Zen Mustache played a show recently at Pete’s Monkey Bar (www.petesmonkeybar.com) and had a simply amazing night. It was a show to remember, with great energy and terrific performances. Afterward, someone gave props to the guys in the band who brought out a lot of people. I gave kudos to Geoff for putting together a set list that started strong and ebbed and flowed perfectly.
Then BJ replied with a comment that’s been bouncing around in my head for a couple of months: ”…while I agree that the setlist was fantastic, I think the real credit goes to the fact that everyone brought their A game and had tons of energy. That is really what we need to remember and try to capture every we time step on a stage. Even though it was far from the tightest show we’ve played, the energy from everyone was killer and really drew the crowd into the party.”
Okay, so I get what the A game is as a general concept. But what does it mean for me personally, in the context of bringing it to a music performance? There are plenty of stock answers. ”Play with technical perfection.” Or maybe, “Don’t worry about perfect, bring a high emotional quotient.” Or even, “Get some good rest before the show, and leave the distractions at home.”
All of these have merit in their own right, and yet I’ve been stuck on this A game thing. My thoughts take me back to a wedding from one of my best friends, Dan, who got married in a ceremony on Long Island several years ago. Cheryl and I were invited to stay with Dan and his boisterous Italian family at their home in Great Neck. Now that weekend churned out many stories, too many to capture in this post, but there is one memory that’s relevant. Dan’s parents have a wonderful grand piano in their living room. Opportunities to tickle grand pianos are few are far between for this humble hero, so when it was offered I gladly accepted. (It was so very fine.) Later, Dan’s older brother Michael took a turn and afterward as fellow musicians he and I got to swapping music stories.
Turns out Michael was active in the music scene back in L.A. He played with a variety of bands, usually on keys and occasionally on percussion. His most recent stint was with a group experimenting with world music. At the time I wasn’t even sure what that meant but here’s what stuck – Michael’s intention, when he was performing, to let the world melt away and play his own music.
Now we’re getting to the A game. I realize there are so many amazing musicians in the world. So many talented, accomplished men and women. If you could line them up in single file starting in New York and heading west, my place in line might be somewhere around Des Moines. But that machts nichts; when I bring my A game it’s not about being the best player in the world. It’s not about impressing anyone. For me, I’m in my A game when I am able to turn the focus inward, without losing the exterior connection with band and audience, and find my own message to deliver in that performance. What am I feeling? What’s happening elsewhere in my life? Joy from music? Humility and amazement at my kids? Underdog-like determination with the challenges at work? If I’m on my A game, then those passions elsewhere in my life find transformation in the live music show.
Obviously there are so many other pieces that must be in place to achieve a great show. The sound techs have to make the hardware work great, and the band has to be focused. The song selections must be tight, and the rehearsing can’t be minimized. Having a crowd of great people is a huge factor. There’s a boatload of work to set the stage for a great show.
Even with all those pieces in place, the A game factor is the one that maybe is the least tangible. If it’s not there, the show can still be good – very good, even – so good that many folks might not even realize there’s anything missing. But in a band like Zen Mustache, if we’re all on that A game, it won’t matter if you’re in the band or on the dance floor or casually listening at the bar. When Zen Mustache is on their A game, the experience is something not to miss.