By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
By Ian S. Port
This is the Gavin Seminar 1999, the largest radio industry convention of the year. The convention is sponsored by Gavin, a San Francisco-based trade publication that tracks and charts the success of artists and records in all pop-music formats. Until the early 1990s, when SoundScan technology finally took the guesswork out of figuring record sales, Gavin was known as the most reliable source for unbiased data on which records were likely to be hits. Gavin conventions used to be held in San Francisco, but became a movable feast a few years ago.
This is Train's third Gavin, and the band will be onstage for only 20 minutes, sandwiched between Chicago's Dovetail Joint and the Black Crowes. It's practically a night off, but the group has been around long enough to know how important those 20 minutes are. It's Train's last, best chance to impress the people who decide which songs will get airplay and which will not.
Careers are made -- and broken -- at Gavin, in conference rooms at the Hyatt, and in French Quarter bars like Tipitina's, where Columbia is hosting its showcase. Jerry recalls watching a nervous singer/songwriter at a previous Gavin who forgot the words to one of her songs halfway through. "That was it. You knew she was done, just like that. It was like watching an ice skater fall at the Olympics."
Tipitina's is a fairly large venue, with a full bar running down each side of the room, but a comparatively small stage, which is loaded with equipment for Dovetail Joint, the opening act. However, the Black Crowes have also claimed dominion over the stage, and, as they are officially rock stars, their equipment cannot be moved, or even touched. So there are three drum kits onstage, innumerable wires, pedals, guitars, and amps, and barely room to move. There will be only 10 minutes between the time Dovetail Joint leaves the stage and Train goes on.
The crowd filters in. Its members are young, predominantly male, and overwhelmingly white. Here and there one can spot a sports jacket, but for the most part it's a jeans-and-T-shirt crowd. A large contingent of Columbia reps is in attendance, including Jerry Blair, head of rock radio, and Howard Gabriel, vice president and general manager of Red Ink, Train's distributor. Gabriel, in his mid-40s, is still as enthusiastic about music as he was as a teenager grooving to Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother & the Holding Company. The music business itself, though, has broken his heart, he says. "It's not about the bands anymore. It's all about money."
Onstage, Dovetail Joint is getting crucified.
There's more room in front of the stage than in the back of the club, where all the schmoozing is taking place, and the quartet seems perplexed when nobody applauds its opening number. The Columbia people try to goose the crowd, clapping, bobbing their heads, and shouting encouragement. But the talking never lets up during the band's three remaining songs, which it runs through much too quickly. Humiliated, the band members numbly start breaking down their gear.
The crowd doesn't even wait for them to leave the stage before the remarks start.
"Is that your band?" one program director asks a Columbia rep. "I'm sooooo sorry."
"Hi everybody! We are Train from San Francisco, California, and it is great to be here in New Orleans."
The band is loose, and the audience seems to perk up. Pat's voice, normally powerful and clear, is shredded by the constant touring, but he quickly adapts -- by the time the band plays "Free," almost everyone in attendance is listening.
And that's when Pat takes everything on his own shoulders.
In the middle of the song he steps to the front of the stage, gingerly, to avoid the mass of cords and cables, and stares out challengingly at the jaded crowd. "You know, I bet these guys 50 bucks that I could get you excited for just one second," he says. "Will you help me win 50 bucks and say, 'Yeah!'?"
A solid if unenthusiastic "Yeah!" rises from the room. Pat turns to the band and yells, "Fifty bucks!" It isn't Henry V, but it does the trick. Feet start moving. By the climax of "Meet Virginia," Pat's voice is all but gone. But when the music swells and drops at the crucial moment when he sings, "I can't wait to ... meet Virginia," he nails it, making the last two words sound so cool and sexy that Rob starts to laugh in surprise. Pat looks over the crowd with something between contempt and amusement.
But the message is delivered. Not one person listening will forget the name of the song.
By the time Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson struts onstage in his silver lame blouse, white trousers, and white pimp shoes, everyone's pissed legless. Everyone, except Pat Monahan and the other members of Train. They stand stock still in the mass of gyrating bodies, intently watching the stage, absorbing every move, every guitar lick -- looking for something, anything that they can learn, anything they can use.
It's now after midnight in the French Quarter. At 7 a.m., they'll be piling into the Dodge van to drive to Jackson, Miss., bleary-eyed and unsure what will happen next.
But they're still working.
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