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One day in 2001, studio guitarist Rusty Anderson got a call from friend and producer David Kahne, who was producing a new Paul McCartney record and said he might require Anderson's services. "I didn't really get too into it," Anderson recalls, speaking by phone from a London hotel room. "I don't like to assume anything's for sure. Living around Hollywood for a while, a lot of things are supposed to happen — and don't."
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But this deal happened. Anderson met McCartney, and half an hour later they were working on what would become the Driving Rain album. "That was a great way to meet him," Anderson says, "because I feel more comfortable playing music than I do walking or talking or eating in a social situation."
Nearly 10 years on, Anderson and the Paul McCartney Band have played stadium shows around the world, including places like New York's Citi Field. They'll perform at San Francisco's AT&T Park this Saturday. They've even played the grandaddy of all stadiums — the Coliseum in Rome, where Anderson says half a million fans' lighters resembled "a river of fireflies going off the edge of the earth."
He prefers huge shows: "I find that playing for one or two people is the hardest thing to do." So perhaps more intimidating was playing a small Washington, D.C. house show — that is, the East Room of the White House — with President Barack Obama offering backup vocals on "Hey Jude." "It was surreal," says Anderson of the band's White House appearance on June 2. "Being a big supporter of [Obama's], that was a dream come true that I didn't know I had."
Anderson's musical dreams started when he was about 5, "flip[ping] out on music and guitars and the Beatles," who had just invaded the United States. He took up guitar at the age of 8 when his dad bought him a little electric six-string at a pawnshop, but started — and stopped — lessons soon after.
"I was so excited by the magic of the instrument," he says. "And I just wasn't interested in learning to read music — I just wanted to learn by ear." He formed his first bands simply enough, he recalls, by saying, "Hey, you seem pretty cool. Wanna be my friend? Why don't you play bass?"
Eventually, Anderson's work with the Living Daylights earned him the attention of Kahne and a solo development deal at Columbia. In 1986, Kahne set him up with his first studio session, a job with the Bangles, and from there Anderson went on to play with Ozzy Osbourne, Gwen Stefani, Santana, Little Richard, and Carole King, to name a few.
He describes one memorable session with Elton John: "Bernie Taupin was there. He had all these lyrics written, I think 80 or 90 pages, and then Elton would take the lyrics, and in about 15 minutes it would be a song. [I'd] just sit there by the piano and learn the chords and start creating — it was really organic and fun."
Every so often, Anderson finds the time to hunker down in his multiroom home studio and record his own work. His second album, Born on Earth (out August 3), demonstrates the range of styles he has picked up along the way — and also showcases some unlikely influences.
The exceptional title track begins with two members of the L.A. Philharmonic multitracking strings (in Anderson's stairwell) before erupting into blistering '70s hard rock. Bunk Gardner of the Mothers of Invention contributed sax and bass clarinet to the catchy, sleazy pop of "Funky Birthday Cake," which is based on an "ancient recording" by a teenage Anderson. And the twee folk-pop song "Julia Roberts" takes its subject matter from a dream. Anderson sums it up: "I like contrast."
The Rusty Anderson Band might make it out on the road, but the Paul McCartney Band is keeping the guitarist pretty busy. And at this point, it really is a band — not simply an ex-Beatle and three top-notch session players.
"We've been doing it long enough now that it feels organic," Anderson says. "You're able to trust the other people and intuitively know where [they're] going — or if someone makes a mistake, or goes in a different direction. We'll even start a song and stop it live sometimes. It keeps it fun."
And at the end of the day, Anderson is just a guy in his 50s having fun with his guitar. It's as easy as his old query: "Hey, you seem pretty cool. Wanna be my friend? Why don't you play bass?"
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