Band on the Run: My First and Last Gig as a Hawaiian Wedding Singer

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life. Enjoy!

The wedding was beautiful. I sang my songs. There were two white doves that expertly landed right behind the bride and groom during the ceremony. People cried. Then, they were married. My sister is now a wife and I got a brother-in-law in the deal. I’d say I fared fairly well, if you ask me.

People came up to me afterwards and asked if I would be singing at the reception. I said “No, I’m done” and then smiled happily and they looked at me sadly. Relief must have flowed out from the shape of my lips in that particular smile and I mistakenly conveyed to a number of people a series of possible misunderstandings: either I was glad it was all over because I didn’t enjoy it, or was nervous and was relieved to be over the nerves, or was unhappy with my performance or was simply bitter at having had to sing at my sister’s wedding — none of which were true!

“You have such a beautiful voice, dear, we’d love to hear you sing some more.” This was always delivered encouragingly and as though I ought not to deprive everyone of my voice and music for the rest of the day. I realized that I couldn’t possibly explain to anyone here that gigging at a family wedding was the last thing I wanted to do more of. It’s just not my thing. It’s a one-time experience and I am glad it’s done. I was happy to have made my sister happy with the gift of song, but was equally happy that the gift had been delivered.

I thanked them for their kindness but explained that there was already entertainment planned at the reception.

I also silently thanked the universe for not having pre-decided that I’d be it.

The reception was held on a boat. It was a dinner boat cruise called “The Maui Princess” and there were about one hundred and twenty diners, only forty of whom were part of the wedding party.

There, on the main deck, was a woman and a guitar and a device that played the backing tracks for dozens of famous songs. She was installed behind two metal railings and the sound system piped through both the main deck and up to the upper deck where the dinners were served. Her spot was right in front of the restrooms. She played for three hours and I felt increasing sympathy the longer her gig stretched.

And increasing gratitude that it was her and not me who was employed in this capacity.

She played a series of famous songs and chose fairly well. She had to do certain songs like the Hawaiian Love Song (ever heard of it? Me neither, until now) but generally she chose some good songs by Sting, Peter Gabriel, Stevie Nicks, even Bonnie Tyler (and you know the one!) And her guitar chops were pretty good.

Still, I felt for her. In between songs, she was obligated to make announcements about the ship’s progress, to tell people not to bang on the railings, to let people know about the “safety features on the vessel.” For me, this would be the closest thing to truly being a “flight attendant” (which I sing about in my song “Ten Pin” as a metaphor for performing a gig where no one is paying attention to you) although I guess in this case you’d have to call it “doubling as a ‘float’ attendant” (har har) because her job was so multi-faceted.

The cruise was brief but enjoyable. About two hours of beautiful scenery and free alcohol. Well, three per person but there was hardly any moving to get more at the bar as the chairs were bolted to the deck and everyone had a hard time getting around.

I brought my own food (no vegan fare was possible in the set menus) and I ate leftover veggie sushi to my table partners’ envy. Their meals were good too, they said, but mine looked especially appetizing and fresh. I wondered if that was the moment where I should have shared, but I just smiled and said “oh, how rare it is that my fellow diners are jealous of my food! Eat your heart out!” and took a big mouthful. They laughed.

(Once in awhile, it’s nice to have the upper hand when meat eaters so often drill me about how I could possibly have enough energy to survive eating as I do. My answer is generally that I haven’t eaten meat or fish for seventeen and a half years, so I guess I’m surviving. Thriving even! That usually shuts people up unless they are particularly obnoxious…)

Just before we docked, the crew started to dump the unconsumed Mai Tai (mixed Hawaiin drinks) into the ocean. I hated to see this. I mean, sure it’s not toxic waste, but does the ocean really need alcohol and corn syrup and food colouring? I don’t think so. On second thought, do we?

The whole wedding party then headed for drinks at another location where my sister wanted to have the traditional “first dance” with her new husband and then “the second dance” with our father. The restaurant manager heard her say this and was very clear that it simply wasn’t possible. Apparently, if there’s dancing on the premises, it reclassifies the venue as a bar and then changes the nature of their liquor license.

My sister looked crestfallen when she got this news and while the manager was still standing there, I piped in “Well, what if we dance on the sidewalk?” There was a pause and then the manager looked at me thoughtfully and she said, “Uh, you could do that. We don’t own the sidewalk! That’d be fine.” She smiled wistfully at the idea, I thought, and headed back behind the bar.

And so that’s what they did.

A portable music player was brought out and the gathering of wedding goers took to the sidewalk and we all watched my sister and her new husband dance (to “Amazed“) and then my sister and father dance (and simultaneously cry on each other’s shoulders to “I Loved Her First“) and then the night came to a close.

I had made it through a whole day in heels.

And my Hawaiian wedding singing days are over.


(which simultaneously means “hello,” “good-bye” and “love” as well as “mercy,” “compassion” and “peace.”)