I get back from the grocery store, feed the cats, and put the perishables away, and take the first sip of a beer. I heat a frying pan and take a burger I’d thawed the day before from the fridge and put salt and pepper on both sides.
The phone rings and it’s my friend Ferg, who might call at any time of day just to say hi, or at other times, to suggest an outing. The later is the case.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting ready to fry a burger. You?”
“Do you want to go to U2?”
“Me and Matt Sweeney and Cowboy and Cousin Bob are going to U2. Do you want to come?”
“Meet us at PM by 6.”
“Cool. Tell you what, order me a burger. I’ll be right over.”
“They’ll have food backstage.”
“OK, scratch that. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
I love this town. You never know what kind of random possibility will present itself. I had no idea the biggest four-piece rock band in the world was in town. But hand it to Ferg to come up with five backstage passes to their sold out show at Vanderbilt Stadium.
You have to know the characters in this little drama. Ferg is Dave Ferguson, a Nashville recording engineer, whose big client in recent years was the team of Rick Ruben and Johnny Cash. He’s a partner with John Prine in the Butcher Shoppe studio. Ferg learned how to push buttons and turn knobs from Cowboy Jack Clement, a veritable recording legend. Jack just turned 80 and is in the process of yet another transformation. At Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in February of 1957, Jack was the guy that pushed the red button to capture Jerry Lee Lewis’s seminal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On”, unleashing a rock and roll monster and cementing a friendship with “the Killer” that lasts to this day. Jack wrote songs, performed, and produced recordings for Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, John Hartford, and many more. He’s made and lost several fortunes, built three recording studios, and generally had his finger on the pulse of Nashville’s music scene since the mid 1960’s. His latest facility, Cowboy Arms and Recording Spa, on Belmont Boulevard near Woodmont, caught fire just seven days ago. The floor to the attic studio crashed into the ground floor, and a piece of iron is all that’s left of his Steinway grand piano. He was able to save his guitars, and the firemen thankfully covered a shelf stacked with hard drives with plastic, so hopefully his precious recordings have survived. It’s a tragedy, but Jack had good insurance and he plans to rebuild.
Ferg and Cowboy worked with Bono, Edge and company on “Rattle and Hum” at Sun Studios in 1987. Ferg released an email into U2’s organization last week after the fire, and sure enough he got a call yesterday, show day, and perhaps coincidently, his 49th birthday.
The rest of the cast for last night’s salvo includes Matt Sweeny, guitarist of choice for Rick Ruben’s productions. That’s him all over Adele’s smash release “21.” Yesterday also happened to be Matt’s 42nd birthday. He and Ferg are currently working with a Swedish pop singer named Anna Ternheim. I recorded some fiddle for them a month ago. The remaining character is Jack’s second cousin Bob, custom furniture builder and part time musician.
I meet Ferg and Matt at a bar on Belmont called PM, and then we drive to a hotel on West End where Jack’s staying. From there Cousin Bob drives the party to the show in Cowboy’s Cadillac. Crowds swarm as we near the stadium; we get stopped where a street is closed off. Bob pulls into PF Chang’s valet parking stop, hovering there a few minutes while Ferg and Matt go on foot to find out where to get the passes. As is often the case at large events, ATT networks are jammed, so without cell phone communications, it’s a miracle we are able to intuitively park close to the stadium, and then independently find Ferg and Matt just outside one of the stadium entrances. The whole time, Jack’s asking, “When does the show start?” and “Why are we going so early?” But he’s a youthful 80 years old, and well up to the walk around the stadium, into the gate, over the bleachers and through crowds to the backstage, and someplace called “the round room” where we’ll supposedly meet with the fellas in the band. Ferg’s charging ahead, but Jack keeps running into fans, and stops to talk. I stay in between Ferg and the lagging Jack and Bob, and we inch worm along. After a couple spirals around the outside, the circles tighten and we’re now walking hallways underneath the stadium, eventually entering a room with about 300 hangers on holding either Kirkland water bottles or Budweiser longnecks. Matt gets waylaid at this time and ends up at catering, but we settle for some crackers and nuts in the round room. After 20 minutes a nice blonde U2 operative in painted on pants greets us, and informs us that in another 20 minutes she’ll take us back to meet the guys. Jack finds a chair and watches the folks mill around. Next we’re escorted to yet another curtained enclosure, where we wait yet another 20 minutes eat more nuts, drink more water. Dierks Bentley and his lovely wife join us for a few minutes, then leave. Then all of a sudden here comes Bono and the Edge, dressed and ready for the stage. They’re both effusive and friendly and surprisingly calm given that they’re going to play for 50,000 people in a few minutes. They express their sympathy for Jack’s loss. When introduced to me and Sweeny, Bono says, “Oh, you’re Italian” which is the exactly the same thing Charley Pride said to me when Ferg introduced me to him a year or so ago. Soon the front half of U2 exits and we continue on the spiral path, along with Bill and Karyn Frist and others to platform A, just in front of the mixing console.
Waves spontaneously generate in the thousands around and above us, and the excitement is tangible. A drum tech steps on stage and the crowd goes wild. Then the band appears on the wrap around video screen above the stage, as they too spiral towards their performance. They take the stage and start to rockin, thank you very much. It’s loud and amazingly full for a four piece, and of course we know they travel with 100 semi trucks full of gear, so it should sound good. After four songs, Cowboy’s had enough. U2’s amazing, but it’s time to go, and we walk quickly to the corner where Bob picks us up in Cowboy’s Sedan de Ville.
After dropping Jack as his hotel, Cousin Bob heads back to the concert, and Ferg, Matt, and I drive to Broadway Brew house for a drink. But Sweeney forgot his ID, so we’re turned away. We try Madison House, a fancy speakeasy place on Division I’ve heard about, but after waiting 15 minutes to get in, we give up and go our separate ways. It’s not quite 10pm, and Ferg’s gotta get his house ready for a birthday pickin party tomorrow, and also has to pick up Anna at the airport in the morning. He drops me at PM, as my car’s parked near there. I sit at the bar with some of the staff there, order food, watch baseball highlights, and relate what just happened.
Just another Saturday night in Nashville, my hometown.