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Bands work, wait for day they get top billing

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2003

It's an overcast June evening in Pittsburgh. Nothing odd about that, especially since that harbinger of inclement weather, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, is in full swing.

Later that evening, Wilco, one of the most inventive American bands of the past few years, will draw thousands of fans to Point State Park. But just before 6 p.m., menacing gray clouds are threatening to turn the opening act's set into a rain-drenched affair.

"It's a bummer," says Boxstep lead singer and guitarist Eric Graf. "I was hoping it was going to be really sunny and people were going to be playing beach volleyball and stuff like that."

At showtime, there are maybe 150 people gathered near the stage. Some are smoking, many are engaged in conversation, and most have arrived early to get a prime spot to see the headliner.

If Boxstep is fazed, it doesn't show.

"We're just going to do our thing," Graf says shortly before he takes the stage. "I think people who like Wilco will like us. I think our music is in the same hemisphere."

He's right. Boxstep, which has expanded this performance to nine musicians from its regular lineup of six, plays with the confidence of a veteran ensemble, producing a strong, if not remarkable, set. The music, an idiosyncratic blend of rock, folk, country and pop, produces some improvisational moments that are nearly blissful. By the end of the set most of the audience, which has swelled to fill the Symphony Stage area, is paying attention to the music.

And it hasn't rained more than a few drops.

"That was fun," says Graf as he leaves the stage.

"That was probably the biggest crowd we ever played for," adds vocalist Sarah Siplak, who rearranged her schedule -- at the time she was performing in City Theater's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" -- to sing with the band that night.

But in the afterglow of what may one day be considered a watershed event, at least one Boxstep member is grateful for a small amenity.

"They had towels," says guitarist Daryl LeRoi Fleming. "Fresh towels, fresh linen. That was a nice touch."

RITES OF PASSAGE

Opening acts are like the appetizers on a buffet line at a wedding: limited portions that are meant to tease the palate, not satisfy it.

"The worst thing about it is probably the fact that three-quarters of the audience comes to see the other band," says Danny Stag, a Pittsburgh native who played in the rock band Kingdom Come. "And then there are the minor things that happen, the humorous things, like when you meet a bunch of girls, then the headliners show up at the club and they leave you and go to them."

Yet being an opening act is a rite of passage that almost every young band must go through as it makes its way up the live-performance hierarchy. Few groups begin their careers, even in their hometowns, as the main attractions.

"The first level is when you're opening for a regional band in a crappy little club and you're getting paid in beer," says Jim Donovan of Rusted Root.

The Wilco gig was a step up from that for Boxstep. But Graf, as band leader, still had to deal with mundane details: Was there anyone to sell merchandise and CDs during the show• Was everyone on the same page with the set list• Was everyone who was supposed to be playing present?

"I really won't get to enjoy myself until we get onstage," he says. "There are so many people asking me so many different questions, I really can't think about what I'm doing right now. ... It's not necessarily aggravating, but it's the only thing I can think about for a while."

Boxstep's experience was certainly better than what happened to New Invisible Joy a week later. The local band was scheduled to perform at 4:30 p.m. as part of the Big Shindig, a daylong festival of music at the Chevrolet Amphitheatre at Station Square. But the night before, the band was informed it was being moved up to the 3:30 p.m. time slot.

"You bite the bullet," says lead singer J.C. Schisler, noting the group had posted the original starting time on its Web site. "You take it and just go with the flow."

The band was alotted 25 minutes. There were maybe 100 people watching while another 100 milled in front of another stage waiting for the next act.

"I yelled out on the mike, 'Hey, there's no band playing, why don't you come over and watch us,'" Schisler says. "I made a joke about it. There was a guy in a green jumpsuit, and I told him to get everybody to come over here. And then I just mentioned our other gigs."

But that was far from the worst situation New Invisible Joy, a melodic pop band, has faced. A few years ago, the group played a festival in upstate New York with industrial metal bands Filter and Sevendust.

"It took us 10 hours to get there, and when we started to play, people were standing with their middle fingers in the air," Schisler says. "We parted the Red Sea when we were playing. It was so freakishly discouraging."

HIT HARD AND GET OUT

So how does a band approach an audience that isn't there to see them?

"You hit them hard, you hit them fast, and get out," says Pete Yorn, a national recording artist who recently opened for the Foo Fighters at the Chevrolet Amphitheatre. "We've opened for so many different types of bands, we know what to do. With the Foos, we tailor it so it's more of a faster set. We get out, get people ready to rock for the Foos, while showcasing ourselves the best we know how."

Yorn says it helps to open for groups that are similar in style. Occasionally there will be an odd gig, and he specifically remembers being on a bill with metal bands for a festival event as being a weird experience. But most of the time, Yorn says his music has been compatible with the headlining act's.

That hasn't always been the case for Rusted Root.

"We've been, in my head, a professional opening act for a lot of years," Donovan says, ticking off bands Rusted Root has opened for: the Allman Brothers, Santana, Dave Matthews, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Jewel, Ratdog, the Grateful Dead.

Rusted Root in front of Jewel fans• It really didn't matter.

"For us, it was always a matter of getting people as relaxed as possible and then knocking them over the head," Donovan says. "Especially with people who had never heard us before. You would just go out, and if you have a half hour, 40 minutes, you'd just be relentless and make sure when they walked away, they knew who you were."

One of the most bizarre experiences Rusted Root had was opening for Led Zeppelin emeriti Page and Plant in 1995. The band was paid $750 per night, plus use of a tour bus, and were allotted 25 minutes onstage each night.

Strangely, Rusted Root wasn't even listed on the bill. When the house lights went down, all they heard were cries of "Led Zeppelin!"

Faced with an audience that had no idea who they were, the band responded ferociously.

"We didn't take any time between songs," Donovan says. "It was bang-bang-bang-bang. By the end of the tour, we were getting standing ovations. We called it the 'M*A*S*H' unit -- we'd fly in and bam! -- then fly back out. Even today, people come up to me and say 'I saw you at Page and Plant in 1995, and you knocked my head off.'"

According to Phil Harris, a local musician who has fronted bands including Hector in Paris and Hipster Dufus, opening acts should realize they are not the main course.

"You really want to cut out all the fat," says Harris, who has opened for the Barenaked Ladies and Jules Shear. "You keep your set lean and truncated, and usually try to play your best stuff and get through the set without too many people yelling the main act's name through the last three songs."

But sometimes it's hard to do that. Sometimes egos get in the way. And sometimes, as a result, careers come crashing down.

TOUGH TO PLAY SECOND FIDDLE

Kingdom Come literally came from nowhere to make an impression in heavy metal circles in 1988. "Get It On," a hit single from the group's eponymous debut album, became a hit, and there were numerous comparisons by critics -- who were mostly dismissive -- and fans to Led Zeppelin.

After touring Europe, the band made its U.S. debut on the Monsters of Rock tour featuring Van Halen with Dokken and the Scorpions. The first show was in East Troy, Wis., at an outdoor venue in front of 33,000 .

"We actually lost money every show," says Stag, who grew up in Scott. "Van Halen paid us $4,400 and our expenses were $5,500. We lost $1,100 every show."

Those losses were somewhat mitigated by album sales, which peaked at 26,000 per week, according to Stag. Yet as quickly as the band ascended, there was controversy. During an MTV interview, Stag was asked about the band's sound. He replied that it was an honor to be compared to Led Zeppelin, but that he was more influenced by Jimi Hendrix than Jimmy Page.

Of course the interview was edited, and Stag was made to sound as though he was dismissing Page's ability. Nor did Stag's infamous joking comment of "Jimmy who?" -- made in reference to Page -- help the band.

But those controversies paled in comparison to what happened when Kingdom Come later linked up with the Scorpions for a tour as a supporting act.

"It was very cool," Stag says. "We were out with them for two months, and they treated us really well. We ate dinner with them with their caterer, and they weren't stingy about stuff."

There were some conditions that every opening band has to deal with -- less power, Stag says, so the band didn't sound as loud as the Scorpions -- and Kingdom Come was also restricted to a smaller portion of the stage. Specifically, Kingdom Come lead singer Lenny Wolf was told by the Scorpions' manager, Paul O'Neil, to stay off the runways.

For a while, Wolf abided this restriction. One night, the runways proved to be irresistible.

"Paul said very nicely, 'Look mate, I really meant what I said about using the runways,'" Stag says. "He said he'd have problems if Lenny continued to use them."

So the next show, the same thing happens: Wolf goes crazy on the runways and O'Neil, a little more adamant but still civil, reminds him of the restriction.

"Lenny, said yeah, yeah, whatever," Stag says.

The next night, of course, Wolf went for the runway the first chance he got. Stag says O'Neil was furious and Wolf calmly stood there, smoking a cigarette. Then, Wolf made a remark about Nazis.

O'Neil was half Jewish.

"I don't know if Lenny knew the guy's father was Jewish or not, but we got kicked off the tour the next day," Stag says.

Kingdom Come never quite recovered the momentum it had at that point. Stag is no longer part of the band, but Wolf keeps a watered-down version of it alive, playing venues in Europe.

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