When Jukebox Live breaks into "Shake, Rattle and Roll" on a boisterous New Year's Eve, the real world fades away. That, in itself, is ample reward for a musician. Take it from Lou Bell, the band's 44-year-old lead singer and keyboard player.
"Probably to any musician, it's the biggest night of the year. The best night of the year. It's the party time, where people -- no matter what is going on all year -- have a good time," Bell says.
It is a New Year's Eve band's solemn responsibility to usher revelers from one year to the next with ritualistic, soul-cleansing abandon. As Bell puts it, "We try to be the conduit [for audiences] to express themselves."
For a musician, the last day of the year also means a hard day's night with generous pay, and one more frozen moment to add to an accumulation of stage-side New Year's Eve memories and impressions.
New Year's Eve is a boon night when practically every professional musician in town has a gig. The Musicians Association of Metropolitan Baltimore lists about 65 bands among its member groups. Of that total, at least 50 will work on New Year's Eve, estimates Jack Hook, the union's secretary treasurer. And for each one of those groups, a handful of non-union bands will also play their hearts out Monday night, Hook says.
It is the "premium night of the year," he explains. A union musician's scale doubles to about $160 for a minimum of four hours work. "I daresay most will make more," Hook says. A non-union musician's salary may also double or triple on New Year's Eve.
This New Year's, the six members of Jukebox Live are playing the Overlea-Parkton American Legion. The group's repertoire spans pop music from the '50s through the '80s, and its following is approximately 25 to 50 years old. Bell expects the crowd on New Year's Eve to be composed in large part of devoted fans who appreciate the band's way with medleys by the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison and Tommy James and the Shondells.
When Bell thinks of New Year's Eves past, a sequence of quirky pictures comes to mind from the six years Jukebox Live has been together, and the 20 years-plus Bell has been on the music circuit.
"One year," he says, "we finished up and we were getting our equipment together and there was this one person sitting on a chair at a table. The rest of the table had left. This person was still there, asleep. We asked people at the hall if they knew this person. Nobody seemed to know him and I'm not sure whether he ever made it home or not."
Another year, just before the New Year's countdown, two audience members joined the band on stage, after they had quickly transformed themselves into the bearded, old year, and the beaming, baby new one, complete with diaper and baby bottle.
Once, Bell did not work a New Year's party. "I guess it was good for my wife and I. But personally . . . I think anybody that's a musician feels it's real important to be on stage. Maybe it's the ham in us. New Year's is kind of like the ultimate job."
For another group, New Year's Eve became the ultimate disaster. Ed Goldstein, director of the Peabody Ragtime
Ensemble, remembers when "one tiny little bug wiped out a seven-piece band." On the way to the date, at a posh private Baltimore club, "the car phone rang on the way. [It was] the clarinet player. He couldn't leave the bathroom," Goldstein says. "I started calling everybody I know who could play the clarinet." No luck. The seven-piece band was reduced to a six-piece band.
Halfway through the second set, "the piano player had to leave the room. And he couldn't leave the bathroom," Goldstein says. He was forced to play the piano with one hand and the tuba with the other. "It sounded awful and looked even stranger," he says. By the end of the set, the drummer did not look so good.
"The strangest part about the whole thing . . . we were playing for a party of mostly doctors, and nobody could do anything," Goldstein says. "It was something of a hopeless feeling," although the audience was sympathetic, he says. On New Year's day, he, too, fell prey to the bug.
This year, Peabody Ragtime Ensemble members will be scattered among several New Year's gigs. As part of a tuba, banjo and clarinet trio, Goldstein performs at the Inner Harbor Marriott hotel.
The only down side to working New Year's, Goldstein says, is not being able to spend it with family and friends. But on lucky New Year's, he adds, loved ones are in the audience and "we get a kiss right after we finish Auld Lange Syne."
Playing a New Year's Eve date can be an artistic compromise for some musicians. As a progressive jazz musician and composer, alto-saxophonist Hassan Sabree, the leader of a local jazz quartet, does not find many Baltimore venues where his form of "straight-ahead" jazz is appreciated, especially on New Year's Eve. But, he has sat in on quintets assembled for New Year's, when "people want to hear nothing too serious."