V&R Stories: Going on Tour With The Chorus

The Tourmobiles
My van, their buses. All photos by Randy Stern

Hitting the road on a concert tour? Why, of course I did!

When you’re a musician or part of a musical group, it takes the proper logistics to pull off a tour whether it’s a major international effort or just a few places here and there. The magic is moving the artists, staff, roadies, their stage set-up and instruments from stop to stop. It is a daunting task for even the most independent musician.

A tour caravan manifests in various ways. It could be a fleet of customized RVs or long-haul buses with all the comforts of home – groupies sometimes included. You are able to sleep on the rig, wash yourselves, dress, practice your set and watch TV from stop to stop. Or, you can be in a passenger van with a U-Haul trailer with your gear out the back of it. No roadies, no bathroom, no beds – no groupies.

Back in 2010, I was doing my graduate Residency with the One Voice Mixed Chorus as their Social Media Marketing Intern. Because of my position and the power to bridge what the chorus is doing to Facebookers and the Twitterverse, I was talked into going on their fall tour of Western and Central Minnesota. The tour consisted of just three stops in Alexandria, Morris and Gaylord. the chorus was also joined by some actors doing vignettes in-between the choral sets.

Never been on tour before, I envisioned spending hours on end in buses with the choir, staying in hotel rooms hours away from home in places where I really don’t know a soul. There was one slight problem – I missed the bus.

Escaping the Snow

Actually, that’s not true. Because of my work schedule and grad school load, I had only time to do one stop out at the University of Minnesota, Morris campus. The only way to accomplish this – is by car. Besides, it would take forever and a day to figure out how to get from Robbinsdale to Morris, then overnight with the chorus in Willmar before we separate our ways after breakfast.

But, I ask, which car? What would get me to rural Western Minnesota in comfort that is highly efficient in terms of space and fuel economy? Or, with an impending storm system coming through the region, would I need something that would manage through the bad stuff with all-wheel-drive and a few more electronic nannies to keep me on the road?

In the end, I was presented with the latter: A SUV. Given my options, I chose a familiar steed: The West Point, Georgia-built 2011 Kia Sorento LX with the 276-horsepower 3.5 liter V6, all-wheel-drive and seven seats. It’s already proven to swallow miles and goodies quite competently. Now, I offer this machine a challenge: Get me to meet the chorus in Alexandria, a couple hours away from home, follow the two-bus caravan down to a performance in Morris with an overnight stop in Willmar. Piece of cake, right?

To make things interesting for this jaunt across Minnesota – I decided to take a musical instrument along: Boomer, my third conga drum. I figured I needed some inspiration with the biggest tool in my creative tool kit. After all, One Voice’s next concert cycle will be an intersection of voice and percussion…so, inspiration was needed to get my work done for this concert cycle.

Boomer on Tour

There is one small problem for this big drum – if I drove an ordinary sedan, putting it in the trunk was indeed out of the question. Over the years I’ve learned that sensitive music instruments cannot simply be thrown in the trunk of a sedan, unless there’s enough stuff around inside to pad it. If you simply have one bag and your instrument, there is a chance that it will get damaged in one way or another. Also, you have separated from the instrument in a sedan if you put it in the trunk because you do not have ready access to it to see how it’s doing. The solution to this problem would be to put the drum in the back seat.

You can put it in the cargo hold of a hatchback or a SUV/crossover, where there is open access from the seats to that area. However, if you’re a solo artist and you got only one bag of your clothes – and you have no one else in your car – you might as well leave the sensitive instrument in the back. In this case, it was placed in the second row seats.

Keep in mind, a conga drum is not as delicate as, say, a violin or a classical acoustic guitar. Yet, over the years, my drums endured nicks on the shell because of being “thrown in the trunk.” So, I take the same approach as I would if I had a violin, cello, classical acoustic guitar or a clarinet – I baby it and make sure it’s properly set in the back seat. I sometimes use a seat belt to secure it if possible.

In the case of the Sorento, I could carry a quartet and their string or woodwind instruments on this route. Or, I can carry a vocal trio, their music stands, seats, sheet music, CDs and other swag as well. How about a rock band? If a full drum set is along for the ride, it may end up on the roof. However, if the drummer carried a snare and some cymbals, along with a guitar, bass, pedals and small amplifiers – that would no problem.

Now I know why rock bands prefer full-sized vans to economically cart themselves from gig to gig. For further proof, a few years ago the “indie rock band crammed in a rolling box” phenomenon was immortalized in CBC Radio 3’s old “Stand By Your Van” radio vignettes.

One Voice Fall Tour - Morris 15

My first stop was to meet up with the tour in Alexandria. One of the pratfalls of traveling in the Upper Midwest is the November snow that everyone halfway expects. It was the case on my setting off from home as I departed with over an inch of the white stuff on the ground. I switched on the Diff Lock on the Sorento and made sure I’m on four-wheel drive getting out of The Cities. The flip side of engaging four-wheel drive is a loss in fuel economy. The fuel gauge certainly dipped more than usual on a two-and-a-quarter hour run to Alexandria that is normally two hours. Luckily, the roads cleared just past Monticello with drier conditions past Saint John’s University west of Saint Cloud. By then, the Diff Lock was switched off.

In Alexandria, the chorus was split to do some in-town activities. In my case, we visited a winery. Not bad, along with some socializing and such. When the chorus transitioned from Alexandria to Morris, I drove ahead of the buses. The route was bucolic, which provided some solace from the hubbub of the convoy.

The performance at University of Minnesota – Morris was the big highlight of my adventure in my graduate school capacity. We arrived early, I set up ahead to watch and try to photograph the chorus. They warmed a small, but hearty crowd and welcomed the patrons after the performance was complete.

Touring is not glamorous, to be honest. Following the crowd can be a bit tedious in a convoy – as was the case leaving our Morris venue to the overnight stop in Willmar. A part of me wanted the torture of US Highway 12 to stop – an hour’s worth.

One Voice Fall Tour - Morris 5

The tour itself was an incredible experience. The chorus did amazing work in Alexandria between their stops at Jefferson High School and the concert at Discovery Middle School. Their concert at the University of Minnesota Morris was the first time I’ve seen at least half the chorus in performance. Considering there will be more vocalists and a full repertoire for the January concerts in St. Paul, I can only imagine the absolute power of this amazing ensemble.

About my tour chaser vehicle, it was not perfect. Just some complaints, however. One thing I would’ve liked to have available was the functionality of the Bluetooth with my phone. However, after checking with the Kia website, my phone (a Motorola Cliq that I had at the time) was not compatible with the Kia’s Bluetooth set-up. This is quite disappointing, but Kia has since made amends with mobile connectivity through its UVO system, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

My solution was to get my Bluetooth earpiece for the trip. It was not exactly the most comfortable thing to wear sometimes, but very necessary in this case.

For those keeping score, the fuel economy loop for the entire trip was 19.7 MPG.

Lastly, I had my mixed feelings about the Sorento. Some of you may love it. I had some Ford Escapes and Jeep Wranglers available to me for the trip, but I declined. Not sure why – maybe the fuel economy on the Jeep and the fear that an Escape would be challenged with the winds whipping up the winter storm that dropped the white stuff at my house.

2011 Kia Sorento 7

One of my biggest peeves about SUV/Crossovers is the challenge between my height and the A-pillar. I hate vehicles where my head ends up brushing against the A-pillar on entry. No problem with entry and exit in a Ford Escape, Jeep Liberty or Dodge Nitro for me. Yet, for several other SUV/Crossovers…forget it.

That was when I regretted not getting a small car for an honest test – even with the snow.

The tour with the One Voice Mixed Chorus experience taught me a lot of the work of the arts doing outreach work. It brought back to campus some ideas regarding engagement, audience development and multicultural exchange. Which is all grand and wonderful, except I am not working in the arts.

Nor am I in a band.

I’m just an automotive writer/blogger/journalist/photographer. In my capacity, a few lessons were carried over into this business. Yeah, let’s go with that…

I still see the chorus and its members every year at the Twin Cities Pride festival at Loring Park in Minneapolis. I think they might still remember me…or, read my stuff somewhere…

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