Riding With B.B. King #3: The Heat Is On

As tour builds momentum, Castro band finds its new bus needs some breaking in.

[Editor's Note: Blues ambassador B.B. King is leading a package tour, the B.B. King Blues Festival 2000, on a string of 41 dates across the country. The shows also will feature sets by Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi, Tommy Castro and Corey Harris. Castro band drummer Billy Lee Lewis has agreed to provide sonicnet.com an inside view of the tour as it progresses.]

Monday., Aug. 7

About three weeks ago, Tommy went to a bus lot and purchased a 30-foot excursion vehicle and had it converted: four bunks, stationary table and chairs, toilet, clothing and equipment storage areas, VCR, cell-phone jacks and many of the amenities that the "grown-up" buses have.

After almost eight years and hundreds of thousands of miles in a van, this new vehicle represented a significant new rung on the ladder to success.

Needless to say, Tommy was excited and proud as a new father; the whole band shared his exhilaration and gratifying sense of hard-earned accomplishment as we beheld "the Silver Beagle" for the first time.

In the past two weeks, however, the shocks have been replaced with something marginally less rigid and tanklike, the suspension swapped for an apparatus somewhat more forgiving, and the stationary table broke at the base. The engine's RPMs have become excruciatingly amplified through the stereo system; screws holding the bunk frames are vibrating out of the walls, and the toilet came loose at the base.

Yesterday, the air conditioning lay down and died like some hapless, overworked beast of burden — moments before we entered the notoriously infernal valley regions one must pass through on one's way to L.A.

It was f---ing miserable.

Naturally, this strikes us all as a less-than-reassuring way to cast off on a coast-to-coast multi-thousand-mile campaign. So, Tommy, who is a good and conscientious provider for family and extended family, is quietly freaking out.

Through it all, though, he is an irrepressible source of humor and optimism — we've all decided, years ago, that we're gonna have a good time, and that we're lucky as hell to have the life that we have and each other. OK, end of reality check for the moment; back to the fun stuff.

Last night we played the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. and — knock wood — it was another great show. L.A. has been, for many years, the center of the recording and entertainment industry, and they've pretty much seen it all, so when people stood and cheered at the end of "How Long Must I Cry?" (RealAudio excerpt) — well, suffice to say nobody in the band gave a sh-- about the air conditioning in the bus at that point.

At moments such as that, when the music is just coming out right and easily, and the crowd is unreservedly with you, I actually can look up and believe that there is a God, and at that moment, he/she is flowing through us all simultaneously. Whoa. ... OK, OK, sorry I blew up; enough with the deep stuff.

After the show, I was in and out of the wings all night, bouncing between dinner, socializing on the patio and digging the other bands. After B.B. 's set, Randy [McDonald, TCB bassist] noticed Tommy sitting with B.B. in his dressing room.

I immediately ran to get the camera for what could possibly be a great photo-op. When I arrived and asked if a picture would be OK, B.B. replied, "Why, we just been waitin' on you," to which I just had to say, "Well you know, I'm the drummer so naturally I'm gonna be late."

He laughed, grabbed Tommy's hand and smiled as though he was genuinely glad to be there. I know I was; I'll never forget it, and you can bet Tommy won't.

Wednesday, Aug. 9

Monday morning we left L.A.; it was to be our first day off, but we spent it driving 450 miles to San Francisco. Upon arriving we had to make yet another stop at the bus hospital, in what proved to be a fruitless effort to get the AC fixed. The next two days found us still sweating it out in the San Joaquin Valley with shows at U.C. in Turlock — the gateway to Modesto! —and the Sacramento Amphitheater.

Even as I peck out this post-performance offering, our bus languishes in still another garage here in Sacto, where we hope they will finally resuscitate the AC. The valley is flat, sun-baked farmland, ribboned with rivers that evoke a lazy, idyllic Mark Twain kinda feeling, as from their bridges we — with no little envy — observe laughing, splashing swimmers and all manner of rafts, boats and inner tubes.

Tomorrow, however, the sparse and level horizon will begin its slow and sylvan incline into the Sierra Mountains and eventually the high-altitude desert that is Reno.

In a sense, the actual tour really starts for us tomorrow; no more sneaking home for a night, no family, convenient laundry, good coffee in the morning, et cetera, until our return in September.

In an earlier installment, I remarked on the profusion of backstage crew and ancillary workers necessary to shows of this scale. I had the opportunity to look into this matter today when, at soundcheck, I was reunited with an old friend, one George Silver by name.

He informed me that about 250 people are employed on any given day as stage hands, ushers, caterers, in various security details, as riggers, parking attendants, clean-up crews and so on.

Next time you go to a major concert, look around at the slew of concert employees and imagine twice that number backstage, all in seemingly constant motion, and you have some idea of what goes on in an effort to bring us a few hours of music.

The mood backstage is essentially friendly and relaxed (as long as everything is running smoothly), and it is most definitely an "alternative" lifestyle and work place, but it is far from the party atmosphere one might expect. No sex or drugs — well, none apparent anyway, and believe me, I've been looking — just rock 'n' roll.

Many of the people on this tour have already espoused and lived the excessively indulgent and often destructive tenets associated with rock 'n' roll and have come out the other side, for the most part wiser, more focused, and respectful of the gifts they possess and the careers they have chosen.

Well, the shows are still going great; everyone seems pleased, musicians and audiences alike. We have to leave immediately after our show in Reno tomorrow night for the 600-mile drive to Portland. Let's hope the bus is ready to rock. ... Wait, maybe I should rephrase that!