Setting Up for the Gig: Proper Etiquette

Gigging requires a good deal of equipment that needs to be set up before the gig and torn down after the gig is done. If a band plays a venue that doesn’t have a house PA system then the amount of equipment being hauled, set up and torn down increases quite a bit. It’s all part of the job and what gets done by whom is mostly a common sense drill. For bands that cannot afford roadies, which is most of us, the basic tenet is if you bring it, it’s your responsibility to haul it in, set it up, use it, tear it down and load it back into your vehicle. Most musicians would prefer not to have someone else haul their gear anyway. They’ve sunk quite a bit of cash into their tools of the trade and would rather not have someone else bang it around, unless it’s someone they know quite well who hasn’t been drinking all night and even then they’ll often decline assistance.

There are some areas that bands traditionally do combine efforts on and those are primarily things that the whole band uses. When the group is tasked with providing the sound system, has lighting and promotional gear like banners or signs, this is usually the area where the members pool their efforts and usually the drummer is excused from this given the amount of gear he or she has to deal with. Usually the person with the fastest set up takes lead on getting the sound system set up and then as the others wrap up they join in, helping to put speakers on stands and get the lights up and running. Banners are usually undeniably a two-person job and all of the work gets done very quickly when people help.

If you’re a newbie when it comes to set ups and tear downs, it can be a bit confusing, and not all bands do things the same way. Some folks end up with different band members providing different parts of the system and cables might end up belonging to different folks as well. If you’re not sure what goes where, just ask and someone will tell you. Different people also have different preferred methods of cable storage as well, so it’s always wise to check how they wrap them up so you’re on the same page and not putting kinks in the wires that shorten lifespans. Always be gentle with the equipment: tossing a cable might not harm it, but tossing a microphone could kill it and earn you a spot on someone’s shit list really quickly. The same thing goes with lighting arrays. Would you throw a light bulb toward a bag and hope it went in? I didn’t think so.

Problems primarily arise when people don’t pull their weight with set up and tear downs. This can lead to resentment on the part of the people who always get stuck with it, which in turn can lead to some disagreeable interactions. If you occasionally have to cut out before the PA is broken down, your bandmates will understand. They’ll also be pretty understanding if you have an injury or health condition that prevents you from helping, but if it’s just because you don’t want to, they won’t take that well. If you’re one of the vocalists and all you have is your mic and mic stand to set up and you’re not helping haul and set up the PA system, folks won’t be pleased, regardless of what gender you are.

Personally I like to travel as light as I can, which takes some planning as a bass player. I’ve done my research and spent the effort to find reliable equipment that doesn’t take too much out of me getting in and out of the clubs. I run either one or two 15” speaker cabinets with a 500 watt head, and if one cab will do I’m more than happy to oblige. I usually also have a music stand and a guitar stand. I load as much as I can onto my collapsible hand truck, usually my full rig, put my bass on my back and haul everything in and out in one trip each. I can reliably load in within 15 minutes, if that, and be ready to perform. Once I’m set up, I’ll help set up the PA if help is needed. The gigs I usually play are at least a forty-five minute drive from home, so I’ve planned my equipment usage to allow me to hit the road after work as soon as I can. Getting my gear loaded is a priority for me and it’s not unusual for me to already be fully loaded out before some of the other guys have even started breaking down their equipment. If there’s a PA to set up or tear down, I help with that before hitting the road.

The hard and fast rule to all of this is that if it’s your instrument, it’s your responsibility. You should know how long it takes to set up your equipment and have it ready for sound check on time. You should also have a good idea of how long it takes to tear it down and get it stowed away. If you need a little help and your bandmates can and are willing to provide it, just ask. Hauling in a full-scale old Hammond B3 organ, for example, is not a one person job and if it’s part of the act, then the others will expect that you need help with it. However, if you’re a bass player, guitarist, drummer or keyboard player the expectation is that you’ll take care of your own equipment. Don’t expect help. If you get it upon occasion, count it as a bonus.


Time Crunches: Another Exercise in Organization

Well, I’m definitely back home because the rehearsal schedule for the week is in. Tonight the blues band is auditioning a pair of drummers, Wednesday the rock band rehearses, Thursday morning the blues/rock band rehearses, then Thursday evening the blues band auditions another drummer or two. The rock band has a gig Saturday night and then we start over, trying to fit in an acoustic band rehearsal someplace as well. What I really need to see is the gig schedule filling up a bit more, but that’s another work in progress. Adding on to the above, I sent out sixteen inquiry letters this morning for part time teaching positions and need to continue the job search while also keeping up with the writing pattern I established last week and working in some practice times as well. So much for the simplifying discussion with my counselor a couple weeks ago.

Generally I do better when I’m busy, mostly because it forces me to prioritize my tasks and then I need to create and keep a pretty organized schedule in order to stand a chance of getting everything done that I need to do. When I’m not really busy then I have a tendency to skip the scheduling aspect and things don’t get done at a rate that even approaches personal satisfaction. I end up thinking that I have more time than I do so the procrastination starts, particularly when I have a task that I’m viewing as less than fascinating that needs to be finished. Most people have similar issues and while my time in the Army tells me that what it really boils down to is discipline, there is also that thing called motivation that has its own impact. When you are self-employed, you are the boss and unless you’ve got a client that needs your immediate attention, you are the only one telling yourself to do something. I essentially have to be my own Drill Sergeant.

Deadlines make huge differences and planning your work by actively creating a schedule creates the framework that enables the deadlines to be met. I know what my writing goals are for the week, and I know what my rehearsal and band schedule is for the week. The only way things will get done is if I sit down and plan when I can get the writing in, when I can get the musical preparation in, and then use that time to do it, not something else. This is further complicated by needing time to take care of the dog, the kid, the wife, and my own physical needs, so there needs to be time in the schedule for those things as well. Once again, get out the paper and pen to figure out what time you need to pick up the kid, make dinner, eat, and all of the other tasks required for the family. The time in between these things is what I’ve got to work with for the work related stuff so really, if I don’t create the schedule, things won’t get done and I’ll have even less time to work with.

When we do the schedule we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish in a given amount of time. Last week I managed to crank out 43 pages of a potential book project, along with several blog posts and the letters of inquiry that I printed and mailed today. I was writing about 1,500 or so words of the book project a day and then about another 800 or so for the essay of the day. I was “on vacation” for Thanksgiving break, but it was very much a working vacation. I think I spent about four hours writing each day, including Thanksgiving Day, Monday through Friday. I wrote two blog posts over this weekend, one Saturday and one Sunday, and now I want to get back in the saddle with the novel. So I need to allot that time. I didn’t take an instrument with me last week so there was no practicing to be done or other musical preparation for the week.

Usually I have about six hours of time between dropping my daughter off and picking her up from school Monday through Friday. If I write for four then I have two left to walk the dog, eat lunch and maybe start doing some instrument work or job hunting, on days that don’t have a rehearsal during the day. Hmmmm. I guess it will take some discipline to get through it all. I also have some time after she gets home from school but that varies depending on what she has scheduled for extracurricular activities, appointments and what not. All in all, during the actual course of the day I have about 7 hours to work with before dinner, and then the evening rehearsals and gigs. Yep, it’s time to hit the drawing board to map it all out. How’s your schedule?

Fatigue and Illness: Two Challenges for Working Musicians

Two of the more difficult situations that we all eventually face are illness and fatigue; both provide their own challenges but share some similarities.  When we are tired or ill focus can become a major issue as our energy levels plummet and while fatigue is bad enough on its own when combined with illness it can be a real drag.  Not all of us have the iron will that drives surf legend Dick Dale to still get up and give a solid show despite a whole slew of serious physical ailments that would sideline most of us, nor that of Freddie Mercury finishing his last album with Queen while virtually on his deathbed with AIDs.  There are countless examples of performers who have given their all and died doing it, but I’m not going there.  What I’m looking at is how do we get through a gig where we’re exhausted or miserable from some garden-variety virus.

I’ve done my fair share of gigs when I was under the weather and quite a few where I was close to exhausted before the gig started either due to insomnia the night before, a run of late nights combined with early mornings or a ton of other situations.  If I know I’m running on low energy due to fatigue and I can work it in during the day, I’ll do my best to get a nap before I’ve got to leave for the gig, but more often than not this is a luxury I have to forgo.  So I find myself hitting the coffee and diet soda regimen, trying to load up a little to keep the peepers open and the attention span stabilized.  That being said, this is not the healthiest way to deal with the situation because any time you use chemicals, even caffeine, there’s a price to pay, particularly if you overload.  So if you go the coffee route watch how much you drink, particularly if you already have health issues like high blood pressure or something like A-fib.  You don’t want to elevate the blood pressure, nor do you want to risk you’re A-fib getting worse.  One of the worst things you can do in this situation is start drinking alcohol, and if you’re really tired skip that after gig drink.

Another method, which doesn’t rely on chemicals, is get up and moving before the set starts.  This will help get the blood pumping and help you make it into the set.  Between sets find a quiet corner, ask one of your bandmates to come and get you before the next set and close your eyes.  As long as your bandmates know where you are, they’ll make sure you’re up and running for the next set.  The best method is to avoid letting your batteries run so dry in the first place.  Do your best to follow a schedule that permits eight hours of sleep per day, preferably in one block.  I know that this is difficult, particularly if you have a day job, kids that need to get to school and a heavy performance schedule.  Remember, lack of balance is usually what creates sleep deprivation to begin with, and you’re better off pulling into a parking lot to take a nap after the gig than falling asleep at the wheel.

Illness is a tricky one, because we need to be able to determine when we’re risking too much for the bar gig, or not enough.  Honestly, I don’t know how singers do it when they power through gigs with colds, sinus infections and the lot.  If you are a vocalist I highly suggest you ask your fellow singers with tons of experience how they get through the gigs and go from there.  For the rest of the rockers and such, if you can’t get out of the bathroom you need to either find an emergency sub or cancel the gig, other than that if you’re lucid and you’re fairly certain you’re not going to pass out on stage, everyone is pretty much expecting you to show up and do the gig.  In most of these cases it’s a matter of gritting your teeth and getting it done.  Once again, remember that mixing alcohol and cold medicines of various types can create an even worse scenario.  Stick to safe fluids, and try not to give your fellow band members the curse.

The brutal reality of being even a semi-pro musician is that you have to show up for work even when you feel like death warmed over.  You’re part of a small unit that depends upon its components to survive and profit as an entity.  Any time you call off from a gig it puts the group at risk of failure, whether it’s having a bad night for the bad or possibly losing the backing of an agent who could have kept you all working regularly.  It’s not like a regular job with paid sick days and vacation time, plus there really are tons of people just waiting to take your job.  Your best bet is to cowboy up, to use the old phrase, and get the job done.  Then do what you can to get better rested or to recover from whatever ails you.


Finding A Space: Is it Really a Challenge?

Finding a space to write that works often depends on who you are. I find that as a somewhat introverted person with ADD, I need a place where I won’t be distracted. If there are people around me talking, I’ll end up listening to them talk even if I have no interest in what they’re talking about. Most of the time I can’t listen to music while writing either for much the same reason, I’ll focus on the music rather than what I’m trying to do with the written word. One exception to this is when I’m writing about the recording I’m listening to or the genre in general because then the split focus serves the purpose of the written piece. Ironically enough noise in and of itself doesn’t necessarily distract my thought process.

For the past three months the street that runs past the front of our house has been under construction with all sorts of heavy digging equipment creating a cacophony that has even shaken the house from the impacts of some of the equipment. Despite this I’ve been able to focus on my work. Granted, some of the repetitive noises, like the jackhammer, do disrupt my train of thought but for the most part I’ve been able to ignore those sounds and maintain my focus. I think part of this is due to the lack of language, whether it is actual human language, musical or otherwise. My optimal environment for writing, however, is a quiet house when I am alone. This permits me to maintain my focus and get things rolling.

As my readers know, I periodically do self-challenges where I set a daily word count target and commit to writing every day for a set number of days. In the past this has been in one-month blocks. Currently I am working through a two-month block. When I’ve done these challenges I have ended up learning and expanding upon what I find possible. For instance I never thought that I’d be able to write essays as a passenger in a car during a road trip, particularly with a kid in the car as well, however I found out that I can two years ago when we traveled from Illinois to the Black Hills of South Dakota by car when I did my first month long writing challenge. During that trip I also learned that my assumptions about my prime writing times, mornings, was really a myth; I could write just as well in the afternoons. I’d always thought that by the afternoon my ideas and thought process were too polluted by my day to be productive, but I was wrong. I also learned that I could write in the evenings as well, but there fatigue definitely plays a role that makes it much more difficult for me.

Overall I’ve found that the most difficult thing about writing is actually sitting down and doing it. Once I’m in the chair and I have committed to focusing on the task at hand I’m good. Even on a bad day I can fill the page with something that might be of use at some other time as long as I actually get myself into the chair in front of the computer and start setting my brain free. Most of the time I do fart around a bit before I get down to the nuts and bolts of it. I’ll look over my social media account, check my email, run through a mahjong board or two and then get to it. Sometimes things I see on social media boards will influence me to write something that has a definite political slant but I’ve found that doing a puzzle or two clears my head and then I can get moving with my actual purpose in sitting down to begin with.

Currently I’m sitting on a folding chair, feet propped up on another to support my laptop, in a shaded portion of the front driveway of my in-laws’ place in Palm Beach Gardens. The rest of the extended family is inside or outback, talking, eating breakfast, playing games, and catching up with each other. There was absolutely too much going on for me to focus on what I needed to do, so I had to find my “room with a view.” Who would have thought it would be tucked in a shady spot under the live oaks and palms between a big old Mercury Grand Marquis and the garage? Finding that space is something that we all do when we sit down to write and what might be distracting for me might be fertile ground for another. Some folks go to coffee shops to find their muse. It all comes down to where we can be productive.

Image: That Part of the Show

I’m sitting in the park gazebo in Tequesta, Florida. My wife, daughter and sister-in-law are all running in the Race for the Pies this morning and the race is supposed to start in about twelve minutes. It’s a lovely morning with a light breeze and it’s quite pleasant here in the park. I’m not a runner and haven’t been since I left the Army 27 years ago. In some ways I wish I were, but due to bad knees and a bit of a weight issue. I actually have a doctor’s excuse to not run given to me by the last doctor to root around in my left knee. Regardless, I’m feeling a little out of place surrounded by all of these patently fit people preparing to take off. Something that most of the musicians I know try to avoid talking about, especially those like me who are either an XXL packed onto a 5’8” frame, or, also like me, are on the northern side of 50 years old. That topic boils down to one word, image.

Most bands that are out to “make it” put as much importance on the collective image of the group as they do on the actual music that they produce. This might seem superficial, but the reality of the music business is that it is part of the entertainment industry, which tends to be shallow in many ways. Image sells, it’s a big part of the show and it communicates a dedication to the format. Some of what people view as image appropriate depends on the genre. In the classical field this usually invokes images of formal attire, tuxedos and black ties for the men and usually black attire for the women as well. This is what is usually seen when we attend orchestral concerts and sometimes small ensembles and solo recitals. Often classical musicians who are giving recitals opt out of the formal wear and go with what could be described as more of a business casual attire. Traditionally classical musicians haven’t been as strict in terms of body image as some of the other genres, however this has been changing over the past 20 years or so for various reasons.

I’ve done the classical route with the full tux, but honestly the last time I donned a suit for a performance was New Year’s Eve of 1999. I was playing with a variety band at an upscale function. It has been a good while since I’ve played anywhere that requires that but for musicians who work the upscale club circuit, weddings and some forms of corporate events wearing formal attire still applies, even for pop/rock and variety bands. In most cases with these types of gigging the image that is expected is pretty clean cut and while you don’t necessarily have to present a peak performance body image, it doesn’t hurt. Presenting a professional front is a major plus and understanding what is appropriate often makes the difference between working or wondering why you don’t have a gig.

Most musicians have a pretty solid understanding of what type of image goes with what they’re playing. In some cases showing up looking like you’ve just rolled out of garbage dumpster after a three day drunk might be appropriate, but nobody really wants to work with someone who is actually doing that to achieve the “look.” Most folks base what they’re wearing upon what the big names in their genre wear, but something to keep in mind is that not all body shapes work with the same clothes. If your body doesn’t, than find something that works, start working out, or just be yourself. If you’re working rock and roll you might want to consider something other than the jeans and t-shirt you put on that morning; try to raise the bar a bit. For one thing you want to keep in mind that you’re going to be going on stage to give a show and while it might be a job to you it’s entertainment for your audience.

I personally cringe a bit when the whole image topic comes up because, quite honestly, I’m not happy with my physical form. I know it’s something I can change, at least the weight aspects, but reaching that goal is something that is relegated to the distant future. There are other aspects that give me more trouble not the least of which is being a white haired 54 year old in a business that is primarily youth driven. I could dye my hair like some of the folks I work with do; it might make me look more forty-something than fifty-something given the lack of lines on my face but eventually that will look a bit off. Besides, I am who and what I am so I’m ready to accept that. There are times when I wish I was still the young fit man that I was years ago, but that’s not the case and the clock isn’t going to stop and run backwards for me. It doesn’t for anyone except in legends and fantasy stories. What I can do is dress well to present the best image I can and play my ass off every time I step out onto stage. I can lay down that groove that gets folks out of their chairs and onto the dance floor and occasionally lay down a line that someone drops a jaw on. I try to remember that image isn’t everything, but still try to present the best one that I can when I hit the stage.

Dreams and Realities: Moving through A Life Long Musical Career

Last night as I was sleeping on the pull out sofa bed at my in-laws’ I dreamed I was playing guitar with Elton John and when he left the stage it became an open mic night.  Did I mention it was a dream, heh, heh?  We didn’t have a plan on what to play; after all what do you play after doing a set with Elton John?  So we went into a basic blues shuffle and I started to take a solo but the neck on the Strat I was playing felt like there was something wrong.  At that point I awoke to find my left hand wrapped around the metal tube that made the frame of the bed, trying to form a bar chord.  No wonder the “Strat” neck felt wrong!  Occasionally, like last night, I get lucky in my dreamscapes and get to play with some great folks.  Another night I dreamed that I was sitting on the floor playing with Emmy Lou Harris and Ricky Skaggs.  These are the type of dreams that I don’t want to wake up from, but when I do I count myself lucky to have had the dream for a couple of reasons.  First, they’re really cool dreams, and second because they remind me of the level that I really want to perform on; they are literally my dream playing positions and inevitably show the variety of my musical interests in the process.

Last night’s dream was unique in that I was playing in two very different situations, one of which was high function pro level and the other was very much local get together and see what happens.  It was an odd juxtaposition because they were drastically different on so many levels, but it was a dream that within itself was portraying a dream versus reality situation.  What I want, vs. what I get.  For most of us our realities don’t match our dreams so we find a way to accept our lots and move on with them.  Others actually get to live their dreams, but who knows, maybe they dream about having a week where they can simply hang at home and not have to hop on a jet to the next venue.  All I know is I’d like to have that opportunity on a regular basis at some point before I shuffle off this mortal coil to paraphrase the bard.

When our dreams and our realities are out of phase and we have the opportunity to reflect on this disconnect we can either take the opportunity to try to figure out what is standing in the way and come up with a plan to get us closer to those dreams, or we can settle into acceptance of our lot in life and try to be content with it.  A third possibility, of course, is to find the disparity between the two to be too great to overcome and too depressing to deal with, so we quit.  This third option is clearly the most self-defeating because in allowing this perspective to cloud our minds we find ourselves losing something that has been a very important part of our lives.  Yet another option is to do everything in our power to perform at the level we desire to, whether we are on the national stage or in a local corner pub.  In many ways this is what separates the true pros from the amateurs.  I once heard an interview with Huey Lewis where he stated that all he ever wanted to do was sing and play his harmonica, whether he “made it” or not.  Obviously he made it to the international star level, but what drove him there was his love for what he did as much as anything else.  He was committed to his art and craft, and was going to pursue it regardless of where that pursuit led him.

I truly believe that if we took a survey of most of the folks my generation considers as our idols (I was born in 1962), most of them were in it for the long haul whether fame came or went.  In fact for a large percentage of them fame was fleeting.  They were big names for awhile but were mostly forgotten yet most of them continued regardless, some hoping for the next big hit, while others kept going simply because that’s what they did and how they identified themselves.  Some did go on and pursue alternative careers, but they were probably the minority.  There is much that goes into becoming a famous musician, not the least of which is a hefty dose of luck.  Sometimes musical skill wasn’t even part of the equation but the artist had something to offer that appealed to a group of listeners at the right place and time to elevate them to idol status.  Regardless, most of them continued and many grew throughout their careers.  If we look at The Who’s music from when they started and compare it to their peak performance levels there is no argument that they continued to push their boundaries throughout their careers as a group and as individuals.

Not all of us are going to become household names, in fact a very small percentage of musicians or performers of any kind do.  If fame is what drives us to be musicians then we’re dealing with a very shallow motivator that will eventually in all likelihood break down and leave us lost along the roadway.  Music itself, a love of performance, and the desire to make the best music we can make are motivators that can take us the long distance of our lifetimes regardless of what fame we might garner along the way.  Love of the medium and the journey itself is where we should find our rewards, regardless of whether we’re actually making a living at it or not, and surrounds ourselves with the best like minded people we can work with does a lot to make that a reality for ourselves and move us toward our ultimate goals one way or another.


Ah Yes, Those Excellent Venue Experiences!

Last night was my first outing with a new band that I’ve been working with for maybe three months, a rock cover band called Speed of Sound.  We had the opening slot at a nice venue with a huge stage, the Q Bar in Glendale Heights, IL.  We’re currently a quartet that is essentially a power trio plus one, the vocalist, and it was a ton of fun to get out on a big stage with an excellent sound system and a good audience to support us.  The place is huge, 20,000 square feet, has a large dance floor, plenty of seating, an area filled with pool tables and then a very large bar area as well.  It was really nice to kick off this band in such a nice venue, and great to play live with my friend Ken Erickson again as well as Dave Nickrand on vocals and Herb Barnett on drums.  It was also nice to be able to stretch out, get wonderful tone from my full 500 watt rig and Carvin SB5000 bass, and hear it supported by the venue system in big deep crisp clean sound mixed beautifully with the rest of the band.

More often than not the bands that I work with play venues that are maybe a quarter of the size, or less, than the venue last night.  It is nice playing smaller clubs because it increases the intimacy on some levels, and the smaller size dictates smaller rigs.  However the smaller venues often don’t have house PA systems, which creates the requirement for the band to provide the PA, or hire someone else to which inevitably would come out of the band’s take.  So while I might not need my big bass rig for the smaller venue, I might have to bring and set up part of the PA in addition to my bass equipment.  In those situations the band is also running their own sound which can be a bit of a complication when trying to get the levels set for a nicely balanced mix.

The large venue experience with plenty of room on stage, an excellent house system and good sound engineers is a wonderful one when it all comes together well.  This was the case last night.  The stage was sufficiently large that both bands set up their equipment, ours toward the mid front and the second act’s behind us, and there was absolutely no sense of crowding or loss of floor space.  In fact, when we moved our equipment off stage after the end of our set the stage really looked pretty empty despite the amount of equipment the second band had.  At least it did from the perspective of someone who is used to being crammed into a corner with four other musicians and trying to avoid taking out the front man’s teeth with a bass headstock.

The sound guy was quite efficient, between setting up and dialing us in.  He even switched out the kick drum mic because he wasn’t happy with the tone combined with Herb’s kick and the entire process was extraordinarily hassle free for the band.  It helped that the venue hadn’t cut any corners on the quality of the sound system, but it was clear that they hadn’t cut any corners hiring someone who knew what he was doing.  You can sink thousands into an excellent system, like you can with musical instruments, but if the person running it doesn’t know what he or she is doing it can still sound like crap, just like a great guitar only sings its best when the player matches it.  This guy was fast, without even seeming like he was hurrying, and got everything lined up beautifully with no muss, no fuss, and without ruffling anyone’s feathers.

We did well last night with our set.  There were a couple glitches here and there, but all in all we did quite well on our first public run.  The compliments were flowing and everyone left feeling quite satisfied with how things went.  It was also nice to be able to get home by 11:15 for a change as opposed to the usual two a.m. or so and have the energy to bring my full rig back into the house without too much banging around.  When I get home late there’s usually some thumping of cabs against doorframes and such, or one of the cabs sleeps in the car trunk for the night.  Not so last night.  Nights like last night, where the venue is superior, there is more than ample stage space, the sound system and engineer are excellent and the overall work experience is so comfortable leave me feeling quite satisfied.  May there be many more of them!