Getting there is half the battle

Chris JonesOne of the basic requirements of any professional band is to be able to get to the gig, wherever it might be. It’s one (sometimes the only) common bond we all share.

Some bands carry a P.A. system, some do not. Even in the world of bluegrass, some bands travel with assorted roadies, guitar techs, merchandise people, lighting engineers, massage therapists, astrologers, and even fiddle players (I’ll admit the massage therapists and astrologers are fairly rare out on the festival circuit, but you never know). Other bands carry none of those people. Some barely carry themselves.

Every band that is not strictly local, though, must at some point get from point A to point B, and they all need a mode of transportation to get there.

Here’s where some major differences lie between road bands: there are lots of ways to accomplish this task, from riding jet planes to driving a fleet of matching vintage AMC Gremlins. The choice is yours, and it’s not always an easy one.

Here are some of the options available to you:

  • Flying commercial airlines and renting vehicles on the other end (or begging for a ride)
  • Driving a bus, converted into an “artist coach” (or not; some prefer the multi-seat Greyhound experience, which comes in handy if you ever want to expand into a 55-piece band).
  • Driving multiple buses (see: “Bands, richer than you’ll ever be”)
  • Driving a van, converted or not
  • Driving something in between a van and a bus (see: “Special Consensusmobile”)
  • Driving a fleet of matching navy blue Scions (The Night Drivers’ preferred mode)
  • Driving one large, mid-90s pickup, with most of the band members in the back, sitting on furniture acquired from the local dump
  • Riding five matching mountain bikes (Colorado and British Columbia only)
  • Canceling the show and quitting the business

As you can see, it can be a little overwhelming, so maybe it would be good to boil this discussion down to the most common choices faced by bands playing bluegrass or some related acoustic music:

Bus vs. van: Many people are under the impression that this is a simple decision, and that as soon as you have enough money to travel around in a bus, it’s what you do, leaving the van behind for good. The van conjures up images of the struggling band, trying to make ends meet on their income somewhere in the high three figures.

In fact, this is sometimes a complicated decision that involves other factor besides  economics or prestige.

There are many bands that find it hard to go back to van travel once they’ve started using a bus. Just getting that comfortable distance between you and the band member who smells like cabbage (remember him?) alone can sway this decision. Some just like working the phrase “our bus” into as many sentences as possible. It’s a hard habit to break.

On the other hand, some bands when faced with the choice of whether they want to travel in a bus, or make significantly more money, will sometimes choose the money. The Johnson Mountain Boys went this direction when they gave up their bus.

Hot Rize, on the other hand, felt their bus was important to their image, and so they stuck with the bus, in spite of spending a fair amount of time on various roadsides throughout the western U.S. (this can be discouraging, on the other hand, a lot of lovely scenery can be seen along western roadsides).

It often comes down to what your priorities are, how much take home pay you need, how well you and your band members get along, and whether you can stand having nowhere to hide at a bluegrass festival in 105 degree heat.

More next week on the pros and cons of bus travel, bus travel vs. flying, and the sad tale of a western bluegrass band that decided to do all of their traveling on a single burro (all band members are now deceased, as is the burro).