Originally Published May 2012
In 2007 my friend Joe Lang suggested putting my little stories that I tell in the shop into writing because he finds them interesting to drummers, so if this bores you it just shows you how easily amused Joe is! My current gig with Poco is a lot different than the gigs I worked out of L.A. and Nashville in the earlier part of my career. This band is celebrating its 44th anniversary this year (2012) and has seen the glory days and the tuna fish sandwich days; from crowded vans to luxurious tour buses and Mac trucks full of gear. You should read the Wikipedia history on this band, it's quite a family tree. I joined Poco in 2004 as a sub for their original drummer George Grantham who was taken ill. When it became apparent that he would not be able to rejoin the band they offered me the job.
I had quit playing touring gigs in 2001 and swore I would never do it again because I was burnt out on bus fumes and waking up in a coffin-like bunk not knowing where I was. Those tour buses can be luxurious but at the end of the day they are only eight feet wide and they all give me cabin fever. When I was working with touring artists out of Nashville I would meet the tour bus at midnight in a grocery store parking lot (the bus driver's pay day starts at midnight), sleep on the bus in a bunk and wake up the next morning at the hotel, throw my clothes into the room, go to sound check, eat dinner, go to the gig, hop on the bus afterwards and drive all night to do it all over again. Quite the grind. The way we travel now with Poco is much more agreeable to me. We all live in different cities around the country so we fly out the day before or the morning of the gig on Southwest or similar airline, meet up at the airport, grab a rental SUV or van at the airport and drive to the hotel and the venue which can be anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours away. I don't mind flying because I'm one of those people who can sleep on a plane – or I can get lost in my computer or a good book. We usually have sound check in the mid afternoon, grab dinner at the hotel or sometimes dinner is catered at the venue, then head to the gig and sleep in the same hotel that night, get up and go to the airport early the next morning to go to the next gig or go home depending on how many gigs we have booked, which can be from one to four gigs a week.
All we take on the road are clothes, guitars and drum sticks. Just us four musicians; no roadies, no tour manager, no sound man or sound system, no lights, no amps, no drums, nothing else. Occasionally Rusty Young's wife Mary will come out on the road with us and sell merchandise; t shirts, hats, CDs etc. These days, the promoter of a concert will provide all the amps, drums, sound and lights and the techs to run them. We specify what backline and sound we require in the contract. We play a lot of festivals, civic theatres, and old stalwart rock clubs like the Stone Pony in New Jersey, the Fillmore in San Francisco and BB King's in Manhattan. Usually the drums are very good. I see a lot of Pearl, DW, Yamaha, Tama and other brand high end kits. Lots of Zildjian, Sabian and Paiste high end cymbals. Most of the backline rental instrument companies that provide these instruments know the high level of gear that name artists require, though occasionally there is a real dog of a drum set and I just have to make lemonade out of lemons on those days.
Setting up and tuning.
Usually the drums are out of the cases and somewhat set up by the local crew and I have to tweak and tune the new kit every day and sometimes have to repair them. I have always had a knack for tuning so it's not a big deal for me, but I am amazed at how poorly some of these things are tuned especially considering that some other poor slob had to play them the night before. I usually pull any duct tape off the heads and tune them with the top heads at a medium tension and the bottom heads slightly higher in pitch. I don't muffle the toms at all because a drum that is tuned evenly and played correctly does not ring, but rather resonates and sustains with a desirable long decay. In small practice rooms the ringing of a drum head is more noticeable because the walls reflect those high sounds and might need a little muffling, but a drum mic'd and played through a sound system in a big venue will sound dull if you put duct tape or other muffling on it. I find that the snare drums are always easiest to tune if I start with the bottom head as tight as it will go -"so tight that it screams for its lawyer" as a friend of mine once said - the theory being that the bottom head's function is to make the snares sound as bright and crisp as possible and the top head's function is to determine the pitch of the snare drum. I tune the top head tight as well and prefer a deeper drum because you can tune the top head tight on a deep drum and still get the fat sound that is required for the type of music I am currently playing. If it is a shallower drum then I tune slightly lower. The bass drum; I throw a pillow in it with a medium tuning on either head. Tuning and tension is not as critical on a bass drum with a pillow in it. I tend to tension the heads about a half turn of the key above the wrinkle stage of the head. The biggest mistake you can make is putting too much padding in the drum which causes you to lose low end response. A small pillow just touching the heads is enough for a typical punchy, staccato pop bass drum sound.
After tuning I usually try to run through the drums for the front of house sound engineer and the monitor engineer before we start checking guitars and vocals. Usually if the sound company has its act together, the drums will have already been put in place with microphone lines checked. The out front sound man wants to hear each drum individually and I usually play them in the order that they are assigned on the mixing board which is usually bass, snare, hat, toms 1,2,3,4 and then cymbals. I'll play the standard steady monotonous quarter note beat on each drum at full volume so he can set the different knobs and electronic gizmos that he must tweak. While playing each instrument I ask the monitor engineer for the on stage sound to give me volume in the monitor speaker just to my left. I usually get all five or six drums and hihat in my speaker, no ride or crash cymbals. If it's a small room where I will hear the drums well with out a monitor I just get a little kick drum. I wear ear plugs during the gig so I ask for more volume than I would like during sound check with the ear plugs out. I also have a little bit of vocals, bass and acoustic instruments in my monitor. No electric guitars since their amps are usually close by. The sound man usually asks me to play the whole set so he can here the total effect. That doesn't mean "drum solo", just a steady groove and some tom fills. Since I am working with a different sound crew every night, the first thing I do is make friends with them and let them know through my actions that I am not going to be a demanding diva. There are inevitably problems with the gear at any gig and you have to keep the mood light and not get mad or frustrated with the crew just because the inevitable problems happen. The rest of the sound check is usually devoted to getting the levels set for the other musicians in the band and running through a few songs. If there is another opening band or co headline act they will many times be using the same drum set. My philosophy about that is to let the other drummers adjust the positions of the drums so they can enjoy their gig. Most of the time they like the way I've tuned the kit so that is rarely an issue. I used to hate being the opening act when the headliner drummer says "don't move anything". My view is that they are just drums and we all know how to adjust them back the way we want them. The only time I object is when I see a drummer obviously abusing the drum set by hitting too hard.
After sound check we usually go back to the hotel and rest up if we have time. This is when I'm usually checking on my Not So Modern Drummer business by computer and phone. The promoter usually provides dinner and then we are off to the gig. We are usually fairly tired from traveling and working all day and usually chill out in the dressing room for a half hour or so before the show.
Our shows are usually about an hour and a half long and the set list has been the same for a while, a balance of old and new Poco songs. The most important parts of Poco music are the vocals and the guitar and steel guitar solos, so I "play for the music" in my drum parts with this band, trying not to overplay or make it too flashy, just straight ahead rock and roll with a few fancy fills in the appropriate places. It's a fairly loud, but dynamic band and I have to set the volume according to the room we're playing. The acoustics in a room change when you fill it up with human bodies (the sound guys call them blood and hair bags J) so that factor is always missing from sound check. I may have to play harder or softer depending on how the sound is filling the room. We usually get called back for an encore that starts with a short drum solo so I do get a chance to do some creative drumming!
After the gig we usually do a meet and greet session, signing autographs and taking pictures with the "Poconuts" as the fans call themselves. We have a group of hard core fans who help us with the merchandising of CDs and T shirts. May the Great Pumpkin bless 'em. After packing up the guitars we usually head to the hotel for a good night's sleep before getting up early the next morning and doing it all over again. We do a fair number of gigs a month during the spring, summer and fall but don't play much during the winter. I think the reason there aren't many concerts in the winter is because people are spending their money on Christmas gifts before Christmas and them paying off their credit card bills after Christmas.
Nov. 7, 2007 6:00 A.M. Up and at 'em to get to the airport by 7:00. My Delta flight leaves at 8:20 for Atlanta. The promoter's driver picks me up at Atlanta baggage claim and deposits me at the Omni Hotel in the CNN center where I grab a quick bite in the lobby restaurant and then check in to my hotel room. Sound check is at three at the "Tabernacle", an old church that has been converted into a performance venue. We are playing a private party, a corporate gig thrown by the Budweiser distributor in Atlanta. Three Dog Night and the Village People are on the bill (I've reached the zenith of my career sharing a stage with the Village People!). I get in touch with Pat Bautz the drummer for Three Dog Night who was an old buddy from Nashville and we catch up. The drum set is a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute and is tuned up very nicely. Sound check goes quickly because the stage crew and sound techs are top notch. Back to the hotel for a short nap and back to the venue for our 7:30 show which goes well. Corporate gigs are weird though. Lots of business types smoking cigars and talking too loudly. Most of the time the attendees have no idea why they are there and we don't know why we are there, but someone needed to impress someone else with a star studded bill thus the music business survives! Back to the hotel after the gig for a great meal at the seafood restaurant there and then turn in early because we have early flights.
Nov. 8 Woodstock NY Bearsville Theatre
Sitting in the airport for several hours waiting for maintenance to fix our plane. We finally leave an hour late. We meet watercolor artist Peter Huntoon on the plane who is coming to our show in Vermont and hopefully we will get to visit his studio while we are there. We rent an SUV in Albany and drive an hour to Woodstock. Bearsville Theatre is an old barn that has been renovated into a beautiful theatre and bar. It has the best acoustics and a magnificent sounding audio system. The drum set is another Yamaha Maple Custom with a really great sounding Ludwig Supraphonic snare drum and lots of cymbals to choose from. I really like these Yamaha maple drums. This was one of the best sounding drum sets I've ever played. While the singers are doing a live radio interview after sound check I eat supper in the adjoining restaurant sitting by a cozy fire with some close fans of the band who are helping us with merchandise and transportation on this gig. Babicz guitars brings some really nice acoustic guitars for the guys to use and ends up giving them the guitars! We play an extended show, an unplugged set and a rockin' set with an intermission between. This is our first show at Bearsville and we are asked to come back in the future so that is something to look forward to. Back to the hotel and we are so tired and sleepy that we leave one of the doors of the SUV open all night. When we discover it in the morning we are surprised that nothing has been stolen.
November 9, 2007 The Stone Pony club, Asbury Park NJ,
We are driving three hours from Woodstock to Asbury Park and the fall colors in the Catskills are gorgeous even though the weather is a little rainy. I do a little NSMD business on the phone and computer. I love the satellite internet thing. I'm amazed that I can be on the internet in a car. In a year my satellite card will be old hat but I'm still trying to figure out how FM radio is broadcast in stereo :-). The Stone Pony is one of the most famous rock clubs in America, well known for its association with Bruce Springsteen. This place does it right; great stage, great sound system and crew, great audiences and a staff that really rolls out the red carpet for us. The boardwalk area in Asbury is undergoing renewal and it's nice to see a blighted rundown area being brought back to life. We run into some gremlins during sound check. Amps that aren't working, the drums aren't happening. They have some "custom made" drums on stage that look nice but don't sound very good so I ask for another kit which they have, a DDrum model of some kind. It is really hard to tune up but I cobble it together and after some head changes and tuning we get an acceptable drum sound. On the way back to the hotel from sound check a black cat walks across the street in front of our car! Uh! Oh! We end up having a great show with a very enthusiastic crowd who know all the words to the songs. We hang for quite a while at this club and I even buy the Tshirt and the poster for our show. It's framed on my wall now. All in all a typical weekend of trains, plains and automobiles pursuing the glory of rock n roll. I'll get up in the morning, fly home, and do it all again next weekend!