Gigs of our Lives – Danny Schmidt

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Just like you, The Riot Squad is going crazy at the lack of live music at the moment. We published a piece by Allan in February (just over three weeks before lockdown) celebrating the anniversary of his first gig in 1974. It was really popular and it was followed by a piece celebrating Steve Jenner’s first gig. After three months of musical famine we thought it would be good to ask some of our contributors and some of the artists we’ve reviewed in the past to write about a memorable gig that they saw or played. First out of the blocks was Danny Schmidt. We’re huge admirers of Danny’s work; he’s a gifted, erudite and passionate singer/songwriter (check out the review of his recent brace of singles “A Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision”) and we’re delighted that he’s agreed to share this memory with us:

 

Danny Schmidt by Theo Looijmans

One of the most memorable live shows of my life was the night I saw Eric Johnson at Steamboat in Austin, TX on August 28th, 1990.  I remember the date distinctly because it was the day after Stevie Ray Vaughan died.  Having grown up in Austin, I was a massive fan of both Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  They were two of my biggest guitar heroes, and I saw them live every chance I got from the time I was old enough to attend live shows.  And while their styles were vastly different, they were two branches descended off the same Jimi Hendrix-influenced tree.  And as I understood it, they were each huge admirers of the other’s work, if not close personal friends.

In 1990, Eric Johnson’s star was really ascending quickly, and he played two sold out nights, back-to-back at Steamboat, and I had tickets to both nights.  The first night was striking because Eric’s management team had upped the production value (and theatrics) of his live shows by having him enter the stage to a huge laser and smoke show, for several minutes, while he improvised riffs with his signature guitar tone, hidden from our view within the visual spectacle.  And the guitar built the crowd into a frenzy before the smoke cleared, leaving Eric in a literal star of lasers and a single blinding spotlight from behind, full-on Guitar God, shredding the room from his monolithic place at the center of the stage.  It worked my teenage self into an ecstatic state of guitar delirium.  That was how the first night of the two-show stand began.

Late that night after we’d all gone home and gone to sleep, in another part of the country, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter crashed, ending his life tragically, at the age of 35 years old.  We all learned of the news first thing the next morning.

The city of Austin was crushed, devastated.  The town was silent and shocked.  I felt hollow all day, in disbelief.  That night, I had to drag myself to Eric’s show, night #2 at Steamboat.

Instead of smoke and lasers and high drama, Eric took the stage silently, no lights, no effects, no roaring feedback guitar, no PA announcer welcoming him to the stage.  No one really knew the show was even starting.  Instead, he just shuffled to the mic, more of a fragile slumped human being than a guitar god.  And instead of shrieks of guitar, he gave a quiet, humble, candid, unrehearsed, vulnerable, heartfelt tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.  He just told the crowd how much Stevie had meant to him, and how much his work had meant to him.  The speech ended when he didn’t have anything else to say.  He just stood in silence for an extra few awkward seconds, and then turned and picked up his guitar.

He then proceeded to draw fire from the strings, and fill the room with a whirlwind of sadness, madness, grief, angst, fury, exhaustion, all of it.  He brought Stevie Ray’s Texas flood to life inside the walls of Steamboat. 

Eric is truly a virtuoso.  His technical skills are legendary, and even the hyperbolic statements about what his fingers are capable of doing on the strings are understatements.  Some have questioned his musicality and the emotional connection to his songs, or the inaccessibility of his music sometimes.  But on that particular night, we all bore witness to what’s possible when a bon afide virtuoso is channelling a well of emotion from the depth of his broken heart to the tips of his mythical fingers. 

It was an experience that literally left us all speechless.  As much as I remember Eric’s actual playing that night, I remember the faces of my two best friends who were with me at the show even clearer.  Between every song we would look at each other and try and utter some sort of statement expressing how amazing it was what we had just witnessed.  And instead, we could only stammer nonsensical sounds at each other, unable to form actual thoughts and words.  And instead we would just hug or high-five.  And then Eric would fire up the next song.

To this day, I can’t properly articulate the power and energy which swirled around the room that night, emanating from the stage, from Eric’s guitar, from Eric himself, with no theatrics . . . just a true master and a room full of open ears meeting together to share a night of grief and celebration.  For me, that night set the bar for what’s emotionally possible throughs the kinetic power of music.