Sunday, October 31, 2010

Paying the Cost to Be the Fabulous Boss Lady of the Blues

Back in the year 2000 or thereabouts I was working with the fabulous blues drummer Twist Turner, he plays drums on my 2002 Earwig release "Back In Love Again". We did a couple of very memorable tours together, but the reason I mention Twist here is that he gave me one of my favorite nick-names: "The Boss Lady of the Blues."

What does it take to be a boss lady? What does that mean? What has being Boss Lady taught me? Why did they call me that? Well...It was my name on the contract, my butt out on the line. I owned all the equipment, wrote all the music & onstage material & it was my responsability to make sure everything went right! And I took care of my band like a mama wolf.
Believe me I asked advice of all the men I admired who were also bandleaders, the wonderful Charlie Love, they guy who got me my debut recording, Aron Burton, the late, great George Baze & Willie Kent, and many others. They all gave me sage advice.
Do yourself a favor, Liz, get a Dodge Ram Van.”
These words of wisdom came from professional band leader, guitarist & veteran road dog, Glenn Davis.

Make sure you change the oil & keep an eye on your bearings & shocks!” he added.

Glen had booked his band & traveled all over the US & Canada in the 70’s & 80’s. Big Time Sarah was the singer in Glenn’s band and with 300 pounds of dynamite sitting in shotgun it behooves a man to keep his bearings well greased & his shocks and springs in top shape!

Before hitting the stage, there are a million things a band leader has to take care of. If you’re a lucky artist, you have a road manager, personal manager or business manager to take some of the load off, but I haven’t had that luxury. Most bandleaders I know are self contained one stop multi-tasking heads of a complex family that is the traveling blues band. Usually they’re doing all this extra leg work without the knowledge or appreciation of the audience or sidemen they’re looking out for. In my opinion being a band leader is akin to herding cats.

Before you even roll out of the parking spot to the first gig, as a band leader you’ve had to make your vehicle road ready, you’ve cleared out the detritus of the previous trip, aired out the pillows & blankets, deodorized & sanitized your rolling home for the next few days or weeks. (Don’t forget the Rainex.)

You’re performing, not music, but oil & filter changes, tire rotation and other routine maintenance. You do any repairs necessary to make sure you don’t break down. I’ve gone through five vehicles in my career putting an average of 200,000 miles on each one.

Here’s the skinny: Ford vans are wide & they vibrate.
The biggest problem you’ll have with a Ford after 100K miles is the bolts have vibrated loose & they fall off!

I once was driving a 15 passenger Ford Van on a highway outside Milwaukee WI when I looked out the window & saw the whole wheel axel & tie rod standing about a foot out in the next lane! The mechanic later told me it was because of a bolt that was missing.

Driving that same vehicle fully loaded, it was about 6 AM outside Wisconsin Dells and it was 4th of July Weekend. Phil Baron was at the wheel when we heard an unholy shrieking from the back end of the van, followed by a terrible gravely grinding. Phil pulled over & we all got out, it was Phil, Me, Melvin Smith, John Hill, & Bob Carter sleepily staring at the red hot, glowing hub cap.

Mmm, bad bearing.” was the consensus.

The only garage option was a junk yard owed by the family from Deliverance. There wasn’t a motel room to be had in town for love or money, so we spent the day hanging around the junkyard while Clem & Eb worked at the fused metal lump of hub with a crow-bar & a blow torch. It was about 97 degrees and humid that day. Yes, I’ve been to hell, isn’t it near the Dells?

And that was the beginning, the first 8 hours of a three week road trip! That van broke down again a few days later in Vancouver B.C. it was the brakes this time. After we’d done a weekend at the Yale and were heading across the mountains to Edmonton. That, as it turned out, was rather fortunate. We ended up staying over with the Yale Hotel, jamming with the house band, Jack Lavin’s Demons, and meeting a lot of cool musicians, but that’s another story!

Every time a band comes to your town, chances are they spent hours driving, drank vats of coffee, braved scary weather & risked life & limb for those few hours of pleasure they get from playing for you. A bad vehicle can lead to missed gigs or worse, crashes, roll-overs, injury or death. It all costs more when you’re at the side of the road in an unknown location and depending on what ever mechanic might be available. Unlike Blanche Dubois, I don’t like to depend on the kindness of strangers!

When getting to the gig, I use a Garmin & Map-quest & it’s good to have an up to date Atlas in the car too. I suspect the people who own the Garmin satellite also own the toll roads in several states. From experience I’ve found Triple A is my friend. From maps to travel discounts, towing to bail bond, worth its weight in gold and having a good reliable mechanic is priceless.

As a band leader you look for much more than a musician who is merely talented at their axe, you’ve got to have someone who is good company and gets along with other people. Sometimes you’re out there in that van driving for whole days at a time between gigs, you can’t have somebody with disgusting personal habits or who likes to argue for the hell of it.

I’ve had bands with guys I just loved their playing, but they wouldn’t lay off the prescription drugs, or the Mini-mart Burrito. It’s better to have guys who are fun and helpful, than people who are genius musicians but addicted to crack. My criteria: play good, keep your nose clean, and be not insane, a bigot or drunk, AND you must also be a good, licensed driver with a clean record.

You can’t cross the border into Canada until you’ve paid all your outstanding tickets, gotten your license plates up to date, paid your insurance. You can’t go if you have any outstanding warrants, convictions, if you don’t have a passport, work papers & then if that's all in order, you still have to pay a large border crossing fee, so a good band leader has to have their shit together & have some money in their pocket and a paid up credit card.

In addition to that, when crossing a border, if you act at all suspicious (not having your passport ready, wearing dark glasses, long hippie hair, suspect odors emitting from the van, looking scurrilous or unprofessional) they will take your van apart & you lose those precious travel hours while the border guards scrutinize you & your vehicle.

I’ve seen a dismantled 18 wheeler; I mean they took the engine and the body apart, at the side of the border crossing above Minot ND. The driver was standing there crying, because, even if they don’t find anything, they don’t have to put it back together, you do.

I crossed that same border with those same people several times a year but the guards always pretended not to know me or my band, it was always rather unpleasant.

It just happened this one time I had gotten on a Spirulina Seaweed Nutrition Health kick & I had boxes of this stuff in the van, energy bars, tea, the works. Well these guards didn’t know what to make of that, they rolled out this machine which was a proto-type of the X-ray machines they now have at airports & they put everything in the whole van thru it and stared at each thing like it was going to sprout eyes! Then we had to repack it. All told it cost us about 6 hours after driving 12 hours to get there.

Hard working bandleader, you’ve spent hours at the computer & on the phone getting maps, confirming hotel reservations, signing contracts, sending out promo material, communicating with club owners & promoters, calling radio stations, getting your CD’s & T-shirts sorted. Plus you’ve cleaned & checked out your equipment & both your on & off stage wardrobes.

Know this one thing: A Diva must have all her girl drag with her and it has to be light enuff that she can roll it by herself in case there are no gentlemen around to help her with her luggage. It’s great that they’re now packaging almost everything in travel sized 3 oz bottles so I never have to do without my own cleansers, shampoo & conditioner. Travel sizes mean I don’t have to lug around 2 pounds of toothpaste, but I can still always be minty fresh! Also, never go anywhere without a swim suit, you just never know.

Today’s bandleader also has to be a mini accounting agency, collecting receipts, corralling contracts, keeping track of advances, expense money, separate from CD money, separate from Pay. Who got paid what when & how much. You gotta keep Payroll records, 10-99’s because Uncle Sam don’t care what you did if you was makin money he wants some! I know several band leaders who’ve been audited & ended up paying taxes on their gross income because they didn’t keep accounts.

This is also good advice I got from Glenn Davis
I keep every single receipt for anything related to my car, musical equiptment, lessons, all of it. You have to prove you have income if you want to get credit or a loan.”
True dat, Glenn!

Some of us have formed LLC’s or S-corps to protect ourselves from the IRS swooping in & doing a Redd Foxx on our ass. That means after the gig we got to get with the Excel Spread Sheet and enter every thing, which just thinking about it gives me the blues.

After all this, you load in, set up, sound check, make sure the band gets what they need, every body’s got power, every body’s balanced. Then, if we have time, maybe get something to eat and change before the show.
Then the pay-off comes! In the words of William Shakespeare,
“I strut & fret my hour upon the stage…”

For all the hours of practice, all the planning, all the phone calls & e-mails, all the hours traveling, all the time spent shopping & packing & computing is all leading to this one thing, this making of art for you.
I hope it was good for you because that’s what I live for. It’s for the pleasure of making you laugh, of getting your face to relax, of coaxing your foot to tap, your hands to clap, that’s why I’m a bandleader. That’s why I play the blues.