The lighting tech (an A/V Club dropout, resplendent in a too-small black tee that said SECURITY and a scraggly beard that reached to his nipples) for a popular Quad Cities cover band called Cheeze Pizza (most notable for their fifty-something lead singer dressing in drag) tried to upstage us, then committed a heinous etiquette breach by starting to set up his shit 10 seconds after we finished, rendering me one more shoulder bump from committing a gruesome onstage homicide-by-lighting-truss-rectal-insertion.
See, with the sound off, you’d think it was just fine.
If we get 60 seconds of usable video out of the ~90 minutes they shot, I’ll be stunned.
We’ve been playing regularly at Poopy’s for about five years, 3-4 times per summer. Last night was at least our 15th show there, possibly closer to our 20th.
It was our best gig there by far. Not just because naimhe and monkeyfrog and johnnnytooobaddd came out, though that was certainly a huge part of the fun. Normally when you drive 2.5 hours from your home base to play a biker bar on the banks of a muddy creek in the middle of nowhere, you don’t expect to have friendly faces in the crowd. A huge bonus to have them, for sure, and it was great to hang out a little bit between sets.
We play a lot of biker bars; it’s kind of what The Recliners do, even though none of us are bikers. For whatever reason, they like us. But here’s the thing about bikers: most are way, way too cool to do anything demonstrative in public. Or maybe it’s not about the cool; maybe their leathers are just so tight that they can’t move their asses, or breathe. So while we know they love us because they say so, and these venues keep bringing us back, we don’t expect a lot of feedback from the crowds at these gigs. Very little applause, zero dancing. You get the occasional fist pump when you start a song they like, or, rarely, you’ll see a foot tapping or head bobbing. Not much more.
There was something different yesterday, though. Maybe it was because we played late, and a lot of the actual bikers had ventured back onto the roads towards their points of origin. The crowd that remained last night, especially for the third set which started at 9:45, seemed more like non-biker locals, based on their age, clothing, and drunkenness. (Bikers rarely get wasted when they have to ride.) We had a big group out there, dancing, singing along, buying us shots, making ridiculous requests, and just generally having visible, over-the-top fun.
Of course that translates right back into the performance. No lie—on a number of occasions out there, we’ve delivered a competent but by-the-numbers show. We love to play and to hang out with each other for the day, but sometimes it feels like an open rehearsal, and I’m sure that’s obvious from watching us. We do our best, but it’s just hard to really lean into it and push when no one out front gives a shit. Last night we had no such lack of energy. I think, in fact, that energy managed to bust us out from what should have been an inch-thick coating of rust. Due to our busy lives, we haven’t played together in six or seven weeks, and I don’t think any of us really practiced individually very much during that time. We soared right over those potholes. I certainly surprised myself, and as a bonus, the mysterious problems I have been having with getting proper tone were much, much fewer last night. Wasn’t perfect, yet (will it ever be?), but acceptable.
It wasn’t without a little weirdness. The mayfly eruption that was big enough to make weather radar reports last week? Yeah. We were just a few hours south of that, and those stupid motherfuckers were everywhere. LED-based stage lighting is a wonder of modern technology in every sense, most notably the fact that they generate no heat. But they do apparently generate a lot of UV wavelengths that bugs can’t get enough of. With old school incandescent lamps, the heat would ultimately keep them away or fry them. (And fry the band, too. God, I don’t miss those.) Last night, hundreds of mayflies swarmed the stage and every white surface on it, including my amp and tool bag pictured on the right, above. And many flew right into the PAR cans and rested right on the surface of the LEDs, blissed out, closer to a pure source of that magical UV light than could ever be possible during the first umpteen million years of their time here.
After the bugs came the bats. That was cool and freaky and unnerving. Eat ‘em up, guys, just don’t attack the ones in our hair, please and thanks.
I got home last night at 2:45am after a harrowing drive through very thick fog. I was exhausted, but still had a little too much residual energy to get right to sleep. Still feeling that hangover now, a little. It’ll feel good to sleep it all off with a three-hour nap this afternoon.
The 40-Year Quest
Sometime next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the first time I picked up a guitar, and I still haven’t found my tone.
I had an interesting interaction with a mama robin yesterday.
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time when she built her nest behind that lighting control box, up inside the shed that houses the stage at Poopy’s. Shelter from weather and predators, a convenient bucket shape to build it in, possibly warm from the electrical current. A fine choice.
That little spot just above center stage between the green and yellow lamps was a quiet, isolated place in the early spring when she got to building. But now it’s one of the loudest, busiest places in the county. And she has three (maybe four? hard to see) little hatchlings in there that need nearly constant feeding. Yesterday, there was a loud guy in a pink shirt singing into that mic about 4 feet below her home, and she wasn’t sure what to do about it.
At several points, she would perch on that fence right over where it says “Manny’s”, with a big, juicy bug in her beak, and look me right in the eye. She tilted her head to the side just a little. Now, granted, I’m a guy who can anthropomorphize guitars, but I swear she was assessing me, trying to determine if I was a threat. I tried to assure her I’m not, but I couldn’t really move away from that spot, what with the inverse square laws which govern the decay of acoustical pressure as a function of distance.
A few times, she attempted a daring entrance from the front, but we spooked her (I swear, we were trying to accommodate) and she abandoned the mission each time. She eventually figured out she could get in from the side over there by the keyboards, and kind of hop along a support truss to get back to the kids.
Every time she brought a new bug in, she’d sit there as she is in the picture on top, head back, beak open. She may have been singing, though there’s no way to be sure because, you know, rock band. Again, I’m probably attributing qualities that aren’t there, but that posture seems proud to me. These are my babies. Those loud ground animals aren’t going to stop me. I will feed them and keep them safe.
Rock on, mama robin.
- Friday in Kenosha with The Bradburys (pictured above)
- Saturday in Savanna (IL) with The Recliners
- Adequate sound systems: 0/2
- Interested, competent sound guys: 1/4
- Perfect weather: 2/2
- I brought my Moog Rogue analog synth to Friday’s gig. First time I’ve used it in 25 years, and the first time I’ve played keyboards on a stage in at least 15 years. Sounded great, had fun, A+++, will synth again.
- I had my primary amp retubed a little while ago and I have been struggling with it ever since. It sounds tubby and flabby, lacking the throaty aggressiveness it used to project in the high midrange. A bad batch of tubes, I reckoned, and something I’d have to deal with. Well, I happened to look more closely yesterday, and they put an entirely different kind of power amp tube in it. They swapped my EL34’s for 6L6’s; this explains everything. The amp can take either, but they are not the same. It’d be like taking your car in for an oil change, and they decided to swap a rotary engine in for your V6 without telling you. I’m angry.
- In Savanna, midway through the second set, 200+ bikers rolled in all at once. Damn, son, that’s some noise. Nice people. We may have agreed to play one of their fundraisers next year.
- I tweaked my back yesterday morning—just a little and not in the same place as before. So I took some muscle relaxers. So I decided not to drink any beer at the gig. Lo and behold, even after singing the day before, my voice didn’t blow out before the end of the show. Hmmm.
Haven’t done a gig recap in a while:
- Midget wrestling is worse than you think. It’s a little slice of the human experience I will work to forget.
- That midget in the white shirt was apparently in the Jackass movie. I didn’t see it. Nothing that happened last night makes me want to.
- Gary and I were reenacting the Blues Brothers’ final drive to the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, except in reverse. Sunglasses, half a pack of cigarettes, etc. It took him two hours to get to my house (normally ~20 minutes) and then it took both of us another hour to get out of the burbs. Once we hit the open highway, you’d have seen a redshift if you were behind us.
- We showed up 12 minutes before our scheduled go time, then set up and started only 10 minutes late. Big Time Pros.
- The adrenaline of that drive and set up took a toll, however, and we were a hot mess for the first half of the first set. It got better once the beer started to work.
- We shot video with an idea of improving our promotional toolkit, but the audio is largely fucked up and the performance is meh. Oh, well. I may post a little clip anyway because I like you. (Yes, you!)
- Nah. Really, it’s because I’m a shameless narcissist.
- Another unwelcome development was the club hanging a confederate flag near the stage. I didn’t have time or energy to try to get it taken down and feel a little bad about that now. I doubt anyone else noticed or cared.
- Last time we played there, my amp took a giant crap in the middle of the gig. I limped through it and took it home to have it serviced. $220 later, I fired it up at gig volume and I find they apparently castrated it while they were in there. The balls are gone. Major sad. Not sure what to do.
- Got home at 2:40, up today at 6:40. Doing it wrong.
Most of the bullying I endured was in middle school. I went to a private high school about five miles away from where I lived, mostly because it was a much better school than the public school I lived near, but at least partly because I could get away from my tormentors since none of those dumbass hillbillies would be going where I was.
Dead Ray Bradbury
Mayhem (not pictured)
Tough night for lots of reasons which I’d rather not go into.
One thing, though. I am willing to bet that there is not a guitarist on the planet who strikes his gear and gets it off the stage more quickly than me. When I’m done and there is a band after us, I work fast and hard to clear. I have been playing professionally since I was 13 and have played thousands of gigs all across this country and beyond. Getting off the stage quickly is of critical importance at shows like this where there are a lot of bands and tight windows between the sets. It fucks everything up if anyone dawdles. Therefore I hustle and so do all my mates. We get it.
SO, NO, DICKSMACK: IT IS NOT OK IF YOU START SETTING UP YOUR PEDALBOARD THAT’S THE SIZE OF A GODDAMNED SURFBOARD WHILE I’M STILL STRIKING. I DON’T CARE HOW FUCKING AWESOME AND IMPORTANT YOU AND YOUR TONE ARE. GET THE FUCK OUT MY WAY SO I CAN GET THE FUCK OUT YOURS, YOU INBRED, PUSTULOUS FUCKNOZZLE, AND I AM NOT GONNA BE SORRY WHEN I “ACCIDENTALLY” HIT YOU SQUARE IN YOUR ENORMOUS, BUMPER-LIKE FOREHEAD WITH MY 80-POUND AMPLIFIER.
OK. GOOD TALK.
some video from Saturday
I know the odds of people
- clicking on links
- to see short videos
- on Facebook
- because I don’t think I can embed them here
- not that it would improve the odds much
are exactly 0.00000, but if you’re curious what I look like when I am bringing the rawk, you can look here then here. Brief NSFW at the start of the second one, but it has more me, not coincidentally.
The gig was incredible, electric, cathartic, and utterly satisfying. I’d do a recap but it’d be hard to put it into words since it affected me in a much more primitive part of my brain. We’ll probably do another one in a year or so; hopefully you can make it.
(videos courtesy Mark Lush)
- Friday: turns out 48º and sideways rain aren’t the best conditions to get a big crowd to an outdoor gig.
- You could argue, though, that’s to be expected when I play a gig at a Catholic church. Two years in a row. No lightning this time, at least. Or locusts.
- That was some of the best onstage sound I’ve ever experienced.
- Electricians: hire good ones.
- Saturday: big kudos to Mister Mo’s and their hiring practices and uniform choices. I’m willing to overlook that little apostrophe problem.
- Concession to age: no more gigs on successive days, at least if there are vocals on day 2. By the start of the second set, I sounded like the bastard love child of Bonnie Tyler and Froggy.
- The Recliners recently invested in a PA for gigs at small places like that, which was good. I think next we need lights, though, because in that kind of place, the only stage light is the reflected glow of the TVs.
- South side sport’s [sic] bars are truly the worst places on Earth to experience Noter [sic] Dame football. Gah.
- I need one of you to unload the car, now, please, kthx.
- 4 hours of sleep oughta be plenty, right?
I busted an A during the fourth song. I had to finish that one with five strings, detuned and awkward. I was like Jack White without the violent misogyny.
It went downhill from there. My tone sucked, my forearms felt leaden, I was in poor voice, I sweat through my shirt. I had a headache and it hasn’t gone away.
It’s like this: my particular style of playing has been described as athletic, gymnastic, muscular. As such, I have to stay in shape. I can’t play a couple of days a year then walk out there and try to be what I used to be. No one wants to see once great jocks, now fat and old, playing celebrity softball games.
From here, right now, I need to recommit, reinvent, or hang it up, because fuck that.
A pretty incredible thing happened at last night’s Bradburys gig.
Long-time readers may recall the story from last summer when, at the Taste of Wisconsin, a guy came up to me after we played Off Broadway’s “Stay In Time” and told me he was the original guitarist and that we did a good job with it. He also said, “your singer sounds just like Cliff!”
So there we were last night about halfway through our set when an older dude with wild hair came down to the front of the stage and got my attention. “Hey, I’m Cliff Johnson. Can I come up and sing with you guys?”
It really was him. Apparently Dan, our fearless leader, knew this was a possibility but he kept it from the rest of us. Cliff came up and we launched into “Stay In Time” after he asked us if we were sure we knew the eighth-note riff before the chorus. (Please.) And as soon as he leaned into that first line, “Every day when you turn away from your world, boy,” all the hairs on my neck stood up and I broke into the biggest smile. This was the voice that was playing through my radio all summer in 1980. Those junior high years were the most critical of my formative era as a musician. I doubt most people reading this will remember that song; it peaked at #51 on the Billboard charts nationally, but it was a much bigger hit here since they were local heroes. It’s hard for me to overstate how incredible it was to share a stage, even a mic, with a guy who I’ve been singing along with for 30+ years. (I really hope he didn’t catch whatever this disease is in my lungs. Sorry, Cliff.)
After that, we did The Beatles’ “Bad Boy” (now Junior, behave yourself) which Cliff totally owned. Then he took his leave to big smiles and big applause all around. Our next song was “No Matter What” by Badfinger, and he couldn’t help himself and came back up and sang background vocals while Jake, our bass player, handled lead. Super fun.
Anyway, that’s truly a first. I’ve opened for some semi-legendary people, but this was the first time I ever actually got to play with one, live. I love that after over 30 years as a performer, I still get the occasional first-time experience. It was a thrill I’ll never forget.
(You can hear “Stay In Time” at the link to the old post above. Photos by Dan’s daughter Mari.)
- When we got there two hours before the show, the doors were locked and the place was dark. I thought Something Bad had happened (it’s that kind of place) but there were no signs from the sheriff on the door. Hung around and the owner showed up a few minutes later.
- For the seven millionth time I forgot the power cable for my amp. Big Time Pro. Mercifully it’s one of those standard deals and the club owner had one. Today I put four of them in my bag.
- Now that I’m in my dotage, I am really not into renting, picking up, setting up, breaking down, and returning a PA. I’m exhausted before I even start, and am contemplating a new rule: we only play rooms that have a PA.
- Three hours of music is a lot. My goddamned weak sauce/old man voice blew out toward the end of the first set and we had to cut a bunch of my stuff in the second because I sounded like a baritone Grover who’d just hiked the Gobi. I’ve had some kind of allergy/cold thing happening for a couple of weeks and there was the nagging feeling of something wrong in my throat, so I saw it coming, but dammit. I hate when that happens.
- Near the end, we announced we were going to do two more songs. Less than 10 seconds after the end of the first of those, they turned up the house system and the DJ started. “Nope, you’re done NOW, fellas.” Might as well have been a gong or a hook.
- Overall performance: high on energy, low on accuracy. B+
- The place turns into a dance club at 1am and plays the most unlistenable garbage I’ve ever heard. Get off my lawn, fine, whatever, but that’s just aural sewage delivered at 120 bpm. I hung around for a drink with a couple of friends until we couldn’t take it anymore.
- I got about 4 hours of sleep, and am now approaching that delightful stage of exhaustion where hallucinations begin.
- As of right now, I have no upcoming performances on my calendar at all. Unacceptable.