Mark Grzelak strummed the national anthem at Guaranteed Rate Field on June 14, rocking for a crowd of Chicago White Sox and New York Yankee fans at the park’s annual “Rock ‘n’ Roll” night.
“It’s beyond awesome,” Grzelak said. “You stand on the field. When you play the anthem, everyone stands up, focusing on you, closing their eyes, putting their hand on their chest. You have to deliver. It’s our nation’s anthem; it’s a big deal.”
Grzelak, 51, of Forest Park, said he has played at Sox park several times before, with various bands, including during the World Series in 2005 when the Sox took home the championship. But Friday represented his first time playing at the park solo. Afterwards, he came back to Forest Park and played a solo acoustic set at Murphy’s.
Grzelak said he was connected to the Sox gig through a mutual friend in the Chicago rock ‘n’ roll scene. He had to submit a video of himself playing the national anthem to be considered. When he found out about two weeks before that he had been chosen to play the tune, he immediately felt anxious about hitting every note.
“The challenge is that I cannot miss a note because everybody knows it,” Grzelak said. “It is the national anthem; everyone knows the melody, even if you don’t know the words. So for me, there ain’t going to be no faking it.”
Every day beforehand, he picked up his 1976 Les Paul Black Beauty “heirloom guitar that I got when my brother passed away” and strummed “The Star Spangled Banner” a few times. Grzelak said he focused on where his left hand was positioned on the guitar’s neck, reflected on what to do it he lost his place in the song and vowed to keep his rendition pretty traditional.
“I’m not going to go Eddie Van Halen on it,” Grzelak said.
Grzelak said he fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll when he was about 9 years old, after he first heard the Boston song, “More Than A Feeling.” His brother had been taking guitar lessons at the time and Grzelak would pick up his brother’s guitar and strum a few notes when his brother wasn’t playing, gradually teaching himself to play.
“It’s not a story that other people don’t have; it’s just my story. I loved it,” he said. “I pick up it as a solace, a place to go when I am by myself. It has always been a good thing for me.”
Grzelak said he’s since toured 40 of the 50 states, opening for musicians like Smash Mouth, Dead Milkman and Dick Dale. When he started, he used to be shy about performing for crowds. Now, he said, he’s more self-assured.
“Thirty-five years of gigging around the country helps build up confidence,” Grzelak said. “You can be cocky and not confident, you can try to showboat, but confidence means you know your instrument and you feel at one with your instrument. That’s how I feel when I play guitar.”