I’ve been playing some arena shows in western Canada lately as a solo acoustic act, opening for Randy Travis on his “Around the Bend” tour. Being a solo opener can be a bit hectic, but it’s pretty amazing. Here’s how a typical day goes on the road:
Five hours before showtime: you’re retrieving your big suitcase of CDs and merchandise from the airport baggage carousel, setting your watch to the new time zone, checking that your guitar is still in one piece inside its flight case, and hopping a shuttle to your hotel.
Four hours before showtime: you’re signing in at the venue’s security office while your shirts, CDs and photos are being inventoried (aka “counted in”) at the arena’s merchandise table.
Three hours before showtime: you’re soundchecking to a huge, echo-ey arena filled with a sea of empty chairs. The monitor guy sidestage is making sure you can hear yourself, and you’re waiting to get the “thumbs up” from the “front of house” sound guy waaaaay down at the far end of the building who is tweaking levels and trying to anticipate how you and your guitar will sound when all of those chairs are full of bodies.
Two hours before showtime: you’re eating dinner in the catering area with Randy’s band, roadies and sound guys, trying to fight the urge to try ALL of the cakes and pies on the dessert tray.
One hour before showtime: you’re in your dressing room – basically a hockey locker room – getting your show clothes on. If you’re lucky, they have spruced it up a bit by hanging curtains around the walls, adding a rug, a comfy couch, a full length mirror, drinks and snacks. Otherwise it’s…well…an empty hockey locker room, complete with sweaty sock smell and urinals.
Five minutes before showtime: you’re standing sidestage with the monitor guy, putting in your in-ears. They’re custom-molded ear bud earphones that fit very tightly into your ears to drown out all external noise. They plug into a receiver pack that hooks onto your belt so you can hear yourself instead of being completely thrown off by hearing the echo of the speakers out front.
Thirty seconds before showtime: the house lights go to black. The house music goes quiet. The emcee takes the mic on stage and introduces you. The crowd cheers…the roadies point their flashlights on the stairs so you can walk up on stage…you take a big breath, and up you go.
Showtime: you’re standing center stage, strumming the first notes of your first song. You can’t see a single face out there – all you can see is the blinding white spotlight and complete pitch black darkness. You can’t hear anything except your own voice and guitar in your in-ears (try singing with your hands over your ears and that’s pretty much how it feels). It’s basically like you’re an under water scuba diver, completely isolated in the middle of a sea of people. You can get freaked out if you think about how many people are out there listening. You can get freaked out if you think at all. So you just don’t think – you just do what you do – get lost in the moment and play and sing your heart out.
When the night is over, when the cheers have died down, when you have talked to the fans, signed autographs, posed for photos, packed up your guitar and suitcase and headed back to the hotel, you lie awake for a while in the silent hotel room with the music still ringing in your ears, and you think about how surreal it feels to be so far from home, singing your songs to thousands of people, knowing that they are out there singing along. And then before you go to sleep, you double check that your alarm is set so you can catch tomorrow morning’s flight to the next show in the next town…and it starts all over again.