This is a story about a rock 'n' roll tour.
There will be no Lear jets and limo rides, however, no five-star suites, cock-crazed groupies, six-figure cocaine binges or cadres of bodyguards. No TVs will be thrown from windows, no furniture will be splintered.
This is a story about five cities, ten days and 4,000 miles. About truck-stop food; $25 per diem; surreal, sleepless nights; and that particularly virulent strain of cabin fever you can catch only by sitting in a van with four rock musicians for 32 hours straight.
This is a story about playing to a bewildered cluster of shoppers in a Best Buy store and selling out a 1,500-seat hall in the same day. It's about a veteran Tempe band with a recording contract endeavoring to navigate the no man's land between regional fame and the proverbial Big Time.
This is a story about Dead Hot Workshop on the road.
Consider yourself warned.
Sleepin' in the back for most of the way/Wake me up if we arrive ...--"Bob Hill Climbin'," off Dead Hot Workshop's 1001
Wednesday, October 4, 6:30 p.m.
The van's name is Sugar--a white, 1992, 18-seater Dodge passenger van with 120,000 miles on the odometer and an impressive rock-tour pedigree. Sugar has crisscrossed the country 14 times--four with Dead Hot tours and ten with the Gin Blossoms before someone bought the latter band a bus.
Sugar has two front seats, three benches and a small back compartment that's lined with stained cushions and old pillows. On tour, the benches and back space serve as bed and makeshift footlocker for one of the four musicians in Dead Hot Workshop. Chris Widmer, the band's triple-threat compadre--roadie, security chief and de facto road manager--is in the pilot's seat most of the time. As the tour progresses, it becomes clear that Widmer's sleep habits are extremely abnormal--as in, he never seems to do it.
The van is comfortable when the road isn't bumpy, and its ceiling is decorated with profuse graffiti to entertain the bored passenger. "Dead Hot Workshot Rules" reads one entry, scribbled in black Magic Marker by a drunken fan in Charleston on the band's last tour.
With very little fanfare--Satellite bassist PC drops by to chug a beer and bid the band bon voyage--the members of Dead Hot Workshop load instruments and amps into a small trailer, claim seats and slide the door shut. There are miles to go before they sleep. Sugar makes her way down University and turns east onto Highway 87. It's 30 hours to Columbia, Missouri.
Two hundred miles down the winding road, highway hypnosis sets in. White lines and mileposts coalesce into hypnotic visual rhythms as the van passes through no-name towns in the hush of night. Conversation is limited to perfunctory requests for water and smoking materials.
Someone is always smoking something in the van. The air is so thick with smoke, you can carve patterns in the haze with a finger--smokier even than the bars the band members make their living playing in.
It's 5:45 a.m. in New Mexico when the lights of Albuquerque blink on the horizon; 19 more hours to Columbia and a clean breath. Besides Widmer, Sugar's passengers are guitarist Steve Larson, drummer Curtis Grippe, bass player Brian Griffith, and Brent Babb--Dead Hot's lead singer, rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter.
Brent is riding shotgun in the Anger Chair--named for how you feel after sitting in it from dusk to dawn. The singer has just completed such a stretch, but he doesn't look pissed--just antsy. Dead Hot's front man has been in constant motion since the New Mexico border, nine hours ago, rocking back and forth as if he were autistic, occasionally rubbing his shaved head, and spitting out random lyrics as he moves--infusing the names of towns and words on billboard advertisements into an incessant, cut-and-paste monologue.
"The highway rolls and I can't stop rocking," goes a line from "Vinyl Advice," a track off Dead Hot's latest album, 1001--the recording this tour is supposed to promote.
Time passes. So does Oklahoma. Every three hours, the band goes through the same truck-stop ritual: stop, buy gas, score junk food, hit the bathroom. Quick. Hurry. Touring at this level is no sightseeing trip. It's about traveling a long road in a short time. Arizona; New Mexico; Texas; Oklahoma; Missouri.
It's coming up fast on midnight when Sugar finally rolls into the parking lot of the Ramada Inn in Columbia. The hotel is in the heart of downtown, walking distance from the venue for the next night's show.
There will be time enough for sleep later. After 30 hours on the road, and a few minutes spent settling into two hotel rooms, the band leaves to scout the scene, the hellish drive already a memory. Three hours later, band members stumble back (hampered more by fatigue than inebriation) and, finally, bid consciousness a sweet goodbye.
Friday, October 6, 7:30 p.m.
Sound check at the Blue Note, a restored vaudeville theatre built in the '20s. It's a magnificent house--vaulted ceilings, flowing staircases in the lobby that lead to an over-and-under set of balconies, and an ornate bar upstairs. The stage is massive, and an archway decorated with ornamental harps covers the proscenium.
Wilco, a regional favorite and the headliner on the three-band bill, is wrapping up a sound check as Dead Hot loads in its own gear.
It may not have a road crew, but Dead Hot Workshop has obviously come far since the band's first gig seven years ago in the parking lot of 6East, a Tempe dive right across from Long Wong's. Since then, the guys in Dead Hot have spent many a night headlining at Tempe clubs like Gibson's, Long Wong's and the now-defunct Sun Club. (Owned by local blues legend Hans Olson, the Sun Club was the Gin Blossoms' launching pad and a central meeting ground for the fertile music scene of late-'80s Tempe.)
Dead Hot's country-tinged desert rock--fueled by dueling guitars, a rock-steady rhythm section and Brent's tough vocals--earned the band a solid local fan base, and eventually aroused corporate attention.
Tag Recordings, a New York-based subsidiary of Atlantic Records, offered Dead Hot Workshop a deal in early 1994. Dead Hot's first release on Tag was the 1994 EP River Otis, quickly followed by the full-length 1001. (The number is a tribute to the Sun Club, which was housed at 1001 East Eighth Street in Tempe.) Since signing with Tag, the band has toured twice and landed coveted opening slots for Blue Rodeo, the Joan Osborne Band and the Bottle Rockets.
Tonight, however, Dead Hot opens for Wilco.
Satisfied with his sound level, Brian hops off the stage, walks purposefully to the bar and pans the empty club in anticipation. Thebass player is sporting his signature stage clothes: a red University of Alabama football jersey and black stretch pants. Begrudgingly, Brian recounts a hotel-elevator encounter he had shortly before arriving at the Blue Note.
"I get on, and these three black dudes get on, and they're like, 'Damn! Are you a ballerina?' And I'm like, 'No, I'm cold, and these are the pants I like to wear.'
"Anyway, I'm getting off the elevator, and I hear one of 'em go, 'Snookums!'"
Curtis and Chris, who have joined Brian at the bar, erupt in laughter.
Suddenly, Brent whips by, groaning and grimacing. "I'll never do that again," he says to himself.
"Lick a leaking battery."
Apparently, the singer was testing the batteries in his effect pedals and unwittingly licked one that was oozing acid. Battery acid, that is.
When Dead Hot takes the stage, there are only 100 bodies in the 850-capacity hall. People filter in throughout the set, however, and, by its end, the audience has swelled to more than 300. The band seems exhilarated and goes full speed ahead, filling the time between songs with a polite thank you, a second of silence, then another wall of sound.
The crowd of strangers is interested, but not enthralled. There is loud applause or hooting after each number, but the dance floor is barren except for a blond woman spinning in circles at the foot of the stage. The Columbia crowd seems to like the uptempo numbers best. "Fuck No" (or "Censored," as the tune's titled on 1001) rallies the audience, the first of a series of rockers that closes out the set.
The Blue Note clientele includes the deep-voiced, self-proclaimed mayor of Centerview--a town with a population of 189 just outside Warrensburg, Missouri. Civic-minded and clearly drunk, the mayor bellows an invitation to visit his burg--"Fuckin' we rock in Centerview! Come by, dude!"--punctuated by a slammed shot of Jägermeister.
Francis Andrews, a mid-20s guy with a freshly purchased Dead Hot Workshop sticker affixed to his black sports coat, offered this review: "I had never heard of the band, and I picked up a flier, and it had some reference to country music. What I heard was kind of a Neil Young influence. I've seen a lot of opening bands at the Blue Note, and these guys kicked ass for sure."
Saturday, October 7, 12:45 a.m.
The Blue Note backstage area is a subterranean cavity, its black walls covered in band stickers and graffiti. Dead Hot Workshop and some Tag people are sitting around a small, circular table, drinking long-neck Buds, smoking weed and joking loudly, still high from the show.
At one point, Brian and Steve get up, walk through a small side door and disappear. A short search ensues, and they are found peering through an air vent that provides a partial view of the audience--specifically, the audience's feet.
"We found a secret underground air duct beneath the stage," Steve explains in a conspirator's whisper. "You can only see people's legs, and they all got the same kinda jeans. Brian wants to stick this piece of metal out and poke people's legs with it. Here goes. Here's Brian poking people's legs. Watch the reaction."
Brian proceeds to poke away with an 18inch black rod he found in a backstage passageway. He and Steve laugh like mischievous 13-year-olds as the bass player torments the dancers. The first few victims jerk their legs in surprise like a wasp just stung them, but quickly catch on and start kicking at the screen.
Curtis peeks in to see what the ruckus is about, quickly analyzes the scene, and shakes his head like he's seen this kind of foolishness from these two before.
"You get yer teeth kicked in, boy!" he warns. Brian lets out another chortle and continues to harass the patrons.
Saturday, October 7, 1 p.m.
The train is seconds from crossing the road and annihilating anything unfortunate enough to be in its way.
Exactly how many seconds is a question of no small importance. Dead Hot Workshop is scheduled to make an "in store" appearance at (of all places) a Best Buy in St. Louis, and the band is running late.
Chris decides he can make it and guns the engine. He runs a stop sign doing 50 in a 25mph zone, narrowly avoids one, two, three cars, and narrowly beats the train as his passengers hum the theme to Mission: Impossible.
The Best Buy gig is a disaster. A local rock station supposedly sponsored and promoted the event, but no one shows up to see the band. Daunted but not about to throw in the towel, Dead Hot sets up on a tile floor in front of a few cut-rate keyboards and a car stereo wall display.
The ensuing performance is uninspired, to say the least. Brent's vocals compete with intercom announcements: "Phil, please call customer service in computers. Phil, call customer service in computers please."
Dead Hot plays five songs, then ends the misery with a quick-and-dirty cover of Tom T. Hall's "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died." A group of about 20 Saturday-afternoon shoppers bearing "What the hell?" expressions gathers to witness the spectacle. As the band is closing up shop, Brent encourages the patrons to "look for that last song on aisle eight."
Saturday, October 7, 9 p.m.
It's a good night to be a werewolf.
Black clouds in the sky over St. Louis peel back to reveal a waxy, full moon, which only intensifies Dead Hot Workshop's manic anticipation of the night to come.
This evening's venue is Mississippi Nights, a no-frills, 1,500-capacity rock club with a topnotch sound system. The club is sold out tonight, in part because of the headlining act's status as a regional band on the verge.
The Bottle Rockets are labelmates with Dead Hot Workshop, and, near the end of the Tempe band's set, Rockets singer/guitarist Brian Henneman takes the stage dressed in white bell-bottoms, a sleeveless Jack Daniel's shirt and a timeworn straw hat to help whip the crowd into a frenzy for the wind-up. "You all are gonna dig it really a lot! This is a great band, so comeondown!"
Like children to the piper, the people flood from their seats and fill the front of the house in no time. Henneman sits in on lead and back-up vocals for a rollicking cover of Neil Young's "Roll Another Number."
The Bottle Rockets then proceed to tear the roof off the sucker with a white-lightning set of highly theatrical hillbilly rock. At one point, someone in the audience offers Henneman a three-quarters-full bottle of Jack Daniel's. He graciously accepts it, then chugs it over the course of a solo, playing guitar with one hand, hoisting the bottle with the other.
The show's over at three in the morning, but bedtime is still hours away. The bands make for a bar across the Mississippi River in Illinois called Pops. The booze at Pops is cheap and the clientele is rowdy; the bar never closes. The house band is a cheesy cover group called Seventh Heaven that specializes in Meat Loaf medleys. Brent surveys the scene and offers a summation: "This place is kinda like a Festus, Missouri, high school senior trip to Rocky Point, Mexico."
Sunday, October 8, 1 p.m.
The Holiday Inn manager is knocking on the doors, calling out polite but firm reminders that check-out time was an hour ago.
Minutes later, four disheveled musicians (and one road manager) suffering from hangovers of varying severity shuffle out the lobby and into the parking lot, dragging their bags and squinting against the sunlight. Once more, it's time to ride.
The jaunt to Kansas City takes only a five hours--not enough time to recuperate. The band pulls into town around dinnertime, checks into another cheap chain hotel, orders room-service hamburgers and zones out on cable TV for an hour. Then it's up and at 'em--time to do a radio spot and load in gear for that night's gig at a small club called the Hurricane on the Missouri side of the city.
Fortunately, the radio station is within walking distance of the Hurricane, and after sound check the musicians make their way through empty downtown streets, instruments in hand, Brian strumming his guitar like a minstrel.
Dead Hot does two live acoustic numbers on the air and plays along with a deejay for a short interview, then heads back to the club for a two-hour wait before going on. The guys are visibly ragged and spend the time sitting in a stupor on a long, black leather couch backstage.
The band goes on just after 1 a.m. to an audience of 50, most of whom ignore the music, hovering around the bar and clutching drinks like pacifiers. It's a horror show of a gig, with multiple gear problems, boggyacoustics, broken strings and all the energy of apower outage.
Monday, October 9, 5 p.m.
The band takes a detour to DesMoines, Iowa, to visit Brent's mom, Suzanne, who hugs each member of the band as he emerges from the van. If Suzanne's house isn't heaven, at this point it's damn close. A home-cooked meal, showers, soft beds for all--the Rolling Stones never had it so good.
When Dead Hot leaves for Minneapolis the next morning, its entourage has increased by one--Brent's little brother Kyle, who fronts his own band in Iowa City, decided the night before to come along for the ride.
Downtown Minneapolis. Dead Hot arrives at four in the afternoon, just in time for another live-in-the-studio dog-and-pony show. Things don't go as smoothly this time. Brian says "shit" on the air, and Brent tells the deejay quite honestly that he prefers to get seriously stoned before he writes songs. The jockey ignores the comment and quickly changes the subject.
Tonight, the band is booked into the 1st Ave and 7th Street Entry, made famous as the location for the concert scenes in Purple Rain.
After yet another load-in, Brent, Steve and Brian head to the pad of a friend from Arizona to eat pizza and relax while Curtis goes in search of the nearest pickup basketball game. Whenever he can squeeze it out of the band's schedule, the drummer disappears for an hour or two and returns with tales of full-court warfare.
"The key word is 'play,'" he says of his life. "I play basketball every day, and every night I play drums." Today, he manages to get in four games before the show. While he's killing time downtown, waiting for the rest of the band on the street outside the club, an aggressive panhandler badgers him for change. After repeated statements by Curtis that he has none to spare, the man steps up his pitch and demands a dollar. Curtis stares at him menacingly and slowly reaches into his pocket. "All's I got is this little gun."
The man looks crestfallen. "All I really want to do is listen to some music and drink some beer."
Curtis puts him on the band's guest list, and two hours later the panhandler is seen inside the club, drunk and rocking out.
Tuesday, October 10, 11 a.m.
Four down, one to go.
Last night's show in the smaller room at the 7th Street Entry was a solid comeback from the Kansas City fiasco. The mix was clean, acoustics were excellent--Brent's vocals boomed off the back wall loud and clear--and the crowd of 100 took to the band like kids to candy.
Now it's back to DesMoines for the last gig of the tour at a club called, no joke, the Love Shack. The venue turns out to be more like a large basement than a shack, and, when the band arrives, there are dead smokes and flat beers strewn about the indoor/outdoor carpeting. Evidently, someone forgot to pay the help. The band hurriedly sets up gear and makes a beeline to Suzanne's for some beef stroganoff.
Brent's older brother and sister and their respective families pile into the house for the occasion, and after dinner the singer's dad and brother proudly don Dead Hot Workshop hats. When it's time for the band to leave, the entire Babb clan makes a caravan to the club.
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The show at the Shack is a homecoming of sorts for Brent, like playing an old friend's party or a high school reunion. His enthusiasm spreads easily among his bandmates. "That's the safest place in the world," he told Steve once, "when you're up there playing."
After a set break, Brent invites his little brother's band onstage. Curtis sits in on drums, and the outfit does an honorable cover of the Gin Blossoms song "Lost Horizons."
The Love Shack lives up to its name on this night, but all good gigs must come to an end. A frenzy of family hugs, a barrage of photos and it's back to the bowels of Sugar. Steve settles into his seat and muses that it takes ten days for him to get used to life on the road, and ten days to get used to being home after it's all over.
But it's not over. Not yet. There's a 1,100mile-long vein of asphalt between DesMoines and Tempe. Twenty-four hours of going backward.