Outdoor Gigs: The Good, The Bad and The Memorable

Yesterday I rehearsed and had band pictures taken for the CPC Band, one of the groups I’m working with. It was a lovely afternoon in the upper 60s with crystalline blue skies. It’s a little hard to believe since it’s the first week of November in Northern Illinois, but after shooting some of the photos inside, we adjourned for more shots outdoors and finally made some music outside on the patio. Aside from the occasional train passing by it was a really lovely day. Playing outside is something that I’ve always enjoyed, particularly on really beautiful days. In fact, one of the first gigs I ever played was on a stage created from a semi flatbed at a town fair on a summer’s night when I was in high school. Some of the memories created in these situations are pretty awesome, while others, logically enough not so great.

About the worst memory I have of an outdoor gig was from one I had with a zydeco band in Wilmington, Delaware. We were playing a festival on the waterfront, something that was usually a ton of fun and if memory serves me correctly we played twice that weekend. The back lines were provided for both, so it was really cool all around. The first time we performed was on Saturday and we played the main stage, which was absolutely awesome. It was a huge stage, with a nice breeze and the sun at our backs. We got a steady cooling affect from the breeze and it was another beautiful day, warmer than yesterday but a really comfortable summer day. The Sunday performance was a different story. That Sunday was hazy, hot and humid and we played the southern stage on the docks. The stage was one of those self-contained aluminum truck beds, essentially a shiny metal box that one side lifted on to face the crowd. It was set up facing due west, catching direct sunlight with not a spot of shade in sight. It had to be at least 130 degrees on the stage with absolutely no breeze. When we climbed up on stage I could smell the amplifiers cooking, and my shirt was soaked through before I finished tuning my bass. Thankfully we only had to play an hour, but it was truly the most brutal performance environment that I’ve had to deal with, even taking into account the gigs I did in actual desert environments.

Most of my outdoor gig experiences have not been brutally uncomfortable, and many register as my favorite gigging experiences. While I lived in Tucson, I gigged with a wonderful cowboy rock and roll band fronted by a gentleman named Andy Hersey who still performs regularly in and around Tucson today. We were quite good together and well suited to working together. Andy fronted the band, writing the originals we played and providing guitar and vocals on all of them. Tim O’Connor played fiddle and mandolin while providing back up vocals, Erik Truelove was the exceptional drummer, and at least half to three quarters of the time we had a keyboard player, Greg Robinson, I believe. It’s been a few years. I played quite a few outdoor gigs with Andy and company on ranches, at resorts, on a mountaintop and even in a national forest where we only had power for our equipment and only starlight to light the bandstand.

One gig was located on a ranch southeast of Fort Huachuca. It was just Andy, Erik and I. We met up at Andy’s casita and loaded our equipment into his Jeep. From Sonoita, AZ we took dirt roads and double track through the open valley, passing through herds of cattle to get to the gig, a party for Mexican and American Border Patrol agents. We set up around a campfire ring in front of the ranch house, which was situated on top of a hill facing the southern plains and mountains leading into Mexico, which was no too far distant. There were no provisions for a PA system so it was an all-acoustic night. Andy I had our acoustic guitars and Erik played hand percussion, sitting around the campfire as night fell and the stars lit the sky. The Milky Way shone above us as we made our music, at the nice dinner that our patrons provided us, made some more music as the temperatures dropped and then finally packed up and headed back home somewhere around midnight with fresh cash in our pockets. That night and the experience of that gig is one that I will truly cherish as long as I have the ability to remember things. It was so good that I couldn’t even believe that I was actually being paid to do it.

We played some other really fun and memorable gigs together as well. There was the welcome home party for a young soldier on his father’s ranch outside of Sonoita, Arizona where the band tucked in together under a tarp stretched from a shed beside the corral and plywood sheets provided the bandstand. Once again in perfect weather with a super appreciative audience that fed and paid us well to do our business. Then the wedding on another ranch where we set up in the shade next to the ranch house where the groom wore starched jeans, a crisp white shirt and black Stetson and the bride wore a pretty gingham dress. The 50th birthday party we played in the dark outside of Phoenix where they carried the host in a chair down to the cattle pond while we did our thing barely able to see each other. I took my fretless bass that night not realizing it was going to be too dark to see the fret markers, so I ended up clipping a music stand light onto my headstock to try to see enough to stay in tune.

Years and years of memories keep cropping up every time I do another outdoor rehearsal or gig. My first classical performance after leaving the military was an outdoor gig at the University of New Mexico Hospital for a lunchtime music series. I was playing duets there with another guitarist and right in the middle of my single solo piece a Canadian F-18 flew over from the air base, tearing the sky apart with the roar of its engines and drowning out the Fantasia that Weiss had crafted 300 years before. I’m sure that as long as I perform as a musician I’ll collect more experiences and memories, both good and bad. It’s part of the joy of being a performer, that and sharing them with others and having a good belly laugh from some of them!

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