Take a peek behind the scenes at one of Wilmington’s top concert venues.
Picture this: It’s Friday night. You’re sipping on an adult beverages and swaying to the sounds of some stellar live music. You are, in a word, happy. And for your happiness you can thank a guy like Mike Abrams.
Abrams is the production manager at World Cafe Live, which has locations in Wilmington and Philadelphia. That title means, essentially, he’s the guy in charge of making sure everything goes well. And, conversely, he’s the guy in charge of making sure nothing goes wrong.
“So I coordinate all of the technical details for each show. I coordinate the schedule for each show. I deal with artist hospitality. Maintain the audio video lighting systems. And manage my crew,” Abrams says.
Guys like Abrams are an increasingly important cog in the music industry. As album sales flatten and decline, live music has picked up the slack . That means the people who make live music appealing are more vital than ever.
To see what exactly goes into a live performance, one night in late October we trailed Adams as he set up for a show in Wilmington.
The day begins around 3 pm, four hours before doors open. Abrams and his crew greet the headline artist and start unloading equipment. After that, it’s time to set the stage. The artist’s camp provides a detailed map of where every piece of equipment should go. If all goes well, the crew should be able to read the map and assemble everything in about a half hour.
With all that underway, Abrams throws on his host hat and tends to the people who matter most: the musicians.
Artist requests can be odd. One asked Abrams for a Christina Aguilera Christmas CD. Another wanted a unicorn. Abrams countered with a miniature pony.
“The artist has ultimate control over the show,” says Abrams. “They can easily pull the plug for any reason. So we need to minimize what those reasons are. And if we can cut them off before they even happen. That’s great.”
Tonight, though, the spread is simple. Some chips. Cold cuts. And some much-needed booze from the basement. After a quick chat with the touring manager to make sure everyone’s on the stage, Abrams retrieves all the goodies and loads them into the dressing room.
Then it’s time for a quick rehearsal.
Rehearsal usually consists of a couple songs to work out any technical kinks. With newer artists, rehearsal can involve a little more coaching. Abrams and his crew might have to help them acclimate to playing a professional venue.
World Cafe Live specializes in volume, Abrams says. Between the two venues Abrams might have 30 or 40 shows on his plate in a given week. They also work with a wide variety of clients: national touring artists, local troubadours, and even private parties. Abrams, as a result, has to be uber-organized. And he has to communicate with a diverse group of folks.
Tonight’s artist is country music up-and-comer Ashley Monroe. Abrams thinks she’s got a chance to be a star, and her band is tight. Rehearsal doesn’t take long. And by about 6 pm almost everything is ready to rock.
Abrams describes his work as “hurry up and wait.” That’s most evident in the hour between when set-up ends and doors open. Abrams checks e-mail, coordinates future shows, and waits for the inevitable blip.
“You need to always keep your composure,” Abrams says. “And if you don’t tip off the artist that there’s a problem, they’ll never know. And the audience will never know. Because every night there’s something weird that happens. And our goal is to make sure that nobody knows about it.”
That’s really the crux of Abrams’ job: He’s the quiet, zen-like, problem solver at the center of this complicated enterprise. But as doors open around 7 pm, and the crowd starts to buzz in anticipation, even he get nervous–specifically at one critical moment.
“When the lights come down at the start of the show. That’s the most exciting moment,” Abrams says. “Those are the most crucial seconds of the entire night.”
Tonight, that critical moment proceeds without a hiccup. But, as Abrams predicted, something does eventually go wrong. About halfway through Monroe’s set, a musician knocks over a glass of water. Seemingly milliseconds after it shatters across the stage, Abrams emerges with a rag.
Before the next song starts, he’s swept everything away and retreated to the wings.