New Year’s Eve: The best gig for musicians...
(unless nobody shows up at your party, or the singer forgets the music)

By Jim McGuinness, Kingsport Times-News, December 30, 2005


What to wear. Where to eat. How to get home should excessive drinking make driving unsafe at the end of the night.

Going out on New Year’s Eve requires a lot of planning.

That’s especially true if you’re a musician with a gig on the busiest party night of the year.

It’s an opportunity many musicians view as part of their job description.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re a musician if you don’t have a gig on New Year’s Eve,” said Jim Williams, bassist for Knoxville’s Hector Qirko Band, who will ring in 2006 on Saturday night at the Down Home in Johnson City. “The anticipation of the night, the pent-up energy from Christmas — whether it’s rage, disgust or whatever — all bring something special to the event.”

Benny Wilson also sees a New Year’s Eve as being a gig like no other. The Rogersville entertainer has performed every Dec. 31 since 1973 — a streak that will continue this year at the Holiday Inn in Bristol.

”It’s the biggest night of the year,” said Wilson, who plays some 150 gigs a year. “It pays more, and you get to play for a lot of people who don’t normally go out. Those people aren’t going out to sit around. They want to have fun and dance.”

The gig becomes even more special when a band finds an appropriate venue, as the Qirko Band has done with the Down Home, where they have become New Year’s Eve regulars.

Qirko sees the Down Home’s intimate setting as perfect for his band’s blues-based sound.

“I didn’t used to care for it very much,” Qirko said of New Year’s Eve. “Sometimes, it would be too frantic. But I really like it at the Down Home because the music is not just an excuse for people to get too loaded.”

Although they try to stay focused on the music, a band will sometimes pull out all the stops in an attempt to make the evening memorable. Wilson’s best New Year’s remembrance dates back to 1976 at the Oasis in Kingsport, when he played the role of Baby New Year — diaper and all.

“I walked on stage with the diaper and everyone got a kick out of it,” Wilson said. “It went over great, but I never did it again.”

Some memories are less pleasant. Qirko recalled a time he and his band were hired for a private party in Chicago. When they arrived, the atmosphere was less than festive.

“Nobody showed up — nobody!,” Qirko recalled. “Just tables covered in party favors and the band and servers standing around talking. It was pretty sad, but there was lots of good food.”

Qirko Band sax player Dirk Weddington remembers a New Year’s gig that was sabotaged by a band member who started celebrating a little early.

“The drummer was arrested for DUI on the way to the party,” Weddington said. “After scrambling to find a replacement and scuffling to keep the crowd happy, the drunken drummer bonded out and expected to finish the gig and get paid.”

Qirko band drummer Steve Brown recalls a gig at a swanky hotel in Gatlinburg that didn’t turn out as planned. Hired to be part of a pickup band for the evening, Brown met his bandmates shortly before the gig, only to discover that the singer/band leader hadn’t written out music for the 13-piece band.

To compensate, the singer would cue the band by making a gesture with his arms and shouting “ensemble” after singing the verse and chorus, leaving each musician free to play whatever part they deemed appropriate.

“I’ve heard trains going by that sounded better,” Brown said. “Needless to say, all the musicians got drunk during the break just to last the night. Oh, by the way, we weren’t asked back.”

The experience left Brown with a New Year’s resolution he follows to this day.

“I’ll never play in a pickup big band at a large swanky hotel in Gatlinburg without written-out music parts for every instrument,” Brown said.