Hello, MD readers. Over the course of my career I’ve had the good fortune to travel all over the world. It’s probably easier to list the places where the music hasn’t taken me (geographically speaking) than where it has. That’s why, when I got a call recently to go to Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe on a two-week tour with an old musical friend of mine, electric bassist Victor Bailey of Weather Report/Steps Ahead/Madonna fame, my interest was piqued. Not only do Victor and I enjoy a great musical and personal rapport, but this was a part of the world I’d never been to.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union sixteen years ago, an increasing number of musicians in every genre have been taking advantage of the huge, largely untapped markets and appreciative audiences of Russia and its former Soviet Republics. So, after a quick but intense two days of rehearsal, off we went. Our first gig was in a city called Magnitogorsk, a steel town built with little regard for environmental concerns. Suffice it to say, the air was hard to breathe. Whether it was due to pollution, low double-digit temperatures, or altitude, I can’t quite say.
We were in transit thirty-six hours between the time I left my front door and when we arrived. This is one of the drawbacks of international touring. They say that we as touring musicians don’t get paid to play music, we get paid for the travel and its hardships. The music is the fun part, and truth be told we’d probably do it for free.
So we get to Magnitogorsk, and there’s no cable TV, no CNN. The hotel is in a sketchy neighborhood, and it’s cold. But they have a jazz society, and we’re playing in small theater that has five or six hundred seats. After catching up on some badly needed sleep, we go to soundcheck, and–horrors–the gear is strictly second-rate. You can’t travel with much equipment these days because 1) the airlines charge exorbitant rates for overweight, and 2) there’s a very good chance of your stuff getting lost or broken by the airlines. You usually get it back, but it’s a big headache and the tour is generally over by the time you do. So despite a very specific rider with equipment specifications of every type–which the promoter has agreed to and assured us of having met–there I was with a mid- to entry-level drumkit without enough hardware, never mind the sketchy MIDI keyboards and bass amp.
To cut a long story short, we made do equipment-wise and played a pretty respectable first show, all things considered. The house was sold out, and there were big smiles all around. We played one more big city, Voronezh (population: 1 million), before we hit Moscow for a three-night stand at a club. Moscow has an international big-city feel–13 million people, hustle and bustle, gridlock, some of the worse traffic ever—and that’s coming from a New Yorker. The audience is appreciative, although we got the feeling that the club was a “big night out” kind of place–they didn’t really know what the group was about musically. After the first night, though, a hipper crowd showed up: Warm people, great food, but the language barrier is deep. It’s the same story with the gear, though: entry-level drumkit, sketchy electronic keyboards and amps—. But you know what? It just makes you bear down really hard and cut through the BS. That’s where the discipline and experience of being a professional comes into play. Get a sound and hit. As the saying goes, the show must go on.
While we were in Moscow, we also got to do some sight-seeing. Saw Lenin’s tomb and Red Square–very picturesque and historical–then it was off to Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lithuania is closer to the West, near Scandinavia and Germany. The feel is very modern, everyone speaks English, and the gear is first-rate. Too bad it’s only a one-nighter. Our last hit is in Pula, Croatia, in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. This is a resort town on the Adriatic, the narrow body of water to the east of Italy. Pretty town, nice people.
By this time the band is starting to click. It’s always like that. Build up your road chops, get everything really flowing musically, and then it’s time to go home. So we do the show, everybody loves it, and we have a 4:30 a.m. lobby call to drive two hundred kilometers to the airport in the capital city of Zagreb, to catch a connecting flight home.
What’s a European tour without a little last-minute drama, though? The van that’s supposed to take us and all our baggage is nowhere to be found. A guy rolls up in a beat-up station wagon and says there’s a blizzard, and what was a two- to three-hour drive will now take five to six. There’s not enough room inside, and there’s real possibility that we’re going to miss our flight, which means big expenditures to buy new airline tickets for everyone to get home. Bummer. Somehow we commandeer a little Fiat with broken windshield wipers and no heat, cram in, and drive five and a half hours in a caravan through a blizzard to the airport. We made it.
Music is my life.