The week between ACL we traveled to Tulsa, OK, and Lincoln, NE. We had two days off in Tulsa, right in downtown – let’s say it leaves a bit to be desired and with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees walking around was out. I did make a trip to the Greenwood Historic District, which was once known as the Black Wall Street.
It was the wealthiest black community in the United States and was burned to the ground in the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It left over 10,000 blacks homeless and over 300 dead. Our hotel was next to the court house where the riots initially started.
The two shows, while high on energy from the band where also low stress – it is just the nature of shows in the b and c markets. Often times these shows are more intimate – everyone can focus on doing a great show without external distractions. We then headed back to Austin for another day and ½ off. I got to see the legendary Soul Stirrers at Stubb’s Gospel Brunch with a great friend and brunch was yummy. I then was able to spend a few hours with two of our SG members Aubrey Caudill and Simone Phoenix. They were both fantastic and I hope they are staying in touch – Aubrey had so much advice and tips for Simone it was awesome.
So it was a low key week leading back into ACL, but I had this looming over me – The sound was awesome the week before, with at least two band members raving about it. Anyone that is a monitor engineer knows that game. It was the set up to potential failure. It is pretty hard to live up to a great sounding show and the reality was I had little to do with crafting a great sounding mix. The reality was we were outside on a good sounding stage, the PA was flown correctly and did not interfere with the stage sound, the weather was good, and the band had an awesome show.
I am always disheartened when we the band says it sounded so good last night and I know I had very little to do with it. So much of what determines if the show sounded good or bad is based on things not in my control. Room acoustics, pre-conceived biases, past experiences, and psychological and emotional factors. Let alone not ever knowing what your mix really sounds like (due to the fact I will never be onstage during a show).
Part of what made ACL a great sounding show was the poor sounding arenas we had just played. Would the poor sounding arenas have been an issue if we had not played ACL? Probably not, as we all would have just adjusted to arena sound. This tour we had an immediate comparison between arenas and outside. We have before, but the focus has shifted. In this case the band preferred the sound outside, but it could have easily been the reverse if the first week of ACL had sounded terrible. Onstage and in monitor world, not everything we do is based on facts or grounded in reality.
There was a time when the band preferred playing arenas, they were comfortable. The outdoors shows had so many elements that were out of our control and then throw in the less than desirable sounding sheds and we were happy to get back inside. Then there was that Arena/Theater tour we did – it is impossible to get a theater to sound like an arena – I know I tried hard to do it.
Let’s add another factor into our arena shows, we play 360 in arenas and have since 93-94. So now we have band surrounded by sound and we have a large amount of PA behind and to the side of the band. Now it has been this way for the past twenty or so years and at some point just became normal. In the past year we have played some b and c markets and only sold 270, a few of these were back to back. We now had a back drop and a lot less PA generating energy. We achieved awesome sound and now playing 360 is a bummer (which it is and always has been). But can it simply be chalked up to not playing 360, or not playing a crappy sounding building, or being outside?
There are a few factors going on:
Experience: Both the band and the crew have a lot more experience than we did in 1993 or even 2000. We are able to produce a better than most rock show in almost any environment. This can become the common denominator.
Bad shows no longer = Festivals
Good Shows no longer = Arenas
With that experience also comes age and let’s face it the older we get the more loud becomes irritating. Yes it is necessary in producing a better than average rock show – but it is not desirable at sound check or rehearsal. It is hard to escape loud sound in arenas. Additional energy being generated for additional revenue may no longer be desirable.
Then there is bias. Bias is a strong pre-conceived opinion about something or someone. In this case a something. The band likes playing arenas and we really like playing old arenas vs new arenas. In my opinion the older arenas sound better, some incorporated natural materials (I believe the old Forum made use of wood), most were smaller and did not have luxury box suites (arena with a lot of glass). They did not have seats past nose bleed (United Center) and none of them were designed to concentrate and direct audience energy and volume onto the floor (to pump up the players). Some of our favorite arenas to play were the old Los Angeles Forum, MSG, and The Spectrum (RIP).
These biases were built up over time and reinforced by experiences. I can’t say what experiences or shows led to these biases, I just know they existed. Much like we don’t like playing on concrete, marley, or an entirely carpeted stage. All of them at one time had valid reasons. The progression of our biases over the last twenty three years has gone from preferring to play arenas vs outside, playing old arenas vs. new arenas, and now playing 270 vs 360 to possibly preferring to playing outside.
It got me wondering about changing these biases, I currently don’t have an answer and often you may not even realize they have been formed. You might not even be aware they exist, if you only work with a band for a few tours, you may never encounter them. They can be formed by simply having a less than stellar show and soon no one wants to go back a certain venue. Bias can also provide you a false sense of security, such as having a great sounding show the last time you were at a venue and expecting to have another one. And that’s what I faced coming back into ACL.
I don’t know if the band had the same apprehensions or concerns coming back to ACL as I did and it did seem that only certain departments shared my concerns. Other departments were just doing another festival and did not have to work under “It sounded great last week, what the fuck happened this week”? So we loaded in, set up, line checked, pushed back, and waited. Normal festival day.
I did load my show file from the week before, I was kinda amazed that no one on the monitor crew even inquired if I was using the show from last week, they are usually very insightful. I did not make changes, it sounded fine at line check and where was I going to go? In the end the weather held and the band bumped it up another level. And we were off to Memphis.
I won’t be as apprehensive about playing the same festival twice next time, but will keep notes on the elements I cannot control and use my show file, as long as the show was great.
We ended our tour at Bridge School – which is an entirely different beast – but you will have to wait until next month. And I will keep pondering bias.