I honestly cannot believe I am typing this, but it has been four years now almost to the day since I nervously sat and wrote my very first blog post. Once again I am humbled by the fact that this idea of mine continues to be enjoyed by so many people literally around the world. Even when I have my quiet moments and am not able to post with the frequency I hope for, I still enjoy it so much. As I have done each of the past ‘blogoversaries’ I wanted to do something special once again. For my first one I took a walk across the Manhattan Bridge accompanied by the drums and brass sounds of Red Baraat. For the second I imagined being in the editing room of a movie working on my own soundtrack with music by guitarist Dan Ar Braz. Last year for the third, I wrote a letter to the young ‘me’ from the old ‘me’ with a song by Jack Lukeman. So here we are again.
This time, I wanted to capture the feel and energy of a live concert. Be it a tiny club stage, a festival or a huge concert arena, music truly comes alive at a live show. My account is purely fictional, but gleaned from watching and listening to some of the crucial elements in a lifetime of attending concerts. I imagine a band that has made a name for itself with a dedicated bunch of fans who will attend any show within a certain radius of where they live. A band that some may know by name, but don’t know much about. A band with some airplay, but nothing close to a number 1 hit and a video with 2 million hits on YouTube. On the technical side, I imagine this fictional band being solvent enough to be able to comfortably go on tour with their own equipment and a road crew. Finally, I imagine that this particular show is in a ballroom-those somewhat dingy, but always enjoyable venues with a bar at the back of the room, questionable bathrooms, and a large open space in front of the stage for a standing room only crowd. The show I write about takes place on the East Coast of the United States, where bands can really capitalize on the short distances between cities and pack in a bunch of shows to good size crowds. So sit back and pretend you are there observing it all with me…
It is late morning when the truck pulls down a dark and dirty city alleyway. A couple of guys stumble out, clutching coffee cups and the remnants of breakfast sandwiches and donuts. One proceeds to give a couple of loud thumps on the metal shutter covering the loading bay. After a few minutes an equally tired and grumpy face looks out the side door. ‘Yeah?’ he says. ‘Setting up for tonight’ says the most alert member of the truck crew. ‘Give me a minute’ says the grumpy guy at the door. From somewhere inside the building a button is pushed which automatically lifts the metal gate, and grumpy is waiting on the other side, squinting in the late morning sun. The guys in the truck know the drill. One of them backs the truck up into position, and once in place the other unlocks the back of the truck and starts removing the maze of straps that keep the delicate contents of the truck from shifting around. Before long all manner of shapes and sizes of cases start rumbling down the ramp and into the building. Grumpy ‘helps’ by lighting a cigarette and motioning the general direction for them to place the gear in a series of monosyllabic grunts.
At first it looks like chaos inside the building, but it is actually a well oiled machine. With no instruction from anyone, the guys from the truck instinctively start spreading the cases around. To an outside observer, the shape and size of this gear would be cause for confusion, but these guys know exactly where everything has to go by the feel or weight of the case or a label slapped across the front of it. Of course it also helps that it was only a few hours before that these same guys loaded up the truck and know what is what. PA cabinets over there, Mixing Desk there. After an hour or so, a van pulls into the alley and a few other people step out. They too are clutching coffee cups, but seem a little less groggy than the guys still chugging along and unloading the truck. They say hello and commiserate about the traffic on I-95 before this second group heads inside and takes in the scene before them. Just like the night before, they have been to this venue before, but it takes a few minutes to dig back in the memory to what makes this place different. In this business, each building presents different challenges. Hell, each person they work for presents challenges with different equipment and their own ideas about how things should work. Its not easy, but life is good living on shitty fast food, shittier motels and the shittiest of pay doing this for a living.
More specific actions start to gradually happen once the ‘boss’ gets there. When he first shows up he surveys the scene in front of him, instinctively looking for the problems he know will be an issue. All this stuff is supposed to be worked out with the promoter before the show, but its always like this. Always some unexpected headache that pops up and makes his job just a little more challenging. Today it is the in-house lighting rig. He’s not an electrician, but he knows that everybody better get their stuff together soon. He gets together with the various technicians and goes over the plan of attack. Standard setup- house lighting rig, drum and keyboard risers. Opening act is a singer-songwriter doing a solo set so they can set up everything now instead of doing a quick turnaround between acts. Soundcheck at 4 P.M. so we have a few hours to get it right. As if on cue the band’s manager calls-how’s it going there? The show is close to being a sell-out but there are some tickets left. Being a Friday night he’s not worried. Album sales have been a little sluggish but the shows are selling well and the merch table has been crowded every night. Always good signs for the rest of the tour.
On stage among the maze of cables, monitors, pedals, stands and other paraphernalia the instruments start coming out of cases. Once the drum riser is in place the drums come first. Bass drum, floor tom, snare, hi-hat, cymbals all start coming together in the familiar pattern, A case containing other bits of percussion like tambourines, dumbek, cajon and shakers sits nearby for the drummer to sort out the way he wants them. Close by on the keyboard riser the technicians work on getting the Leslie cabinet in place for the Hammond organ. On stage the guitars start delicately coming out of their respective cases and placed on stands. Lot of money in these beauties-the Rickenbacker bass, a shimmering red Gretsch hollow body electric, a Fender Telecaster. For acoustic there is a Martin 0018 (of course), a Takamine and a Yamaha. A mandolin and ukulele lurk nearby as well. Each time one is removed from the case, a technician gives it a quick wipe down before gently putting it on its stand and ensuring that the strap gets placed in just the right way. He’s been known to get death glares for not getting that part right from the musicians before.
As the day goes on, more people come and go but there is a constant stream of activity around the stage. Cables of all sorts are everywhere as is the ubiquitous gaffers tape. Occasional electrical pops and feedback happen regularly. Since this is a ballroom show, the mixing desk which at a larger show one might see in the middle of the arena, is instead out of sight in a control room above the floor at the back. Which means that for setting up walkie talkies and headsets are in use among some of the crew. Backstage a small team that work for the promoter start laying out the spread specified in the bands rider. Shortly before 4 PM the band shows up, escorted in from their bus. They too know the drill and they begin milling about the stage, checking everything out, lazily picking up instruments and making adjustments…to everything. After awhile, when all members of the band are on stage together, someone calls for a ‘song’ the band sometimes uses for sound checks, which isn’t really a song, but more of a jam, chosen so instruments can be checked against the natural acoustics of the room. When the band is satisfied enough, they begin drifting off. Some mill about chatting and making subtle changes and suggestions, others head down the maze of corridors behind the stage. Individually they will spend the next few hours working on the set list, doing some social media interaction, having a quick snooze and sorting out other sundry band related business.
Out front this is now the critical time. Doors will open at 7:30. The opener will go on at 8:30. That’s if she shows up on time thinks the Tour Manager. We better not have a repeat of the New Haven incident where she left too late and got stuck in traffic and delayed the entire evening by half an hour again. He knows she is travelling alone but still… He shakes himself out of that thought and starts going through his list. He expects to see everything looking ready by now. Instruments all lined up-Check. Stage cleared of unnecessary cases and cables all connected-Check. Front of house, back of house-Check. Control room communication-Check. But he cannot relax just yet. He walks out to the front of the ballroom with a member of staff and confirms where the merch table will go. He goes over names on a list who are allowed in without a ticket-a few from the local press, a few friends of the band before making his way back to the band behind the stage. They are scattered about, but he makes sure they are all satisfied in general, especially with what was promised by the promoter. Did you grab a bite? Are the beers cold enough?
As it gets closer to Doors Open, staff of the ballroom start getting ready. Bartenders and wait staff making sure everything is in place. Security ensuring things look safe. Ticket people ready with the scanners and will call lists. On stage the singer-songwriter opening the show does a very quick soundcheck of her own. The tour manager nods in appreciation, both for her getting here on time, and for the song she is doing. Deep down, he knows she is good, and that the band chose well for her to open this leg of the tour. He looks at his watch and heads up to the sound booth, conferring with the technicians to make sure they are all happy. ‘Looking good boss’ they report. ‘Nothing we can’t handle.’ Which is the answer he expects on a nightly basis. When its not their answer then he knows there will be problems. Once again he makes his way behind the stage and finds a quiet place to make a few phone calls and answer some emails about the rest of the tour where it will be Hello Boston. Hello Worcester, Syracuse, Buffalo and Cleveland.
Outside the early birds start lining up, nervously shuffling about in anticipation. Months before when the tour was announced they had gone online for tickets, printed them out, and stuck them on the refrigerator door for safe keeping until tonight. Now they were just moments away from showtime. Not before hitting the merch table and getting a new T-shirt, that is. At 7:40 the burly guy standing outside the door unhooks the velvet rope in front of the door and motions for people to head in. Hey, its rock & roll, nothing is ever on time! By now the line has grown rather large, so a steady stream of people almost immediately fill the ballroom up about half way. The others are stocking up on CD’s and T-shirts at the merchandise table or standing in line at the bar before jockeying themselves into position and praying no one tall stands in front of them.
The stage is quiet in anticipation of the opener. At 8:33 she comes out to a polite, but somewhat restrained reaction following an announcement by an unseen voice backstage somewhere. Its hard to clap when you have a bottle of beer in your hand actually, but she hopes by the end of her set she will win over some new fans. That damned singer-songwriter label she gets hit with, just because she writes songs and um…sings. Her music is actually quite loud and aggressive and before long the crowd is right there with her. She knows she only has a half hour set so keeps the talking to a minimum but makes sure to thank the headliner for the opportunity to be the opener, which she knows people appreciate hearing. They are running a tight set tonight, so instead of doing the walking to the side of the stage and waiting for applause routine, she instead announces that she will be doing two more songs before the band comes out. The first is an upbeat number of her own, the final song is a well chosen cover, well suited to her voice and guitar attack. She finishes to loud applause and knows she will be selling some CD’s later as a result of her performance. Gigs like tonight carry her through the touring slog and money problems.
This is now the moment of truth. Backstage the band starts making final preparations-checking out their appearance in the mirror, using the bathroom, having a cigarette, drinking some water. One member likes to have a few moments of quiet calm, while another is pumping himself up like a prize fighter about to hit the ring. On stage two roadies make final checks of everything. Guitars are gently picked up and one or two faint notes are played while simultaneously looking at the sound booth for an approving nod. Microphones are tapped and clicked and popped one final time-Test, test, test. Drums are struck with a methodical chunka-chunka approach. At the organ, the horn inside the Leslie Cabinet which gives it that unique sound is rotating as it should like some sort of musical radar detector. Ground Control To Major Tom- funky organ grooves have been detected on stage. Copies of the set list are taped to monitors. Guitar picks are threaded onto the microphone stands. Towels and water bottles are placed strategically for each band member. The roadies drift away.
The crowd senses the show is about to start.
Energy in the ballroom is electric.
Slowly the lights dim.
Applause, whistles and shouts grow.
Familiar silhouettes of figures appear on stage.
Guitars come off stands and slide on to shoulders.
A few deliberate, fumbling notes to make sure the ‘tools’ are in working order.
Lights come up ever so slightly.
Figures on stage look at each other, nodding.
‘HELLO! ARE YOU READY?’
Now we need some appropriate music for this post. I know some people dislike live albums typically, but I really enjoy them. The best ones capture some of that excitement and energy for those that were not there. Others are interesting for the ability to bring the studio versions of songs to life despite not having the same sort of instruments or studio trickery available to use on stage. Others pinpoint a specific time or moment in an artists career. Rare is a live album that manages to do all three but my own personal favorite live album does-Live Bullet by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. Released in 1976, and recorded on his home turf at Cobo Hall in Detroit a year before it marks the turning point of his career. Prior to its release, Bob was known for years throughout the Midwest for his hard driving songs but barring a few songs that touched the national charts, not much further than that. Six months after Live Bullet came out though, the Night Moves album was released, and with the title cut leading the way, Bob Seger has never looked back since.
It opens with a barnstorming version of Ike & Tina Turner’s Nutbush City Limits. Later is that killer drum beat to Ramblin’Gamblin’ Man and the rocking Get Out Of Denver. The band could lay down some serious funk on songs such as Bo Diddley and Heavy Music, then switch gears to the war-weary tale of living on the road in Turn The Page, with the shimmering saxophone work of Tommy Cartmell (aka Alto Reed). The classic version of his Silver Bullet Band shines throughout. Together with Cartmell there was Drew Abbott on guitar, Robyn Robbins on keyboards, Charlie Allen Martin on drums, and Chris Campbell on bass. You can hear in the course of the album how Seger had clearly mastered the art of getting the crowd into it. “I was reading in Rolling Stone where they said Detroit audiences are the greatest rock & roll audiences in the world.” On Heavy Music- “If you’ll sing with me I won’t guarantee it, but you juuuuust might wind up on an album” in a sly manner, before it gets quiet and Seger belts “I got to go somewhere….somewhere where nooobody knows my name……1,2,3,4- I THINK I’M GOING TO KATHMANDU, launching into another well known song.
The second and third songs on the album though are what really made me love this album from the first time I heard it, well over 30 years ago now. At the time Bob and the band were touring around their current studio album-Beautiful Loser. On Live Bullet the songs Travelin’ Man and Beautiful Loser were joined together, but are dramatically different then their studio counterparts. I could write another 1000 words about these 9 minutes of music. Instead I will just say that the moment Travelin’ Man shoots out to the stratosphere in a transcendent churning of sound from musicians working hard and working together, led by the distinctive, gravelly voice of Bob Seger is one of my favorite moments of music of all time. And that is no lie.
It isn’t just that it realizes the criteria I mentioned above, Live Bullet goes well past that. It captures the essence of a live show without actually having been there. In my head I can see Bob leaning on that microphone stand and getting into it. I can see the rhythm section nailing it all down, I can hear that organ moving around the arrangement, the sax punctuating the beat, and the guitar leading the charge.It feeds from the crowd, and feeds the crowd, then back again. The best live recordings such as ‘Live Bullet’ capture moments like that. Whether you were actually at the show or not. Whether you were even alive at the time a live album was released. There is nothing more glorious and satisfying than moments where it all comes together. And though my little imaginative story may have sounded a little romantic, I know that those moments are what make it worthwhile for all involved in making music for a living.
Cheers to the roadies and technicians and crews that make live concerts sound so great! Thank you to all of you who read, like and share my posts. It means a great deal to me. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again-As long as there are songs to hear and photographs to take, this project will continue. Extra huge cheers to my friend Dan Ogus for some terrific behind the scenes info used in this piece. Be sure to check out Dan’s excellent radio show Scattering The Roots right here.
Travelin’ Man and Beautiful Loser-Written By Bob Seger
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