The question on everyone’s lips was, “What is this going to be like?”
The answer was, “Fabulous.”
Over the years I have done my share of concerts with acts from the popular music culture. It started when I was the assistant conductor in Saint Louis. We had a series devoted to the earliest attempts at crossover, performing with diverse artists such as the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, B. B. King and Odetta. Symphonic Rock was in evidence with the work of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Metallica had a show arranged by Michael Kamen.
But that was in the past. Now a new collaboration emerged, involving the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and one Kid Rock, a kind of bad boy of rap and Southern Rock. He has been a part of the Detroit cultural scene for most of his 41 years and has a huge fan base here.
During the DSO strike, Dan Gilbert from Quicken Loans called Kid and asked him if he would be willing to do something to help raise money for the orchestra. A little more than a year later the result came to the stage of the Fox Theater, a 5,000-seat movie palace located a quarter mile south of Orchestra Hall.
When I first learned that this event was going to take place, my thought turned to only one person who I believed truly qualified to do the arranging. Rob Mathes is the go to guy for gigs such as this. His credentials as both a classically trained musician and a rock star were impeccable. He had only a few weeks to put 14 charts together, but Kid Rock and he had worked together at a Kennedy Center Honors show a couple years earlier, so they knew and respected each other.
After a preliminary meeting at Kid’s house, we had only two rehearsals to put the show together. The first was at Orchestra Hall, three days before the Fox event. The scores did not arrive until 2:00 in the morning before this rehearsal and even then, four were still missing. Kid Rock and his guitarist Marlon Young, along with percussionist Larry Frantangelo were there to sing and play along as we went through the music.
I asked Rob to conduct this rehearsal, as he knew exactly what he wanted and had worked with the band to make sure that everything he had written was what they wished to do. My role was to sit next to Rob and take notes as well as offer a few suggestions of my own. It was evident that everyone was taking this seriously. Professionalism was on display throughout the rehearsal. There was no question that Kid Rock was an enormously talented individual. The arrangements were first class and the orchestra got behind the project whole-heartedly.
But this was more or less an acoustic rehearsal and it remained to be seen, and heard, as to how the full 10-piece band would fit with the 60-piece orchestra in a 5,000-seat venue.
The day of the concert arrived and we all headed out to the Fox, a glorious piece of 1920’s architecture that truly brought out the spirit of the time. The orchestra was positioned behind the Twisted Brown Truckers, and I met the other seven members of the band. For these types of shows, it is essential that I have contact with the drummer, in this case the fantastic Stephanie Eulenberg. Many of the songs are counted off by her, and through some nifty electronic devices, she is able to maintain the steadiest of pulses.
First, we had to get an idea of how the orchestra sounded. Clearly we could not simply play without amplification, even for the purely orchestral pieces. Kid Rock’s entourage included almost a dozen people assigned to the task of audio engineering. A mixing board was positioned in the center of the auditorium and after about a half hour, everyone seemed satisfied with the balance. We played five selections from the classical canon, with music by Copland, Beethoven, Bizet and Rossini serving as the warm-up to the show.
The band came on and we began what had to be an almost impossible task. How to make his group compatible with the DSO. We worked on the first three charts and after another half-hour, most of the balance issues we solved. Since the loudspeakers were directed at the audience, the overall volume for us on stage was not too overwhelming. Some of the orchestra wore ear buds, so they could clearly hear Kid Rock’s band. I chose to use the monitor that was positioned next to my music stand.
Once again, professionalism came to the fore, as we worked our way through the hour-long set of charts. Some of the numbers were hard driven Southern Rock, others were hard driven rap and there were a couple ballads. Surprisingly, Kid Rock sang more or less full voice, and I worried that he would not have enough left for the entire concert.
We finished the rehearsal right on time, giving the members of the orchestra two hours to get some dinner. I stayed at the Fox and hung out with some of the band. It was also an opportunity to spend a bit of time with Rob.
Concert time approached. The orchestra’s attire was a tuxedo for the men and black for the women. During Kid’s first song, we donned fedoras, one of his signature clothing accessories. At first, we believed that the majority of the audience would not arrive promptly at 8 and we thought we might start up 15 minutes late. In the end, we wound up pretty much on time and after some introductory words, the curtain opened and 5,000 screaming members of the audience greeting the DSO.
We began with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which seemed appropriate for the evening. It was not a typical audience and so there was chatter during our performance. People started up a “DSO! DSO!” chant. When I told them that we would like to take all of them on the road with us, a huge cheer went up.
Just as soon as we played the four-note motive that begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, another roar came from the crowd. After much thought, I had decided that rather than playing pieces that had a connection to the popular culture, it would be better for the audience to hear us in what we do normally. This elicited standing ovations and prolonged applause. All of us were having a great time!
Without much pause, the Truckers came onto the stage. After a four-chord intro, we launched into “Devil without a Cause” and Kid Rock entered, sending the audience into frenzy. I have to say that I did not know all that much of his work prior to this show. Some of the tunes were familiar, but Kid Rock is such a Michigan institution, and I am just a newcomer. But there was never any question as to his talent, energy and commitment to Detroit.
Prior to “Times Like These,” he delivered an impassioned speech about the wonders of the city and how Detroiters were not ever giving up hope. To close the orchestral portion, he sang “Born Free,” a patriotic salute to the United States. If Michigan were a country, Kid Rock would have been elected President right then and there.
I am not sure if I will ever conduct “Bawitdaba” or “Rock and Roll Jesus” again but it was certainly a lot of fun. The audience got what they came for, we raised 1 million dollars for the DSO’s educational and community programs, and Duke Ellington’s motto remained intact.
“There are only two kinds of music; good music and the other stuff.”
There was no other stuff on this night.
Following the concert there was an after-party down the street. This took place at another old movie palace, now called the Fillmore. With a DJ performing along with a couple Cirque de Soleil type acrobats, high-end patrons mingled with members of the band and roadies. It was quite a sight.
It was never my intention to recruit new subscribers for the DSO. Kid Rock’s fan base is probably not so tuned into Wagner or Haydn. But there was no question that people who really did not know much about us came away with at least a respect for who we are. New friends were made, old ones were satisfied and the memory of this concert will stay with us for a long time.
Plans are already in the works for a sequel. We hope that there is enough useable material from the concert for a CD and DVD. I am now officially Leonard “Badass” Slatkin, as Kid Rock told the audience. I am also keeping my fedora.
My congratulations to everyone involved in making this event possible. The DSO staff, Kid Rock’s staff, the Fox staff and my incredible orchestra. There are not many ensembles that could switch from Saint-Saens and Haydn the night before, to “Rock On” less than 24 hours later.
But we all needed a day off to recover. There are truly two kinds of exhaustion. This was the good kind.