Gentry Bronson performing on a Yamaha electric piano at the Mystic Theater on December 2, 2011

Me performing with the Gentry Bronson Band at the Mystic Theatre on December 2, 2011 - Photo by Bob Hakins

I was standing alone in the center of the Mystic Theatre, a 500-capacity venue in Petaluma, California. It was empty, and my band and I were waiting to load on stage to do our sound check. The old vaudeville hall was still reverberating from the headliner who had just ended their own sound check with The Doors’ song Love Me Two Times.

Another band would have just been playing a classic cover song, but we were opening for Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist and co-founder of The Doors. He co-wrote the song, and no one — except the other living members of his former band — could play it as well. Driving forward with the intensity of the blues, the pounding eroticism of rock, and the psychedelia of a bygone era when The Doors were one of the biggest acts in the world.

I had very few musical heroes who played the keys, but Ray Manzarek was one of them. He was the first keyboardist who made me think keyboard players could be cool, with his left hand deftly laying down unforgettable bass lines while his right hand churned out beautifully strange, rock ’n’ roll circus music.

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I first heard The Doors when I was fifteen years old. They played from my girlfriend’s boombox in her suburban bedroom. While the music played, she pointed to a poster of the band over her bed where we’d been making out.

“That’s who we’re listening to. And that one…” she pointed at Jim Morrison and cooed, “…that one is Jim. I’m sooo in love with him.”

Instantly, like a million teenage boys before me, I wanted to be Jim Morrison. But buried under Jim’s sultry baritone, sliding between the Latin-jazz rhythms of John Densmore’s drums, and the acid blues weeping from Robbie Krieger’s guitar, was the sound of Ray Manzarek. That moment changed my life and drove me to join my first rock band.

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Twenty-four years later, as I stood looking up at the stage watching roadies move gear around Ray, his keyboard, and microphone, I realized that my own keys and mic would be exactly where he was. Soon, I’d be performing under the same spotlight on stage.

Ray was busy gathering himself so my band’s gear could be moved into place. He was hunched over his keyboard just like the many concert films I’d seen of him performing with The Doors. His hair was gray and shorter, but he looked identical to the long-haired young man soloing for ten minutes on Light My Fire while Jim Morrison writhed on the stage.

My body was buzzing, but I was also immensely calm in front of the rows and rows of empty seats that would soon be filled. It was as if I’d been preparing for this all my musical life. My band and I were a well-oiled machine.

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Even though I felt poised to perform, I felt extremely nervous watching this rock god. But I knew I needed to be a gentleman and a professional, so I walked up to the bottom of the stage to introduce myself.

Looking up, I extended my hand and said as confidently as I could, “Hi, Ray. I’m Gentry. My band is warming up the stage for you tonight. I just wanted to introduce myself before it gets crowded in here.”

He turned and his eyes lit up. Then, he exuberantly said, “Gentry Bronson of the Gentry Bronson Band!”

“Heh, heh. Yeah, I am,” I said cooly while shifting nervously where I stood.

“You come from far away?” Ray asked.

“Just up the street actually. I live here in Sonoma County right now, so my drive was easy for this gig.”

“Aaaah, I see. My drive was, too. I live in Napa with my wife.”

Then, Ray jumped down from the stage next to me.

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The old venue breathed around us. Beer-soaked carpet rose into my nostrils and cigarette smoke from years gone by faintly lingered. I sensed people around were looking. Both of our names were on the marquee, but no one disturbed our conversation. They just watched and I felt eyes move like cameras around us.

With Ray now at eye level, I said, “I need to tell you…you’re a big influence on me. It’s an honor to open for you, Ray.”

He replied, “It’s a pleasure to have you and your band tonight, Gentry. Are you classically trained?”

“Um, yeah. I am.”

“I wanted to be a classical musician but I wasn’t good enough. So, I learned to play the blues.”

Ray stretched out the word blues with sly self-deprecation.

I joked, “Well, you do that pretty well. You ever play polka?”

Ray replied, “No, but I voted for a polka band in the Grammys once.”

“Ha, ha, ha. I’m a Grammy member, too, but there are too many categories to vote for and I have a hard time deciding.”

“True, it is quite a task.”

“Did you know that Duke Ellington wrote polkas at the end of his life?”

Ray put his arm around me like he was my uncle and said brightly, “I did not know that!”

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Standing there with Ray talking, everything stopped in a beautiful series of moments. I wanted to go back in time to young me. I wanted to find the teenage me, dancing in front of a microphone on a mic stand in a farm field in Minnesota on a humid August night, singing The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues to a hundred punk kids.

I wanted to tell my younger self, “Don’t stop, kid. Years from now, you’re going to make jokes about the Grammys, the Duke, and polka music with Ray Manzarek from The Doors.”

But young me wouldn’t have believed older me. Or he might have told me off.

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So, I returned to the present. An 80-degree night in California with a crowd gathering outside the venue. Lining up with tickets for the show while they celebrated the lighting of a giant Christmas tree.

Ray said, “I’m looking forward to your show, man. Have a good sound check. It’s time for me to check in with my band…and get some rest.”

“Of course, Ray. I’m really looking forward to your show, too.”

Then, Ray smoothly walked backstage, and I loaded my gear onto the stage with the rest of my band.

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Alex was already on his drum stool behind his drum set smiling at me. Jesse was tuning up his guitar at stage right, and Dave was sipping a gin and tonic near his enormous bass rig all ready to go at stage left. I was the one behind schedule.

Alex had been playing drums with me for eight years, back to the days when he was a drummer in my band, the Night Watchmen. Mild-mannered off-stage and solid as a rock on stage, we’d already worked on four albums together, and he had figuratively pulled me out of a few burning buildings during the years those albums were produced.

Dave was in his fourth year playing by my side, which was amazing to me since he was Alejandro Escovedo’s bassist for many years. I had never played with a better bassist and his incredible vocal harmonies reminded me of Mike Mills from R.E.M., but he was also a wonderful absurdist and professional who didn’t take it all too seriously.

I had toured with Jesse a few years before, and we produced and recorded the song Avond together. That song had gotten a lot of radio play in Holland and paved the way for me to have many opportunities touring in Europe. Now Jesse created the burning guitar and fierce sizzle that blended with the band for a power foursome.

They were an incredible group of musicians. All were highly skilled and they mostly tolerated my belligerence and drama. Together we were confident and ready to go, horsing around backstage to keep our nerves from becoming stage fright.

Jesse Brewster, Gentry Bronson, Alex Aspinall, and Dave Fairchild live at the Mystic Theater on December 2, 2011

The Gentry Bronson Band: Jesse, me, Alex, and Dave live at the Mystic Theatre - Photo by David Korman

Show time arrived. They introduced us and we took the stage, immediately unleashing a torrent of sound from our opening number, Shine, which we played with electric grandiosity. I felt the carpet on the stage under my bare feet and was instantly devoted to every note I played and sang. Verses to choruses to the bridge. Then, a dramatic solo into a final verse, a double chorus, and a slamming finale.

I had put together a nine-song set list of my originals. Six were songs from four different albums of mine, but we were also playing three tunes that had never been recorded.

We followed Shine with a Night Watchmen staple, Bootleggers, and everyone took a feverish solo in the middle. By the end of the song, we were warmed up, loosely locked, and ready to roll. We played a new Latin-styled number called Carina inspired by The Doors, and its rhythms connected with the audience. We now had their full attention.

Hometown Heroes came next with a bombastic end. It was a song I sadly never recorded, but I still hear the pounding G-minor piano solo I laid down backed by Alex’s hip hop-flavored back beat echoing in my head. I slowed everything down for the start of my rootsy-tune Working Man, an homage to my Grandpa Kimball the lumberjack. But we brought it up and closed with a grand triple chorus.

We lit the Mystic Theatre on fire with I Walked Home Alone as Jesse played his solo like a member of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, and I showed off to the crowd by doing my signature move: briefly playing the keys with a bare foot. We rolled into an anthemic Beautiful Ghost as Dave’s incomparable harmonies fueled my lead choruses. Then, we got the dance floor full with Wild Women, and ladies of all ages swung together in 6/8 time.

The set ended with a giant, cinematic version of Wish It Would Rain. To finish, I struck my lefthand low on the keyboard and the booming thunder of a D-octave echoed outward.

We had done our job. The room was more than warm; it was hot.

There were nights when I miserably failed as a musician. Off-key or burned out or both. Awful nights are littered in my past. Nights that I teetered on the edge of oblivion or when the band was just bad. Others when we pulled out a few good performances, but I missed connecting with the audience.

That night, every song was solid and the audience was with us. All four of us locked in and burned the house down.

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We walked off stage and our gear was removed. I relaxed, got a beer, and waited with excitement for the Manzarek-Rogers Band.

They were a four-piece, like my own band, and the guitarist was slide extraordinaire, Roy Rogers. He and Ray were flanked by a bassist and drummer with skills that would make you weep with joy. When they all walked on stage, there was enormous applause.

The band played many of the songs from their new album Translucent Blues, and mixed in several songs I wasn’t familiar with. The audience wasn’t either, but performing a Doors song brought the crowd back quickly.

Ray Manzarek had been playing Doors songs for over forty-five years then, and they were known to most of us as vocalized by Jim Morrison. But when Ray sang them, he sang like they were his. Well-worn songs like Love Her Madly flowed off the stage and out of the speakers like they had just been written.

The energy was palpable, and this may sound strange, but as the band rattletrapped their blues and shook the stage with verve and rock command, I kept looking up into the ceiling. I was looking for the ghost of Jim Morrison. Was he in the building with us? Because it felt like he was there.

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The night drew to a close and the audience began stamping, clapping, and cheering for the band to return to the stage for a second encore.

“One more song! One more song!” they screamed.

The Manzarek-Rogers Band walked back out to more applause and then the room quieted.

Ray spoke gently into the microphone and said, “This one’s for Jim.”

He began a downward spiral of jazz-influenced riffs from the top of his keyboard, and the whole room stopped. We all knew what was coming. The band kicked in, and people stood mesmerized as Ray sang, “Riders on the storm…”

I felt my body sparkling and tingling. In that moment, for that entire song, Ray was incanting Jim, his old friend. Morrison was in the theater. It was eerie and amazing and ghostly and perfect.

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After the show, I visited Ray backstage. He looked very tired. Very worn down. I thanked him, Roy, and their band for a great show. Ray didn’t say anything; he just smiled and nodded.

I never took a photo with him. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to feel like his equal that night, even though I was far from it.

Ray was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year later, and he died on May 20th, 2013.

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Alex and I joked before we performed that show. We laughed at ourselves and said years later we’d be telling people about the night we opened for one of The Doors.

It’s years later now and I’m writing about that night. I may have become an aging cliche, but it doesn’t matter. I’m writing about it because it was one of the greatest nights of my musical life.

I got to share the stage with my hero Ray Manzarek. For that one night, Ray and I rode the same storm. Under the same spotlight. Singing, sweating, playing, and entertaining the same audience. Two musicians listening and applauding each other.

It was rock ’n’ roll, man, and it was magic.

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Listen to the songs in the order that we played them during the show at the Mystic Theatre. The studio versions are here on this Spotify playlist: