Copyright © 2001, 2015 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
FRIDAY, 11:30 a.m.: I arrive at Warren Casey's house in the Los Angeles area, ready for work as a roadie/clerk for the Wicked Tinkers, the eccentric Scottish pipe-and-drum band that's "certified loud." This weekend the Tinkers will perform in Bakersfield and Phoenix. There'll be a lot of driving, music, and hard work. Warren is the band manager and bass drummer. He's standing atop a large van, lashing down equipment. Keith Jones, the band's snare drummer -- a big, good-looking guy with long hair, close-trimmed beard, and a long musical resumé -- hoists equipment up to Warren. I pitch in, but my bad elbow limits my usefulness.
11:45 a.m.: Wayne Belger arrives and gets to work. Wayne is the band's bodhran and didjeridoo player. (Yes, the Tinkers use the long Aboriginal cylinder as a double-bass drone to accompany the Highland Pipes.) Tall and fit, long-haired, energetic, he lifts effortlessly a 50-pound dolly up to Warren. I try to help, but mostly I get in the way.
12:15 p.m.: The musical center of the band, award-winning piper Aaron Shaw, drives up. He looks well enough in his trademark curly dark hair, but he's coughing. Apparently he's been under the weather for weeks, and it's taken a toll. The van has a bed, and Aaron is expected to use it, resting and saving his strength.
12:30 p.m.: Warren nixes most of the food and drink I've brought. "No room," he says. I protest, "You'll want liquids in the desert." No deal. I remove much of the groceries, but Warren is still dissatisfied. "Do you really need this?" he says, pointing at bag of dried apricots. "And this?" He pulls out a container of dates. "Yes," I insist. I eat a lot of fruit, and I fear it'll be hard to find on the trip. I don't want to subsist on junk the entire weekend. "Are you sure?" he repeats. "Yes." "Are you really sure?" "Yes!" I want that fruit.
1:00 p.m.: We all climb into the van and begin our trip north. It's a beautiful day with scattered clouds scudding across blue skies. Warren drives the first leg. As we wend through traffic on Interstate 5, I reach into my bag of food but can't find find the dates and apricots. "Where are my fruits?" I ask. Warren says, "They're at the house." I stare. "I thought we were taking them!" Warren says, "I pulled them out." My jaw drops. He shrugs. Warren is one of my favorite people, but at the moment I'm not so sure. I get ready to argue. Then I remember that he'll be handing me a check at the end of the trip. Besides, they aren't about to turn back to get my fruit for me. So I shut up.
Much amiable conversation ensues. This quickly becomes standard procedure during the trip: these guys love to gab and banter, teasing and joking, "talking shop" about Celtic music, or regaling us with tales of their exploits. At one point Warren pops a cartridge into a small digital playback unit; the sounds of a recent Tinkers concert fill the van. We comment about sound quality, missed cues, good solos, and the like.
3:00 p.m.: We arrive at the Parkway Inn, Bakersfield. We locate our rooms -- four rooms, five people, so I'll bunk with Warren -- and stash our personal gear. Then we hop back into the van for the short drive to Stramler Park, location of the "Kern County Scottish Society Scottish Gathering and Games." (Whew!) The event happens tomorrow, but we want to set up the Tinker Tent ahead of time. We're assigned a space under a tree near the main stage. Warren backs the van into position. Quickly we haul out and erect the tent, then unpack merchandise and batten things down against a predicted rainstorm. I look around: other clubs and organizations are setting up tents all over the park.
5:00 p.m.: Back at the motel we unpack, change clothes, and watch a little TV.
6:30 p.m.: We climb into the van and cruise around aimlessly, looking for dinner. Eventually we agree on barbeque. Warren drives us over to a family-style place. It's crowded tonight, so we sign onto the waiting list, wait outside, and tell jokes. Finally we're seated and place our orders: the rib dinner for Warren, chicken for Keith and Aaron and myself, and the vegetarian plate for Wayne. Wayne's a confirmed veggie. He's also the healthiest of the bunch.
9:30 p.m.: Back at the motel Warren announces we must be up at dawn. "Get some sleep," he says. Warren and I smoke cigars on the patio, then prepare for sleep. Warren climbs into his bed and switches on the tube. TV seems to calm him. As manager he carries a heavy load, and road shows can be tense. The TV is showing the end of a John Wayne movie. I reckon we're viewing "The Searchers," one of the most famous Westerns; the TV guide confirms it. "Watch the ending," I tell him. "Wayne's character will save the day, return the young woman to her family, stand alone in the doorway for a moment, no longer needed, and then turn and amble off into the distance." It's a great finale.
Warren falls asleep. I'm delighted to learn
that -- contrary to rumors -- he doesn't snore. I hit my own
pillow and conk out in moments.
SATURDAY, 6:45 a.m.: Everyone shows up at Warren's room right on time. This amazes me: musicians are notorious for being flaky. So far, though, these guys are quite businesslike. Maybe Warren knows their worst secrets or something. Apparently he doesn't know enough about mine: I'm running late and scramble onto the van last, still tucking in my shirt. Warren is not pleased.
7:00 a.m.: We stop at a drive-thru coffee outlet and pump ourselves up with caffeine.
7:25 a.m.: We drive onto the fairgrounds and park next to the Tinker Tent. As forecast, it rained last night. The ground is wet but the inside of the tent is still dry. The skies are dark with the promise of more showers. Attendance will falter because of the weather; that's bad for sales. We discover, to our horror, that Aaron's special bagpipe microphones are missing. Without them he'll be frozen in place before a standing mike, which will screw up their lively performance. Warren and Aaron conclude that the mikes got left behind at a photo studio during a recent publicity shoot. Warren calls L.A., reaches the studio manager and offers cash to have the mikes hand-delivered. They won't arrive until 2 p.m. Ever the brave soul, I insinuate myself into the tension and suggest that Aaron attach an older, more awkward chanter mike that he once used. He stares at me -- a bit dulled from his illness and the early hour and the morning's tension -- and finally nods. "Yeah... I'll have to rely on acoustic sound from the drones. But yeah, maybe we should do that." It seems the obvious solution, so either he's humoring me or I actually made myself useful, seeing the answer while the others were too frazzled. After all, they did forget the mikes. Stuff like that happens on the road. I just hope I don't screw up something under my care this weekend.
8:00 a.m.: The sound check goes smoothly, but large rain puddles underlie electric cables. Band members joke uneasily about lightning bolts ripping through them as they play.
9:00 a.m.: Fairgoers trickle into the festival. The first band, a low-key Scottish group, begins playing. Keith and I set out the t-shirts. They've become rumpled during transit, so I re-fold them and place them in size order. Warren shows me how to work the credit-card slips and the cash box. A couple of customers purchase CDs and a t-shirt. We're launched.
10:00 a.m.: The Wicked Tinkers mount the stage for their first set. Wayne's didjeridoo makes a deep-throated overture, Aaron joins in on the pipes, and Warren and Keith beat out an opening cadence. The sound is well-mixed -- the pipe drones sound a bit weak, but that's expected, due to the mike emergency -- and I'm impressed with their energy, given the early hour. Aaron, despite his illness, is a trouper and plays with his usual verve and style. Tarps protect the ends of the stage from the weather and the Tinker Tent is immediately stage-right, so I can't see them perform. Still, they're plenty loud and sound good.
11:15 a.m.: It's been raining off and on. The wind whips water into the tent. We unroll a sidewall to protect the merchandise. Promptly the rain ceases and the sun comes out. We roll the side back up. Immediately a squall attacks the fairgrounds, knocking over our table signs and blowing t-shirts about, so we drop the sidewall again. The sun comes out; we roll up the tent side. This goes on for hours. It's as if someone up above is laughing at us. Sales are slow but not dismal. I'm cheerful, cracking jokes with the patrons, answering questions -- fair vending is a kind of showbiz in itself -- and people respond with smiles and purchases.
12:30 p.m.: Warren relieves me. "Get some lunch," he says. I linger a moment, tidying up a couple of loose ends, finishing a sale or two. "Hey. Get outtta here," Warren insists with a grin. Okay, okay. I walk about, searching for something vaguely in accord with my low-fat style of eating -- hah! a likely prospect at a Scottish fair -- and manage to find a banana. Then I buy a bowl of mashed potatoes with peas and carrots from a busy trailer-vendor. People are lined up at the fish-and-chips place; a small crowd surrounds the beer booth. This is a good sign for all the vendors. On a second music stage the group Bad Haggis performs their engaging blend of Scottish folk-rock.
1:30 p.m.: Back at the Tinker Tent I'm busy selling, clamping down wind-driven t-shirts, wiping rain spray off the CDs, and otherwise having a grand time. Next to us stands the sales tent for Craicmore, ex-Tinker John MacAdams' band. Craicmore performs; they sound soulful and good. John even plays his own didjeridoo -- he played the didj back when he was a Tinker -- and I think, "At this rate, everyone will think Scottish music requires a didj."
2:00 p.m.: The Tinkers play their second set. All goes well. Sales pick up nicely during and after each Tinker performance. The Tinks rely on CD and shirt sales for much of their earnings. Touring is costly; merchandise sales help them stay on the road.
4:45 p.m.: The Tinkers finish their final set to much applause. I deal with a brief flurry of sales, then we pack up. Breaking down the tent, stowing merchandise, loading instruments, and cleaning up the site: all this takes time and hard labor. It's nearly 6 p.m. when we drive out across the nearly empty park. After the day's crowds, the place seems lonely.
6:30 p.m.: The Tinker van backs up to the loading doors of the Parkway Inn's banquet hall. Tonight the Tinks will perform there for a Ceilidh ("KAY-lee"), or party, and they must load in their equipment for a quick sound check. I help out, then I'm dismissed and return to the room for a hurried shower.
7:15 p.m.: Small sales tables stand in the hallway just outside the banquet hall. We're hoping to sell a few CDs this evening. There's a buffet for all; I grab a plate of food. The Ceilidh begins with an inspiring performance by the Los Angeles Scots pipe band. They're a "Grade 1" group, one of a scant few in the U.S., so hearing them is a privilege. They're followed by a lively Scottish dance group of teenage girls. They're lovely and dance beautifully and I can hear men's hearts breaking throughout the hall. Then it's time for the Tinkers, who put on a rousing performance. At one point they lead a Conga line through the tables and nearly half the partygoers join in. Not only are the Tinkers "certified loud," they're also certified fun. There's an air of high spirits in the room.
As the Tinks finish their set, I sell nine CDs in quick succession. Excellent! I'm earning my pay.
9:30 p.m.: We turn in early: tomorrow we'll be on the road at 4 a.m.
12:00 midnight: Out of deep sleep Warren and I are awakened by a loud clock radio on the dresser between the beds. What the...?! I grab the thing and switch it off. Groggily, I figure that the cleaning crew -- dusting the room earlier that day -- had accidentally switched on the alarm and knocked the volume control way up. The alarm setting was defaulted to midnight. Terrific. I'm wide awake, can't sleep, and must be out of here by 4 a.m.
SUNDAY 3:45 a.m.: Keith, ever the prompt one, knocks on our door as we're shuffling about, bleary-eyed, stumbling into our clothes. "Time to go!" Keith says cheerfully. I want to slap him.
4:00 a.m.: We're on our way to Phoenix. The road east is nearly empty at this dark hour. Warren has checked the reports on his weather radio; he's worried about snow blocking the passes. Indeed, as we climb out of the San Joaquin Valley and into the foothills, snow flurries swirl about the van. The white stuff is just sticking to the road. We cross our fingers. I'm afraid we'll all fall asleep and drive off a cliff, so I maintain a non-stop patter. Pretty soon Warren says, "Jim, you're talking too much." I've heard that all my life, so it's barely thirty seconds before I start up again. Warren sighs and shakes his head. Keith and I break open a bag of gorp (peanuts, chocolate bits, etc.), and I promptly spill half of it onto my lap. I'm very careful to sweep up any chocolate that's gotten on the seat.
5:00 a.m.: We've made it over Tehachapi Pass. East of Mojave, though, we're caught in a traffic jam: a dozen emergency vehicles, lights flashing, block the road ahead. A helicopter lands. This looks serious. I jump out and wander over to a man in a pickup. "Know anything?" I ask. It turns out he's a paramedic on his way to work; he's already learned that four people were in a horrendous collision. The copter will airlift them to a hospital. Back in the van we discuss our options: the clock is ticking and we must be deep in Arizona by noon. We notice other cars and trucks using a dirt side road, so we follow. The gambit works: the road parallels the highway and leads us nicely around the jam.
As the sun rises over the desert, Wayne keeps us entertained with tales of his exploits as a semi-pro hockey player, rock climber, and competition bicyclist. He's still young, yet he's had more experiences than most people dream of. Travelling with the Tinks is but his latest adventure.
8:30 a.m.: We stop for breakfast at a Denny's near Palm Springs. Emerging from the van, I look down and discover a smear of melted chocolate down the front of my pants. Much laughter ensues from the guys at my expense. Oh well.
10:00 a.m.: Wayne drives. Keith graciously answers my many questions about booking acts into small venues. (I have a couple of shows I'd like to promote.) Keith has played with the best and has plenty of useful advice for the rest of us. The stark desert scenery is breathtaking; I point to a long mountain ridge and ask Wayne if he's climbed it. He hasn't. "If it's climbable I'd have heard of it," he answers, "so it's probably no good. There are lots of cliffs that look fun but they break apart under you and you get killed. Climbers slip almost every outing. If the pitons that hold their ropes come out of the wall, they're dead." Oh.
12:30 p.m.: We arrive in Phoenix in good time. Warren guides us onto a cordoned-off street behind the main stage of the annual street fair. We jump out and unpack as the group onstage, Cadillac Angels, plays rousing rockabilly. There's a space for our tent nearby on Central Avenue; we set up shop quickly. At once people are asking us questions and buying CDs. The Tinkers sell didjeridoos -- everything from PVC starter didjes to fancy ones hand-signed by artisan Lewis Burns -- and I manage to unload a Burns to a young man with a fat cash wad. Hooray! Warren will be happy.
2:45 p.m.: The Tinks go onstage for the first of two sets. Wayne sounds the didjeridoo klaxon and they're off and running, kilts flying, music pouring onto the street. The crowd loves them. This time I can really enjoy their show: our tent makes a perfect viewing spot. Aaron wears a goofy top hat as he plays. Warren does his famous dance, swinging the bass drum about, pounding the beat. Keith, hair flying, marches back and forth with his snare drum, then sets it aside for a turn on his specialty instruments, including a huge African drum that's the ancestor to a conga. Wayne, wearing a sleeveless Tinker t-shirt and every inch the rock star, plays to the local news cameraman, who crouches low with his videocam while Wayne swings the digj this way and that. All of it -- the music, the antics, the party-like atmosphere -- sends chills through me. What a show!
3:30 p.m.: Sales are moving along. We'll sell nearly as much in two hours here as we sold during all of yesterday. Normally street fairs shouldn't be that good for business, but today the sun is out, which helps a lot. I flirt with the ladies.
4:30 p.m.: The Tinks finish their second set to big applause. The crowd makes purchases, then things taper off. Warren says, "Okay, let's pack up." As always, everyone pitches in with enthusiasm. The Tinks are a good crew. We climb into the van and, getting seated, I somehow manage to pop open a bottled drink all over Wayne's gear. Wayne is not pleased.
5:30 p.m.: We check into rooms provided for us at the Hilton Suites. Again I'm to bunk with Warren. Nice digs! Two TVs, huge bathroom, everything but a mint on the pillow.
7:00 p.m.: We set out for dinner. The concierge recommends Durant's, a pricey steak-and-ale watering hole for local politicos, so we make the short trip down Central to the restaurant. It's expensive but we're heedless, enjoying some of the best food ever, plus cigars (you can still smoke in Arizona) and carefully selected shots of Scottish whiskey. Aaron describes each single-malt in detail: "This one's from the Isle of Skye, aged ten years, with a smokey flavor and a light finish," and so on. The band members take turns sipping the various drinks. There's a ritual quality to the event. We're celebrating and we stuff ourselves silly while laughing and joking. I smile: there are worse places to be than on the road with the Tinkers.
MONDAY, 10:00 a.m.: We take thorough advantage of the complimentary breakfast, then we're on the road back to L.A. As we cross the desert, Aaron spends hours explaining to me the intricacies of competition piping, the history of the Scottish clans, and whether Queen Elizabeth II is really Elizabeth I of Scotland. At one point I ask him how he ranks as a piper in America -- he's won most of the prizes here -- and he says, "There are about three thousand pipers. I'm probably--" he squirms awkwardly "--in the top hundred." Aaron is famously modest, so I mentally recalculate and guess he's in the top twenty.
1:00 p.m.: Keith drives. As we approach Palm Springs we can see rain ahead in San Gorgonio Pass. By the time we reach San Bernardino it's raining steadily and traffic has slowed. Suddenly the Tinkers decide I should have a nickname. "How about 'Mouth'?" suggests someone. "Jim's always eating or talking." Everyone agrees, laughing. Dang. I smile, but for once I'm quiet.
We drop Keith at his house, then finish the drive to Warren's place. We spend half an hour unloading the equipment. I locate my missing fruit. Warren hands me a check. "Thanks," he says, "You did a great job." Ahh.
Yes, I could have done worse than be a
roadie for the Wicked Tinkers. I've worked many travelling
shows, but when I look back on my life, this is one I'll
remember. They're great musicians, great entertainers, and great
people. That's a hard combination to come by. But there it is.
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