Chasing Paul Gilbert
A headbanging fan’s account of following the guitar legend around UK for a series of concerts and clinics
Mr Big was the first rock band I ever knew. At the age of four, I used to glue myself to the television screen every time the video for ”˜To Be With You’ was on. Many years later, as a teenager, in the traditional rite of passage as a student in Bengaluru, I was introduced to the world of heavy metal through Iron Maiden and I have not looked back since. When I discovered Racer X as a natural progression through the world of metal, I had no idea that the guitarist, Paul Gilbert was the same guitarist as in Mr Big. The day that revelation dawned on me was the day I started worshipping Paul Gilbert.
All of us have fantasies about meeting our heroes. None of my years of dreaming of catching Paul Gilbert live prepared me for what actually happened. It all began in London.
November 14, Astoria 2, London: The VIP ticket says the lesson begins at three, so I’m there at two. I wait in freezing cold for 45 minutes before meeting the other VIPs all of whom have far more intimidating guitars than I do. Paul’s going to be a little late as he has gone out for Chinese food. Soon an amplifier is set up and the six of us sit in a semicircle around Paul, about to experience the most exhilarating, harrowing and unforgettable jam of our lives. Paul picks up his hollow body Ibanez (which I find out later he got off eBay!) and starts us off in a simple groove in the key of A.
“You guys are awesome. That was great!” are his exact words when it’s over. I know he’s just being polite, but every nuance of that phrase is singed into my brain. Paul talks to us about technique, practice regimen, recording and orchestration, his influences and his recent tour with Joe Satriani and John Petrucci. He is a tremendous teacher and a wonderful person to talk to.
“The biggest challenge [for me] was the first year that I played guitar, because I was terrible”¦ I still wish I could play a guitar as well as I can play a kazoo,” he confesses. “My vocal range is the equivalent of having a guitar with three frets.” There is useful advice: “Guitarists who tend to phrase really well are musicians who have to breathe like singers or trumpet players.” He laughs off the topic of hearing loss saying, “There are many good things about hearing loss; I can sleep through anything.”
We then begin the second most exhilarating, harrowing and unforgettable jam of our lives, this time in the key of C. Another discussion follows until Paul joins the band for the sound check. As bass guitarist Craig Martini, drummer Jeff Bowders and Emi Gilbert on keyboards finetune their stage monitors, I make an exciting discovery. The VIP pass for today’s concert doesn’t specify a venue. Perhaps I could use it at the show in Leeds in four days’ time.
The band wraps up with scorching versions of ”˜Hurry Up,’ ”˜Scarified’ and one of our requests, ”˜Bliss.’ Nothing left for us to do now but wait. I walk around the venue and run into Bowders who tells me that, at our request, ”˜Bliss’ will be in tonight’s set!Â The doors open at seven and as people stream in, we recount our amazing story to them. Paul and band hit the stage at half past eight to roaring applause. The next two hours comprise the finest showcase of musical genius that many of us will have the privilege of experiencing. The set consists mostly of instrumentals from Paul’s new album Silence Followed By a Deafening Roar. Also included are three Racer X instrumentals (”˜Scarified,’ ”˜Technical Difficulties’ and ”˜Viking Kong’), two Mr Big songs (”˜Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy’ and the legendary ”˜Green-Tinted Sixties Mind’), a blistering drum solo from Bowders and a transcendental version of the Hendrix classic ”˜Red House,’ which I relay over phone to a friend back in India.
November 18, Rio’s, Leeds: After a quick brunch (my last meal for the day), I’m at Rio’s even before the band arrives. I manage to impress the staff with my VIP pass from London and they let me in. At noon, Paul, Craig and Jeff walk in. They remember me from the London show. Unfortunately, I cannot participate in the jam with Paul as I am not a VIP at this concert. After being shooed away by the tour manager, I run into Craig who invites me to sit with him as he changes his bass guitar strings. He tells me fascinating stories about this, his first tour with Paul, like how in Luxembourg on a day off, with a duffel bag full of dirty clothes in hand, he asked the hotel concierge for a Laundromat and was instead directed to a lingerie shop, and how at really cold venues like this one, they warm their fingers up using Paul’s wife Emi’s hairdryer. We grab a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks, where the conversation moves on, inevitably, to the subject of Paul Gilbert.
Although the set list is almost the same as in London, the show here is even better. It is a smaller venue with better sound and a more enthusiastic audience. I decide to wait with the crew as they pack up. Paul’s guitar technician, Lee, offers to put my name on the guest list for two more shows that I’ve just decided to go for so as not to let my Paul Gilbert experience end today.
November 19, Newcastle: After an arduous bus ride I get there at four, and run into Paul and Emi entering the venue. I sit through sound check again, grab my spot in front and wait for the start two hours later. The show is flawless except when Paul turns to the crowd and says “We love you Manchester!” eliciting loud boos. Paul decides to make up by performing an impromptu drum solo during the encore, proving once again that he is one of the most terrifyingly gifted performers around.
November 23, Bristol Bierkeller, Bristol: This is the venue everyone was dreading. I understand why. The words ‘rancid dump’ leap to mind as I walk into this dingy room complete with sticky floors and dance poles. What on earth is Paul Gilbert doing performing at a place like this?
Having got to the venue late, the crew rushes to get everything set up in time. There’s no barrier and this is the closest I’ve been to the stage at any performance. I stand in front of Emi Gilbert, whose performances have been stellar. She switches comfortably between styles; on the piano solos in ”˜Red House,’ she is outstanding.
November 25, Concorde 2, Brighton: As I get off the bus I see Paul and Emi walking towards me. We exchange pleasantries and they ask me if I know any good restaurants in the area before giving me misleading directions to the venue. An hour later, I stumble upon the venue, right on the beach promenade. My routine is unchanged: hang around while the crew sets up, chat with band and crew, get to the front row for the sound check and not move until the show begins.
Craig’s performance is powerful despite his head cold. His logic is that most people today are going to get to see him only once and it would be unfair if he didn’t give it everything. This is clearly a sentiment that is shared by the band and one of the reasons that this tour has been so successful. The last notes of the Who’s ”˜Long Live Rock’ echo through the hall, signalling the end of the concert, the tour and for me, the experience of a lifetime. The audience trickles away, stunned; the crew packs up and reminisce; and I try to steal as much gear as possible from the emptying stage before I am noticed. It is a long and depressing bus journey back home tonight.