As the coronavirus continues to spread, musicians are left to figure out how to adapt to a world in which live concerts are out of the question. While the live music industry as we once knew it remains crippled by the pandemic, we’re checking in with some of our favorite musicians to reflect on years past (both the good times and the bad), see what they’re most looking forward to once the ongoing live event hiatus comes to an end, and find out what they’d like to do differently when that time comes.
For the latest installment of this series, saxophonist James Casey (Trey Anastasio Band) offers his ‘2020 Reflections’. You can also read the previous installments of the series from percussionist Keita Ogawa (Snarky Puppy), drummer John Kimock (Mike Gordon), singer Shira Elias (Turkuaz), bassist Chris DeAngelis (Kung Fu/The Breakfast), and bassist Reed Mathis (Electric Beethoven, Billy & The Kids, Golden Gate Wingmen).
BEST GIG STORY
Aight, so when Jimmy Fallon took over on The Tonight Show, The Roots moved from Philly to New York and started doing these “Jam Sessions” at Highline Ballroom on Wednesday nights. I played a lot of them on saxophone with Igmar Thomas and lot of my friends came and sat in throughout the time they did this.
This one particular week, I wasn’t in a great mood. I was irritated with the other horn player who was playing with us because they couldn’t get the parts I was trying to scream at them in time to play the line. It happened so many times that at one point I just walked to the back of the stage by the drums and stood there, irritated. This particular day just happened to be the first Wednesday after Michael Jackson died, and after a few songs, The Roots went into a Jackson 5 song. Everyone in the audience was singing along, but there was no lead singer. I was standing in the back next to Questlove as the next song, “I’ll Be There” started. [Captain] Kirk, the guitar player, started singing MJ’s part (the melody). I was singing it as well standing in the back, but I knew the part that Jermaine sang (“ill be there to comfort you…”) was coming up. Quest had a mic next to him and he pointed at it and pointed at me, so I picked it up and sang that part. Mind you, at this point Questlove had never heard me sing except right there. Also, I had never sang solo in front of anyone since I was 4, let alone the 1000+ people who were there, not to mention all the celebrities and musicians I looked up to.
I sang that part and I was feeling good about myself! It was in my range, I knew all the words, I didn’t have to worry about anyone else messing up my part…it was great! The thing is, that part happens again in the song. So this time, Quest looks at me and points to the microphone at the front of the stage. No one was using it. It was all alone, in the middle, by itself. For a split second, my mind was reeling: “James, the hell are you doing?”, “You’re a saxophone player, you’re not a singer. You’re gonna make a fool out of yourself in front of God, your friends, Questlove, The Roots, Jill Scott (she may not have been there that night, I don’t remember), and all the musicians in the city you respect and admire” All that ran through my mind at the same time, but I ran up there and sang the part. The crowd actually started cheering when I got there.
If the story stopped there, it’d still be one of my favorites. But then, they played another song, and I knew it, so I sang it in front of all these people. And another song. And another, and another. I actually tried to call other singers up to sing, but they were all cheering me on. It sounds pretty made up, but Louis Cato was there with me and he got it all on video (while laughing at me). That night was the first time I sang lead in front of anyone as an adult and the night I truly decided to be an Artist and not just a Musician.
WORST GIG STORY
I don’t think I can tell the “Worst Gig Story” because I’m saving that one for my memoir. However, I can tell the “Most Irritating Gig I’ve Played Recently” story. In August of 2019, the Trey Anastasio Band had a run of shows in Colorado. Two in Denver, and two in Vail. I had never been to Vail, I hadn’t really ever heard of Vail. All I did know was that Denver is high up and every time I go there, I need a day to acclimate myself cause my lungs are trash. Actually, let me clarify—I have asthma. I also have bad lungs on top of that (about 70% lung function stemming from a medical issue). To top it all off, I was sick. I had a cold. Everything was s**tty.
I was supposed to fly out to Denver the morning before the show there, but LaGuarida [airport in New York] was a mess. They were doing their grand re-opening of some part the day after, so that day, they decided to basically close all the streets going to the airport off the freeway. It was so crazy that a mile away from the exit, flight attendants were walking with bags trying to get to the airport. Needless to say, I missed my fligh, but so did everyone else with a flight leaving from there. Sick as a I was, I had to take the first flight the next morning at 6 a.m. (and left my place at 3 a.m. to make sure I got there on time) and didn’t get to acclimate. Those first two shows were ok, but then we went to Vail. F**king Vail.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful there, but I couldn’t breath to save my life. When we got there, [TAB bandmates] Jennifer [Hartswick] and Natalie [Cressman] and I went to get sushi. As I ordered, Jen looked at me and said, “You ok? You don’t look good at all.” I got up, and almost fainted. Luckily, there was a store next door that sold oxygen in a can. I swear I bought 2 of the biggest cans they sold and was inhaling like a teenager hitting a bong for the first time. But I felt better, and it got me through the night.
Next day, we have a show. In Vail. The first of two, and I already know it’s gonna be rough. Management lined up a few more of those cans and there were three tanks backstage and one can onstage. I got through soundcheck and I felt good. Then came the gig…
If you’ve ever seen me play in this group, you’d know I switch instruments pretty much every song. This particular gig was extremely baritone saxophone-heavy. So [it’s] me, me with the bad lungs, and the asthma, and the cold, up in the highest altitude I’ve been in, playing the biggest of the saxophones all set trying my best not to pass out. Then, as I put the 25lb sax on the hook for the second-to-last song of the set, the strap doesn’t connect, and the 1964 Mark VI Bari with the low A key worth upwards of $25k, falls to the ground.
The microphone was on it so it was as loud as anything I’ve heard on stage with in ear monitors. I’m sure if you could see my face, all you could see was anger, defeat, and possibly dehydration and oxygen deprivation. The horn was mangled. No more Bari Sax for the rest of the show.
Fortunately, the amazing crew we have with Trey’s band took it down to Denver the next morning and had it fixed by the show the next night.
SOMETHING YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO GETTING BACK TO
I’m looking forward to playing with people. Music isn’t the same for me when I’m making it by myself, or with something pre-recorded. For me, the act of creating in the moment is the thing I miss more than anything.
SOMETHING YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO CHANGING
Honestly, I’m using this time to grow, personally and professionally. I’ve created an online platform called Aux Chord for artists to stream and perform behind a paywall, and looking out after this time, I want to find a way to break the paradigm of artists relying on everyone else to get their music out. This also means they are the last and least to get paid off of the art they create. I think Aux Chord can be the beginnings of a catalyst that can reverberate over the whole industry. [Find out more about Aux Chord here].
James Casey is an NY/LA-based multi-instrumentalist, singer, producer and composer. Born in Washington, D.C. to a musical family, and raised in Phoenix, AZ, he pursued a Music Business degree at Berklee College of Music. After leaving Boston, James moved to New York to continue to develop his passion for making music. Over the years, James has become one of the most in-demand saxophonists in New York and Los Angeles and has toured the world many times with many different artists. When not on the road, James has found a niche in the studio, producing and performing for many different acts, including his own, Animus Rexx. James is also xo-founder and owner of Aux Chord, an online live-streaming venue.
A current member of Trey Anastasio Band, James has had the opportunity to perform, record, produce and write with many of the world’s leading and most influential artists. Credits include The Roots, Phish, Meghan Trainor, Anderson .Paak, The Jonas Brothers, Maceo Parker, Carly Rae Jepsen, J. Cole, Leslie Odom Jr., Dave Matthews Band, Sabrina Claudio, Chaka Khan, Wu-Tang Clan, John Legend, Roy Hargrove, Soulive, Lettuce, Shawn Mendes, 5th Harmony, and many more.