Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tour Report, July 2008

Originally uploaded by brotherphilwilder.
I'm sitting in a ski resort in Big Sky, Montana listening to the sound of children playing in the pool beneath my room. If it weren't for the lack of police sirens, I would guess that they are trying to strangle each other. As a result, this is a pretty weird place to sit and write, but I am seriously deficient in blogs for the year, and I've got to get some stuff down before I forget it all. Here is a big update on all Wilders developments, as well as a few thoughts I've been contemplating as of late...

Southeast US CD-Release Tour:
Our newest cd, "Someone's Got to Pay" has now been out for 3 months. We hit the road on April 15th, the day it was released, and worked dates in Iowa City, Madison, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, VA before landing for our third play at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, N.C.. With the exception of Chicago, we were surprised at the lack of audience turning out for the shows- especially at some locations where we were returning after doing well in the past. But Merlefest was fantastic, and the crowds made us feel like we were doing it right. We got to play a set with Jim Lauderdale on Saturday morning, and Betse and I were thrilled to lend a hand to The Waybacks Saturday afternoon hillside set where we played the entire running order of Led Zeppelin II. Many folks picked up a copy of our new cd, and we injected a little Kansas City Rural Grit into their "midnight jam" on Saturday night. The following Monday afternoon found us in a North Wilkesboro, NC Laundromat separating our colors from our whites with none other than Martha Scanlan and Dirk Powell. It was a sight to behold for sure.

With our suitcases refreshed with clean clothes, we bid our friends goodbye and set out east for more sparsely attended shows in Knoxville and Nashville, then south for similarly dead shows in Greenville, SC and Chapel Hill. As the venerable manager of Nashville's Station Inn, Lin Barber put it, "The crowds have been skinny all over." We rationalized that gas prices were just starting their summer rise, and maybe it wasn't such a good time to tour the southeast since Merlefest had siphoned-off so many people. Regardless, it was hard to not become depressed. The tour ended on a higher note, with a wacked-out performance on "Song of the Mountain", a syndicated "Austin City Limits" style television show, and our final show at a coffee shop in Lewisburg, WV where people actually came to the show AND danced AND had a great time. Another bright note of this Southeast run, was that we got to tick off two more states on our "US States played" list. West Virginia, and South Carolina, we welcome you.

We were understandably pooped after driving home 16 hours straight from West Virginia, and were happy to take the next 2 weeks off to recuperate. The next leg of our cd release tour would be the US west coast, via Alaska.

Alaska, by land, by air, by sea:
Our first date on the western tour was in Juneau, Alaska, (not exactly good tour routing on our part). Thus, one of us needed to drive the van out to Seattle, so that the Brown Clown and trailer would be waiting for us when we flew back. I volunteered for driving duty, and was luckily co-piloted by my wife, Kim for the 2000 mile trip. Over four days, we saw some beautiful country and spent some serious money on gasoline. The cheapest gas on the way out was in Wyoming at $3.49 a gallon. But by the time we hit the east side of the Cascades in Washington, the price was over $4.00. We didn't see gas prices fall below the $4 mark until we reached Arizona four weeks later.

With the "land" portion of our travel complete, Kim accompanied me via Alaskan Airlines for her first visit to the great state of Alaska. We arrived in Juneau in the late afternoon and it was just spectacular. The weather was warm and sunny (conditions the locals refer to as "sucker weather"). The rest of the band arrived several hours after us, and we were all happy to be reunited with our Juneau posse of friends. The next day, a small contingency of us hiked up and onto the Mendenhall Glacier, then the band played a concert and a bar show to earn a little bit of money before undertaking the "sea" portion of our trip- the main event, The Pelican Boardwalk Boogie.

Pelican, Alaska is a close-knit fishing village perched in a protected inlet on the Pacific side of the Alaskan Coastal Range (about 6 hours by ferry northwest of Juneau)। There are no roads to or from, (or for that matter IN) Pelican. Everything that comes into the village either comes by seaplane or boat. As the terrain is quite steep and the tidal fluctuations great, all the homes and businesses are either built on the mountainside, or perched on pylons hammered into the bay. A mile-or-so long boardwalk stretches from one end of the town to the other. "The Boogie" as the locals refer to it, is an annual 3-day event featuring music, dance, competitive song performance, and wonderful and varied debauchery of all manner and sort. By the end of the weekend, we were sunburnt, a little hung over and very glad for the opportunity (yet again) to visit a place that we would never, ever have had a chance to visit if it were not for the magic of music. Alaska commercial fishermen are rare individuals that few lower 48 americans ever get a chance to meet. And because we play music, we were invited to come aboard their boats, sample their most recent catch, drink their beer, and hear their stories for 3 solid days and nights. It was an experience I won't soon forget.

Western US CD-Release Tour:
The saying, "all good things come to an end" definitely came true as I had to bid farewell to my wife, and our beloved Alaska friends, fly back to Seattle, then climb into the not-so-beloved Brown Clown and hit the road for our longest road tour in quite some time. Things started off ok, with gigs in Bellingham, WA and Vancouver, BC, but our third play at Seattle's Tractor Tavern, made me hopeful for the rest of the tour. The place was packed to the gills, and we gave them one of the best performances we've pulled off in a long time. But just as soon as things were looking up, we had mediocre attendance in Portland and, the next night, only a handful of people in Eugene. The bar manager took me back to the office after the show. "You guys are GREAT," he said as he forked over our skimpy pay. "I'm not sure why the crowd wasn't here, but the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday night and I guarantee this place will be PACKED!"

We tried not to let it get us down as we moved from the rainy northwest coast into sunny Northern California. We played to a decent crowd in an intimate listening room in Redding, but then followed it with a poop-out show in Arcata. After the show, the promoter said to me, "The NBA finals totally killed your attendance, but the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday night and this place will be..." I shook my head, "yeah, uh huh..." The tour bottomed out in Sacramento. It was a nice room, cozy with a good sound system. The only problem was that the there were only about 15 people in the whole place- and 5 of them were in the opening band. Personally, I had to put it on auto-pilot for the night, but the band still played as good as we could despite the crickets chirping in the back. If only there were six more Saturdays in a week...

After the show, we had to drive a couple of hours to Grass Valley, so that we could be up early for our first performance at the annual Father's Day Festival. I can't tell you how good it felt to pull into the fairgrounds and see a literal sea of RV's. "Alright," I said to myself, "we've done THIS before!"- Grass Valley's Father's Day Fest is one of those classic bluegrass festivals, the kind that draws an audience that LOVES music. the kind where you put your lawn chair in your spot and it stays there all weekend long, the kind we cut our teeth on when we were just getting started, the kind that I knew we could absolutely KILL if we were able to get in the right frame of mind. I breathed a sigh of relief as we all unpacked our gear and got ready to do our thing. 48 hours later, our cd inventory AND our spirits were much lighter.

Next up were two major California cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles on consecutive nights. Again, the attendance at the SF show was light, but everybody there seemed to know about us, and their enthusiastic response more than made up for their lack of numbers . It was one of the most fun shows on the tour for me. Unfortunately, the promoter of the show pulled a real bonehead move at the end of the night which sullied the experience. It wouldn't be professional to name names, or describe what a jerk this guy was, I will suffice to say that we will be working with another promoter when we return to the bay area.

The next morning, we got up early and headed 8 hours down the central valley to Los Angeles. Our gig at the Santa Monica rock and roll club, "The Good Hurt" (where all the bartenders and waitresses are dressed up in nurses outfits...so LA), was the least attended of the entire tour -probably less than 5, if you don't count the members of the other bands . But this was LA, a city where it is notoriously impossible to draw a crowd, EVEN ON A SATURDAY. And at least we got to see Nate's high school buddy, John's punk rock band, Lo-Fi Man. So I was happy to be there, and I think we all had a really good time enjoying LA for all its unique weirdness.

The next day we had a much-needed day off. The boys went to the beach with John, and Betse and I decided to be tourists and go to the LaBrea Tar Pits. I remember seeing the tar pits on an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" when I was growing up, and I've wanted to see them ever since I was little kid. I can tell you, I was not disappointed. The museum was first rate, and we had a nice walk around the grounds watching the still active pits bubbling away- It was fun to imagine that if I just took a wrong step, I might accidently fall into a pit and become entrapped, gobbled up and then fossilized with the rest of the saber-toothed tigers and mastodons.

The next morning, we picked the boys back up in Santa Monica, and then headed out on the highway straight into LA rush hour (which, of course, is ALL the freakin' time). It was a long, hot and uncomfortable drive to Phoenix, where Nate's folks had given us permission to stay at their Arizona residence. It felt so good to get out of the van and into some air conditioning after such a long day. Incidentally, at 1am, the temperature in Phoenix was 106 degrees. For whatever reason, things like this entertain me, so I sat outside in a lawn chair, drank a cold beer, and watched the sidewalks melting before I went to bed.

Our next gig wasn't until the following night in Tucson, AZ. But Ike and I had an appointment to be interviewed for NPR's "Weekend Edition" at the local Tucson NPR affiliate the next morning. So, with little sleep, we piled back into the van and made it to Tucson by 10. The NPR interview was really enjoyable. Scott Simon did his homework, asked intelligent questions and made it fun for us- and I think the resulting interview turned out very well. That night, we played for our third time at Club Congress in downtown Tucson. We got to visit with our Tucson "angels", Don and Kay Meyer (see "Desert Angels II" in the blog archive from June of 2004), had a great opening act, Canada's Rock Plaza Central, and played a super fun show to...you guessed it, another 1/4 full room. The bar manager told me after the show, "The Indigo Girls were playing across the street, so that killed your crowd. But the next time you guys come to town, we're going to book you on a Saturday..."

Our gig at Club Congress ended late, but we were up early and back into the van for another day-long drive, this time to Albuquerque. We arrived late, but were still able to make our 7pm showtime for a free concert series in the Albuquerque Bio Park- a gig we originally did our first professional summer when we toured in The Chief see "Miles and Miles and Miles" in the blog archive from June of 2004). The park was packed with lawn chair sitters and picnic dinner spreaders who really seemed to enjoy our show. Mercifully, the bio park paid for each of us to have our own hotel room that night. I'm sure we all relished in the privacy and peace and quiet for those precious few hours.

We didn't have a show the next day, and after moving to a new motel, Betse and I spent the rest of the day making flight and vehicle reservations for the rest of the year. Nate and Ike spent the rest of the day hunting for (and finding) our infamous old friend Nappy who still lives in Belin, NM (see "We Tried: Parts 2-4 in the blog archive from March of 2005). The next day, we finished the tour off with a performance and a workshop at the Albuquerque Folk Festival. After such a long tour, we opted to get up early the next morning, and head straight home in our second 16-hour driving marathon of the spring.

So what conclusions, if any, can I come to three months after releasing our new cd? Well, first of all, people seem to like it. It was a gamble that I think won us more fans than we lost. Secondly, it had a larger impact nation-wide than anything we've previously released. We got some decent national press, and a lot of radio play throughout the country. Time will tell whether we've made any real headway, but that's sort of beside the point. Fundamentally, we are all proud of how it turned out.

And how about the tours? Well, that's another thing entirely. After 8 solid weeks of over-the-road touring in support of our new release, our band is now more in debt than ever. In short, the Brown Clown and motel rooms gobbled up any profit we might have made. And the lack of attendance at our shows really hurt us financially and emotionally. As a result, I find myself actually questioning whether we can continue. It's funny, I always thought that at some point, like most bands, we would just have a total meltdown, punch each other out and call it a day. I never really considered that factors like a tanking economy, gas prices and the general malaise of the american consumer could prove to be our downfall. Of course, my negativity is most likely the result of road fatigue.

But certainly, if things continue as they have been, we will need to look at a new model for touring- something closer to our two most recent trips: We flew into Salt Lake City, rented a van, and did 5 days, then flew into Newark, rented a van and did another 5. Of course airfares are going up proportionally as well, but minivans get twice the mileage of our old warhorse Ford. And this type of touring forces us to really evaluate our expenses BEFORE accepting any invitations to play. It seems like a much smarter way to do business than just piling in the van, driving halfway across the country, and hoping for the best. Just because we've been at this for 10 years doesn't mean we've got it all figured out. We're still learning...