Words & Deeds

Musicians' tour vans are grinding to a halt because of gas prices

High gas prices do not rock. Across America, up-and-coming bands and club acts are finding themselves grounded because they can't afford to fuel up the tour rig.

Hard-rock group Midline, one of a handful of Treasure Valley bands that tours outside Idaho, is stuck at home.

"It's totally affected us," singer Anthony Fagiano says. "We have a motor home, and we can't afford to tour for what we're getting paid."

The members of Midline recently considered playing two shows in Reno, Nev.

Then they did the math.

Maybe if they pawned the drum set after the gig?

Touring has never been a glorious path to riches. Unknown groups that play clubs similar to The Bouquet or Tom Grainey's often roll into town for payment of $150 to $200 — maybe $300 on a good night.

"Places in Missoula and Bozeman will pay us $300, but that doesn't even cover the fuel at all," Fagiano says. "When you come back, you're in the red."

Ex-Boisean John Nemeth will hang out in his San Francisco apartment much of this summer. He's dreading the price at the pump when he starts touring blues clubs next year.

"The last time I did a long road trip tour, I think gas was about $1.95," Nemeth says. "And that was still too expensive."

"Especially if you're living in the West, it's just ridiculous. Because you've got at least a four- to eight-hour drive for a major paying show. I can see why acts get locked into West Coast or the eastern seaboard. You just run up and down the coast."

Larger tours with multiple buses and semis — think Tim McGraw/Faith Hill — are budgeting in higher fuel costs.

But, "Don't cry for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of concert industry publication Pollstar. "They're grossing enough money that the increased gas costs will just get buried in with their overhead."

"Where it's probably going to have the greatest effect is that group of artists that really tour at the subsistence level," Bongiovanni says.

If there's a bright side, it's that increased gas costs haven't visibly pushed up concert ticket prices ... yet.

Greg Marchant, talent buyer for Bravo Entertainment, doesn't see that happening this summer. But Bravo has been trying to route acts regionally to help cut fuel consumption, he says.

A few environmentally conscious bands drive old buses with converted biodiesel engines. They can burn recycled vegetable oil acquired from restaurants. Portland group Taarka, which played at the recent Eagle Island Experience festival, has hauled four 55-gallon barrels to store cleaned oil.

"We probably saved between $5,000 and $10,000 last year on fuel," says mandolinist David Tiller. "But it creates other problems that become really gross. ... We were just a mess."

Dumpster diving for dirty grease behind a Chinese buffet isn't exactly rock-star glamorous. It isn't always feasible, either. A band can spend a full day driving to a gig. Then, "you can just sort of take three or four hours in every town you end up in to go hunting for vegetable oil," Tiller says. "And then clean it, and then strain it. ... It's tons of work."

It's enough to make a working band feel a little bitter.

"With fuel prices the way they are, and the way the actual music industry with CDs and computer music has gone, the music industry is ... only for rich kids," Tiller says. "Rich kids get to be famous rock stars now."

"Big Jack" Armstrong says it's been "absolute, full meltdown" since he returned to the oldies airwaves Tuesday at 890 KDJQ-AM. Armstrong's former job was nixed in January when 104.3 FM flipped formats. His new schedule: 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Playlist: Music from '57 to '69.