Monday, July 02, 2012

"Right, I've sawn all four legs off the piano..."

It’s a conversation which I imagine takes place between stage managers and artistes the world over all the time. “I’ve got you a piano”. I tapped the flight case propped against the back wall of The Maverick Festival’s Peacock Café reassuringly.
Rose Cousins, Canadian singer, songwriter, and woman who had flown in from Cork that morning, caught a number of trains and then been delivered slightly bleary-eyed to a farm in the middle of rural Suffolk bearing a guitar and a battered suitcase gestured toward the stage. “What about that one?” she enquired, not wishing to disturb the audience enjoying the country blues stylings of Brooks Williams, currently performing on stage.
“That one” I replied, with one eye on the sound desk and one attempting to convey an air of calm authority and professionalism “…belongs to Gretchen Peters”.
“And we can’t use it?”
“I don’t think so”
“Have you asked?”
“Why not?”
“Because I am afraid of her tour manager, who is bigger than I am”.
“You’re scared of her tour manager?”
“Very slightly, yes”.
“We could probably use her stool though?”
She brightened. “Well, there’s something at least”.

To be fair, she had every right to maintain a number of reservations regarding the stage management of The Peacock Café, as I had been the one who’d collected her from the railway station earlier that day and had been making small talk on the way back to the festival site principally along the lines of what I hoped would be a typically self-deprecating English description of my own shortcomings as a sound engineer, general factotum and stage hand, a triad of opportunities that I had been performing since the previous evening when Simon, the proper grown-up sound man off the main stage, had pointed out the Aux sends feeding the stage left and right monitors, the three phantom powered DI boxes sub-grouped on channels one and two, and the microphones on seven and eight with the gain up at two o’clock and the mid cut rolled off at around 250 hZ. I know. Me too. I’d just got to the bit where I described my main function as mainly ensuring that no-one fell off the stage when I remembered that Rose was due to perform under my benevolent supervision later that evening after she’d conducted a songwriting workshop in the Tack Room over past the main stage. I explained how a falling tree had missed me and Jason Ringenberg by minutes on my previous trip to collect The Talent. “The thing is, this isn’t my vehicle, and the last thing I got told was to not damage it. I’m almost sorry I didn’t get the chance to go back and say ‘You’ll never guess what happened to your car!’” I chortled. She settled back in her seat, tired, hungry, and apparently in the care of someone who was prepared to finish Farmer Jason’s career and total a perfectly good Skoda into the bargain for the sake of a cheap anecdote. It’s a wonder she didn’t bail out at that point right there.       
As Brooks finished his set I bounded on to the stage, thanked him, asked the audience to continue showing their appreciation and then mentioned that if a few folk could move their camping chairs slightly to the side that would be a great help as I had a piano to move. A mild wave of amusement swept the floor. “No, really” I said.

By the time I got back to the sound desk Rose had the situation in hand – “I’ll clear a path, you bring the piano” she said striding determinedly off. Ten minutes later we were set up, ready to go, I’d done the stage intro and she was half way to performing “Go First” a truly heart-rending break up ballad that I had to tear myself away from in order to get an update from Simon, who’d popped in to make sure that none of the red lights on the desk were flashing warnings at me. “It sounds pretty good!” he marveled. “Well, I’m not a complete idiot you know” I replied, mock-indignantly. “You will be here by the time Gretchen goes on though, won’t you?” The trace of nerves in my voice must have come through. “Of course” he said reassuringly. He slipped away, replaced almost immediately by Scary Tour Manager. “We are running on time, aren’t we?” The significance of the question was hinted at with undertones of consequence.
“How long do I have?” Rose invited from the stage.
“Fifteen minutes – make ‘em good ones!” I hollered back, cheerily.
“Oh, they’re all good!” she replied, ever the trouper.
I’d have said twelve minutes” said STM, flashing a wolfish grin and melting back into the crowd.

Next up, Otis Gibbs. “I just need a vocal mic, I have my own DI box, and what time do you want me off?” he said.
“Otis, you are a stage manager’s dream” I gushed.
“Well, you haven’t heard me play yet…”.

Back at the desk I tweaked the onstage mix as directed, trying hard to read the expression of a man in a baseball cap, wearing glasses and with a foot-long frontiersman’s beard standing forty feet away. “Aw heck” he said affably after a while “We’ll split the difference”.  
By the time Gretchen Peters was in the building (right on time, right on cue) the cavalry had arrived and I was grateful for the opportunity to revert to my preferred role of moving things from one place to another without dropping them. The professional sound engineer cast a benevolent, but critical eye over the mixing desk, alighting on a recalcitrant red fader hovering somewhere around the halfway mark. “Why have you got that there?” he enquired.

“Simon…I have absolutely no idea”.
Despatched to check the monitors (“Your ears are of considerably less value than hers”) I forwent the traditional roadie’s “One-Two, One-Two” and borne on wings of combined adrenalin release and post-responsibility Brewers Gold, launched into a spirited verse of Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me”. Came from behind the sound desk a thumbs up, and from the audience a good-natured round of applause. I turned to find Grammy-nominated, CMA Award-winning, Isle of Wight Festival-playing singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters, the woman who wrote ‘On a Bus to St. Cloud’, ‘Independence Day’ and ‘This Uncivil War’ regarding me wryly.

“...and how are we supposed to follow that?” she twinkled.   

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