In retrospect it was a hard sell, lots of great things - A Tesla coil, a revolutionary, a craggy fisherman poet, a dance with the devil - but when you put them all together for one event, most people just scratched their heads. Many encouraged the uniqueness of the event, but in the end, our audience was about half of what we expected across the board.
I myself, I came out of the whole thing with many new favorite bands-- Explode-A-Tron, Tokyo Death Stare, Mother's Anger, Terminal Fuzz Terror, an appreciation for John Sinclair as a poet, an Esmerelda Strange song stuck in my head, and about $2000 in the hole. Things could be worse.
Thanks to kickstarter the loss was not as bad as it could have been. Though we never expected to make money on WTF Fest, we had hoped to break even. The main goal of WTF, for me anyway, was to bring together a group of people we thought of as great artists and thinkers, and have them interact with each other and share with the audience their wisdom and talent, answer questions and entertain, and on that part, we excelled. All of the artists involved were absolutely amazing and most got along famously.
I am certain all of the artists involved will be collaborating with each other for years, hopefully decades to come! Each of the performers were exposed to people who had never even heard of them before, it was wonderful to see people get turned on to artists and performers they were completely ignorant to before they walked through the door -- The young folks had no clue who John Sinclair was, John Sinclair fans had no idea about Dave Archer, Dave Densmore, or Ugly Shyla, so it was great to watch the cross pollination, and everyone got some mention in the press which is the icing on the cake. The star of the entire tour however was The Tesla Coil, which garnered the largest audience at every venue it was allowed light up.
Press for the events was bizarre, I had to call and email and send packages like never before. The Oregonian finally wrote to say they would not cover the event because of its name, which blew my mind in 2012. Then the Eugene Weekly published an article so far from what was going on at the show, it was like they were talking about a whole different event! (Press links are at the end of this article). Some of the best press was in Astoria, yet that was one of the lowest turnout shows.
Events are a funny thing, they take on a life of their own at some point, and there is no way to know how many people will be there. I have shared some of the greatest performance experiences of my life with audiences of less than ten people, and I have watched as over a thousand people poured through the doors of events expecting a hundred. WTF Fest we were told by nearly every venue was not as packed as it could have been because of it being the very first nice day in 3 cities, and a Seafood & Wine fest happening in Astoria.
The shows themselves were diverse and chaotic, billed as "4 cities, 5 days, 6 shows", and the promise that each performance would be "like a snowflake" could not have been truer (is truer a word?). For Shane and I this was to be a culmination of four years of work, during the last election year we travelled the USA filming Americans about America and voting, and if the American Dream still exists, what came out of that trip was 150 short videos, a book and film that will be out June 2012, and bad circulation in my legs from sleeping sitting up in the driver's seat of our car for too many nights. Most everyone on the WTF show were people we'd met and filmed on our travels, so we planned to show short videos of all the performers and clips of our movie, we wanted to do brief live interviews with the performers on stage, and host the shows. Unfortunately, art and business seldom mix well, and we were so busy taking care of the events and the other artists, we barely got to show any of our videos, only in two venues.
The WTF Fest kicked off with an email from Rick Shapiro's manager saying the comedian was in the hospital, he had a heart attack on his birthday - Friday the 13th. He was alive, but not doing well and would not be at the show (We love you Rick, feel better!). Quite the start for quite the show!
The first show was in Eugene, and to me it was way too hot, over 80 degrees, which I have not felt in at least two years. As a bonus, I'd woken up with the worst head cold I'd had in a decade or more, so my head felt like a beach ball - a soundproof, dripping beach ball, and being the first show of the tour it was already a little bit messy and more chaotic than we had hoped for.
Esmerelda Strange got things started with her one woman supergroup, and did such an amazing job, Shane decided she should open every show! Dave Densmore read several poems, Dave Archer's student Brent did some standup comedy - his first time ever - and it was so bad it was good (Way to go Brent! A very brave and talented young man!). Dave Archer and Brent did a Tesla coil painting demonstration, and then Dave read a story about why he decided to do the tour instead of having needed surgery. The evening rounded out with our dear friend Lonnie Wages performing the Dave Bromberg song 'I'm A Demon In Disguise' while wearing a fantastic handmade wizard costume, then he accompanied John Sinclair for most of his set, playing guitar while he offered his rhythmic words. Finally, two local Eugene bands performed and both were fantastic! Explode-A-Tron played a short set and invited Dave Densmore get up and do a poem with them, which was incredible, and the Bad Luck Blackouts were the darn cutest punk band ever! Both were great bands (though we found out later, not usually the kind of music played at Sam Bond's Garage), and all such nice kids!
The second show of WTF Fest went way smoother than the first, though Portland's beautiful Star Theater looked pretty sparse with attendance as the Bottleneck Blues Band kicked off the show. They were followed by Esmerelda Strange, Ugly Shyla did her "Devil Dance" which was amazing to see! It is based on an old time burlesque act that has not been done in 50 years - Those were the days of burlesque! Ugly Shyla is bringing the class and creativity back to burlesque with this awesome dance. How to explain it? She made a beautifully detailed devil man, who fits over her shoulder, and while they dance you'll swear there are really two people on stage. Satan attempts to entrance Shyla and seduce her, but she tells him to be a gentleman, it is unclear which one of them won, some nights it seemed she won, other times the Devil got her under his spell. It is about the coolest 5 minute performance ever, and all who saw it were mesmerized. Of course this was not the show Shyla had planned for Portland, she was planning to be crucified - Literally, but the piercer chickened out three hours before the show.
Also in Portland, we were gifted with the fantastic balloon art and clown antics of Dingo Dizmal and Olive Rootbeer, who are surely the hardest working clowns in showbiz! Their "Team Jester" performers included hula hoop ballet and a man on stilts, and they kept the show moving. John Sinclair performed with his old friend and famed sax player Reggie Houston, after their performance Reggie admitted to me that since they hadn't seen each other in 15 years they spent all their time together catching up, so when they got to the venue John told him to just "wing it". They performed like a longtime duet, no one would have ever suspected the truth of the matter. Dave Densmore read poetry and Portland's Johnny No Bueno offered his own gritty prose. Our Master of Ceremonies was William Ham, and Portland's own Tokyo Death Stare closed the show and cleared the room. I thought they were great! It was nice to see so many of our Portland friends at the show, making the audience quality not quantity - With the exception of two drunken convention goers from Minnesota who heckled the performers and complained to me about the lack of bands, yet stayed until the end.
Aside from poor attendance, there was some ugliness with our friend Lonnie Wages, who was just too exhausted to perform. He had been unable to complete John's set the night before, so it was not a surprise he backed out of the Portland show, what was a shock was that he did it, making a scene and starting an argument with Shane. Lonnie was a big reason we did this tour, he'd been planning his wizard show for months, so it was very sad to have him leave us after just one performance.
By Tuesday night we were all settled in at our house in Astoria for a few days, arrangements were tight, but we were all happy and having fun, John Sinclair slept in our bed, Ruby LaRocca and Monica Puller who were filming the shows for a documentary were on my office sofa-bed, Ugly Shyla in the recliner, and Shane and I on the floor of his office. Dave Densmore stayed on his boat, and Dave Archer and crew slept at a nearby motel. On Wednesday, Dave Archer spoke to an enthralled room of college students at Clatsop Community College, one student even drew a picture of him while he talked. The Astoria radio legend Slab Slabinski and I had planned a smorgasbord a week or two before, so Slab was at the house and busy in the kitchen when I returned, I got busy with him and we created a feast that made Thanksgiving look mundane - Slab made egg rolls and pot stickers, plus the most amazing Moroccan chicken pie ever, made with philo dough and deliciousness! I made two pies -- Apple and strawberry rhubarb, and several bizarre savory gelatin molds - one was a clear wiggling, jiggling mass of raw diced veggies (Everyone said it was colorful, few were willing to taste it).
All feasted, Shane and Ugly Shyla made historic art collaborations in the basement, creating nearly a dozen different pieces and trading art secrets, and it was great to hear the lively banter going on in the living room while I rolled dough and mixed ingredients. A highlight for me was listening to Dave Archer and John Sinclair as they listened to a radio program about a North Beach Beat poet that both had known some 40 years previously. The smile on Dave Archer's face was the greatest ever!
Of course having a dozen people hanging around in close quarters for several days at a time does not happen without some drama, there were missing pills from several guests - and I have to admit when this was brought up I was shocked to find out just how medicated most of the WTFers were. John and Dave are both 71, so it is understandable that they might be on some medication, but we had a veritable pharmacy within our walls - Diabetes meds, stress meds, pain pills, stool softeners. Nursing homes have fewer prescription bottles that what was contained in our four walls, and for me whose hard drug use consists of Excedrine and an occasional bong it was a bit of a shock! We may never have the missing pill mystery solved, but as John Sinclair said "When you hang out with a bunch of weirdos that's what happens!"
On Friday, April 27th we were scheduled to do two shows in Astoria. The first was to be a more subdued speaking and video presentation at the college's Performing Arts Center (PAC), it was a much larger venue than the later KALA@HipfishMonthly gallery, so it was decided this was where the Tesla coil would be done, but the sound man had other ideas. In fact the sound man was a total saboteur who gave WTF Fest it's worst show of the tour. He put the kibosh on the Tesla Coil - after three hours of set up time by Dave Archer, his student Brent, and Brent's father James, next the videos would not play, Shane had to stand on stage and fumble with a computer for 15 minutes in the middle of the show in an attempt to play Ruby LaRocca's short film. Our own videos mysteriously would not play. Shawn the sound man had to be asked not once but twice to give Dave Archer a microphone while he was speaking, he had to be asked not once but twice to turn off the bouncing Microsoft logo on the screen behind Ugly Shyla for her dance with the Devil, which he never did manage to do. It was outrageous. You might think it was ineptitude rather than sabotage, but I assure it was the latter. This was not your typical dummy, this was a highly trained professional whom we were paying $35 per hour. Truth is he and his wife Lisa were friends of ours, or at least friendly, when we first moved to Astoria. A Facebook misunderstanding led to Lisa lobbing insults at Shane, even saying we were "trying to control the art scene in Astoria", and a FB friend deletion just a month or so before WTF Fest began. Had I known that this was our sound man before the show, I would have promptly cancelled, and when Shane got to the venue and saw this was the guy in charge he called me to say he wanted to cancel, I agreed but we were out voted by the rest of the crew.
Of course, I was not at the venue at that point, I was at Fred Meyer with Dave Archer and John Sinclair, we headed there after a radio interview on KMUN (Shout out to Carol Newman!) to look for a New York Times and a couple memory cards. In a matter of 60 seconds both men were gone, I searched up and down the isles to no avail. I finally located Dave outside on the phone, and got him to sit in some lawn furniture to wait for me while I searched for John. My phone rang, it was John he was lost, "near an exit" he said. I ran to the other end of the store and found John outside on a bench, I got him back to where Dave was, and of course Dave was gone from the lawn chair! I now understood how parents of toddlers felt. It was a comical half hour or hour really, but it made us late and no help in the decision to do the show at the PAC or not.
We were all angry and disappointed by the time we got the second venue, but the show at KALA was probably the best show of all - everyone was top notch, the small but enthusiastic crowd was excited, and we all got to hear John Sinclair call the drunken passersby's "Galoots!" John had no musical accompaniment for the Astoria shows, which he was bummed about, but all of us agreed to hear him solo made his words so much more riveting and powerful. Dave Densmore was on fire at KALA, and Dave Archer gave a great talk including a story about the FBI following him. Esmerelda Strange was fantastic doing a song for each performer on the show starting with Sweet Leaf for John Sinclair (You haven't lived until you've heard an accordion version of Sabbath!), even though off stage she seemed a bit blue, and Ugly Shyla made the audience gasp with glee. This was the show where everything was perfect, or very close anyway.
From there it was on to Seattle - two shows - one at The Comet (We were told the original home of Grunge), and the other at the Rat & Raven in the University Park area. The shows were booked by Momma, a famed local booking agent, and she put together an amazing line up featuring a dozen or so different bands - Most were jazz based, one band did a Sun Ra tribute as a special gift for John Sinclair who was a huge fan and author of a book about the jazz legend. John performed with a lounge band, the first night the bass player Needles admitted they were terrified by John's lack of direction, but on the second day they played like old pros together. Shane got to play drums with Mother's Anger which made his night, and the last band was the amazing, incredible Terminal Fuzz Terror who made my night.
The second show in Seattle was very special, Dave Archer had been asked by the owner of the Rat & Raven to do his Tesla Coil one last time, and he agreed. Dave announced that this would be his last public performance with his beloved coil - the one on the road with us had been used in a number of Hollywood movies and on the TV show Battlestar Galactica. During the performance Dave ceremonially passed the wand of the Tesla coil onto his student Brent who will take over the reverse glass painting with a Tesla Coil torch, or volt as the case may be. It was a truly moving moment. Our dog Cheyenne who has been across the USA several times was thrilled to be allowed into the Rat & Raven, she was so proud, that is until the Tesla Coil started up, then she could not get away fast enough, which was darn adorable!
The rest of the performances were very good, but fatigue had begun to hit at that point, and the small turnout made all of us edgy and hostile, something was bound to go bad just based on the feeling in the air, and suddenly Shane and Esmerelda Strange were trading FUs and instead of setting up she was packing up her gear. I was very sad to see her and her little doggie go, she had been a great opening performer and a fun person to be around. It was really a shame that ugly words were exchanged between them, as I know Shane is a great admirer of hers. Shane and I were getting better with MC duties, Shane got to show our videos and talk about the clips, people were interested and asked good questions, but I didn't get to hear it since I was trying to smooth things over with Esmerelda to no avail. Everyone was getting worn out, so some of the performances were less than stellar. John Sinclair did a great show, with many personal poems about growing old and his life since his recent divorce. The evening closed with Tokyo Death Stare who came all the way up from Portland to do another show with us, they were so sweet and very talented, and again cleared the bar in less than 20 minutes.
The final lousy moment came on Monday morning, I woke up and drove Ugly Shyla to the airport, the car was running rough and I wondered if we would make it home. After sad goodbyes to Shyla we drove back into the city and picked up John Sinclair to take him to the airport. Everything seemed fine until Shane asked John how he liked the shows, he said he was mad we had not paid him all his money yet, Shane said we had done everything to accommodate him and he had no reason not to trust us at this point, but they began shouting at each other. Flustered, I tried to find the highway that I had so easily come off of moments ago, but 10 minutes later I was still searching, they continued to shout and argue completely unaware of my lost status (which was a relief). I finally found the highway and drove two crazed shouting men down the highway to the airport, it was a sad goodbye again, of course for a different reason this time. In retrospect, John probably knew better than us how bad we had lost our asses, after all he was managing the MC5 when we were just a spark in our parents eyes.
On the way back from Seattle Shane and I took a detour to show Ruby LaRocca and Monica Puller Kurt Cobain's hometown and Wash-away Beach, which was a nice end to a long week (who am I kidding, a long three months for Shane and I). The slow pace helped out quite a bit since the car overheated. A short rest and a jug of coolant later all was fine.
Doing the numbers after an event is always the worst part for me, and this was no exception. We had hoped to pay all of the performers for their time and expenses, but the numbers do not lie, and with only $1460 made at the door, the only way to pay the performers would be out of our own empty pockets. In fact, the only reason we even reached our very minimal kickstarter goal was because a week before the kickstarter ended Shane and I were offered $1000 for footage we shot on our year long road trip back in 2007, instead of taking the much needed money for ourselves to pay bills, we had them put the money into our kickstarter, thus putting us in the hole before we even packed a suitcase. At the time, we thought we would of course get that money back - yeah right!
All in all, I have no regrets, to see Dave Densmore performing with Explode-A-Tron, to spend a day baking and cooking with the famed Slab Slabinski, and to see Dave Archer pass the wand of his Tesla Coil on to his student Brent Durand, those are the things I will remember always. The fighting, the missing pills, and the numerous snafus will eventually fade from my very forgiving memory until five years from now when Shane and I will say - "Wasn't WTF Fest great? We should do another event!"
All of the bands and the WTF performers were AMAZING! Even if WTF was not a monetary success, I am still proud of all we accomplished. The performance spaces were wonderful with the exception of The PAC in Astoria, the press even when factually wrong was good and the reviews were positive. This never could have happened without all of the generous kickstarter supporters who backed this insane event that few could grasp on paper, but most everyone loved live. I would like to say THANK YOU to all who participated in WTF Fest, all of the venues, all of our Kickstarter backers, the reporters who covered the events, and everyone who came to the shows. Special thanks to Renee for help with merchandise and the door, to Eric Carnell for help in Seattle, to Launce for the WTF Hot Sauce, and to Tree Khartman for making an unforgettable wizard costume and just being great overall.
Here is some of our press from WTF Fest: