Music News

Four Thousand Miles From Tempe

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.

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Jonathan Bond