On Touring With One Arm

My band Gusto Gusto just did a 4000 km two week round trip up and down the East Coast of Australia, playing twelve shows on the way with stops at Woodford Folk Festival. I went into the tour with a little trepidation – we had a couple of door deal shows that I had genuinely no idea what the turnouts would be, plus a handful of pub shows that I knew were going to be hard work.

With the birth of a new project you discard most of the successes of your previous projects. None of the fans of the myriad blues or folk or country acts that I’ve toured the country with are particularly interested in the new thing I’m doing, because for the most part they’re fans of the sum, not the parts.

I see this constantly with friends in successful bands, you can sell out stadiums as part of project X (insert Dire Straights, Men at Work, The Cat Empire), and then when you step out from that project to do something different, the fans stay with project. A band like Boy and Bear can sell a couple of thousand tickets at the Forum, but their drummer Tim Hart’s solo project is playing to a hundred cap room at the Wesley Anne.

There’s a small handful of  band members who’ve stepped away from successful acts to do their own thing to commercial acclaim, but there’s also some pretty strong reasons behind why there are currently two versions of the band UB40 touring the world. Fans love the familiar, its hard to sell them on something new, and naming rights are key for audience recognition. This is why when I was lining up this summer’s Gusto tour I was a little nervous about audience numbers.

Turns out we didn’t have to worry. The shows we played at Woodford were an absolute blast and set up the rest of the tour for success. We had people at every other show of the tour who had seen us play at Woodford and brought some friends along. We had fantastic support from community radio for every show, local radio programs asking us to come onboard which is so different from my usual experience of emailing everyone a plaintive request for promo and generally being ignored. We also had some truly kick-arse support acts who brought fans, supplied backline and generally made the shows work.

For me, the tour was a financial success (we made more money than we spent), a promotional success (people turned up to the shows), and a vibe success (we had fun as a band and didn’t have any interpersonal blow-outs). There’s always things to improve but I was genuinely rapt with how it all came out.

The other part of the equation was falling off my bike early December and fracturing my finger. I went in for surgery to get a pin put in to line up the bones, then spent the two weeks before Christmas learning to play drums one handed. The doctors were a little bit worried but agreed to pre-emptively pull the pin a week earlier than planned, on the day before Christmas, so I could go on tour Boxing Day. The other alternative was to leave the pin in until after the tour, but the doctor told me if I did that I might never get joint mobility in the finger again, obviously not an option for me!

I spent the entire tour nursing my left side, wearing a sling to play drums and keep my left hand out of the way (the one time I tried to play with my left hand sent jangling pain all the way up my arm, so I scrapped that idea quickly). I was lucky to have a band of friends to order around, so I spent most of the tour pointing at various parts of the drumkit and asking people to loosen wingnuts and place cymbals for me. The first couple of shows were a little messy, but by the third Woodford set I was feeling comfortable. I do most of the audience banter in Gusto, so I had occasional brain fart moments where I was trying to keep the beat going and talk over top of the band, just for everything to fall in a heap, but it was ok. I was intrigued to realise that most of the drum parts I play with two hands are coverable with one, maybe it’s a sign that I need to make my normal grooves a little more intricate?

One neat side-effect to wearing a sling onstage was more positive audience feedback than I’ve ever had before. I’m semi-tempted to keep wearing the sling in this band as a way to garner critical acclaim. Cheap tricks to sell CDs. The band suggested I move the sling between limbs mid-show and see if the audience notices. I quite like the idea of walking on stage with a left arm sling and walking off stage with a crutch and one leg in a cast, not quite sure how to implement it though.

We got back from tour on Monday and I went back to the doctor. They’ve given me a newer, much smaller splint, and a bunch of physio exercises to do. The good news is the finger is healing, the bad news is they’re suggesting I won’t be back to a hundred percent for six to twelve months. I’ve got a fair number of banjo gigs in the calendar, and still have a solo album to release, but at this stage my first finger doesn’t bend physically far enough to fret a note on my banjo, so options are to either re-learn banjo left-handed (just silly enough that I might actually do it), double down on physio and see if I can cut my recovery time to one month, or cancel a bunch of gigs.

I might use this as a chance to work on my singing and spend more time recording other people’s projects in my little home studio while I recover. I can also play drums lightly with my left hand again, although my technique is a little limited when I wear the splint, so maybe this is my chance to spend more time watching other people’s gigs.

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