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Side stage pride
Regional bands covet chance to rub shoulders with idols, get their own music heard

by John Hansen
Brainerd Dispatch

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Call it the Saloon Stage, call it the side stage, call it the building you walk through to get to the restroom at Moondance Jam near Walker. Just don't call it the small stage, because for Minnesota bands playing there is a big deal.

"I'm sure I'll get a lot of exposure," said Moondance newcomer Cal Ecker, whose band will kick off Moondance Jam Sweet 16 at 1 p.m. Wednesday. "Anytime you can play in front of a lot of people, I'll take that opportunity."

"It's an incredible feeling for me," said Sean Drummond of returning band Black Valentine, who will play at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. "People run up to us and want autographs."

More than just a consolation prize, the side stage is coveted by regional bands, be they raw up-and-comers or grizzled road warriors. It's gotten to the point that Moondance has instituted an informal rotation system. That's why Brainerd's Silent Partner, which has played on the side stage for the past decade, won't be playing this year - it's their turn to sit out and give someone else a chance.

"The biggest challenge for Moondance - and it's a nice problem to have - is I'm contacted virtually daily by bands across the country that want to be part of the festival," said Mark Kirchhoff, who books the Saloon Stage bands. "The hardest part of the job is working new bands into the lineup."

Side-stage bands generally don't get paid (excepting closing-time draws such as Los Angeles-based ThundHerStruck). The exposure of the huge festival is usually all the payment they need.

"The intent is, No. 1, to showcase regional bands and get as much P.R. as we can for them," Kirchhoff said. "But from the Moondance standpoint, they are ambassadors out in the marketplace to talk up Moondance. It's a win-win for everyone."

The submission process for prospective bands is simple: They deliver a promotional package wherein they "tell us a bit about themselves (and) send CDs or DVDs so we get a sense of what their music is," Kirchhoff said.

Kirchhoff said he and other Moondance personnel also "keep our eyes and ears open" for fresh talent.

As such, every band's story of landing a Moondance gig is unique. The Arden Hills-based Cal Ecker Band was discovered while playing before a University of North Dakota hockey game last winter in Grand Forks, N.D.

"(Moondance organizer) Bill Bieloh saw our band there and he liked us a lot," said Ecker, who has a family cabin in Crosslake and has played at Moonlite Bay and the Log Jam.

The old axiom that "it's not what you know, it's who you know" paid off for Rochester-based Black Valentine. Kirchhoff played with Black Valentine in its first incarnation in the 1990s and he had kept in touch with founding member Bobby Valentine.

"We reformed the band a few months before our first Moondance (in 2004)," Drummond said.

Most of the Saloon Stage bands play on the Minnesota bar circuit. Regular patrons of the Blue Ox and Rail will recognize the names. You might assume that musicians would rather headline at a bar than be a small fish in a big festival pond. But that's not necessarily the case.

"You'd think at bars people would be more into it, but at a lot of places we play, (the band) is just background music," Drummond said, noting that at one recent show he played a sound clip of crickets chirping into the mic just for laughs. "Crowds at Moondance tend to be more receptive to the band."

"I feel like there's obviously a lot more energy at a big festival," Ecker said. "You've got people out dancing and drinking."

Of course, rock musicians are rock fans just like the rest of us. While they don't get main stage money, Saloon Stage bands do get free Moondance admission, so they take in as much of the action as they can.

Although Drummond will miss most of Tesla's set - Black Valentine's time slot overlaps with that of the late-'80s favorite - he is looking forward to seeing Rick Springfield, who will close the festival on Saturday night.

"He impressed us a couple years ago. It's incredible how he controls a crowd. The way he had everybody, it was like 'Oh, my god.' Bobby and I definitely took a lot of lessons from him."

Ecker is looking forward to Wednesday headliner Def Leppard, but that will conclude his Moondance experience. After all, he's a working musician and he has to hit the road for a Thursday show back in the Cities.

It's all about getting your music heard and that's the reason the Saloon Stage bands are at Moondance in the first place.

"That's a key thing for a regional band to put Moondance on their resume," Kirchhoff said. "It helps give a band some credibility."

In addition to the Cal Ecker Band and Black Valentine, Wednesday's Saloon Stage lineup includes Walker's own El Diablo at 2:15 p.m. and Minneapolis' Bella Diva at 10:15 p.m.