Ottowa

“We’re in a holding pattern right now guys,” said Ricky as he came back to the band room. It was one of those portable office kind of band rooms, about 20 metres from the stage. It had been pouring down outside since we got to soundcheck at Ottowa Bluesfest – the daysheet was a little on the optimistic side with its “40% chance of rain” prediction – preventing us from plugging anything in or even putting anything on the front half of the stage. We had until about 6.00pm at the latest to get our soundcheck sorted out. If that rain kept on going like it was, it was going to be difficult to do the gig. But it wouldn’t be impossible: I remember at least two occasions in the past where we dragged keyboards out of the rain and kept playing.

While we were stuck in the bandroom, the water slowly leaking in through the windows we kept open in in an effort to reheat the incredibly air-conditioned room, we found new ways to kill time. The most exciting was that game where you sit in a circle, name a person, then the next person has to think of a name beginning with the first letter of the surname of the person you just said. The name has to be someone that at least two people in the room have heard of. Go broad: not as many people have heard of Chris Noth as you might think. If the surname and firstname start with the same letter, (or if it’s a one-word name like Madonna or Cher or Leon) play changes directions. It’s quite easy for the game to degenerate into a playoff between two people, bouncing the same letter back and forth between each other. Harry and Ross got into a holding pattern of their own for at least an hour:
“Michael McDonald.”
“Mick Meagher.”
“Mike Murphy.”
“Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy.”
“Medusa.”
“Mary Magdalene.”
“Mr Matey.”
“Michael Moore.”
“Mike Moore.”
“Mike Munro.”
“Michael Madsen.”
“Mr Miyagi.”
“Matthew McConaughey.”
I couldn’t remember them all if I tried. Eventually the rain eased up and we got a soundcheck in. Our gig was at the same time as Arcade Fire. Here’s how many people in Ottowa haven’t heard of Arcade Fire:

Next: two flights to Quebec.

Winnipeg Folk Festival

Winnipeg Folk Festival 2010 was three days of sun, dust, music, giant mosquitoes, gianter dragonflies, and four Cat Empire gigs – sort of. I’ll qualify that later. It was a great weekend, and it’s nice to know we’ve got some more folk festival time coming up in Calgary two weekends from now. Folk festivals are a special breed, a lot like the mosquitoes. There are some things that are commonplace at folk festivals that you just never get to experience anywhere else. For example: I heard the phrase “that guy can whistle like a motherf…” about five times in two days. That just doesn’t happen in real life.

Another mainstay of the folk festival is the seated crowd. It’s not just a handful of bearded diehards parking themselves in front of the main stage, because that can happen at blues and/or roots festivals too. I’m talking about the majority of the crowd being a seated one. A rectangle roughly the width of the stage extends all the way to the sound guy’s tent, completely filled with people on tarps, blankets, and some impressive folding chair/backpack hybrids, with the intention of staying there all day. To the left and right of this rectangle are the rowdy folk festival dancing crowd, whose non-stop freeform freewheeling more than makes up for the inactivity of their seated brethren. On the main stage, the two groups are separated by a fence:

The pirate flags only accentuate their differences. The only way to unite them is to get everybody to stand up. We saw Arrested Development successfully pull off the Folk Crowd Standup Chain Reaction: you only need to get the front row on their feet, and the people behind them will stand up so they can still see, and the people behind them will stand up so they can still see, and so on until everyone is accounted for. But Harry had a different approach: announcing that the Governor wanted us to pass on a health and safety warning about deep-vein thrombosis, and that everybody should get up and stretch their legs right now. Sure enough, everybody got on their feet, and pretty soon we had an all-standing all-dancing crowd in front of us.

The next day we had a workshop: another folk festival oddity. Basically, a number of bands set up on stage, and they collaborate/jam/freakout in front of a captive, seated audience. Harry pointed out that it’s a lot like a musical blind date. The awkward first meeting took place backstage:
“Hey, umm, are you…you’re from Depedro right?”
“Yeah! Are you from the Cat Empire? We’ve got a workshop.”
No white carnations required. We basically took turns playing our songs, and the other band joined in when they could. Putting us on the same stage as Depedro was great: their music really works with horns, and we don’t have any guitars. Also, luckily for me, they don’t have a bass player, and they have written many songs that are quite easy to learn on the spot. If you can teach somebody a song in one sentence, these workshops run pretty smoothly.
“D minor G D minor A; D minor C B flat A.”
Unfortunately, most of our songs are harder to describe than that. The Rhythm:
“C minor, sort of. It goes to A minor in a big way later on.”
Rhyme and Reason was the best one of ours really: once you know the eight-bar form, you know the song.

Next up, Harry’s solo set. Most of us went along to watch and/or heckle and/or yell out “WOO!” whenever he mentioned something to do with Australia. He played in the late afternoon (8.00pm, it’s light until about 10.30 in this part of the world) while the dragonflies droned about and did their job of reducing the mosquito population. Seriously. I heard they were introduced here for that reason. Let’s hope that doesn’t backfire. On of them landed on the collar of the woman sitting in front of us, and Felix noted that it looked like it could have carried her away. It was a seated crowd, but hey, Harry was seated too. A folk crowd makes a lot more sense when it’s in front of a folky gig.

P1000654

You might be starting to see now what I meant when I said we “sort of” had four gigs at the festival. The fourth one was the unannounced (though everyone seemed to know about it anyway) gig we did at the afterparty for all the volunteers. We did the same set three years ago, as you may remember if you’re a diligent tour diary reader.

P1000694

Our set was supposed to finish at 2.00am, and we somehow went forty minutes overtime. Too late, too cold, too much whiskey, no soundcheck, cramped stage. History has shown those sort of conditions usually result in one of our better gigs. We started with Rumbling too. We probably haven’t played that since last time we were at this festival.

One more thing worth mentioning is the incredible glow-in-the-dark things wandering around at night at the festival, including this guy:

P1000661

The mouth moved and the eyes even blinked when he did. Unfortunately, I only had my camera ready as he walked past one of the huge banks of portaloos. Ah, portaloos. Confronting during the day and terrifying at night; at some point over the weekend you know you’re just gonna have to use one. Folk festivals have that much at least in common with every other music festival on the planet.

Next: Ottawa.

Oshkosh

All things considered (including flying around waiting for the storm to clear, and traffic) it took a bit over 30 hours to get here. That coach right at the end, which had enough room for us all to stretch out on an entire row of seats each, was easily the least-lame method of transport. You wouldn’t know it from the outside though:

That stopover in Auckland seemed like the only truly unnecessary bit of our journey, but according to Will we couldn’t have avoided it.
“We should have flown here yesterday. They don’t do direct flights to LA on Wednesdays.”
I have no doubt that all my aviation questions from now on will go directly to Will.
But there were greater errors in our flying arrangements than that. If the first three gigs of this tour hadn’t been cancelled (briefly: the third was cancelled beyond our control, preventing us from being able to afford to do the first two), not only would our journey have been over when we got to Los Angeles, but it wouldn’t have been a Wednesday and we could have bypassed Auckland. It also would have made a lot more sense to do a gig in Oshkosh if we had been in Chicago the night before. Y’see, Oshkosh lies roughly between Chicago and Winnipeg.

(let’s just ignore, for a moment, that we still have to fly back to Chicago to get to Winnipeg)

But the way the dice fell is whichever number translates to us having a gig in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Here we are. Right at, or near, where the Fox River meets Lake Winnebago. It’s quiet. There are pelicans. The houses look like something out of Gran Torino. No fences between houses. That’s when good neighbours become good friends. The lake is named after the vehicle, not the other way around. The coolest thing backstage, by a long shot, was the denim couch:

And here’s the gig.

Kudos to the guys up the front who knew most of the words to most of the new songs. The album’s only been out here since yesterday! How did you memorise them that quickly?

Tomorrow: a day off, and we make our way to Winnipeg Folk Festival. Via Chicago.

Melbourne to Oshkosh

We knew the flight was at 6.00am. That makes for a fairly ugly travel day, no matter what comes next. But every detail we found out about what came next made it even more harrowing:

  • be at the airport at 4.00am
  • that probably means leaving your house at about 3.30am, so you’ll probably be waking up around 3.00am
  • it’s a flight to Los Angeles, which on a normal day is one of the longest flights you can possible do
  • this is not a normal day: there’s a stopover in Auckland
  • Auckland is a bit of a detour, no matter what scale map you draw it on
  • we’re flying on to Milwaukee when we get to LA, which requires clearing customs and immigration, then walking to the other terminal and checking in for the next flight (note: LAX is the worst airport for this sort of thing)
  • when we get to Milwaukee, there’s still one and a half hours in a bus to deal with.

You thought that four hour documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the plane was pretty long? Well you have time to watch that five times today if you feel like it.

Next: the first gig. And thank god, we don’t have to fly or drive anywhere for a whole day.

The Umbrella Story

I don’t have many details at hand about the last few days of the last tour that I never blogged about. Sorry guys. It was a bit of a blur really. A Canadian, wintry one. But there are a few loose ends I should tie up.

1. Remember how we were keeping tally of how late everyone in the band was making everyone else? We stopped over somewhere for a day after Thunder Bay and Felix blew everyone’s personal best out of the water by having his watch set to the wrong time, and running 42 minutes late to the bus call. There were no consequences.
2. We had a 6.00am call to play on a television show in Toronto. I found myself staggering into Tim Horton’s in the middle of the city just prior to 6.00am. It was like Night of the Living Dead in there. The host sang Pony with us briefly during soundcheck. There was a guy sitting in a hot tub outside, as part of some hot tub informercial. He had the best job in the world that morning. Danny played the live-to-air-to-millions-of-people with no shirt on. He swore he’d do that at least once on this tour.
3. The umbrella story. I can’t believe I haven’t told you about this yet.

New York City. Show day. Joe had organised a car to pick everyone up from the hotel and head up to the venue for soundcheck. Danny and I thought we’d be missing out on a lot of walking around in Manhattan if we took the car option, as it meant that whatever adventure we went on, it would have to conclude at the hotel. We figured we could cover more ground if we just met the other guys at the venue: Nokia Theatre in Times Square. It just so happened that there were a lot of places to go and ogle drums and basses a few blocks north of there. Walking there would be a scenic yet time consuming way to go, and on that particular day it was also be a good way to get rained on for two hours. So we figured we’d compromise: walk in the rain until we find a cab or a subway (or a Subway – it was almost lunch time). I still liked the idea of an umbrella. And I still do. It keeps the rain off, doubles as a cane, allows you to point at things more dramatically and accurately than anyone else, and is a formidable weapon against WWII German fighters as long as you can find a flock of seagulls. If you can find a Flock of Seagulls, that’s a different matter, you’re probably in the 80s, but they still make a pretty good makeshift surface-to-air missile. Back to the umbrellas: I’ve been burned too many times by cheap umbrellas in Manhattan, as regular readers of this blog will know, so I figured it was worth asking reception for a loaner.
“Hi Susie,” I decided opened with, as I’d just heard Joe go to great lengths to remember her name to maintain the illusion of familiarity in case he needed a favour later, but her name probably wasn’t Susie so don’t go mentioning the umbrella story to her. I continued, “I was just wondering do you have any umbrellas we can borrow?”
“Well, no, sorry. I will check if we have any in lost and found though.”
With that, she disappeared under the stairs. I figured all hope was lost: who leaves umbrellas behind? The Luftwaffe could be on your arse any second! But then I remembered how many umbrellas I’d lost over the years. Susie came out, and made us promise to bring it back. The odds of her having another shift when we checked out of the hotel were low, but I still agreed. That’s when she handed us an umbrella covered in cats dressed up as kings and queens. A cat empire umbrella, if ever I saw one:

Danny and I got some funny looks walking down the street with that bad boy up in the air. You have to be doing something pretty out there in New York to genuinely shock people, and I think we nailed it with this umbrella. We asked the guy who tried to sell Danny some perfume in the subway.
“I bet you’ve never seen an umbrella like this.”
He thought about it, choosing his words carefully:
“I have, but honestly, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a guy with one.”

Up next: we’re going on tour again. Tomorrow. It’s the other end of the year, though. There’s no way we’ll need an umbrella.

9. Thunder Bay

Thunder Bay. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It might actually be, but again we didn’t get to see much of it. If the place wasn’t called Thunder Bay, I wouldn’t have guessed it was anywhere near a bay. The gig was at Lakehead University (again, that name gives away the town’s proximity to a lake or a bay or some sort of body of water), and that’s pretty much all we saw. With no hotel to stay in that night, and no showers back stage, Joe wrangled us some showers elsewhere at the uni.
“But are they going to be communal showers?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe.”
“I’m not up for that.”
“What, you’ve never played sports before?”
“No. Not really.”
Jazz doesn’t really count as a sport, and if it did, it doesn’t involve everyone having showers in one room after the gig. Sure, I did PE at high school, but there were no showers involved. Eurgh. No wonder the Lynx Africa hung so thickly in the air in the change rooms.
But it had been a while since my last shower, so I figured it was worth at least walking to see what the shower situation was.
I walked past the Hangar (which wasn’t a hangar), to the Field Rooms. Or Field House. Field something, anyway. It was a term that Joe used so casually that I didn’t want to admit I had no idea what he was talking about. Part of his instructions had been, “Just go in and say you’re with the band, and they’ll sort you out.”
Readers, this is where I tell you that the phrase “I’m with the band” only works in some situations. Getting in the front door of gigs without showing any identification? Yes. Getting free or cheap drinks or food at the venue before the gig? Yes. Strolling up to the Field Something for a free shower? Absolutely not.
“Hi. I’m in the band that’s playing tonight.”
“Oh.”
“…and they said we could come over here to use the showers.”
His eyebrows looked genuinely surprised.
“Oh, really?”
He seemed to think that was the end of the conversation, and went back to what he was doing on the computer. I continued to stand there.
“Sorry, what are you needing, now?”
“The showers. Where are they?”
“Oh!”
He said it in a way that led me to think he’d totally forgotten our previous exchange.
“Down the stairs, to the right.”
“And do you have any towels?”
“It’s $1 to hire one. Just put it with the others on the way out.”
I walked over to the door, glad that I was finally on the way to the shower.
I walked down. I walked in. Lockers. Lockers. Toilets. A huge tiled room lined with showerheads. Damn.
It’s not that I have a huge problem with communal showers. It just seems like a bad idea when you’re not really supposed to be there. Shower conversation is almost as unlikely to spring up as urinal conversation, but you can imagine it would get awkward.
“Hey, so how about them Lakeheads?”
“Wh?”
“What’s your major?”
“Wrh?”
“See you at the kegger.”
“Wii?”
So I washed my face at the basin with $1.00 worth of hot water to justify using the towel, and walked back to the venue just in time for Jon and Roy to start.
Next: Toronto.

8. Winnipeg

Cinema 2: The Cat Empire. Now showing. One night only. No free list. Adults at children’s prices. The front few rows have been ripped out, as nobody really wants to sit there anyway, so feel free to treat that as standing room.

Seriously, though: the venue used to be a cinema. Cinemas don’t customarily have backstage areas, so our band room was the projection booth. Yes, the one that’s right up the back, behind all the rows of seats. Not the ideal place for a band room, unless you’re Ozomatli (they usually start their gigs at the back of the room with percussion instruments, and gradually make their way through the crowd to the stage), but it was a great vantage point from which to watch Jon and Roy’s set. And there was a whole wall back there covered in Frankenstein switches. Dangerous, but pretty rad.

From the stage, you could see everyone in the crowd, especially the people in their seats up the back. An old show-biz saying tells us that this means they could also see us. I guess that’s one of the benefits of playing at an old cinema: the room is designed so everybody can see the stage. This is also the first gig we’ve ever done where every seat has a cup holder. I didn’t see much popcorn out there though.

Next: Thunder Bay.

7. Saskatoon

Okay. This is quite easily the best idea I have ever had on tour. Strap yourself in. In the past, we have had house music CDs: a CD of tracks that we put on before and/or after our set. Jumps has put together a few in the past, and we have gotten to know them well. Almost too well. One of them included a song that was ripped from vinyl, and the guy who recorded it (in Windows, as you will see in a minute) recorded everything his computer was doing audio-wise, rather than just the inputs the record player was plugged into. And so after a dozen or so gigs we all knew when the Windows error “blong!” sound was about to come up in the track. Jumps has been wanting to get some of the other guys to put a new CD together for a while, and on this tour that led to the one-song-each idea. We would have room for one song each on a CD, assuming that at least one person would pick a fifteen minute song just to be funny. But CD-Rs get scratched, and not all the venues have a CD player at front-of-house. Ricky said on those occasions, he would have to rip our CD onto his computer and put it onto his iPod. That’s when I had my idea to cut about five middlemen out of that exercise and just buy the cheapest MP3 player Canadian money can buy.

The runner from the venue drove me to a place called FUTURE SHOP. It’s not what you’re picturing, if you were picturing the complete opposite of the 1980s café from Back to the Future II. No, it’s just a Canadian electronics/etc shop. I found an MP3 player for $19.99. There were a few other better or smaller or cooler-looking ones that cost a bit more, but once you seen one for under $20 it’s hard to go back, and it still had 2GB of storage. Not only was there room for each of us to pick at least 100 songs, but if we got really sick of hearing Underneath the Radar (for example) every night, we could just delete it. That would require a whole new CD, back in the olden days. Sure, there’s CD-RW, but has anybody ever got one of those to successfully rewrite, let alone actually play in a pre-2000 CD player? It’s not worth it. The only downside to our $20 player is that it doesn’t recharge: it takes one AAA battery. That seems pretty wasteful, to have to keep throwing out batteries, but the battery life has been pretty good, and we only need to use it for about 60 minutes maximum per night. It also boasted a “color screen”, but it’s not color in the way you might be expecting. It still only does black text, but you can choose from one of five backlight colours by navigating through a cumbersome menu with the play, stop and skip buttons. But that’s okay. All we’re going to do is put this thing on shuffle every night.

So we loaded it up for the Saskatoon gig. Everybody put on a track. Except Felix, we’re still waiting on his. He’s still finding it hard to pick just ONE Billy Idol song. Here’s what we came up with:
- The KLF – Stand by the Jams
- The Faces – Stay With Me
- Can – Vitamin C
- Love – My Flash on You
- Shuggie Otis – XL-30
- Black Sabbath – War Pigs
- Easy Star All Stars – Time
I would be VERY impressed if anybody could guess who picked which song. Even if you knew us all really well, you probably wouldn’t get it right. Dave (Reyna – monitors engineer for this run) also put Straight Outta Compton on there, and the shuffle gods decided to elect him to be the lucky First Track Played Guy for that night. We just hoped nobody out there was going to be too offended by that. But hey, it’s a college gig. I’m sure these kids have heard NWA before. And it went down pretty well. People started cheering when War Pigs started. It’s fun for us too: as it’s on shuffle, and there’s slightly too many songs to be able to hear them all before our set starts, it’s up to the shuffle gods to decree whether your song gets played. Kieran wanted to hear his own song more than anybody else, and the shuffle gods did not look kindly on that for some reason, and so we went on stage without hearing Stay With Me. Okay, I’ll give away just that one: Kieran picked Stay With Me. But that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s hung out with him recently. You can’t have a five minute conversation with Kieran without him mentioning The Faces.

Next: Winnipeg.

6. Calgary

The day sheet is a sheet of A4 paper that gets delivered to every bunk on the bus, and pinned to the notice board in both the front room and the back room on the bus every single day. On the day sheet you will find the answer to any question you can think to ask a tour manager:
- What day is it?
- What date is it?
- Where are we?
- What’s the venue called?
- Where is it?
- How cold is it out there?
- What’s the time difference between here and Melbourne?
- What time do we need to be on the bus?
- What time can we get into the venue?
- What time does the band need to be in the venue?
- What time is soundcheck?
- What time do doors open?
- Who’s the support act?
- What time do they start?
- How long do they play for?
- How long is changeover between them and us?
- What time do we go on?
- How long can we play for?
- What time should we finish?
- What time do we HAVE TO finish by?
- Is the bus leaving tonight?
- Well, what time in the morning is it leaving?
- Is there any press?
- Who has to do the press?
- What time do they need to meet to do press?
- How long will the press take?
- Who is the interview with?
- Is there a hotel?
- Where is it?
- What room am I in?
- How many rooms do we have?
- Are there showers at the venue?
- What time do we need to check out of the hotel?
- What are we doing tomorrow?
- What are we doing the day after tomorrow?
- What are we doing the day after the day after tomorrow?
- What are we doing the day after the day after the day after tomorrow?
- When is our next day off?
- What is the name of our band again?
As I’ve pointed out already, all of this information is handily provided on the tour sheet, and there are more sheets printed off than you would believe, yet still it is inevitable that Joe will be asked twenty out of the above thirty-nine questions every single day. Yes, it’s the hardest job in the world.

Calgary. According to the locals, it rhymes with “tell harry”, rather than “balcony” or “Cadbury”. Again, not much to report here other than the gig. At the best of times, I’m pretty bad at getting away from the bus and the venue and doing some exploring. But the cold weather makes it seem even less appetising. We played at McEwan Hall, at the University of Alberta. I pointed out that it was kind of like waking up in a bus in the middle of Monash Clayton — a joke lost on everyone who isn’t from Melbourne. But it was a lot easier to find something to eat than it would be at Monash on a Saturday afternoon. We also found a pub upstairs with a Buck Hunter machine. That’s an easy way for two dudes to kill a hundred bucks (geddit?) and four hours.

Next: the three-hour drive Saskatoon somehow justifies another day off. Shirt off.

5. Edmonton

Day off. Shirt off.

The initial plan was to leave Whistler at about 3.00pm, poutine in tow, stop at Jasper overnight, then drive the rest of the way to Edmonton the next morning. But the snow had other ideas. With snow covering the road and falling mighty heavily as we drove through the mountains, we were limited to chugging along at 20mph. That’s 32km/h for you sane metric folk, though Google insists it’s abbreviated to “kph”. It makes more sense, but hey, I’ve lived my whole life with that backslash, it’s hard to switch to kph now. So it took us six hours to get to Cache Creek, a journey that (again, according to Google) should take about three hours. We tried to go to a The Keg for dinner, but they had a private function, or the kitchen was closed, or something. Joe stayed there talking to the manager for a long time, and we kept our distance, imagining his conversation:
“Seriously, if you drive to Edmonton tomorrow, I can put you guys on the door.”
So we left Cache Creek empty-stomached, and crawled on for about another hour to Kamloops. The bus pulled over where it often pulls over in small-ish towns: in a carpark on the highway just out of town, pretty close to the line where the malls dissolve into the wilderness. Faced with an A&W, a Starbucks and a Red Robin, we sprinted across the highway (I’m still looking the wrong way when I cross the road…gotta work on that) to Red Robin. Ricky (Martocci, front-of-house engineer for this run) insists that Maroon 5 used to talk about Red Robin 24/7 but could never find one.

I could talk about what we ate, who took their shirt off, etc, but the point of all this is that we wound up driving straight through to Edmonton without stopping overnight. That’s not hard for us. We just watch Lethal Weapon, fall asleep, then wake up at the venue. But for Brad (bus driver on this run), it meant driving for eighteen and a half hours. Respect.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t see much of Edmonton. Slightly more than I did last time, but I did see the bit between the bus and the venue in slightly more detail. There was substantially less girls fighting outside the bus afterwards. Maybe all the Bryan Adams we were listening to had a calming effect.

Next: Calgary.