The Current’s Nate Ryan was on hand as Jeremy Messersmith and his band made their network television debut on CBS’s The Late Show with David Letterman. Here’s Nate’s fly-on-the-wall story and photos.
Last Thursday was when we first found out that Jeremy was confirmed to be on The Late Show with David Letterman. At that point, we reached out immediately to Glassnote Records to see if I could come along. Glassnote was into it, Jeremy was into it, but we were really waiting on Letterman’s people, because typically they don’t allow photographers to go backstage at all. At the very last minute, we got approval from Letterman and from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment to send me to really cover Jeremy doing this. So Tuesday morning, I flew out to New York.
I actually met up with the band at MSP Airport; they were on a flight one gate over from me. Half the band were flying through Philadelphia; the other half were flying through Chicago. They had problems getting to New York; the Chicago people got delayed because of thunderstorms and were put on different flights and then arrived without luggage, so there was some craziness going on on that front. They flew into LaGuardia and then went into the city and everyone was staying with friends and family or in hotels all over the city.
The first call time for the band was 3:40 in the morning at the stage door, to have the band load in and meet the back-line gear and get set up. This was actually way earlier than normal; the Letterman show was doing a double taping — taping both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s shows — so it had Jeremy load in and then the other band was loading in right after Jeremy. A load-in at 7 a.m. is pretty typical, and initially Jeremy’s load-in was 4:45 — and all of a sudden it got bumped to 3:45, and at that point it was just comedic. It kind of just didn’t matter anymore. Jeremy was not there, but it was Peter Sieve, Ian Allison, Andy Thompson, Brian Tighe, and Dan Lawonn. I followed along for the load-in, which if a band had a crew, the crew would show up but not the band themselves, so it was kind of a little unusual to have everyone there.
After an initial setup, we actually all went to the green room for almost 45 minutes to an hour while the stage crew finished setting everything up, and then the band went out and did a rough sound check and line check of everything. The morning wrapped up by about 7 a.m., and everyone scattered, trying to catch a couple more hours’ sleep before returning to the Ed Sullivan Theater at 12:30 p.m. for the main load-in and sound check.
At 12:30, everyone was there, the full band, Jeremy, and several people from Glassnote Records, Jeremy’s label.
As everyone walked into the theater for the first time, everyone was just kind of awestruck by the fact we were in the Ed Sullivan Theater. It has such a different feel compared to what you see on television. On TV it looks so polished; it’s a small theater that’s been doing this for so many years. It shows its age, but there’s something really wonderful about that age, the history of the theater, being able to look behind the scenes and to be on the other side of those cameras.
The full band had to wait until about 2 p.m. to see the stage, as the show was running rehearsals with some of the comedy stuff. There was a nervous, happy apprehension from everyone about heading downstairs and setting foot on the stage. There was a great sense from the morning sound check; the room was a really great size, and the Letterman crew had a really great setup and layout for the band. All the band members who went to the sound check in the morning were vital for getting everything really dialed in so that the sound check went really smoothly in the afternoon; it was all so prepared.
After Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra wrapped up their sound check, all of Jeremy’s band’s gear, which had been completely struck and hidden away, was all brought back out quickly and set up by the stage crew. Jeremy and the band were ready to go through and start to do some sound checks. They did three full run run-throughs of the song; each time, the crew refined camera angles and lighting, getting everything polished and the sound mix dialed in in the basement sound-mix room. The band really tried to treat each run-through as a real performance; getting as close as possible to how they would do it on the show itself. That way, when it came time to do the show, they’d already know how it felt, building a feeling of, “We know how to do this — it’s just going to be muscle-memory to do it the final time for the real taping.”
There was a longer lull between that sound check and the show performance. The dressing rooms are up on the sixth floor, up above and along the side wall of the theater. There are two small dressing rooms, and then Ken Burns had the third dressing room along the hallway. Jeremy, the label people, myself and friends of the label people were spilling out into the hallway, so you had violin and viola warming up right outside of Ken Burns’s dressing room. Ken Burns came out and said hello to Daniel Glass, the head of Glassnote Records. Daniel introduced Jeremy to Ken Burns, and the two of them had a quick conversation and a couple photos together.
There was this long process of finishing up, with everyone changing into their final stage outfits, warming up, eating some green room snacks, and a sense of building anticipation going on during that time. Everyone was of sharing stories of how the travels had gone because they all had come through such different ways. Of particular note were the kind of trials and tribulations of getting the string players’ luggage, because their luggage didn’t arrive until about 10 a.m. Wednesday morning. Jeremy was hearing the stories from the 3:30 sound check and setup. I think one of the best quotes was from one of the Letterman crew members, who told Ian, “You guys sound really great.” And Ian said, “Oh, you’re so nice.” And the crew guy said, “No. I’m not.” It was kind of his way of saying he really, truly liked the band and its sound — a very New Yorker, gruff way of giving a compliment, which was cool. Just before showtime, everyone was rotated through hair and makeup, which was a floor below.
There was a really great moment, as the show started to tape, everyone was sitting down in the green rooms watching the video monitors that are showing live feeds of what’s happening on stage. The whole band was listening to David take the stage and do his opening monologue.
Watching the show in the green room, you see the first guest, you see the second guest, and while the second guest is onstage, the band are brought down to a second green room, a staging green room off the back of the stage. Some warm-ups helped keep the nervous anticipation at bay. Daniel Glass was there saying, “You’re gonna do great”, supporting the band. There was a respectful apprehension; no one was really crazy nervous, but everyone understood the opportunity and respected the little bit of nerves that were coming through that.
And then the band took the stage and played the song.
I think the reality only really started to hit as people started to play. Walking onto the stage, it doesn’t feel real because it doesn’t feel like what you know as The Late Show with David Letterman. The reality only starts when the stage lights come up and the house lights go down and the backdrop rolls in behind the band, then it really feels real. And seeing the band on the monitor screens as they’re really going through the sound check, it looks like David Letterman, but standing in the space, if you look from any other angle besides the camera angle, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it.
The song, “Bubblin’”, opens with the strings and there’s this really nice, quiet moment as it builds into Jeremy with his acoustic guitar. The only word everyone was using was “epic” because it builds and builds and builds until there’s this release, and then it drops back to just the strings and Jeremy. The crowd actually started to clap early as the song wound down, thinking it was the end of the song and started to clap a little bit, and then actually the song actually wraps on one last little time through the chorus before finishing up. “Bubblin’”, which was a little unexpected, was a request from the booking person at Letterman. When they heard they were going to bring the strings, the team at Letterman really pushed them hard to do this song, a song we haven’t really played much on The Current. It’s a song the band loves, but never really thought at all about it as a single. But in the moment, everyone was just really thrilled with the song selection; the label apparently really debated about whether that was an appropriate song to do.
The likely choice would have been “Tourniquet” or “Ghost”, but the song “Bubblin” just really worked well in the context and on that stage it just sounded incredible. There was really an incredible energy coming with this song because it just builds and builds into this really epic sounding song with the strings and the piano and three guitars — Jeremy’s acoustic and two electrics — and five people singing backing vocals. There was this great dynamic because the song is always moving and building, it just really worked well and felt really, really good for the moment. I was sitting backstage with a couple members of the label, and they were just really ecstatic about how it went, and the booking person from Letterman was really, really happy with how things went, and apparently right after the show, the monitor person said, “Yeah — that was great.”
The song selection was unconventional in many ways, but really perfect. Letterman’s team thought “Tourniquet” was fine, but they went back and listened to the album and said do this song. It really highlights Jeremy’s band and the dynamic range of Jeremy.
Though the whole sound-check and taping process, there was a really great dynamic between the band the crew. Jeremy’s band really respected the opportunity, coming into it with a mindset of “This is something special.”
The whole thing was over so quickly after all the hours of setup and anticipation. The band flew out just hours after the show wrapped. With an hour between the end of the show and the band catching a shuttle to the airport, there was just enough time to have a small celebration. Daniel Glass and other people from the label treated the band to a round of drinks and some food just down the street from the theater — sitting at the same table the Glassnote people took Mumford and Sons after their first Letterman performance.