I got my first taste of the “business” side of the scene back in 2008. For a couple of years, I was booking shows for the Des Moines Social Club and I pretty much knew about a quarter of what I should’ve in order to be truly successful. When the first official space opened on Locust Ave, I booked mostly locals, but occasionally I would get a request from a touring band, and I did my best to be accommodating. I was hamstrung a bit by running a space that was trying not to do a cover charge and also by having a small room looking for more of a coffee shop vibe. The touring bands had to take a guarantee (but I always felt we were more than fair in what we offered) and sometimes had to play to crowds who were more interested in hanging out than they were the bands. It was an uncomfortable vibe at times, but I feel like most of the bands enjoyed themselves. At minimum they were happy to get a paycheck and almost always played well. Except once.
I booked a band from somewhere in the Midwest. I want to say Minneapolis. Might’ve been Madison. If I were better at holding grudges, I would remember. They were to play at 9pm. At 9pm there were three people in the bar. They decided not to play. This blew my mind. While I wasn’t happy with the turnout, we did what we could. Sometimes things just go south. It’s not like their paycheck was tied to the door. They were getting their money whether there were 3 or 300. I mean, I get it. I have access to my traffic numbers and my heart sinks a little bit when I click on a piece I am proud of and see how many (or rather how few) have actually read it. But sometimes you just have to make art for the sake of making art.
Now, I understand that writing and performing are two different things, but I think that’s what held me back for so long. I feel (or at least hope) that I have stopped writing for the attention it brings and started just writing. Sometimes, I half-ass things, but that’s because I half-ass things. It’s who I am. But here I am, half drunk on bad scotch, writing about two shows I saw two weeks ago, just so that I can write. No one needs my take on these shows at this point, but I just want to write about them. Even if the people who do read it hate it, so what, I wrote something.
I think that’s why I had such an enjoyable time catching both Twins at Vaudeville Mews and The Giving Tree Band at Wooly’s, because while there were some obvious differences: the size of venue, a “hometown” (Twins are from Cedar Falls, but whatever, they’re from here) show versus being on tour, etc., both bands did something that I respect beyond just being solid musicians. They performed. They proved that sometimes when you believe in what you’re doing and the art you’re making, it doesn’t matter if there are 50 of your friends crowded up front singing along, or 50 people who like your band, but not enough to stand anywhere near that stage.
My night actually started at Wooly’s. The Giving Tree Band were slated to go on at 7, but at a quarter after, they hadn’t. Now, I understand that this is a common occurrence, but standing around in a venue that holds 800 with 1/100th of that actually in attendance made me feel really awkward. I felt bad that a quality touring band was going to play to such a sparse crowd and worried that the show wasn’t going to be able to overcome the lack of crowd. So, I did what any coward would do. I left. I decided that I didn’t need to talk about the Giving Tree Band. So, I hauled ass the 10-ish blocks just in time to catch Twins at Vaudeville Mews.
All ages shows are such hit and miss sometimes, with shows starting at 5, there has to be at least a portion of the population that see such an early start time and just bail. Twins had a solid crowd. Not a sellout or anything, but a solid crowd. Most importantly they were an engaged crowd. The people that came to the show came to see them and to be a part of their live show. Twins fed off of that, bantering with the crowd whenever they could. It doesn’t hurt that Twins might be the best live band in the state. I would say they are the best live band from the UNI area (funny enough is that the only other band that I think touches them from that area is Dylan Sires and Neighbors, and they’re all from the same family. Well, I thought it was funny…)
While the rest of the band holds their own and the quartet are an in sync power pop machine, the live show is driven by the manic antics of Joel Sires. He twirls and spins and his expressive face is captivating. Whether he is singing or simply as back up, he still seems to lose himself in the performance. They played for about an hour, mostly tracks off their newest album Tomboys on Parade, and with time to spare they hit some of my favorites off of their seemingly criminally ignored first album Funny Faces.
After Twins set, I was able to run back across the river to Wooly’s to catch at least part of the Giving Tree Band. Sadly, the room hadn’t filled up much more than when I left, with maybe three dozen people total. Maybe even more egregious was that all of those people chose to sit at the tables towards the back of the room, so there was a fifty foot divide between band and audience. At one point, I went to the front and leaned on the stage, but after a few seconds, I again felt super awkward being in such an empty room. I have been at small shows before and I have been to shows by myself before, but when it is a room the size of Wooly’s, it is really noticeable just how alone you are. I began to drift through the room, a bit lost and distracted. When I finally settled I noticed two things: there were guys at the back of the room who likely paid money to go to a live show and then played cribbage, which seems pretty assholy to me, and Giving Tree Band weren’t fazed at all.
I would’ve figured the lack of vibe in the room itself would be noticeable, and maybe it was at the beginning of the set, but by the time I caught them, they were in a solid groove. Their art and their music and maybe just a groove of being veteran performers carried them through. Their music is roots-rock and really fun. In a different timeline, they’re Avett Brothers popular, as they really hit that same harmony and charm while playing bounce-able, enjoyable music.
What I think was most evident about both Twins and The Giving Tree Band is that they seem like the type of bands that just love to make music. That the art itself is what drives them. I have seen Twins and The Giving Tree Band play to big crowds before, and it doesn’t seem like their style or ability changes much in front of a packed house or just a roomful of friends or an empty room full of people sitting yards away. I am a little embarrassed by the turnout for The Giving Tree Band and I hope they are willing to give Des Moines another shot, and I hope Des Moines gives them one, as well. Their energy and ability seems really up the alley of many people in Des Moines, if they could just get in front of the right audience. They might be the perfect band for a Simon Estes Amphitheater type show as their jam tendencies would speak well to the outdoor showcase (they played 80/35 in 2010, so they have played that type of show to that type of audience).
Back in 2011 I saw a band I really liked with like five other people. They were awesome. I put them as one of my favorite performances of the year in my year end column and one of the five other people gave me guff for it simply because there were only five people. I just felt like they were extra special that night. It’s just a special feeling when the great ones hit a high level, and you know that it is for themselves as much as the audience.