idlewheel/dan may tour diary – february 2008


february 15ththe turning point, piermont, NY
february 16thlandhaven, barto PA
february 17th (afternoon)lois and greg’s house concert, belvidere NJ
february 17th (evening)the tin angel, philadelphia PA
february 19ththe cutting room, new york city



jack sundrud: guitars, mandolin, vocals
craig bickhardt: guitars, vocals
tom hampton: guitar, mandolin, lap steel, dobro, vocals
tom geddes: drums (all shows but 2/19)
mike beeson: drums on 2/19
mike kurman: bass


dan may: vocals
heather fili: vocals
alan sheltzer: piano
tom hampton: guitar, mandolin, lap steel, dobro, vocals
tom geddes: drums (all shows but 2/19)
mike beeson: drums on 2/19
mike kurman: bass

(as i play with dan on a regular basis, most of this information will be centered around the idlewheel circumstances…but not exclusively. it’s just a perspective on our little trip down the road this month.)

ok, so by normal standards, this wasn’t much of a tour, but it was what we could put together in the time that we had to devote to making it happen. the plan (for lack of a better word) was that we would pair idlewheel with dan may for some of the dates where time and location made it both feasible and beneficial for both acts. plus, there was the added benefit of being able to share band members – since idlewheel doesn’t have a full time rhythm section for live dates, we could use the players who are already onboard with dan to round out the lineup.

tommy geddes, craig’s go-to percussion guy, wasn’t able to make the date at the cutting room, so i lined up mike beeson to cover that show. i’ve worked with mike several times, going back to charlie degenharts’ “bridge street main” era band, and i knew he’d have the necessary sensitivity to pull the show off, and do so in a professional manner. mike is inclined to get a little worked up from time to time, with regard to his preparation and his penchant to sweat the gig on occasion…especially in a situation like this one, where he’s playing for both bands. but what that tells me is that he has a genuine passion for what he does and that he wants it to be the best it can possibly be. it never manifests itself as stagefright or anything of that nature – just a bit of an edgy disposition at showtime.

i had sucked mike kurman into dan mays’ band, based on having played with him in the barley boys – i was really impressed with how quickly mike had learned the barleys’ repertoire, and we hit it off on our commute to a festival in connecticut (which turned out to be my last barley gig), so he was a natural choice for the idlewheel gig.

it would also make for a quick set change when the opener concluded his set and the band came on for the headliner slot. it turned out to be something of a stroke of genius on our parts, because it made for great turnovers and a nice continuity between acts. the downside was that both mike the drummer and mike the bass player were relatively new to dans’ band, and were still learning his songs at the point that they were asked to learn the idlewheel material – but, it has to be said, they both did an amazing job.

jack had a short window of time available before a poco commitment at the end of the week of the tour, so we did what we could…jack and craig had come up with a preliminary setlist well in advance of the shows, so i was able to farm the material out to the rest of the guys in the band and give them ample opportunity to learn the songs prior to the first rehearsals – and there would only be two.

jack arrived in philadelphia from nashville on the 13th, and we had a rehearsal studio reserved for the 13th and 14th. since the shows were going to be in both acoustic and full band formats, we decided to focus one rehearsal on the full band shows, and one rehearsal on the acoustic shows. beeson was only available for the first rehearsal, so we had him and tommy both set up their kits at the studio and we played through the entire set twice – we’d do each song with tommy and then with mike…which worked out well, because tommy set the bar pretty high for mike, and he hit it every time.

(it should be mentioned that beeson has been very verbal about the fact that tommy geddes was one of the reasons that he started playing music in the first place – tommy and fred ditomasso were the rhythm section in a philly band called hoi polloi some years ago, and beeson used to go see them a lot in his formative years. he’s made no secret of the fact that he’s a big fan of tommys’ playing.)

the second rehearsal was as a quartet consisting of jack, craig, myself and tommy geddes. we pulled everything back down to the “unplugged” level and worked out how the songs would unfold in that format, since the first show (at the turning point in piermont) would be in that format…as would the next two (at lois and gregs’ and landhaven).

jack and craig were somewhat apprehensive about doing the shows without a bassist after the first rehearsal, and i’m not sure that they still weren’t after the final rehearsal, but the show at the turning point was received extremely well – the lack of a traditional rhythm section allowed us to put the songs – and especially the vocal harmonies – right up front and center. having been sick as a dog for almost a week just prior to the rehearsals, i was scared shitless of how much i’d be able to contribute vocally to the shows. i don’t think, even now, that i was ever at one hundred percent vocally for any of the shows. i managed to hit what i needed to a majority of the time, and i guess that’s about the best i could have hoped, all things considered. the songs that demanded the most of me – “taste for life” and “howl like a lonesome wind” – were both at the end of the set. some of the material that was easier for me to reach, like “prodigals’ lament” and “georgia burning” were towards the front of the setlist and allowed me to get some stretching in before the higher notes in some of the other songs.

the turning point is a great little room – fire code capacity for the room is less than seventy, and you can’t really get much more intimate that a show there. john mcavoy, the owner, is a dyed-in-the-wool music fan, and was a pleasure to deal with. we were happy to see so many familiar faces there – a lot of the poconut crowd showed up, including jon & georgina rosenbaum, claudia upton, mark and sharon smith, “new york paul” (whose last name i have to make a point of finding out next time), as well as some new faces that i hadn’t seen before. dan may had one couple who’d come down from boston for this show!

again, as the concept was to share rhythm sections for the tour, tommy geddes played with dan for his set as well as for the idlewheel set – and there had been a total of zero rehearsals with tommy and dan, but tommy – pro that he is – came in and sat down behind the kit for the show and nailed the whole thing. in addition to tommys’ capabilities as a drummer, he has an enthusiasm for playing that’s absolutely infectious. fact is, if you don’t enjoy playing with tommy geddes, you probably don’t like making music that much to begin with. dan’s set was extremely well received by the largely new crowd – many of the folks who had come specifically to see him were first-timers, and the poconuts loved him…then there was the idlewheel set.

whatever misgivings surfaced during the second rehearsal were largely dismissed by the end of the turning point show – tommy did a great job of finding a middle ground between using the full kit the way you typically would when a bass player is present and the spot that he normally occupies with craig…that of percussionist with a minimal rig.

the transition from traditional band to the deluxe unplugged show that we did at the turning point obviously affects my choices, as well. for the shows like the turning point and the show the following night at landhaven, i brought only one electric instrument – my rickenbacker lap steel, which i only used on a couple of songs. the other songs were played either on dobro or mandolin while craig and jack held down the acoustic guitars. the beauty of this setup was that it brought the vocals right up front…and once i’d gotten through the night at the turning point, my voice seemed to open up a bit. the high, high notes didn’t get any lower, mind you, but i had been hitting them prior to having gotten sick, and i was able to hit the lion’s share of them. one “cheat” that i employed was to back away from the microphone initially and make sure i’d gotten enough air out to land the note and then creep into the mic – now, obviously, this has to happen pretty quickly and you have to make a judgement call based on what you’re hearing of your voice in your head, as opposed to through the PA or the monitors….and sometimes, you just have to decide whether it “feels” right or not, and stick your face in there and trust your judgement. for the “non-band” shows, though, it was usually pretty easy to tell. and besides, all three of the first shows on the tour were in that format.

the second night of the tour was at a restored bed and breakfast/general store in the wilds of berks county that i had been relatively unaware of until we set foot inside the place on saturday night. let me tell you, though – once you walk into the room, you won’t soon forget it. one minute, you’re standing out on the street, and the next – you’re standing in the middle of the Olsson’s general store from “little house on the prairie”. there are floor to ceiling shelves on the walls, lined with various antiques and curiosities…like a program from the 1939 worlds’ fair, for instance. the stage is at the back end of the room and, unlike the stage at the turning point, actually allowed enough room for all three of us to stand in front of the drumkit. 🙂

the lands, owners of the place, are relocated chicago natives, and they obviously love what they do…there’s music there nearly every weekend, and it ranges from john jorgensons’ gypsy jazz band to celtic music to alt country to trad folk and everywhere in between.

the thing that impressed me most about this show was that a large percentage of the audience were unfamiliar to us – which stands as a testament to the community that they’ve built up at the venue itself. it isn’t often that you find places where people will implicitly trust that whoever they might see there will be good enough to be worth a night out, whether they’re familiar with them or not.

one technical problem that i’d encountered at the turning point followed me to landhaven.

the way my rig is configured, i have a single cable that goes into a volume pedal that i use to control the dynamics of whatever instrument i happen to be playing at a given time. out of the volume pedal, one output goes to a custom buffered splitter box that feeds four separate outputs – one for dobro, one for mandolin, one for acoustic guitar or weissenborn, and one for electric guitar. the other output from the volume pedal is a tuner output. on gigs where i play pedal steel, that one cable that i used for everything feeds one side of a splitter box, while the other side is fed by a separate volume pedal for the pedal steel.

i know this seems like a lot of information…bear with me.

the selector box feeds into a snake that goes to a rack directly behind me that accepts the tuner output and every channel from the selector, which is then separated into separate channels of an ashly preamp that has separate EQ for everything that goes through it. the electric doesn’t go into the ashly, it goes into a vintage ibanez UE-400 multi effects unit that has distortion, compression, chorus and a phase shifter in it.

i’m gettin’ there, i’m gettin’ there…

the dobro – god bless it – is always the problem child. (or, i should say, is usually the problem child. we haven’t gotten to the cutting room yet.)

there’s a nasty howl that emanates from the dobro when amplified at around 200Hz in the frequency range, and if you try to pump the volume too loudly through the system, the dobro will punish you for it by making chewbacca-like noises that are usually traced back to the fact that the dobro’s whole modus operandi is based around a large metal cone – a resonator – that acts as a speaker cone of sorts, taking the vibrations from the strings and transferring that energy into sound.

but in the same manner as acting like a speaker, it can also act as a microphone, picking up resonant frequencies and turning them into feedback…and the dobro excels at this unfortunate little quirk in its construction.

now, the ashly preamp that all these instruments run through has extensive EQ on the master output, and individual EQ on each channel…but it’s not enough for the dobro. so i put a rane 31 band EQ into the rack and patched the dobro channel through it. i may eventually do the same for the mandolin, as well…but that’s another story.

the crux of my problem is this – soundmen generally don’t understand the concept of the volume pedal philosophy.

one of the exceedingly useful benefits of a rig like this is that it enables you to get a consistent sound at a certain volume…and then be able to back away from that volume when you’re not playing at full tilt.


what happens in practice is that soundmen, who by their very nature are experts in the school of “if it ain’t broke, break it”, simply cannot leave a fader untouched for more than a few minutes at a time. so, when i take a solo and then back the volume pedal off to blend in with the other instruments, the soundman immediately thinks, “hey – where’d the dobro go? i’d better turn that puppy up!”

which they do…and then when i step on the volume pedal to play a turnaround or a solo, chewbacca appears instantly and i look like a douchebag.

you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to talk a soundman into the whole “set it and forget it” mindset. the minute i back the volume off the instrument, they feel as though some paradigm has shifted, and it’s their job to make the universe whole again by gettin’ that sucker back up to its previous volume – whether it’s actually musically necessary or not.

and that, in and of itself, is a big part of the problem…soundmen (with exceptions, obviously) often operate from the technical side of their brain as opposed to the musical side. guys who defy that particular stereotype in the philly area would be mike lightkep (currently the house soundman at puck live in doylestown) and george pearson (the house soundman at the tin angel in philadelphia). now, while john at the turning point and the fellas at landhaven certainly were capable soundmen and did their best, this dobro thing kept biting both of them (and me) in the ass. two gigs in, and i still hadn’t managed to conquer it.

i was certainly looking forward to our tin angel gig at this point.

the next gig, though, would be feedback-free.

sunday morning, we all got up and headed for belvidere, NJ, for a house concert. now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the burdgeoning house concert movement, the name implies all you need to know…the artist sets up in an informal setting at the home of a host, who invites friends, family, other fans, whomever, to attend. it’s part hootenanny, part tupperware party…and you can’t really get any more intimate, in terms of the distance between the artist and the audience, than a house concert. any closer, and some form of STD protection would be necessary. but, hey – no dobro feedback at this gig!

from an artists’ perspective, performers tend to really shine or really wilt in this setting. either they don’t know what to do with themselves, or they become addicted to playing in this environment. as for us, i think we held our own…it was a little odd, in terms of having no PA or sound reinforcement…but i think that by the second or third song, it was sinking in and we acclimated pretty well. unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend a great deal of time with the folks who were good enough to come see us at lois and greg’s, because we had to peel out in the direction of philadelphia for our show at the tin angel. we had a 7pm showtime and had to hustle in order to get there in time for soundcheck – which would probably take a little longer, since it was our first full band show of the run.

talk about going from one end of the extreme to the other – from unamplified in someones’ living room to the full complement of electric guitars, bass, and drums in a matter of hours on the same day. nonetheless, i was confident that we’d be fine. george had never let me down.

when he’s actually there, that is…which, on this occasion, he wasn’t.

me, jack sundrud and craig bickhardt at tin angel
me, jack sundrud and craig bickhardt at tin angel

i still don’t remember the guy’s name who was there…and, considering the disparity between the amount of time he spent at the console versus the amount of time he spent smoking out back, that’s probably not surprising. so, that being said, the show was a bit of a letdown, in terms of what i was expecting to hear versus what i heard. this night, though, there weren’t so many problems with the dobro as usual…probably largely because you couldn’t hear it at all, no matter where the volume pedal was situated.

if anything, though, that proves that he was actually capable of “setting it and forgetting it”…it’s just that he didn’t really get the necessary handle on the “set” part of the equation.

nonetheless, both bands were again very well received – by their own audiences as well as the others’. after having done three largely acoustic shows in a row, the adjustment to having the electric guitars onstage seemed like a bit of a jar to everyone (in the dan camp as well as the idlewheel camp), but the adjustment didn’t take long….which is a good thing, because there was only one show left after this one.

everyone else got monday night off…and while i didn’t have to play, i did stay up until midnight helping dylan complete a 160 point project for western civilization that he hadn’t even started that was due the next day….so much for getting to bed early.

the dan may band at the cutting room
the dan may band at the cutting room

for the final show of the tour, the baton was passed from tommy geddes on drums to the talented and capable mike beeson, the new drummer in dan’s band. mike had done his necessary homework and really shone at rehearsal, so no one (that i’m aware of, anyway) was terribly worried about whether or not he’d be able to pull it off…i picked him up on the way to NYC and we listened to the set on the way and reviewed stops and starts, some of the differences in the way we were playing the songs from the way they were rendered on the disc that we all learned the songs from…so on and so forth.

the cutting room in NYC is something of an east coast viper room…it’s celebrity-owned (chris noth, of sex in the city and law and order, is the principal owner) and there seems to be a perpetual preoccupation with maintaining a degree of trendiness – but it’s a great room…intimate but big enough to ease the volume knob up a notch, too.

and yet, the soundcheck for this gig was the worst. the WORST.

now, i should point out that, save for the dobro issues discussed prior, everything else has worked like a charm on this jaunt. yet, when we got there, the soundman complained of noise coming from my rig, of low line level buzzing, of this, of that…you name it. he asked me to skip this or that component in the signal chain, take this out, replace that cable, so on and so forth…until we’d wasted half an hour of time. even more frustrating is the fact that the instrument he complained about was my acoustic guitar – an instrument that i’ve gotten nothing but compliments about from other soundmen. now, granted, the output level from the pickup in my trusty ‘bone shenandoah martin isn’t terribly hot, but that’s why i have the two preamps in series coming out of the instrument – the first is a passac EC-100, used more for tone shaping than gain. the second, the ultra-rare whirlwind commander, is there to put the oomph into the signal. and, seriously – no one EVER complains about this instrument in this configuration. the only time i’ve ever had problems with it was at mount gretna during the “stand by your man” run…but that was fixed easily enough by replacing a battery in one of the units.

idlewheel onstage at the cutting room
idlewheel onstage at the cutting room

so, after spending half an hour arguing with moby at the console, i finally threw my hands up in the air and uttered a surrender, and decided to just play dan’s set on electric guitar. i had brought my walnut telecaster with me specifically for the idlewheel set, and ended up playing it on most of dans’ set. i’m assuming it was a weather issue, but i couldn’t keep that guitar in tune to save my life that night. after dan’s set, he hurried off with alan and heather and jack and craig came on – i ran through the necessary instruments and tuned what i could (since the tuner was out of my chain, thanks to moby’s insistence that i bypass my rack) and we got ready to hit the ground running.

this set was one of those instances where, somehow, the vibe of the performance transcended the conditions set upon us by the venue. it should be mentioned that neither larry (our manager) nor myself went into this show with much of a smile on our faces – since the venue had decided to convienently wait until mere weeks before the show to put tickets on sale, then didn’t bill the show correctly, then omitted us from the index page, and opted to book a 10PM show the same night…which left us an hour and 45 minutes for both bands.

yet somehow, when the set started, everyone was all smiles…hell, i even managed to overcome my frustrations long enough to enjoy the final night of the tour. some songs i played better than others…i had certainly managed to allow a few of them to float to the top of my favorites list, and i felt like i played especially well on “nothing i can do about the rain”, “georgia burning” and “prodigal’s lament”. my voice was definitely showing the strain of having strung all these dates together in february by the end of the night…by the time “howl like a lonesome wind” came around, i don’t know if actual noise was coming out of my mouth or not. i could feel air moving, but i couldn’t hear anything.

also, for “howl”, i picked up the tele…which was so horribly out of tune that i wanted to crawl under my rack and hide. then i put that down and picked up my strat, and it wasn’t much better, for some reason…i tried to quietly “ding it in” (tuning w/harmonics) and get on the road, but it was too late – the band was already full throttle and there was no going back at that point. i got it in somewhat close and soldiered through it.

i had worked out a basic structure for a solo for that song on electric, but i never actually used it. the other shows saw me playing that song on dobro, and i never really executed that song properly in either of the electric shows. next time, though, look out.

there were a bevy of folks who had come to the shows to support us, some of them coming to nearly every one of them…and there were some new faces that i’d never seen before, as well. i can say that everyone involved in the tour from our side of the desk was thrilled at the amount of support that we got from fans of both dan’s and idlewheel…after the show, we all said our goodbyes in front of the club as the equipment was being loaded – jack was flying back to nashville the next morning, and the tour was over just as we were getting our legs underneath us.

but that’s the nature of the beast these days…almost all bands, save for those who find the most favor with the labels and the public, tour sporadically, if at all. gigs are “flown out” as often as not, with agents and managers usually accepting an “anchor date” and filling in dates around it as best as they can to maximize earnings and exposure. seldom do artists get the opportunity to pile onto the bus, as in olden days, and go from venue to venue, hotel to hotel, playing shows in an organized fashion in one fell swoop – by and large, it seems to be done much in the fashion that we’ve just done – largely DIY. we booked the dates, coordinated schedules, designed and distributed posters, promoted the shows, arranged travel – the whole nine yards. there was an element of risk involved, as we had overhead involved, and the prospect of losing money was very real…but it appears that, while no one got rich, that we’re pretty solidly in the black. enough so that everyone was, at a minimum, reimbursed for their expenses (i personally spent roughly $120 on gas, $37 for NYC parking, $15 for philly parking…you get the idea).

the payoff, for me anyway, was the shows – judging from all the reviews that have surfaced (on the poconut forum and elsewhere, the shows were incredibly well received by the folks who were there, and that definitely bodes well for the next one.

hope to see you then. 🙂

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