At first, the gap in the band was evident by sight. Where John Wedemeyer usually stood and played on the Cabaret Jazz stage was a visual vacuum.
A guitar case was there, leaning against the back of the stage, but not the guitarist.
Word had wound through the scene that something tragic had unfolded that Saturday afternoon involving Wedemeyer’s family and that he would not make the stage as part of Clint Holmes’ regular four-piece backing band. This was a significant performance kicking off April, one of three shows starring Holmes being recorded for a live CD and DVD, the first such recordings to originate from Cabaret Jazz in The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
Wedemeyer had played the first night, Friday. Afterward, he had received word that his mother was not feeling well. Ardis Wedemeyer-Lamb lived just up the street from her son, moving to Las Vegas last year from her home in Northern California.
His mom had long suffered from heart ailments and on the first night of this three-show series said she felt a fever.
Wedemeyer drove her to the hospital for evaluation after the show, staying with her for five hours in the emergency room. Her vital signs were good, and she said she was feeling OK. At 4 a.m., he dropped his mother off at her house.
The next day, a text from Wedemeyer’s sister, Wendy, that she was unable to reach their mom alerted him to trouble. When he reached her home, he found his mom, who was 76, had passed away. This was three hours before he was to return to making music at The Smith Center.
“It was surreal. I was just completely shocked, numb,” he said. “I called Jeff (Neiman, Holmes’ pianist and music director), and Clint called me 10 minutes later and told me: ‘Look, do what you have to do. Don’t worry about us.’”
Instinctively, Wedemeyer wanted to play. Immediately. He needed the comfort of the music. When he’s one with the guitar, he feels at home.
“The entire reason I play guitar is because of my mom,” he said.
When he was 11 years old, he was just discovering rock music. It was all about Jimmy Page, whom he remembers being “the coolest guy ever,” and not being able to get enough of the rock guitarists of the time. He saw the classic Led Zeppelin concert film “The Song Remains the Same,” and remembers, “I was just flipping out.”
There was talk of channeling his musical interests to the piano, but the family could not afford a piano. So his mom signed him up for guitar lessons.
“I was actually a little annoyed,” he said, chuckling. “Suddenly, maybe playing the guitar wasn’t so cool. It’s only cool if your parents hate it, not when your mom signs you up for guitar classes.”
It’s also something other than cool when your mother’s favorite album is Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti,” which was the case in the Wedemeyer household.
He visited a place called Union Grove Music Store in his hometown of Los Gatos, Calif., and, as they say, found the notes. “The guy my mom hooked me up with happened to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi of guitar teachers,” Wedemeyer said.
In the eight years he took lessons, music poured from his room as his mom suggested playing The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Elvis and such blues artists as Stevie Ray Vaughan.
“She was a huge music fan. She introduced me to The Beatles, and I said, ‘What a stupid name for a band,’ and then became this huge Beatles fan,” Wedemeyer said. “I’d sit in my room and practice after listening to the albums she bought me, and she’d hear every note I played.”
Wedemeyer-Lamb was not a musician; she worked at Macy’s and also was a fashion model for advertisements in newspapers and magazines. Health struggles led her son to move her to Las Vegas, and she often was in the audience during his performances.
“She loved coming to gigs,” he said. “She was a real music freak.”
The weekend of her passing, Wedemeyer regrouped to perform with Holmes for the Sunday matinee of the trio of shows. There was no mention of the events of Saturday, but this was no ordinary gig.
“Everything actually went really well. I hadn’t touched my guitar since Friday, and it was great to be around the guys again. Every once in a while, Clint would turn to me and kind of wave, to make sure I was OK,” Wedemeyer said. “I was totally fine until he sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ I just fell apart onstage. I kept my head down and played.”
He’s played many funeral and memorial services, but nothing like this show.
“I just lost it,” he said. “I was pretty proud of myself until then, but when he closed with that ballad. ... Wow.”
The guitarist is off playing again this weekend, “gigging” in San Jose, Calif. He plans to be back with Holmes next month and at a few of his familiar haunts around the scene.
Ardis Wedemeyer-Lamb will be there in spirit, her son’s artistry serving as a reminder of the lessons that made it all possible.