President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet Vanessa McGowan in the diplomatic reception hall. Official White House photo by Adam Schultz.
“Hi, I’m Joe”
“Hello, I’m Joe, Jill’s husband. Thank you for coming, ”President Biden said, shaking my hand. I’m pretty sure I laughed nervously and said, “You’re welcome. There’s also a good chance I just watched him, dumb, like a deer in the headlights, totally overwhelmed to see the POTUS up close and in person. I also shook hands with Dr Jill Biden, smiled for a photo, then turned and confidently walked out the wrong door.
Five days earlier, I had received a text message from Jennifer Nettles’ conductor asking if I was free next weekend. I was about to answer him to say no, I had to work at the Camp Store, and being a vacation weekend it would be hard to leave – when he sent a second message: “To play at Home White . “
I’m used to what happens at the last minute like this as a bassist and singer in the touring world. I started playing with Jennifer a few years ago when I was asked to join Sugarland on one week’s notice to complete six weeks of their nationwide tour. Being prepared for anything with a few days notice is why this career is both exhilarating and incredibly stressful at times.
After checking with my partner – who also owns The Camp Store in Nicolet Beach – if I could escape for 48 hours over the weekend of July 4th, I responded with a resounding YES! and got to work revising Nettles’ music.
I worked as late as I could at the Camp Store on Saturday July 3, then flew from Green Bay Airport and landed in Washington, DC at 10 p.m. I grabbed my luggage and was greeted by an official military driver who took me to my hotel across from the White House.
The band members all arrived that night or early the next morning from various locations across the country, arriving from Nashville, Atlanta, New York City, Door County, and even a corporate gig already booked in. Yacht Rock in Michigan our keyboardist was doing. Alex Lacamoire, one of the musical minds behind us, joined us on the piano for this performance. Hamilton and In the heights, and the producer of Jennifer’s latest album.
We all met in the lobby on July 4th – glad to see each other again – and were escorted from the hotel to the TSA style security checkpoint. Our credentials have been verified; our bags and bodies have been scanned; we have received an “Escort Required” lanyard tag; then we were taken to the park.
Everywhere we went in and around the White House, security was extraordinarily tight and clearly visible: snipers on the rooftops and Secret Service agents everywhere. And as the POTUS moved inside, security personnel in full SWAT gear moved with it, positioned near all the doors and windows.
Our stage was on the South Lawn, and as we settled in, rehearsed and checked the sound, I would often get carried away by the music and forget where we were – only to look up and receive the shock of seeing the music. White House in all its glory. glory. This July 4th White House barbecue was aimed at essential workers, military families, and White House personnel, and the lawn was resplendent with red, white and blue balloons in the trees; white chairs; and red and blue tablecloths with beautiful white flower arrangements in the center of each table.
It was a surreal experience to see the White House, the West Wing, the windows of the President’s Residence, the Rose Garden, and the doors of the Oval Office in real life. Honestly, playing in the White House wasn’t on my bucket list – it’s not the kind of goal you set for yourself because, frankly, it’s so unlikely to happen. The experience of being in such an iconic building and seeing all the photos, paintings, porcelain, and history was a humbling experience – something that was too overwhelming to really be absorbed in the moment.
After our sound check was complete, we stood nearby as Biden addressed the crowd and cameras, and again later as Jennifer sang the national anthem with the US Army Band. We rushed to perform our 30-minute streak of new songs from her latest album and a handful of songs from Sugarland, playing our first big live show since the start of the pandemic. Watching the crowd with the White House as a backdrop was amazing – the beaming smiles all around the stage easily demonstrated how grateful we were to find this glimpse of our touring careers in this most spectacular way.
By the time we finished playing, we were shown to the White House to stand at the bottom of the spiral staircase to watch the fireworks display – 30 feet from where the Bidens were watching, standing together on the balcony overlooking the south lawn. I found myself on the edge of our group, closest to the Bidens, and the constant and overwhelming presence of the Secret Service made it clear where the invisible line was between what was an acceptable distance from them and what was too close. .
Being a part of celebrating America’s birth as a New Zealand-born person was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it vividly reminded me how privileged it is to be here as a immigrant, pursuing my own version of the American dream.
Fueled by the adrenaline rush of the performance, I landed in bed on July 4th at 11pm, with my alarm clock set for 3:40 am. Two flights and six hours later, I was back at the Camp Store in Peninsula State Park, selling soda and ice cream, and felt like the whole experience was a dream.