First draft, July 3, 2006

The Chronicles of Country Fests

Tin Horse went from an entirely unknown Chicago country band to a somewhat less unknown up-and-comer in about six months. Two festivals in June were the culmination of a bunch of rehearsing and other work to get ready to hopefully turn some heads and make some progress. This is a little bit about what happened at those festivals. Before we did these things, we had played at Joe’s on Weed in Chicago (our first big show as Tin Horse in our hometown), two nights at a rodeo in Michigan in 100 degree weather, and a small concert series in Indiana. Three days later, we shipped out to Wisconsin.

Dateline: Oshkosh, WI — Wednesday, June 20, 2006 for Country USA

We arrived at 2 PM and it was raining and gross. Thunder, wind, rain, not remotely suitable for playing outdoors. We got into our trailer (the sign on the door said “Tin Horses”) to wait out the rain. Things were not looking good for playing, but at least we got to show space with two women who are masseuses. They weren’t getting a lot of business what with the crap weather, and offered us free five minute chair massages.

The rain managed to clear up by 3:15 or 3:30. The act before us was supposed to hit at 3:30 and play 30 minutes, followed by an hour of us. The rain pushed the schedule back, meaning everyone’s set got cut a bit. We would definitely take that over getting rained out completely.

To make things run smoothly, the big acts already were set up on the stage. The rest of us were told to get our gear close by, and the union stageworkers took care of moving things onto and off of the main stage. In the case of the drummers, we were given a riser on wheels to set up on, and when it was time to play, they’d just roll it on out. For some reason, they gave me the highest riser they had, at close to five feet. It was pretty solid, but you wouldn’t want to do any clog dancing on it.

By the time our set time came, the weather was beautiful — blue sky, sunny, and mild. It couldn’t be better. The crowd was pretty minimal right in front of us. The chairs were still wet from the rain, and that was the only option anywhere near the stage, so people weren’t all that excited to come sit in a wet chair and see a band they’d never heard of. Still, there were probably a couple thousand around between the chairs and the lawn area farther off. When we called out to the lawn, they hooted, hollered, and applauded, so it was all good.

We breezed through 45 minutes of music. It seems liked next to nothing. I did my usual thing, singing the verses on The Devil Went Down To Georgia, and the riser shook like hell while I did it. There’s a lot of foot-to-foot motion in the drums playing that song, and I was sure my voice was sounding shaky because of it (apparently it wasn’t, or no one could tell anyway).

After we finished, it was time to grab some food and hit the beer tent for another two sets before Billy Currington and Gretchen Wilsons played. The food was fine — I was told to eat my dinner before diving into the freezer for ice cream, and I did as I was told.

The beer tent was one of the best shows we’ve had. The sound was very good, and the crowd was unbelievably receptive. There were many hundreds, probably several thousand, of people coming into the tents to get drinks and hear us. Enough stayed to fill the place, or hung around outside the tent to listen. They were going crazy after all the songs, not just the covers they knew, but the originals as well. We played two hour-long sets, signed a bunch of autographs afterward, and generally felt like huge rock stars.

The change from sitting in the trailer thinking we were getting rained out after all this build-up and work, to playing in great weather on the main stage, and to a teeming mass of happy (and let’s face it, drunk) people was huge. Even if the other festival was a total bust, we felt like we did well at Country USA.

There’s this running joke we have in the band about the Tin Horse Curse. Because the band isn’t very well-known, when we travel outside Chicago to play (most of what the band does is play in the Chicago suburbs, and out into the surrounding states), venues don’t want to take a chance that you’ll suck live on a busy night and drive everyone away. So they often book you on nights that are slower, so if you draw it helps, but you won’t blow a night for them. That’s my theory anyway. But we keep hearing “Gee, you guys were great, it’s too bad no one was here. Normally we have [insert huge number, at least 2 orders of magnitude over how many were actually there] people here tonight. They must all be at [insert tractor pull/corn mashing party/cat shaving event/KISS concert/anything else that’s happening that weekend].” This is one aspect of the many-faceted jewel that is the Tin Horse Curse. We thought maybe another one was weather, something where Country USA would get rained on with flaming hailstones ridden by frogs, pursued by locusts the size of Volkswagens. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

Dateline: Cadott, WI — June 23, 2006 — Latigo & Lace

We left Chicago in our rented RV, pulling the biggest trailer U-Haul offers full of our gear, in the morning. The cast was the band, Andy (the man who does everything but play an instrument), Kate the intern (working on a music business degree — she could sell tires to the Michelin Man), and Evan the boyfriend of our fiddle player (journalist, army veteran, raconteur).

Our first gig was at Latigo & Lace, a pretty new place in Cadott, WI, near Chippewa Falls where Leinenkugal Beer is made. We didn’t know much about this place, just that we’d be playing there for some folks who book music in the area (including a gentleman who booked us into Summerfest, the biggest outdoor music festival in the world, on a recommendation, without having heard us). The idea was to play a regular show somewhere these guys could get to easily so they could see if we were worth booking again. Our pay from the gig also covered the hotel rooms we got — the RV was big, but not big enough to sleep ten.

We knew it was going to be good when we walked in and the patrons playing pool yelled “HEY! HERE COME THE HOOKERS! WOoooooo!!” It turned out not to be as bad as I thought from that amusing start; although the room we played in was really loud, and we had some technical challenges with sound, we played a decent show and presented ourselves well to the crowd. Again, autographs were signed. There weren’t more than 100 people in the place, but there was a buzz surrounding the group as being up-and-coming, playing the festival the next day, and that got people interested. I drew my best attempt at the Tin Horse logo (it looked more like a Mud Weasel, but it’s the thought that counts) on a woman’s foot cast we all signed.

Dateline: Cadott, WI — June 24, 2006 — Country Fest Day One

Next morning we drove to the festival grounds. It wasn’t raining, but the sky was definitely not looking friendly, really dark clouds and wind were blowing around. We were following the same band (Kerry McConaway) as at Country USA, and we set up right after they finished. Country Fest, in their dealing with us, wasn’t as well-oiled a machine as Country USA. We couldn’t really set up until the other band was completely done and moved off. Eventually we got set up and sound-checked, and the rain started. This time the Tin Horse Curse got us. Not only did it pour, but it was blowing sideways. They had to close this huge metal door on the front of the stage to keep the rain off of Toby Keith’s set that the stage folks (Toby Keith has a 56-man crew) were building. That had never happened during a festival, we were told. We didn’t tell them about our little Curse, because we hoped they’d invite us back some time. A stagehand told me it had rained every year for at least the past five years during Country Fest, so at least we weren’t entirely to blame.

We were, in the words of the stage manager, “scrapped”. They cut our set entirely to make sure the rest of the day would go as close to on-schedule as possible. The rain only last about half an hour, which was just about exactly as long as they would have let us play. It was disappointing, to say the least, but we knew plenty of people would hear us in the beer tent. Country Fest books regional bands to play from 12:30 PM or so until 2 AM when the main stage is empty, so there was no shortage of playing time ahead of us.

Of course, the fact that the on-stage wedding still went on, and the terrible comedian got his hour of work, got us a little annoyed. But again, there was really nothing for it.

At the top of the hill sat the Leinie Lodge, our home for the next two days. The “stage” was a concrete slab at ground level, and the building had a metal roof, chicken wire walls, and a permanent bar area. The stage was surrounded by water from the rain. It was pretty dismal looking. We staked out some dry ground on it, trying to leave some room up front for dancing, and set up. We played for about an hour each time, five times, from 4:30 PM until 2 AM that first day. The crowd wasn’t as berserk as at Country USA, but they were receptive, did some dancing, and made it fun for us.

The Tin Horse Blues Trio (me, Kevin, and Tony) started one of our sets with some instrumental blues to give everyone else a little break. We don’t jam much in this band, so that was fun for me. Most of the learning about each other’s playing is done in the context of working on Antje’s original songs together, not through noodling. It was fun to break out of that for a little bit.

The best set that first day was when the rain started again, right after Leann Womack’s set. The rain drove everyone in under the roof, so it was packed. The driving rain and thunder made for a really great backdrop to playing loud music, it was a cool contrast having a party atmosphere inside while the rain was falling and blowing around outside. We stayed more or less dry in there, and the people were enjoying themselves.

Dateline: Cadott, WI — June 25, 2006 — Country Fest Day Two

Sunday, we drove in around noon, expecting to start at 12:30. We had left our gear set up from the day before (security patroled the place over night), so it shouldn’t have taken very long. Unfortunately, there had been rain through most of the night, so while our gear was fine, the ground was soft, and the RV got stuck in the mud. We eventually got it out, but our trailer was sitting in the same place as the day before, just waiting to sink into the ground once we started putting weight on it with our gear. We got someone from the festival to bring over a big forklift and move it to a drier spot a little bit away. It was longer to walk with our stuff packing it up again, but at least we’d be able to move the thing.

The second day went much like the first, without so much rain. Between sets, we played cards, ate, slept, and tried to keep limber. I didn’t have any physical problems like I expected I might with so much playing, but it was spread out enough, and I stayed relaxed enough physically, that it wasn’t any trouble.

There was plenty of autograph signing over the two days at Country Fest. We sold out of the CDs we had, thanks due entirely to Kate for hitting on the brilliant idea of giving away Leinenkugal T-shirts (given to us by the company to give away over the night) with CDs purchased. There was a lot of signing of CDs to be done, as well as hats and other stuff. There was also some flirting of the crowd with the band, but the girls weren’t the only ones getting the attention. Andy was told by one gentleman, “If you were a bitch, I’d stick my tongue down your throat with that sweet breath of yours.” He had just eaten an altoid, which is a great way to get the most romantic of men.

By the end of the night, for our last set after the unbelieveably-loud Montgomery Gentry, we were all pretty tired. We were committed to play until the lodge closed, which was expected to be about 2:30 AM. We started around 12:30 AM. Not wanting to put on a bad show, we elected to play mostly slow tunes and see if people wanted to stick around. For better or worse, they didn’t. Our last set was one of the most surreal musical experiences I’ve had in a while — we gradually start playing not just our slower songs, but playing them as quiet as we could manage. Our last tune ended up turning in a quiet reggae groove where it’s normally a raucous rocker. At one point a woman said to the bass player “I came here for fun, not romance”. What’s the difference, he said? “Well, fun is usually a lot louder!!” We couldn’t help laughing at each other for how weird the whole thing was. At the same time, we were all definitely ready to pack it in and get some sleep. So when the beermaster let us off the hook at 1:15 or so, it was welcome. We packed up our gear, loaded the trailer, and got on out of there.

The whole experience of playing these festivals was very interesting on a bunch of levels, in terms of learning more about the people in the band, about myself and how I deal with touring, about the country music scene (the fans, the more big-shot performers and how they run their shows), and everything. I’m glad I was there to see it all happen and be a part of it.