I’m With The Band: The Trials and Tribulations of a Touring Musician

David Lindley and  Crystal Taliefero
Julia Lofstrand
– David Lindley and Crystal Taliefero

Tamara Conniff, Executive Vice President, Roc Nation Music Publishing

Brendan Buckley, Shakira
Steve Ferrone, Tom Petty
David Lindley, Jackson Browne
Crystal Taliefero, Billy Joel
Brett Tuggle, Fleetwood Mac

Elite touring musicians gathered at Pollstar Live! on Tuesday morning to discuss the challenges of road life.

Moderated by Roc Nation executive vice president Tamara Conniff, “I’m With the Band: The Trials and Tribulations of a Touring Musician” convened performers who back up several music luminaries: Brendan Buckley (Shakira), Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty), David Lindley (Jackson Browne), Crystal Taliefero (Billy Joel) and Brett Tuggle (Fleetwood Mac).

The road warriors didn’t sugarcoat the bitter pill to which touring life often amounts. “In reality the two hours or the three hours on stage are the fun part,” said Tuggle. “It’s the other 22 hours of flying, driving, schlepping, going to hotels and airports… But the goal is to have the best show you can have — and you have to summon that spirit every time you get on stage.”

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. And as a woman, Taliefero faces even more inconveniences while touring that her male peers. “You don’t always get a dressing room, OK?” she told the audience, adding that when venues allot the bands she performs with a single large room to share — often under the assumption that the performers are all men — she sometimes must track down public women’s restrooms elsewhere in the building.

“Being on the road, to begin with is an abnormal lifestyle,” said Lindley, refuting fans who assume it’s “so glamorous.” Rocking out is fun; asking where the bathroom every day, not so much.

But perspective matters. Lindley related a story to the audience that former touring partner Ry Cooder once told him at a time of low morale. After his kidneys failed, Clifton Chenier, the legendary accordion player known as the “King of Zydeco,” structured his tours so that he could receive dialysis by day and perform by night. When he lost his legs to his sickness, he’d have assistants strap him into a cheer and wheel him on stage so that he could still perform.

“When I heard this story, my jaw dropped,” said Lindley, then reenacting himself the first time he heard the story: “I will never complain about being on the road again.”

All the musicians shared their pre-show preparation rituals — and found differences. For instance, Buckley revealed a habit he adopted years ago: Before a venue opens its doors to attendees, he patrols the perimeter to see the stage from every angle.

“As a musician, we often go van to dressing room to stage to dressing room to hotel, and we don’t see what it looks like from the audience perspective,” he said. “It helps me get out of the idea, this insular idea, that I didn’t eat the meal I wanted to eat before going onstage, or whatever. … It sounds a little hocus-pocus, but I feel that.”

Ferrone turned to Buckley: “That’s funny, because we do the same job, but we have two totally different processes.”

Despite complains and differences, the panelists agreed that they’re thankful for their occupations and channel that when performing. “The higher the fun factor, the better you play,” said Lindley, explaining that he still tries to occupy a student mentality when on stage, thinking of what he can learn and how to deliver the best show to fans.

The musicians also agreed that the artist they support is the fulcrum of the experience — the one who the fans come to see, the one who motivates the crew, the one who drives the other performers on stage.

“It comes from the top,” said Ferrone in the panel’s most sobering moment. “It comes from your boss.

“People would drop other gigs to come work with Tom,” he continued. “The music was great, the comfort level was great — and the result was a pretty good band, if I dare say so myself. It was a great band and I miss it terribly. I miss him terribly. He was a fantastic guy, fantastic songwriter. Socially, we didn’t really do too much together. But what we did was we came together to make music.”