When the history of this period of music is written, I am convinced that London's west end musical will be talked about (in terms of musicians), with a similar reverence with which the Blue note club and Birdland were talked about in the 1950's in Chicago and New York. With the absence of such clubs these days, the current crop of top musicians frequent the ever popular west end musical orchestra pit and stage. And as I delve ever deeper into the alternative universe of the employed musician, by "depping" on various chairs in the west end, I never cease to be simply blown away by the capabilities of the surrounding instrumentalists when one climbs into the driving seat of a show.
My most recent outing is in one of my favourite shows, Thriller Live! at the Lyric Theatre John Maher the Musical Director has painstakingly transcribed "note for note" the intricate arrangements of the Jackon's music from their early Jackson 5 days, right through to the ubiquitous Thriller and Bad albums, and all of them in between. The result is a meticulous musical journey through the lives of one the most successful music industry families. The arrangements are as close the original recordings as can be. John's attention to detail clearly comes from the years spent in medical school before deciding the content of the acronym MD after his name should be changed.
In addition to putting together not only a fantastic "west end" band, he also collated a group of crack musos' for both the World and European tours of the same name "Thriller Live!". I had the privilege of playing on the opening two weeks of the World tour, which saw me playing with the likes of Mike Lindup the keyboard player with Level 42, a hugely successful group from the 1980's, and Sylvio Galasso, a big Italian bass player who had been Musical Director for Chaka khan amongst other positions.
As I tour so much with the Moody Blues and The War Of The Worlds, I didn't want to be away from home again, which is I why I didn't do any more than the first two weeks. When I came back to London, I went on the drumming "Dep List" for the West End version (which is exactly the same as the touring version thankfully). John openly encourages a healthy depping philosophy in Thriller. This has two immediate advantages; one, it allows the incumbent musicians enough time off to remain fresh and rested. Having once had my own 'drum chair' in Fame at the Aldwych theatre for six years, I can tell you doing 8 shows a week is extremely tiring, getting home on a Saturday night after 8 shows in six days, leaves you feeling like a beached wale in need of sustenance, only to have to do it all again the following week. So being able to take time off is imperative.
The second obvious advantage if you are a regular dep, is the cast are used to you, and so is the rest of the band. When someone comes into a show for the first time, it's little like putting a square peg in a round hole, but less so with each show the dep does. There is one particular show in London, where the drummer doesn't take much time off and whenever there is a new drum dep, the cast are up in arms because it sounds different.
On Thursday night I was playing once again in Thriller Live at the Lyric. The band is intimately grouped together in a tight footprint on stage behind a curtain underneath a big bridge, the main prop on stage. This is used by the young dancers who run up and down it as if it's not there (what it is to be young and fit)! On several occasions the curtains open and the band is on show, and introduced. When we play "Shake Your Body Down To The Ground" there is a breakdown section, and we all get 4 bars to show off our "latest chops", great fun.
As I sit at the drum kit, the bass player is situated at 9 o'clock, John the MD at 11 o'clock. Keys 1 is sideways on, at 12 o'clock. Keys 3 and perc (played by one musician) is situated at 2pm and the guitarist is directly at 3pm. Everyone is close enough to "high five", and so creates a really cool playing environment.
On this most recent gig the keyboard dep was Arden Hart, not only one of the best keyboard players I ever worked with but also one of the best I've ever seen! He was the MD for Take That! and has also played with Massive Attack, Bootsy Collins, and William Orbit, among others.
All the keyboards are Roland Fantoms, and the drums are the Roland TD20. The guitars are d.i.'d. We all have "in ear monitoring" so there is no acoustic sound apart from the congas. The mix is amazing on stage with everything 'panned' and e.q.'d to perfection, the arrangements are perfect, the playing, immaculate and inspired. All in all, it doesn't get much better than this, unless of course you happen to be on stage with the Moody Blues. As it happens I will be in a matter weeks (but more about that as the Moody Blues tour gets closer).
On my voice mail I have just been asked to play drums for two shows in Grease the musical on Saturday. I haven't played that show in nearly a year, so it looks like my day times are going to spent doing some homework. Ooh-er, it's going to feel like another first time show for me this Saturday.