Betty Grey and Billy Earl, stopping to look at the view
This was on Sunday, and we were on our way to the Wairau Valley, running a little bit late on the road. We were a little bit late because this was in the South Island, and on the South Island leg of the Slow Burn Winter Tour, I was the Sort Of Tour Manager. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was the sort of tour manager who would prefer to get a half-hour more sleep in the morning and another cup of coffee on the way rather than hassle everybody to leave on time, and after the least rock'n'roll car crash back in Wellington, I was not the sort of tour manager who was inclined to encourage people to make up for lost time on the road by driving like maniacs. Especially when we could stop to look at awesome things like the view or baby seals instead.
Sometimes, though, it probably does pay to adopt a less lackadaisical management style. The mood in the van was tense as we rolled into Blenheim, around ten minutes before we were supposed to be walking on-stage. I muttered "Ah, yeah, it shouldn't be more than about ten-fifteen minutes or so now."
"Ten to fifteen? How is that possible? Blenheim's not that big, surely? This is Blenheim, right?"
"Yeah, it is. But the show's more sort of near Blenheim. Um. I think I said."
"They did say we should stop to look at the baby seals. That's a good sign in my books."
"Really, I'm pretty sure it'll be sweet. I don't think actually that we're going to get eaten probably."
"You need to stop talking about how we might get eaten at this show."
"Yeah, OK. Sorry."
Everyone was too nice to yell at me about it, but I was acutely aware that our ETA would leave us with approximately negative five minutes to lug all the gear out of the van and into the venue, set up the PA, run a sound check, set up the merch table, pull on our gig shoes, and start the show. Eight shows into the tour we were getting pretty slick at executing this sequence of tasks, but undeniably it was still taking longer, on average, than negative five minutes. There is also a school of thought that says you should try to sit down for at least ten minutes or so between driving for five hours and playing a two-hour show, but somehow that hardly ever seems to happen. It certainly looked like it wasn't going to happen that day, and I was starting to wonder whether I had really needed to insist on the second and third cups of coffee in Lyttelton that morning. It was difficult to see how it would be anybody's fault but mine if this show turned out to be pretty miserable.
There's something about the afternoon of a show that brings out the pessimist in most musicians I have known, and I include myself in that count. People will say of musicians (and performers generally) that you're only as good as your last show - you've probably heard that. When you're strapped in the back of a van though, running a little bit late on the road, on your way to only god or the tour manager knows where, and you know that when you do get there you're going to have to bugger about setting up the PA while the audience files in to watch you tripping over cables and squealing feedback in the monitors - or, what is worse, possibly they aren't filing in at all because somebody (me, in this case) has booked the show not even in Blenheim but near Blenheim, and on a Sunday afternoon at that - well, then it's not about the last show. The last show is forgotten, blurred into all the others, and your self-worth is now bound up wholly in the next show. It's the next show that's important, and it could all go horribly wrong.
That's why it's important for tour managers to project an air of confidence, and to have spreadsheets and ready answers. It's also why I'm not a very good tour manager. When a musician says 'so where is it we're going tonight?' they want to hear the tour manager say 'somewhere where there is delicious food and really good on-stage monitors, where they will tell you that you are awesome at playing your instrument, and after that you can sleep in a nice warm bed or stay up drinking the appetising local beer, it's up to you.' Unfortunately that isn't me, though. When I am pretending to be a tour manager and people ask me that question, I say: 'I don't really know. I think it's in a shed or something, and we will probably be eaten by hillbillies, if anybody turns up at all. We should probably figure out a) who's going to sleep in the van with the gear, and b) who we will let them eat. I hope everyone brought a sleeping bag and a gun.' I probably don't need to explain that this tends to erode morale.
It was really just my good luck, then, that I had been told to book that day's show at Las Fronteras. There aren't that many other places where they'll tell you to stop and look at the baby seals when you're running late for no good reason, and there's not many audiences who are that good-humoured about turning up at the same time as the performers and watching them frantically scrambling around setting everything up. There's not that many places where the hosts will diligently call around all the neighbours ahead of time to tell them there's a show on that weekend, so that when the band does turn up, late and smelling like seals, they find a warm room in a beautiful valley filled to the doors with what looks like everybody who lives in a fifty-k radius, as well as a pack of friendly dogs, all with smiling faces and not looking like they want to eat anybody at all. As a tour manager with a fairly half-assed approach to timekeeping and poor attention to detail, I really had no right to expect anything good from that show and I knew it. That day, though, my luck was good, the hosts were amazing, and the show went off like a double happy in a gas-tank. That was the final gig of the South Island leg, and it was one time I think we were all happy to be only as good as our last show.