What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Allison LaBonne

When Jeremy Messersmith was invited to play Late Show with David Letterman recently, he brought his 10-piece band along with him to perform Heart Murmurs standout "Bubblin'" to its largest audience yet.

Gimme Noise asked Messersmith's guitarist Brian Tighe (The Starfolk/The Owls/The Hang Ups) to keep track of his insider experiences leading up to the show, as well as his overall thoughts on the performance itself. He kept a detailed journal of the New York adventure. Also included is violinist Jesse Peterson's harrowing account of losing luggage that almost derailed their plans to play Letterman with the band.

See also:
Jeremy Messersmith plays "Bubblin'" on Letterman

Letterman Journal
by Brian Tighe

9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning: We gather for rehearsal. Jeremy is fresh off a series of solo house concerts, so this is the first time the 10-piece band has played together since Rock the Garden. We've been practicing individually to a version of "Bubblin'" edited down to 3:30 for television. We run the song and thankfully Jeremy is willing to play it many times. This is a relief. He's notorious within the band for not wanting to practice.

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Pete Sieve

A couple weeks ago, the song choice was a surprise to us all. We assumed it would be one of the singles -- "Ghost" or "Tourniquet" -- but the producer at Letterman wanted "Bubblin'." I was thrilled. The song has such a climactic feel, I remember playing it at the record release show, feeling at a certain point during the epic bridge section like the entire band was levitating above the First Avenue stage. Would we be able to re-create that effect in the Ed Sullivan theater, on national TV?

After many song reps and pastries from Salty Tart, in high spirits, we pile into the van and head to airport.

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Emily Allison

I meet up with Allison, my wife, at the La Guardia airport. Poor Erica and Jesse can't find their luggage and we stay with them for a little while, trying to figure it out [Editor's Note: Check Jesse's story at the end of the piece to see how their story played out]. There's nothing we can do, and I realize I really need to get some sleep before sound check. As the taxi driver drops us off I mention we're playing Letterman and he doesn't seem to care. Allison says later, "You know, you don't have to tell EVERYBODY you're playing on Letterman."

3:45 a.m. Wednesday morning: Ian, Andy, Pete, Dan, and I meet at the side door of the Ed Sullivan Theater for an absurdly early sound check. They are taping two shows today, so it has to be this way.

I wasn't able to get any sleep, so I'm in a sort of waking dream state. We enter the theater and I'm immediately struck by:

1. How very small the space is -- it looks so much bigger on TV!

2. The freshly buffed luminescent dream blue stage floor.

3. How freakin' cold it is! "Dave gets whatever he wants," one of the crew tells us, "He says it keeps the jokes fresh and the audience awake."

4. The model cityscape I've seen so many times through the window behind Letterman's desk standing before me, the ultimate childhood fantasy train set. I want to play with it, live in it for a little while.

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Brian Tighe
What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Allison LaBonne

Soon enough, the crew leader shakes me out of this reverie. We'd been warned to wear thick skin when dealing with the supposedly jaded and irritable Letterman crew, and sure enough this individual seems annoyed with us.

"Where's the drum tech? Where's the guitar tech?" He turns to Ian, "Are you the tour manager?" We shake are heads, no, we're just the band. "You need HOW MANY vocal mics?" "Are you all really singing?" He turns to Andy, "You, the drummer, are you REALLY singing? WHAT are you singing?" Seems like we're in for a tough morning. Pete is shivering with his arms tucked inside his T-shirt and laments, "They said it would be cold, and I thought, 'Come on, how cold could it really be?'"

Ian sets up his bass amp and it's making an unwanted humming sound. "Do you know WHY the bass amp is humming?" the crew leader asks with a frown that actually... turns into a smile, "It doesn't know the words." We all laugh with nervous relief and it seems that someone's warming up to us in this chilly theater. "Don't worry," he says, "We'll take care of you. We'll make it work."

7 a.m.: Done with sound check. We have until 12:45, but I only manage to get a half hour of sleep. It's OK, the adrenaline is flowing, I still have plenty of energy. Allison and I manage to get lost on the subway, not wanting to pay for another taxi, but miraculously we make it back to the theater by 12:44.


What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Brian Tighe

2 p.m.: We gather onstage for full band rehearsal. I recognize Biff Henderson, the stage manager who's appeared in so many great, goofy Letterman skits. I notice Paul Shaffer is chatting with Allison. Is he flirting with her, or is it my imagination?

Everybody is hurrying, and I'm told to set up Jeremy's guitar. As I'm doing this, Biff yells, "Quiet on the set! We're checking the string section!" At this very moment, I plug the cable into the guitar direct box creating a massive popping sound that fills the entire theater. Everyone freezes. Biff is standing directly above me and I meekly mouth the word "Sorry," with what I imagine to be a panic stricken expression. He gives me a stern look, but then softens and and say's "It's all right."

We begin the full band rehearsal and I start to see the magic of the Letterman crew in action. As we play, they're mapping out and performing every camera move, every lighting change and I'm seeing it all on the monitors in real time. It feels BIG TIME.

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Allison LaBonne
What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Andy Thompson

After rehearsal we're in the green room and I recognize Tony Mendez, the cue card guy, also from a number of crazy Letterman skits. "You guys can have some snacks before you go, but the show is running long so we're not gonna have time for you to play today." Of course he's pulling our leg. "Have you been up in your dressing room?" he asks, "You know who's been up there, right? Elvis took a shit in that bathroom, you know?"

2:30 p.m.: Off we go to hair and makeup. They put foundation and powder on Jeremy's already pristine skin to even out the color perfectly. Looking at the polished effect in the mirror, Jeremy exclaims jovially, "I love this!" We all get a quick powdering as the hair stylist reflects on the Late Show coming to an end. "This is the best gig I've ever had," he says. "I've done presidents' hair before they were presidents, while they were presidents, and after they were presidents."

The phone rings, a page says Dave wants to know what "Messersmith" means. Jeremy gets on the phone and explains the old spelling of the original German name "Messerschmidt" means "maker of knives."

It's getting close to our stage time. Pete has a run-in with Kathy Griffin and her entourage coming off the elevator, "Get out of my way," she commanded as her entourage chuckled. She was probably kidding?

What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Allison LaBonne
What it's actually like to perform on David Letterman
Photo By Allison LaBonne

2:40 p.m.: I'm getting nervous about my guitar tuning. They said we'd have time to tune before we play, but tuning NOW would calm my nerves. I ask Biff Henderson if I could please get backstage to tune and he says, "You look like you'll be quiet," and lets me through.

I can hear Dave Letterman and Ken Burns talking very clearly from the set, and I try to plink the strings very quietly. Once the commercial break starts and the crew pushes the stage forward with our gear there is very little time.

"One minute!" somebody shouts. I'm frantically plugging my cords in. Someone is yelling like a drill sergeant about the power not being ready for Pete's amp. I can't believe this is it. I'm looking over at Dave's desk and he's actually introducing us. Is this real life? How strange it is to see Dave's desk from this side. The song is starting, and thankfully my hands know what to do. It goes by in a disoriented, adrenaline-infused flash.

After the song, Dave walks over to greet the band. I'm not one of the band members that gets to shake his hand on screen, but I run into him in the stairwell after the show and get to thank him for having us play. He tells me he really liked us and he seems sincere, I felt he meant it. He was in his gym clothes, probably going for a quick workout between show tapings.

Brian Tighe and his band, the Starfolk, will be playing the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, September 12, along with Holly, Dosh, and MC Alan Church.

Next: The Letterman Luggage Crisis  

The Letterman Luggage Crisis
(or the day that Erica and I almost didn't play Letterman)
by Jesse Peterson

We knew going into this about the airline carry-on restrictions. No brainer: Take our instruments with us on the plane, check our baggage with the pickups, DIs, cables, and clothing. Our instruments would be better off with us, in our hands in the airports, and safely stored above our heads on the plane. The other stuff can take the beating of being checked baggage. But we'll meet all that stuff in New York. Foreshadowing.

The Messersmith band had been split into two flight groups: one group with a layover in Philadelphia, and the other with a layover in Chicago. Chicago was experiencing some intense thunderstorms, so that group, our group, had a delay. Another delay. Board the plane. And another. Due to the delays, we miss our initial connecting flight to NY, but we are placed on a late evening flight.

When we land in Chicago, we see that there is a flight to NY leaving in about 15 minutes. If we can hustle to the gate and make the change, we can still have an evening out in New York. The concern, though, is, will our checked bags with all that important gear follow us onto the earlier flight? We don't want to wait around at LGA for hours for our luggage to meet us. The answer, we are told, is that "baggage always takes the first available flight, so yes, your baggage will be on the conveyor waiting for you." Excellent.

We arrive at LGA and head to baggage claim. Heaps of bags are going round and round. I don't see my bag. Neither does Erica. We wait. People are grabbing their bags and scrambling off to their evenings. There are fewer and fewer bags going round and round, until there is only a handful. All right, maybe it's time to go to the claims office and ask if our luggage is going to come on that later flight instead.

There are only two people working in the claims office, so the long line takes a long time. Erica and I finally get to the desk and show the clerk our claims tags. "Your bags are still in Chicago." "OK. Can they be placed on a flight and still be here tonight?" "There are no more flights to NY from CHI tonight. We can have your bags here tomorrow probably by around noon." This is terrible news. Erica and I need to be at the Letterman studio in Manhattan by 12:45 p.m. LGA to Manhattan usually takes longer than 45 minutes midday. "We really need our bags before that. It is very important. Is there any way we can have our bags earlier?" The clerk tells us that she can file an expedite form that will put our bags on the first morning flight, and that we can pick up our bags in the claims office at around 9 a.m. I tell the clerk she just told me a beautiful thing. We can still play Letterman.

Erica and I are both staying in Manhattan. We share a cab, and after arriving, part ways and plan to meet at LGA at 9 a.m.

9 a.m. at LGA: Erica arrives first. The baggage claim office does not have our bags in their office. They scan her tag and tell her that her bag is nowhere in the system, but that it is possible that someone forgot to scan and that the bag might arrive on the carousel within the next few minutes. Erica tells me when I arrive. We wait, still optimistic. When the carousel gets down to the last few bags, I enter the claims office to see what we do now, since we don't see our bags. The answer: we can call a 1-800 number and file a reimbursement report for our lost items. Oh, man. We need the items in those bags to play Letterman. We need to play Letterman. Calling a 1-800 number does not help us play Letterman.

We ask to speak to a supervisor, and when he appears I sum up the situation, going all the way back to what we had been told about bags always taking the first available flight. Our bags were supposed to meet us here. We need the items in the bags to -- and I just decide to say it -- play Letterman. We don't get much of a response from him, but he's typing furiously at the computer. He finds the expedite report. It was done incorrectly. Our bags could be in LGA, but they could be in CHI, MSP, or ATL for that matter.

We need to play Letterman. OK, time for a backup plan.

We text, email, and call everyone we know who might be able to help us get what we need in NY as we take a car back to Manhattan. We still may have enough time to solve this before the 12:45 call time, but we have pretty specific needs to properly amplify our instruments so they blend with the rest of the group. And we need dark clothes for the show. That's a lot of things to gather in a short time.

We're nearly in Manhattan when I receive a call from the supervisor at the claims desk. He might have our bags. He says they are somewhere at LGA, he just doesn't know where yet. I tell the cab to turn around. He makes a swift U-turn in the midday traffic. This is terrifying. The driver notices our reaction. "Don't worry. It is not in their best interest to hit us."

We walk to the claims office for the third time, and we don't see our bags. They've not been located, yet. A tall man walks up to us and says, "If I find your bags, you're going to be on Letterman tonight?" We say yes. "All right. I'm going to find your bags." He walks to his airport trolley car and zooms off towards another terminal. After 30-45 still anxious minutes, he returns, with our bags in hand. We thank him profusely. He just says, "My pleasure. Now go play Letterman. I'm watching you tonight."

We hop in a car back to Manhattan. We'll have just enough time to change and walk to the studio. Exhale.

Erica and I make the 12:45 p.m. call time for strings. The Letterman staff is wonderful to us. Letterman is wonderful to us. We play Letterman. And we learned that NY has a big heart.

Here's a few other recollections from other members of Jeremy's band:

"After the last run-through at the studio, I saw Jeremy start jumping straight up and down like a little boy on Christmas. He was smiling ear to ear and let out a giddy squeal. Biff Henderson turned to him with a concerned look and asked if everything was OK. Jeremy said, "This is just awesome!"

I'm so grateful to have shared such a beautiful experience with such amazing people and musicians." --Josh Misner, violinist

"I have a vague memory of the audience applauding before we were done, but, mostly, I recall thinking, 'It's over? We already did it?' when Dave walked out to shake Jeremy's hand." --Jesse Peterson, violinist

"Yep, I'm pretty sure I blacked out for those 3 minutes and 30 seconds." --Peter Sieve, guitarist

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