Archive for November, 2020

The Load-Out

Sunday, November 15th, 2020

In early October, probably for the tenth time since it came out, I listened to the Jackson Browne album Running on Empty. It’s an incredible “road” album from start to finish. The last two songs have been stuck in my head ever since.

As a very amateur musician, I don’t really have the chops to play on the road. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have many road-related opportunities. And, in the process, I discovered my favorite part of gigging.

Electronic Organ
Thomas-by-Heathkit Organ

My first “roadie” job happened when I was in my early teens. I had built a small electronic organ from a kit, and a few of us neighborhood guys had formed a band and learned some songs. We somehow talked the youth minister at our church into letting us play after the Sunday night service, at “Fellowship.” So my Dad helped me load the organ into the truck, and take it to the church. Unfortunately, the preacher’s wife had a different opinion, and stopped the jam before it got started.

The next summer, our youth choir traveled to a couple of “old folks’ homes” to sing for them. We carried a two-channel, tube amplifier which was originally intended for permanent mounting, a couple of speakers, and two microphones. Yep, I was the guy who knew how to hook it all up.

Over the next few years, I learned to play guitar, mostly from my cousin Jimmy, then I picked up the bass, both of which required amplification, so I hauled amps, guitar cords, and power cables, just so I could play. These rather humble beginnings gave me the opportunity to learn some practical lessons about sound equipment, such as how to avoid feedback, what to plug in last to avoid loud noises, and how to troubleshoot.

Over the years, mostly thanks to church youth choir trips, I became acquainted with more complicated sound amplification systems. For me, these youth choir trips were miniature versions of the tours arranged for “real” musicians like Jackson Browne. For two weeks every summer, we piled into a couple of Greyhound-like buses, and drove across the country, performing almost every night. We carried sound gear and instruments in the luggage bins.

One Tree Hill original
One Tree Hill original quartet

Then came Patrick. Patrick was a paraplegic who wrote songs about his personal lessons learned, and performed them as a ministry. Occasionally he played a gig large enough that he needed someone to run sound for him, so he recruited me. His solo gig grew into a quartet (shown above) in which I played bass. He named the quartet One Tree Hill (well before the television show of the same name, which we were proud to out-live).

Band on a small stage
One Tree Hill at Starbucks

Eventually One Tree Hill grew into a full band. Over nearly 20 years, with a varied cast of band members, we recorded a handful of CDs with Patrick’s original songs, and played a lot of gigs. One busy year we played 75 gigs. Some of our gigs were for less than a dozen people, where we played without sound equipment, or just a small system.

Brian, Patrick, Carl on stage
Brian, Patrick, Carl on stage at The Potter’s House

But our favorite locations were larger drug rehab facilities, where they thought we were famous, and we played an hour-long set for a hundred people (usually men) ready to hear encouraging words and rocking music.

Here’s how a typical gig would go. Patrick and I would meet at the church where we stored our equipment. I would roll the gear out and load it into our trailer which was hooked to his van equipped with hand controls. We had a couple of sub-woofers, two tall Mackie 3-way powered speakers, five floor monitors, three racks of amps, effects, and equalization, two guitars, my bass, GK bass amp rack, and 4×10 bass cabinet, several crates of speaker, patch, and power cables, a case of microphones and XLR cables, and a heavy canvas duffel bag full of mike stands. It took about 30 minutes to load the trailer, three trips each with a carefully-packed “Rock-and-Roller” cart.

One Tree Hill at Eddie's Attic
One Tree Hill at Eddie’s Attic

Patrick would drive to the gig, park somewhere near the auditorium entrance, and I would start rolling gear from the trailer to the stage. P would balance his guitars on his lap and roll himself on in. Usually we had to get someone to help me lift him onto the stage. (When we played at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, we pulled him up 13 narrow steps, but fortunately they had a great house sound system.)

Once Patrick was on stage, he would set up mike stands, mikes, cables, and his guitars while I set up the main and monitor speakers, and set up the sound board on a stack of equipment racks. Then I ran power cables and speaker cables, while Patrick plugged in the mike and instrument cables.

Most of the time I did a full-house equalization of the sound system, checking for frequencies in the room that were particularly hot, or dead, and adjusting the third-octave main equalizer to flatten out the response. This generally made the rest of sound check go much smoother.

About this time Brian would show up and set up his acoustic and electric guitar rig, and our drummer/percussionist (whichever and whoever we had at the time) would show up and set up his gear.

Sound check outdoor gig
Sound check for outdoor gig

By the time I finished setting up my basses (electric and upright) the female singer (when we had one) would show up and we would start sound check. Since I ran the board from stage during the show, sound check was pretty critical. I would walk back and forth from behind the board to the audience area, trying to get a good balance and a good level, having to make some assumptions about how the system would sound when the room was full of people.

Full Stage Set-up One Tree Hill
Full stage outdoor set-up

My floor monitor signal source was set to “post-fader”, so it would reproduce the channel mix as it was sent to the house speakers. That way I could tweak the balance between voices and instruments while I played from the stage. With less-professional performers, that set-up could have been challenging, but the quality of our musicians made that job really easy. Brian mixed himself seamlessly between rhythm and lead parts, Patrick played and sang very consistently, and all of the percussionists and female singers we played with had good ears, and could balance themselves well.

When the gig was over, it was time to reverse the whole process. All the cables had to be carefully wrapped and stowed so the next set-up would be snag-free. I always packed up my instruments and amps first so I didn’t have to worry about them being damaged.

We sometimes got offers to help from the audience, and we learned to ask them to give us a few minutes to wrap and crate, then they could help us move gear out to the trailer, where I supervised loading like a Tetris Master.

Finally, we drove back to the church and unloaded the trailer. A full gig somewhere in the Atlanta area would take five to six hours from meeting Patrick to load the equipment to finishing unloading at the end. Midway in the band’s active period, Patrick moved to a location where we could leave most of the live sound gear locked in the trailer between gigs. We still had to move instruments and studio gear back and forth, but that saved a few hours a gig.

In the middle of the One Tree Hill era, the church we were attending started a “contemporary” worship service which, like most of them, met in the Family Life Center gymnasium. The sound system had to be set up early on Sunday morning, and taken down after the service. There was a tricky bit related to the portable stage, which was set up by church workers, and the way we were using the pieces made them uncomfortably wobbly. I figured out a way to stabilize them which involved straps and “come-alongs,” with some assembly required.

Cable-puller aka coma-along

The assembly and audio set-up was sufficiently complex that I wanted to do it myself, and did so every Sunday for an entire year. Eventually I needed to hand it off (to another engineer, naturally) so I wrote and drew a 4-page document with all of the steps required to safely and effectively assemble the set-up.

As One Tree Hill wound down, I found other places to play and people to play with. But the nature of “picking” for an audience as an amateur means having to schlep gear — instruments always, amps sometimes, sound systems less often.

Bitsyland playing a market and a party
Bitsyland playing a market and a party

I really enjoy playing, and seeing and hearing an audience’s response. But more than that, I enjoy the pleasure of making good music, with or without an audience. My family members, including Cousin Jimmy and our musical friends, often schedule a pickin’ where we just play for and with each other. We’ve been known to play for hours, until our fingers get sore.

But for some bizarre reason, probably related to some faulty wiring deep in my psyche, my very favorite thing to do is to pack up and load out. Maybe it’s the feeling of completing a task. Maybe it is the sense of relief from the pressure I feel to play my parts correctly.

The Jackson Browne album Running on Empty was recorded in 1977. I find it to be a fun execution of a clever concept. Most of the tunes were recorded live during one of the tour concerts. A few of them were recorded on the Silver Eagle tour bus as it rolled to the next gig, or in a hotel room. (In the background of some songs you can hear the sound of big rigs as they pass the tour bus during the recording.) One of the songs starts with the bus version of the recording and segues into the live version.

Having never been on a road tour like that, I can’t say for sure, but the album feels realistic. Jackson Browne is a powerful songwriter, and there are a couple of really good love songs mixed in with the theme tunes. There are a few songs with subject matter that is awkward for me, but, again, I feel like it reflects the reality of that sort of life on the road.

But I really resonate with the last two songs, because they are about packing up and loading out, about enjoying playing, about roadies and equipment, and the sound of an empty auditorium after the crowd has gone home. And about going to the next city to do it all again.

As my body has logged more and more mileage, and birthdays feel like they are flying by, I’m glad I can still find a place to pick, the energy to schlep gear, and the joy of packing it all up when the gig is over.

The shenanigans described here would not have been possible without kind and benevolent support over the years from my co-workers, my bosses, my family, and most of all, my Infinitely Patient Spouse. I am grateful.

Interested readers can find a crude summary of my musical history here.

You may also find some historical remnants and versions of One Tree Hill’s web page here.

There is also a gallery of miscellaneous photos I assembled in 2020 using photos provided by Brian and Patrick. In addition, Brian has posted some One Tree Hill videos on his YouTube channel.

Somewhere I have some of my own photos, and the 4-page chart I made for the worship service set-up, but I’ve decided to publish this without waiting any longer to find them. Watch this space for updates 🙂