Roadies: What they are, and what they are not

Roadies:  What they are, and what they are not

Head-East-Roadies

Head-East-Roadies:  top: Mike Wilkinson, lighting designer; Don Parker; Stan Gill, stage manager. bottom: Lenny Hortter, audio engineer; Jeff Idoux; Darryl Pruehsner, audio engineer. (photo by D.Fisher)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to a nightclub with an SUV filled with keyboard gear, to be greeted by one of the regular barflies with, “Hey, man. Can I be your roadie for the night?” And because I need the help, sometimes I’ll say, “You can help me haul these speakers inside, thanks.” But what I’m really thinking is, “This guy has no idea what a roadie is.”

Several decades ago, when I was in my first working band, we opened a show at the Benld Coliseum Ballroom in southern Illinois, a venue reputed to have been run by friends of Al Capone out of Chicago during Prohibition. As we were pulling our gear off stage, four of the biggest guys I had ever seen started carrying in these massive speakers, throwing them up in stacks, then cranking up sets of floodlights and spotlights on genie lifts, plugging in amplifiers, and less than twenty minutes after the last note of our show, these guys – the roadies – stepped aside and the headline band – The Guild – hit the stage with one of the best looking, best sounding nightclub shows I can remember. But it was the pre-show by the roadies that impressed me the most.

I spent six years in the 70s as a roadie. Here’s what roadies are not. They are not a bunch of frat boys who meet you at their college gig and help you set up for their annual event. They are not your old high school buddies who find you at the back door of your hometown bar and help you carry your stuff in so they don’t have to pay the cover charge. They are not the girls who followed you from the last gig and don’t want to be called ‘groupies’ but want to spend more time with the band. And they certainly are not the regular barflies who just want a chance to talk about their favorite old rock bands before the show.  I’ve heard, “Hey, man, can I be your roadie?” from every one of these people. The ability to move a piece of equipment from the street to the stage does not make anyone a roadie. And try to find them after the show to move it all back out. If it happens, it’s because they want to have at least one more drink before the bouncer kicks them to the curb.

Despite their reputations, roadies also are not a group of stoned-out hippies who pour out of a bus before the show, snarf down all the band’s food and booze, party all day, hang out at the stage door smoking, and crawl back in the bus with the band’s castoff groupies before they pass out for the trip to the next gig.

Roadies – the “road crew” –  are an experienced group of well-trained professional technicians, employed by the band to make them look and sound great. In contrast to the “stage crew” – the sometimes well-trained technicians who are employed by the night club, or the theater, or the festival organizers – a band’s roadies travel to every show with the band, or ahead of the band. They meet with the promoters, the stage crew, with the security force, the caterers, and the venue management, making sure that the band has everything it needs to put on a successful show. Roadies are often specialists: an electrician, a carpenter, an electronics wizard, a lighting designer, an audio tech, a structural engineer, an event organizer, a paymaster, an advertising genius. Depending on the size of the road crew, a band may have more than one roadie doing each of these jobs, or there may be only a couple guys doing everything, but they do them well…and they do them consistently.

So…musicians. When your band gets to the point you need some help schlepping your gear around, look for professionals. Look for people who will represent the band the way you want to be represented. You may be the only band on the show. You want your roadies to project the attitude that you are a tightly run organization. Impress the club owner and his employees with their skills. Impress him with their cooperation. It’s your crew’s job to make the band look and sound good, and that starts when they meet the guy who pays you. You may be the hot new opening band working in front of a popular headliner. You want your roadies to make an impact on their roadies with competence and a collaborative mindset. It’s a concert, not a competition. Your crew may very well be the reason you are invited back for more shows with the same headliner. Or, maybe your band is the well-polished act closing the show. If so, you want your roadies to be in charge, but with an attitude of respect toward the other bands on the show. That other band may be on its way up…and you might meet them again on your way down. I’ll say it again, “It’s a concert, not a competition.”

And for goodness sake, take care of your roadies. If you’re playing a restaurant, make sure they are fed, even if the band isn’t. If the event is catered, let the road crew eat first.  If the band travels by bus, hire a truck driver too, so the crew can get some rest between gigs. If the musicians are playing for a cut of the door, make sure the roadies get a fair night’s pay.  If you are touring, and the musicians get a salary, put your roadies on a salary for the duration of the tour. That way, when money gets tight for the band, your road crew will remain loyal, even if they have to grab another job until you get back on your feet.

I say all this from prior experience, but have to admit that Kingdom Brothers is not a band with roadies, yet.  I look forward to the day, but for now we still haul all our own gear in our own vehicles.  We still hope for a good stage crew at each venue with some experienced techs to help us look and sound good. But on occasion, when we need to bring our own sound and light systems to an event, we always contract with Strictly Audio STL – not just because the company belongs to Kingdom Brothers bass player Bob Walther, but because Bob hires professional roadies.

So the next time you’re at a great-looking, great-sounding show, look for the team working backstage, setting up microphones, tuning guitars, shining cymbals, crawling under the stage to run wires, climbing the trusses to focus lights, or hanging speakers from the rafters, then leading the band out on a dark stage by flashlight, and sure…maybe partying hard after the show, once everything has been packed away. If you can get their attention without distracting them from their jobs, tell them thanks. Roadies, the life blood of the music industry.

By:   Stanley Gill

click here to read about the band Head East

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