"Goddammit, what's the matter now?"
Dan twiddled the volume control on his guitar until the feedback died away. This was the eighth time through the song, and they still hadn't made it past the solo. He glared at the figure standing opposite him in the cramped practice space. Seth had, once again, stopped playing and motioned for the five-some to stop playing.
"I just don't like how it sounds; I can't get my tone to cut through the mix." He said, shaking his head and looking nonplussed back at Dan.
"Dude, seriously, this is the freakin' fiftieth time we've been over this. Your tone sounds fine, you're already turned up way past me, and Aaron's already holding back so much, you've barely got four on the floor to play over." Dan replied, his irritation getting the best of him.
"It's not that! You don't get it, man. My tone would sound fine if I was stuck on rhythm." Seth exclaimed, showing off his knack for unknowingly insulting the people around him. "It needs to be thicker, you know, really show what I'm made of!"
"That's what she sa-" Marty the bass player began.
"Marty, I swear to God, if you say that one more time this practice I'm cutting your strings and strangling you with them."
Marty the bass player, Sam the lead singer, and Aaron the drummer all shared a smirk and a few giggles at this. It was to their delight to watch Dan deal with Seth every band practice, and if they could get in a few playful jabs to help wear on Dan's nerves, it made it all the more fun. Dan didn't really mind it. If he was in their shoes, and had to watch this ridiculous situation play out every practice, he wouldn't be able to resist trying to inject a little humor.
However, it couldn't be pursued. It was back to the wonderful match between rationality and ego.
"Look, we can all hear you just fine, no one has ever complained at a show about your tone, and your solos always sound great." Dan reasoned, attempting to reach him through flattery. He wasn't lying. That was why Seth was in the band, he could play. Not that Dan couldn't, it was just that Seth was one of those guitar players who had "it." Everyone knows when you have "it," and when you have "it," it sets you apart. That, and Seth was Aaron's brother.
"Man, it's not about the crowd hearing it, it's about the inner musician in all of us! How am I supposed to feel the music if I know it's not sounding its best, huh?" Said Seth, spreading his arms and looking around for support.
"You know what, Seth?" Said Aaron, piping up, "maybe it's your amp?"
Dan shot him a look of pure venom. If anything fed Seth's ego, it was talking shop, and Aaron knew it. Seth had already taken three months, five music stores, and two thousand dollars looking for an amp that gave him that "perfect" tone to go with his "it."
"Dude, I heard Marshall came out with a whole new design for their next line of amplifiers, I was actually thinking of trading this thing in. You know, I think the tubes need re-biasing anyway." Seth said, missing the sarcasm in Aaron's voice completely.
At this, Marty laughed out loud. "Dude, you can't re-bias a tube, only amps can be re-biased." Marty worked at the town's guitar store as a technician. He was a godsend for the band; he kept all their equipment running for free. The band exchanged looks as Seth rolled his eyes, trying to make up for his guitar guru bluff.
"Look, the point is, I might need a new amp, and if were going to rock the Blackjack show, then I'm going to need that tone." He said, attempting to put an air of finality in his tone. "We might have to dip into the fund to try and get this going. I mean, the show is only a month away, and we've got to make sure whatever amp it is, it's got the balls to keep up."
"Oh like hell, dude." Sam said, bemused disbelief on his face.
"f--k no." Aaron followed.
With that, yet another band practice fell into anarchy as everyone began arguing with Seth. They hadn't yet found a weapon that could pierce his ego shield, and Dan was sure they wouldn't find one anytime soon. #
It was just Aaron and Dan in the practice space that day. A week had passed since Seth had brought yet another practice down in flames. The duo spent half the time working out new riffs Dan had been working on, and the other half going over band business, which was usually punctuated with a lot of goofing off, commenting on the difference between girls in engineering major classes and liberal arts classes, and gossiping about the band. The two had been the original founders of House of Fire, and best friends for longer than that. It showed on and off stage.
"OK, next thing on the list," Said Aaron, putting down his sticks after a questionable chord progression from Dan, "guess what I heard about the Blackjack show?"
"Pyrotechnics are finally allowed?" said Dan, only three-quarters joking.
"You know, Dan, I swear you are just the reincarnation of eighties hair metal itself." Quipped Aaron, jokingly giving him a look of disapproval.
"Problem is, it never died! We're bringing it back!" Yelled Dan, sliding his pick down the neck of his guitar and ending with a power chord. "No, but seriously, what did you hear?"
"Earthshaker records is going to be scouting it." Aaron said simply.
"No shit?" Dan said, his mouth agape at the news.
"No shit." Aaron said, a grin forming in his face.
"Dude! That's fucking awesome! We still have some of those old EPs left, too! If we seriously rock that show, and have the demos on us, we could get signed right then and there!" Dan was ecstatic. This could be House of Fire's big break.
"You're forgetting one thing, man." Said Aaron, his smile fading. "Hardbottle is going on before us."
"Shit, I totally forgot." Said Dan, remembering the last time they had played with Hardbottle.
Hardbottle was the other big band in town. They had formed around the same time House of Fire had, and they had just as big of a draw at shows as House of Fire did. It was a contest, one or two weekends out of the month, of which band could draw more people to their respective venues. This was why the show at the Blackjack Bar was such a big deal; it was only the second time the two bands had ever shared a stage. The first time, Hardbottle had blown House of Fire out of the water.
However, there was a legitimate reason. For the first few years of the band, Dan had been playing lead guitar, and he wasn't half bad. Or so he had thought. As it was, Hardbottle was playing before House of Fire, and Dan had never seen them play. As soon as the first song started, Dan couldn't look away. The guitarist's hands moved smoothly and flawlessly over the fretboard of his guitar. Every note belonged, every note was on mark. It didn't look that hard to Dan, and licks the guy was kicking out were close enough to his style that he figured it would be easy to incorporate some of them into his own.
House of Fire took the stage that night, and by the time it ended, Dan was on the brink of swearing guitar off forever. Their first song had been a disaster. Dan had a solo written and memorized, but decided he would just feel his way through it, showing the crowd what he could really do. Needless to say, the crowd was less than impressed. Dozens of missed notes and sloppy riffs later, Dan sat in the back of Aaron's car, his gear packed up, waiting for the rest of the guys to get what money they made and get going. H watched as the guitarist from Hardbottle walked by, a girl under each arm, grinning from ear to ear. At that point, the band had decided to hire a second guitar player.
Dan snapped back to the present. He looked at Aaron. It wasn't that he missed playing lead; he was happy wherever he was. He just felt like he had missed out on a chance to really have some fun in the band.
"Doesn't matter this time. We've got Seth." Dan said, swallowing what he swore was bile.
"Yeah, that's exactly what's worrying me." Aaron said, idly clicking his hi-hat, a nervous habit Dan was well aware of.
"What do you mean? We know he can play live, it's not like they guy hasn't shred his way through a show before." Dan said.
"That's the thing, dude, anyone can put a shredder our front and make it sound good. But are we "Watch Seth play some really cool leads with some other guys on stage" or are we House of Fire?" Aaron said.
"We're House of Fire, and Seth is part of it. If he really gets out of hand, I'm sure we'll all know when it's time to confront him on it. Plus, you can't deny he's got the chops we need."
"Fair enough. You're the boss."
"Hey, don't make me sound like The Man."
Aaron laughed along with Dan as he cranked the volume back up on his guitar and went to work. They're conversation formed into a heavy groove as Aaron filled his way into Dan's riff. #
It was three days before Blackjack, and practice couldn't have been going smoother. Everyone was pumped, and Seth had kept his inner whiny bitch in check very well, at least in Dan's opinion. He timed a jump perfectly, landing and hitting the last chord of "Ace in the Hole" perfectly. He smiled as he looked around.
"Dude, what were you doing on the chorus?" Seth asked Sam, a look of confused disgust forming on his face.
"Well, mostly singing, like I always do." Replied Sam, attempting a defusing smile.
"No, man, it sounded way off. Have you ever tried putting a little bit more force into it? You know, really making it sting?" queried Seth.
At this, Marty sidled up to Dan and leaned over, whispering in his ear.
"Ten bucks says he starts bitching about what he used to do when he sang in Pewter Cub." Marty predicted, bemused.
Dan chuckled under his breath and looked over at Sam and Seth's exchange. Oh God, he thought, he's going to do it."
"Let me tell you, man, when I was singing for Pewter Cub-" Seth began.
Dan and Marty had to turn around with their hands over their mouths, attempting to stifle their outburst of laughter. The funny part was that Seth had barely noticed. Or his ego wasn't letting him care. Seth turned back to Sam.
"As I was saying," he said, sparing an eye roll for Dan and Marty, "when I was in Pewter Cub, it was all about vocals that hit you hard. I mean, you got pipes, man, but you really got to feel it from the diaphragm. Like this."
Seth stepped up to Sam's microphone and began playing the chorus riff, and launched into the vocals. He made it three quarters of the way through when his voice cracked on a particularly tough note. A tough note, which Sam had always hit.
"Well, I'm not warmed up, but you get the point. Did you hear what I was doing at the beginning there? That's what you have to do if we really want to shine at Blackjack."
Dude, why don't you just back off and let me sing?" Said Sam. He wasn't nearly as complacent when it came to dealing with Seth.
"I'm trying to help you and the band out! Don't get upset about it, just take it in stride and do it better next time." Seth said, taking a step closer to Sam.
"Shut the hell up, man. You don't know what you're talking about." Said Sam, taking a step towards Seth, bringing the two musicians an inch from each other's face.
"Whoa, guys." Interjected Dan. "Come on, we don't need this right now, we have a show in three days, we have got to keep it together!"
"Doesn't matter, Dan, we're better off without this hack wailer." Sneered Seth, "f--k it man, we don't need him, and I can't f--king work with him."
It was true, this wasn't the first time Sam and Seth had had it out. Aaron could deal with Seth because they were brothers, Dan considered himself a rational person, and didn't get angry easily, making it easy for him, and Marty just had a good enough sense of humor to laugh off anything Seth could throw at him. Sam, however, was one of those high emotion guys. It was great for stage presence, and it was great for lyrics, but in terms of rubbing him the wrong way, it could get things real ugly real quick. Dan ran up to instinctively grab Sam before he could take a swing, which he certainly would have had Dan not gotten there.
"Oh that's it," Seth exclaimed indignantly, backing away from the enraged and struggling Sam. "Look at this clown! f--k this, it's him or me guys. Just let him go, I can do vocals, I know all the words, it's not like they're complicated."
At this, Sam unleashed a semi-incoherent string of words that Dan could only assume were a puree of every four letter word known to man. "Come on, guys, it's Seth or Sam!" Seth said, looking between Aaron and Dan.
Dan didn't know if it was the way he insulted Sam, the months putting up with constant "tone adjustments" and "guitar lessons," of the simple fact that the dick had just referred to himself in the third person. He exchanged a look with Aaron.
"Sam." They said in unison. Marty nodded approvingly.
"Are you f--king kidding me?" Seth screamed, outraged. "You're going to take a f--king second rate bar singer over me? I am the music of this band, man! Without this guitar you guys will f--king crash and burn at Blackjack!"
"Dude, we did just fine a while back, and I got to say was had a hell of a better time."
"You know what? f--k you guys! I hope you have a fun time playing lead this weekend, Dan, you sure showed up Hardbottle last time! I'd love to see you do it again!"
The band watched as Seth packed up his guitar, pedals, and cords. He unplugged his amp, furiously coiled the power cord, and picked it up, preparing to walk out the door.
"You have no idea what kind of mistake you're making." Seth said, staring daggers at Dan and Aaron. Aaron, Dan, and Sam just stared back solemnly. Marty flipped him a double bird with a big grin. Seth stormed out.
"Well, thank God that ended on good terms. He has such a gentle demeanor about him, I'm glad he was let down easy." Marty said, breaking the tense silence.
"Let's call it a day, guys, we all need to chill a little." Sighed Dan, unslinging his guitar. He had a lot of work to do. One part of him felt like they were truly House of Fire once again, another part knew that he had to get all his old solos out, and he had a lot of work to do.
Band practice dissolved into silence as everyone packed up. #
It was Saturday night at the Blackjack. The place was packed. At least two hundred people crowded the large, open area in front of Blackjack's small stage. The place wasn't a huge venue, but it was one of the biggest the town had to offer. The actual bar sat at the back, separated from the standing area by a layer of tables. At one of these tables sat a group of three men, dressed in proper attire for a rock show. To the common man, they were faces in a crowd. To those with privileged information, IE the members of House of Fire and Hardbottle, they were the scouts. They were the guys sent from Earthshaker Records.
Dan eyed them from across the crowded room. He and House of Fire had taken their seats at a table on the other side of the large, square room. This was it, he thought, I can't screw this one up. He took a sip of his beer, never taking his eyes off them, until the curtain opened and Hardbottle took the stage. Dan turned around as they started into their signature opener, "Nothing Really Matters."
His jaw dropped, Sam did an excellent job of repeating his incoherent string of curses, Aaron choked on his beer, and Marty laughed. Seth was onstage, next to the guitarist Dan had failed to copy the last time they had seen Hardbottle. House of Fire stared as the song revved up, building and building until it was time for the solo. This was impossible, Dan thought, he's going to shred Hardbottle all the way into a record deal.
The drummer whipped a mean fill into the snare and Seth strode forward, swaggering into his first solo. He played three notes, and stopped. He began motioning to the sound guy, giving him an exaggerated thumb's up. The lead singer and guitarist looked at him in horror, trying to figure out why he needed to be louder. Seth strummed a few nascent notes, and motioned yet again for more volume. All the while, the band kept playing, trying to accommodate Seth on the fly. After the sound guy motioned that he couldn't get the volume up any louder, Seth shook his head and walked over to his amp. He took a full minute to readjust the settings on his amp.
When he finally stood up to play his solo, it was loud and it was phenomenal. He didn't miss a single note, and it was some of the best guitar tone Dan had ever heard. This happened three more times during Hardbottle's duration on stage. The three men at the table across the bar shared incredulous smiles as they watched him play, shaking their heads all the while.
Their attention dissolved into distracted talking for the rest of Hardbottle's set. #
It was time to play. House of Fire stood behind the closed curtain, the guitars tuned, the drums mic'ed, and the vocals checked. Dan stood their, nervously fingering a few scales on his guitar. He couldn't figure out what was missing. He turned around, and it hit him. Aaron's nervous hi-hat clicking wasn't there. Aaron was sitting behind his drum kit, eyeing Dan.
"You ready for this?" Dan asked him
"Yeah, but you're not." Aaron replied.
"Dude, I'm ready to rock. Trust me." Dan said, lying.
"Do me a favor, man. Just play some God damn music. Remember, you're no better than Seth if you f--k this up worrying about your guitar. We came to play, so that's what we're going to do."
Dan just nodded and turned around. He caught the sound guy's eye in the wing, and gave him the thumbs up.
The curtain opened and the crowd began to cheer. The lights were bright, but Dan took a step forward and the bar came into view. He could see individual faces in the crowd, he saw his parents standing in the back row of people, and he saw the three men from Earthshaker at their table. They were all looking expectantly at the stage.
Aaron launched into the hi-hat intro to "Ace in the Hole." Marty and Dan followed suit a few measures after, adding their guitar and bass to the mix. Sam began to wail and the crowd went wild. Dan looked around and couldn't help but smile. The mix was perfect. It had been so long since he had heard the real House of Fire; he had forgotten how well they blended. The song cruised along, Sam hit every note, Marty and Aaron had kept the foundation solid for the song, and Dan had carved every riff out of pure perfection.
And now it was four measures before the solo.
Dan stepped forward, starting the last riff before the solo, looking around the crowd. Three measures He began to let loose, felt the music flowing through him, headbanging and shuffling about the stage. Two measures He looked at the Earthshaker table. They were bobbing their heads along with the music, their eyes were on him. One measure He locked eyes with Seth, who had taken the empty table left by House of Fire. Hardbottle were nowhere to be seen.
He threw his whole body into the first wailing bend of his solo, cracking a smile right before he broke eye contact with Seth. His fingers acted on their own, flowing with the music, notes blending perfectly. He fell to his knees at the edge of the stage, letting the hands of the crowd encircle him and his guitar. He closed his eyes and let his ears do the work for him, letting them act in perfect unison with his hands, bringing the solo to a close.
The sound of the band resolved into a perfected synergy as his riffs rejoined the Aaron's drums, Marty's bass, and Sam' vocals. #
It was three minutes after they had gotten off stage, after their second encore. Dan couldn't wipe the smile of his face as he and the band exited from backstage to the waiting crowd. They were swarmed by screaming fans and grinning friends. As they waded through the crowd, Dan felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and was face to face with one of the three Earthshaker reps.
"Hey there!" he said, "Wicked show! Dan, right?"
Dan nodded, his grin becoming even wider.
"Mind if we talk to you and your band?"