Well, I was going to continue the discussion we were having about on-stage communication, but it’s gotten too loud in here to be heard (cyberspace can be so noisy!), so I guess I’ll just call out the numbers with my fingers and get back to you next week.
Seriously, though, attempting to communicate on stage in a loud environment presents a major challenge to musicians trying to call out song titles or keys to songs. Having everyone playing the same song in the same key is surprisingly important in a live music setting.
There’s a famous—and possibly true—story about one of the noisiest concert situations in history: it was a show at New York’s Shea Stadium in the 1960s, headlined by a well-known bluegrass act called The Beatles. Apparently the crowd noise, generated mostly by screaming girls and a handful of people yelling at the screaming girls to be quiet, was a whole lot louder than what the Mets were getting at the best of times (and the mid-60s weren’t the best of times for them). This was also before the development of the kind of monitor systems used today, which are capable of causing deafness in a musician by age 38. As a result, after the Beatles finished one song, John Lennon, wanting to get the drummer ready for the next number, shouted back at Ringo Starr, “She Loves You!!” Ringo replied, “I thought that’s what we just played!!”, or words to that effect. It was so loud in the stadium that Ringo actually had no idea what the rest of the band was playing.
Acoustic musicians who have only played in pristine, coffee house/listening room settings, the kind where they “shush” you for thinking too loudly, may not relate to this issue at all, but those of us who have faced the racket of a late night bar gig can feel the Beatles’ pain (minus the screaming girls part).
First, there’s the problem of conveying the song title to everyone on the stage. This isn’t easy to do in an environment in which “Banks of the Ohio” can easily sound like “Pants Off The Old Rhino,” or “Paxil Is Up My Nose.”
I once played an informal show with a pickup band, and I called out the Gospel song “Zion’s Hill.” The bass player—who was standing next to me at the time—said, “What? Science Hill?!” This could only be topped by her second guess, which was “Seinfeld?” If I’d only known a gospel song called “Seinfeld,” I would have launched right into it. This story is true, I promise.
Once it’s been established that you’re about to play “Cabin in Caroline” and not “Cabernet Carrot Wine”, you still may need to let everyone know what key you’re doing the song in, if it’s one you don’t usually do, or you have new or fill-in band members. This is when you realize how similar “G,” “C,” “D,” and “E” all sound over the general din at Murphy’s Saloon and Rib Shack.
This is the reason many country bands, accustomed to working in loud honky tonks, developed a system of assigning different sounding words to each key, beginning with the letter of the key. For example, “D” became “Dog,” “C” became “Charlie,” etc. People tend to get creative with “E.” “Eyes” is a personal favorite, but some prefer “Ectoplasm.”
Somewhere along the line (probably at about 3:00 a.m. on a particularly lonely stretch of I-40), a couple of our band members came up with a key-naming system in which you find a word for each key beginning with the key’s letter, but only a word which doesn’t begin with the sound of that letter, e.g. “Django” (a “J” sound) for “D,” or “Gnash” or “Gnome” for “G,” and so on. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, eventually the key names were shortened to the letter of the sound starting the word, so the key of “D” became the key of “J.” The key of “C” became the key of “Z” (because “C” was represented by “Czar”).
This is what comes of driving at late at night, mixing the wrong road foods together, and having too much time on your hands. Devising the above naming-system seemed like a better activity than counting how many times we had crossed the Caney Fork River, but now I’m not so sure (and I’m also not sure how many times we crossed the Caney Fork. Five?).
The good news is that we can now play the noisiest of clubs with no communication problems at all. The bad news is that no one can ever fill in with us.
Maybe it’s easier just to have someone in your band with a really loud voice.