Omaha's a fine home base for a roadie

Lincoln native Evan Anderson is a production and tour assistant for 311. He works with the tour manager and production manager on everything from the stage to helping coordinate interviews between band members and the press.

Neal Duffy's job takes him to Europe this week with the band Neon Trees, and he'll be working at Madison Square Garden later this month.

Chad “Yeti” Ward is flying to Los Angeles to work for the Foo Fighters again.

But when Duffy and Ward — and crew members from other groups — return home, it's to Omaha.

Duffy and Ward are among dozens of roadies who live here. They've worked for popular national bands including Walk the Moon, Bright Eyes, Marilyn Manson, Clay Aiken, Eminem, Cursive, The New Pornographers and many more. Most said they keep a home base here because it's affordable, it's nice to live near your family and friends and it's easy to get from Nebraska to anywhere in the world.

Commonly referred to as roadies, a band's road crew can range from one person (a driver or sound engineer) to hundreds of workers (Bon Jovi's 2010 tour had almost 200 crew members in each city).

The crew includes drivers, tour managers, production managers, backline techs (the guys who take care of the instruments), lighting engineers, sound engineers, pyrotechnic techs, caterers and other jobs that make a touring production run.

Roadies sometimes even are called upon to be musicians themselves.

The Foo Fighters don't do a sound check. Instead, the band's crew does it for them. Ward said they call it “roadie rock.”

“We've all learned five or six songs — not just Foo Fighters stuff,” Ward said. “We sit up there and jam out.”

Many backline techs such as Ward are musicians as well. Ward can play several instruments and will work in various positions depending on what a tour needs.

Growing up in Omaha, he wanted to be a professional chef but got into rock 'n' roll tours when he started working with 311 as the first — and, at the time, the only — crew member for the band.

“I did everything. I drove us. I was the one-man backline tech — I set up all the guitars and drums. I'd sell T-shirts from the stage and then load back out,” he said.

Many get started in road crew jobs through friends. Duffy worked as a sound engineer around Omaha for bands such as Tilly and the Wall, the Jazzwholes and Go Motion. He eventually went to school at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, a school that specializes in teaching recording and live sound. Several graduates are Grammy nominees.

Many roadies don't take any kind of classes — the job doesn't require schooling. Ward and former Omahan Evan Anderson, who both started with 311, got their education on the road with the band.

And being on a road crew isn't all fun.

“It's a tough job,” Ward said. “My day is far from partying. I've had walking pneumonia and still had to do my job. There's nobody else to cover our positions.”

Roadies can be busy. Ward, who has a 19-year-old son with his wife, was only home in Omaha for 57 days in 2011. A few years ago, he wasn't here for his son's 16th birthday, which he had always promised never to miss.

Though it's a little easier not having children, Duffy still misses family and friends when he's gone. Between March and October last year, he was never in Nebraska for more than five days at a time.

Duffy is one of 11 people on the Neon Trees crew, which includes five band members. He said he spends more time with the crew than with his family.

“Our crew is an extended part of the band,” he said. “It's like one big family.”

Those connections often help roadies stay employed. You can't go to a jobs website to find work. Anderson, 26, is a production and tour assistant for 311. His uncle is 311 singer Doug “SA” Martinez, and he's worked for the Los Angeles-based group for several years.

Duffy joined the Neon Trees' crew through a tour manager he used to work with. Ward, on the other hand, met Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins through a mutual friend and occasionally had beers with him. When Hawkins needed a drum tech, he called Ward, who has worked as a roadie for 20 years.

Most roadies have one artist who's their primary employer, but will often work for others.

Ward's list includes everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Guns 'N Roses, Eminem, Red Man and Method Man.

Anderson runs a production company and works with other artists when he's home, but he only tours with 311. His job as a tour and production assistant means he works with the tour manager and production manager on everything from the stage to helping coordinate press interviews.

He lives in New Jersey now, but said Omaha and Lincoln, where he lived until last year, are very appealing for people in road crews.

“Your employment not being tied to your location frees you up,” Anderson said. “Nebraska has a great standard of living, plus you're an hour away from a major airport that will fly you anywhere you want to go.”

Duffy, 31, enjoys his job as a sound engineer. During a concert, he's the person behind the mixing console adjusting all the knobs and dials to make the band sound right in the venue.

For Duffy, living in Omaha means he can enjoy his time off. If he lived on one of the coasts, he would have to find more work to pay his rent when the band wasn't touring.

“I've contemplated moving so many times, but it's hard for me to justify almost doubling the cost of living when I'm gone so many months of the year,” he said.

Ward, 41, lived in Los Angeles for several years but moved back to Omaha in 2004. He found a larger house that was much less expensive than the one he had in L.A., even though that means a lot of traveling back to the West Coast. (He's there now with the Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players at the premiere of Grohl's “Sound City” documentary.)

Before he made the move, Ward called friends and colleagues and asked if living in the Midwest would affect his career. Everyone said no.

“Omaha is so centrally located. It's an easy hub to go anywhere — even internationally,” he said. “You can fly to Chicago to anywhere in the world — Japan, Europe or wherever I'm going.”

Typical days for road crews start between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. Duties last all day with a few short breaks and typically end around midnight or even later. And then it starts up again the next morning.

“There is so much that goes on that no one realizes,” Duffy said.

The day starts with a load-in — unloading all of the equipment from trucks into the venue — followed by constructing the stage and hanging lights. That's typically followed by a lunch break and sound check, where the band and crew play through some songs to adjust sound levels, microphones and other equipment to fit the venue.

There's usually downtime before the actual performance. The concert itself is hard work for both band and crew. After the show, the crew tears down the stage and lights and loads out to trucks and vans.

Many days are exactly the same, which is why there are signs that tell band and crew what city they're in hanging backstage.

“It's totally 'Groundhog Day,'” Anderson said, referencing the Bill Murray comedy.

One of the best days is when the band you're touring with plays your hometown. Duffy is excited to be the sound engineer when Neon Trees plays a sold-out show with Maroon 5 here on March 3.

“I've been waiting for an Omaha show,” Duffy said. “I'm so happy it sold out.”

Although the job means very little time at home, Anderson said roadies definitely need whatever time off they get. Some people hop from tour to tour and get burned out.

“You sort of have these really intense nine-week long engagements with these really close friends on the road,” he said. “It's nice to have a reset button.”

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