July-August 2013

The Opening Act Part II

By Dennis Roger Reed

Marcia Ball
Marcia Ball

I waxed eloquently over the issues related to being an opening act some time back. Here’s sort of a spin on that, and it also allows me to shamelessly drop names and imply that my mere moments in their world made me a star, too. Cue sappy music.

I recently sat down and tried to remember every artist I’ve opened for. This includes as a solo, duet or in any of a number of bands I’ve been in. You’ll note that these artists cover blues, bluegrass, folk, rock and country. So have I. Jack of all trades, master of, well, you know…

As you will note, the opening act experience remains unique. Although I would be exaggerating to say I’ve made any lifelong friends simply by opening for them, I have had some very positive experiences and some negative ones. Mostly they fall somewhere between the two…

Marcia Ball, blues pianist, spirited vocalist: Great piano player, longest legs in the blues, one of the nicest people you could imagine meeting. Said my name wrong during her on stage thank yous, was corrected by the audience but made it a point to find me after the show to apologize. Profusely. And suffered through witty repartee like our harmonica player’s assertion that she sure doesn’t sweat much for as hard as she plays… Truly loves the music and playing. Opened for her three times at clubs.

Elvin Bishop, blues guitarist: Showed up for an acoustic show at the Doheny Blues Festival with a Telecaster and amp, but still pulled it off. Great playing and great stories. Didn’t meet him.

Blue Rodeo, Canadian band doing roots/Americana music with a subtle pop/Beatles touch: Probably the most underrated act mentioned, just superb harmonies, thoughtful songs and great covers. Play to the thousands in their home Canada, but didn’t sell out the mid-size club in So Cal that night. No justice.

Roy Book Binder, blues finger style guitarist and singer: Great technique and stories, pretty grumpy guy from my encounters. I would be too if I traveled in an RV, though some of it may be part of his act. Roy was a fixture on Ralph Emory’s Nashville Network TV show, and my father was a fan and was happy to hear we were opening for Book Binder at an LA area concert hall/music store. I told my father he could attend but NOT to mention Leon Redbone around Book Binder, knowing that was a sore subject for the heavily mustached Book Binder. During the intermission, I made it a point to introduce Roy to my dad, who immediately said “You know, you really remind me of that guy… Leon Redbone.” It was like watching a car accident in slow motion.

J.J. Cale, songwriter, guitarist: Once at a club, once at the High Sierra Festival. At the club, what a band…. Tim Drummond on bass, Steve Douglas on sax, Spooner Oldham on keys, Christine Lakeland on guitar... and I can’t remember who played drums. Cale was playing a $179 Casio guitar and took a record long sound check in the club trying to get it to sound the way he wanted. Never happened, nor did our sound check. He watched my set (which I’ve learned is rare) but no real interaction. Didn’t care for his Casio, but he played a tremendous set, and generously let every band member have a solo number. And what a catalogue of songs… and his influence on Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, etc. etc.

Rodney Crowell, songwriter, picker, and author: I got a last minute call from a local club to open as the regular opener touring with Crowell was not feeling well. I turned it down because I had a high paying gig in LA and the Crowell gig was in south Orange County. Two seconds after I hung up I thought: Did I just turn down a gig with Rodney Crowell? I called back immediately and booked, and then drove like a madman the next day from LA to make it to the sound check on time. Magical evening. Will Kimbrough was playing guitar in his band, and I can’t imagine a better fit. Crowell is an amazing band leader, literally pulled up Rosemary Butler out of the audience for a set of soul standards (!!) and seemed like a real nice guy, even dropping by our dressing room to thank us for playing on such short notice. And his book, Chinaberry Sidewalks, is a tremendous read, truly touching. However, he did tuck his pants into his boots.

Dave Davies, guitarist for the Kinks and Ray Davies brother: Most of the original material was sort of hippie dippie, but he played one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen with See My Friends. Nothing before that song or after was within 10 miles of that quality, creating sort of a musical whiplash for me. Not a great vocalist, and turned Death of a Clown into a pub sing-a-long. Ick. However, he dutifully suffered through photos with our drummer, who looked uncannily like Dave.

Bo Diddley, legend: What can you say about Bo Diddley? He complimented our band’s performance making for a great web page header. He enjoyed entertaining the folks backstage at the festival and had more than one beautiful woman on each arm. But he and his band played a set of pretty mediocre bar band blues without even one of his hits or the legendary Bo Diddley beat. Really.

Don Dixon and Marti Jones, singer songwriters, Don is well known producer of REM, Smithereens, etc.: No, these are the most underrated players I’ve opened for. Dixon is a great upright bass player with a soulful raspy voice and a rapier wit. Jones has a beautiful voice and is also an insightful writer. The nicest group of people I’ve opened for. I walked in during their sound check and Dixon excused himself on stage and walked down to introduce himself. Got to chat a bit, and both folks were very complimentary about our performance. They played a song I requested even though they had not done it this tour, and Jones repeated one of my jokes during their set and got a better laugh. Super folks.

Pat Donahue
Pat Donahue

Pat Donahue, acoustic guitar maven, witty songwriter performer and longtime Prairie Home Companion band member: I didn’t open for Pat: we shared the bill at a small music store/concert hall. Within a couple of years, he’s on national TV and radio as part of Prairie. And years later I’m playing the same clubs for the same money. Perhaps talent has something to do with it.

Chris Duarte, blues-rock guitarist, vocalist and songwriter: Lots of energy, sort of unusual that he has not had more mainstream success. His songs can be catchy, but material is probably the biggest issue. Another record length sound-checker, very concerned about getting his sound right but costing us ours. Oh well.

Joe Ely, country rock outlaw poet laureate kinda guy: Stretching this one, because we went on about noon and he was the headliner about 8 hours later, but hey… High Sierra Festival, great great venue. We stayed a few miles away at the Slide Inn Lodge and Iceskating Rink in Longbarn, CA. Really, though I never saw any ice rink. The band was used to bluegrass and folk festivals, and this was much more hippie than those. Luckily I have recessive hippie genes (and jeans) so was not completely taken aback by two nude crowd members I noticed mid set. Our early opening set only attracted a small enough crowd that two nude members were noticeable. Later that would not necessarily be the case. A festival with a dedicated radio station, so we got to do “extra” sets on the air. Backstage was stocked with really good food and caterers to serve you, a masseuse (!) and people who carried your amps and instruments. My wife was very upset that I used my backstage pass for several days of the festival even though we only played the first day. Oh, and Ely was in fine form. Just larger than life, with David Grissom on guitar and a rocking band. A real glow, but that may also have been from the clouds of apparently burning rope I kept smelling. More backstage food, please.

Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen
Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen

Fountains of Wayne, quirky, brainy power pop band: Songs about sick days, armored vehicles and girlfriend’s moms. Small club, FofW acoustic tour. We have an acoustic band with drums. They have an acoustic band with drums. After our sound check, which they watched, we’re informed that a mistake has been made and we aren’t supposed to use drums. Drummer is understandably angry. I found the club manager (who I’ve luckily known for almost 20 years) pleaded our case and in a few minutes our drums are re-instated. Maybe we showed a little too much energy… Good show, odd guys. One FofW kept running up and down the halls upstairs after the show yelling “Where are the girls?”

Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, singers, songwriters and folk legends: One of my all-time favorite couples, opened for them a couple of times over the years, once in an afterhours folk club/church and once at a big community concert hall. Every songwriter in Southern California over the age of 40 has probably counted Steve as a mentor at some point. He’s written classic songs like Darcy Farrow, has a particular guitar style that is very appealing, and Cindy is one of those folk stars with a dry wit, and a wonderful voice. At one show Steve commented that he had grown up listening to my music (he’s older!) and that I have a unique way of stating the obvious.

I’ll continue the list next time. I hope you can stand the suspense. In the meantime, hit a few local clubs, and more importantly, head somewhere you haven’t supported in a while. Enjoy live music.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed