Notes from a Slow Learner
August 14, 2008
More than a full quarter of work spent on the ridiculous notion to put together a first class six-piece bar band and take it to Montana has pretty much taught me nothing at all. I most likely wouldn't do it again but I might. Glad to have done it and sorry to have lost the money. But there came a terrific high at the last gig, where we had 'em rocking at the Magic City Blues Fest in Billings, and it'll be remembered beyond the sweat, the lost sleep and the weary frustration. I'm hoping it'll also be remembered beyond when the credit card is paid off and ahead of when the Alzheimer's sets in.
I know I didn't learn anything because this is the fourth time I've attempted this scheme and it has persistently refused to show a profit. Or to even get within ballistic range of a profit. The crowds will never be large enough to cover the expenses, leaving the hapless impresario feeling like the Norwegian pawnbroker who lent out all his money and skipped town.
(I've said this before: Norwegians are one of the dwindling number of groups who have the ability to laugh at themselves and not worry much if others share in the humor. The paper-thin skins of so many other peoples—groups I dare not name lest their fearsome lawyers unleash their pitbull writs upon me—have brutalized the notion that a group of people could have a collective quirk that might amuse an outsider. The British still seem able to laugh at themselves and take no umbrage at bad imitations, but it seems there aren't many others. So we make fun of each other and sometimes the Norwegians and the Brits. And that'll have to do for the time being.)
Our band was built around two lead guitarists, one a ferociously good bluesman and the other a gunslinger country player, plus a hot harmonica player; we were equipped to cover from Chuck Berry to Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash, and most all who followed. I bought a new thousand-watt compact Soundcraft PA system and a new hand-wired guitar amplifier from the Fender Custom Shop. And a new doom came floating in overhead nearly every week.
The harmonica got an offer for the Duluth Blues Fest and had to bail, and nobody blamed him. We replaced him with a talented female singer who also had to bow out after a month of planning. We found yet another, a friend of hers. We cut a CD under the name of Mary and the Mudcats, taking three sessions to do it because of scheduling problems.
I drove out to Montana to hustle gigs in person, leaving our samples at various venues. And then the bass player had to drop out for a summer gig he couldn't turn down. The drummer did the same two weeks later. The new singer came down with a life-threatening condition. Out in Montana seven stages from previous years had dropped live music or were already booked. Promising new places changed their minds after saying they'd book us. By then I'd made a hundred phone calls and sent out another 40 CDs.
We got a new rhythm section. I was in too far. I had cut 180 disks on my home computer and designed and applied the labels and covers. And then, the week before we left, the country guitar's dad had a serious stroke. He was considered a goner for sure and if the one guitar couldn't make it the other didn't want to either, because two-thirds of our tune list was suddenly down the drain.
We were determined. We borrowed a trailer to haul the gear. The singer survived and the old man survived and we all went west in two cars. We had a Missoula radio station playing our CD and we had articles in some local newspapers, posters all over, and everyone expected good crowds. In a crazy burst of unwarranted optimism I had ordered 150 more disks, professionally cut and packaged, and another batch of posters.
Outdoors in back of My Buddy's Place in Sheridan Wyoming was our first stop. It was Friday the first of August, the night before the start of Sturgis Bike Week, and we anticipated a packed yard of bikers on their way to South Dakota. Two bikers showed. Quite a few locals who mostly stayed inside the bar kept us afloat but it was a real letdown, although the manager paid us extra. The next night in Missoula, a 450-mile drive, we got the same story. Bikers fuel the fine old Top Hat on a normal Sturgis-first-Saturday night, but not this year. We had a house sound man and the band was terrific and we drew a crowd of less than a hundred. Another bummer.
Stayed around there for a day, ate at the Oxford, open continuously for the last hundred years, where the bartender said they close only for cleaning every Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 AM and they couldn't lock up if they wanted to because they lost the keys years ago. Then went on to Butte and ate at the M&M, also open continuously all the way back to the Gold Rush. Our stage waited at the Silver Dollar. We had played there four years ago and packed the place, but that was a Saturday and this was Monday. Butte is heck of a town and we like it there but they weren't coming out to see us. We were playing for a cut of the till and the owner gave us an extra hundred. I doubt he broke even for the night, but he liked the band.
Next day we drove 350 long miles back to Sheridan for a gig in the city park I had taken out of desperation, just to help fill the middle of the week. A decent crowd but nothing to hoot about.
Wednesday we headed back to our home base in Livingston, stopping briefly at the Waterhole in Reed Point, a most funky old roadhouse. Thousands of coins have been hammered into the low logs of the overhead roof trusses and when your eyes get accustomed to the dark you have a lot of signs to read, including some on the underside of the roof deck: "This establishment reserves the right to refuse service to anyone seated on a horse." "The customer is always right. But the bartender defines when one is no longer a customer."
We relaxed for two days and played Friday night at the Livingston Elks Club. A lot of fun but the place could have held three times as many as showed. They all danced and we felt good about that, although my own favorite tune to sing, "Heart of Gold," recorded by Bill Kirchen, ended in a train wreck. The only one of the tour.
Saturday we were on the Stillwater Stage in Billings, a blocked off section of Montana Street. We were first up, at six o'clock. The monitors were good and loud and the sound man was a real pro, and we packed every seat and had a good crowd standing and, on our sixth gig in nine days, laid into them with about everything we had. The entire band may have had fun, although I didn't put that question directly to anyone. It was fun for this old trucker, I know that.
We had an entourage, partly of Harleys and partly in cars, and they became an important part of what is sometimes called "the vibe." They weren't all with us all the time, a good thing, but they scattered and covered Mobridge SD and Medora ND, the Bighorn Mountains, Chief Joseph Highway, Cody, Cooke City, Mammoth Hot Springs, Paradise Valley, Beartooth Pass, Red Lodge, the New Atlas Bar in Columbus and my own favorite, the Montana Bar in Miles City. They came through big time in our tip jar and left everyone, I think, feeling that it had been worth it. The band of course all got paid what they were promised and the mountains were beautiful and the weather was perfect.
And I figure that in this country if a guy has a job and doesn't golf and doesn't own a boat then he's free to throw money away to play in a band and have some fun. But that's not anything I hadn't thought of years ago. And I didn't get any smarter than that this time.
(By the way—If anyone feels a need for a surplus Mary and the Mudcats compact disk I can mail one for a rock-bottom 11 bucks. Two for 20. Otherwise they will sit in the garage for nine years and then be given to charity. You can reach me at my address herein spelled out in real English so as to foil internet search engines: R period Ringsak at visi period com. These disks have no bar code and therefore might be deemed to be renegade merchandise. All the more desirable, one might presume.)