Monday, June 25, 2018

Nurse the Hate: The Willie Nelson Tour Date

There is a scene in the movie “Bull Durham” where the main character is riding in a broken-down bus with a crew of minor leaguers.  All of them have the dream of playing in the major leagues, and for almost all of them it is just a pipe dream.  The leap from their modest circumstances to the top of their profession is vast.  They are all talking about what it must be like on that big stage, speculating about how good it must be when the protagonist stops the conversation dead by announcing “I’ve been to The Show”.  A momentary hush falls over the bus.  They begin to pepper him with questions.  What’s it like?  What’s it like?  They are all in rapt silence as he tells them “At The Show, you don’t even touch your own luggage!  They’ve got people to take your bags!”  All the other players are in awe.  This scene played over in my head as I watched our gear get unloaded from the Whiskey Wagon by a small army of men onto the Riverbend Music Center backstage.

I felt just like Crash Davis, a career minor leaguer that got one at bat in the majors.  Here I was, no doubt towards the tail end of my rock career, and I somehow got called up to a 22,000-seat facility.  The bill was an insane stack of vastly more talented musicians than us.  Willie Nelson is an international icon.  Sturgill Simpson is arguably the best live act on the planet right now.  Old Crow Medicine Show won a Grammy for God’s sake.  The other bands had ten tour buses and four semi-trucks surrounding the backstage as I backed our white van into a designated slot.  Dozens of people in black t-shirts and walkie talkies moved purposefully in every direction as our tiny amount of gear was placed next to the mountains of sturdy road cases of the other bands. 

I walked to the Production Office to get our laminates and passed Sturgill Simpson in the hallway.  We gave each other a nod.  “Hello colleague”.  I was pleasantly surprised he didn’t stop me to whisper, “You know how good our band is, right?”.  That would have been demoralizing.  Each band is assigned a dressing room with signs outside noting each one.  Whereas we are used to clubs where there is the possibility of a ratty couch and maybe a cooler of beer, this time we had a large room with ample beer, water, fresh fruit and a (clean) private bathroom.  I could already see myself leaning in to tell the Krank Daddies, “At The Show, you get your own private dressing room right next to guys that won Grammys like you’re one of them!” 

The stage itself at Riverbend is probably larger than a dozen clubs we have played.  We sound checked last after watching Sturgill, Head and the Heart, and Old Crow Medicine Show adeptly go through their prep.  We then had our modest gear rolled out on small risers.  A man grabbed my mic and stand and plugged it in to the massive sound system.  We started to run through line checks.  At the foot of the stage two people with TV cameras dialed in to project the action on the stage onto enormous Jumbotron screens around the facility as I said, “check check check” into the mic. 

One of the words I hate to see in interviews is “surreal” as I think it is overused and often used incorrectly.  For example, an athlete hits a game winning shot and then gets interviewed.  “It was surreal to do that.”  No, you are one of five guys that was on the court for your team, so there was a 20% chance that you would be the guy to take the shot.  There must have been a reasonable expectation that might happen.  You want to know what surreal is?  Try singing a Misfits cover to an empty 20,000 capacity shed for soundcheck as Willie Nelson’s crew and band members stare at you off stage.  That is surreal.  How in God’s name did this happen?

The gates opened at 4p and we went on at 430.  We played that portion of the show when people are filling in and are wondering “who the hell is this?”.  I would imagine that if you shelled out the $100 or so to see this bill and were confronted with middle aged cowboys singing about plastic jugs of urine, bad haircuts, and poor decisions that you would likely question your own decisions regarding the entertainment choice you had made.  However, people seemed to like it OK.  We just went up there and did what we do.  We had done this so many times in conditions so shoddy that to have a pristine stage and great sound mix made it surprisingly comfortable.  In fact, Leo was so comfortable that he took off his shirt.  He even stayed on his riser as the crew wheeled off his kit, waving like a homecoming queen.  Leo clearly was enjoying himself.

After the set the army of guys moved our gear off and loaded it in our van.  “In The Show you don’t even load your own van!”  It was most likely the fastest load out I will ever experience in rock and roll.  I normally spend twice that much time trying to find Leo in the hopes of convincing him to tear down.  Without any further responsibility, I went upstairs to our dressing room and passed the Old Crow Medicine Show main singer guy who gave me the “rockin’ set” lip service.  Now I know that he didn’t listen to us, and he probably knew that I knew that too, but I appreciated the neighborly gesture.  People from the South are very polite.  If he had said “bless your heart”, that would have indicated that we really sucked, so we must have sounded reasonably proficient through the concrete walls of their dressing room.  I can say that while watching Old Crow play that any one random band member from them has more musical chops than the Daredevils combined.  They are quite good.  

The problem with playing a set that ends at 455p is that there is now 6 hours to kill until you can settle the show.  We ran out of beer and Sugar walked over to the Head and Heart’s dressing room and asked if she could have a Stella from them.  The only reason I know this is that she sidled up to me as I was sitting by the river with their road manager when she said “I think I caused an incident.  We ran out of beer and I asked those guys for one.  They gave it to me but then shut the door.  I think they’re mad.”  She had clearly forgotten the fact that “At The Show, they’ll always give you more beer!”.  If members of the Head and Heart organization are reading this, please note we will reimburse you one (1) Stella Artois the next time you are in the Greater Cleveland Area.    

I spent a great deal of time talking to members of Willie Nelson’s crew.  That entire tour is like a big pirate ship.  It’s a traveling circus that some of them have been on for 35+ years.  Truck drivers and lighting techs and sound guys and road managers all woven in to their own little world with its own distinct set of standards and rules.  I was a guest in their world.  The last thing I wanted to do was The Wrong Thing.  It quickly became evident that as long as I had that “artist” laminate on I could do almost anything except climb on Willie’s bus.  I stood on the side of the stage to watch Sturgill Simpson completely destroy.  He has combined country and a Stax sound with a simple four piece band in a fresh and interesting way.  I had no idea he was that big of a monster on guitar.  To give you an idea of how well he went over, he had sold every single piece of merch when it was time for settlement.  All of it.  I guess people liked his set…

Willie Nelson’s bus rolled in about an hour before the show.  I will level with you.  At no point did it ever enter the realm of possibility that we would be playing cards and a-pickin-and-a-grinnin' on the bus with Willie.  Willie is an 85 year old man.  Most people that I have known that are 85 are focused on wondering when Wheel of Fortune is on.  Willie is knocking out an hour set every night to capacity crowds.  It seems like the crew does everything they can to make it as easy as possible.  His bus rumbles up as close as possible to the stage entrance to minimize his walk.  They clear the backstage area and he ambles on up.  It's a well oiled machine. 

Willie was in strong voice, unlike when I had seen him last.  We walked up front of the stage with our magic laminates and watched most of his set.  Then I decided to see if I could get a jump on the settlement.  It turned out I had to walk all the way back to the production office to fill out some paperwork for the merch guys.  I walked back and forth and then headed back to the backstage area to wait for Willie's show to end.  When I had spoken with a member of Willie's crew earlier, he mentioned that the show was 65 minutes on the dot.  I looked down at my watch and realized that it was going to time out that I was going to walk past Willie's bus and enter the hallway at that exact moment.  Sure enough, as I walked back in the facility Willie Nelson walked past me to his bus.  I played it cool like it was no big deal to walk past Willie Nelson, and in fact walked past iconic figures on an almost daily basis.  "Good evening Mr. Nelson.  Nice night tonight."

Willie entered the bus and it roared to life.  It headed out almost immediately.  Mr. Nelson has left the building.  The semi trucks started to pull out as well, as the people left were all those settling on merchandise.  The way it works is that everything gets inventoried in from all the bands.  As all the money goes into one big pot regardless of what band's shirt is sold, everything must then be counted once again to figure out the distribution of money.  If the count is off, the whole process starts again.  It takes much longer than you want it to, especially when you've been done playing for 6.5 hours.

Sugar was stuck waiting for me by the van.  As she didn't have the van keys, she had to sit in a folding chair and wait.  And wait.  And wait.  The following text exchange happened...

Sugar:  OMG.  I'm so bored!  Where's the office?!?

Me:  Back by the entrance.  He's finishing the count now.

Me:  It's slow going in here.

Me:  I'm never getting out of here.

17 minutes passes

Sugar:  I'm coming to find you.  Is the door closed to this "office"?

Me:  Yes
Me:  You'll never find it.  Seriously.

12 more minutes pass

Sugar:  O.M.G.  I am going to walk into the river and die.  I can't wait any longer.

Me:  I think I will be out of here in 20 seconds

Sugar:  I will be dead in 20 seconds

I walked back to the van to discover Sugar did not walk into the river as threatened.  We jumped in the van and motored out of the facility.  Would we ever get to play that type of gig again?  Who knows.  I hope so.  But if we don't, I will tell you this.  I was in The Show for one day once - the greatest day of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in The Show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains...  Well...  That was movie dialogue but somebody carried our gear and sold our t-shirts and a guy gave me my own monitor mix. 

Yeah...  I been to The Show...


At June 25, 2018 at 8:54:00 PM EDT , Blogger vfh159 said...


At June 25, 2018 at 11:59:00 PM EDT , Blogger old man taylor said...

I hope you tried breathing through your eyes while you were out there.


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