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On The Set Of SNL With Shawn Pelton

8:00 P.M./9" Of Snow

After Pelton escorts me two floors down to the NBC commissary for a high quality, all-you-can-eat buffet of everything from pork roast to cheeseburgers to more pasta, he has to handle more paperwork, and I’m on my own for a while. The set that had seemed so mysterious nine hours before is pretty much old hat now, and I’m eager to get on with the official dress rehearsal.

At 8:20, I’m surprised to see the NBC pages start admitting a full audience that will view the dress rehearsal show, then leave and be replaced by another full audience for the 11:30 live broadcast. Who are these people? Pelton shows up again, and I take my place once more just to the right of his thundering floor tom. The band plays for close to a half hour as the people come in, and after cast member Darrell Hammond warms up the crowd with the standard geographical jokes (“Who here’s from Ohio?”), the faux show kicks in. Giamatti’s monologue is still hilarious the second time around, as is the “Lundford Twins” skit and a sketch making fun of Jared the Subway guy that allows Giamatti to go wild. The ballet that goes on behind the scenes, as stagehands expertly move, put up, and strike sets like the complicated “Weekend Update” piece in darkness and two minutes or less is equally fascinating. Pelton and the SNL band lays into nine different songs, from “Maceo’s Blues” to “Down N’awlins Way,” and sound awesome doing it.

As the band rips out the famous SNL “Closing Theme” I conclude I’m exhausted — sitting in the middle of all that high energy music all that time has beat me down. I suspect the band feels the same way, but they’re pros, the show must go on, and since that was just the dress rehearsal, there’s still a long night ahead.

10:30 P.M./12" Of Snow

The rehearsal crowd is long gone, and so is my brain. A half-day in this place is enough to drive anyone a little batty, and getting through it is starting to feel like the marathon that Pelton had implied. Just being a note-taking observer to all this is taxing — I can only imagine how tiring it can be to be doing heavy lifting the whole time, whether it’s set pieces, cameras, or drumsticks.

Today, Pelton is one of just a handful of drummers in New York City with a gig this steady. While the SNL band provides a regular paycheck for him, it’s just part of a business strategy that allows him to bridge the gap between an old-school drumming gig like this, and the new-school musician approach that’s needed to move forward. “The reality of being a drummer in 2005 is wild,” he concedes. “When I was coming up, there was more of a need for real drummers in the marketplace. For a song or a demo, you needed a real drummer to do it, but technology has made massive changes to all this over the last 20 years. I feel really fortunate to have had the run I did, and record with people like Dylan and Springsteen. I definitely hope to keep working, but I also hope to get into the music that’s inside my head.

“There’s always going to be a market for drummers that have a great feel, and also have the ability to work with people and realize that, unless you’re the leader of your own band — like a Lars Ulrich — that most likely you’re going to be a sideman. There’s a head for having that together, and the harder you work, the luckier you get.”

If the reward for hard work is more hard work, then Pelton and the band are getting theirs tonight. He’s scored me a tough-to-find seat to watch the show, shakes my hand goodbye, and goes down to the set for another round. At 10:55 the next audience is halfway in, and as far as they’re concerned, the SNL band is just getting started as they lay into the fiery funk of the warm-up set yet again.

Hammond comes on at 11:15 and tells the exact same jokes he told the dress rehearsal crowd, makes way for legendary announcer Don Pardo, and finally, at 11:30 on the dot, Saturday Night Live goes live. Giamatti does his monologue, and for some reason, he leaves all the funny parts out of his monologue and just raves about how excited he is to be there. I’m also surprised to see that the “Jared the Subway Guy” skit has been cut — I thought it was killer. But after 13 hours in this place, what do I know?

As SNL finally draws to a close at 1:00 A.M., the one thing I do know that I didn’t ever notice before is that Pelton and the band, as good as they sound, really look tired. They’ve been playing their hearts out off and on since 11:00 the day before, and as the show hits its final minutes, they’re feeling it. But far from being a negative, I think it’s great that they don’t hide it. SNL is a marathon for everyone involved, and if the band looks like they’ve been through a long journey, well, that’s more than fair.

1:00 A.M./14" Of Snow

The show has ended and it’s actually time to call it a night. Normally, the cast and crew throw a party to mark another episode completed, but with the massive snow making it so tough to get around, I doubt they’ll get to it. As for me, I just want to slog it home. Naturally, with all the inclement weather, the already slow F train is taking forever to show up but it eventually does, and finally I’m out and just a few blocks from my apartment.

I don’t know about where you live, but in New York City, the night sky turns orange when it snows heavily, which I guess is a result of all those millions of street lights reflecting into the white flake-filled heavens. It looks weird, but as I fall inside my front door, everything makes sense: It’s the perfectly twisted last touch to a typically twisted day on the set of Saturday Night Live.

SHAWN’S SNL SETUP

Drums: DW in Rich Red Fade Over Quilted Maple
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 12" x 7" Edge Snare
3. 14" x 6" Solid Wood Snare
4. 12" x 9" Tom
5. 16" x 14" Tom

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 14" A New Beat Hi-Hats
B. 16" A Custom Projection Crash
C. 22" K Custom rRde
D. 18" A Custom Projection Crash

Percussion
E. LP Ridge Rider Rock Classic Cowbell

Electronics:
F. MallletKAT

Rack:
Mackie CR 1604 16-channel mixing board, Roland SP-808 Groove Sampler, Akai MPC2000XL, Roland TD-10 brain, UC33-e MIDI controller, Korg Kaoss pad

Shawn Pelton also uses Vater sticks, Remo heads, XL Specialty cases, DW pedals and hardware

VALERIE NARANJO

Pelton’s Percussive Partner

After a decade into her gig as the principle ethnic percussion and mallet specialist on Saturday Night Live, Valerie Naranjo still sees herself as “the wild card in the band.” Yet she acknowledges … no, make that relishes being part of a team in which everyone plays an essential role: “A lot of what makes this show so special is the camaraderie.”

So for obvious reasons, she works closely with drummer Shawn Pelton, the other half of SNL’s blinding percussion duo. “We complement each other as a section,” she says. “My biggest consideration is what Shawn’s playing. For example, [if] I’m starting with a bell pattern and he’s doing a bell pattern himself, I may make a snap decision to do something like a shaker or timbale. He does really out and tricky things with the snare drum rather than the 2 and 4. That’s my opportunity to jot down his pattern and figure out how to converse with that.”

Of all the players in the all-star band, Naranjo’s parts run the gamut, from free jamming to precise ensemble work, depending greatly on the instruments she’s asked to play. “I read charts with very specific parts and I read charts that are slashes,” she explains. “I read mallet charts that are obviously [written] note-by-note, some where they want that triangle to be right there, and others that are much freer.”

If you’ve ever had the split-second opportunity to spy Naranjo in action when SNL cuts to a commercial break, you’ve witnessed a blur of energy behind a fortress of percussion packed into an impossibly cramped space. “I have maybe 150 instruments there,” she says. “My setup is two mallet instruments — a xylophone and a glock, three or four West African hand drums, five or six Latin percussion — three congas, bongo, timbales, a series of gongs and cymbals, orchestral percussion, for effects and such, and then your array of pop percussion — tambourines and shakers.”

When she isn’t adding texture and shape to the SNL band, Naranjo keeps a busy schedule as the director of percussion for the Broadway production of The Lion King. She continues to play around town, keeps a frantic schedule of mallet clinics and workshops around the country, and is just about to begin work on an ambitious solo album. “Sometimes I wish there was a little bit of a breather,” she laughs, but quickly admits she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s all been a really great experience.”

— Andy Doerschuk

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