[an edited version was published in Goldmine magazine in 1994 as “Wild Times On Tour in Canada”]
In the summer of 1974 I turned 22 and had an eye-opening experience of the real music business. I was the guitarist in Avalanche, a jazz-rock show band with horns that played early funk on the way to disco as well as songs from dixieland to country. It was comprised of fellow classical music students at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. The singer had been with a successful show band called Stratisfaction and parlayed his contacts into what turned out to be a tour through Canada’s four western provinces.
We were eight : singer, trumpet, sax, trombone, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums. Some guys doubled other horns and percussion and almost everyone sang, so we were able to give credible, if not incredible, versions of a wide range of material. We liked the colourful, detailed orchestration of the horn bands that were in vogue, so the repertoire had songs by Chicago, Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Cold Blood, and Lighthouse, as well as the Jackson 5 and the Band.
Avalanche also did a bit of country rock (the Byrds), hard rock (Doobie Brothers), blues rock (Allman Brothers), soul (Marvin Gaye), latin rock (Santana), and jazz fusion (Herbie Hancock). We covered a couple of songs from Van Morrison’s Moondance album, did the Beatles’ "You Won’t See Me" (Anne Murray had a version on the charts then), the Hollies’ "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother," a rock and roll oldies set, and a floor show complete with a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar. When needed, we did "When the Saints Go Marching In" dixieland style or a dinner set of bossa novas and jazz standards out of The Real Book.
The singer was the leader and acted as the MC. A Dutch guy with wisps of sandy hair, he still spoke with a thick accent, making his Avalanche introduction sound like : "goot eefening laties and gen’lemen, vee are Have-Your-Lunch." To the audience, he projected a calm, witty and warm personality, but this was not exactly consistent with how we knew him ! With the band he could be uptight and frantic, turning around to bark out commands at us, calling our lousiest tunes and counting them in too fast. The heavy songs he screamed in an annoying rasp, but he did have charisma as a front person, hustled bookings, and goaded us into being professional.
He also infuriated us when he would call the same tune more than once a night, or the time he wanted to keep the financial details to himself : in mid-tour his proposed closed-book policy was hotly argued while we drove across two provinces and only rescinded under the threat of mutiny when we arrived at the gig. We’d been a democracy and weren’t going to see it turn into a monarchy with seven subjects.
The rest of us had our problems too. There was some weak, out of tune playing, stilted solos, and bad vocals, but all this improved the more we played. There was also some moodiness and self-sabotage which rose and fell depending on how much we felt we were a team, and also on the balance we struck between sucking up to the audience and keeping our integrity : the classic entertainer versus artist dilemma !
We were close, too close : driving, eating, performing, rehearsing, rooming, and relaxing with the same guys all the time. Everyone had a best friend in the band, but who it was changed from week to week. We talked about musicians, songs, amplification, gigs, girls we met and girls back home, and the meaning of life. We developed in-jokes, nicknames, and a shared language. “Gord the Board” took care of the sound board. “Ace” was on bass, “Drummy” was the drummer who came in for the tour only and we never saw again. I was the “Deacon” because I meditated, ate well, and was less interested in illegal substances. The funniest guy was the “Funky Chicken,” and a couple of others had nicknames that are unprintable.
With eight guys and two loaded vehicles-a former telephone company van on loan from my Dad’s used car lot and an old green Pontiac with a roof rack-we soon found out what Dad meant at our departure when he said : "Boys, you are going to learn the difference between gross and net."
In the middle of the night after our farewell hometown gig at the Empress Hotel we spent four hours determining the most efficient way to pack the Hammond B-3 organ, Leslie speaker, two PA systems (one for vocals and one for the horn section), an upright bass (not for stage, just for practicing), guitars, amps, horns, drums (in cases), stage clothes, and a hot plate and a cooking pot. When we first unloaded, we drew a two-level diagram to make sure we could get it all back in. We also had two bicycles on a rack at the front of the van.
Just before the tour started in April, we’d kept a rigorous rehearsal schedule fitted around our university music exams. Though the band had been going for several months and we were decent musicians, we had a couple of new players and the obligation of working up a SHOW. We had a lot to learn about being entertainers.
We did our best to look the part : matching black bell-bottomed and cuffed trousers, black big-heel boots, and coloured shirts made by the gals in the Stratisfaction band. The horn section wore orange, the rhythm section yellow ; scarves, when we bothered, were the opposite colour. The singer’s shirt mixed both colours. One guy had a medallion on a chain, another an Indian bead necklace ; I had a string of shells. Most of us wore glasses, and half had moustaches. Our hair was long, from stylish to magnificent. When people saw our promo photo, they pointed to the blond bass player and said "Who’s the girl ?" We looked nice and in fact, we were. Naive, too.
By the time we reached the prairie city of Regina, Saskatchewan, with a few gigs under our belts, the dance sets had tightened up but the floor show was still shaky and we got fired after a week. The agent cancelled our next bookings too. Some hustling and begging got us a low paying two-week gig in the wilds of Manitoba : a town called The Pas (also known as Le Pas), where the streets weren’t paved and the bar’s jukebox woke us from our upstairs sleep every morning with the same dozen songs. I still cringe at the thought of "Jolene" (Dolly Parton), "Woman Sensuous Woman" (Don Gibson), and a song that went "turn around [‘ba-doom’ on a tympani drum] and face me."
We dropped the floor show idea, and after a few days of depression and slacking it, we clawed our way back to a level of dignity by working up new dance tunes. We rehearsed like crazy and played hot on a stage that had us so crammed I couldn’t move six inches or I’d bang my guitar on the ceiling, my side on the cymbal, or my rear on the organ.
We barely had room for our mascot, the Nauga, a mean little groucho of a stuffed creature made out of blue naugahyde who was always on stage somewhere in his own pink birdcage.
While rocking to save our skins we caused a lot of fights by riling up the patrons in a lounge where the no-dancing-allowed policy was enforced by beefy bouncers. For Saturday matinee shows, while it was bright and sunny and warm outside, we played in the bar : dark and smoky and evil, full of run-down characters getting drunk.
With no work forthcoming, we did a two-province dash over to Calgary, Alberta, and auditioned for the agent to restore his confidence, then split back home for ten days where I had my first haircut in two and a half years. We regrouped again in Calgary, rehearsed some more, but lost our practice space and our rooms at the hotel to an incoming band. With no work and no place, we also lost all sense of direction.
After one hot, uncomfortable, and short night’s stay in the Salvation Army we got a gig in Edmonton. We hit the trail but couldn’t make it in time for the Monday show. It was a giant bar frequented by bikers, and when we arrived another band was on the stand. In their break we played dumb : "You guys are good, how long are you here ?" They said all week, but sure enough, the next night it was us on stage. A day or so later I got food poisoning and was so sick I performed in a cold sweat, sitting in a chair and visiting the bathroom during every break. I threw myself in bed, slept 13 hours, and everyone I knew was in my dreams.
Ten more days off. I sold an extra guitar and flew to London, Ontario, to be with my sweetheart who was there for a summer job. I met the band again in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and we drove through rural territory to slave a week’s work in half the time at the King Miner Nickel Days Festival in the town of Thompson. On the way north in a prairie wind, the roof rack came flying off the Pontiac, narrowly missing us in the van behind and strewing drum cases over a muddy field. For three days we played three times each afternoon at the fair on the big stage-a few of our own tunes plus backing up Hawaiian dancers, a puppet act, and a juggler-then moved our equipment to a hall and did a four hour dance. Then we moved it back.
We’d written our own charts, starting with an all-weekend chart copying session on borrowed music, then advancing to doing our own arrangements. All our charts were in order and on stage the singer would just call the number. Pretty soon each of our 75 titles was synonymous with its number. On long drives we would cramp with laughter when someone would fixate on a word, "matchbook" for example, and we’d race each other through the repertoire-in strict numerical order-inserting the word into every song title : "Saturday in the matchbook," "You Are the matchbook of My Life," "Tobacco matchbook," "Long Train matchbook," "Does Anybody Know What matchbook It Is," "In the Midnight matchbook."
Food on the road was a big challenge for me. I’d become not just vegetarian but macrobiotic while studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston the year before. The guys all laughed at me on their way out to the restaurant, but after too many pizzas and french fries and coins spent, they started asking me what was cooking in that pressure cooker on the hot plate we smuggled into the band quarters. I became the underground chef and there’s not one that didn’t chip in to the kitty at least once in a while for a vegetable soup and some brown rice. The deal was a dollar for a dinner. A couple of the guys took turns cooking and the challenge for the cook was to pick up the ingredients without exceeding the budget.
The band quarters were usually hotel rooms, modest to say the least, but once in a while the club would put us up in a house, usually almost empty of furniture or damp with mildew. No matter how lousy or small our accommodations were, we always managed to welcome and make room for a visiting girlfriend or a couple of groupies. We didn’t know the towns but always managed to do a lot of exploring : finding the parks, riding bikes, jogging, going to libraries, shopping. We met a lot of people and were always grateful when the locals took us home for a meal or a party or to a country lake for an afternoon of swimming, acoustic jamming, joking and improvising lyrics, and drinking.
After Thompson, Manitoba, came another unreal marathon drive : 27 hours through lightning storms over to Banff, Alberta, and an Italian restaurant gig. We then did two weeks in Prince George, BC. Our last gig before going back to school in the fall was a month in Terrace, BC, where we were the first band to open up a cabaret below a Bavarian restaurant. We got the gig because our leader said we could throw in some polkas and beer garden oom-pah music. He bought us some appropriate marching band music booklets and we learned quickly. I’d played clarinet in high school and for these tunes was enlisted into the horn section, now five with the singer on trombone, and sounding pretty acceptable backed by bass, drums, and a real piano which belonged to the club.
We also revived the floor show which was then filmed by the local TV station. Somewhere there’s footage of a horn player being chased around an empty dance floor by a guy with a wig and a huge blue plastic baseball bat to the strains of "Alley Oop." Another band was in town : Dr. Fingers from Vancouver. They shared their gig with a strip act and would walk over in their breaks to catch some of our set. We’d checked them out too, after getting let off early on a slow night. Terrace was a small town with not much going on, especially for those too young to get in the bars. At an after-gig party, we hatched a plan for an all-ages show on a Sunday, the one night we all had off. The other band rented a hall and spread the word. The place was packed. After paying us for our opening set, they still made a fortune.
On slow nights we fooled around on stage. One evening the bass player inserted the riff from James Brown’s "(I Got You) I Feel Good" into almost every song. The riff blends in almost anywhere until you get to the last note which clashes : that note sticks out like a sore thumb. The first member to notice each time the riff was used leaned into a mike and said "James Brown." We could hardly stand for laughing. It took us a while to figure out how much butchering of our repertoire we could get away with and how much we could live with, but some gags actually worked and got reused. During "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" we played kazoos and sang "Studebaker round the old oak tree" in the background.
On another slow night, the trumpet player, carrying his mike and stand, stepped through a door at the back of the stage, still playing his parts in the little room. Next went the other two horn players, then the bassist and I squeezed in. When the singer caught on, he dragged his own mike into the back room leaving only the drummer and keyboard player on stage. With the music continuing, some of the clients probably didn’t even notice six of the band members had disappeared !
At the end of August we drove to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast and took the ferry back to Vancouver Island and home. Not only does touring build character (which is good because it doesn’t make you rich), it sure tightens up a band, and we maintained a high profile around town for another year or two before splitting up.
The Avalanche tour was ages ago and though I’m still close with only one of the guys, all of us have stayed in the music business.
AVALANCHE MEMBERS AND LAST KNOWN OCCUPATION
George Schram (vocals, trombone) : conductor of a symphony orchestra in Nashville
Jim Furmston (keyboards, vocals) : professional musician in Los Angeles
Craig Morrison (guitar, vocals) : musician, teacher, author, ethnomusicologist in Montreal
Tim Stacey (bass, vocals) : freelance bass player, Vancouver, BC
Phil Brown (drums)
Jim Clark (drums during the tour only) : road musician for life ?
Blair Fisher (trumpet, flute, vocals) : music professor at Douglas College, New Westminster, BC
Gordon Clements (clarinet, sax, vocals) : jazz and classical performer (clarinet, sax, flute), and bandleader, teacher, conductor, and jazz recording artist, Victoria
Chris Hofstrand (trombone, vocals) : high school band teacher and professional musician, Nanaimo BC
Allman Brothers : One Way Out
Louis Armstrong : When the Saints Go Marchin’ In
The Band : Sleepin’
Beatles : You Won’t See Me, The One After 909
Dave Brubeck : Take 5
Byrds : You Ain’t Going Nowhere
Chicago : Saturday In the Park, Does Anybody Know What Time It Is, Make Me Smile, Wake Up Sunshine
Chuck Berry : Johnny B. Goode, Nadine (John Hammond version)
Coasters : Poison Ivy, Youngblood
Danny and the Juniors : At the Hop
Delanie and Bonnie and Friends : Never Ending Song of Love
Fats Domino : I’m Going To Be A Wheel Someday
Doobie Brothers : Long Train Runnin’
Eagles : Desperado
Marvin Gaye : What’s Goin’ On
Herbie Hancock : Chameleon
Donnie Hathaway : Valdez In the Country
Bobby Hebb : Sunny (Electric Flag version)
Hollies : He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother
Hollywood Argyles : Alley Oop
Jackson Five : Dancin’ Machine
Elton John : Daniel
Jerry Lee Lewis : Great Balls of Fire
Lighthouse : One Fine Morning
Van Morrison : Moondance, Crazy Love
Robert Parker : Barefootin’
Tony Orlando and Dawn : Tie A Yellow Ribbon
Wilson Pickett : In the Midnight Hour
Procol Harum : Whiter Shade of Pale
Santana : Evil Ways (horn players on percussion), Everybody’s Everything
Tower of Power : Live Your Dreams, Knock Yourself Out
Traffic : Feelin’ Alright
Edgar Winter’s White Trash : Tobacco Road, Keep Playin’ That Rock and Roll
Stevie Wonder : You Are the Sunshine Of My Life
plus standards and a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar