AUSTIN, TX -- Sometimes the stars line up just right, so magnificently but unexpectedly, that lifelong dreams fall into place and all that’s left to do is to live the moment.
If that sounds trite, consider the story of Austin-based musician Haydn Vitera, who on Saturday found himself jamming on stage with the legendary hit maker Stevie Wonder. That it happened at the cavernous Frank Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus, where Vitera once studied music, made the moment even sweeter.
“Not only to play with a legend, but to do it in an arena situation, it was electrifying,” Vitera told NBC News. “It’s your time to do or die.”
Understandably, Vitera was still coming off the high of the improvised performance and the attention it received. He fielded requests for media interviews and on his Facebook page, fans and friends showered him with congratulations. A YouTube video of the impromptu jam had nearly 6,000 views.
How the whole thing came to be was a mix of good fortune and the old adage of preparation meeting opportunity.
A singer, guitarist and violinist, the 41-year-old Vitera was part of a local 10-piece string section hired just days before by Wonder’s camp to play on four numbers for his “Songs in the Key of Life” tour stop. At a rehearsal and sound check the day of the show, Wonder’s musical director made passing mention of a possible solo opportunity or two, but nothing was concrete, Vitera said.
Then came the moment in the 3-hour-plus show when Wonder slowed things down. Backed only by a thumping percussion section, Wonder recognized the Austin musicians, and invited them to play solo. After violinist Leah Zeger took a well-received jazzy first turn, Wonder asked if there was anyone else.
“I just kind of half-stood up and waved my bow at the musical director and said, ‘Me, me, me’” Vitera laughed. “At that point, it was ‘Oh my gosh, it’s actually happening.’”
Live video projected on the arena’s big screens captured one of the evening’s most endearing moments: In the foreground, Wonder in full-wattage smile, clapping and swaying to the beat. Standing behind him, Vitera playing higher and faster and locked in the moment.
“I was in the zone,” he told NBC with a laugh.
When he ended the solo with an upper-register flourish, the crowd roared. The musical director gave Vitera a hearty high-five.
“Hold on,” Wonder said with an air of mischief. “That made want to do a lil’ somethin’-somethin’.” He reached for a harmonica and jammed his own bit of magic, mimicking some of Vitera’s musical lines.
A self-described “half-Mexican,” Vitera was born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico to an Anglo father, Harry, and a Mexican-born mother, Graciela. The family moved to El Campo, Texas when he was an infant.
Graciela was an opera singer in her day and would have the family watch orchestral concerts on PBS. “She told me that every time the violins came on I would stop playing with my toys and reach for the screen,” Vitera recalled.
Realizing it wasn’t just a passing interest, Graciela put her son in classical violin lessons when he was in the 2nd grade.
A former member of the Grammy winning band Asleep at the Wheel, Vitera is familiar to music fans in this the so-called Live Music Capital of the World. He plays electric violin and fronts his own band Vitera, which his bio describes as “the sonic lovechild of Maná and Guns N’ Roses, conceived to the sounds of Santana and born in the land of Crossover.”
Vitera’s played with big names before, including George Strait, Dolly Parton, Charlie Daniels and Buck Owens, but Wonder was a whole ‘nother stratosphere.
“I’ve heard his music since I was a child,” Vitera said. “To say it’s timeless is an understatement.”
Vitera the band expects to release an EP, “Tequila Rock,” this summer. A new band collaboration with Mariachi Las Coronelas, an all-female troupe, is also blossoming under the moniker, Tequila Rock Revolution. That configuration is scheduled to play at The Alamo next week for a kick-off party celebrating San Antonio’s annual Fiesta.
For now, however, the chance of a lifetime still burns hot.
“You dream of a moment like that,” Vitera said of playing with Wonder.
He couldn’t help but hear the crowd’s reaction grow stronger as he played his solo.
“I felt it, man,” Vitera said, laughing again. “That messed me up for life because now I’m going to be chasing that forever. To actually get on a stage like that, I know it’s within reach.”