GigTours - Your Chance To Go On Tour With The Stars

DARIEN LAKE, N.Y. — Sunday's 6 a.m. headache is born not of Saturday night's whiskey, but of a forehead smacking against the wooden top of the tour bus's coffin-like sleeping quarters. Wake with a startle in the middle bunk, try to sit up, bang cranium on hardwood and feel the pounding.

Ah, the road to Buffalo. From Cincinnati, no less. And through Cleveland, apparently … though no one but driver Scott Hoyt is awake to notice.

The route is designed to get the bus's seven country-music-loving passengers from one Girls' Night Out tour stop to another. They're following Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Jamie O'Neal and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, who on this day are bound for the Buffalo suburb of Darien Lake. These bus riders paid some serious cabbage (about $1,000) to hear them perform, first in Chicago, then in Cincinnati and finally in this upstate New York amphitheater.

''I've bought everything the Reba fan club has,'' Deborah Finley of Alpine, Ala., says prior to Friday's show in Chicago. ''I've got anything you want to wear that's Reba. Well, I don't have any Reba panties or bras, but I've got everything else: shoes, sunglasses, socks.''

Make no mistake, Deborah is a fan. Most of the others who have chosen this four-day Gigtours ''weekend warrior'' vacation package are more curious about life on the road than about any one artist.

The curious include Joshua Remmert of Mesa, Ariz. He won his place on the bus in a contest he entered through Carolyn Dawn Johnson's Web site, but he's only recently become familiar with Johnson's songs. And there is Miami's Jeanette Menendez and her husband, Del, who want to celebrate their wedding anniversary on the road. Also aboard is Sarah Baughman, a University of Illinois student who's finishing up her time as an RCA Records intern in Nashville. Rounding out the group are Traci Nixon and Belinda Wyatt, night nurses at a Charlotte, N.C., hospital. They admit they're more drawn to the Dixie Chicks than to any of the Girls' Night Out acts.

A Gigtours trip is a total immersion in the draining travel schedule of a musician or crew member minus the benefits of a paycheck, a resume enhancement or a turn in the spotlight. Hotels are for showers, not for sleeping, and each night's concert, from set lists to stage patter, is an exact duplication.

These Gigtourists have been promised nothing but the ride (they're excited to finally have some backstage access for Sunday's show), yet most everyone is pleasant and smiling as they wake and roll (carefully) out of their bunks. The road steals sleep, but it breeds community.

• • •

It's Sunday morning, around 7:30, and the 45-foot-long Silver Eagle slows, turns from the highway, travels across some rural terrain and eventually arrives backstage at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, which is adjacent to a Six Flags amusement park. Gigtours has literally rushed to beat the band, arriving about 45 minutes before the tour's crew, musicians and equipment get here in large trucks and buses.

Everyone files from the bus, led by Donny Michael, the CEO and president of Gigtours' parent company, Majestic Coach. The procession leads to a bare stage, without any cabling, microphones or monitors.

''They start like this every day,'' Donny says. ''You're going to be able to see them build the whole show later on.''

After staring for a bit at all the blue plastic seats, the concert-goers play a little basketball on a backstage court. Then, about 9:30 a.m., the Girls' Night Out tour begins asserting itself in Darien Lake. Equipment is unloaded, cables are unrolled, tape measures are unveiled and lighting is installed. Back on the tour bus, Donny and Gigtours president Misty Maxwell hand out backstage-pass stickers and advise everyone not to speak to artists unless spoken to and to generally stay out of the way.

''Don't look like you're a fan or a tourist,'' Misty instructs.

Deborah, the Reba booster, immediately gets a worried look on her face.

• • •

On Saturday in Cincinnati, the Buffalo leg nearly is decapitated from the Gigtours slate when the bus's air conditioner goes kaput.

While the passengers shower at a Hampton Inn and (in some cases) take shuttles into the city's downtown area for a couple of hours of sight-seeing, Donny frantically calls around, hoping to find a part that would resuscitate the cool air. He is nearly ready to cut the trip a day short when the part is found and the tour is saved.

Bus riders walk to a nearby sports bar at 4:30 p.m. for a preshow dinner (all meals are paid for by Gigtours, though the meals sometimes are comprised of venue hotdogs or other snack-bar fare) while the air man works his magic.

Having spent part of the previous afternoon at Chicago's sunny lakefront, the passengers are none too impressed with the Queen City's bounty.

''If you've seen one city, you've seen Cincinnati,'' Traci notes.

Saturday evening, to make things worse, the clouds open up and the group's lawn seats at Riverbend Music Center provide no shelter. So it's back on the (now air-conditioned) bus, where Deborah laments missing her hero's entire set. She didn't, however, miss a trip to the concession stand to buy a $30 Reba T-shirt. In Chicago, Deborah spent $73 on Reba gear. She will spend more than $150 on Reba concessions before this trip is through.

''Look at this,'' she says on the bus, offering everyone a peak at photos of her dining room, half of which is decorated with Elvis Presley memorabilia and half with Reba stuff. She'd bought two copies of every Reba album (one for the CD changer, and one mobile copy), and she'd covered the dining room table in a Reba afghan.

It all sounds weirder than it really is. Deborah is an entirely pleasant, enormously funny travel companion. In truth, she's spending less on attending Reba concerts and collecting Reba memorabilia than many ardent Tennessee fans spend on Volunteer football tickets, Big Orange clothing and travel expenses to and from Knoxville.

One thing Deborah hasn't done is spend much time with Reba. She's hoping this Gigtours venture will help her get a little closer.

''Yes, I'll be disappointed if I don't get to talk with her,'' she says.

Thus far, the Gigtours laminates haven't done much good as far as up-close access is concerned. Traci and Belinda managed to sneak backstage Friday night, glimpsing the United Center's Zamboni, meeting the tour's masseuse and exchanging brief pleasantries with a couple of the singers (not Reba). But just prior to the Cincinnati rainstorm, the way-back-and-impersonal nature of the situation frazzles a few of the Gigtourists.

''I'm taking my pass off,'' says the normally affable Del. ''It's not giving us any access.''

Told there might be a meet-and-greet with Carolyn Dawn Johnson the next day, Del says ''I'll believe it when I see it.''

• • •

It's now Sunday, and, believe it or not, Del sees it.

Access is achieved, though the nature of that access remains somewhat fragile. Contacts are made and passes obtained through a manager in Martina McBride's camp, but Reba's tour officials are less than pleased with the idea of fans tromping around backstage. The Gigtourists eat lunch in the backstage buffet line and even play a little table tennis, but otherwise they silently observe rather than actively participate in the backstage scene.

Martina McBride walks around the lunch tent in flip flops, conferring with her manager and with her children. Sara Evans plays with her child in front of her tour bus. Carolyn Dawn Johnson breezes by occasionally, wearing a running outfit. Reba, well … no one sees Reba. She may or may not even be here.

Meanwhile, trucks back up to the stage and a combination of tour personnel and local hires goes to work assembling the sound and lighting for this evening's show. Men climb to the ceiling. Other men point and instruct. About 45 people handle everything from unraveling cables, setting up power systems and marking stage spots where microphones, drum risers and the like are to be placed.

''You figure it's $10 or $15 an hour for these guys,'' says Scott, the bus driver. ''And you've got to feed them all, and they can put some food away.''

Amid the plastic seats, other crew members set up the mixing board and outboard sound equipment. Among the gadgetry are five Antares ATR-1 machines. These are processors that actually alter a singer's pitch, knocking out-of-tune singing back into tune by the time the vocals burst through the house speakers.

Our travelers, now feeling considerably fresher after quick showers at the Econo Lodge in Corfu, N.Y., are surprised to learn that such technology exists. Some of them also are surprised, once sound check begins, to learn that prerecorded drum sounds and backing vocals are mixed with live performance. But no one is surprised enough to hang around all day in the blue seats. Most take some time to visit the Six Flags amusement park, using the backstage passes to get into the park and to gain no-wait access to several substantial roller coasters.

It is at the most substantial of these coasters, the steep and speedy Superman ride, that the tour's most endearing happenstance occurs. When several group members walk up Superman's exit ramp (that's how you avoid the line, and the passes make it OK), they see Sara Evans with some friends and her young son, Avery.

Traci and Belinda ride Superman once, then decide to ride again. The second time around, Belinda ends up sitting right next to Sara Evans. Afterward, Belinda is able to buy an instant photo of her ride, providing hard evidence that this actually happened.

''She said, 'I might need you to hold my hand,' '' Belinda enthuses after the ride. The hand-holding session never materializes, but Belinda is able to share a natural, unforced, enjoyable moment with a country star.

Though Evans proves quite genial, park employees say not all music stars are so polite.

''(Teen popper) Aaron Carter rode, and he flipped the bird at us when he took off,'' a park attendant says. ''He was a mouthy little kid.''

While in the park, the Gigtourists also spot Martina McBride walking with her children. Carolyn Dawn Johnson rides Superman as well, though she stands in line with the rest of the populace instead of taking advantage of her pass.

It's now late Sunday afternoon, and most are back from their thrill-seeking. Jeanette, by far the biggest Sara Evans fan on the bus, is distraught to learn about Belinda's star ride.

''She and Traci got backstage in Chicago, and now this,'' Jeanette says, before admitting that she and Del have been having a pretty good time watching the backstage goings-on.

Deborah says she doesn't ride roller coasters at all.

''I'd ride one if I could ride with Reba, though,'' she says. ''But there's no other way I'd get on one of those.''

By now, Reba's management has nixed the notion of the group eating a backstage dinner, so catered crab cakes are replaced by venue hot dogs. Meanwhile, McBride sits in a dressing room and talks about her own touring experiences.

''I thought it'd be harder to survive out here, but it's been great,'' she says. ''I wouldn't be able to go out without my kids. I can't imagine leaving them at home, but they actually look forward to being out here.''

McBride's bus differs from the Gigtours coach. She travels with her husband (they have a private room in the back of the bus) and children (they sleep in the mid-bus bunk area), and they have access to a shower and a washer and dryer. McBride doesn't even book hotel rooms: The bus is her road home.

''I've learned over the years what works,'' she says. ''I've even outfitted the dressing rooms, so it feels like my space. After being away for three or four weeks, you miss your house and your yard. But I'm still able to be a mom out here. Plus, the kids get to see things they wouldn't see otherwise. Like today, I rode the Viper roller coaster with (6-year-old daughter) Delaney.''

While McBride's bus has more amenities than the Gigtours ride, it's not immune to road troubles. Her own tour has been held up several times with flat tires and other problems.

• • •

At 6:15 p.m., the much rumored meet-and-greet with Johnson takes place.

''Didn't your bus break down yesterday?'' Johnson asks. ''That's real life on the road. That happens to us, too.''

Sarah tells her about being an intern at RCA. Joshua, the Web site contest winner, receives a hug. Cameras flash, as do smiles.

As the group exits the backstage area to reclaim places on the lawn, Jeanette sees Sara Evans, now dressed to the nines and in full makeup. Evans has just had a meet-and-greet with her own fan club, and she's now being rushed back to her private quarters. Jeanette, who has heard of how pleasant Evans was at the amusement park, attempts to get an autograph but is thwarted by an Evans tour assistant who literally is tugging the singer away.

Just before 7 p.m., just like in Chicago and Cincinnati, Carolyn Dawn Johnson takes the stage. Backed by a few of McBride's band members (Johnson used to sing backing vocals for McBride), she plays, as always, three of her own compositions: Complicated, Just Another Girl and Georgia. Her performance is well-received, as she sings well and plays admirable rhythm guitar, but as low woman on the totem pole, she's allowed only 10 minutes onstage.

''I'm OK with it,'' she says backstage, a few moments after exiting the spotlight. ''I'm just lucky to be here.''

Here, of course, doesn't mean Buffalo. It means on the road, in front of fans.

''I've been home one-and-a-half days in the past month,'' she says. ''At first, I couldn't sleep very well, but it's kind of like if you live beside an airport: You think you'll never sleep, but you learn. I travel on Martina's bus. Martina has done so many things for me that I can't repay.''

She's not, however, outfitted in a private room. Johnson sleeps on a bunk, in the same section of the bus as McBride's kids (Delaney is the eldest child) and their nanny. Johnson's household bills from back in Nashville either are prepaid or are sent to Girls' Night Out venues by a kind-hearted next-door neighbor.

Asked about meeting with fans, Johnson says she's not too far removed from their ranks to appreciate and enjoy the conversations.

''I joined Michelle Wright's fan club because I wanted to meet her. She's Canadian, and so am I. I understand how fans feel, because I was one of them. And I still am one of them, really. I don't know if I'd be able to even talk to people like Madonna or Michael Jackson, people I'm still a huge fan of.''

Back on the lawn, the group is having a blast. Adrenaline takes the place of exhaustion, aided by a drinking game in which everyone takes a hearty swig of beer each time one of the Girls' Night Outers sing the word ''angel.'' For some reason, angel songs are in vogue right now. The game makes this trend considerably easier to take.

The Gigtourists loudly finish McBride's every-night joke for her (the punch line is ''No, lady, I'm Henry''), but they also stand with the rest of the crowd and cheer McBride's extraordinary rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. By far the strongest vocalist on the tour, McBride is followed each night by McEntire's highly choreographed, Broadway-influenced set, which features several dancers.

Deborah prefers Reba's nonchoreographed shows, because they allow McEntire to talk more with the audience between songs. Nonetheless, Deborah's ecstatic about the show and thrilled with McEntire's spot-on performance.

While her ticket is supposedly good for lawn seating only, Deborah makes it to the third row by mid-show, in time to hear McEntire sing Fancy.

One song later, with plenty of time left, she's filled a formerly empty space on the front row. Here she is, on the front row of an amphitheater next to an amusement park somewhere near Buffalo, sharing the upstate New York air with the woman whose name adorns her socks, tennis shoes, T-shirt and living room table. Deborah will return to Alabama without having spoken with Reba, but she'll feel somehow closer than ever to her red-haired hero.

They've traveled many miles to be together, Deborah and Reba, and both have miles to go before they'll rest. Couple of road warriors, those two.

For more information and to see which tour schedules and artists are available, check out their website.

By Peter Cooper

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