Heavy Rebel Weekender from the Eyes of a Soundtech
“Toy boat… toy boat… toy boat…”
The weird incantation echoes through the cavernous bowels of Winston-Salem’s Millennium Center as Jon Bost, drummer for 220 Short, checks his microphone. I adjust the settings on the mixer, glancing occasionally at the giant posters of the “heavy rebels” of American music that cover the walls: Elvis, Johnny Cash, Alice Cooper, Duke Ellington. Guitarist Erik Freeman, the only other member of the band, plugs in his instrument and cranks up his amp to earsplitting volume.
The band launches into what sounds like AC/DC, Ted Nugent and Van Morrison covering Howling Wolf’s “Baby Please Don’t Go,” all at the same time. Heavy Rebel Weekender, a celebration of a parallel blue-collar universe where Hank Williams never expired in the back of his Cadillac, is officially underway.
There will be 20 more bands on my stage, the “Underground,” over the next three days. With the exception of rare trips away from the mixing board to seek out food, I won’t see much of the rest of the festival, which includes two other stages and the “Wiggle Room,” a separate performance area for burlesque dancers. I’m particularly chagrined at missing the last one. I’ve run sound for four years of Heavy Rebel’s 15-year run, but have yet to see a single pasty. Of such sacrifices are dedicated soundtechs made.
The beer cans – all-American Pabst Blue Ribbon, befitting the Fourth of July weekend – begin flying during the Wet Boy’s set. Introduced by MC Matt “Crump” Crumpler as the “sexiest motherfuckers in the room,” singer Tomahawk Brock informs the audience that he’d like “to see everyone of you motherfuckers in Hell” before performing several songs about the Devil, Judgment Day and miners who never get to see the sun. Leaping into the audience, he testifies like a moonshine-fueled southern storefront preacher, though his accent suggests he hails from somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line.
“That throwing cans is an admiration thing down here, right?” the guitarist asks me as he’s breaking down his gear.
“Yep, it means they like you.” I soccer-kick a crumpled can out of the way as I move a microphone. By the end of the evening they’ll be piled six inches deep at the side of the stage.
Day two begins with the more traditional rockabilly sounds of the Ultra Kings and Whiskey Kill. The Barnyard Stompers quote ZZ Top in a song about demonic possession, appropriately enough since they hail from San Antonio. Guitarist/singer Casey Miller, clad in overalls and a Bad Brains T-shirt, laments the Dukes of Hazzard being taken off the air, but sings about chainsaw killers and death on the lost highway. By the time the Stompers get to their cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s proto-prepper anthem “A Country Boy can Survive,” I’m barely surviving myself, mostly consuming a Heavy Rebel diet of granola bars, energy shots and PBRs. Next to my mixing board, a man in a cowboy hat takes a short nap before returning to the beer can-throwing crowd in front of the stage.
“Hey, did anyone else use my amp? I can’t find my pedals and cords.” It’s the guitarist for Jane Rose and the Dead End Boys. The band goes on stage minus the missing equipment, while I try to solve the mystery. I’ve taken photos of just about every band that’s played, but it’s a random shot of the opening act taken with my smart phone that provides the answer.
“I’ve got something you need to see,” I tell the guitarist as he leaves the stage. “Does this look like your amp?” “Yeah, that’s it.” It’s a simple mix-up.
The guitarist for Whiskey Kill had the same model of amp, and apparently grabbed the wrong one when they loaded out.
“You need to get up with them before they leave town,” I tell him. “They’re headed back to Boston.”
The Othermen finished out the night in a blaze of fuzz-drenched, organ driven mayhem that had spectators literally hanging from the rafters and the pipes that run beside the stage. I kick more cans out of the way before shutting down the PA system. This year they’ve covered the stage with carpet, so at least I don’t have to go get a bucket and mop.
On the last day of the festival I catch an hour or so of “Shark Week” preliminaries on the Discovery Channel before heading to Winston-Salem. Today is the day that my band, the Raving Knaves, will be playing on the “Jailhouse” stage, and in my distracted state I’ve forgotten my granola bars. It’s going to be a long, hungry day.
Heavy Rebel institution Roy Wilson & the Buzzards are first out of the bullpen this afternoon. I like Roy; he always gives me a shout-out from the stage, which is pretty rare. Filthy Still’s bearded-andtattooed punk-grass warns me about homeless people who hit you up for money in the name of God in “Smoking Crack with Jesus,” followed by a song about masturbation. The crowd is getting rowdy; someone tosses an entire trash barrel full of beer cans at the stage, and drunken dancers veer dangerously close to the sound booth.
Maybe it’s a combination of an empty stomach, PBR and energy shots, but the Knaves’ performance is one of the best in months, or at least one of my best. Halfway through the set, a solitary beer can hurtles past me and ricochets off the wall behind the drummer. I smile. There are still a few more bands on my stage, followed by a late night load-out, but at this moment nothing tops the fact that yep, it means they like me. !