Live Oak, Lee Bains III, and Professionalism
If you pay attention to local music, you probably already have heard what happened at The Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge on Wednesday night. If not, the venue’s lead sound engineer Cal Trujillo and owner Bill Smith cut the power on Birmingham-based Southern rockers Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires in the middle of their set, on account of the band’s excessive volume.
According to Trujillo, Bains had agreed during soundcheck to leave his amp baffled (positioning a foam-covered wood board in front of the amp to dampen the volume) but decided to remove it prior to starting the set. Trujillo repeatedly asked Bains to turn down, because his guitar volume was overwhelming everything else in the mix, including Bains’ own vocals (which is a weird thing for a lead singer to do, drown out his own voice). Instead, Bains kept turning up until it became a battle of wills that culminated with Smith dropping the curtain and cutting power to the stage.
Overall, this is just a sucky situation, because Bains and his band are at the point in their career where they’re touring a lot, and I’ll bet anyone who showed up to his Austin gig the next night probably got an earful about how Fort Worth fucking sucked and the Live Oak is a terrible venue that can’t handle the rawk or some such. Right now, if you search for “Lee Bains III” on Google, you’ll find the story just under the fold, ready for you to sharpen your pitchfork and light your torch. If the Glory Fires were of the stature of, say, Gary Clark Jr. or, I dunno, GWAR, “Live Oak Hates Rock Music” or some similarly reductive headline would likely go viral, at least in terms of popular music media.
But here’s the thing: Trujillo is a good soundguy. From my own experience, he is a conscientious engineer who strives to make a band sound the best. In the way that a studio engineer crafts a mix to maximize an album’s appeal, that’s what a live sound engineer’s job is; there’s a certain amount of creativity that accompanies the science, and Trujillo’s mixes usually reflect this philosophy and get good results — at least if the band cooperates. As a professional musician, Lee Bains should have realized that.
Put another way, amps are cool in a million different ways, most of which are esoteric to everyone who doesn’t spend hours delicately sculpting their tone; when a soundguy asks you to knock your volume back a little, it can be disappointing and deflating, or at least irritating, especially when standing in front of the waves crashing out of your speakers is one of your favorite experiences in life. Believe me, I get this — there really isn’t anything that can replicate the specific thrill you get from drowning in the kerrang! of a power chord ringing out of a Marshall stack. It’s why there’s a magazine named after it. But sometimes the kerrang covers up the other cool shit your band is doing, and when that happens, the people watching tend to say stuff like, “The band was good, but the soundguy sucked. Or maybe it was the room.” And so, it is the interest of an engineer to do what’s best for everyone, rather than only you, your fragile ego, and your spoiled pretensions to uncompromising artistry.
Having said all that, it’s still an unfortunately lame move for a venue to make. It’s a mostly untenable position, and I feel bad for Trujillo for being stuck in it. What bugs me the most, though, is how this all started. Essentially, Lee Bains & The Glory Fires ran a bunch of diners out. Bill Smith caved to the delicate sensibilities of his diners; when they started griping and leaving, he made the call to turn the band down, so that’s what Trujillo did, because Lee Bains III is not who signs Cal Trujillo’s paychecks.
As a musician, though, I can totally understand where Bains was coming from. If I drove several hours to some club to play for 12 people and the owner got onstage to tell me to turn down because it was disturbing people eating in another room, well, fuck those people — fuck ’em right in their burger holes, in fact, because I thought I’d been booked to play a music lounge, not a goddamned Steak and Ale or the dining room at River Crest Country Club. Would I turn up? You bet –– but only if I’d already found and agreed upon a volume level acceptable to the sound engineer.
From Trujillo’s and Bains’ separate accounts, they set the levels before the show, and part of that accord included the nefarious baffle, which Bains decided to get rid of before they started, thereby compromising Trujillo’s mix. At that point, it’s not the soundguy’s fault if your band sounds like shit; given what I’ve experienced with the Live Oak’s acoustics, it’s pretty easy for an amp to get obnoxious, and Trujillo works to find the right balance. In other words, Bains probably did sound like crap.
Put another way: The Supersuckers had no trouble playing the Live Oak, and the Supersuckers are a hell of a lot louder than Lee Bains III.
It sounds to me like Lee Bains was kind of a dick, and I also get where Bill Smith was coming from; customers are crucial, and business is business, but still: What business is most crucial to Live Oak? The part where it hosts nationally touring rock bands or the part where it serves haute cuisine to people who don’t appear to understand the concept of a music venue? Yes, you can hear a band through the walls but only barely over your own chewing. Eat your burger and quit complaining. Maybe get a beer and check out the band after you’re done.
I listened to Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires’ latest record, There Is a Bomb in Gilead. For such an explosive title, it’s pretty fucking safe, all told, and I have a hard time believing this band is inappropriately loud unless provoked in a totally uncool way. I also work in the service industry; whenever management takes the side of a bitchy patron, I really get my hackles up. But more than that, I think it’s ridiculous that a diner would choose to eat at a place with the words “Music Hall” in its name and then be inconvenienced by music. Why would you even want those customers?
Worst of all, though, I hate hearing about touring acts that act like amateurs. A live show is a team effort between the band and the people running the soundboards. Be a fucking pro. That’s what the 12 people who came to see you paid to see.