Trolley Trio at the Races

On the Saturday after St Patricks Day, the Geelong Racing Club held a special meeting and I was asked by Peter Hooper from SpiderJazz to bring along my newly-assembled battery-powered rolling PA rig and provide music inside the gates as punters arrived, then wheel up to the trackside corporate area and play between races. There were lots of people dressed for the occasion, including a bucks party of matched Luigis in Irish green, who I had to include in the video. Thanks to the GRC and SpiderJazz for a great day. Read on if you’d like to check out my extended discussion of battery-powered music.

The new mobile PA setup provides me with quite a few more options when I’m asked to provide music for outdoor events. Previously, if power wasn’t available at a particular site, then I was limited to playing acoustically, perhaps supplemented by a small battery amp for the guitar. There are lots of situations where that works really well, and in many instances it’s the best way to go – after all, there’s something special about music made without electricity. But playing acoustically imposes some constraints, unless the surroundings are very quiet. Wind and percussion instruments can produce plenty of volume even without a microphone, but string instruments not so much, and vocals even less. I can put together a nice acoustic trio with, say, double bass, acoustic guitar and clarinet, and if you’re standing fairly close by, it will sound beautiful. Even unamplified vocals will be (just) audible at that range. But as you move further away, you’ll find the guitar disappears from the mix after about twenty steps, and the bass after another twenty. If the ambient background noise is significant (and it usually is), you might not hear either in the first place. I can play tuba instead of double bass, and I can get a banjo player instead of a guitarist. That instrumentation provides a much greater dynamic range (those instruments can play just as softly, but also much more loudly), and creates the option of playing and walking at the same time if necessary. Still, those instruments tend to stylistically anchor the music in the 1920s and 30s, which might be ideal, or it might not. So the mobile PA gives me the option of more stylistic variation, even in situations where there’s no power and/or there’s a bit of mobility requires. But it can also be a serious problem-solver when tricky logistics come along.

Let’s imagine you’re getting married (not unlikely, if you’re a visitor to this site). You’re holding your wedding in a reception venue with big gardens, and you’ve picked out a lovely spot under some big shady trees for the ceremony. You’d like live music to be played before and during the ceremony, including a song which is particularly special to you and your partner. Then you’re having canapes nearby, and you’d like some music during that time, as well as indoors for dinner later on. That’s a very common and very reasonable list of requirements, but to make it all work smoothly is a little non-trivial. The special ceremony song will always work best if it’s sung by a singer. We can play it instrumentally, and if the song is both well known and melodically strong that might be effective, but many otherwise good songs don’t tick both those boxes, and even if yours does, it will probably mean more to you and your guests if there are audible lyrics. So to use a singer generally means using PA, and using PA means using power, which may or may not be accessible under that particular tree. In the past, I’ve run improbably long power cables from suspiciously crusty outdoor power points, taped them across doorways, draped them in trees and gone through all sorts of contortions to solve that problem. So the battery, in and of itself, prevents a lot of awkward and unsightly wrangling of dangerously high voltages. But the trolley helps solve another problem, too.

If I set up a traditional PA for your ceremony, then when your ceremony is finished, I might be able to point the speakers in the direction of your canapes and create a reasonable sound in that area. But depending on the location, it might not be possible, or the sound might not be ideal, or the guests might spontaneously assemble in a spot where nobody expected them to. Band members conducting a military exercise of speaker lugging and cord rolling don’t provide an ideal backdrop to the champagne and rose petals and hugs and kisses which are happening in that moment, so it’s a godsend to be able to quickly wheel the sound into place without even having to turn it off, and start playing again with a minimum of fuss. Then when it’s dinner time and everyone moves inside, I can have a second PA system set up and waiting, and I’ll be able to quickly wheel the outdoor system to a safe and convenient spot to be packed up later, and get on with making music. In the past, I’ve had to PAs set up, but I’ve always had to choose: Do I spend time in the middle of the gig packing up the outdoor system, moving equipment and getting in the way of guests when I should be playing indoors, or do I leave it where it is and hope it doesn’t get rained on or stolen and hope I can find it again in the dark at the end of the event?

That’s just one example of a situation where a PA system which is both mobile and independent of mains power can solve a whole range of problems. At the races on Saturday, it allowed us to play in two different locations quite straightforwardly, and opt for an instrumentation, including Brian’s vocals, which is a little unusual at a race meeting (they tend to make good use of roving acoustic music). I can think of dozens of past gigs where I wish I’d had the capacity to do something similar, so I suspect the battery and the trolley will get plenty of outings in the future.

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