Tim Dowling: my band never plays weddings – except this one

In all the time the band I’m in has been playing together, we have always refused to play weddings.

This isn’t snobbery; it’s just that the things most people expect from a wedding band are things we do not – and cannot – provide. We don’t take requests and are unable to mine a large repertoire of standards. We have a banjo. You may think we’re what you want, we tell people when they ask, but we really aren’t, and by the time you realise your mistake, it will be too late. We will have ruined your special day.

But we had to say yes to Emily’s wedding because she is our trumpet player. She has been in the band for a decade, so it would be fair to say she knows what she’s getting; our ability to ruin her special day is something she will have reckoned with.

Between Covid and the terrible weather, it’s been a tricky summer for anyone planning a wedding. Plan A, I believe, was to hold the ceremony in the open air, with a small PA to amplify the music and the rabbi. I do not know which letter to assign to the final plan, which has everyone gathered under a long narrow marquee beneath threatening skies, with the band huddled in a circle next to the rabbi and the sound system’s speakers and cables arranged at our feet.

“Do you remember how you start?” the fiddle player says.

“Don’t ask me that,” I say.

I am clutching a guitar, because no bride wants a banjo as part of her walk-in music. The sky clears and darkens again, several times. We have played hundreds of gigs together, but this feels like a very big responsibility.

I notice that the fiddle player is making urgent eyes at me – a signal. Or, more precisely, a signal that I have missed the signal. I start playing. The piano joins in, then the fiddle. The walk-in music is cyclical – it’s meant to last as long as the bride’s journey up the aisle – but I’ve got my back to proceedings. The first thing to appear level with the front row is a labrador, followed by Emily in white.

The ceremony gets under way with a tall and ominous cloud looming over the tent. By the time we start playing again, rain is falling. The song is a reel, at least when it gets up to tempo, but it begins with a slow and mournful fiddle part which is, in the circumstances, very moving. As we start to pick up speed the rain intensifies. I glance over at Emily standing by her husband, Jake, and it occurs to me that I am going to cry. Then it occurs to me that I am going to be electrocuted.

At the end, as the two glasses are crushed under the heels of the bride and groom, we launch into a version of I Saw The Light. By now the tent is surrounded on four sides by walls of water. The music is meant to be processional, but no one is leaving.

“Keep playing!” shouts the fiddle player, above the rain. Rivulets of water pick their way around our shoes.

By the time we have ferried our wet instruments over to the tent where the reception is being held, the sun is shining again. As we set up, our old worries about weddings resurface.

“How long are you gonna play for?” says the sound man.

“Not sure,” says the guitar player. “Half an hour?”

“No one’s going to want more than that,” I say. “They’re all chatting.”

But we’ve misread the mood: everyone piles round the stage for Jake and Emily’s first dance and cheers. Over the past 18 months I have, like most people, been no stranger to emotion: despondency, frustration, anger, grief. I have not, however, been anywhere near joy since the start of 2020. It is an overwhelming thing to witness, and to see it is to experience it.

Two-thirds of the way through the first song Emily leaves Jake on the dancefloor, climbs on to the stage and belts out a trumpet solo. As you might well imagine, the crowd goes wild. It occurs to me that I am going to cry again. Then I realise that I need to pull myself together, because this is one of those songs I can’t really play unless I can see my fingers.