Sparked by the inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis on Saturday, I am posting some chapters from my musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 39, so 14 chapters have passed since "In the Hothouse Basement," my previous post. Now their record No Depression is out, they are the darlings of Rolling Stone, and my band Enormous Richard is trying to soak up what they are learning to follow them down the road.
The Allure of the Ever-Elusive Exposure Gig
By Chris King
I don’t imagine that booking road shows for an unknown rock band will ever be easy, but with the internet at least the research is a cinch. Now that every band, large and small, has a website with a gig calendar that provides links for the venues they play, all you need to do is find the site of a band you admire and go after the gigs they have been getting.
In early 1991, when we stumbled onto the road, musicians only used the word “click” to talk about the despised “click track”, a metronome signal that helps drummers keep time. “Link” was a word spoken only when choosing one’s sausage option from a diner breakfast menu. Finding the cool places to play in towns where you had never set foot was much, much trickier than clicking through a bunch of links on some other band’s website.
Print sources and word of mouth were the only avenues. If we played with a traveling band at Cicero’s, I would pick the lead guy’s brain, and pursue a gig swap down the road. If anyone I knew was traveling for any reason, I asked them to grab the hipster weekly in every place they passed through; the Cicero’s equivalent in any town was obvious at a glance. I signed up on mailing lists for bands I liked and devoured their postcard itineraries. And we followed the paths out of town blazed by Judge Nothing, their buddies the Bishops, and Uncle Tupelo.
The Bishops, fronted by a man with the greatest natural born name in the history of rock and roll (Fritz Beer), provided a cautionary tale for the touring band. Matt stayed in touch with their bassist, Ben, his erstwhile bandmate in Butt of Jokes, and Ben told us of a two-gig tour from the inferno. Friday, New York; Saturday, Chicago. In a van, over the road. Why, in the hell, would four grown men do that to themselves? For the dream, and the killing lure of the exposure gig, that’s why.
Gig exposure is the only hope of the independent band. Radio isn’t going to play you. Press in distant towns is almost impossible to get, unless it’s a preview of a local show. You have to count on a club bookie who not only likes your band, but who understands it, and who takes the time to pair you with a local band whose audience should appreciate you. An opening slot before a sizable, sympathetic crowd – this is the ever-elusive exposure gig.
Uncle Tupelo’s manager, Tony Margherita, spoke highly of a guy from Dayton, Ohio named Mick Montgomery. Never sneer at a town like Dayton or a bookie like Mick, was Tony’s counsel. Dayton was six hours east of St. Louis. Not an end in itself but a future routing gig, a place to make fifty bucks, play in front of some new faces and break up the drive to the East Coast, where all ambitious bands must go. Mick was an old musician who came up with sensible band pairings. That meant that his club, the Canal Street Tavern, gave good exposure.
Mick liked our cassette Why It’s Enormous Richard’s Almanac. When I finally caught him on the phone with time to talk, a magic act that required perhaps a dozen prior calls to conjure, he asked a very good question. “Does this tape still represent your sound?” Er, no. Not in the foggiest. An accordion had replaced the banjo and classic rock had replaced the roadhouse guitar and we now sounded big and silly, not scratchy and sly. Oh. Hmmm. The jug band he had in mind wouldn’t work, then. Call back. So Mick reshuffled the deck and I called every indie rock venue within a half-day’s drive of St. Louis. One big target was Columbia, Missouri and its beautiful old theater, the Blue Note, Uncle Tupelo’s first home outside of Cicero’s and their biggest payday.
The bookie at the Blue Note was another smart guy named Richard King. His intelligence tilted more toward the business side of the exchange. With Mick Montgomery, I felt the exposure was for our sake – it was as if he wanted us to be happy and prosper. Richard King seemed focused on grooming a new franchise, another band he could bank on. “Maybe I could get you guys in front of Uncle Tupelo,” he told me. “Let me work on that. Call back.” Imagine a stoned graduate student spending his days on the phone, calling Columbia, Dayton, Louisville, Memphis, Chicago, Kansas City, paging through his calendar as a dozen bookies paged through their calendars and spent their days on the phone, smoking cigarettes and scratching band names on the edges of calendar pages, until, finally, things began to click.
Mick Montgomery had a Friday spot for us at Canal Street Tavern. Fridays are a cherished weekend slot, when people actually go out to bars (and we wouldn’t have to burn two work days to do it). The pairing wasn’t perfect – we would be opening for a local band that parodied the 70s – but it was the best he could do for now. And hey! Richard King had a Blue Note show for us on a Saturday! The very best night of the week! Opening for Uncle Tupelo, the very biggest draw in the state! Rock and roll!
There was one crucial broken link here. This Friday and Saturday fell on the same weekend. Dayton was six hours to the east. Columbia was two hours to the west. What’s an unknown rock band without a van to do? Reschedule Dayton, right? Work our day jobs on Friday? Stay fresh for the big gig right in our own backyard on Saturday? Prepare to follow in Uncle Tupelo’s footsteps by building that monster audience in Columbia, a town full of drunken college kids with nowhere to go for rock shows besides the Blue Note? Forget Dayton, for now? Oh, no. Not when it’s your neck that’s stiff from calling Dayton, Ohio. Not when you want to pave your way to the East Coast. Not when you are living under the lure of the exposure gig. Not when it’s your dream, man.
Previous posts in this series
In the Hothouse Basement
Photo: Members of Enormous Richard, Judge Nothing, and other locl bands at the birth of the St. Louis indie rock scene.