The stage was being set in a standard "peel-away" format: the gear for all three bands would be on stage at the beginning, and as each group performed, they would remove their gear, leaving a slightly larger playing area for the next group.
The Pop Rocks would be the last band, so we had to clear all of our stuff out of the way so they could do their setup. Ryan, Jed and I dragged all our stuff down off the stage and watched as the four ladies of The Pop Rocks, with the help of a couple roadies, hauled their gear inside the Garrison Valley Ballroom and up onto the stage.
As far as professional musicians went, Riot Band was pure amateur-hour. We had a good set of songs and we rocked as hard as we could, but we really didn't know much about how things were supposed to properly go. Our 'manager' didn't know any more than we did. So it filled us with a shade of awe to watch a full, proper, professional touring band go through the motions of their load-in.
"Check that out," Ryan said, pointing to the wall of amplifiers being set up along the back of the stage. "Their cabinets have the Pop Rocks logo painted on. There's a ton of money worth of gear up there right now. Hey, manager," he said to Nick, "when do you think we'll be able to afford a setup like that?"
"I have no idea," Nick said. He had his sunglasses up on top of his head so he could see the action on stage. The roadies were bringing in lighting rigs. The girls were busying themselves with their instruments.
"These guys have made the leap," Nick said. "From basement parties to clubs. From youtube to music TV. They've got professional help, you know? They've been at this for a while. They paid their dues, and they've made the jump to the big league. And they're probably still barely making any money, you know?"
"It's funny," I said. "My buddy Knelson plays with his band every weekend. They hit the bars in the small towns and play covers, and they make good money doing it. He's not buying castles or anything, but they make money."
"Too bad we can't do that," Ryan said. "Except for the covers. Just play the small towns and make some cash. We could probably make more than Keith pays us to play at the restaurant."
"Sure, but small towns only want covers," Jed said. "I've played small towns. They don't want to hear your songs, no matter how good they are. And they definitely don't want trippy blues thrash, or whatever the hell it is we play."
I laughed. "We transcend genre. But you're right; that's exactly how it is in the towns around Rose Creek. The people are conservative. They don't want change. That's why they listen to oldies, country, or classic rock stations. They only want to hear what they already know."
"I wish there were some way we could turn that around on its head," Ryan said. "Maybe do a tour of small towns and not play one cover. Call it the 'Uncovered' tour."
"Forget it," Jed said. "You'd have to rent a mountain of gear, plus a vehicle. And you'd never find enough places to book you. You'd lose money every day."
"You have to be tactical," Nick said. "If you want to play the small towns, it has to pay. Look." He pointed to a few of The Pop Rocks' roadies. Now that the musical equipment was all on stage, they were bringing in boxes of merch. "That's something else we should think about. Seriously, we're only scratching the surface of what we could be doing."
"Yeah. Even this," I said, "playing a large venue, opening for an up-and-coming act with a national audience, this is going to be partly wasted. We're going to be seen by a lot of people, but what good is it going to do us? We're not going to make much money off the gig itself, and we're not promoting anything for down the road. We're not selling anything. This is a one-night, one-off."
"Sure," Nick said. "But it's still worth while. It's experience. It's exposure."
"I think you guys are taking this too seriously," Jed said. "Don't get me wrong. This is all cool. Shit, even the fact that Nick was able to weasel us in here is pretty amazing. But I hope you guys don't get ideas that we're going to keep going up, and up, and up. I hate to say it, but there's a good chance this is the best we can hope for."
Ryan gave him a punch in the arm. "Thanks for the pep-talk, Captain Depresso. Damn, if you think we suck so much, why do you even bother coming? You could go lie down on the highway and wait for a truck to put you out of your misery."
"Hey, I'm just being realistic," Jed said. "I mean, we're doing pretty well, but this is a tiny city, and it doesn't really mean much. We should just try to enjoy the moment, and not worry about whether one gig is going to help us make it to the top. Just have fun, because it's not going to last forever."
We all stood there, letting his words soak in. Up on stage, the four young women of The Pop Rocks were starting their sound check, pounding drums, and checking microphones. "Hell," Ryan said. "I'm going for a cigarette."
By the time Ryan came back in, The Pop Rocks had finished their check. They marked up the stage with tape, and then covered their drums, cabinets and keyboards with black sheets. Then they hopped down off stage and headed straight out the front door.
"They didn't hang around long, did they?" I asked, climbing up on stage.
"I'd leave if I were them too," Ryan said. "They've got a huge tour bus parked outside. It's the size of a hotel."
"Cool," Jed said. "That's bad-ass. Are we going to try and get in there? Party with them?"
"I'm in," Ryan said. "Do you figure they've got giant sacks of cocaine and shit like that?"
"Yeah, because you're such a coke-head," I said. "Just don't snort up their artificial sweetener by mistake."
"Right," Ryan said with a snide smile. "Too bad you won't be able to come on the bus with us," he said. "I'm sure your little girlfriend would have issues with you wanting to party with the big girls on their bus."
* * * * *
That night, after fuelling up on burgers and poutine, we sat at the back of the room and watched the crowd fill the room. Lise arrived and sat with us. There were a lot of other girls her age arriving, but Lise didn't really fit in with the crowd. She was there in black denim and a Ramones t-shirt. All the other girls were wearing uniforms straight from Hipsters-R-Us: ripped faux-vintage stuff from Garrison Valley's thrift shops, huge glasses, and layers of tight, shiny leggings and tops.
The show was all-ages (alcohol served to those with wrist-bands), and the demographic that was arriving skewed young. High school aged, mostly, and primarily girls. Riot Band was used to playing a skuzzy bar where under-aged girls (including Lise) were not allowed.
"Guys," I asked, "do you think we should drop 'Heroin' from the set-list? It seems a bit weird to sing about drugs in front of kids this young."
"Aww, that's so cute," Lise said, running her fingers through the hair at the back of my neck. "You want to protect these innocent children from the dangers of drugs." She laughed. "You douche. These kids have probably all done more shit than you."
"Yeah, don't worry about it," Nick said. "Let's just play our set. Nobody will care what the songs are about anyway. They're all going to be waiting for The Pop Rocks."
Ryan shook his head. "There you go again, Nick," he said. "Let's play our set. You keep forgetting that you don't--" He stopped, and suddenly stood up. "Oh, no she didn't," he said. "Yep, it's her. Okay, guys. I'm going to go over there and flip out."
He started walking towards the bar, and I saw what he was talking about. Standing by herself, sipping cola through a straw, was Emily, one of the reporters from The Typesetter who had given us the nasty review. I got up and started after Ryan. We didn't need him getting arrested for punching out a crappy university music writer.
"What a surprise," he said, as soon as he got up to her. "I wouldn't have expected you to come see a shitty band like us a second time."
Emily looked at him and her blue eyes popped wide open in surprise. She still had the straw in her mouth, and carefully, with finger and thumb, she took it from between her lips and smiled. "Oh, hello."
"Oh, hello," Ryan said in a loud, exaggerated manner. "Seriously, what the fuck are you doing here? Isn't one shitty review enough? You've already told the world how much we suck."
"Ryan," I said, grabbing his shoulder. "Calm down, dude."
"I never said you guys suck," she said.
"Oh, no," Ryan said. "Of course not. What was it you said? Um, conceited, delusional, can't sing, can't play guitar. What else? Rhythm-challenged! That's it. Rhythm-challenged."
She stirred her drink. "We were fair, okay? We didn't make anything personal. We just reported what we saw."
"Right. So why would you come to see us a second time?"
"Dude," I said into his ear. "She's not here to see us. She's here for The Pop Rocks."
Ryan looked at her. She smiled and nodded. "That's right," she said. "I'm not here to watch you."
"Well," he said, "I hope you get to interview them so you can twist their words around too. You f--king suck as a reporter!"
"Dude, seriously." I grabbed his shoulder and started pulling him back to our table.
Her face got red. "Yeah, well, your band sucks," she snapped back.
"Your whole newspaper sucks!" he shouted as I dragged him away. "And you're fat!"
"What?" Her jaw completely dropped. "You asshole!"
"Dude, dude," I said. "Stop, leave it! Too much, man. Way too much." I got him back to our table. It felt the same as pulling a teammate out of a scrum in a hockey game, trying to keep him from getting kicked out of the game.
"What the hell are you doing?" I said, holding him by the sleeves of his shirt and getting in his face. "What good is it going to do? She still writes for the paper, you know that? Even if she's here to review the other band, she can still put in there what assholes we are. You can't do us any good acting like an idiot."
Jed and Nick got up and crowded around, asking what happened, and trying to settle Ryan down. I peeked over my shoulder. Emily was still over near the bar, talking to another girl, but every few seconds she was sending angry looks our way.
"Ryan, dude," I said, looking him firmly in the eye. "You've got to apologize. Seriously, you've hurt us here. She can totally trash us to everybody, way worse than just a bad review. And that's not all, man. That was really uncool. You've got to say sorry."
He looked at the floor and shuffled his feet like a misbehaving child. "To hell with her," he said.
"Eric is right," Jed said. "You should go talk to her."
Ryan nodded. "Fine, okay. Jeez. You'd think you guys would back me up." He started to walk over, his head hanging down. I held onto his arm.
"Not right now, man," I said. "She's pissed off. Let her calm down a bit first. Go over later and buy her a drink or something."
"Okay," he said. "Um. I'll wait until after the first band."
The guys from opening band were hanging around on the stage area. It was almost time for them to start. "Sounds fine," I said. "Just sit down and relax, okay? Just chill the hell out."
They sat and I nodded to Lise. "You want to come outside? Get some air?" She got up and joined me.
"What was that all about?" she asked as we walked to the exit.
"Ryan was just showing us what he learned in charm school."
We got outside. The bus was still parked there near the steps. Its door was open, although no one was there. Lise pulled out her secret packet and took out a cigarette. Naturally, it was tobacco blended with the green stuff.
She lit up, took a drag and offered it to me. "I'll wait until after the show," I said. "I have a feeling there's going to be weirdness tonight."
As if on cue, James came around the corner of the building. Not that there's anything weird about James, but he had his girlfriend with him. Meghan: a beautiful girl, but 100% nasty attitude.
"Hey guys," James said sheepishly. You could see that he was just cringing, waiting for whatever Meghan might say. He didn't have to wait long.
"Oh look," she said, starting in on Lise immediately, "she's smoking a skankerette. You should be careful. I've heard those are bad for you."
"So you say," Lise said with a sneer, "but I bet you'll be asking for some soon enough. And then complaining about it. And then asking for more."
"Yeah, right," Meghan laughed. "Well, if I want any awful weed, I'll be sure to ask you."
"Don't even bother," Lise said. "I wouldn't let you smoke the stems."
"Okay, enough with this shit," I snapped. "What the hell is the matter with everybody tonight? We're here to play a show, okay? Let's cut the crap, could we please?"
There was laughter from behind us. I turned around, and there was the good-looking redhead from The Pop Rocks, standing in the doorway of her tour bus. "I knew it," she said. "I was sure I smelled drama out here. Nothing is easy for Riot Band, is it?"
2010, Nolan Whyte