Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Soundcheck: Where The Real Performance Takes Place!

You can tell a lot about a band by the way they soundcheck.

While others pay good money to marvel at the finished product, some of us get endless kicks out of watching true artists conduct themselves in those moments before the stage lights go up and how a concrete lump of clay (your average sports arena) can be molded into a mind-blowing audio-visual experience for every single person in that arena, nosebleed section included.

Of course, soundchecks differ greatly depending on the level of venue and/or band.

Take your average fledgling middle-of-the-bill indie singer-songwriter who is backed by an ever-changing rag-tag team of nitwits and hired guns who approach their brief soundcheck as an opportunity to run through the one song everyone completely fucked up during the one and only rehearsal for this particular show because each member is juggling a minimum of four other bands. 

Your more stable line-ups are smart enough to have their shit down cold, musically, but scarred enough by past nightmare gigs to all but take matters into their own hands to ensure their stage monitor levels are dead on the fucking money. 

Once you reach the level of, say, a Schuba's or Metro, you're probably also finding your way onto the occasional concert stage from time to time, which is where soundchecks become an altogether different beast.

The first time a baby band soundchecks in an arena can be a little intimidating, but highly entertaining for who keep their eyes on the drummer, for whom that first arena soundcheck can be a near-orgasmic experience. 

After having mics thrust into air holes that had never been mic'ed before, the sound guy will invariably ask the drummer to give him some kick drum. Seconds later, the kick drum that has gone mostly unnoticed during years of sweaty basement rehearsals is suddenly transformed into a deep and thunderous beast.  

That's when the drummer's entire demeanor changes and they begin viewing themselves through the audience's eyes. Thankfully, soundcheck ends before the newly emboldened drummer can unleash yet another tom-heavy ode to "In The Air Tonight".

At that point, all the openers can do now is watch how the headliners carry themselves as they arrive at the venue in a fleet of stretch limos.

That's when it becomes gloriously obvious that one of the many fringe benefits of being an arena-level rock star is that you don't have to carry jack-shit.

Also, unlike you and your "Les Paul in a gig bag", the headliners have road cases for




Also, each member has their own stage tech and dozens of roadies at their beck and call. 

The more frantically a band's roadies run about the stage with flashlights and gaffer tape in preparation for their band's performance, the more casually and nonchalant that band's members will saunter onstage, one by one, completely oblivious to the apparent coup attempt that their crew successfully thwarted. 

The next thing you'll notice is that guys like Keef, or Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers haven't strapped on their own guitar in at least forty years. That, my friend, is living the dream.

Some say life on the road is glamorous for about a week and then it becomes an endless slog, but, if you happen to find yourself opening an entire tour  for a well-known band - say, 30 or 40 shows - that band's soundcheck will become your daily soap opera.

Not only might you be lucky enough to watch them casually jam out on some of their well-known cuts, but you might even catch Slayer bust into an impromptu "Tush" in shorts and flip flops.

For bands with two or three decades of hits, entire soundchecks are often devoted to songs they would never think of playing live for fear that one of those hits wouldn't be played.

It was widely known for decades that the Stones would go on lengthy blues jams or dive into all sorts of deep cuts during rehearsals for their own amusement and, for those die-hard fans who were as sick of hearing the hits as the band was of playing them, VIP access to a Stones soundcheck became a sort of holy grail.  

The coin flip was whether Mick would soundcheck at all. 

Nothing against Keith as a singer, but if you called in a huge favor to land a "now we're even" VIP pass and Mick was a no-show at soundcheck, but then you hear through the grapevine that the next night's soundcheck at the same venue was a Mick, Keith and Bobby Keys delta blues tour de force, you'd be rightly disappointed.

My biggest thrill was watching bands work up new material during soundcheck over a period of several weeks that you just knew was going to be their next big hit, or, at the very least, the musical high point of their next album.  

For other bands, soundcheck can be a bit of a mixed bag.

Take your average '80s new wave act caught in a seemingly endless tsunami of nostalgia-themed pleasure cruises. 

Resigned to the fact that nobody gives a flying fuck about their latest album, but thousands will actually plan their vacations around hearing just the one hit from 1982 in a booze cruise, members of The Fixx or Naked Eyes will run through their songs in a manner that is as spiteful as it is detached, with little to no acknowledgment of their fellow bandmates.

Of course, my favorite soundcheck cliche of sorts is the guitarist who has played a million shows with the exact same set-up, yet wander onstage and fiddle endlessly with his dozens and dozen of stomp boxes, as if having never seen or used them before.  

Also, is it federal law that all lead singers have to be the last to show up, whether they play an instrument or not?

The true oddity of the rock world, however, remains the band that is uniformly horrible at soundcheck - to the point that other people are starting to catch eyes with one another as if to say "Can you believe these guys are famous?" yet always manage to pull it all together by showtime. 

One thing is for sure, while the shows themselves might be choreographed and scripted right down to the "Hello Cleveland" after the first song, no two soundchecks are ever the same.

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