Like Ted Striker in the Airplane! clip above, I (too) have been nervous lots of times. Taking exams, going into surgery, just about any type of public speaking..and a million other things. But, I’ve never been more nervous than when Massachusetts bluesman Albert Cummings handed my 13-year-old son his guitar. During a concert. In mid-song.
I had taken Max to the Turning Point, a charming old place just over the Tappan Zee Bridge in Piermont, NY, to see the newly up-and-coming Cummings, and on our way into the venue we ran into the headliner outside and introduced ourselves. I mentioned that Max was an aspiring musician and also played guitar, Max asked Albert a couple quick questions about his playing style, we said we were really looking forward to his show, and that was pretty much it. The whole conversation was probably under a minute.
The concert began a short time later, with Max and I sitting at a table up front. Cummings, fronting his power trio, was playing some scorching blues. After having discovered him just months prior, I’d been extremely excited for both of us to hear him live: myself, because there’s really nothing I enjoy more in life than a ferocious guitar slinger; and Max, because Cummings had impressed me on recordings as being one of the very few guys whose playing could even be considered reminiscent of one of his idols, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan,¹ who Max never got the chance to see. And as I said, Cummings did not disappoint, breaking out the fiery licks, the heavy bends, the wah-wah pedal, and plenty more throughout about the first three-quarters of the set.
At that point Cummings and his band began a traditional slow blues tune, and played it through a couple of verses and the first solo turn. Then, as the bassist and drummer continued unabated, Cummings removed his guitar strap, looked down to my son, and with a warm smile across his face, held out the guitar to him. Now, the Turning Point is by no means a large place – its narrow, stone-lined walls and intimate bar area probably accommodate under 100 people – but it’s still a live concert audience! And I, as the parental bystander, froze in utter panic. Fortunately, Max never hesitated. Up he hopped onto the stage, and with the guitar slung awkwardly low from the prior user’s 6-plus-foot frame, he began forming his solo lines. He led in slowly, rather than quickly playing a bunch of notes to try to show he belonged, instead presenting substantial reserve on the first pass through 12 bars. The second time through he played a couple of crowd-pleasing bluesy licks, then finished with some jazzier phrasing, maybe more along the stylistic lines of Walter Becker. The band smiled approvingly, the crowd roared unreservedly, and Max calmly handed back the guitar and bounded off the stage. Me, I still couldn’t breathe normally until several minutes later.
The thing that’s always stuck with me most about that incredible moment, beyond the thrill of seeing my young son up there capably hanging with the band, was this: What on earth gave Albert Cummings the idea that it would be okay to do it?! That in the middle of a live performance he could just hand a total stranger his guitar – a kid! – and not bring the show to an embarrassing halt. It’s not as if they’d talked about Max’s playing level or general capabilities during our extremely short pre-show exchange – I was there, and they hadn’t. There just must’ve been something unspoken shared – something, perhaps, only understood between musicians – that gave Cummings the seemingly audacious confidence to try. As much as I’ve spent my lifetime assiduously listening, that must be something only players can communicate. I can’t crack that code. And maybe that’s what made me so goddamn nervous.
¹Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Double Trouble” rhythm section of bassist Tommy Shannon and drummer Chris Layton were so taken by Cummings initial release with his band Swamp Yankee, they volunteered to play on and produce his debut solo recording, 2003’s From The Heart, their first recording project since Stevie Ray’s passing.