The host, Dale Ashauer, also had live performances every week. He's a good man. I hadn't mixed sound before, and he showed me the ropes without a blink. Back in those days, no pre-recording was done. The band had to be available when the show aired. That's a different blog post, I suppose.
The Side Door club, on Washington Ave at 23rd (just down from the Tap Room), was one of my favorite places in the '90s for live music. It seems like my friends and I were there every other week. The stage was up a bit high and you could see the whole set up even if you were against the back wall. It was smaller than Mississippi Nights and the bands we were seeing couldn't fill MS Nights for a cover charge of less than $15. I don't think there was a much better place to see regional touring bands like Johnny Socko, Sister 7 or Shag, and the bevy of homegrown acts at the time could get a decent crowd. A free shot was handed out for correct trivia answers and the sound, to my memory, was always decent. The Side Door ranks right next to Mississippi Nights in my personal nostalgia.
Back at the radio station, I'd been doing sound for Sounds About Town for a year and was comfortable enough that I didn't need to know what kind of band was coming in every week. Sometimes we knew, sometimes not; it was a polite crapshoot. When I first started mixing live music I'd be nervous if anything other than drum/bass/guitar/vocal came through. It took a few months for me to walk in and know what needed to be done by what instrument cases were stacked in the corner.
This particular week I showed up expecting an acoustic trio Dale had casually mentioned but was met in the lobby by a dozen people. A dozen is quite more than an acoustic trio. I didn't tell him what I'm about to tell you. I was terrified. At that time the largest outfit I'd mixed was an 8 piece band with a couple of vocalists and that set up was, to be kind, fucking rough.
While there were a lot of people, it looked simple: only one drum kit, a couple of guitars, bass, two saxophones, and a DJ set up leaving 5 vocalists. Crazy but manageable. Panic stricken down.
I introduced myself to the band, three different ones as it turned out, and they must have seen the befuddled look on my face. I probably said something dumb like, "It don't be fixin' to look like y'all's in a trio is ya?" A moppy-haired guy stood up as spokesman group and related this story: "So, we were supposed to play at this place called something like 'The Side Door Club,' but when we got there it was closed."
Closed? Like, today? No farewell gig with all my favorite bands? We never even got to say (sniff sniff…good bye…sniff sniff honk). I didn't hear about how they came to KDHX this night, but the little bomb they started with threw the journalistic five Ws out the window.
I gathered myself, pulled the britches back up, the gig must go on.
First up was a hip-hop act called Titan Clash. Score! I was immediately geeked out. Up until then I had not yet had the prime opportunity of mixing a straight up hip-hop act. This was the basic, one MC and one DJ. A couple of plugs and we should be good to go.
There were two problems, however: the MC and DJ.
First, the DJ.
Back in his hometown of Chicago, no doubt sitting right by the van keys, he forgot a teeny, tiny, little plug that would connect his whole set up (pair of turntables and a mixer) and resulting hip-hop stylings through our mixing board and onto the airwaves. DJ was in the process of realizing that he drove five hours to find out the club they were to play (and get paid by) shuttered its doors, and even if it had been open he wouldn't have been able to play without that plug. As relieved as he may have been to see that didn't happen, he was also figuring out that he drove five hours to get a gig cancelled only to not be able to play at all because he forgot the connector that would have made him the star he always knew he could be. We obviously didn't have one of these plugs laying around (at that time I sometimes had to bogart mics from the air room), and no doubt he would have stranded his MC rapping to an instrumental track which was to accompany the wicky wicky wikiness that he was now watching from the sidelines.
Normally I'd give him a bit of a break, but sometimes you are assessed by the company you keep. Which brings me to the rapper.
He was awful. Awful. I don't want to lambast him too much because it's quite possible that he had a speech impediment that only came out when he rapped. In the first two songs his enunciation was so bad that the repetitive lyric "written rhyme" became so much like "rickid rhyme" that a guy in the lobby listening with some people, started yelling, "Rickid rhymes! I want some ricked rhymes!" so loud that I had to tell him to shut his beer hole. I'm pretty sure the DJ heard it, but I was too busy engineering a karaoke session to notice if a single crystalline tear chiseled a line down his cheek.
That's the other thing. The underpinning of their whole sound was to be some turntable scratching and rapping played over a music bed. They handed me a disc of the music that the MC was about to bust a rhyme to and I must have looked like an idiot because they had to keep telling me to put the disc in the CD player. "What am I supposed to do with this," I thought to myself. After all, at that exact moment a person in a different room was already playing a CD, in a CD player, that people could hear through their radio. What the hell was I supposed to do with the one in my hand? After a while I finally figured that his intention was to rap over this thing. That's what I get for not thinking inside of the box.
The third and final song held the only sign of redemption – a freestyle jam. It was the only way he could pull himself out of the credibility hole he had just base jumped into.
The improv was last minute because of the previously mentioned and still absent connecting plug. The assembled musicians gathered in the lobby and it was really interesting to listen to them talk about what their instrument could bring to a jam and how nicely they would all play together. The other two bands collectively had drums, keys, bass, guitar and two sax players. They sounded like bluegrass players to be honest. In all the genres I've mixed bluegrass musicians talked about music more than any other. I once watched seven dobro players work out a song that one had been "tinkering with" the night before right before going on air with it (true story, ask Keith Dudding). I digress. It sounded really promising, much potential.
In an effort to keep the focus on the improvised lyrics, MC gathered just the drummer and keyboardist from the second band to join him. Unfortunately, this too was a promise unfulfilled.
I can't really fault the musicians. They just couldn't get the groove. The drummer couldn't nail a groove and the keyboard player couldn't find a good hook or consistent sound. I'm not blaming them at all. I blame the MC. From a musical standpoint, the dude couldn't stay in one rhythm long enough for the musicians to find a groove. That was even true with the pre-recorded music bed on the other songs. With a better rapper they would have had a decent shot at some interesting music. In spite of the arythmic challenges each one had some cool moments. The pair just wasn't able to gel. Looking back at the song I"ve come to call "Mad Freestyle, Yo!," the girl at the beginning of "Jaws" had a better chance.
The second band was called Sorry, and the singer was a dude in a housedress and that sang like a male Katherine Hepburn in her 20s. He was awesome. The band wrote off-kilter songs based mostly in pop idioms. If they came out today they'd be huge and called "indie rock." Bloggers and hipsters would line up to say they heard of 'em before anyone else.
The ill-fated headliner was called Exoskelton and the moppy-haired guy that greeted me was the drummer and leader. They played loud and chaotic with drums, guitar, a pair of saxophones. It was all instrumental. You could call it noise rock or experimental. It was really interesting in any case, and they had a cool sense of melody. At times the saxophones would have a punishing wall of sound only to slow up and go into what I can still only describe as a shoegazer vibe. They were really interesting and I did a lousy job of mixing them. As the band was listening back afterwards they said the recording was uneven and the saxophones should have been in front of the mix. That breakdown was right on.
They booked it back to Chicago right after that quick listen. I suppose they probably finished their tour stop earlier and less sweaty than they had thought they would.
I got a great story out of the evening and an in-studio that I still listen to a bunch.