Stomp and Stammer - May 2004
An Unauthorized Report from the David Bowie Tour or, It May Cost Me Some Work In The Future, Flapping My Gums Like This!
By Curt Wells
I got the call from Seth Loeser, a longtime touring associate, that The Polyphonic Spree needed a monitor man slash gear tech for their upcoming tour. The Spree is a 26-piece rock ensemble from Dallas - monitors for a group like that could prove to be interesting gig. "Did I mention that we are opening for David Bowie for five weeks across the US and Canada?" Sold. I'll put up with a cramped tour bus for the chance to catch twenty something Bowie shows!
I had previously met a few PS members last year when they played the Coachella Music Festival - Seth and I were there working for The Mooney Suzuki. The Spree were fantastic. Long story short, Seth finished up touring commitments with The Mooney Suzuki and The Raveonettes and moved to Texas to start a relationship with Audrey, the Polyphonic flautist. I guess their last gear tech/ monitor guy just didn't deal well with the life of having 29 other people in you lap whichever way you turned.
Well, I'm glad I took the job. The Polyphonic Spree have been an exciting band to work with; the music is a rollicking, unholy fusion of Beatles, Supertramp and ELO, stirred up with an infectious sunny disposition. The bus rides are half sleepover, and half spring break movie, with a pinch of mosh pit. I haven't gotten tired of smiling yet. And Mr. Bowie's people have sure put out the red carpet for us - the crew is helpful, the gear is killer, the catering rocks, and schedules are dependable. Awesome. All of this, and a Bowie concert for dessert!
A lot of the shows are being held in basketball stadiums or hockey arenas, which means each day begins before noon - the staging is loaded off of one of the six or eight semis transporting the gear around North America, quickly constructed and followed by the lighting rigs, video wall, and sound system. The whole deal is orchestrated by Stage Manager Toby, a substantial Brit whose accent places him London-ish according to these ears. He's firm, but supportive. Any move I wanna make that deviates from the agreed-to tasks must be run by him first, and that's a good thing. He often can suggest a better way, having vast experience in what works and what doesn't. He also can keep my mistakes from screwing up the flow.
The Front of House (FOH) and Monitor Mixers are both state of the art Yamaha PM1D digital consoles. They really sound great, and ALL of your settings are saved each night and restored the next day. If you can imagine how much time this saves me, you'll understand why this former analog snob is cheering digital gear these days. The Polyphonic Spree utilize thirty-plus microphones through a matrix of ten monitor channels. On a conventional analog board that'd be 350-400 knobs and faders that I'd have to keep track of! Bowie's FOH and Monitor team, Peter and Mike, use even more, saving tweaks unique to particular songs and changing them on the fly - impossible the old-school way. It was a adrenaline rush, having to learn a new mixer format on the fly during Day One of the biggest tour on my life, but Bob, the Firehouse System Tech was there by my side with encouragement and lessons as needed, and after downloading the 26 MB users' manual for bedtime reading, I've got a handle on the basics.
This far into the article and I haven't mentioned the big man himself, David Bowie. Can a 57-year-old man still cut it in the young man's game of live rock 'n' roll? Well, this much is certain: he sure don't look like he's in his late fifties. When he's walking around backstage or soundchecking with his band, he's bright-eyed and youthful. He encouraged The Polyphonic Spree to join him for a two-band version of "Slip Away" during the encores. His band chats with our band during dinner. He sneaks into the audience; head tightly covered and obscured by a baseball cap, and watches the Spree's opening sets, and then joshes about them during his set. Overall, there's a healthy mix of onstage joking and actual work. The man is secure in his talents and confident in his show - and why shouldn't he be? His catalog is approaching 40 years' worth of hits and ambitious soundscapes, with a batting average that makes the cat look like the Ted Williams of Rock.
As to rumors that Mr. Bowie demands that eye contact be avoided, you can relax - he's not that much of a dick. We were asked to refrain from being freaks, which is a reasonable request. C'mon, put yourself in the guy's shoes: can you imagine how often he has to act gracious every time some bonehead goes Fanboy on the poor bastard? Imagine if you had a worker on a five-week tour that was always popping up and being chatty. It would make every day creepy and uncomfortable. The concept is to be "professional," not "beaten into submission." I adhered to the guideline, as I was there on the tour to work. This importance of this article is not on the same level as my real job, so my journalistic side can put a sock in it for a few weeks. Backstage guests of Bowie were to be left alone, too. Again, what am I gonna say to Marilyn Manson or John Cleese except for the brilliant, "Dude, I really like your work." Cue "gracious reply," fading into "fired roadie."
The band is everything you'd expect behind a superstar; talented, stable, and ready to turn on a dime. There are lots of grins just barely below the surface "cool" demeanor, and they really enjoy being up there. Drummer Sterling Campbell is a machine, and is always popping by the dressing room to kid around with Polyphonic drummer Bryan Wakeland. Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey is almost worth the ticket price alone. Wait'll you hear her doing Freddie Mercury's parts during "Under Pressure." Pianist Mike Garson sits expressionless and calm, even during the frenzied jazz piano leads of "Ashes to Ashes." Multi-instrumentalist Kat Russell has a wide, beautiful smile that she is constantly flashing everywhere, and really kicks up a storm in her zone, playing keys, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, and singing harmony parts. Guitarists Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard, both longtime Bowie sidemen, have got all the sounds down pat. The typical set closer, "Heroes" gets a three-guitar treatment from Slick, Leonard, and Russell that is just great - thick and eerie and just dripping out of the PA system.
His two hour show pulls a lot of great songs from the back catalog (a brief recollection of rehearsals yields: "Quicksand," too many cuts from Ziggy Stardust to list, "Station to Station," "Panic in Detroit," "The Superman," "Always Crashing in the Same Car," among others), and when he breaks into stuff from his latest album, Reality, or even from his other recent efforts, the crowd buzzes happily. While most artists (if they are even performing) ten years into their career elicit groans when they announce, "Here's something from our new album!" Bowie has trained his listeners that they will be rewarded for sticking it out with him. And I do mean "with him" - his set is filled with asides and stories between songs. The other night in Kelowna, BC, somehow a comment from someone in the audience ended with Bowie and Garson breaking into a medley of Broadway standards without seeming like an inside joke or a strange non sequitor. He surprised his guitar techs one night by having the band start "China Girl" a second time and then singing it in Chinese.
But it is a rock concert you're at - remember the video wall I mentioned? It's a setup behind the band (bigger venues get an additional wall in front, too), displaying images from the onstage cameras that have been carefully choreographed with the light show in an effort to make the spectacle of six musicians and a singer larger than life. And it works - I've seen parts of his show a dozen times before starting this article, and every night I see something new that impresses me. A great entertainer, supported by great musicians, all supported by great gear maintained by a great staff. Working this tour has given me a refreshed perspective on the Big Rock Show, a sentiment I haven't embraced since I was a teenager.
I haven't been able to see a single complete show yet, and I probably won't until I see the Atlanta show. The Polyphonic Spree backline (the industry term for the band's performance equipment - guitars and amps, drums, keyboards, etc) has to be loaded on the Bowie backline truck and secured down before Bowie finishes his set, and occasionally we have to jump weird hurdles because of various location-based concerns - for example, some nights the venue's loading area is too close to the performance location and all noise must cease during the set. That means that the four-man PS support staff (me, Seth, Dave and Andy) has to get everything packed and on the truck before DB gets in the area to start the show. One night, Seattle, there was only an unlit patch of backstage for us to move our backline to post-set. Truck loading had to wait until the Bowie set was finished, and had to be completed in under fifteen minutes. That load was a furious scurry, accomplished only because Toby ordered a few Teamsters to lift and pack our gear while I directed - Teamsters know how to "lift" and "pack" like nobody's business. Made the PS crew look like sissies. Hey, these hands are better suited for making gnocchi than humping a Fender Twin Reverb in a Calzone case to the top of an eight-foot stack!
As of this writing, the Canadian portion is complete, and we wrap up the West Coast tomorrow night in Anaheim. The next handful of shows propels us across the southwestern US and ends in New Orleans a few days before Bowie makes it to Chastain - by which time Stereophonics will have taken over as his opening act. But here's the good news: Mr. Bowie enjoys The Polyphonic Spree so much that he asked us to re-join his tour for a week in June in the New York City area! And dig this: The Firehouse Systems techs have assured me that all of my settings will still be saved on the PM1D - I'll be able to pick up right where I left off. Sweet.
A reliable fixture behind the Star Bar soundboard for many years, Curt Wells has toured as soundman and roadie for Man or Astro-Man?, Southern Culture on the Skids, Poster Children and The Mooney Suzuki, among other acts. If you see him in the audience at David Bowie's May 8th show at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, be sure ask him about his gnocchi recipe.
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