This concert was quite a while in the planning. True, Tony and I had agreed this in principle well before the beginning of this year, but getting the nitty-gritties sorted out took a little bit longer than expected.
The first thing was Easter. Originally, our gig was planned for the end of March but Alfredo and Christine (Sueño Latino), Tony and Mary's (SalsaYork) SalsaWorks collaborators at the Engine Shed weren't sure about the level of attendance over the holiday break. Perfectly understandable - putting on a band even at mate's rates is a BIG commitment. So we moved it by a month (incidentally our Preston gig filled the vacated slot instead, and the dancers' support there was very good indeed).
The second consideration was that of PA. The Engine Shed has a built-in PA system that is billed by the owner Dave as a surround system covering two floors. One proposal was that we us it and just bring in an engineer with a desk and monitors. Dan and I were a little sceptical - trying to mix Front-of-House (FoH) with a surround instead of 'point' source can be an absolute nightmare. Whereas Tony had contact numbers of some engineers who would be willing enough to work with it, I thought it warranted a closer look. A couple of abortive attempts later, we made a scouting trip to The Engine Shed on a Friday night.
I'm glad we did. The 'surround' system consisted of four speakers suspended from a rig - one over each corner of the dance floor firing inward. The bass bins were mounted against the wall in the pitched roof! And connections from the desk into the wall were based on unbalanced TRS 1/4" jacks. Whilst possibly suitable for DJ decks and recorded music, it would take an engineer braver than we knew to take on a live gig with an 11-strong ensemble like 4 de Diciembre. There were a number of us from the band there that night, and we took the chance to dance and chat with the attendees to get a feel of the atmosphere.
Gig day was a Friday, and the band needed to get there in different batches since some of us had taken the day off work and others didn't. Everything was back to normal with hitches aplenty; it seemed as if they had taken a vacation for our Nottingham gig and were not back with a vengeance. The biggest "hiccup" I encountered co-ordinating our setup was with the venue owner Dave: I don't know what it was, whether he wasn't happy at having to open the place early for us to soundcheck (he wanted to kick us out before we'd done just so that he could go home and change), or perhaps he took our preference for using Blast PA as casting aspersions on his...
As a professional, it was a time for both Chris of Blast and me to grin and bear it.
On the PA side though, things were amazing. We were always going to be up against the gun because there were very little time between the whole band being constituted and the doors opening. Sound check was going to have to go like greased lightning. This is where the Yamaha LS9 Digital Desk came into its own. Chris had saved the individual instrument EQ settings from our Nottingham gig, which established a rough start-point once he'd finished dialling into the room's acoustics. The stage was very tight for eleven musicians plus instruments, stands and monitors; we weren't able to place the monitors in the best locations and Jan on violin was plagued by the feedback gremlin a couple of times during the night.
But the really staggering bit from a techie perspective was that Chris had gotten the desk control software installed on his laptop and linked to the desk itself via a wireless connection. This meant that during the course of our soundcheck, Chris was free to move about the venue to deliver an unparalleled coverage of sound. He could also move to the monitors beside each of us to give us exactly the foldback we individually required. No longer tied to the desk, I spied him about different parts of The Engine Shed during the night, tweaking our sound via the laptop. It's a brave new world.
Tennis Ace Martina Navratilova famously said, "What matters isn't how well you play when you're playing well. What matters is how well you play when you're playing badly." Such is our level of consistency that we reliably deliver a top-notch performance even under duress. And that's what matters. Hassle from the owner, lack of a dressing room to prepare in, cramped performing conditions, and poorliness failed to take their toll. At times like these, it is of paramount importance to focus on who you're playing for.
It's ironic how from stage, it didn't feel as if the playing came to us as easily as it did at "Dance Cubana", and therefore we inferred that we didn't play as well as we did then. This proved not to be the case at all. We have our own hard disk recorders which we use to immortalise digitally every concert we play. And upon listening back to them, I find both to have been of comparable standard, with each having similar proportions of better-played songs.
Human perception is a very funny thing.
4 de Diciembre offers me personally a unique opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. Having promoted a fair number of salsa events in my own time, I'd said time and time again that Latin music bands could more to lend value to their public than by simply delivering their songs.
When Alfredo, who was at my 12th Night Extravaganza workshop a few months ago, asked if we could provide the rhythm for the lesson warm-up beforehand, Jeremy and I were only too happy to oblige. It made the occassion seem a little bit more special, and got the dancers used to the feel of live music. And I joined the dance class once again, a bachata this time, to close the distance between dancer and musician. And Alfredo and Tony trusted me well enough to leave me to time the playing of our sets in order to build the best atmosphere.
In the end, it turned out happily (even for Dave). Was is worth the tribulations? Yes. Christine, Mary, Alfredo and Tony were, as always, very gracious hosts. SalsaWorks saw its second-best attendance numbers in its history. The dance floor was always full, the atmosphere was vibrant, and smiles were to be seen all 'round.
The cheeky dances I snuck in before leaving were the icing on the cake.