HIGH FREQUENCIES: It’s a ‘Family Affair’
It’s the artists we focus on, the musicians, singers, and songwriters who take the stage, whether in a club, concert hall, or sports arena. They are the ones people want to see, hear, get a chance to meet, snag an autograph, or pose with for a selfie. They make the music.
It’s the people offstage who don’t get noticed. The sound engineers, lighting directors, stage manager, the stage hands, and so on. They are the ones who make the music happen. Without them, the show wouldn’t go on — not in the way we’ve come to expect it.
In the early days of rock ’n’ roll, there wasn’t much sound equipment onstage. A couple of P.A. (as in public address) speakers on each side, someone to turn on the P.A. amp, set the mic levels, and that was about it. There were no monitors, no side fills. The Beatles couldn’t hear themselves play onstage until they played the Atlanta Stadium. That was the first time a sound company, Baker Audio, then located on Peachtree Street, thought to give them monitors. When F.B. “Duke” Mewborn, the Baker Audio engineer, decided against going on tour with them (manager Brian Epstein asked), they didn’t take the idea to the next city, but left it in Atlanta.
A few years later, in 1968, the power trio Cream launched its Farewell Tour, breaking up just as the pop mainstream started to appreciate the genius that music aficionados recognized in its three players — Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker — all along. Years later, Bruce attributed the band’s break-up to one thing: not Baker’s fiery personality, but the members’ inability to hear one another onstage. They didn’t have good stage monitors, and consequently, didn’t know what each other was playing, something all-too-important for the group of three virtuoso musicians whose concert performances were based on the extended interplay between one another.
It wasn’t until rock ’n' roll tours became the norm, and bands started playing theaters and venues dedicated to concert performances, that the house sound began to be taken seriously and the role of a sound man (yes, they were primarily male in the beginning) began to gain importance.
Concert promoter and impresario Bill Graham was one of the first to recognize the importance of house sound, installing professional systems in his legendary concert halls: the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City.
By the early ‘70s, rock ’n’ roll touring had come of age. Musicians and performers had been doing it for decades — Frank Sinatra hit the road in the ’40s to entertain bobby soxers from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Hollywood, California; there had been minstrel shows before him and package tours after — but the establishment of rock ’n’ roll as a moneymaker was a game changer. If you wanted to book the big acts, you had to have a good front-of-house P.A. and monitor system.
In Atlanta, the first venues to install proper in-house sound systems included Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom, Richards, the Great Southeast Music Hall and, later, the Agora Ballroom. There were others. C.W. Shaw’s immediately comes to mind, where the owners, taking a cue from Graham’s foresight, insured the audience would be able to properly hear the band, and the band members would be able to hear each other onstage.
Sound engineers, lighting people, backline crew, runners, and front office personnel — their jobs evolved as rock ’n’ roll touring evolved, as the industry evolved.
I was reminded of these people, their jobs, indeed, their importance Sun., Feb. 18, at the Avondale Towne Cinema. I was there with many, many others I’ve known in the industry to celebrate the life of David “Dopp” Colvin.
Dopp, as most people called him, as he always had his toiletries bag with him when he hit the road, was was the first sound engineer at the Agora Ballroom. Located adjacent to the Georgian Terrace Hotel, the Agora was opened by Hank LoConti, Sr. who had established the Agora name in Cleveland, Ohio, before expanding the concept to 12 other U.S. cities. Partnering with Atlanta promoter Rich Floyd (who had been co-owner of Richards), they opened shop in the the same spot at 663 Peachtree St., where Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom had operated from 1974 to 1979.
For music fans, clubs are like college, a place where like-minded individuals meet up to see bands, share experiences, and where their worldview forms. For regular concert-goers, the people who work at the clubs, whether at the door, behind the bar, in the office, in catering or on the sound and light crews, become family. Sometimes, you see them more times in a week than you might your own family.
That feeling of family was never more evident than among those who filled the Avondale Towne Cinema to bid farewell to Dopp. There were people there who hadn’t seen each other in years, but because of the times, the music, the laughter, and the love for each other they shared at one time, they could come together again, not only to mourn the loss of David Colvin, but to pay tribute to him — with memories and a fondness that only comes from those having lived a life together.
I will remember countless times with — and stories about — Dopp, just as I do with every person who gathered together that Sunday afternoon at the Avondale Towne Cinema, whether to offer prepared comments, to stumble when searching for the right words, to remember events with clarity and confidence, or to sit in the audience and listen and nod knowingly.
We grew up together.
Now, we grow old together.
A Rose By Any Other Name Dept. … Tues., Feb. 20, Atlantans gathered at the Buckhead Theatre for the “grand reopening” of the long-standing music venue, located where Roswell Road and Peachtree Street meet — or split, depending in which direction you’re headed.
It’s not the first time the theater has opened, reopened, had a grand opening or a grand reopening in its 80 years-plus of operation. Now, having been acquired by the vast House Of Blues and Live Nation conglomerate — the other two such venues in the Atlanta market being the Tabernacle Downtown and the newly-opened Coca-Cola Roxy — it shouldn’t need another reboot anytime soon.
In its live music incarnation, the building at 3110 Roswell Road has boasted shows with the names the Capri Theatre, Alex Cooley’s Capri Ballroom, the Buckhead Cinema & Drafthouse, the Roxy, the Buckhead Roxy, the Coca-Cola Roxy, and the Buckhead Theatre above it’s marquee.
In 2008, what seemed to be the last incarnation of the theatre closed, with the building slated for demolition. Atlanta businessman Charles Loudermilk stepped up and purchased the property, renovating the building as a “gift” to the City of Atlanta. With a 2010 reopening, bookings have remained constant, though in 2017, change came again to the Buckhead Theatre, with Loudermilk handing the reins over to Live Nation, at which time they began eight months of more renovations.
At the most recent grand reopening, I asked Live Nation Atlanta president Peter Conlon, who, along with his late partner Alex Cooley, booked the Coca-Cola Roxy for many years, about Live Nation’s recent changes to the long-standing building. He deferred to Loudermilk’s $6 million-plus renovations, saying, “Charlie did the heavy lifting, we just added the bells and whistles.” Among those additions, a much-needed new sound system has been installed, and the somewhat austere atmosphere of the theatre since its reopening in 2010 has been addressed.
Originally built as a movie theater, the Buckhead Theatre first opened in 1930, barely a year after the opening of the grandiose Fox Theatre, five miles south on Peachtree Street. Much of its Spanish baroque architecture, reminiscent of the Fabulous Fox’s Moorish design, has been reinstated, causing some at the reopening party to dub the newly-renovated theater a “Fox Mini-Me.”
Conlon took the stage to give a brief “thank you” to those who packed the celebration, noting that a room is best judged by the musicians who perform in it, acknowledging that Bob Dylan and Elton John have played the theater. A few minutes later, Cracker took the stage.
While not the type of “name” entertainment one might expect to play such an event, Cracker was the right choice. Front man David Lowery is married to Buckhead Theatre talent buyer Velena Vego. And, for those who know their Atlanta music history, it was at the 1997 Music Midtown Festival that Live Nation Atlanta’s vice president of booking, Amy Helberg, was proposed to onstage by then-Cracker tour manager David Helberg (now a GM for Live Nation Atlanta and site manager for Music Midtown). The significance of Cracker’s appearance was not lost.
In the music industry, one seemingly driven by camaraderie and the excitement of exposing people to new artists and new music, relationships tend to transcend the usual networking and contacts of other businesses. There’s a sense of family that you carry with you, from one show to the next, from one day to another.