I’m standing on the biggest stage I’ve ever been on on the east coast of Florida in early November and I’m doing jumping jacks. The band on the side stage is playing some awful versions of some cover songs and I’m waiting for the sound guy to give me the thumbs up. I’ve traveled all the way down here to open for .38 Special at the annual Jensen Beach Pineapple Festival. I’m looking out into a sea of people and an orange-pink sunset over the carnival rides. I’m nervous. And it’s freezing.
I’ve been in Florida for 3 days. I arrived in Miami Wednesday night and it was 85 and muggy as hell. I got off the plane and went to the car rental terminal to pick up the car I’d reserved for the 8 days I’ll be down here. I go to the pick up counter and present my license and credit card. They turn me down for a car. Why? I ask. We need the whole rental amount plus double that for a deposit. Over $800. I’ve never heard of this before. But now I’m a little panicked. I know I have about $400 on my card and the rental deal was supposed to be $275 for the week. I go to another rental counter. They give me a price. It’s much more than I have and more than double the amount on the car I had reserved. I look them up on line and the advertised rate is different than what they just quoted me. They can give me the deal if I reserve the car online. I’m standing at the counter now and on their website on my I-phone reserving a car online so I can get it at the discount from the person standing right in front of me. This is weird. After a few minutes I have my confirmation # which I show to the girl behind the desk and I’m on my way to pick up my economy car. Luckily, they only have 4 cars left and I get bumped up to a Jetta. Score!
I drive up to my brother’s house in Jensen Beach. I’m here to play at the Jensen Beach Pineapple Festival on Saturday, as well as a show at Ian’s Tropical Grill tomorrow night. As I arrive I find out that there are severe thunderstorms forecast for Thursday and the show will be moved to the following Tuesday. Good thing I decided to stay through the following Thursday to visit with some family. But between the car debacle and the re-schedule, I’m feeling a little weird about the trip. I’m hoping everything will go smoothly from here on out.
Thursday I get to sleep in a little bit and we go to breakfast at a place called Rooster’s. It’s really good food, the owner and waitstaff are really nice and it becomes my home base for the week. I end up eating here about 6 times. This is because I love good breakfast food, and they have free internet so I can do some work at the same time. If you ever go, they have awesome crumb cake that you get with any order. On the day I left Florida, they gave me an extra serving to take on the plane. It’s yummy!
Jensen Beach is a town about 45 minutes north of West Palm Beach and right on the coast. You can cross a few bridges from anywhere in town and you’re on Hutchinson Island and the beach and Atlantic Ocean are about 30 feet off the road. I want to go to the beach while I’m down here, take some pictures and maybe go swimming. Thinking I have almost a week to do it, I don’t venture over the inter-coastal yet. I eat dinner at my brother’s restaurant and it’s great as usual. We stay up until about 5 am talking at his house. Which would normally be fine, but we need to get up a bit early on Friday to help set up for the Festival. We go to the Festival grounds, which is a blocked off street downtown, to help set up the Chamber of Commerce booth. The Chamber hired me for the show, so I’m more than happy to help out. I get to meet Ron and Devon from the Chamber which is nice at events like this since they have so much going on to keep it running sometimes you don’t get to meet the people behind the scenes when you perform.
The day starts out fine but as the afternoon progresses the temperature begins to drop. Now, it’s November. I live in upstate NY. On Tuesday night before I left, it was 22 degrees. The low for the day here in Florida for Friday is supposed to be 55. I’m not concerned. I meet up with my brother at the Chamber booth around 9pm. It’s cold. I’m shivering. I only have a light fleece with me which I really only brought knowing that I’d need it when I got back to NY. Now I wish I had my coat that is sitting in my van at the Albany airport. Wow. I never thought I’d ever EVER feel cold in Florida. Sure if this were July and it was only 55, I may feel chilly, but this was supposed to be a nice southern vacation away from the cold dreary days of late autumn in NY. I was wrong. Yes, it gets cold in Florida. Bone chilling cold. Everyone told me it was from the humidity in the wind off the ocean. Whatever. Bring you gloves!!!
The Jensen Beach Pineapple Festival is an annual event that goes for 3 days. Each night has a headliner on the main stage along with constant music on the side stage which from what I witnessed is a procession of cover bands with various levels of skill. Friday night on the main stage it was country night. Some guy named Justin Moore. I have no idea who he is. He has some song that has a chorus of ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’ or something close to that. He plays for about an hour and a half. More than half his set is cover songs. I wonder how the side stage bands feel about this. I know I find it strange that an act picked for the main stage wouldn’t have enough material for a 90 minute set. Seems a little bush league to me. By the time I leave, my hands are numb. The only thing keeping me warm are the 2 cups of ‘Goomba’s’ I’ve had. This is a pineapple/orange juice/rum and vodka concoction that they love down here. They go down like kool-aid. Very tropical, but ill suited to the chill that has taken over. I’m more in the mood for some hot cider. It’s probably very good for me though, since I don’t feel like having another one, and since I perform tomorrow, and alcohol messes with my voice, I win. Sort of.
A cool thing about my brothers house is that there are railroad tracks right in front of it. And they’re active. There are trains all day long. I’ve always loved trains, and remember having to actually stop at railroad crossings quite frequently growing up. I really don’t remember the last time I had to do that in NY. So watching the trains all day is kinda cool to me. However, they go all night too. So about 2am, 3:30am, 4:15 and on and on, a train will come lumbering down the tracks. Often they hit their horn first. The first couple nights you stay here, they wake you up every time. I’m already a little amped up for the show tonight so I find myself waking up for each train, falling asleep again for what seems like 10 minutes and welcoming in the next one. Each time I find my mind wandering to weird places but a lot of it is reminiscing about this tour. It all started in Saratoga at the beginning of September and took me down most of the east coast, well, now all of the east coast, and is ending here in Florida, where I’ve never performed before. It should be one of the biggest shows I’ve ever played. When I started this whole idea of touring I was a little freaked out. It’s not an easy thing to do. There is so much work before you ever step out your door between the routing, sending out press kits, e-mails, phone calls, follow up. Then there’s the actual logistics of being on the road. Budget, food, gas, sleep. Then the shows which are the highlight of the whole thing, but proportionally are the smallest part of what you do. I started planning all the way back in April and most of the shows were set up by August. Now, laying here in Florida listening to the trains in the early morning light, I was filled with pride and sadness. I was so happy at all I had accomplished with the tour, and sad to know that it was at the end, for the time being at least.
Before it all ended, I still had 2 more shows though and I needed to sleep damn it! Saturday afternoon I wake up. Back to Roosters. Full of yummy food, I go home to prepare for the show. New guitar strings, pick supply ready, capo, strap- check! I get the set list in my head and although I really wasn’t sure what I’d play until I got up there, I had an idea. Do my vocal exercises and stretch. I’m going on at 8:20 right before .38 Special. Most of the day has been much more mild than yesterday so I’m hopeful for warmer temps tonight. I get a call at 5 that I’m going on at 8 because .38 Special wants to go on earlier. No problem. I pack up the car and drive down to the festival.
I park right behind the VIP entrance which is convenient. I met the woman who runs the bed and breakfast right by this entrance and she told me I could park there for the night. It’s about 6:45 and I go to meet the peeps at the Chamber booth. A guy comes and asks me if I’m the one who’s playing. I say yes and he tells me I’m on at 7:15. Okay…. I go up to the stage. There’s another band who was supposed to be on before me called Crossbone. They are a local band who plays, as I will find out, southern rock. Covers. Southern Rock. That’s it. So I get up to the side of the stage and find the sound guy who is great. I tell him what’s going on, and mid-sentence I catch what the guy from Crossbone is saying and it’s something about how they were promised an hour long set and the opening slot and ‘all these people were here’ for them etc etc.
One thing I’ve always tried to do is be accommodating, especially when you have an opportunity to play a large show like this. There’s a rule you learn along the way, or should, to be nice, play well with others, never over stay your welcome. They were really upset. I look at him and say I don’t mind going before them, but I wasn’t going to cut my time, which he had just suggested should be 10 minutes. I came all the way from NY for this and I wasn’t going to play a song and a half. I went back to the sound guy, and we looked at the schedule and figured out that I could play for 30 min, and then they could go on and play for about 35 if they wanted to. More bitching.
I went out onto the stage to set up figuring that the sooner I was out there and sound checked the quicker everyone could play. Now it’s about 7:05 and I’m supposed to play at 7:15. Since nothing was going on, I asked the sound guy why we couldn’t just start. He asked somebody at the sound station out front and they said we were waiting for the side stage band to finish. They were supposed to play from 6:45- 7:45 but hadn’t even started yet. Thinking back to the rental car situation I had a flash of them starting late, still playing the full set and me not starting until 7:30 only to be clobbered over the head with a guitar by the members of Crossbone so they could start there set after I had played for 5 minutes.
The little old man who had found me at the booth came up to me and told me I could play until 7:20. I just stared at him. This was starting to get funny. Right at that moment the side stage had sound come out of it. It took me about 3 minutes to realize the band was playing ‘Safety Dance’. Yes, that one. You’d never know unless you really paid attention. The little old man disappeared and I realized how cold my hands were. Thinking that I’d only get one song the way things were going, I looked out at the crowd in front of the main stage. It was HUGE! The stage faced west and the sun was just going down and the rides were all lit up and the sky was this awesome sunset color. I took out my phone and clicked a quick picture. Again, I thought of all the shows that came before this and how awesome this whole experience has been so far. I see my Dad and brother walking up through the VIP seating to get right in the front row. I hear the sound guy talking to me in the monitor.
The other band has miraculously stopped playing and it’s my turn. ‘Two check two’ I repeat over and over. He tells me the front of the house speakers aren’t working with my vocal mic. I keep talking into the microphone. Suddenly I hear my voice booming out over the crowd. ‘Hello Jensen Beach my name is Mike Grutka and I’m from Saratoga Springs, NY These are all my own songs!’ and I’m off.
Then I’m done. It goes so quickly while you’re on stage. You lose yourself in the performance. It’s totally dark when I’m done and I realize that a huge spotlight had come on at some point and I couldn’t even see the front row it was so bright. I’m no longer cold. I’m actually sweating a bit. In a way you almost miss the whole thing. I remember singing. I remember dancing around the stage. I remember hearing the crowd cheer-actually cheer. Many times when you get to play at big festivals like this or open for a bigger act, you get a lot of ‘polite’ applause. You know what I mean because you’ve done it. It’s kind of a ‘thanks for playing now get out of the way so we can see who we’re really here to see’ kind of clapping. After my first song I heard a roar from the crowd. Like a real loud clapping cheering roar. It was awesome!! I’ll never forget that.
I get back to the booth where I have my merch table set up. Crossbone is playing some Lynyrd Skynyrd song. I talk to a bunch of people. By the time .38 Special starts, we’ve all been hit by so many songs that sound kinda like some of their stuff we really can’t listen anymore. My Dad brother and I go to dinner. It’s a great night.
Later I’m sitting out on my brothers porch. It’s about 2 am. Time for a train. It goes clanging by and I’m struck by how quiet it actually is once the engine goes by. You hear the weight of it. You hear the clicking of the wheels on the tracks. But for something so large and powerful it is remarkably soft. When it’s gone the night seems even quieter than it was a few minutes earlier. It reminds me of touring. It reminds me of the short time on stage and the time in between.
I go in the house and put my guitar away. It’s time for sleep. I don’t have my next show for three days. Time for another train.