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This is the first in an occasional series called Nightlifers, in which the Times chats with some of the hardworking souls who toil long into the wee hours to keep Central Arkansas entertained. We'll talk to DJs, bouncers, comedians, musicians, promoters, bartenders, actors, lighting and sound techs and others to find out what it's like to burn the midnight oil night after night so that everyone around you can have a good time.
For the first installment of Nightlifers, we spoke to some of the folks from the bands Tragikly White, Ed Bowman & The Rock City Players and Mayday by Midnight. If you've whiled away weekends at Cajun's Wharf, The Afterthought, Denton's, Revolution, Reno's or any number of other venues, odds are good you've caught one of these acts. With a few exceptions, all three bands exclusively play cover material, including a lot of '80s and '90s hits, as well as classic rock, R&B, Top 40, hip-hop and more. These are only three of the dozens of bands that grind it out night after night at bars, restaurants, parties, weddings, corporate functions, class reunions and the like.
Though there is certainly no shortage of working bands, not all of the ones that start down that path manage to stick it out over the long haul and make it to the Promised Land: quitting your day job.
"We played for a long time to no one," said Rick Martin of Tragikly White. "For probably three years, nobody even paid attention to us. And I realize how that is and how frustrating that can be for a band." Martin started the band about 18 years ago and now music is the sole means of supporting its four members, a manager and two stagehands.
"But it's definitely a lot of work," he said. "At this point, I realize it's like any other small business, you still have payroll and it's just like anything else. But we're real lucky. At the end of the day, we make a living playing rock 'n' roll, so how can you beat that, right?"
And play rock 'n' roll the band does, to the tune of about 150 shows a year in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. That's a good number of gigs, but it doesn't mean that all Martin and his band mates have to do is get up on stage, play for a couple hours and call it a night. "We work on our craft during the day," he said. "There's all kinds of stuff to consider that people don't realize. There's tons of rehearsal, you've got to make sure the band stays booked, you've got little marketing things, like going out and making sure posters get put up. It's just a ton of stuff that I think people who don't do this don't realize. They think that you just get up and play and then you're done, and that's really not how it is."
Smokey Emerson, of Mayday by Midnight, echoed that sentiment.
"There's so much more to it than getting up there and playing. That's the reward for what we do, but the work of it is what's happening all week," Emerson said, noting that he'd just finished sending out the weekly update to the band's e-mail list. That's just one small task, but put them all together and it adds up to a lot of work that's probably not quite as much fun as playing a medley of Prince hits to a teeming throng of partygoers. In addition to scores of gigs —Mayday by Midnight is on track to play its 100th show of 2011 soon – most of the guys in the band have other jobs during the week, too. Emerson teaches classical guitar at UCA, and plays solo acoustic shows as well as the full-band dates.
Ed Bowman has a fulltime day job as well, as a manager at an insurance agency. He plays every Friday and Saturday night, and hosts a blues jam every Sunday night. After playing in another band for eight years, he put together his own outfit a little over a year ago. Three-night working weekends can be a bit tiring for someone who's also keeping banker's hours Monday through Friday, but Bowman said he enjoys it. "I like it so much, depending on what type of opportunity I got, I would consider doing it fulltime," he said.
So what are the qualities that lead to a long-running career playing music?
"The ones that are making it aren't waiting for something to happen," Emerson said. "They're going out and getting it, and they have a plan and a goal. If you don't have a plan and a goal for something that you want to achieve, then you're only going to go so far."
Organization is another quality that might not fit the stereotype of the working musician, but it's key to making it.
"Our band is a business partnership and we do everything by the book," Emerson said. If a band member wants out of the partnership "there's not really any confusion, they know what that process will be," he said. "It's almost like a prenuptial agreement: you know what's going to happen, you know what you're going to get and what you're not going to get and how all that works."
Along with the late nights, there are other potential jobsite hazards that come with playing 100 or 150 shows a year. Hearing loss is always a concern, so investing in good earplugs is advisable, Emerson said. There are also the occasional revelers who've been over-served, Martin said. While he's certainly dealt with his share of obnoxious drunks over the years, "the places we play, most of the time you don't have a lot of real redneck stuff happening."
That said, Martin did mention a show the band played in Paragould where someone rode a horse into the venue. "Let me tell you brother, you don't realize how big a horse is until it's in the room," Martin said.
But it's mostly good times. Emerson said Mayday by Midnight often hosts a shake-weight competition during their set. "A lot of the cell phones usually come out during that," he said.
Bowman mentioned a prank that turned real at one of his shows. A friend of the band thought it'd be funny to throw some panties onstage. Not her own, but still. "She brought a bag full of panties, I mean big, oversize panties and bras out of her bag," Bowman said, laughing. "She did it later in the night, but as the night went on, there were actually people who took theirs off and brought them up on stage."