrated wild stage antics like sliding on his knees (on a very tiny stage). And he showed the worst characteristic of the self-motivated “guest star” – he wouldn’t leave!

Rule number of one of “guest star” shots: You’re a guest! If you’re offered a song, you offer to leave the stage directly after that one song. If you’re lucky, the band may say “No! Stick around for another one!” But you should never assume you’re there for the remainder of the set – or the evening! The old adage goes: “Guests are like fish. After 3 days, they both start to stink!” For guest stars, sometimes it’s like 3 minutes! And sometimes, it’s magic. You never know..

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