Creature Comforts

Life on the road: What bands demand when they come to Humboldt


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On a wet Friday morning, Center Arts Director Roy Furshpan and Coordinator Michael Moore Jr. stood in an aisle of the brightly lit Van Duzer Theatre, empty except for small crews buzzing around, setting up sound equipment, instruments and lights.

Furshpan and Moore were waiting on a supplier to come over the hill from Chico with instruments and sound equipment for that evening's show, the Portland-based big-band group, Pink Martini. The band doesn't travel with its own equipment, so it's up to Center Arts to hire an outfitter to meet the performers' needs.

  • Illustration by Sharon Ruchte

Furshpan and Moore weren't worried — yet. But they were thinking about the weather and State Route 299's sharp curves; about mudslides and snowy passes and flat tires. They were also thinking about how they'd furnish Pink Martini's dressing rooms, and feed the band and crew with takeout from a number of local restaurants. Because of the group's variety of tastes, a caterer wouldn't do. Furshpan and Moore are always thinking about those kinds of things. It's their job.

While Center Arts hosts about 50 shows a year, many of them famous and celebrated music, dance and spoken word acts, the work that goes on behind the curtain is far from glamorous.

The contract between a group and its hosting venue offers a unique glimpse into the life of a touring band. These documents, prepared by the band (or its management company), spell out the fees an artist will command, security details, insurance, marketing details and a slew of legal intricacies.

The Journal read through 96 contracts from Center Arts' 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 seasons in the hopes we could pull back the stage curtain on the touring life. Typically, those documents are confidential to protect artist fees and potentially embarrassing requests. But, because it's affiliated with a public agency — Humboldt State University — Center Arts provided the contracts after the Journal submitted a public records request.

  • Illustration by Sharon Ruchte

Performance contracts usually contain riders — thusly named because they "ride" alongside the legal documents — that lay out the performers' technical requirements and the terms of their accommodations. Artist payments vary wildly — many are flat fees, others take a portion of Center Arts' ticket sales. Supporting acts — the unbilled opening artists — often get paid $500 or less for a show, while the accompanying headliner earns tens of thousands of dollars for the night's performance. Some of the highest fees went to solo speakers — Garrison Keillor and Dana Carvey each pulled in $40,000 for their appearances, for example.

Technical riders are often vast and vary wildly, depending on the type of performance. Bands will include a diagram of the stage layout and how the instruments should be plugged into a mixing board. Dance troupes describe the props, stage decorations and necessary dimensions of their performance area. Pianists and others with large equipment will detail the instruments the venue must provide, and how they should be tuned.

And technical riders contain the lighting, sound and equipment directions that give shows their unique ambiance. New-folk-rockers The Avett Brothers, for example, enhance their live show with haze.

"We have to have haze!" their rider declares. "If this is an issue please contact us immediately."

Others are less specific. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain asks that house lights be on just enough so its musicians aren't looking out into a "black void." On stage, the performers ask that they be well lit, "while standing and sitting. Please note one performer is 6 feet, 8 inches tall." (If the image of an NBA-sized man playing the world's smallest string instrument tickles you, you're in good company.)

The on-stage setup for Garrison Keillor's one-man show was remarkably simple: a microphone, a stool and water.

For the most part, technical riders are reasonable and speak to the varying degrees of control different performers want over their shows. There are limitations, of course, to what Center Arts can provide when it comes to space and equipment.

A negotiating process unfolds in the margins of the contracts and riders the Journal obtained, spelled out in hand-written notations Center Arts employees make to the documents. These inform the bands' tour managers that the venue can only provide in-house sound monitoring, or that an artist must make do with 10 complimentary show tickets instead of the requested 30, for example.

The notations — and negotiations between artist and venue — become more interesting in the hospitality riders, where performers detail the specific food, drink and comfort items they need to prepare for and wind down from their shows. This is where we see what life is like on the road, and how different artists cope with the grind of touring.

Leaked hospitality riders from A-list celebrities yield all sorts of tabloid worthy gems, from Beyonce's hand-carved ice balls to Van Halen's bowl of M&M's with the brown candies removed (which the group claimed was to gauge attention to detail to ensure the safety of the band and its crew during the performance).

By and large, the touring groups that visit Center Arts request pretty normal stuff. They want a hot meal, tea, coffee, beer, wine and water. Hummus is popular. So are deli and veggie trays, granola bars and Honeycrisp apples.

Health and environment are common threads in hospitality riders. A number of bands declare their tours "eco-conscious," asking for real plateware and cutlery, and organic and fresh, local foods (sometimes while also asking for Red Bull, bottled water, sugary breakfast cereals, Easy Mac and other apparent contradictions to their salubrious lifestyles).

Furshpan says touring artists increasingly want to stay healthy during extended road trips where much of their time is spent on a bus or in a hotel room.

"If they ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three months they wouldn't be very healthy," he says. Gone are the days when riders would demand that venues supply band members with "illegal substances," he says. University policy, in fact, prohibits Center Arts from providing anyone with hard stuff, limiting bands' alcoholic green room choices to beer and wine (unless they sneak their own, presumably).

There are also a lot of dietary restrictions. "Weird Al" Yankovic is a vegan, and a member of his party is allergic to mushrooms. Gov't Mule has four fish-eating quasi-vegetarians.

Variety is the spice of life. Some contracts have meal types assigned to different days of the week to keep travelers from tiring of the same thing over and over. "A lot of riders for a while said, 'Absolutely no lasagna,'" Furshpan says, admitting that his organization was guilty of doing just that. It's easy to cater — but that's what every other venue realized, and artists were tired of having the same meal every night.

Singer-songwriter Patty Griffin goes so far as to spell out a weekly cocktail schedule: Friday, Maker's Mark; Saturday, Grey Goose and tonic; Sunday, Patron Silver and limes; etc. Alas, Center Arts cannot provide.

A number of performers want local specialties, and Furshpan says the abundance of fresh, local food in Humboldt makes it easy to accommodate. Nick Offerman, most famous for playing TV's pickiest epicure Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, specifically requests hometown specialties: "i.e. in Kansas City — best BBQ, in Philly — best cheese steak, etc."). Furshpan says Center Arts often provides performers with Cypress Grove cheese, Los Bagels items, and Mad River Brewery beer. Despite Offerman's predilection for local foods and his reputation as a carnivore, he simply ordered two salads from Abruzzi.

  • Illustration by Sharon Ruchte

And Trombone Shorty — the brass bandleader from New Orleans — doesn't want some far-away chef to try and impress him with knock-off culinary styles. "Please no Cajun or New Orleans-style food," his rider states.

A good handful of riders contain lots of bold, underlined, all-caps requests ("NO DASANI") — indicating, perhaps, they were typed up by a frustrated tour manager.

Others poke fun at the construct. Folk-punk trio The Devil Makes Three (a Humboldt County favorite) leads off its hospitality rider with the following: "Please have hot coffee and a unicorn available at load in. Immediately following load in the Unicorn is to be slaughtered and cooked to perfection. This will serve as our sound check snack. Please make sure the unicorn is cage free and grass fed. A horse with a party hat on will not be accepted as a substitute."

Some of the actual requests are just as hilarious. Naturally, Blue Man Group, famous for its explosively colorful stage shows, requests extra laundry service. Also, mystifyingly, it asks for seven 8-ounce bars of Philadelphia cream cheese, and 16 cases of "stage 4 ripeness" bananas (an explanatory chart accompanies the request).

The North African group Tinariwen can't eat pork — its members are Muslim — and the band's hospitality rider asks for hot meals after its performance, preferably "African, North African Turkish, Lebanese, ... Indian." Good luck in Humboldt, right? Maybe it's a lack of good ethnic food stateside that's made Tinariwen perhaps the most self-sufficient band to visit the Van Duzer Theatre.

"Please note," the rider continues. "Tinariwen is also fond of cooking." In lieu of a catered meal, the group simply asks for a cook pot, three-and-a-half pounds of meat, vegetables, onions, thyme and some rice or dough.

It's standard for artists on the road to request a long list of snacks and beverages to restock their tour buses. These are often long, detailed grocery lists. But others, usually solo acts who fly in the day of their performance, are remarkably simple.

  • Illustration by Sharon Ruchte

Dana Carvey, wanted only the following in his backstage dressing room: a vegetable tray for four people, Evian water on ice and three bottles of Bud Light.

Other notes highlight the frustrations of long road tours, which are by all accounts grueling. The contract for singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens soberly notes, "We do not want a club full of musicians with low blood sugar. They are absolutely impossible to deal with. Thank you (for all our sake)."

Another asks that group members be assigned rooms on different floors during local hotel stays. "Remember that we spend 12 hours a day with each other. Privacy is wonderful!"

"Weird Al" Yankovic's rider asks for a dressing room for members of the Local 501st Legion — costumed Stormtroopers who perform during a Star Wars-themed song in Yankovic's show. "Where possible," the rider states, conjuring up an image of hard-partying Imperial soldiers, "this room should be located in a SEPARATE AREA from Al and band."

That kind of request is only barely possible at the Van Duzer Theatre. There are only three dressing rooms backstage, and they look like classrooms. Furshpan and Moore, adjusting the thermostats as they prep the rooms for Pink Martini's show, say most bands spend their downtime on their tour buses, coming off only for meals and immediate pre-show prep.

The Journal's Diva Award goes to Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who played Humboldt State in 2015 and will return in May.

Wilson's rider is deliciously precise and full of passive aggressive phrasing. Like the other riders, it could be the result of a stern and frustrated tour manager or Wilson's own demands. Regardless, it's interesting to juxtapose the expectations of an acclaimed artist with the realities of the small and scrappy Van Duzer Theatre. Here are some highlights (emphases their own):

"All hotels must be of a 5-star standard ... NEVER AT AN AIRPORT HOTEL." (Center Arts notes that the Red Lion in Eureka will have to suffice.)

"One Mercedes/BMW sedan (model year 2010)." (This has been crossed out by Center Arts staff to read, "One rental vehicle from Enterprise.")

Regarding Wilson's dressing room: "This is the environment Cassandra will prepare for her performances in your venue. Dirty carpeting and marked up walls are not acceptable. If necessary, cover them with suitable rugs and wall coverings or textiles. Please make the room comfortable, a place that you would enjoy spending time in."

Inside, Wilson expects six China teacups with saucers and spoons, fresh cut flowers in a vase ("yellow roses a favorite"), glass ashtrays, scented candles and a variety of expensive wines, including Puligny-Montratecht and Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin. On stage, Wilson expects an Oriental rug. "MUST be clean with an attractive pattern; NOT a piece of carpet."

At the end of the day, Moore and Furshpan say the riders are essential for them to pull off a smooth show. They're "a list of details," roadmaps that keep the local crews from having to improvise and risk a grumpy artist or tour manager. Almost every detail of the riders — technical or hospitality — is worked out weeks ahead of the performance.

"It's rare that we've had any honest-to-god tantrums — though it has happened," Furshpan says. He wouldn't name names.

The music industry model has changed, Moore says, making artists more reliant on touring for income and, therefore, more reasonable when it comes to venues' obligations.

But touring artists are almost always accommodating of Center Arts' limitations and appreciative of the friendly and enthusiastic work Furshpan says the organization provides. Many of his crewmembers are students, eager to learn the ins and outs of stage production. "Two things we always hear," Furshpan says: "'The crew was great,' and, 'What a great audience.'"

11 Conclusions We Jumped To From Artists' Riders:

1. Brett Dennen has been beaned by a projectile: “Artist reserves the right to prohibit the sale or free promotional giveaways of any merchandise that may be determined as dangerous to artist performance and personnel. These items may include glow sticks, key fobs, balls, flammable items, Frisbees or any similar item that could be considered a flying object and inflatable items.”

2. Sharon Jones looks out for her fans: “[Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings] are happy to allow their fans to take pictures with their digital phones and point and shoot cameras. … Remember, these are kids having a good time, taking home a personal souvenir. We need vigilance and alertness, but we do not need fans to be harassed verbally or physically for taking a picture.”

3. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain doesn’t like American media: The group requests, for its dressing room, “Two newspapers (only in the UK).”

4. Zap Mama & Antibalas does needy locals a solid: The group requests that “any leftover food and drinks be delivered to a local food bank or shelter.”

5. TV makes Bobby McFerrin worried and unhappy: Regarding his hotel accommodations, “All televisions to be removed from suite prior to arrival.”

6. A drunk roadie dropped one of Dark Star Orchestra’s guitars: “We require at least six professional and sober in/out loaders.”

7. Branford Marsalis is a puzzler: He requests the “New York Times and/or the New York Times crossword puzzle” in his dressing room.

8. Garrison Keillor needs no introduction: “Speaker prefers that no introduction be used. If one is provided regardless of this preference, he asks that it be extremely brief and non-laudatory.”

9. Colbie Caillat lives up to her Malibu roots: She requests for her dressing room a “mildly scented candle from Anthropologie store.” (Sadly, Center Arts denied this request — it’s unclear if that was based on availability or taste.)

10. Pilobolus will begrudgingly put on some clothes: “Some company works contain forms of male and female nudity, both partial and full. … If the presenter anticipates a problem and the company chooses, in its sole discretion, to include such works in the event, the dancers will be clothed in an amount and manner that the company, in its sole discretion, deems appropriate.”

11. Ziggy Marley reps his brand: For the catering area, he requests “Freshly brewed hot coffee. (Marley Coffee preferred.)”

  • Illustration by Sharon Ruchte

*Follow this link to read the entire riders for your favorite Center Arts performers from the last two seasons. 


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