Eight Years of Saturdays Running Sound Under a Bridge
By Roy Peak
Times were tough for musicians in North Florida around 2008-2009. The housing bubble and a few years of a weak local economy had helped to make jobs scarce. A number of night clubs and restaurants had either stopped having music altogether or started offering to pay the musicians less. As a working musician, dependent on gigs to get by, I was nearly—quite literally—weeks away from not being able to pay my rent and sleeping in my van. I had to sell my massive book collection to various used book stores and some of my music equipment on eBay in order to get by. After a few months the book collection dwindled down to the bare handful I couldn’t do without and if I sold any more equipment I wouldn’t be able to play music. I was then fortuitously approached by two musician friends with an interesting job offer. It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but in those hard times it would definitely help.
But first, a bit of back story:
Wayne Wood, a Jacksonville, Florida historian, had the idea of turning a five hundred foot long section of city property into a weekly farmer’s market. But Wood’s idea didn’t just stop there. He envisioned a circus-like atmosphere complete with jugglers, fire-eaters, food trucks, and live music, all under the canopy of the Fuller Warren Bridge—the bridge which enables I-95 to cross the St. Johns River. It took many years and a lot of haggling and organizing with the city, but in the spring of 2009, they were ready to go.
My two friends, musicians Mike Shackelford and Andy Burke, had just started their own production company and had won the bid to provide entertainment for the just starting market. They knew enough musicians to handle the entertainment part of it but needed help with the logistics of running sound for such a difficult space. I wasn’t exactly a sound person, but for ten years I had helped build custom sound systems and installed them in several churches around North Florida. In 2009 I was no longer working in sound installation, rather running a project recording studio out of my house—which I still do, helping local musicians record and produce albums—and playing bass in several bands (Want to lose your sanity fast? Try playing in more than one band at a time. Two or three, no problem. Four? Five? Getting rather tricky to remember when all the gigs and rehearsals are, much less memorizing all the songs. Well, at one point I was in nine bands. Yes, nine. After a few months of that I whittled it down to six. Now it's more like three. Um, maybe four.) I suspect that the real reason that Mike and Andy picked me was because they needed someone willing to arrive at the most unfriendly to a musician time of seven-thirty in the morning to set up the sound system so they wouldn’t have to. For some reason they thought I was that guy. Well, eight years later and I’m still running sound for the Riverside Arts Market, or “RAM” as we like to call it. I have the best attendance of anyone at RAM as I’ve only missed two Saturdays so far. Not too shabby for a bass player, right?
You think putting on an arts and farmer’s market under a bridge is a piece of cake? The logistics involved are daunting indeed. During the week, this is a parking lot for a nearby business and early on Saturdays they close it off to cars and set up the rows of over 150 booths which house the vendors and craftsmen who make up the small businesses that populate the market. Jewelry, paintings, pottery, stained glass, leather works, even books and pens, can be bought by the many vendors all selling their handmade goods. There’s the “Farmer’s Row” with booths full of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, honey, and potted plants. The food court, with a dozen booths and the occasional food truck, selling fresh pastries, lobster rolls, kettle corn, wood-fired pizza, rice and beans, chicken tenders, and more. And, finally, down by the river, there sits a man-made amphitheater capable of comfortably seating five hundred people on it’s multi-terraced and softly mulched area, and—built between two of the substantial bridge supports—there is a forty foot wide stage. The River Stage. That’s where I am at least forty-two Saturdays a year. (The River Stage is closed during the months of January and February, but the rest of the market is still open. The wind and chill right off the river is bad enough during the regular season, during the winter it’s hellacious. Or let’s say that it is to people who’ve grown up in Florida. I was raised in the hills of Kentucky, so yeah, it’s cold but it ain’t that cold.) A small troop of workers arrive early to set up and arrange tables near the food court, put up tents where needed and get the market ready for patrons by ten o’clock when it opens to the public. There’s also a group of volunteers, mostly high school kids, who do everything from sweeping the walkways, selling bottled water, and helping some of the vendors set up.
I arrive at the market by eight o’clock with a van full of equipment and have everything in place and ready to go by the time morning yoga starts at nine. Yoga lasts for an hour, then we have a mere thirty minutes to get the first act set up and sound checked to kick off the morning.
I joke with folks that I run the “Windiest Stage in Jacksonville.” The River Stage is situated a mere fifteen feet from the St. John's River and the wind that blows off of it can reach upwards of twenty miles an hour some days, and even more during a storm. We've had mic stands, cymbal stands, and music stands blow over. Guitars fall out of their stands quite frequently, and on two occasions we’ve had wind gusts that blew the P.A. speakers completely off the stage and into the stands. Luckily no one was sitting there when it happened. I’ve been on stage several times when the wind is so strong and steady you have to fight to maintain your balance. Musicians who bring sheet music are warned to bring clips to keep their music from flying off their stands and into the river. Yes, this has happened, more times than I can count. The musicians who wear short skirts or dresses during their first show at RAM usually opt for pants or leggings the second time around. On average it’s manageable, and during the summer months we welcome the breeze as it cools down the area nicely. But early spring and during the fall—watch out!
The River Stage is fairly unique in many ways besides being located nearly a hundred feet underneath the bustle of I-95. There is no backstage or green room and musicians park less than fifty feet from the stage to unload their gear, in full view of the folks seated in the amphitheater. There’s a section of the Jacksonville Riverwalk that runs behind the stage and quite often families will sit on the rear of the stage and eat lunch while watching the band. Fishermen often catch fish near the stage, dolphins and sometimes manatees are seen in the river nearby, and once we spied a six-foot long bull shark leaping out of the river in chase of a fish! Tugboats and sailing ships cross under the bridge here as well as people on jet skis, kayaks, and paddle boards. Joggers on the Riverwalk who aren’t paying too much attention occasionally run up onto the stage while the bands are playing, either turning around when they figure it out or jumping off the side while the band keeps playing. Kids run up and down in front of the stage most all day long and climb along the railing behind the stage by the river. (I keep thinking that one errant wayward child is going to fall into the river but it hasn’t happened yet.) Sometimes they get coins from their parents to put in the tip jar for the band, and there’s always a few every week who climb onto the stage and try to become part of the act.
Since the management at RAM doesn’t want cables stretched out into the mulch of the amphitheater where it could be a trip-hazard we set up the mixer at stage right, just behind the band. So how does one mix sound from behind the band? Easy answer: You can’t. It’s impossible. Best you can do is guess, based on how loud the band is on stage and from what it sounds like bouncing back at you from the pillar directly in line with the stage right speakers. I make sure the band is happy with their monitor mixes and then run out front to hear how it sounds and then back again to tweak it. I get plenty of exercise walking circles around the stage and the seating area all day long. (Yeah, we could use one of those wireless iPad mixers, if anyone wants to donate one to those to the market, I’ll definitely put it to good use! Although every time someone sets up wifi under the bridge it’s fairly unreliable, so maybe we’ll just keep using what we have for a while.)
With the bridge overhead the sound from the stage carries the full five hundred feet to Riverside Avenue and beyond. This is like setting up sound in an enormous cavern with a wind tunnel running through the middle of it. We get reverb for days (“Hey, can you turn down the reverb in my monitor?” is a common question I get. “It’s all the way off,” I always tell them.) and the amount of low end we have to roll-off of the speakers is pretty steep. Drums carry like crazy under the bridge. Most of the time I’m only setting up a single overhead mic and one on the kick drum, that’s really all you need. Another problem is the inherent noise under the bridge. Even on a fairly quiet day the noise overhead from the traffic on the interstate, the noise from the river, and all the noises from the market itself easily reach 85 decibels. That’s louder than sitting in city traffic with your windows down. Add to that the fact that the management at the market doesn’t want the sound from the stage to be overly loud. This ain’t no rock concert. This is family friendly, hanging out while sitting and munching on kettle corn background music. So the sound from the stage has to get over that 85 decibel level threshold in order to be heard, yet kept under 95 decibels because then we get too many complaints. That’s tough. It usually all depends on how loud the band is onstage and which direction the wind is blowing that day. This is why I use a fairly small system there, I don’t even bring a subwoofer, as that would bring with it its own set of problems.
Since the market is a small non-profit, their budget for sound and entertainment is rather small. In the first few years they were looking for volunteers to play the stage as much as possible, but now they have the funding to pay almost everyone who plays. It’s not a lot, but thankfully most of the bands are willing to play for less because they have a captive audience, don’t have to bring a sound system, and since they’re playing RAM during the day they can still set up another paying gig that night elsewhere. We get a lot of out of town acts who are happy to stop by while on tour, supplementing their bar band gigs with a guaranteed amount to play at RAM and the free hotel room we can sometimes provide. What sort of acts play at RAM? We do a fair amount of community acts—dance schools, public school choirs and orchestras, college jazz bands. We do a lot of acoustic music—folk, country, bluegrass, blues—some of it solo musicians and singer-songwriters, some of it full bands. We do some full out rock bands—as long as they're not too loud—and quite a few jazz groups. After the first year Mike decided to focus more on his music career and not long after that Andy brought his friend Gary Becka into the fold to do the booking for the stage and within a couple of years, Gary purchased and became the sole proprietor of VIP Productions. Gary has a penchant for edgy original music so he books as much of that as he can with as much “family friendly” music as he can find that doesn’t make him or myself nauseous. We also try to get the bands we like back as much as possible. If you sound good, act professional, don’t have an attitude, and are generally easy to deal with you’ll probably get asked back to play. Some bands take forever to set up, are too loud, bring way too much gear for the gig, spend more time setting up cameras to record their show than tuning their instruments, don’t play their full agreed upon amount of time, or are generally difficult to deal with—and then wonder why they’re not asked back. Being courteous, keeping things simple, arriving on time, playing a solid and professional family friendly set—generally, this is what we look for. (And, realistically, what every performer should strive for at every venue like this they book a gig with.) I've made many new friends from my time working the River Stage, from the local musicians I've never had a chance to see perform before, to some of the out of town acts that pass through, to some of the folks who work at the market.
In addition to running sound, sometimes I get to actually play music on the River Stage. I still play bass with several bands around town and occasionally these bands get hired at RAM. How do I run sound from the stage while simultaneously playing? I get it set up as close as possible, hope for the best, and then it's up to Gary to handle it from there.
At the end of the day we pack everything into the van and I head home for a shower and dinner with my ever patient wife and then the following Saturday I do it all over again.
To check out more about the Riverside Arts Market in Jacksonville, Florida, check out their website:
Roy playing guitar on the River Stage.
Roy playing bass
with Mark Williams and Blue Horse on the River Stage
(L-R) Chris Casey, Mark Williams, Roy Peak, Noel Millan on drums, behind Mark.
The band members often leave their cases behind the stage while they play.
Local jazz band Blue Muse on the River Stage with a boat behind them in the river.
The band Blue Veronica rocking the Windiest Stage in Jacksonville. I-95 rolls along directly overhead, the St. Johns River lies behind them. (L-R) Mike Pearson, Lauren Fincham, Brian Homan.
The River Stage when I arrive in the morning around 7:45.
By 8:30 the sound system is set up! Just waiting on the musicians...
The River Stage from the audience's perspective.
During the week the market is a parking lot for a nearby office.
Early Saturday morning the vendors and volunteers begin to set up the market.
Food trucks near the stage.
The view of downtown Jacksonville from behind the River Stage
Blue Veronica on the River Stage.
UNF Jazz III on the River Stage.
UNF Jazz III from behind the stage.
All photos by Roy Peak except the ones of Roy on stage by Gary Becka.
All content copyright 2017 Roy Peak.