Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rock and Roll In War Torn Croatia

Wanda Chrome Tour
This is part of my 1999 Wanda Chrome Tour Diary.  We played rock and roll shows in Croatia and Slovenia that year.  As we worked our way south and east into Croatia, we were exposed to towns and villages that were still pretty beat up from the war that had "ended" just a couple years prior. This is part of one of three.

Our show for the night was in an abandoned Yugoslavian army base, in a small village on the Croatian - Bosnian border.  Many buildings in the nearby villages were heavily pocked with small arms fire, while others had been blown to their foundations by indiscriminate shelling.  The destruction was nothing new to us, as this was show number nine on the Balkan leg of our musical tour.
As we pulled off the gravel road leading to a few squat, nearly windowless barracks, our headlights shone on a dozen men dressed in fatigues and huddled close to a fire.   The men were drinking moonshine, visibly drunk, not looking friendly.  We got out of the van and approached the circle of men to offer up handshakes. They were frying chicken parts over that fire.  The meat was bubbling in cooking oil, in a shallow metal garbage can lid that was upturned like a bowl.  One of the men pulled away from the fire with two fistfuls of meat. He introduced himself as Nico, the head of our security detail.  Nico handed us meat to share amongst ourselves, as this was our dinner for the night.
We were encouraged to huddle close to the fire and drink their moonshine.  It was close to freezing that night and the sky was spitting droplets of ice that stung on our faces and exposed hands. Passing the bottle without drinking from it caused a few of the men to laugh at me and make comments in Serbo-Croatian.  I never drink alcohol before a show, but that explanation was certainly not going to work with these drunken men.  Each time the bottle came my way I falsely tried to explain that I have an ulcer and cannot drink.  They would laugh and shove the bottle back against my chest and say “You DRINK”!  I put the bottle to my lips and pretended to drink.
The grease covered meat in my hand was half-cooked.  I certainly couldn’t disrespect these men and refuse my dinner, so I pretended to eat a few bites and then tossed the meat into the surrounding darkness at a moment of distraction.  By the time we were shown the stage area, Eric our driver was trying his best to stay upright.   Croatian moonshine and half-cooked chicken warmed him up nicely.       
The stage was set up in the camp cafeteria and resembled other squat clubs we’d played in; with dim lighting and filthy couches placed along graffiti covered walls.  We were warned not to sit on the couches until someone rousted the rats out from the cushions.

US Rock Band Attracts Cops And Drug Sniffing Dogs

Nico recommended that we stay close to the camp, and perhaps even stay in the dressing room until the local police walked through with their drug-sniffing dogs.  The police had not arrived yet, but we were told that they were sure to come by because we were an American band.  
The music hall was once the camp cafeteria, and the dressing room was the butchering area of the kitchen.  The floors and walls were covered in ceramic tile, making the room seem colder than it already was. A tiny, free standing heater in the corner of the room was tring its best to chase away the chill.  Eric sat on it for a second, not knowing that it was hot enough to burn. He was too drunk to notice at first, but jumped up and howeled as his jeans nearly caught fire.

We were given two loaves of bread and a case of beer to drink.  I passed on the bread since it had dried up and hardened, as if it had been placed on the grimy table hours prior to our arrival.  There was no running water or restrooms in the place, and our bass player had to be driven to a nearby bakery that had agreed to open up just so she could relieve herself.  For the rest of the night, she would have to head out into the nearby brush.   As the evening progressed, two local bands had managed to warm up the building and the crowd that gathered.       
Meanwhile, our little dressing room had become crowded with security guards, a local television crew, a burned out Croatian rock singer, and half a dozen other rock and roll fans that were very eager to party with everyone else.  For a brief moment, I felt invisible to the circus that danced and shone all around me.  I began to feel at home with all these people and their drunken smiles.  I mentioned to my new friend standing next to me that this place was a bit chaotic.  He replied, “You are in the heart of anarchy right now, anything goes”.
Finally, it was our turn to play.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Preparing For The Show | How A Drum Riser Can Ruin Everything

Paul New
I thought that I had prepared well for my first show in two years. Our band had rehearsed quite a bit in the two weeks leading up to the show. I felt confident that we would cover the material well. What I didn't account for was how others in the band would handle their pre and post show hours. After all, you can only worry about yourself. What others do in those long hours before and after a show are really not your concern, as long as they play well, and help out.
 The club owner was nice enough. As far as staging the equipment, there was lots of room. That makes it enjoyable. If you have a place to set up and leave your gear, it's so much better all around. The PA sounded good, as I watched both bands play before we went on. I took note of how they sounded, and what to expect from the sound engineer. If the opening bands complain on stage about the monitors or feedback, then you might want to be prepared to expect the same problems too. Then again, the sound man might need the first two bands to get through before he can actually dial in a good sound. This was not the case. The bands were having a great time on stage, and you could tell that the engineer knew what he was doing.
 My drum set can present problems for sound guys. Since I am an open handed drummer, my cymbals are not where you would expect them to be. I also like to have my crash cymbals close to the top of the rack toms. When I scoped out how the sound guy had set up his microphones for the first two bands, I knew that he would have to try something else for me. When it came time to set up my kit, he had no problems. That was until he saw my wood hooped snare drum. He hoped to clamp his microphone to the drum rim, but you can't clamp a microphone to a wood hoop. Luckily, he had a spare upright snare stand. We dialed in the
drum sound, guitar, and Bass in just under 15 minutes.

Watch Out For The Shifting Drum Riser

 The only problems cropped up while I was playing. My drum set was shifting all over the riser. The riser seemed solid to me, and I had inspected it before the first band set up their gear. It didn't wobble, and was just big enough for me to fit all my drums up in the way that's easy for me. What I didn't realize was that the vibration from playing my bass drum would send my cymbal stands buzzing around like that vintage electronic football machine. The longer into the night, the more those stands (and cymbals) were shifting forward and to the right. I started to think about how I would approach the one song in the set that would be problematic with the way that my gear was shifting. I compensated by "hunkering down." I tried to keep my arms in tight, and used my wrists. It paid off, because I don't remember having any issues during that song. 

The set was short to begin with, and it felt like it went by in minutes. That was something that I forgot about. Time speeds up. There was one final thing that I did forget about. I forgot that most club owners will not pay you until the end of the night. That means you should expect to be hanging around until the bar closes, or something close to that time. All in all, it felt good to be back behind the drums.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Florence + The Machine with Lykke Li | The "Flo Formula" Needs Work

Florence and the Machine
While channel surfing, I happened upon the Austin City Limits episode that featured Florence + The Machine and Lykke Li. I tried my best to understand Florence when she came to Summerfest Milwaukee, but failed to see why she had amassed such a following. Perhaps it’s me? I decided to give “Flo” another chance, and forced myself to sit and watch the entire live performance. I also thought it might be worth my while to see what Li sounds like. Sadly, I have to say that Florence has yet to go beyond what I would call her “One Trick Pony” status. As for Li, I was pleasantly surprised.

Lykke Li mixes the old with the new. She is the “new,” and some classic, time tested musical roots are the “old” goodies that can be found in her refreshing music. With songs like Sadness Is a Blessing, and Get Some, Li gives a nod to what I would call classic beats and melodies. The opening drum and piano line to Sadness Is A Blessing has been used for over sixty years, most notably in the song Leader Of The Pack by the Shangri-Las. If you think about it, Li has the reverb on her vocals turned up to “10” just like the Shangri Las! Get Some opens with a drum beat that could easily be the start to Bo Diddley. It’s not quite a note for note lifting of the beat, but I’m just pointing out that there are classic rock and roll roots in the new music of Lykke Li. As for something truly fresh, check out her I’m Good, I’m Gone video. It’s a great mix of stop action, creepy looking body builders, and catchy hooks.

Sadly, I can’t give Florence + The Machine their (her) due. Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly impossible to know if Florence has a true vocal range (or for that matter a true style) beyond what I have heard and seen so far. One might guess that her style is been very tightly controlled. When you first come out in the music business, there are pressures to keep making the same sound over and over. Most artists want to break out, grow, and show the world that they have more to offer. I’m not so sure that this is the case with Flo. When watching the show, I thought that there were changes on the horizon when in the first fifteen seconds of the song Cosmic Love, I heard hints that she can move beyond her (already) worn out way of projecting notes from her mouth. Sadly, she was back to her usual “pushing notes out hard” singing style for the bulk of the song.
Strip away all the effects, reverb, vibrato, and what does she have? That’s all I’m asking. Give me ten minutes of some seriously stripped down singing, and then we can judge properly. The last time that I posted something about “Flo” I was summarily dismissed as someone who didn’t know the true vocal force that she is. Sure, she’s got some power. How about range, dynamics, or the ability to move beyond the formula?

The Flo Formula Needs Something New

Here is the “Flo” formula. Her songs start of soft, get loud, go back to soft, and then end. The song Cosmic Love, starts off quietly, builds enough momentum so Florence can do her usual “push the notes” singing, and then finishes off quietly. Don’t believe me? The same can be said for the song Spectrum, Heavy in Your Arms, Shake It Out, What the Water Gave Me, and Never Let Me Go. When I went searching for proof that she must do something other than what I mentioned above, I picked those songs at random, and in that order. Line those songs up, and play them one after the other. They are all the same. I was thrilled to see that she’s a fan of Klaus Nomi. At least she knows a good singer when she hears one. I’m not ripping on the person, just the narrow nature of her musical repertoire.