Gig from Hell

American BusesThis is the best “gig-from-hell” story that I have ever heard; and it happened to me. The story was big news for a while, I even remember reading about it in a regional dance band magazine. It’s been about 20 years since this gig and some of the small details may be off, so if you happen to know any of the key dramatic figures, go ahead and ask them about the trip.

The Reflections Orchestra: 11-piece dance band based out of Lincoln, NE, owned and operated by five real-life brothers whose father also ran a dance band.

Mike: Lead Vocal and MC (brother no.1)

Dave: Drummer (brother no.2)

Bob: Bass (brother no.3)

John: Saxophone (brother no.4)

(The fifth brother, a pianist, had quit the band by this time, so he missed the fun.)

Kristy: Vocals

Kelly: Trumpet

Bob: Trumpet

Dave: Sax

Trombone: Trombone (I can’t remember who was playing bone that night.)

Freelance Kansas sax player: Sax (freelance player, small part in the production)

Freelance Kansas piano player: Piano (same situation as sax player above)

The set-up happened countless times before; arrive at a meeting spot, the tour bus picks up the band, we drive many hours to the gig, play, and drive back home. Easy, right? The band was based out of Lincoln, NE and the gig was in or around Topeka, KS.

The temperature that day was a record high in Lincoln. It was probably upper 90’s or more in the sun. I arrived at the truck stop, a.k.a. designated meeting place, 5 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Well, the bus didn’t show for another hour, evidently the meeting time had been moved back. Of course, I didn’t receive that message so I spent the time sitting on the hood of my ’72 light blue Duster enjoying (!?!) the weather.

Finally the bus arrives. This deluxe touring vehicle is a Greyhound from the 60’s; it was a tank! It was wider than today’s bus size regulations permit and the rear half had been transformed into a series of bunk beds and storage closets. Actually, it was a pretty sweet ride. As we get underway, we break out the deck of cards and sit at the table enjoying the air-conditioning and our usual game of poker.

Less than 30 minutes into the drive, the air-conditioning goes out. Aaargh. Ok, we’re grown ups, we can handle this. So we propped the windows open with shoes and duct tape. After a couple of playing cards get sucked out the window, we abandoned the game. Nothing to do now but to sit and sweat.

Our first stop was in Nebraska City, straight south of Lincoln, to pick up one of the additional musicians for the night. We pull into the Wendy’s parking lot and happily dive for the air-conditioned interior of the restaurant. Refreshed and well Frostied™, we head back out to the bus only to find that the keys were locked inside. No problem. I volunteer to scale the outside of the bus and climb in through the driver’s open window. Once that was accomplished, I had to hit some makeshift electronic switch to open the main door; it was kind of like hot-wiring the lock. As we pulled out of the parking lot, we all felt lucky that we avoided a catastrophe.

The next hour or so was fairly uneventful, until the fateful moment happened. I was sitting near the bunks when I noticed quite a commotion amongst the brothers who owned the band. They were all up front by the driver, craning their necks to try and see behind the bus. I think someone was yelling something about the engine. We immediately (and fortunately) pulled off at a rest stop and streamed out of the bus. Trailing behind the bus, all the way back up the exit ramp, was a big black cloud of smoke. The engine had completely blown.

As we hired guns sat at a picnic bench, two of the brothers ran around the rest stop looking for rides into the nearest town. I remember this retired couple out walking their dog, turn and walk quickly back to their camper, then locking the doors when they saw these two scraggly musicians coming. Eventually, a trucker was kind enough to give them a lift… somewhere.

We had no idea what to do, or rather, what the owners of the band were going to do, so we just made the best of it and hung out in the shade of a few trees at this quaint little rest stop in northern Kansas. We assumed the gig would be scrapped and we’d just head home by car or something.

Much later, here comes this U-Haul truck blasting its horn, heading straight towards us. It’s the guys! “Ok team, let’s load up.” Being young and easily ordered around, I quickly helped to load ALL of our gear (amps, PA’s, music boxes, fronts, light racks, power cables, drums and other instruments) into the back of this U-Haul. After we had everything in the truck it hit us – where do we sit? Yep, you guessed it. Up in the cab, one of the brothers drove, the female singer sat in the middle and the older trumpet player sat shotgun. The rest of us had to climb in the back of this thing and sit ON TOP of all of our gear!

Our first concern (in the back of this U-Haul truck) was the amount of carbon monoxide that would get sucked into the compartment from the exhaust, so we shut the door tightly and headed out to the gig. Remember, the temperature was really, really hot and after loading all of that gear, we were some hot and sweaty dudes. Of course a couple of the guys lit up their cigs and pretty soon the compartment was full of sweat/steam/smoke… yuck. I only held out for about 25 minutes before banging on the cab to get the driver to pull over. We all laid down on the equipment cases and faked unconsciousness. When the driver opened the back door, smoke and sweat billowed out and he saw us all “dead” – of course his first response was to laugh. We immediately hit the next gas station and decided to tie the door open with a bent coat hanger, leaving a foot and a half gap, and just risk the exhaust.

We eventually pulled into the performance venue, which was some big dance hall, and one of the guys ran in to tell the story about the bus, and to explain to the crowd why the band arrived 70 minutes after the scheduled start time. After a lightning set-up, we hit, and the crowd gave us a wild round of applause, very impressed that we made it at all. After the first set, the singer was out in the audience talking with people and someone spilled a drink on her new dress, ruining it completely.

This is when somebody said, “Well, it can’t get any worse,” little did they know…

One thing that can always make a bad situation worse is alcohol. Up until now, the band had had only a few drinks during the gig, but since we were staring at a five-plus hour ride home in the back of a U-Haul truck, we had to find something to drink. Thankfully, one of the brothers managed to convince the owner of the hall to get us a case of off-sale beer. He must have felt sorry for us.

What a party. Here we are, downing beers in the back of a U-Haul, telling dirty jokes and being generally rowdy. Kristy joined us in the back of the truck for some mixed company banter. Mike, the front man and singer, was a family man who seemed to be the most affected by the alcohol. The rest of us took it in stride.

About an hour into the trip, we needed a pit stop. The truck pulls over at a typical mid-western gas station, you know, the kind with rows of pumps out front between the street and the store. We parked the truck on the outside of the pumps, past a couple of cars and a pickup truck with a boat in tow. This is important because they all sat between the U-Haul and the entrance to the shop.

After acting like a bunch of obnoxious dufi (plural for dufus), we headed back out across the lane of pumps to the truck, now fully loaded with candy bars and bad burritos. Mike, who had too much to drink, jumped over the tongue of the boat trailer and landed badly. His ankle exploded to the size of a softball within seconds. Ouch.

So the next stop on this little tour was at the local hospital.

Although a couple of guys managed to get escorted out of the hospital for being overly rowdy, the party was beginning to wind down. Perhaps a good 50 minutes later, Mike comes hobbling out of the hospital on crutches. He had a severely sprained ankle.

Problem. What do you do with someone in this condition? Well, our only choice was to clear out a spot for him on the floor of the U-Haul, so he could lie flat on his back and keep his leg slightly up for the duration of the trip. We were pulling out of the parking lot and Mike’s brother John was dinking around by the open door, inside of the back of the U-Haul. Speed Bump. The large back door, which is currently open about a foot and a half and still wired to keep it from opening all of the way, bounced hard and slams on John’s foot. “@^%&!,” says John. So he heads up to the cab of the truck, biting his tongue because of the pain. Off we go.

I decided to stay awake since there was a guy laying on his back about five inches from an open door, flying along a highway at 85 miles per hour. I held the band’s boom box stereo on my shoulder and turned up the tunes.

Later, not really sure how long we were on the road, I look out the back and see that we’ve turned into another parking lot. I figured it was another gas station. Since everyone else was asleep, I head out by myself to grab a soda.

Well, it was another HOSPITAL! I don’t know where the hell we were, but it was a completely different hospital. I guess John couldn’t take it anymore and had to check in. So a couple of us decided to indulge in some fine waiting room coffee flavored water. This time, the hospital was much faster, go figure; it’s in the middle of the night. John had actually broken a bone on the arch of his foot. Yup, more crutches.

So here we are, two guys lying on their backs, on the floor of a rented U-Haul, with a pile of crutches, and the door wired open as we speed down a Nebraska highway in the middle of the night. Again, I was the guy to stay awake and watch over this bizarre scene.

Once we hit Nebraska City, I bailed and insisted on sitting up in the cab for the final leg of the trip back to Lincoln.

The rest of the trip was thankfully uneventful. But at least we got paid. The entire fiasco paid $80 per man!

And YES, the above story is 100% true. Really.

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  • Kelly on

    I received an email from one of the cats on the “Gig from hell” (above) and he had a couple of corrections…

    “Great story!

    A couple of errors: We played at the old Wichita Moose Club (a converted airplane hanger). We stopped in York (not Nebraska City—the route was I-80 west to York and then south on US-81.

    I was fairly well-medicated and slept through most of the fiasco after the gig—as a matter of fact, I never knew about the 2nd ankle and hospital trip until we got back to Lincoln.

    Keep in touch,
    [name deleted]”

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