It’s been my lifelong dream to perform inside a six-story Doritos vending machine, but today, at the opening of the SXSW music festival, this is not my fate. Instead, I’m in Long Island City going through scraps from two years ago, when I served as “backline tech” to a British band signed to Atlantic, making their much-hyped US debut.
I remember the incompetence. Mine. I had been hired by a band with lots of electronics, requiring more cords and direct boxes than my pedal-phobe guitarist’s mind could handle. I was constantly weighing whether it looked worse to do something and do it wrong or to stand around doing nothing. This tension reached its nightly apex while I watched the band play from the side, praying I wouldn’t be waved onstage to fix something.
Unlike my last time here, this was the cushy side of the shitshow. I had my own room at the Hyatt Regency, just over a bat-infested bridge from 6th Street. The band played the Levis/Fader Fort and were granted a jeans shopping spree before their set. At every show we were met by gear rental guys and venue staff who pretty much wiped out my usefulness altogether.
The singer, a woman in her mid-twenties with the poise of a child-star, said hello to me just before their fourth show of the week. It was the only time we talked.
On the last night the band did the Perez Hilton party, in a giant warehouse with two stages. They played on the early side, but not before Macy Gray, who covered Arcade Fire and was generally weird and stunning. Looking at the itinerary, I see that the band I was with played from 11 to 11:30. By about 11:32, I was clearing the stage and Snoop Dogg was starting his set across the room, close enough that I could make out the sparkle on his diamond-encrusted brass knuckles.
Backstage, one of the keyboardists said goodbye—and with that, my career as a backline tech was over. Still plenty of time to pound free drinks and get upfront for Courtney Love, who opened with “Thirteen” in honor of Alex Chilton, who had died that week. Next to me was a New York friend I’d run into earlier. She quickly got bored and tried to vault herself over the barrier in a blur of high-waisted denim and beefy bouncer flesh.
What did I gain from my week as a roadie, apart from my $500 stipend? I leave you with this fannypack of wisdom:
- Playing half-empty 6th Street dives is vastly more fun than plugging in keyboards at parties everyone wants to get into.
- Perez Hilton is a surprisingly down-to-earth guy (or he seemed so that night).
- Midnight Masses, who played to a dwindling late-evening crowd at the Fader Fort, are one of the most criminally overlooked bands around.
- It's best to take the random opportunities that come your way, incompetence be damned. Your experiences will keep you company—years later and two thousand miles away from the giant Doritos machine.
Image: Courtesy the author