One night only 

Backstage and behind the scenes at The Black Sheep

click to enlarge The doors open at 8; the opening act starts at 9; the - concerts in full swing by 11; the staff starts the clean- - up shortly after midnight. For music lovers in town, its a - four-hour day. But for the people behind the scenes, its - just a quarter of the time and effort spent in bringing - acts like Mastodon in to play a set in Colorado Springs. - 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger
  • The doors open at 8; the opening act starts at 9; the concerts in full swing by 11; the staff starts the clean- up shortly after midnight. For music lovers in town, its a four-hour day. But for the people behind the scenes, its just a quarter of the time and effort spent in bringing acts like Mastodon in to play a set in Colorado Springs.

Geoff Brent's late. The Black Sheep's general manager was supposed to be here at noon. The men in the parking lot look a little annoyed.

When Brent arrives, about 15 minutes after his usual time, he looks tired. His eyes are glossy, and his eyelids heavy. A cup of coffee, maybe even a nap, would certainly do him good. But these men are antsy.

There's a liquor vendor, a linen supply truck and two workers from a sanitation company. There's the quarter-million dollar tour bus, too, taking up the bulk of the lot. That's tough to miss.

Brent's outnumbered. He flashes a crooked, closed-mouth smile perhaps as an apology, but directed at no one in particular as he unlocks the door.

"Everyone's running early today." He lets out a nervous laugh. "That's good ..."

The 26-year-old pushes open the door and enters the dingy back office. The workers follow suit, making their drop-offs and tending to their tasks.

Brent hardly pays them any mind, instead heading toward the computer, set up on a table against a wall in the room that serves as home base for the bulk of his workday. He checks his e-mail, but only for a minute. Before he can really settle in, he's interrupted by a coworker's phone call about an upcoming concert. As Brent begins discussing the musical merits of the "kinda pop/indie-punk" outfit Monty Are I, another group of men walks through his door.

They're a decidedly cooler-looking set. Tight jeans, dirty-on-purpose tees, sunglasses, piercings, tattoo-covered arms. The details amount to a dead giveaway.

This is the talent.

This is Mastodon.

There are no hellos. Just nods. Brent knows who they are.

Most music fans do, too, regardless of whether they're into heavy metal. Mastodon's latest effort, 2006's Blood Mountain, is the band's second straight release to be adorned with immense critical acclaim. It's an undeniably smart album a concept record, a trademark of the band's (its 2004 release, Leviathan, was based on Herman Melville's Moby Dick) about ascending to the top of an epic peak, and the creatures encountered and engaged along the way. Many critics hailed it as one of the year's best; on Rolling Stone magazine's list of 2006's Top 50 albums, Blood Mountain clocked in at No. 9.

This current tour is billed as the last chance for fans to see Mastodon play the small-club circuit. In upcoming months, Mastodon will tour Australia with Slayer, co-headline another U.S. tour with punk-rockers Against Me!, and then play European summer festivals. After that, it's only arenas for the Atlanta-based outfit.

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

But first, Mastodon is playing The Black Sheep on this Friday, March 23. Around 300 of the venue's 450 tickets have already been sold for the Mastodon show. There's a lifetime between now and then, though. Mastodon won't hit the stage for another 10 hours.

By that time, Brent says, the show will "probably" sell out. As it should, really. Mastodon's quite the coup for a peripheral market like Colorado Springs. Especially in a venue that houses fewer than 500 concertgoers.

But given the string of other "name" acts recently brought in to the Sheep (Hoobastank, Bowling for Soup, Dead Prez, Daughtry, Clipse) it's no longer that surprising. Tonight's show is just one more notch on the belt of The Black Sheep and the booking agency behind it, Soda Jerk Presents. Together, they bring national touring acts often more than three a week to Colorado Springs.

As a pair, Soda Jerk and The Black Sheep are coming into their own. They give the scene kids a place to hang. They give the music snobs a place to banter. Most importantly, they give Colorado Springs a serious up tick in cultural legitimacy.

"Everyone on staff is pretty stoked about tonight's show," Brent says. "Usually, just one or two people are. It's rare that everyone here is."

The talent.

Brent, a soft-spoken and sarcastic Springs native, hides his own excitement from Mastodon quite well. He does his best to ignore them; as they amble about the freshly unlocked venue, checking out the stage and the bathrooms, Brent tends to a number of small, menial tasks: cleanup jobs, phone calls and paperwork, mostly.

He looks up in time to notice Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds entering the nearby bar area.

"We're Black Sheepin' it!" Hinds says with a wide smile.

Brent nods back at him and lets out a laugh. That's a new one.

Of course, The Black Sheep itself is pretty new it just recently celebrated its first birthday. But the building at 2106 E. Platte Ave. has an old reputation, and a notorious one at that. This is the where the dreams of past local live music advocates have gone to die. At one point the venue was called Pure Energy. Later, it was Industrial Nation. More recently, this was the home of Darkside. Each effort failed.

Though Soda Jerk Presents had previously booked acts to this room, it wasn't until October 2005 that the booking company took up the lease and renamed the space.

Having checked out the venue, Hinds crosses his arms. The day is young; it's only half past noon.

"So," he says, "what's there to do around here?"

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

The venue.

Brent laughs again. There's not much to the immediate area, he says. Not much to get excited about, at least.

"There's some pawn shops and thrift stores."

There is some character to this part of the city just not necessarily the kind the city would like to promote.

Hinds is aware of this. His bus pulled into The Black Sheep's parking lot somewhere between 8 and 9 this morning. He's not sure exactly. But when he woke up, he was here. He's already had his chance to explore.

Nonetheless, it's looking like today's "around here" should top yesterday's. That was Salina, Kansas. Not exactly a happening place. But the band was able to go to the movies. And, everyone agrees, 300 was "awesome."

"We're thinking about going across the street and buying a bike for 15 bucks," Hinds says with a smile.

He never buys the bike. But Mastodon does effectively make Platte Avenue its home for the next couple of hours. The guys have nothing else to do.

"Well, there's Internet on the bus," drummer Brann Dailor says. "And a lot of day-to-day business to be taken care of over the phone."

Today's business comes with an asterisk. It's guitarist Bill Kelliher's birthday. Over the course of the day, he'll celebrate by buying cowboy-style shirts at the thrift stores, bleaching his hair blond and trading tickets to tonight's show in exchange for a tattoo of Princess Leia (in her Return of the Jedi slave bikini) on his right forearm.

The other band members' days aren't as eventful.

"It's really boring," Dailor says.

Not Colorado Springs. Life on the road.

"A lot of hurry up and wait, you know?"

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

After taping a quick promo spot for the show with Ross Ford of KILO-FM 94.3, Dailor returns to the bus. He remains there for most of the day.

The management.

Less than an hour after arriving, Brent's done with his "early morning" work.

For the rest of the day, he'll serve mostly as a "runner," driving around town and picking up things for the band. The gig has its advantages: He won't have to spend the entire day inside, sticking around to sell tickets to people wandering inside the club's front door; he won't have to deal with the road managers; he won't have to oversee the stage setup and the loading of the band's equipment.

Today, those responsibilities belong to Mike Barsch, Brent's often-heard-but-rarely-seen boss, the owner of Soda Jerk Presents. It was Barsch's idea for Soda Jerk to take on this building.

And after purchasing it, the Soda Jerk staff almost immediately upgraded it. The walls were repainted. The stage was reworked. The lights were rewired. A dressing room was even installed in the basement.

"I've had my eye on this place for a long time," Barsch says. "I've always liked this room. It's perfect. You've got a big room. You've got a stage. You've got a bar. What else do you need?"

Plus, he adds, "there's a lot of strategic value" to this location. The Black Sheep isn't the only venue Soda Jerk has a stake in. The company also runs the Marquis Theater in Denver and regularly books acts to the Fox Theatre in Boulder, the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, the hi-dive and Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, and a handful of other venues along the Front Range. There's strength in those numbers, Barsch says. With so many available venues, he can book pretty much any size venue a band is looking for. And he can offer the chance to play rooms in multiple cities.

It's good for Soda Jerk. And good for The Black Sheep. It's what gets name bands like Mastodon to play for its fans in the Springs.

"It's a leveraging position," he says, "having an extra market or two."

Barsch is down for the day from his main base in Boulder to help Brent and his staff. But he doesn't need to be. He acknowledges as much. It's just that sometimes, he says, it helps to have a familiar face around. He has worked before with Mastodon's tour manager, Andy Tinsley.

"I think we've done every show Mastodon's played in Colorado," he says. And when Mastodon returns to play Denver's Fillmore Auditorium in May, it'll be largely handled by Soda Jerk.

"This business is entirely about relationships," Barsch says.

Together, Tinsley and Barsch go over the day's schedule. They discuss the people working the show, meals, the band's rider. It's nothing too demanding.

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

"If you go in guns blazing and you're a dick, you're not going to get things," Tinsley admits. "It's a healthy medium of going with things and demanding things. I'm limited by what the contract says, and the promoter is limited by what the scene allows."

Today, the scene allows a $500 food and drink budget for the three bands playing. Of that, $300 will go to Mastodon. The other $200 will be split among the opening acts, Priestess and Mouth of the Architect.

Brent's taken aback. Usually, he says, the headlining act isn't so kind to its openers.

Tinsley shrugs it off: "We're on Warner Bros. [Records]. We have kind of an unlimited support for what we want."

His meeting with Barsch ends after just a few minutes. Barsch isn't surprised at their speed.

"I've been promoting shows for 18 years," he says. "There's systems in place for everything. I'm just the talent buyer for these shows. I just buy 'em and put them into the machine."

The machine.

The "machine" seems to be running smoothly during the 3 p.m. load-in of Mastodon's gear. Guitar technician Darren Sanders (brother of lead singer Troy Sanders) and drum technician Roger Keene help The Black Sheep's head of security, Nate Ellis, and sound technician, Chris Forsythe, bring in the band's gear. In between moving these large trunks, Ellis and Forsythe tweak the stage's lights and sound boards.

Meanwhile, Mastodon's merchandise saleswoman, Teresa Collier, sets up her table against a wall next to the stage. She's been selling band merchandise on tour for the past five years, on and off. She loves it in the past year alone, she has been as far north as Alaska and as far east as Greece.

"I just sort of fell into it," Collier says.

She first started selling merch for her friends' bands in high school. After graduating, she offered to do it for other bands she had met. Before long, those bands started touring. And those bands introduced her to others, and so on and so on. Eventually, Collier met Tinsley. And through Tinsley, she got hooked up with the guys in Mastodon.

For the past two months, she has been the lone female on the bus. If this were a Cameron Crowe movie, Mastodon would be Stillwater, and Collier would be their Penny Lane.

Earlier, when Kelliher was bleaching his hair, he checked with Collier to make sure he was doing it right. Now, his dye-job finished, he saunters up to Collier for approval.

"It looks good," she assures him, sweetly. "Gave it something extra."

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

Satisfied, Kelliher walks away.

"I'm the hairstylist, too," Collier says, laughing.

The calm.

Heading into the 5 p.m. sound check, everything seems to be running smoothly. But Barsch warns, "Everything intensifies as we get closer to the doors [opening]."

And in the next couple of hours, a handful of things do go awry.

Mastodon was originally scheduled for a meet-and-greet with KILO listeners today. One problem: No one knows if it's going to happen. Originally, it was supposed to be a "Bowl with Mastodon" event at Mr. Biggs. But KILO's Ford says his station got a last-minute call from management at the "family fun center" asking to not be involved.

"The band didn't fit their, quote-unquote, "family image,'" he says, rolling his eyes.

Quickly, Ford scrambled for a backup plan. He bought a Gibson guitar and had Mastodon's members sign it. The plan was to give it away at the sound check, the next proposed location for the meet-and-greet.

But that, too, falls through. The station had given away the bulk of the session's tickets to some Fort Carson soldiers they had encountered at a blood drive. The soldiers were quite receptive to attending until they realized that the scheduled start for the sound check wouldn't jive with post regulations. They wouldn't be able to make it until much later.

When Ford approaches Tinsley with his predicament, Tinsley decides to call the whole thing off. It's getting late. His band has a show to play. As do the opening acts. And everyone has to eat dinner.

The meet-and-greet is cancelled, but by 5:30, a handful of fans have already started to get in line for the night's show. The first in place are Chris Mitchell and Matt Ingrassia, employees of the downtown Independent Records. They got free tickets from their boss. Behind them is Diana Fogliano, who drove from Denver. She didn't necessarily mean to show up two hours before showtime she expected more traffic but she's not complaining. She's just happy to be here, and to almost surely get a spot by the stage.

Inside, Brent has returned from his errands with a takeout order of burritos in tow. Together, he and Barsch settle in to have what appears to be their only meal of the day.

All of the bands have arrived. The stage is in order. The lights and sound are set. The sound check has gone off without a hitch.

The storm.

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

At 8:03, Ellis, the head of security, walks past Brent.

"We're ready to rock," Ellis says of his staff. "You ready to go?"

Brent has stationed himself behind the bar. He'll be there for the rest of the night.

"Yep," Brent says as he looks the bar over once more.

Ellis heads to the main entrance and opens the door. By now, the line has extended out through the parking lot and has begun to curl up the street.

Once inside, Mitchell and Ingrassia head to Collier's merchandise table. Fogliano, meanwhile, follows up on her promise, positioning herself right in front of the stage. Aside from a few detours, she won't move again.

"Once the doors open, it's a sense of relief in a way," Barsch says. "All you've got to worry about is troublemakers ruining the show for everybody."

The opening act, Mouth of the Architect, hits the stage right at 9. The room isn't full yet, but it's getting there. The guys in the band are just happy to have a crowd. The crowd, too, seems happy to have them. Or anyone, really.

Apparently there was some confusion in the line before Ellis opened the doors. A number of the tickets that were purchased through ticketweb.com's online service were shipped out with the incorrect time listed for the door opening. As the line grew and grew, the crowds were getting restless. Now, with the first set behind them, the audience seems to have relaxed somewhat.

At 9:52, Priestess hits the stage. The room is almost completely jammed and, again, receptive to the band's brand of stoner rock. It's the perfect opening for Mastodon. The evening's first mosh pit ensues, and the crowd gets fully hyped. By the end of their set, the final ticket to the show is sold.

Ellis heightens his guard by standing atop a barstool in the entranceway, to better keep an eye on the crowd.

"No problems tonight," he says. "Yet."

He's right to add that modifier. Mastodon hits the stage shortly before 11, and after the opening song, the mosh pit starts to get out of control. At least three people are kicked out almost immediately. A fight in the parking lot prompts another bouncer to enlist Colorado Springs police for assistance. But by the time police cars arrive and a helicopter circles above, the incident is quashed.

"This stuff happens at metal shows," Brent says, stepping outside to catch a glimpse of the flashing lights.

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

Inside, Mastodon plays a furious show, oblivious to the mayhem outside. Sanders grimaces with each guttural lyric he spews. Hinds whirs his guitar and screams backup vocals with a similar furor. Kelliher, forearm still bandaged from the artwork emblazoned on him earlier today, makes his guitar shriek. But it is Dailor's drum work that is the most impressive; his pacing is impeccable, his playing speed unimaginable.

Together, their music resonates loudly within the venue's concrete walls. And the crowd is mesmerized. Bodies flail about uncontrollably and fists pump into the air without much rhyme or reason. But each head is locked straight ahead, and bobs along with Dailor's beat.

"This is fucking awesome!" Barsch shouts over the noise of the music. It's a comment unheard by anyone standing more than five feet away. "People are losing their minds!"

At 11:40, the mosh pit is at least 40 people strong, and Mitchell and Ingrassia have had enough. Mitchell was hurt, thrown to the ground at one point, and Ingrassia is covered in sweat he's certain isn't his. But both agree: "It was totally worth it."

Shortly after midnight, the set is over. Another 20 minutes, and the room is mostly empty, aside from the Black Sheep staffers and trash.

The spirits remain high.

Fogliano's thoughts on the show: "Amazing."

Collier's word on her sales: "We did all right."

Chris Huffine, one of Brent's fellow bartenders: "One of our Top 10 bar nights. Definitely."

The afterparty.

It's 12:30 when the first minor cleanup begins. And with it: the celebratory booze fest.

Barsch raises a glass to his coworkers.

"I love shows like this," he says to Brent. "I love blowing people away."

"Yeah," Brent says. "And this show wasn't even that expensive."

click to enlarge 2007 JOHNNIE ENGER
  • 2007 Johnnie Enger

At this point, the $18 ticket seems like a steal.

Brent celebrates by sliding across the wet floor behind the bar. Forsythe, the sound technician, settles into a conversation with Huffine about the merits of Priestess and Mouth of the Architect's sets. Mouth's members are all smiles. Outside, the guys from Mastodon cohort with their fans. Everyone's speech is slurred.

The members of Priestess are gone, though. They rushed off to their next tour stop, Salt Lake City, in a hurry (though not without a minor locking-the-keys-inside-the-van fiasco first). Mouth of the Architect is next to leave, taking off at around 2 in the morning. The members of Mastodon, what with their professional driver and all, hold off until 3.

Barsch, Brent, Forsythe and Huffine push even farther into the night. As Huffine and Forsythe continue their conversation, Barsch and Brent head to the back room to settle the evening's paperwork and make some final calculations. They emerge a half-hour later with good news: Everyone made money tonight.

More smiles. And a few more drinks.

At 4 a.m., though, these creatures of the night begin crashing. Huffine looks around, laughing.

"Why are we still here?" he asks.

Well, there's more cleanup to do but it can wait. A crew will be here in the morning to take care of that.

"We're all here because we're all having fun," Barsch says.

Brent, however, is starting to tire. Having been here the longest, his sarcastic wit has developed a bitter bite.

"Yeah," he says, his eyelids again heavy. "Lots of fun."

He persuades the other three to join him in leaving, and he locks the doors behind everyone. They exit out the same door he first entered 16 hours ago.

It's 4:11 a.m. And all anyone can think of is counting sheep. If they're lucky, they'll fall asleep quickly. After all, they're due back here in just a couple of hours.

There's another show tonight. There always is.


  • Backstage and behind the scenes at The Black Sheep


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