Upon his return from Los Angeles, California local Mike Gill looked a little out of sorts. He's just spent a full week in the City of Angels where he underwent a series of mind blowing experiences, and it's almost as if he's looking at the world with new eyes––now capable of envisioning a whole mountain of once unfathomable possibilities.
The slight tinge of unease he projects coincides with the fact that he's still processing all of his experiences, of which he has such a profound gratitude that he's inclined to feel a little unworthy, perhaps even guilty.
I'm worried about becoming narcissistic," Gill says with utmost seriousness.
"The whole thing almost seems like a dream. It's like, did that just actually happen?" he says, then simultaneously rolls his eyes and takes a deep, sort of exhausted breath and adds: "I know that it's an over used cliche ... it was just such a great experience."
Gill, a graduate of Yellow Medicine East who holds a music degree from the University of Minnesota, traveled to Los Angeles in order to accompany a Johnny Cash Tribute Band, "The Walking Phoenixes," for a performance at Folsom Prison to be held 45 years to the day after Johnny Cash famously graced the facility with his music.
If the band name rings a bell, it should. This past summer filmmaker and Phoenixes frontman, Drewin Young, arrived in Granite Falls to obtain footage for a documentary on veterans, having been invited to the area, and hosted, by Yellow Medicine County Veterans Service Officer Michelle Gatz. Young not only brought his camera but also his band members, who played gigs at Prairie's Edge Casino Resort and in Marshall.
Prior to their arrival, Young asked that a few locals be rounded up who might participate in the show. Gatz pegged both Gill and Dann, who subsequently auditioned during an evening of karaoke at the Legion.
Liking what they heard, both were asked to come showcase their talents with the Phoenixes on stage. For Dann this meant bringing her vocals to musical numbers that typically included June Carter. For Gill, it was his accompanying sax.
Both shows were a hit with audiences, and a crowd of over 1,000 at Prairie's Edge would earn the right to become the largest venue Gill has ever played.
That experience alone was enough to send the 24-year-old into the stratosphere. But as it turns out, Gill's ride was just getting started––and now there's no telling how high the man will go.
Prior to the departure of the Phoenixes, Young would talk to Gill about flying out to L.A. Naturally, Gill would take it with a grain a salt. But then October arrived, the phone rang and Gill's talents at saxophone were formally requested––this time for a performance in Folsom and on the groups forthcoming CD.
Page 2 of 4 - To hear Gill recount the week long visit from January 8 - 15, it was a surreal experience from the start––the sort of pop-culture cliche' where the young wholesome country boy is discovered in some small, rather unassuming town, only to find himself surrounded by those who were already an acquaintance, albeit one-sidedly, through radio and/or TV.
"The first night we went to Cafe Cordiale where there was a jam session with the L.A. studio cats," he recalled. "It was solid."
Gill said Walking Phoenix guitarist Greg Karagianis seemed to know everyone a part of the session.
"Look to your right," That's Simon Philips from Toto." he told Gill.
And this was only the start.
Also on hand were American Idol, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder percussionist, Roland Gajate Garcia; Dave Matthews Band trumpet player Rashawn Ross; Christina Aguilera bassist, Ethan Farmer; Chaka Khan bassists, Andrew Gouche––and so on and so forth.
In between Tuesday's jam session and Friday's performance, Gill would visit Karagianis's place of work and be afforded the opportunity to observe the guitarist by-night master soundtracks on movie trailers. He would also roll out of bed Thursday morning, grab a sax and record the main melody for Ring of Fire as well as the solo breaks in Folsom Prison Blues, in one of the band members in-home studios.
The CD, Gills said, is expected to be become available sometime this month.
Friday was spent driving the five-and-a-half hours to Folsom, where a minor disappointment would be confirmed. There had been miscommunication somewhere along the line at the prison and the powers that be had decided the band would not be permitted to play inside the facility. And so, as an alternative, the 850 seat Folsom Lake Community College auditorium was booked. "I inferred we would be sending the wrong message to the public that we were performing for the inmates," Gill said.
Their arrival into Folsom was met with a nice exhibition of fanfare––as a meet and greet was held at the band's hotel that brought forth community leaders including a former mayor, members of the Folsom police and several other individuals considered key to the town's present well-being and function.
The big show
Heading into Saturday's performance things throughout the week, even outside of the change in venue, had gone far from perfect. Getting off the plane Gill found his saxophone had been banged up and needed repair, and both he and Phoenix member Nick Ineck had become ill. Meanwhile, Young's truck broke down, his cat was hit by a car and his dad's tooth fell out.
Said Gill, "Everybody was on edge."
As fate would have it, the band would manage to overcome all of the issues––wherein there existed a possibility––and the show went on––or more accurately, went on and rocked the house.
Page 3 of 4 - Gill said he arrived at the auditorium at about 3:00 p.m., and the band went over sound checks.
"I was nervous the whole day," he recalled. "I was just pacing back stage, drinking water constantly and just trying not to shake. But I was."
A crowd of 600 turned out for the two set show, with all four songs in which Gill contributed coming in latter half of the performance.
It was a few songs into the second act when Gill would make his appearance. The curtain was down behind Young who stood on the stage with only his mic and guitar. He then announced, "All the way from Granite Falls, Minnesota: Mr. Michael Gill."
Gill stepped on stage to rousing applause, which exploded when the two dove into a rendition of "Ring of Fire." Afterward, he would accompany the band on two additional songs prior to the band's final act, "Folsom Prison Blues."
Up until this point, Gill said that Young and the rest of the band members had managed to masterfully connect with the crowd, bringing them along in a manner that ensured that the audience would reach maximum frenzy.
"On the last song the place just erupted," he beamed. "There were people dancing in the aisle and a bunch of hooting and hollering, because it was their song."
As they approached the last saxophone solo, Young would throw a curve ball Gill's way.
He looked at me and just said, "Dude, follow me."
Watching Young make a b-line into the crowd, Gill had little time to think and so simply went with the flow and reacted.
Eventually the two found themselves at opposite ends of the auditorium and proceeded to call to one another in a little instrumental give and take. In the fore and after they were moving and playing amongst the audience, up and down the aisles.
"To be able to run, actually sprint, and blow air into the horn at the same time––I was ready to pass out. But the song was still playing."
Gill said that he mustered all of the wind he had left to complete the song, which was extended to the crowds delight at the lead of Young.
"Me and Greg took a couple of more solos and Drew was like: come on keep going––and people were just going nuts. You could tell they really dug it and they gave us a big standing ovation."
It's tough to imagine the crew sleeping that evening, but one way or another the next day arrived and the lot was taken on a tour of Folsom Prison. There, they took in the museum, were shown locations that Johnny Cash had once occupied and had the opportunity to talk to some of the guards that were there 45 years earlier when Cash made his iconic appearance.
Page 4 of 4 - A long drive back to L.A. followed, before a long Tuesday flight back to Minnesota. But first, Gill would receive one more major treat in the form of a private lesson from John Mayer saxophonist, Bob Reynolds, that Monday.
"The lesson gave me a lot of inspiration," Gill said. "He changed the way I practice, and the way I think. He's helped me to be more focused on how I approach things so that I don't get overwhelmed by trying to learn everything at once."
Sitting across the way, Gill is asked what's next. And with a bit of disbelief he says that the group is flying him out to play another pair of shows––as it just so happens, this week.
"It's wild. It's up there," he said of the experience in comparison to all those preceding it. "I don't really think it's sunk in. The fact that I was there and all that happened, and I was able to see all the sights and sound of L.A. and Folsom Prison. I'm just really thankful that it happened. I can't really put it into words."
And to have Young and the gang fly him back out?
"I'm just trying to keep grounded, to take things as they come and be thankful to everyone for the generosity."
"To think, he said, all this has happened because Michelle asked me if I wanted to jam with a band in Granite Falls."