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The Road Goes On Forever
Bob Cheevers gives the low-down on all aspects of touring the British Isles as solo artist. From the planning stages to the moments of magic on stage, via the need for warm clothing and remembering the need to drive on the left!
It was my first tour of the UK. Accompanied by my girlfriend, Suzanne, we took off from Belfast airport in our hired car heading north for Derry where my first gig of the tour was. Not 30 minutes into the drive - which, for me, was on the "opposite" side of the road - we decided to stop at a petrol station for something to drink. Sitting there waiting to make the right hand turn across the road to the petrol station, I anxiously looked back to my right to make sure the oncoming traffic had subsided so I could make the turn. Seeing the road was clear, I stepped on the gas and pulled out onto the opposite side of the road when we heard a loud horn coming from a huge lorry heading right for us going about 80 mph. The eyes of the driver were huge and the look of anger on his face was unmistakable. I floored the accelerator pedal and crossed the road running up over the curb and nearly into the petrol pumps before coming to a stop gasping for breath. I looked at Suzanne who was as white as a sheet. She said I had turned white too. We were silent and horrified at what was a near-fatal accident caused by me looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic. But the event wasn't over. The lorry sped into the petrol station and screeched to a halt beside our car. The driver was seriously angry and yelled, "Are you trying to get us all killed?" All I could manage in reply was a very feeble and frightened, "I'm so sorry". Fortunately, my accent made him realize we were Americans and probably had never driven on the "wrong" side of the road before. A surprisingly sympathetic look came over his face and, with a final shake of his head, he drove off. That event, though it happened over five years ago, is indelible in my mind, and still, every time I get in my car in the UK, I think of that moment. Most of my tours involve over 5,000 miles of driving across Ireland, Scotland and England, and invariably there are several times each tour when I make the mistake of forgetting which side of the road I'm supposed to be on and from which direction the oncoming traffic will appear.
So why do I annually put myself through the mental gymnastics that are involved in driving on the "wrong" side of the road by touring the British Isles? The last few years, in particular, have seen me become somewhat of a touring fanatic. I think a lot of that comes from my early years of being awestruck by musical heroes of mine - seeing them playing concerts and knowing they were on the road for weeks or even months at a time, living a nomadic lifestyle the purpose of which was to take their music to as many willing listeners as they could find.
The road transforms your life: it takes a performer away from the mundane, day to day of "normal" life and into this bubble of "the tour" where the daily expectations are different. Most days involve getting to the next gig, doing the sound check, settling into a new "living space" for a night, having an evening meal cooked by a different person and most of all playing for different faces in different places. But, like most things in life, you find yourself adapting to a change in routine and pretty soon each day develops its own expected pace with the rhythms of touring becoming pretty predictable even if the details change. I've noticed after each tour, it takes weeks to get back into some rhythm and to shed the daily rituals of touring. Oh sure, touring can be a grind at times, and there is the homesickness that can come at any given time - whether it be on a long drive to the next gig or during the performance of a song written about someone or something back home. Still, the music and a need to play it for people is the driving force behind touring, even if we cannot avoid mentioning the business side of music which encourages performing as a very useful tool in presenting the "product" to the public. But at the end of every show, for me, it's purely the sheer magic that the music creates in a room that has become the life blood which perpetuates the writing, recording and desire to continue this lifestyle.
Each of my tours have consisted of 25 and 60 shows over the five-plus years I've been touring at this level. For example, the upcoming summer 04 tour will be at least 60 shows over 84 nights. But before I get on a plane to fly to Ireland where the first show is, there will have been four months of planning that preceded that first gig. For weeks and weeks I'm on the internet emailing back and forth daily for six to eight hours a day and on the telephone frequently clarifying details and developing personal relationships with the venue people and promoters. By now, I have a huge database of contacts who I know from years of communication and from having done shows in their venues or in venues they promote. It's really a connect-the-dots process. Before my first tour, I talked with everyone I knew who had toured the UK and Europe finding out what to expect, how the crowds react, what to take with me, what venue/promoter info they could give me and if they thought the long distance travel and tours outside of the US were worth it. It really came down to making the decision to give it a try.
My first tour was 25 shows in Belgium, Holland, France and a couple in London. While it was an incredible personal experience that broke the ice in terms of getting me out of the US, it wasn't a money making tour and it wasn't very fulfilling in terms of feeling I had connected with the audiences - mainly because of the language barrier. A huge difference in that tour and my subsequent British tours is that, in the UK, the language barrier isn't a problem.
One thing that has surprised and pleased me is how tight the venue/promoter community is across the UK and the willingness there has been from venue/promoter people to share info with me, giving me leads to other people and venues that might help. It's a massive undertaking to begin developing contacts from scratch in other countries. The internet has helped shrink the world immensely though, quickening the response time and offering the greatest tool for connecting those dots I mentioned. One thing I notice is that Americans tend to want things to move faster than people in most other countries do. I get frustrated at the amount of time I have to wait for an answer as to whether a gig for me is available or not and, if one is, what dates are possible. The other side of that coin is venues/promoters are dealing with lots of artists like me who are asking them the same questions. What aids this process is the depth of the personal relationships I have with the venue/promoter people I'm communicating with. Over the years, I've developed good friends across the UK who always know I'll be getting in touch for another gig, and they simply look at their calendar giving me some options within the time frame that suits my request.
At some point in the preparation, I have to decide on a starting point for the tour. My tours have nearly always begun in Ireland, moved through Scotland and then dropped down into England. One issue determining that approach is the fact that a round trip to London from the US is usually the cheapest ways to set up a trip. I fly into London then on to Belfast, begin the tour there and end it back in southern England flying out of London back to the US. Once I decide on a start date, I book the Ireland dates and try to make the driving itinerary as equitable as possible. The first few tours, I found myself retracing lots of ground as I wasn't familiar with the country and how long it took to get from one place to another. By now, I've travelled the UK much more than most people who live there.
Actually booking the tour itinerary is rather like juggling: it's a case of seeing how many balls I can keep up in the air for as long as possible before I have to make a decision as to where the balls should fall. The first step is to contact most of the venues and let them know I'm planning a tour and am "thinking" about a date during a particular time frame. They get back to me letting me know if something is available. I tell them I'll get back to them, then I begin to fit the pieces together based on the puzzle that begins to evolve out of the contacts. I'm one of these guys who can maintain a good overview and am pretty highly organized. These are great gifts for being a booking agent which, for me, is one of the most important and time-consuming parts of my working process. Some artists are fortunate to have agents/promoters who handle all that for them. That's a blessing, but there is also something wonderful to be said for developing the contacts on my own with people who are directly responsible for making the venue/promotion decisions. It really gets down to what a person is good at and how much help is offered along the way. As the gigs begin to fall into place and as the tour road ahead begins to take shape, I get a feeling for an end date and begin to work towards that. For the upcoming tour, I hadn't planned to make it as long as it turned out to be but was offered a festival I wanted to play by a promoter I really like, so I decided to make my end date at least a week later than I originally intended. That meant I had to fill in an extra week of dates, because one thing you don't want to do is not be working while the car is still being hired and the money for B&B's and food are coming out of your own pocket. Fortunately, I've made so many great friends that I can almost always visit with someone on off days. One thing I haven't done is given myself much time to sight see and relax - but on these tours, time off is money out-of-pocket.
Almost exclusively, each gig includes a B&B, often an evening meal, all the beer I can drink plus my fee guarantee against 80% of the door receipts. I have been very pleasantly surprised at the quality of PA systems and the number of listening rooms in the UK - so much better than the US. Most US tours require bringing a PA along. A huge and wonderful difference in the UK and the US is the attentiveness of the audience. Culturally, US audiences are less interested in art and history, and that translates into less interest in what an "artiste" may have to say and sing about. The UK is just much more tuned in to that sensibility. And for me as the artiste, that's wonderful.
Having prepared the groundwork the practical details of touring have to be considered. When I first began touring, one of my big concerns was whether to bring my one-of-a-kind Martin guitar, my great Gibson acoustic or get a less expensive instrument to carry on the road with me. I just don't think I'd be happy without one of my favourite guitars on stage with me. I did however buy one of those airline-proof Carlton cases, which was really worth the money. I take only one guitar on the tours for practical reasons, plus that's all I really need. I always have my guitar tech in Nashville check out my guitar before leaving just to make sure it's in top condition, but a couple times, I've had small repairs or adjustments done to my guitar on a tour. I think, finally, I've gotten it through my head that I don't need as many clothes as I think I'll need. Every gig is a one night stand, so people rarely see me play more than one show, which means I don't have to worry about being seen in the same clothes two nights in a row. I've managed do laundry much more than I thought I would, so I like to have maybe four sets of stage clothes with me. I also like to have comfortable driving clothes and shoes, plus I have to make sure I have clothes that suit the weather. Even though I'll begin the upcoming tour in June in Ireland, its still gonna be chilly that time of year.
I've grown accustomed to losing my way daily and rely heavily on maps and asking for directions. I've found the folks extremely willing to help, and the instructions are almost always reliable. Even though I've played some venues half a dozen times, I always struggle to find them again. I'm usually alone, so I have to look at the map before setting off for a location, write out the instructions and follow them as I drive. It was much more difficult in the beginning when I got frustrated and uncomfortable from the stress of finding my way. I'm taking all that now more in stride.
There is always a bit of trepidation the first time I approach a venue. Will the owner, manager or promoter be a likeable person? Will the PA be decent? Will there be an audience and, if there is, will they be receptive to the songs and the way I present them. I imagine it's similar for a venue owner, manager or promoter who has never met me or heard me play live. They wonder "Is this guy gonna show, will he be on time, and put on a good show, or am I gonna lose my ass financially tonight?" Returning to a venue is always nice, because I know the people and the place. Over the years, I've met a few great folks who now are my repeat support acts. Personally, I prefer not to have a support act so I have plenty of time each night to stretch out and sing enough songs that will give the audience a real good idea of the scope of my music. I have six CDs I bring with me on these tours now, and I like to play lots of songs off the new one and a few songs off each of the others. That means I need at least two 45-60 minute shows a night just to cover the ground I like to cover. Plus I just love to sing and play for people.
And yes, after all these years, an empty room still really disappoints me. Always has and probably always will. Often as not though, low attendance nights can be wonderfully magical. Everything that happens each day is geared toward getting to the show that nite and putting out as much magic and energy as I can. The music has all that stuff in it already, but things like being behind schedule, having to eat too soon before the show, low audience attendance and many other things can affect how I feel when I begin the first song. I have to appear as if none of that stuff is bothering me and carry on, and I often find that talking about it during the show can be funny and helpful in getting people to understand where I am emotionally as I stand there in front of them on stage. I've noticed how much the audience appreciates honesty.
While the imaginary touring "bubble" carries me through the routine stages of each day, what is outside the bubble is equally important. This includes the uncontrollable factors such as weather, traffic conditions, how badly I get lost on my way, meeting new people, seeing old friends, calling home often and hearing voices of my loved ones far away. But I tend to get real comfortable as the tour progresses and have been lucky not to experience mid tour burn-out. My last tour was 50 shows in 60 nights. As the last few shows came and went, I remember thinking how I wished there were at least ten more. So on this tour, there are ten more. I pace myself on the tour and get plenty of sleep, eat right and never drink the hard stuff. It's a rule I have that helps me not feel bad the next day. In my earlier days, I partied often and hard, but being present for each show now is real important for me because it's important to me that the music is presented with as much energy and magic as I can offer. I don't get lots of "Hey dude, let's party after the show". After two and sometimes three sets of singing and playing, all I'm ready for is another pint and then it's off to the B&B for a good night's sleep.
In my career as a performer, I think probably the most magical and personally rewarding moments are when I know the audience is on the same page with me. And what punctuates that most is when someone comes up after a show and tells me how much a certain song or something I said meant to them. To be in a "foreign" country and have someone request a song always thrills me. That means someone who lives thousands of miles from my house knows my music. Its the symbiotic relationship between the listener and the performer: the invisible thing that happens when music transforms a moment into magic for both the performer and the listener. For me, it happens almost every night at some point during the show. It may last only a moment, or it may begin when I play the first song and last through the final song. Some of the things determining whether that magic happens are the mood of the audience members (collectively and individually) and my mood, the amount of alcohol the audience and I have to drink during the show, whether a place is too hot or too cold (which affects not only the bodies but also instruments and vocal chords). Magic can't just be summoned: it happens when it happens and most often without any sign of it coming. That's why it's called magic.
I'm so grateful to be getting to do this in life. It has expanded my horizons of humanity, history, the musical experience and just basic life in general. I'm always humbled by the fact that I chose to start touring, developed a booking approach, found the courage to tour on my own and, in the process, have met some of the nicest people I've ever known. Robert Earl Keane summed it up so well in a song: "The road goes on forever, and the party never ends".
Article written by Bob Cheevers exclusively for www.triste.co.uk
A listing of Bob Cheevers' 2004 British Tour Dates can be found HERE.