Reviews

Feral Harmonic

12/01/2009 | Omaha World Herald | www.omaha.com | Feature
"Sorry, I forgot the part."

Guitar chords and other noises fade while drummer John Momberg tries to remember what he needs to play on the song "Next Flood."

Momberg and the four other members of Old Canes are onstage at Slowdown, performing for about six people.

It's not a concert. The folks in the room are mostly employees of the venue — regular customers aren't allowed during sound check.

Stops and starts are common while the group adjusts microphones and instruments and Slowdown's house sound engineer, Dan Brennan, plays with volume levels on monitors and speakers.

That night's show at Slowdown is the band's first in weeks, and that's contributing to Momberg's problems. Every four measures in "Next Flood," he's supposed to perform a few extra hits on the snare drum, and, after three or four tries, he finally gets it right.

Sound check can be complicated. Everyone has to be able to hear his instrument and those of bandmates through the speakers at the right levels. And the instruments and vocals have to mix together at the right volumes so the crowd can hear everything.

"It's like a big puzzle. Gotta make sure everything works," says bandleader Chris Crisci.

"Thanks for taking it easy on me," Brennan says as the band tears down its equipment and instruments.

"That was easy?" Momberg replies, eyes wide.

"Oh, yeah," Brennan says.

It's only 6 p.m., and the band isn't scheduled to play until around 10.

For Crisci, the day started at 7:50 a.m. at his home in Lawrence, Kan., when he woke up and took his stepdaughter to school.

He spent the rest of the day meeting up with the band, packing the van and driving three and a half hours to Omaha.

Anyone who has seen VH1's "Behind the Music" featuring Poison or Mötley Crüe is led to believe that a concert tour involves a lot of sex and drugs and parties. But that's usually not so.

And while bands playing big stages such as the Qwest Center have road crews, instrument techs and teams of other helpers, bands hitting the small stages usually do it themselves. The five members of Old Canes do everything from promotion to loading instruments in and out of the van.

Crisci describes it as "the boring life of a touring musician."

He spends most of his days sound checking, eating, having a few drinks, performing and driving.

Trips get pretty stale. The band members — Crisci, Momberg, Kelly Hangauer, Lucas Oswald and Taylor Holenbeck — listen to CDs (whoever drives, usually Momberg, gets to pick), smoke cigarettes (they roll their own to save money) and call girlfriends, wives and family.

Crisci is married and, in addition to his stepdaughter, has a 1-year-old son. He likes to keep up with what's going on at home, so he talks to his wife a few times a day. He says she's very supportive.

In between sound check and performance, band members usually do a lot of sitting around.

"We'll go get something to eat if we're hungry or hang out at the bar," Crisci says. "If it's an all-ages venue, we'll go to a liquor store and hang out in the van."

For their Omaha performance, Old Canes is playing at Slowdown, which is owned by Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel of Saddle Creek Records, the group's label.

After sound check, Crisci pops upstairs to Saddle Creek's offices to chat with Kulbel and Nansel.

The execs want to take the band to dinner, so everyone crams back into the red tour van and heads to the Old Market. M's Pub has a two-hour wait. The group heads down the block to the Upstream Brewery, which Nansel calls "old trusty."

Sitting next to Kulbel, Crisci talks a tiny bit of business about merchandise, but they move onto more lighthearted topics — the Qwest Center, the College World Series, the band's current tour, David Blaine, bands they're playing with.

After ordering a Dundee Scotch Ale and a burger, Crisci tells Kulbel about the three songs the band recorded for Daytrotter.com, but he doesn't remember one of the names.

He hums the melody before finally remembering: "Both Falling Bright."

"I'm terrible with the names. I couldn't recite you one of my lyrics," he says.

Crisci hopes the Slowdown show draws a good crowd, but it's difficult to gauge. To promote shows, the band uses social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. He sends out fliers and posters, tries to get interviews with newspapers and books performances in record stores for a little extra promotion.

"Everything helps," he says. "At those shows that are dead, it never fails that someone says, 'I just heard about this show today.'"

There's not much the band can do about attendance now, just hours before the show. Their chief concern at this moment is finding somewhere to sleep.

Usually a generous fan at the show will offer an apartment floor or futon. Sometimes band members will scrape together a few bucks to pay for a hotel. If all else fails, they'll sleep in the van.

"If we can't find somewhere, we have a sign we put on the merch table asking for a place to stay," Crisci says. "It's kinda nice to stay with random people. You get a slice of people's lives."

"And you might get murdered," Kulbel adds.

"Yeah, you might get murdered," says Crisci, laughing.

Crisci and the band head back to Slowdown with sleep plans. Kulbel offered his apartment's floor for the night.

Back at the venue, another Lawrence band, Muscle Worship, is doing its sound check. Muscle Worship's lead singer thanks Crisci for helping them book the gig before Crisci grabs his cell phone and heads to the parking lot to call his wife. Several band members go upstairs to Slowdown's dressing room for showers.

Back inside the venue, Crisci sits down with Nansel, Kulbel and other Saddle Creek employees.

Rubbing his eyes, Crisci says the single beer he drank at Upstream has given him the "one beer curse."

"If I have just one beer, it puts me to sleep," he says.

"What if you have six beers?" Kulbel asks.

"Then I'm the life of the party."

Trying to break "the curse," he heads to the bar and orders a Grey Goose vodka on the rocks, paying with one of the free drink tokens Slowdown gives its bands.

He sips it slowly, pacing himself before taking the stage. He doesn't like to get drunk before concerts — it's fun, but not good for the show.

Finally, it's showtime. Muscle Worship finishes its set and starts taking equipment off the stage.

The five members of Old Canes spring to life. Slowdown's Brennan sets up microphones while Momberg places his drum kit.

Others get everything else: cymbals, more microphones, pedals, cables, amplifiers, stools, cases and a wide array of instruments including a cello, mandolin, banjo, shakers, keyboard, toy piano, guitar, accordion, trumpet, harmonica and xylophone.

In just a few minutes, the stage goes from blank to stacked with cables, cases and instruments.

Their set is about to begin, and band members head to the bar.

Momberg buys a few beers. Crisci and Holenbeck do a shot of Jameson's Irish Whiskey with a Slowdown patron. Everyone else grabs at least one drink for the stage.

At 10:15 p.m., eight hours and 45 minutes after the band left Lawrence, Crisci steps up to the microphone and says, "Hello? We're Old Canes."

The once-sparse crowd fills in, and about 80 fans watch as Old Canes launches into the first song, "Little Bird Courage."

Crisci leads the band through a group of up-tempo folk-rock numbers. The 13-song set weaves together the slower songs from Old Canes' first album, "Early Morning Hymns," and faster and louder tunes — still acoustic — from its latest, "Feral Harmonic."

There are no lights, pyrotechnics, special effects or complex videos, just the five members, their instruments and their music.

There aren't many speed bumps in this performance. At one point, Crisci forgets what song comes next and has to ask other band members. Another time, he can't remember where on his guitar to place his capo.

After 49 minutes, the group is done. Within seven minutes, the stage is cleared of the group's equipment and instruments.

Momberg then mans the merchandise table.

Closing out the night is singer-songwriter David Dondero, and most of the band hangs out while he performs.

"We're not out looking for parties," Crisci says. "Most of us have families and girlfriends and stuff."

He thinks the band's performance was a bit rusty.

"Everything wasn't quite together," he says. "Good turnout, though."

Merchandise can be a big moneymaker for touring bands, but Momberg sells only a couple of T-shirts at $15 a pop.

Momberg finishes loading his drums into their cases, and the others begin to carry equipment out a side door to the van.

Everything has to be loaded in a certain order, much like playing a three-dimensional game of Tetris.

"On most tours, there's a mathematical formula to get everything in," Oswald says.

Everyone grabs sleeping bags, pillows, backpacks and blankets and heads for Kulbel's apartment.

Tomorrow, they head to Denver. Then to Utah, Idaho, Oregon and all along the West Coast before making their way back through the Midwest, performing on 17 stages in all.
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