DISPATCHES FROM THE ROAD
The New Reality of Touring
By Reeves Gabrels
15 July 2009 -- Greetings. This is the first report from ten
shows in ten cities in ten days by Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary
Friends. This summer mini-tour is my first time on the road since
recovering from lyme disease, and it's a different world. GUITAR
PLAYER Editor Michael Molenda thought it would be interesting to
share what it's like to tour in the present economic climate and
music industry maelstrom. A saner group of people quite possibly
wouldn't bother, but my imaginary friends and I just like playing
live too much to do the sensible thing.
So I picked up a van at 10:00 am this morning in Nashville, and met
bass player Kevin Hornback and drummer Jeff Brown at our rehearsal
space. We are the band, road crew, tour manager, merchandiser,
back-line technician, and van driver for this tour. We managed to
fit our gear into a 15-passenger van with a single bench seat
remaining so one of us can sleep while the others are in the cab. We
find this works better than letting the driver sleep while he's
We drove in a straight shot east to Asheville, North Carolina, home
of the Biltmore estate. We arrived at our club venue, the Garage at
Biltmore, at about 7:00 pm, and loaded right in. Kevin got to try
out a new bass rig that just arrived from Traynor this morning. Jeff
has a new set of drums, too, but as you're guitar players, enough
I'm playing through a Koch 50-watt combo with one 12-inch speaker
and a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier cabinet with two 12-inch speakers. As a
spare -- in case I should run into any unexpected amplifier problems
-- I have my trusty Crate Powerblock. I brought three guitars: a
soon-to-be-announced Reverend signature model, a Fender Custom Shop
Stratocaster, and my Fernandes with a sustainer and a 1967
Telecaster neck. I don't usually bring three guitars, but I'm
My pedalboard is pretty simple—an Ernie Ball wah, a Boss tuner, an
Ibanez TS-7, a Source Audio Soundblox Multiwave Distortion, a Phase
90 modified by Joel Turza, an old Digitech Space Station, and a
Joel-Turza-modified Line 6 Delay Modeler. I figure you guys want to
know all that.
It's now 10:00 pm, and we go on stage in a half hour. Tomorrow, when
we get to our next gig at local 506 in Chapel Hill, I'll let you
know how the show went tonight. Meanwhile, I'll also ask if the
"Garage at Biltmore" refers to the GUYS AND DOLLS song about the
oldest established, permanent floating craps game in New York. Hmmm.
16 July 2009 -- Well, last
night’s "The Garage @ the Biltmore" gig in Asheville was a good
start to our run of dates. The club wasn't packed, but we played
like it was, and, it seems we picked up a bunch of new fans.
“Oh wow, you are the singer AND the guitar player!”
“You mean it's not an instrumental band?”
“You guys have like really cool songs and stuff—when are you coming
back to play again?”
It's always satisifying to play a gig and feel like you turned
people on to something new, or opened their minds a little to other
It is now Thursday July 16 around 9:00 pm. We are playing at Local
506 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The soundcheck went well, and the soundman,
Nick, and the opening act (Benjomatic) were very cool. Onstage sound
sounds like ROCK, so we are happy.
It always amuses me what music gets played on the van rides between
gigs. Today was Nick Lowe, Crack the Sky (the band from the ’70s,
not Mastodon's new album), Talk Talk, Chris Arduser, Robin Trower,
Firesign Theatre, Dada, Snoop Dog—you just never know.
Kevin, Jeff, and I like when we can crank it up and still hear each
other. It's so much better than the audio Braille method.
Well, I have to get off line to do a phone interview with
bunkradio.com in Boston to support the Boston gig. I'll let you know
tomorrow (7/17) how tonight's Chapel Hill show went after we get to
the next venue, the half shell in Virginia Beach. I may have some
pictures to send you, too.
17 July 2009 -- Hola.
Excellent gig in Chapel Hill last night. Two shows in, and we all
have our antennas up, and static is at a minimum. The fact we've
been doing a couple of gigs a month for the last two years doesn't
hurt, but there is nothing like consecutive gigs, travel, and
sleeping three to a room to tighten things up. I guess what I really
mean is there's nothing like touring. Duh.
I've been opening gigs with a song I wrote with Robert Smith (from
the Cure) for the movie ORGAZMO. It's called “Sign from God,” and it
was also on my fourth solo album ROCKONICA. It has never been a song
that I was confident singing and playing live, but Jeff and Kevin
really like playing it so, trusting them, I have begrudgingly taken
it out of the rehearsal room, put it up on the stage, and made it
first song of the set. I don't know if it is because it feels like
such a potentially disastrous choice for an opening number or what,
but it has really started to come together—with attitude. So they
were right. Now, they'll want me to listen to them all the time!
We stayed at a Holiday Inn last night—a sports-themed Holiday Inn. I
hate sports bars—never mind a sports hotel with baseball-bat-shaped
door handles, soccer-ball door knobs, and grown men dressed like
little leaguers chasing spheres. Ridiculous. I mean, I like men in
boas playing loud guitars, but I think the Hard Rock Hotel concept
is stupid. Let's make a theme park out of an art form, shall we? But
The van ride to tonight's gig in Virginia Beach was
uneventful—except for the severe thunderstorms, flooding, and
tornado warnings. We listened to some Underworld, Self, Tegen &
Sara, and, at the height of the storm, Wagner. The club tonight, the
Half Shell in is a full-on metal hang (think Cannibal Corpse, not
White Stripes). It looks like fun—a different crowd from the norm.
It should be cool, because our stuff seems to translate to a bunch
of different audiences, but we'll find out. Counting us, there are
six bands on the bill, instead of three, as we were told. No sound
check—no point—and all the set changes will push back our set time.
But advance ticket sales are good.
Tomorrow, July 18, we will drive to Onancock (yes, that's right),
Virginia to play at the flamenco music venue.
Over and out,
18 July 2009 -- Hey now.
Sometimes sh*t happens that never should. We were driving down route
13 today in Virginia on the way to Onancock to play at the Flamenco,
rolling past cornfields, farmhouses, and occasionally passing open
truckloads of green tomatoes. And churches. Lots'a churches. As we
drove, in the distance I could see the charred frame of a small
house. As we got closer, I could make out a sheet of plywood propped
up on an old car down by what had been the driveway. Hand-lettered
on the sign were the words "KKK BURN OUT."
Just when I thought it was all Pleasantville out here... Think
And then sometimes sh*t happens that you would never expect.
Admittedly, we were a little concerned about the Flamenco club gig.
We knew it was a small room. We knew it was way off the beaten path
in, it turns out, a tourist and weekend vacation community for
people who work in Washington DC. We had a secret suspicion that
this wasn't our audience (whoever that may be), but I also knew that
any day without a gig was a day with expenses (band, hotel) that
would not be covered. Therefore, it was a necessary gig and worth
the risk. We are touring on a shoestring, and every gig counts.
Essentially, I will be lucky if I break even. This is the new
reality of touring.
The venue turned out to be a really cool and funky little club/side
room attached to a larger restaurant called The Flamenco. However,
there were no microphones, no mic stands, and the PA was extremely
small--so small, it took us a while to find it. The PA speakers
looked like large home stereo speakers--a system made for karaoke.
This was our Spinal Tap moment.
Panic set in. I called the booking agent, who called the promoter.
The promoter called the booking agent back and said the PA was just
fine. A combination of bad cell phone reception and missed calls
contributed to the confusion. I had decided that this was not a gig
we should do, and was rehearsing my conversation with the couple who
own the place, to the tune of, "There seems to be some kind of
What made my decision harder was that Olga and Ales (pronounced "Alesh")
seemed to be really sweet, sincere, and genuinely excited about us
playing at their club. Then, Kevin made a very simple point: "We can
do this." And Jeff pointed out that he could do the gig with Blastix
instead of drumsticks. So I bit the bullet.
We set about stripping our gear down to a minimal amount, pushed the
PA to its usable limit, and approached the gig like an
almost-unplugged kind of thing.
It worked great.
People came, drank, loved it, bought CDs, and had a great time. I
learned something about my preconceptions (and that the music works
without massive volume). I hate when that happens. We couldn't have
had a better time with our pants on. Plus Olga and Ales were the
most gracious of hosts. The food at the restaurant was amazing, and
they even gave us a gift basket when we left (though the bottle of
bourbon will remain unopened until the next hotel room at least).
We would play there again, any time they'd have us.
Now if we could just get the KKK to stop burning houses.
19 July 2009 -- An uneventful
four-hour drive to Philadelphia. Some traffic slowdowns but plenty
of time to listen to music: Be Bop Deluxe, the Clash, Joe Strummer's
Streetcore, Automatic Man, and Lou Reed. We got to soundcheck at
Johnny Brenda's in the fishtown section of Philadelphia 15 minutes
early, only to discover that the gig was on the second floor. Two
flights of stairs with no elevator. There went our 15-minute
advantage. Once inside the venue, the soundcheck was smooth. The two
openers were open to using Jeff's drum kit and Kevin's bass rig, so
that minimized the fuss of changing over gear after each set.
After soundcheck, I went to the hotel, slept for an hour, and then
headed back to the gig -- just in time to play. Great sound system,
great-sounding stage, and their soundman (Dave) is a very
interactive soundman. With a little encouragement, he was totally
into playing with the mix -- vocal delay spins and some flanger-type
effects. It would be great if more front-of-house guys were that
musically active when it came to mixing.
The crowd was receptive -- not a bad turnout for an 11 pm gig on a
Sunday night. But that's the thing about touring -- you have to play
somewhere every night. They can't all be Fridays and Saturdays.
We did very well with CD sales tonight, and if this keeps up, I may
actually be able to cover all my expenses (which would be nice).
Well, that's it for tonight. Next stop is Herkimer, New York. We'll
be playing at a club called Rides on Monday, 7/20 with my friend
Jason Davis' band.
20 July 2009 -- Short note
Get up. Eat. Drive. Load in. Play. Load out. Sleep. Repeat.
21 July 2009 -- Howdy.
It seemed like a long trip to New Haven, Conn. -- probably the
torrential rain that we drove into around Springfield, MA, made it a
little longer, and, due to the debatable skills of other drivers, a
little tense. That having been said, it seems the drivers in the
northeast get less flumoxed by inclement weather when it comes to
being behind the wheel -- just the opinion of a biased
The wear and tear of the hours and repetition of playing every day
(see day 6) are starting to show themselves a bit. My back is not
helping matters, and the heavy lifting is now being done by Kevin
and Jeff with no complaints. I couldn't ask for a cooler couple of
guys to be doing this with.
At the end of the day, the gigs have been hugely rewarding. Load in
and soundcheck at Club Nine were a piece of cake -- although we did
wait a little to long to eat some dinner, and so the low blood-sugar
weirdness set in. Quickly solved, but something to guard against.
Eno always used to carry a couple of Tiger Milk nutrition bars in
his briefcase in case he got stuck in the studio late w/no
reasonable food options. I find that eating cuts down on the
Our set went well -- a good-sounding stage. I know i've said that
before, but some stages just don't sound that great. No matter what
you do, it will mess with you. On this run of dates, we've had about
a 60 percent success ratio with onstage sound. We just try not to
let that interfere.
A surprising number of old friends were at the gig, as well as a lot
of folks who had been at various Bowie and Tin Machine shows over
the years. I sold a record number of CDs (gas for the van!) and made
the venue owner happy. We've been lucky to deal with really great
people at the clubs we've played, and Paul goes to the top of that
That's it for Day 7. Off to my olde semi-home town of Boston. But
first, Kevin Hornback would like a word....
Hi all, Kevin here...
First, let me say I love Dunkin' Donuts coffee. We have it in the
South, somewhere, but I can never find it. So one of the perks of
coming north is Dunky -- until Virginia Beach. It was as if the
regular, efficient and helpful staff had been replaced by a high
school field trip. At any moment, I expected a bus to pull up and
for everyone behind the counter to run out at once. There were kids
doing absolutely nothing, and others doing an amazing number of
things...badly. Sure, my order was wrong and late, but at least it
was the temperature of the sun. Add to that the apparently lesbian
drama between a "manager" and another girl forced to clean a
bathroom apocalypse and I just want my coffee, dammit!
Anyway, I'm playing a new rig this trip and it has been fantastic.
It's a Traynor YBA-200 2 with an 8x8 cab. At 200 tube watts, it has
had enough juice to fill 150-250 capacity rooms with no P.A. help.
The cab is the perfect size for the van and the stages we've been
on, and the tone is great -- fat, with as much grind as I want to
dial in. On the floor, I've got an EBS Octabass, an Electro-Harmonix
Bass Big Muff and a Zoom 506 that does a couple of good freak tones.
I'm playing a Campbell-American RJ bass tuned B to D, and a Warmoth
Thanks to Reeves for the space and thanks to any and all who've read
22-23 July 2009 - Hiya. Well, we made the ten-hour
trek from Boston to Pittsburgh in about 11+ hours due to
road work and rest stops. We rolled on up into Howlers at
about 7:20. Soundcheck was a breeze, and they had made a
pork roast buffet to feed the bands. We ate and set off to
the hotel to attempt to wake up and clean up before the gig.
Turns out the hotel was 35 minutes away in another town, but
it was a Best Western, so at least we had that going for us.
The Best Western hotel in Monroeville, PA, wins (by a 3-0
vote) the "Nastiest Hotel of the Tour Award." Apparently,
their proudly displayed dog-friendly sign means it's okay
for guests to let their animals foul the external upper
floor walkways leading to the rooms -- at least we HOPED it
was canine urine and excrement. And apparently the hotel
staff feels no obligation to hose the joint down, or vacuum
the the rooms. Nice.
As expected, we cut it close getting back to the gig for our
11:30 set time, due to the over an hour total drive to the
hotel. And, as expected, the opening band was still playing.
We went on around 12:10 to a very slim house (the club had a
150 max. cap), which was unfortunate given that our
agreement was no guarantee and 50 percent of the door after
the first $150 (which the venue keeps for expenses). A
pretty bad deal for us all around, but it was a last-minute
gig that filled an open date on the road to Cleveland (kinda).
We sold 3 CDs, though. Keep on pushing, straight ahead.
On the plus side, we had some new and very cool musical
moments during the set, and, ultimately, we made some new
On to Cleveland, and our last show of our ten-day run. Time
to wipe off the bottoms of our shoes and get in the van!
24 July 2009 - Sorry for the
delay on the final Day 10 entry, but once I got home, there wasn't
much that could get me out of bed! Plus, we had a potentially fatal
computer crash that was narrowly averted. But enough excuses...
The drive from Pittsburgh to Cleveland was short and uneventful. It
was nice to put the urine-soaked hallways of the dog-friendly DAYS
INN in Monroeville behind us (and apologies to the Best Western in
Monroeville for mistakenly refering to it in my previous Day 9
missive -- it was the DAYS INN that we reluctantly stayed at).
While I'm at it, it seems my Day 8 report disappeared into the ether
-- or WiFi. Suffice to say we had a great time in Boston at the
Regent Theatre, saw a bunch of old friends, played a great set (If i
do say so myself; it's nice to occasionally be on a big stage), and
then went to sleep by 3:00 am, and got up at 7:00 am to drive 11
hours to Pittsburg, only to discover our set time was pushed back
from 10:00 pm to 12:15. This is where my Day 9 report picked up.
Okay -- on to Day 10: The Winchester Music Hall in Cleveland is a
cool venue. It leans toward guitar-based music -- Allan Holdsworth,
Al Di Meola, and Steve Lukather to name a few recent shows. It's
kind of like a larger version of the Baked Potato in Los Angeles
(where I had a residency back in 2004).
One of the best things about this tour is that we haven't had to
deal with assholes anywhere we have gone. No one has weasled us, and
everyone lived up to their contracts -- many even more so. That has
made the whole run a pleasure, and it made the daily hard repitition
of "sleep, play, drive" so much more do-able. This last venue of the
tour was no exception. The owner, Jim, and his wife were wonderful
On the ride into Cleveland we did a phone interview with WCSB, a
college radio station. DJ Randy Allair put us right on the air, and
we passed the phone around the van between me, Jeff, and Kevin. He
was totally into the mayhem. We paid a few tolls and lost the cell
signal a couple of times (thanks T-Mobile) while we were on the air,
but Randy just rolled with it. The day before, I spoke with Todd
Richards at WBWC for almost 30 minutes.
In spite of the radio interviews and ads, the show attendence was
under 100 people -- which was a disappointment for both us and the
club. We chalked it up to just one of those gigs. Both parties did
as much as they could to promote the shows. We played with the same
energy as we always do -- I believe in playing every gig with full
commitment; numbers don't matter -- and the audience and the club
owners enjoyed the show.
The following morning, we slept in as late as possible before we
began the 8-hour drive back to Nashville. We got into town around
8:30, unloaded our gear at the space we rehearse in, and said
"goodnight." It seemed odd not to be going back to the same hotel
room together. I couldn't have done a tour like this without Jeff
and Kevin. To do what we did as happily and efficiently as we did --
and to have such a good time doing it -- would not have been
possible without them.
As I look at the books for the tour and the reality of the road --
money made vs. money spent -- it's like this: After paying for van
rental and insurance, $$ for Kevin and Jeff (I wish I could pay them
what they are worth), the costs for a couple of hotel rooms (and
meals) not covered by the clubs, and paying the booking agent
commission, I did not break even. And this is AFTER factoring in CD
sales (at the gigs), sleeping three to a hotel room, and not paying
myself anything. The reality is that I came out a few hundred
dollars in the hole.
By the way, to encourage attendence on the tour, we consciously kept
the ticket prices at $10, and at some venues (Pittsburgh, for
example) it was as low as $7. CD prices were $10 -- which is about
$5 to $10 less than you would normally pay. This was in an effort to
make it possible for people to afford to come out and see us in
these hard economic times.
All-in-all, the loss of a few hundred dollars is not enough to keep
me from doing this again. Playing live is, after all, a large part
of what I do. I will be trying find ways to be better paid by the
venues, as well as how to be more efficient in terms of tour costs
(though I can't imagine what I'd need to do to mount a CHEAPER
It's also something to think about the next time you burn an illegal
copy of an artist's album. You might want to think about how that
impacts the music you get to see live. Think about how that affects
a band's ability to tour -- especially the small independant bands
who actually put the money they make selling CDs into their gas
tanks in order to play live gigs. And, of course, I would encourage
you to get out and see live music!
Thanks to everyone who came out to see us. We had a blast. See you
again next time.