By Rachel Anne Warren
Published in The New York Times online on July 8th, and in print on July 12th, 2020.
The fourth wall is strong enough to keep a huge guy from acknowledging when he crashes into the bandstand, spilling his drink equally on me and into the monitor, the thud of a heavy metal microphone hitting the floor. I am invisible, physically close but seemingly far and on display.
From where I stand onstage, as the wedding singer, separated by cables and a speaker, each of these special days are somehow truly one of a kind. It has little to do with all that surrounds a ceremony, but more to do with the people, the stories and the energy in the room. And of course, especially in my case, love.
I have never been a serial monogamist. I had my first boyfriend at 22, and my first and current long-term relationship in my mid-to-late 30s. Love, for me, always seemed unfathomable, unreachable and most likely make-believe.
I have now spent nearly seven years in the wedding industry, and I am still, and always, seeking proof of magic. Technically I am seeking, unscientifically, proof of love.
A few years ago, I met a single father of two by chance. I went from living in a fifth-floor, walk-up artist residence in downtown Baltimore to co-owning a fixer upper an hour west of the city near the Appalachian Mountains. He plays piano and is a Dungeons and Dragons and board game enthusiast who works in criminal justice. I saw his picture on a friend’s phone, asked about him, and we promptly fell in love. This beautiful life we have together is both totally normal and the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. Love still seems like such an impossible thing, perhaps especially so when the machine — the industry and business of weddings — gets in the way.
Each day, I check my inbox, we get another cancellation because of Covid-19. Venues understandably haven’t planned for a pandemic, so we don’t always know when or if these weddings will be rescheduled. It’s natural to worry about how we, the musicians, will make ends meet. For most of us, who come from perhaps the longest line of gig economy founders, playing in the wedding band is our main source of income. So far, it seems our 2021 calendar will be booked twice as much, with some couples opting for unconventional Monday weddings, daytime weddings, and alternative outdoor locations.
During this kind of uncertainty, I remind myself that this is my job and because of that, I dig deep to also remember the love I’ve seen and continue to seek.
Sometimes, I think I’ve already seen it all. From the guest who shows up in a floor-length white evening gown to someone else’s wedding, to the family who visibly disapproves of the groom from the farthest corner of the big white tent, to the people who very much want the appearance of a band but not the actual live music.
Once, we were asked to turn down the volume so much, we unplugged our electric instruments and mimed a set. During that particular reception, the middle-age bride had vertigo and had one song on her “Do Not Play List,” which was “Son of a Preacher Man.” I kept from asking others why it upset her so much. Years later, I have forgotten almost everything about that wedding, except the act of true romance that her groom demonstrated when he asked us to pretend to play. He was asking for our silence in order to steady the room for her well being.
At another wedding, the groom insisted on seeing my credentials and aggressively quizzed me on the title of every special dance song to prove I wasn’t a wedding crasher. (Shortly after he himself crashed and was propped up in the coat closet to sober up until the end of the reception.) I’ve witnessed the occasional dance floor hookups and throw-downs, but I am somehow still inspired by all the basic traditions that a wedding upholds.
Recently, I heard a pensive but powerful speech from the brother of the groom about how love is like protecting the only key to an old lock. To craft something so literary and meaningful out of a pile of clichés moved me to tears.
I’ve seen so many moving moments. The careful parent dancing with an ailing spouse. The public tribute to a recently departed sibling. The grandmother who gets funky on the dance floor. The babies who are transfixed by the saxophone or glued to the drums. One boy, maybe 4 years old, pulled his dinner chair to the side of the stage to listen to the band, and got up more than four hours later only because we needed to take a break.
More than once, a father of the bride has taken the microphone captive for an off-brand speech. One went into his history with Viagra after his daughter was born, while the other tooted homophobic nonsense. As entertaining as each tailspin was, I watched the couple clutch each other tighter, transfixed on the impending doom until it passed. I really like the couples who disappear for a while when they have a strict schedule to tend to. Not just because it disrupts the minute-by-minute scheduling of the night, but because I am imagining what they are saying to each other in their secret place.
Of course, not everyone in a wedding band is a desperate optimist or hopeless romantic. Some are perhaps understandably disappointed they are not selling out stadiums, revered as a jazz great, or in the very least, playing their original music for an audience. Everyone I play with is a trained, experienced and professional musician. Most people who get to this point of proficiency have a greater creative goal than playing cover songs when they work so hard to write their own. But I personally like the anonymity. Perhaps because music is no longer my sole creative outlet, I feel privileged to take part in these love stories in a supporting role.
I spent most of my childhood nights listening to Fran Lane, the host of a love song and dedication radio show in Baltimore. “Sleepless in Seattle” lulled me to sleep every night for years. The entire CBC broadcast of “Anne of Green Gables” accompanied every sick day home from school. If I have ever doubted that cinematic-level love could really exist, I have managed to position myself river bank to river bank, like a handmade eel trap, ready to catch every look, every sweet nothing muttered before it slips by.
I’ve played 318 weddings, and at least that many renditions of “Don’t Stop Believing,” and sometimes I still feel like I don’t know anything about actually being a wedding singer.
We musicians get lost in the sameness on occasion, and some of us simply lose that loving feeling. But when I arrive to wedding No. 319, I will still be hungry for proof of love. And when it is so loud, so visible from one stranger to another, from way up here, it feels real. In this profession, I have somehow inexplicably, without consequence or personal injury, found love over and over again.