Bill and Katinka needed a driver for a couple weekend gigs out of town and asked me. Milwaukee, then Iowa City. I haven’t made money driving in over seven years and had told myself I’d never do it again. But this was different. I’d get to help a couple great musicians do their thing. Plus: being the first person at the show, I could choose where ever I wanted to sit. I said I’d do it.
My old Sunday doorman Brian works at Enterprise and has hooked me up with cheap rentals. I go in and pretend to be his cousin and get the family rate. The trouble with favors and special treatment is that it’s harder to complain when things go wrong. When I come in to pick up the SUV for the Milwaukee drive, there are no SUVs. Evidently Brian’s plan was to upgrade me from a sedan at the last second to knock another $10 off the rental, but the coworker tasked with the switch didn’t get the memo. It all got straightened out, but it meant a couple wasted hours and a promise to myself to stop asking Brian for ‘family’ deals.
The drive was easy and Acme Records was a great place for a show. Ken, the owner, even bought some of my books for the shop—purely because of the Mick Collins blurb, he said. His band, the Black Lake Ensemble, opened with a trancey set of guitar and cello drones, performed in near darkness, the illumination from some flickering candles placed around the stage. I’d have made a sketch but could barely see my hands, let alone the paper.
I’ve heard Bill and Katinka play many times and each performance is different. I know there’s improvisation involved, but the room and the audience alter their shows more than other bands. That night’s set was warm and intimate, which reflected Acme. It felt like a concert for friends, played in a lived space. Katinka remarked that talking with people before playing made her more at ease. It felt relaxed, but not in a lazy way, more like their playing reflected the comfort they felt.
The next weekend we drove four hours west to Iowa City. I’d done a reading at Prairie Lights and had an art show in that town a few years back, so I didn’t need directions. We were planning to stay overnight at an Airbnb the promoter arranged, but when we arrived at the building there seemed to be no place to unload. So we idled in the parking lot of a neighboring building while Bill waited for the guy to arrive with further instructions. Some fifteen minutes later, a harried man with a beard and a beanie emerged from the apartment house. Seems he couldn’t determine which apartment was ours and had been running up to random doors trying the code the host had given him. The host wasn’t answering his calls. He suggested we go find something to eat and he’d join us at the venue. After lunch, a variation of the same comedy repeated itself. The place where Katinka and Bill were to play was the Old Capitol Museum and there seemed to be no way to get a motor vehicle up to its doors to unload our gear. After waiting for a call for further instructions for sometime, we were directed to drive up on the footpath on the grounds and back up to the side door of the old building.
At some point during the process, I floated the idea of driving back to Chicago after the show rather than spending the night.
A nervous young woman with curly haired fiddled with a wireless microphone as Bill and Katinka set up. She was a visiting poet from Latvia tasked with opening the show. She was very, very nervous even before her mic started making Bill’s amp emit high-pitched whistling feedback. They decided to perform acoustically while backing her reading. But between her heavy accent and inexperience holding a microphone, few of her poems registered. There were many references to breasts and something about her heart going through a garlic press, I think.
The music this night was very different than at Acme a week before. More prickly and echo-ey. A reflection of the room and, perhaps, some of the minor technical glitches which led up to showtime. I enjoyed it as a reflection of the experience of that day. Bill and Katinka never play the same way twice because no two days are alike. I felt lucky to be in the front row both times.
On the drive home I wondered whether being a roadie could be a good way for me to make a living at this point. The art and books aren’t going anywhere, but the audience seems to shrink rather than grow. There are fewer and fewer publications that want to pay me to write and my art prices have gone down rather than up. Perhaps it’s time to stop expecting money for my work altogether and go back to just doing jobs. Between bartending and hauling musicians to gigs maybe it could be a living.
There are worse ways to get by.