In the spring of 1993, Randy Bulla, a friend from high school who had become a professional musician and had remained a friend over the years, invited me to Little Rock for the Riverfront Blues Festival in April of that year. He was going to be stage manager. Buddy Guy was the lead act. I had gotten hold of the album Buddy Guy and Junior Wells Play the Blues in college because Eric Clapton played on it, but the refreshing Delta feel of Guy’s guitar licks converted me. Junior Wells was already one of my harmonica heroes. “Strange Brew,” one of the tunes on Cream’s Disraeli Gears album, was one of several times that Clapton, one of Guy’s top fans, borrowed Guy’s licks, I had read in an interview. A classic Blues compendium of stellar blues tunes is Willie Dixon’s Chess Box double CD and Buddy Guy is there, backing Howlin Wolf.
I was ready to see the legend up close.
Houston to Little Rock Arkansas with lunch, gas and bathroom breaks is a nine-hour trip by car. There were six of us plus luggage so I rented a long Ford van with seats for passengers. I made a cassette tape, audio that is, of the movie Groundhog Day and we listened to it over and over and over and over on the trip to the screams of anguish from my sons and their friends, “Not Groundhog Day again!” My son David at that time was 16 years old as was his girlfriend who came along. My youngest, Daniel, was 14 and his friend from down the block in our neighborhood in Houston was also 14, maybe 13.
On the day of the show, Randy and I went to the venue early and in chatting with the event manager, who Randy reported to, we found that we didn’t have a stage tech so I volunteered. My wife, Eiko and I had been managing a roots African band in Houston for two years prior to this trip and the kids always came along to gigs as stage techs. I had learned all of the jobs necessary to letting a band have a technical glitch-free show and I knew how to set everything up and then to walk the stage with an eagle eye then to go over the mixing board before the show to troubleshoot. Koko Taylor and Debby Davis would co-headline with Buddy Guy. The job of the stage tech is a lot less work than I had to do with my band in Houston and it is to make sure that each performer has all of the microphones or mic stands with XLR cables run to them that they need and that they are in the right place in advance. The reason you run only the three-pronged XLR cable to the mic stand is that some groups bring their own mics and they just have to get into the house sound system so that the person working the board can sound-check them and mix them properly through the performance. We had a box of Shure 57s and 58s, very good multi-purpose mics that we would use if they didn’t have their own.
There is a long cable called a “snake” that goes from the mixing board to the stage and on one end it has about 20 XLR male inputs to plug into the board and at the other end of this thick, reinforced cable there is a box that sits on the stage with 20 numbered XLR female inputs that allow the guitar players to mic their amps and plug into this board, the drummer to mic his kick and usually the snare and mounted toms, the keyboards go into the stage box at the end of the snake via a quarter-inch to XLR converter called a direct box, and then the vocal mics go only into this stage box part of the snake. The monitor speakers have outputs coming back from the board with outputs on the stage box that plug into the right and left monitor power and speakers. Most performers don’t rely on the house soundman but put their own person on the mixing board during their own sound-check and performance.
The Festival had arranged for six air-conditioned travel trailers, the kind that sleep two and have a kitchenette and toilet to be in place backstage for the performers to be comfortable while waiting and to be able to do wardrobe and makeup before they went on.
Part one of my job was to take my list of performers and make a stage map of where each band would put their drum kit, or if they would use the house kit and where they wanted their mic stands. Part two would be to break down the previous act’s setup and put in place the oncoming act’s setup. I went to the door of each of the performers’ trailers while the sun was still bright and chatted with them and made a stage sketch with equipment locations so that when they were announced and came on stage, everything would be ready to go. I enjoyed talking to the performers and they were glad that we were doing this forward planning that would minimize the time needed for them to start their show. I finished my list by about 4:00 PM except for Buddy Guy and the first act would go on at 6:00 and Buddy Guy would go on at 9:30 as the closing act when everybody was hot and jumping from the previous acts and filled with the buzz of anticipation. I asked around to try and find Buddy or any of his people and an English guy in his late 40s approached me.
“What do you want with Mr. Guy?” He asked in an accusing tone. He had a British accent and not a hair was out of place on his businessman’s haircut.
“I’m the stage tech,” I said.
“Nobody sets up for Mr. Guy but me,” he said. “I am his road manager and stage coordinator and I will set up the stage and I will also work the board during the performance. I don’t want you, or anybody else to touch so much as a drumstick when it comes to Mr. Guy’s performance. Do I make myself abundantly clear?” He looked at me with a fixed stare, waiting for my response.
I remember thinking that I would have liked to reward his petulance in kind, but thought better of it and responded, “Very clear, my name is Tim if I can be of any assistance, let me know.” I responded calmly and then walked away. I imagined that if at some previous gig for Buddy, a sleepwalking stage tech had sabotaged Buddy Guy’s performance due to neglect of some critical detail and the performer had no guitar or no mic going out through the main festival speakers, or the board out in the audience had not been properly tagged with the number of the corresponding sound emitter, it would be a mess and only the performer would look bad. This is what must have happened to my Limey friend at least once to cause him to take such a severe attitude with the people he could only imagine were the sleepwalking help. As it turned out, I had to do a last minute set-up for Buddy because the dedicated badass stage tech was nowhere around when the act before Buddy took their applause and went offstage. His musicians waiting backstage told me how they wanted to set up Buddy and so together with my friend Randy and the event manager, we rushed to put the equipment in place. The martinet manager never apologized to nor thanked me.
I didn’t know who Debby Davis was and I had also never heard of Koko Taylor. SMH, I know. Debby was outstanding and played hot licks, bellowed and crooned into the mic and got the crowd grooving with her for a sweaty and well done show. I found one of her personalized guitar picks on the stage after her performance. I kept it. Koko Taylor was on right before Buddy Guy and her show was amazing. She closed with the tune “Wang-Dang Doodle” and the crowd was getting as crazy as she was. It was a joyful pandemonium.
Once we had the stage setup for Buddy, I asked the event manager if I could borrow his badge to bring my blues playing son, David to the side of the stage because he idolized him. Without a moment’s hesitation, he pulled his badge off and gave it to me. We had both been sweating all afternoon and night to manage the stage properly and a bond of mutual reliance had formed between us. I walked across the empty stage right before the MC announced Buddy and reached down to the audience where my son David was standing with our whole crew and gave him the badge and told him to come up the stairs to the back of the stage and pointed in the direction where he should go.
I made my way back to the backstage area just as David was coming up the performers’ stairway entrance to backstage with the badge around his neck and asked him to follow me and we stood just offstage while Buddy did his show. David had studied Buddy Guy’s CDs and played his material constantly. He was obsessed with Buddy Guy and he loved the blues. He stood transfixed during the show, his eyes riveted to Buddy’s hands, flying over the fretboard. I asked David later what he thought and all he would tell me was, “Amazing guitar work, dude.”
What I saw just offstage that night during Buddy’s show was a modern shaman, deeply into the zone of his profession who made his signature model Fender Stratocaster sing and do things I didn’t know a guitar could do. I was in awe of the music and in awe of the man. I was sweating blood over the stage setup but aside from adjusting the height of his vocal mic, he didn’t change anything we had put in place for him. The two beautiful women singing backing vocals for him just turned the mics to their mouth level and that was it. The drummer and keyboard player had set their own mics. There were no sound glitches. I had memorized everything Eric Clapton had ever done when I was in high school and when I closed my eyes I heard a stronger, more flexible and agile version of Clapton’s licks. I was impressed that while Buddy smiled at the crowd a lot and engaged in small talk with the, when the tunes started and the first note left his guitar, he was all business and deeply focused on what he was doing. The music was beautiful and made me feel relaxed, sexy and powerful, just like Buddy.
We headed back to Houston the next afternoon and due to popular demand, I did not play the Groundhog Day tape.