Playing gigs in Memphis is tough, although show support has gotten much better in the last few years. Memphis music crowds are hard. Either few people are in the audience, people talk over the music, or the crowd has already seen a band much better than the one in front of them. Adapting to these difficult live situations helps to explain why Memphis bands that make it here are better entertainers than most everywhere. These situations are also some of the reasons why many Memphis bands never leave I-240.
A European tour is a sure way to either make a band or break a band. While touring in America can be the cats ass (McDonalds for breakfast, lunch, & late night; long drives to unpromoted, sparsely attended gigs; broken-down vans in remote Western towns; stolen gear in New York, etc), touring in Europe has its own unique set of problems, disadvantages, and liabilities. For the most part, bands have no idea what they are getting into when they go. The promoters have several legs up on the bands as they have been running their scams in their regions longer, speak the local languages, and know the local customs better. Most touring bands play at government-sponsored community arts centers, where bands compete for entertainment dollars with the pulsating beat of disco and its dancing fans, who stand in front of a band at the end of their set, panting like Pavlov for the rock music to end and the dance fever to begin. In many instances right as the band has finished (and before an encore can be called for), the stage is turned over to djs, and the dance light show comes on for the dancers who immediately take over the audience space. It can be a bit humiliating and exacerbating to travel five thousand miles to entertain twenty people and then have three hundred people come out of the woodwork to party to the latest eurotrash remixes.
The accommodations provided by European music promoters do not always reach four-star level, either. Bands might find themselves sleeping on army cots supplied by WWII-era hospitals, which have been converted to hotels in places like Dresden, Germany, or possibly share, five ways, a YMCA-type room above the community center. There are no thermometers if it is too cold or too hot. (For a good laugh, try calling room service at one of these hotels!)
The original van promised by the tour manager usually breaks down before the band arrives. Bands find themselves riding uphill in the rain and snow through the Alps in a diesel van that cannot go over 55 km per hour and has a draft running through it. The diesel exhaust blasts back into the van thereby rendering nostrils black until a cold shower two days later provided at the anarchist commune where the gig is.
Suffice to say, six weeks in a row with constant sleep deprivation, hashish-influenced conditions, and dinners provided by the promoter that consist of a tray of sandwich meats with highly unusual shapes and colors in them, combined with the tortures of sharing (smelling?) a van with your bandmates day and night is enough to break any sane person. Bands either return from Europe and never speak again or
Bands become better by touring Europe. This fall Viva LAmerican Death Ray (previously Death Ray, then American Death Ray, and now currently a three piece) did just that. They went on a six week tour of Europe and played a return engagement at Club Hi Tone at the end of January. Their experience in Europe did not just make them a good band or a better band. It made them a great band. Nick Diablo, who moved to Memphis about ten years ago, came back with far more confidence and acumen on guitar (much like Ron Franklin did when he busked his way through Holland and returned a scratch guitarist with a mean slide). The band is now much tighter than ever before and seems to have ditched the over-indulgent, Velvet Underground-influenced feedback they used to love to assault the audience with (although they still pulled a bit of it out of the old rabbits hat). VLADR improved from annoying at times to one of the more stellar Memphis bands seen in years, which is saying quite a bit given Memphiscurrent hot rock scene. Diablo has long been looking for an image to settle into (Tav Falco? New York Dolls?), and he may have just found it in himself. The band currently sounds much like the strong bands coming out of the late Ô70s Boston/New York new wave scene. Tight, tough, & rocking. Highly enjoyable.
The only possible problem with VLADR in the near future is the availability of bass player Harlan T. Bobo, whose recent successes have been well documented in this column as well as elsewhere in the Memphis media. Memphis music fans get a 2-for-1 deal with this band, but how can two busy popular bands juggle their overlapping schedules without making a mess? So far, Bobo says it has not been a problem. If they survived six weeks in Europe, coordinating two great bands schedules in the U.S. should be a piece of cake. At least the language is the same here.
And speaking of the Motherland, we received these missives from the Godfather of Memphis garage rock, Monsieur Jeffrey Evans, currently slinging a guitar on the road spreading the Memphis gospel opening for the Bassholes in Europe .
I am in the land of spaghetti, after spending a week behind the former iron curtain. Our 15th show is tonight in Lecce, Italy--27 shows to go. Interviewed on the radio in Amsterdam, Ljubjlana, and Belgrade. Got to actually play live on VPRO radio in Amsterdam, which has a video stream from the studio. Stage response has been good to my music, and it seems if I mention Charlie Feathers or Carl Perkins I get extra credit with the audiences, so you know I am doing it. As you know with record collectors, they know more about my career than I do. Got about two feet of snow in Serbia and cold wet feet, but like I say, tonight we are in the land of high fashion, Italy. In France there were good looking peoples, good food, but not so good for vegetarians. The chocolate pasteries were choice. Oh yeah, there are a lot of Yugos in former Yugoslavia! The rest of Italy and Spain were great places for rock and roll! Very enthusiastic audiences. People take this garage stuff seriously, and I thought I was folk! Wish I had brought some vinyl (pronounced vin EE ul)! Getting to meet and greet and put a face with the names who have interviewed me, as well as bought my stuff over the years! Feels good!
Having fun, missing Memphis, but Ill come back with some new stories. My tour dates are at