I still remember exactly where I was that night, on February 10. I was at a bar in downtown St. Charles, IL, my hometown, celebrating the birthdays of a few close friends. I don’t normally drink, so while everyone else was having fun, cracking jokes at each other, and being all around fun people, I was busy having a personal celebration of my own. The gears would set in motion to give me a taste of fame at last.
You see, a few days earlier, I had become ecstatic when I had learned that Video Games Live, a concert combining all the best music from the video games I had grown up admiring, was coming to the Arcada Theater, a very short distance from where I live. I had been to the show a few times before, but those were either in Chicago, which required a train ride and a long walk, or in Los Angeles, of which I just happened to be nearby because I was covering E3 for other websites. Video Games Live had quickly become my favorite concert, and like any fan, I would never stop talking about it to anyone.
It was earlier this night that an official announcement was made over VGL’s official Facebook page that nailed down the Arcada as the venue hosting the event. As expected, I expressed a great deal of excitement, while ALMOST not sounding like a fanboy nerding out.
That’s when it all began.
Tommy Tallarico, the man himself who created, runs and hosts VGL, responded to my excited comment on Facebook:
Yo Mike! I promised I would be there!! We’ll really need your help to spread the news around for us! Maybe you have some ideas to help us get the word out?
Of course I was more than happy to help. But the Facebook message that came later that night while I was at the bar with my friends was what really put me over the top:
Yo Mike! You probably know a lot about the St. Charles gaming scene more than anyone! Would you be willing to help us out and jump on the phone with me and the owner of the Arcada Theatre sometime next week? …maybe I can get you to play some guitar on stage with us as well!!
My face while reading that message looked something like this:
You could have probably mistaken me for one of my intoxicated friends at that point. I was instantly more excited than anything in my entire life. Although the show would have been more than a month and a half away, I wanted it to happen tomorrow. Millions of thoughts were rushing through my head. What would I play? What guitars would I use? Did I have sufficient enough equipment? Why the Hell did Tommy pick me?!
We traded emails and phone numbers and got to talking. This was that moment. That “I can’t believe I’m talking to (insert famous person’s name here) on the phone!” moment. On top of working out when we’d talk to the venue owner, it was confirmed that I would be playing alongside Tommy himself on guitar for Final Fantasy VII‘s One Winged Angel, my absolute favorite song. Tommy also challenged me to come up with some sort of segment to take the stage on my own and rock out. I had a handful of ideas at this point, but would wait a week later when I would confirm what I wanted to play. The original pitch included a segment entirely of music from DOOM. Tommy talked some sense into me and said the crowd may not remember the music from DOOM. Which was fair, considering I probably wouldn’t have remembered the music either if I hadn’t played the game every single day as a kid. So we compromised and combined DOOM and Pokemon, in what would be the most awkwardly awesome mashups of all time.
As the month went on, I practiced every day, and excitement only grew as the weeks passed. My only point of concern came when Tommy informed me that tickets weren’t selling very well. Just over a week until the show and we had only sold around 300 of 880 possible seats. This was only more motivation. After plastering the city in fliers, putting a PSA out here and The Observer, the local college newspaper I still write for, I still did even more. Ironically, my own mother probably helped out the most, considering she was almost more excited about my performance in the show than I was. Almost.
But eventually, the day would come. March 23, 2012.
I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was far too excited. Like a kid on Christmas Eve. I was so excited that I left an hour early for the theater. This was useless, of course, since no one was there besides the set builders yet. It was a good thing I brought my Vita.
After wasting some time, I saw Tommy walk in. It was a surreal moment. I had met Tommy before, but only at the post-show Meet and Greet they have at every show. So approaching him and talking to him took a lot of self-containment and courage. But once the ball was rolling, it was like we’d known each other for years. Not to mention the man himself is usually bursting with energy, which is a tad intimidating at first.
I was introduced to the crew, who were all understandably busy, and we were shown our dressing rooms.
The venue hadn’t exactly planned for me, so Tommy and the other touring performers each had their own room. I shared what remained with the crew. No matter. It was fairly quiet anyway. I stowed my guitars nearby and relaxed for a bit.
I ran into Laura “Flute Link” Intravia, a solo flutist and vocalist who’s been touring with VGL for three years now. She was most well known for cosplaying as Link from The Legend of Zelda and performing, quite impressively, on her flute. She’s featured in a number of different segments for VGL as both a flutist or a vocalist, one of which happens to be one of my favorite songs, Snake Eater from Metal Gear Solid 3. Laura has always been somewhat of an inspiration to me because she was drafted to the show after being seen on a simple YouTube video, in the same sort of fashion that I was asked to be a guest performer as well. Laura was living my dream of playing video game music for people all over the world. I had seen her at each of the shows I had attended before, and I greatly admired her musical talent.
“Hi, I’m Laura by the way.” she said, extending her hand for a welcoming handshake.
“I…I’m Mike…” I respond nervously. I couldn’t believe it. I was speaking to a performer who, only this past summer, I admitted her rendition of Snake Eater was so beautiful it had brought me to tears. But much like with Tommy, once a conversation got started, all the nervousness had completely vanished.
She retired to her dressing room to warm up, which left me to practice as well. I did my stretches (which my girlfriend, a professional massage therapist, had STRONGLY suggested I do,) and began with some light riffs and chords, progressing to some more complex finger work, and finally brought myself up to speed by nailing a few Slayer solos. The odd plunks and thuds of strumming my six strings through an electric guitar that wasn’t plugged in (my amp was upstairs getting set up,) wasn’t a very good indication of how I was actually playing, but it would have to do until rehearsal.
While practicing, an unfamiliar face passed me on the way to the bathroom behind me. It was Emmanuel Fratianni, another composer and the maestro of the evening. I wasn’t terribly familiar with his work, outside of working with Tommy on Advent Rising a number of years ago, but enjoyed speaking to another music professional. We spoke of my history, how I became interested in music, my unfortunate luck when it comes to bands and the kinds of music I play in my spare time. After a few minutes, he too returned to his dressing room.
A few more hours passed of silently warming up in the crew area. I heard Laura switching between her flute and vocal practicing. She started playing songs I knew on her flute, and I played along. I recognized a handful of Final Fantasy and Zelda songs, and even the Tetris song. I only stopped when she would begin singing so I could listen. I even sang quietly to myself when I heard Snake Eater and Want You Gone from Portal 2. I tried my hardest to not feel creepy, I swear!
The time finally came when everyone migrated to the stage area because the University of Illinois in Chicago Orchestra had arrived, and it was time to fully begin rehearsal.
While everyone was getting ready, Laura and Brian, one of the production guys, caught my attention. They were fiddling with a webcam on a tripod and a laptop. I remembered that only two days earlier they were trying to stream the show in London, Ontario live. They were doing the same with the rehearsal, and talking to the fans in the chat room. There were several people in the chat room that were actually familiar with the crew and all the people involved, which was really cool.
That’s when it all happened, and my fate was sealed.
Being the ever curious person I am, and drawn to all forms of social media (well, not really, but hey! Someone’s got a laptop!) I sat in the row behind Laura and Brian and looked on. Someone in the chatroom caught a glimpse of me over Brian’s shoulder and proclaimed something along the lines of “OMG A VIKING!” Someone else said “OMG JESUS!” Everyone combined the two and came up with the nickname “VIKING JESUS.” We all laughed. I’m not a religious person, so I wasn’t offended by the nickname. I’ve been called the two separately many times before, so this was nothing new. What was interesting was how much the name stuck. Instantly, people wanted to know what Viking Jesus had to do with the show. Was he part of the crew? Was he a mascot? Was he the homeless guy that wandered in through the open back door?
“That’s Mike, he’s going to play guitar for the show tonight,” Brian clarified. Everyone was still interested solely in me. So, while Brian and Laura left the computer (rehearsal is going on in the background during all of this by the way,) I cautiously approached the computer and interacted with my curious new fans. In an instant, I created a character around this Viking Jesus idea. Viking Jesus is a powerful being who excels at all things heavy metal, and he yells almost constantly. Although, because I wasn’t sure if they could hear me or not, I simply typed in all caps. Jokes quickly became the norm in the style of the Internet-famous Chuck Norris jokes. I couldn’t enjoy the fans long, however. The orchestra took a lunch break, which meant it was the perfect time to get the sound check in for my guitars.
We were unsure of how to actually get me into the sound system. We ended up taking my little 75w amp (which had all my sound effects and such programmed in, so it HAD to be used,) and put a microphone in front of it.
I’d played in many places before. Stores, auditoriums, restaurants, a bar, parking lots and endless amounts of basements and garages. I’d never played in a place like the Arcada, an 87 year-old building that used to be a movie theater. I turned my amp on, heard the familiar “click” of the switch, and ran my fingers across the strings.
When you’re a guitarist like me, the first thing you usually do for sound checks is universal: you whip out some insanely awesome solo out of nowhere so people are instantly shocked. I did just that. Not long, but just enough to set in that I wasn’t some kid who thought he was awesome simply because of Guitar Hero. I shredded for a few seconds, and even Tommy himself, a considerably skilled guitarist, had a slight look of being impressed on his face. The remaining members of the orchestra that hadn’t yet left the building decided to stay and see what was happening.
They began the backing track I had put together with the help of a friend and local drummer, Erik Enberg. There were no lights. No videos. No crowd except for what remained of the crew and orchestra, but it already felt electric in the air. This was really happening, and I was nailing it.
The feeling in the air became energized. Although I was only playing for a handful of the orchestra and some of the crew, I already felt like I was home. I’d never done a real professional performance on guitar before this, and it was all coming naturally. Any ounces of nervousness I may have had melted away with the shredding on my guitar.
(By the way, if you want to watch the rehearsal from this point on, it was all recorded here.)
Rehearsal went on for a few hours more, as everyone involved in the show worked their way through the set list song by song. In-between performances, Laura and I had actually traded words of approval for our respective parts. This was odd to me, because she didn’t take me as a person who would enjoy metal, even if it were from a video game, but hey! I’m always happy to hear the kind words.
Eventually, Tommy, Laura and Emmanuel had returned to their respective dressing rooms to make final preparations for the show (such as Laura’s now infamous line that I will never forget: “I have to put on my ears!” when referring to her Link costume,) and the remaining crew cleaned up the stage and got everything ready.
It was showtime.
If there was any time to have butterflies, this would be it. I took a peak outside from backstage and saw a few friends I had specifically invited to the show. One friend had a habit of wearing a bright orange hat, so they were easy to spot. I texted them back and forth a few times teasing that I saw them, and they all wished me luck. Seeing my friends put me at ease, like I was playing for them.
VGL always has a costume contest beforehand, so they did that. A girl who pulled off the perfect image of Portal‘s Chell won the contest. The audience was ready. After a few more pre-show announcements, a voice over of Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid introduced Tommy, and the show was underway.
There was something surreal about seeing the show from this angle. Every time I had seen the show before, I was in the audience, usually within the first three rows. So hearing all the familiar videos and introductions and whatnot was a feeling that resonated in an odd way with me, but it was uplifting.
The segments went as planned. Music from the likes of Street Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog and Kingdom Hearts played, and each one still brought me the same level of joy as if I were merely spectating. I found myself applauding at the end of each segment, although no one else backstage was, since this was all the norm for them. It was funny to think that I’m on the side of things that actually get the applause this time around.
My solo segment came between a Space Invaders contest and a Silent Hill song. The time eventually came, and Tommy went out and introduced me.
“You know, we’re big on the Facebook and social networks and stuff. This guy has been emailing me, he’s a big fan of the show, he lives in the area and he’s an awesome metal guitarist, give it up for Mike Niemietz!”
I walk onstage to an unexpectedly large ovation, and then this happens:
The response was incredible. Although it was difficult to actually see the audience because of the lights, a friend of mine texted me and said I had a standing ovation.
“So…was I awesome?” I text back, jokingly.
(Everything from this point on was also recorded, and can be viewed here. It starts literally at the tail end of my solo segment.)
Much of the next hour or so was, for me at least, pretty simple. I wasn’t scheduled to play in anything but One Winged Angel near the end of the show, so I had time to relax. Sort of.
I went into the crew area, switched guitars (they’re tuned differently, because it takes a good day or so to change the tuning on the one I used for my solo segment,) and immediately got to practicing what was actually my favorite song. I knew the song by heart anyway, but you can never practice too much.
I returned to our small backstage area. Segments for Zelda (featuring Laura!) Metal Gear Solid (also featuring Laura!) and Castlevania (featuring
Laura Tommy!) came and gone. The whole Viking Jesus name became immensely popular to the hundreds of people in the chat room. They were demanding I get chat time, answer questions, was at the meet and greet after the show, it was insane. I’d never experienced popularity like this before. It was an amazing feeling, and I channeled all of that energy into my performance.
I had several short conversations with people backstage in-between segments. One with Tommy was particularly inspiring. Right before he went on to perform on guitar once again, he told me he didn’t know how to read sheet music, and he was all self-taught when it came to playing guitar, despite being one of the most well-known composers in the video game industry.
This, oddly enough, was incredibly inspiring to me. Knowing that one of my industry idols took the same path I was on gave me a warm feeling, like that could be me someday.
The time came. There was only a handful of songs left. Tommy went out and teased the audience about the next song. That song was One Winged Angel.
Unlike the solo performance, this was with the orchestra and Tommy was onstage as well. This was awesome. Not only was it my favorite song, in my hometown, on stage, with one of my favorite industry veterans, but this was the kind of music I loved playing most. The combination of the metal and the orchestra lit up the audience, and filled me with energy, a kind of uncontrollable happy energy that I had to keep myself from laughing in pure glee.
During the performance, you can actually tell that Tommy’s guitar strap broke, which I still tease him about. This meant his normal stage antics were limited to whatever he could do while simultaneously holding up his guitar. Good thing I was there to provide the backup!
The song came to an end, a pair of encore songs were played from Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross and Portal, we all took a bow, and that was that. The show itself was over, and I hadn’t had this much fun in my entire life.
The meet and greet was a ton of fun. The response from the fans was absolutely overwhelmingly awesome. I’ve never had that many positive comments on my guitar playing in my entire life. I had people who wanted my autograph. MY autograph. One guy asked me to sign his girlfriend. That’s the kind of thing only truly famous people run into. I couldn’t believe it. Hell, I still can’t believe it, and it’s over a week later.
I said my goodbyes to everyone after the meet and greet, thanked Tommy again for giving me the opportunity, packed up my things and went home. It was a strangely uneventful ending to a night of spectacle and excitement, but I suppose that’s the way it normally goes for the people actually working on the show.
When I got home, I posted a status to Facebook thanking everyone at VGL for allowing me to take the stage with them. Little did I know, that status would give me the climactic ending I had desired:
That was it. The man himself commenting on my status, thanking each and every person involved in the night. On the stage, behind the stage, in front of the stage, everyone. That single comment was the absolute perfect ending to what was the greatest night of my entire life.
The story does not end here, however. If nothing else, this whole thing has given me the fire I needed to kick start my music career dreams once more. I urge all of you to follow my musical conquests further on the dedicated VIKING JESUS Facebook page. If for no other reason other than I’ve been releasing free music there played by yours truly.
I am truly humbled by all the support and praise I’ve received from the numerous fans I have all over the world. There are those of you that still, even though my performance was a short one, want to see me play with Video Games Live (or otherwise for that matter) all over the world. While I don’t know when or where, I can say that the world certainly hasn’t seen the last of Viking Jesus.