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The Rigors of the Road

Top touring musicians give their insights for staying healthy and focused while playing around the world

By Mark Small

History is rife with tales of traveling musicians moving from village to village and country to country making a living playing music. The age-old profession has played an important part in the cultural life of many societies, and an air of romance has always surrounded the vagabond lifestyle of its practitioners. From the wandering musicians of the pre-Christian era to the troubadours and minnesingers of Europe in the Middle Ages to jazz, folk, classical, and rock musicians of our day, the lure of the road has been a constant even if the logistics of moving about have changed considerably. Like musicians of bygone eras who walked or rode beasts of burden to courts, country fairs, and town squares carrying their instruments on their backs; modern touring musicians, conveyed by vans, buses, trains, and planes to clubs and arenas still find more joy in the destination than in the journey.

Travel in the post-9/11 era poses its own unique set of challenges and, when added to the realities of sleeping in a different place each night, eating from an ever-changing menu, and being far from loved ones, the rigors of the road multiply. But the opportunity to get paid for playing their own style of music in front of appreciative audiences in far-flung places is enough to make today's road warriors soldier on and to entice new recruits every day.

 
  Annie Clements '03
  Becky Fluke

Getting There

Most of those I queried about life as a touring musician have experienced best- and worst-case scenarios on the road. As he began carving out a place for himself in the jazz world, saxophonist Bob Reynolds '00 found getting started to be rough duty. "I spent years dogging it in vans and cars; sharing hotel rooms; and sleeping on couches, floors, and guest rooms of ardent fans," he recalls. "I've driven all over Spain multiple times in cargo vans and been up and down the East Coast of the U.S. in a Dodge Caravan packed with five guys and all of our gear going to gigs where I was the leader." In 2007, when Reynolds signed on as a member of John Mayer's touring band for 150 nights on the road, it was like going from rags to riches. Reynolds is quick to note, however, that the musical experience is not determined by the accommodations of the tour. "There have been innumerable amazing moments [on tour] for me both musically and personally," he says. "I've had soulful musical experiences both in a basement club in Madrid in front of 30 people and in front of tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden or Giants Stadium. Each has made me aware of how powerful music can be."

In many cases, getting to the gig is much of the battle. Gary Burton often tells musician hopefuls that the few hours of performing for an audience onstage are the best part of a musician's day. It's almost unanimous that air travel is no fun anymore - unless, like percussionist Taku Hirano '95, you tour with an act like Fleetwood Mac, which on its recent tour used a chartered jet.

Jazz guitarist/composer John Scofield '73 has been on the road for 30 years leading his own groups and has performed as a sideman with such jazz artists as Miles Davis, Gary Burton, Medeski, Martin & Wood, and others. Typically touring 200 days a year, Scofield confesses that the travel can be tedious and exhausting. "So many times you have to play until late at night and then be in the hotel lobby really early for a ride to the airport," he says. "Then you might have to catch two flights that get you to the gig just in time to play. There is also overnight travel on buses with bunks. That may actually be the best way to go."

Bassist Annie Clements '03 has toured with several country groups and is currently in the lineup of platinum-selling country act Sugarland. Clements is the daughter of guitarist Cranston Clements, who played with Dr. John, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, and others, so she had no romantic illusions about road work when she began touring. Before joining Sugarland, Clements did van tours with up-and-coming bands Sons of William and the Theresa Andersson Group. For these gigs, playing bass was only one aspect of her job. "I was in charge of merchandise for Theresa and would have to spend at least an hour after each gig hocking merch while the crowds were drinking at the bar," Clements recalls. "Not exactly party city, but I didn't mind. The trade-off was that I never had to drive the van. Sons of William often opened for recording artist Marc Broussard, who had his own bus. Sometimes we'd ride with them, because as a trio, we didn't take up much space. Those times were great, but there was also plenty of crashing at friends' and relatives' houses along the way."

 
Dave Wood '95  
Bob Schaeffer  

Beyond Burgers

Whether playing with a name act or with an up-and-coming band, staying healthy while covering a lot of miles between gigs is always a challenge. "Eating well on the road can be hard-even when you really try," Scofield observes. "Restaurant food contains more fat and oil in it than you'd cook with at home. But the cuisine in Europe-where I work half the time-is a level higher than ours in America. The promoters usually make an effort to feed us at good restaurants. In Italy they take pride in giving the musicians a great meal."

For Dave Wood '95, who just completed a world tour as the music director for Hilary Duff and has toured as the lead guitarist with Taylor Hicks and others, says, "After the show, I pretty much eat from the three main food groups: Subway, pizza, and cookies. I'm a vegetarian, so it can be challenging in certain cities; but often there have been incredible choices."

During two years of pre-Sugarland tours where she toured America's Deep South, Clements, also a vegetarian, struggled to find the right food. "It's very difficult to eat well on a budget and find healthy foods at truck stops and bars," she says. "I got lucky when I got the Sugarland gig because half of the band members are vegetarian and the bus is stocked with organic foods; that's highly unusual."

Reynolds found that even when touring with John Mayer, the food offerings vary. "Sometimes we have traveling catering and a stocked bus, and other times the venue gives us money to buy food or provides a meal," he says. "The rest of the time it's up to us to hunt and gather. On highway drives, Wendy's and Subway trump McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell. I look for salads, soups, and chicken in suburbia and Japanese food in decent-sized cities. When traveling abroad, it's all about local cuisine. Pa amb tomàquet torrado and tortilla Español are my favorites in Spain."

Hirano - who for the past five years has toured with Fleetwood Mac, Lionel Richie, Bette Midler, Utada Hikaru, Stevie Nicks, Giorgia, and Lindsey Buckingham - plans ahead to maintain the diet to which he's accustomed. "I travel with food supplements, protein powders, and travel blenders," he says. "I put some foresight into the length of the drive we have ahead of us. The dressing room and tour catering are good sources for fruit, protein bars, and juices to take back to the hotel room or on the tour bus after the gig in case there will be difficulty getting a decent breakfast before the lobby call. If the outlook is dire, I rely on stuff I pilfered from the gig."

 
  John Scofield '73
  Nick Suttle

Pilates and Pools

In addition to eating well, getting sufficient exercise is an issue for touring musicians. Several of the players I spoke with stick to an exercise regimen that includes jogging, yoga, pilates, and more. A year ago, Clements says, she took up jogging because "it's free, and you can do it anywhere." Scofield says he used to jog but had to stop because of his knees. "In Europe you won't usually find exercise rooms in the hotels like you will in America," he says. "When I'm over there, I walk like crazy. It can be fun if I'm in a great city where there's a lot to see."

Hirano makes a concerted effort to stay in shape. "I do weight training in the gym, run, and do yoga and pilates," he says. "I adapt to whatever environment I'm in. It can be a challenge in Europe where many hotels don't have gyms. If that's the case, I go for a run or jump rope somewhere on the hotel grounds."

Bassist and songwriter Lee Alexander '93, who since 2002 has toured the world with Norah Jones, says, "I was terrible about exercising on the road for years, but recently I found a way to do it and not dread it: I bought a bike and stuck it under the bus. Now I combine sightseeing with exercise. Some places, like Denver, Colorado, have amazing bike trails throughout the city." Alexander also seeks out the hotel pool when there is one. "Swimming is the ultimate because you don't get all sweaty," he says. "Clean clothes are a precious commodity on the road!"

 
Bob Reynolds '00  
Liz Pearce  

Laptop Lifeline

With the advent of the Internet and other developments in telecommunications, staying in touch with family and loved ones while traveling the world has become a lot easier. "Communicating from the road has really changed since I started touring in the seventies," says Scofield. "In Europe, we used to have an operator put calls through to the U.S. for us, and that was really expensive in hotels. We were sending a lot more postcards in those days. Now with the Internet and international cell phones, I can be in constant contact with home. My wife is my business manager, and we're in touch every day."

"Communication is key," says Hirano. "As difficult as it is to leave our loved ones behind, it's always harder for them. We go off and become consumed with our work and seeing and experiencing new things while they continue on with their routines. E-mail, text messaging, and video chats are great options that are convenient and cost-effective. I make a concerted effort to talk to my wife daily, and we try to go no more than four weeks at a time without seeing each other. That may mean booking a flight for her to join me in London or Tokyo. She may visit me several times over the course of a tour."

"My laptop goes everywhere with me," says Reynolds. "Fortunately Wi-Fi is nearly ubiquitous these days. Cell phones, e-mail, and video chat are valuable amenities. I credit my wife, Nora, with making life - on the road and off - extraordinarily easy. We've had lots of practice spending time apart, because she's a dancer who also tours and sometimes dances in operas that take her to places for a month at a time. It's always great to come home to each other. Absence does make the heart grow fonder."

 
  Lee Alexander '93
  Todd Chalfant

Saving Their Axes

In the post-9/11 era, getting valuable instruments onboard a plane is a lot harder than it used to be. "I carry my guitar in a gig bag and always get it onboard," says Scofield. "It's not that easy these days, and sometimes I have to really fight to get it aboard. I've been lucky, though. I've never lost an instrument or had one seriously damaged."

Reynolds hasn't been as fortunate. "I've had two saxophones damaged because I had to check them," he says. "When you have multiple instruments and are only allowed two carry-on items, something's got to be checked." And instruments don't just get damaged in baggage check. "Once I got my saxophone out of the case 20 minutes before a show and found I couldn't get a sound out of it," Reynolds recalls. "A careless bellman at the hotel must have dropped it off the luggage cart. The sax was bent in the middle and every key and pad was misaligned. It was nearly impossible to play the show that night. I was fortunate to have the following day off and found a good repair shop in Milwaukee."

Another nightmare scenario is being sick on a show day. Hirano recalls getting food poisoning and having to go onstage anyway. But as the saying goes, "The show must go on."

Party Time?

Many imagine the life of touring musicians to be filled with the excitement of visiting places they've never been and meeting cool people after the show. For smaller acts, the reality is often different. "As far as partying on the road is concerned, unless you're on a bus, it's very difficult," says Clements. "You'll probably be loading out or settling up and getting ready to take turns driving through the night to the next town. It's not exactly conducive to throwing down. It's hard work!"

 
Taku Hirano '95  

According to Reynolds, "It's more about spending time with the people you're on the road with or friends and family who may attend a show. I've yet to have anyone famous looking for me after a show. If you're lucky - which I have been - the coolest people are the ones you're working and traveling with."

Most veteran touring musicians have memorable highlights to recall. Wood says that on his tours he's seen many cool places and met great people. But he notes that his recent gig working with Hilary Duff has also required those on tour to act like professionals. "Hilary is underage, so we all had to respect that in terms of after-show partying," he says. "It's important to maintain a professional attitude in every situation because people are always watching you. Some of them will be hiring you back for the next leg of the tour or recommending you for another tour."

Alexander says, "The idea of touring - especially when you're young and just starting out - is that it's very glamorous. And there certainly are moments where you say, 'Wow, am I really doing this and getting paid?'"

Highlights

For Scofield, some of the many touring highlights include a night in Minneapolis when Herbie Hancock walked into the club and sat in for a set with Scofield's band or running into other traveling musicians such as Wayne Shorter or Sting at an airport. He fondly remembers a 1976 all-star jazz tour in which he played when he was just 25. "The roster included Weather Report with Jaco Pastorius, John McLaughlin's group Shakti, Larry Coryell, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, and the George Duke-Billy Cobham group that I was in," he recalls. "Some days we'd travel in private planes. I got to be with all of those people for a month. Getting to spend that much time hanging out with them was unbelievable."

Hirano has enjoyed such high-water marks as playing the Super Bowl with Stevie Nicks, performing with Stevie Wonder at the Apollo Theater, hanging out with Jimmy Page, who paid a visit to the dressing room in London after a Fleetwood Mac show, and attending a party thrown by Naomi Campbell in Paris following a Whitney Houston concert.

Through the years, Scofield says he's experienced "scary flights, missed gigs, concerts abruptly ended by riots, and illness on the road, but somehow you get through it." Taking the high as well as the low points in stride has ever been part and parcel of the work of the touring musician.