This place is small. The Palace Theatre’s stage can just about hold everything we have, but no more. There is no loading dock, and the width of our set means the wing space is crowded. The small ramp from the theatre’s back alley leads straight onto the stage. Setup is a paced, measured affair, but when it came time for The Winning Team to weave its camp, flamboyant magic on the stage, the timeframe was close to our experience in New Orleans. Recently, between 11.30 and midday, the backline is pretty much in place and we can happily let go the local crew’s help; despite the cramped conditions, we’re looking at a similar situation today. I’m not sure what dark forces were at work, but we’re ok on stage. Outside is another matter: Stage Manager Saint Paul has a full plate, trying to get all the empty cases stacked and covered with the help of local union hands; there was rumour of late-night rain and we don’t want a bunch of wet boxes. If my friend in New Orleans were here today, he’d probably rip his hair out.
The monitor desk is unhappy. The digital console is showing signs of anti-social behaviour and Monitor Engineer Russ has to spend time on the phone with a software expert who guides some remote troubleshooting. The problem creates only a minor delay in the grand scheme and when soundcheck comes around, it’s business as usual. The band rehearsed a couple of lesser-played items, Different Sides and Sisters of Mercy, before doing the usual Dance Me and Future.
‘Going dark’ at 6pm in observance of a union break, I find myself walking around the venue and I fall into a sort of love with The Palace. I can only think baroque when I look around. I’m guessing ‘faux-class’ is a good description of the theatre, because at only 86 years old, the style is obviously out of place with its temporal beginnings, but still, it has a certain appeal. And to top off the olde-worlde vibe, the building has its own full-time residences: g-g-g-ghosts! Production Assistant Renée retold a story she heard: in the office she and Production Manager Dave had acquired for the day, there is supposedly a presence of such evil that not even so-called ghost-hunters would enter the room. I didn’t feel anything malevolent at all; in fact I felt quite happy, strangling Dan in the old fireplace while a harpsichord with no player sounded Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Ghosts, poltergeists, spectres, sprites, faeries, spirits, name what you will, but something’s got into Roscoe again. Just like New Orleans, he took a quick sickness; one report told of him going a pale white, moments before he had to run off. Initially, no one knew what could be the matter, but the question of acute food poisoning now seemed questionable itself. A doctor was called, a doctor came, and with fewer than three hours until stage time, our question wasn’t so much the illness, but what the healthy should do about it.
Should Roscoe play in the wing with a long cable? Should someone else play bass? The latter option became the only, as Roscoe was to be taken to hospital and with the hour approaching a plan was decided: Mitch will fill in. Bass Tech Chris and I joined forces to make it easy for Mitch to play bass from where he usually sits. Mitch has a four-output switching array at his feet and happily, has until now only used three of its outputs. Leaving Roscoe’s equipment intact, Chris simply ran one cable from the fourth output of the array to the bass rig and after I quickly re-patched a tuner pedal and ‘lifted the ground’ from Output 4, we made easy-peasy bass. It was then up to Mitch.
Mitch, Javier, and Neil got together in the Green Room to go through as many songs as they could with zero hour stomping through the tulips to meet us all. Eventually the rattling chains, those ethereal binds of ectoplasm stopped their clamour; the Ghost of Gigs Future vanished and the sentient present unfolded; showtime.
As the first note was struck, it was plain to see Mitch was going to be all right. The guy is an accomplished musician, so there’s no doubt he knows the key structures to all the songs. Still, one can’t help but watch in wonder and think ‘Damn, I wouldn’t want to be him right now.’ The opening number Dance Me doesn’t sound too different from usual. Mitch would normally play an acoustic guitar and it isn’t the centrepiece of the song in which Alex’s violin is the second fiddle to the lyrics, but when The Future is launched the regular listener begins to notice there is a hole in the music; the occasional guitar breaks are missing, and soon one begins to appreciate, by their absence, what a force the bass really is. With one musician down, of course there would be a certain emptiness, and the bass would obviously be missed; and although according to Front of House Engineer Mark, Roscoe’s playing ‘glues everything together,’ the listener might never appreciate its invisible, somewhat selfless role in the concert. It’s almost never flashy like guitar, violin, archilaud, or Hammond organ solos, but the bass guitar a vital component of the show, and like some sort of crazy Zen paradox, you only notice its importance in the absence of some other instrumentation.
Where usually Roscoe is the ‘white man dancing’ in The Future, Leonard tightens the slack by getting his knees up with a shimmy and shake, earning much enthusiastic approval from the crowd. It confirms Leonard’s earlier promise: although ‘we’re falling like flies’ the audience would still get ‘everything we’ve got.’
It becomes an easy night for two of The Winning Team; roscoe is usually Chris’ charge, and Mitch mine, but with a single four-string bass in the house, Mitch was on his own if the instrument needed mid-set tuning. In the wing I still tuned every guitar as if it were a regular night, because we just didn’t know if it was all going to work out; if Leonard would have asked Mitch to down the bass in favour of a guitar, I’d be ready. As I said to Mickey, while discussing the endless possibility of eventualities: ‘Never trust whitie.’
During The Darkness, Javier played a guitar solo in place of Mitch’s usual break and received a grinning upward thumb from Leonard. In fact it seemed LC was actually enjoying himself; Mitch was handling everything with grace and once it became apparent that the guitarist-cum-bassist was going to be fine, I think Leonard just found fun in the spontaneity of it all. Indeed at one point, with all the guitars tuned and ready, I found myself daydreaming, forgetting altogether that we had an impostor on bass.
For the second set, Mitch got a break from the four-string instrument in a couple of songs. If the audience didn’t know it, they were treated to something unique after Tower of Song. With his guitar, Leonard played Avalanche, a very rare occurrence in the set, accompanied sparsely by elements of violin, hammond and Mitch on the Godin guitar. Once that and Suzanne passed, it was business as usual; or at least business like it was earlier tonight: back to bass for Mitch. The novelty of his four-string skills became less acute, all crossed fingers relaxed, and the remaining songs rolled off the stage like a finely balanced production line.
It wasn’t until Closing Time that things started to go wrong. Leonard forgot lyrics early in the song and restarted it twice, amidst a soundtrack of the crowd’s compassionate laughter; before the final restart he asked the audience to remind him that the particular missing words were ‘angel of compassion’. And so, third time lucky, when the moment came round, they shouted the words at the top of their voices and like a horse bolting from a gate in… some… sort of… derby… our man was off.
While Roscoe was tentatively diagnosed with vertigo, the Louisville crowd were treated to something special tonight. When everything goes like clockwork, of course it’s good that a ticket-buying audience receives the worth of their money, but little bumps in the road make for unique experiences and I hope the good people of Louisville know what they got was as close to an unrehearsed show as the normally ultra-slick Leonard Cohen experience could provide.