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Road Stories: A Successful Tour Back In The Day, Except For One Particular Show…

"Forget EQ. forget FX, forget gain – I was just trying to find inputs, which were in no recognizable order anywhere on the console."

Over the years I’ve had some gigs go sideways for various reasons, but I can only think of one that seemed to have been deliberately sabotaged.

For most of the 1980s, one of my freelance gigs was mixing front of house for a Toronto-based nine-piece Latin-jazz band. In the summer of 1988, we had a western Canada tour lined up, all fly-in dates, with the last at a large folk festival. About a month out, I was sitting in the office that I shared with four other sound folks when I got a phone call from a woman who identified herself as the artistic director for that festival.

She proceeded to tell me that she’d looked at our rider and had some concerns about us being able to set up on stage in the time allotted. She also mentioned that she’d heard through the grapevine that we had taken 45 minutes to get set up at another folk festival, north of Toronto, the previous summer. I allowed that part was true, but then went on to point out that a full 20 minutes of that time had been spent getting one mic and one DI hot for the interstitial artist…so the crew was a bit… lacking… for that one.

I then pointed out that we’d recently done a benefit at the O’Keefe Centre (a.k.a., “Naming Rights Hall,” now on its fifth corporate identity in 40 years) in Toronto and had gotten on stage in the two minutes provided for our changeover. She countered that with, “Yes, but that was with a professional crew!” I didn’t say it but thought, “And you are providing…?”

We then got into some of the minutia of my patch list, which at first glance ran to six pages. I pointed out to her that the length was partially due to a formatting limitation of my laptop at the time (an Olivetti M-10, a derivation of the Tandy Model 100, which was arguably the first roadie laptop). Because of the difficulty in getting a lot of information on one page, I’d broken it down into three patch lists, one each for stage, monitors, and FOH, and each of those was just two pages with notes specific to each area.

I then pointed out that the show was designed to fit into a 32 x 8 FOH desk and a 24 x 8 monitor desk, and that both of them were less than the usual main stage festival rig of that time of at least 40 channels at FOH and 32 or more at monitors. I also stated, repeatedly, that I knew the people at the sound company who’d done sound for this festival for years and that they would have no difficulty whatsoever making this happen. At no point in the conversation did she inform me that the festival had changed vendors that year.

What she did keep asking was if there wasn’t something we could do to streamline things… without ever suggesting anything. To this day, I have no idea what she was thinking (because she never said…) but, what was she thinking? That we could maybe ditch our four-piece horn section? Cut one of our keyboard players? All stand around one mic like a bluegrass band? (That hadn’t really become a thing again in 1988).

Then she told me that there was a popular U.S.-based act on after us and that she was concerned about our interfering with them getting on stage on time. I countered that I was familiar with that act, thought they were great, and was absolutely willing to get with their people and work out the best way to streamline the changeover, even to the point of adjusting our stage setup to more closely mirror theirs if it would expedite matters. I even offered to have our crew help with the changeover after we got off stage.

None of this seemed to have any effect and we pretty much just went around and around for about 40 minutes with her implying that we should change (or delete) some unspecified thing, and me assuring her that we would make it happen as is. I’m sure I made the band’s leadership aware of all this, but I can’t remember anything coming of it.

Chance Meeting

Flash forward a month, the tour was underway, starting in British Columbia and working our way east. The gigs were a mixture of soft-seaters, clubs, jazz and folk festivals. Things had been going fairly smoothly and the band had been getting good houses and good reactions wherever we went.

Then we flew into the last city… Here I will digress a minute and ask if you remember that bit in Phil Collin’s song “In the Air Tonight” where he sings “and it’s all been a lack of pies!” followed by that outrageous drum fill? Actually, on having a fresh listen, I now get that the lyric is “and it’s all been a pack of lies!” but that’s not really relevant to this story – because in fact we did not have a lack of pies.

A few days earlier, the backline tech and I were standing on the curb outside the Edmonton airport, guarding our gear while our lighting director picked up the rental van, when an elderly woman walked up to us and asked us if we were the band’s crew. Actually, she said something to that effect, but flubbed it a bit. I can’t remember exactly what she called us, and it wasn’t anything as uninformed as calling us “groupies” instead of “roadies,” but it was something a bit odd sounding like “road men.”

Anyway, we said yes, we were, and she replied, “I’m Rick’s (one of the band members) mother. Wait here, I have some pies for you in my car!” She drove up around the same time as the van and proceeded to give us a long cardboard box (about the size of the shipping box for a hefty 88-key keyboard) filled with a dozen home-baked Saskatoon berry pies, one for each member of the band and crew.

While I have never encountered a Saskatoon berry on the hoof, I can tell you that they’re like blueberries but with more red in them, so the pie filling was kind of a rich purple color, and delicious, and that we have them, and you don’t, and just get used to it. And, they traveled with us, in that box, for the next few cities. Somehow, they even flew into the last city with us, so when we pulled up to the hotel to offload our gear into the equipment lock-up (a conference room with direct access to the curb in front of the hotel), a partially depleted box of pies was part of our gear.

Something seemed a bit “off” as soon as we pulled up to the hotel. The folks staffing the equipment lock-up were kind of chilly, not particularly welcoming or helpful. They did point out a place on the floor where we could drop our gear but made no move to help us put it there. It wasn’t a huge amount of gear (just a cargo van’s worth) and the three of us made short work of loading it in.

Then we approached the gear check-in desk and said, “Here, have a home baked Saskatoon berry pie, we’ve got more than we can eat!” They accepted the pie and thanked us for it, but there were some pretty odd looks exchanged at the table, like – “this is weird, these guys were supposed to be jerks or something and here they are giving us a pie?!” – kind of looks.

Cold Front Continues

The next day we arrived at the show site in the early afternoon, but we didn’t have access to the stage until just prior to our show. So, we killed time for most of the day. I still hadn’t had any contact with the sound crew (and I can’t really remember why. Nowadays it seems like a completely natural thing to do to wander out to FOH to say “Hi” but for whatever reason, that didn’t happen).

I can’t swear to this, but I feel like we had the pies with us and shared some with the stage crew. So, when we did finally get access to the stage, we were greeted by the same chilly “how can’t we help you” vibe as we’d gotten at the hotel but also those weird looks like, “these guys seem nice enough, I wonder why we’ve been told not to do anything for them?”.

In any case, gear was moving onto the stage in a timely manner and being placed close enough for us to get it into place. But the patch didn’t seem to be happening… quite. It was hard to say exactly what wasn’t right, but I could tell that it wasn’t really getting done. At one point, I walked over to the stage manager and asked to see what he had for our paperwork on his clipboard. As I reached towards the clipboard, in anticipation of him handing it to me, I was shocked to see him whirl away from me and move the clipboard out of my reach. It’s really that bit of theatre that convinced me that the staff had been directed not to help us in any way.

Seeing how things were looking on stage at that point, I decided that I’d better make my way to the FOH tower and check out how things were shaping up out there and hopefully get my show together. I remember that walk to FOH because the audience was wall-to-wall in a fenced-in area in front of the stage, so I had to make my way along the outside of the fence and man, it was dark!

Upon arriving at FOH, I was greeted by the two techs from the new provider (who I didn’t know) with the same stone-faced welcome that we’d gotten everywhere else and found that the console was basically un-touched from the previous act, with nothing labeled, nothing assigned, nothing but a bunch of faders in random positions and so on. Then, while I was taking stock of that situation, the emcee came out on stage, introduced the band, and the show started.

What followed had to be the worst mix experience I’ve ever had. I spent the whole set with headphones, soloing channels, trying to find inputs. Forget EQ. forget FX, forget gain – I was just trying to find inputs, which were in no recognizable order anywhere on the console, and the folks from the sound company were not helping in any way. But… no one died, the band made enough noise on the stage that the crowd recognized it as music, at least, and they seemed to appreciate it, so the show… happened.

Wait, There’s More

Well, after that mess, I was so angry that I just wanted to get back to the hotel and have a drink, so I neither heard nor saw the “big” act that was up after us (who must’ve been the final act for that day). However, the next morning, when I wandered down to the hotel coffee shop for breakfast, I did see the artistic director having breakfast with the artist…

And that ought to be the end of this sorry tale, except, about seven years later, when I was managing a sound company in Toronto, a show came up with an artist who I’d mixed a few times since the early ‘80s, all of them great shows. This was one of the very few times I ever “pulled rank” and told our crew booker, “I’m doing that one!”

On the day of, it turned out that the support act was a duo featuring a woman who I knew accompanied by her guitar player, who was a guy I’d known for virtually my whole career and greatly admired. And who should be managing this act but my “old friend,” the artistic director from the folk festival.

Well, payback time, right? No, for several reasons. First, I believe that shows are kind of a sacred thing, so I would never do anything to mess one up. Second, as mentioned, the artist and her accompanist were folks I knew, and third, I was there as a rep of the company, and a senior one at that, and wasn’t about to cause a scene.

I’d recognized this person straight away but said nothing. She didn’t recognize me at first, but part of the way through her act’s sound check, I saw her do an “Ohhh…” as she was standing a few feet away from me talking to the promoter.

So, when sound check was starting to drag on over a tuning issue and I politely suggested to the artist that they sort that out in the dressing room (they were already holding “doors” until the support sound check was done), she lit into me, briefly, before clamming up when the promoter gave her a quizzical look. And that was it, I never saw her again.

Just to end this on a positive note, the support act went well, and the headliner’s show (which was also an album release show) went very well. After the show, when I asked the bass player, who I knew from another project, how it felt on stage, he looked at me and said, “Man, it sounded like the effing record!”

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