NEWS FROM THE WOODS
By Bob Ketchum
Originally Published March 26, 2002
"A Day In The Life"
It was a hot, muggy day toward the end of the summer of 1974. We (the band and I) were sitting in my smoke-filled van, passing the time while the stage crew off-loaded gear into the Logan Theater in Paris, Arkansas. We were hours away from the gig, but everyone in my band "Whizz" was so pumped for the occasion we had to keep ourselves from vibrating off the face of the earth. This was a very high profile gig for us, as we had been contracted by the promoter to open a concert for "Styx".
It was an unusual event from the start. The promoter, Larry Glass, had never produced a concert before but had a perfect venue. His parents owned the local Movie Theater and he was determined to have a rock concert in his hometown. Knowing that I was promoting local concerts in nearby Ft. Smith, Larry called me up and picked my brains about how to accomplish this feat and asked what pitfalls he should be on the lookout for. I explained that, in order to get a decent band cheaply he had to find out which bands were touring and try to book them "between gigs" in order to get a reduced rate. For instance, if a band played in Tulsa on the 20th and in Little Rock on the 22nd, they would often have an "off" day and therefore might consider filling the "lost" date with a small venue at a reduced performance contract. This tactic had worked very well for me, as Arkansas is generally in the middle of nowhere and any band travelling cross country on tour would almost always find a couple of "dead" dates that were unavoidable when travelling through this part of the country. Ft. Smith was perfect because it is located equidistantly between the large cities of Little Rock, Memphis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis. It is also right on Interstate 40, which is a straight shot for tour busses, with Ft. Smith being situated as an overnight stopover point. I got some really great "discount prices" on groups like Bloodrock, Trapeze, Black Oak Arkansas, Mitch Ryder, and Sugarloaf, just because it was an off night for them and they could at least pick up some expense money at the gig.
This email came in from Larry Glass:
I've been meaning to write and thank you for the link to your Whizz reunion this summer. It looked like you guys had a great time. I loved the video clip of Grand 505. It all came back when I heard it. Actualy l've got some bad news. On Friday morning (11/04/05) the Logan Theater burned to the ground. Coincidently I happened to be in Paris that same day. I don't get back there but once or twice a year anymore, but Friday I pulled into town, got the news and watched as they were knocking the standing walls to the ground. Kind of sad, since it had been showing movies in Paris since the late thirties. The current owner and I stood there with lumps in our throats and watched the bricks come tumbling down. Bad day in a small town. However at least a half dozen people came up to me that night and told me that KISR had played a thirty minute uninterupted STYX tribute that morning after hearing that the Logan burned. Kind of cool after all these year that the concert is still remembered. Sad that a lot of Paris memories went down with the building. I guess the STYX/Whizz reunion is off for now. When Zardoz is re-released we will have to watch it somewhere else........ You guys buy the popcorn this time.
He got lucky. Styx was on a national tour supporting their first album for Wooden Nickel Records, an independent label distributed by RCA. Their first album ("Styx") was getting a fair amount of national airplay and some heavy support in the south central US. They didn't have a hit single (yet) and were priced very reasonably. He asked me about them and I told him they would be a really good group. I was playing several cuts from their album on my "Album Review" radio show on 100,000 watt stereo KMAG-FM, which blanketed the entire western half of Arkansas to Little Rock. The band was already in mid tour, promoting the first album. He booked the band about two months in advance of the concert date and then called me back up to ask if my band would open the show. Of course I said "yes" before even calling my band mates and checking it out. I knew no one else in the band would want to miss an opportunity like that. Larry also had an ulterior motive in his booking considerations. He knew that out of our 5-piece band, three of us worked for various radio stations and would talk the concert up for free. He was right. Although he did allocate funds towards radio promotion for the event, it would be safe to say for every radio spot he purchased he got the equivalent of three spots of free publicity as we each promoted the concert in our own ways during our regular daily radio programs.
As luck would have it (for Larry), the band's label wanted to follow up their first album and tour quickly. Dennis DeYoung, keyboardist and principal songwriter for Styx had penned a great rock ballad called "Lady". It was already recorded and Wooden Nickel decided to rush it out as a single while the band was still on tour promoting the first album. The timing was perfect. The single shot up the pop charts and within a month was in the Top 20. It is a credit to the band's management company that they honored all of their previous booking contracts at their set rate of payment despite the fact that they were undoubtedly getting much larger contract offers to perform. By the time of the Paris concert date, Styx had a bone fide hit single on the Billboard charts. As far as I recall the show had sold out well before the day of the event. Of course, the Logan Theater only seated 800 people, but who cares about seats? Tickets were sold up until show time and it was anybody's guess as to the attendance. Both wings of the theater had no chairs so people were able to sit or stand in mass on the sides and in front of the stage. Larry told me recently he was "just glad we didn't have a Fire Marshal in Paris or we would have been shut down." His best estimate would be 1,500 to 2000 people. He probably could have sold a second show if he'd have been prepared for it. But you can't prepare for a hit single coming out of the woodwork, so a single show it was…….. And WHAT a show!
I can only imagine the band's bemusement to discover they were playing to an over-capacity crowd in a movie theater in Paris, Arkansas! By the time my own band mates had arrived from Ft. Smith, the sound and lighting support crew was already rigging gear and setting up the stage in the theater. With each mounting moment our hearts pumped faster and harder. Kids came from every corner of the town, looking for the Styx tour bus (which hadn't arrived yet) in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the band. This would be normally a big event in a large city like Tulsa or Memphis, but in Paris, Arkansas, pandemonium was about to break loose. The Paris City Police began patrolling Main Street as kids assembled at the front door of the theater, despite the fact that the concert would not start for another 4 hours. They were literally coming out of the woodwork.
Finally, the support crew had the stage set up to their satisfaction. It was time for our group to schlepp our gear to the stage. Just then, Styx's equipment truck rounded the corner and we had to back off and wait while they set up the band's gear on the back line.
Another hour passed. By this time my van was so filled with nervous smoke it resembled the smoke-filled Chevy in Cheech & Chongs "Nice Dreams". Someone tapped on my window and informed me that we could move in now. We put all that pent up energy to good use and loaded all our gear on stage in about ten minutes. Another 20 minutes and we were totally set up. Within 10 more minutes the sound crew was running us through a sound check. We got mid-way our second song when they said, "OK. That's it! You guys are all set!" And that was it. Hurry up and wait. Only 90 minutes separated us from again taking the stage. Only this time it would be in front of a theater full of kids. Of course they would all be waiting for Styx, but we cared not! Just being offered the chance to open for a "NAME BAND" in a location as remote as Paris, Arkansas, was enough for us. Besides, we were a good band and confident that we would pull it off, but that didn't exactly make us any the less nervous……….
Back to the van. . . . . .
Minutes passed like hours. It seemed as though time was standing still. Thirty minutes before the start of the show the band's tour bus arrived. No one got off but the driver and the road manager. There were at least a hundred kids swarmed around the bus. You could almost feel the electricity on the air. At the point at which I was about to hyperventilate myself into a coma, it happened! In the two weeks leading up to the concert, I was struggling with the death throes of a failed relationship. My soon to be ex-girlfriend was feeling reluctance to the impending split. That's actually stating it mildly compared to the reality of the situation. In fact, she had followed me to Paris and showed up at my van a scant ten minutes before show time. As I glanced over to my new female companion sitting in the passenger seat, to my surprise and distinct horror there stood my "old flame", who began to verbally abuse my hapless guest, myself, and everyone else in the van. Her tirade grew in intensity until she was screaming at me, promising me that at the precise moment I would be on stage playing to "my fans", SHE would be back in Ft. Smith throwing all my furniture out on the front lawn. The very last thing I remember hearing as she turned to walk away and spat over her shoulder, "I might even set fire to that damn house and just burn it to the ground!"
Well, gee……. THAT'S something to think about as I go up on stage! As Larry introduced the band, the last thought in my mind was a mental image of my house in flames. Then the curtain parted and we were staring right down on a thousand screaming kids. I forgot about my house in about ten seconds. I don't remember much about the actual performance, but fortunately a photographer friend of ours was there. He not only got some great stage shots of us performing, but also took about 50 feet of 8mm film on my Bell & Howell that I had loaned him for the evening and pressed him to grab a few shots for me. That's where the stills came from that are posted with this article. I think we even recorded the PA mix onto my reel to reel deck but it has somehow been lost through the years. As usual, I was just about warmed up when our 45-minute set was over and we were done. It was the fastest 45 minute set in the history of rock and roll, I am sure.
We rushed back on stage after the curtain closed and almost literally threw our gear off the stage (kids, don't try this at home with a Hammond) to make way for the headliners. We still hadn't seen hide nor' hair of the band, who were remaining in their tour bus until the very last minute. Then, just mere seconds before Styx's introduction, the guys stormed out of the bus and, led by a stage hand wielding a flashlight, secured their respective positions on stage. We didn't want to miss a single second of their performance and we searched for our reserved seats loaded down with cokes, tubs of popcorn, and armloads of candy. We settled in just in time to see someone staggering up to the stage, supposedly to make the band's intro. It turned out to be another DJ from the same radio station that our guitarist Dave Hopkins worked for, and he was plastered to the gills. In Larry's recollection "He just showed up and took it on himself as a celebrity to do the intro of Styx. I really didn't mind at all since I was in no condition to do it myself and really didn't want to! It was also a bit comical as he slurred his words on stage. I didn't know him but when I saw you guys roll your eyes when you saw him there I just assumed he was as big a jerk sober as he was drunk that night. The last time I saw him he was hitting on some 13 year old locals in the lobby." Nevertheless, the intro was made, the curtains parted, and the full stage lights came up as the band slammed into their first song.
Styx, due to their current strenuous tour schedule, were in great form. The Panozzo brothers had the bass and drums locked in tight, while James Young (JY) and John Curulewski (JC) laid out a steady carpet of electric guitar pyrotechnics. Dennis DeYoung mesmerized the crowd with his Arp antics and Hammond swirls, while his own unique voice demonstrated the signature Styx vocal sound. This was a well rehearsed and seasoned band of professionals who were just arriving at the peak of their new found popularity, owning a hit single, and the boys were really riding it out for the crowd. Towards the end of their set (the band was staying with their tried and true tour set) an unexpected thing happened. I will let Larry recall in his own words, divulged to me in a recent exchange of email:
"One story I like to tell about that concert to anyone who wants to listen: Styx set off an explosive flash right at the beginning of "Serpent is Rising". The roadie was used to arenas the size of Mid South in Memphis and kind of overloaded the charge. When the concussion from the blast wore off you could see plaster falling from the ceiling and a Hiroshima sized mushroom cloud of smoke started filling the theater. It filled the theater and then started creeping out the exits on both sides and into the Lobby. I ran down through the smoke into the Lobby and opened the front doors to let the smoke out. As I did all of it rushed into the street and began filling up the Town Square. The local police and fire department were of course on full duty that night (expecting riots and looting I suppose). When they saw the smoke pouring out every emergency vehicle in the town started toward the Theater. I literally had to throw my body in front of them to keep them from coming in with axes and hoses."
Now let me tell you about it from our perspective, sitting there in the audience: Everyone in our band was sitting together in one row. We were all loaded down with food and drinks. Eric Dennis, one of our guitarists, was sitting to my left, holding onto his huge tub of popcorn and a V E R Y large soft drink. Without even a warning - - "BOOM" goes the explosive flash charge! I vividly recall seeing the drink and popcorn shoot straight up into the air about 6 feet and then gravity took over and down comes all this slop and covers at least ten people in our immediate area. Everyone was so scared that they didn't even get mad. It took almost five seconds to regain sight after that flash in the small building. The band WAS expecting the blast but were still stunned by the flash and concussion. Just seconds after being covered in sticky soda syrup and popcorn, we were "salted" with a light cover of plaster and dust from the ceiling. Somehow, the band managed to play on through it all, and by the end of the tune the crowd had returned somewhat to normal, although we were all a little deaf for the rest of the set. I don't know which was the more amazing . . . the fact that the ceiling of the old theater didn't collapse or that the police and fire department didn't rush in and shut it all down. It was the loudest and brightest thing I have ever witnessed in my life, before or since. If you could poll those who attended that concert today, they may not remember who the band was, but I'd wager they'd remember that blast! I'll bet even Styx would remember that night.
As a postscript, I did get the chance to meet with and talk to the band before the show. They had actually arrived in Ft. Smith on the evening before the gig and we all got together at my house that evening. Fellow "Whizz" guitarist Eric Dennis remembers the occasion, as he was at the time living in my house with me: "The night before the show, Styx (except Dennis DeYoung) came over to our house and the two bands partied all night long....just the two bands...we smoked and drank till the wee hours talking about music and touring and the like. JC offered to let me use one of his guitars (a red SG) for the show, but the guys in WHIZZ asked me not to use it because we wanted to be our best and they didn't want me to play an unfamiliar instrument....stoned and drunk was OK but unfamiliar instrument NOT!.....hmmmm.."
The guys is STYX were great guys, very cordial and easy to talk to. Superstardom had not yet jaded their good nature and willingness to share road stories and laugh about the explosion and the gig. They were genuinely happy to have played in Paris and meet all these "Ozark folks" who came to see them. I recall how amused they were when discussing how Larry had booked them JUST before "Lady" hit the charts. They called him a "shrewd businessman", even though it was his first time and didn't have a clue about the single coming out, much less that it would rise to a Top 10 hit by the time of the concert. It was just one of those moments in time when everything seemed to go just right.
And oh, by the way….. The house was still there when I returned to Ft. Smith.
NOTE FROM BOB: A month or so after I wrote this article I got email from an old friend from those long ago times. My friend, one Jim Grady, wrote to me about the Styx concert and had this to say:
"Some reflection upon the Styx/Whizz show of '74...
A hot August night ...before the month was
over...Styx three times...damn!! And one was free!!
and just who was dat opening band in gay Paree? ...
Whizz...I know these guys, or at least a couple...well, not "know" them...that guy on drums is Bob Ketchum...he was in Rock Bottom...opened for Bloodrock...damn!!...my first concert!!!!!!!!
Anyway...we were the ones chanting..."open the f*****g doors!!" Ooooooooooooh...rebellion...anyway...
A couple weeks later...we went back to the Logan to listen to tapes of the show...stage was still there, with the marks...sounded pretty good...well duh...
Just in case I never told you...Bob...
Thank you for turning me on to the music..."
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