Column 50: Shelter Belt comes home from the road

Category: Blog — @ 1:20 pm November 10, 2005

This column originated while driving home from work. Running down the street was sweat-covered Shelter Belt frontman Jesse Otto on his daily jog. I waved him over and we chatted for a couple seconds (No one likes to be interrupted during a workout) about their touring life and studio work. An interview was scheduled later that week. Shelter Belt has always been one of those bands that flies just beneath the radar. They’re not terribly concerned about building a big following in Omaha, preferring instead to take their show on the road, which they’ve done in spades. Will their hard work pay off when they shop their new CD to labels early next year? It should. Most larger indies insist that the bands they sign do the necessary touring to support a release, as it should be. But because Shelter Belt’s sound doesn’t fall into any trendy categories, they might get overlooked, which would be a shame but not the end of the world for a band that seems satisfied with their current level of success (with hopes, of course, of making it to the next level). But just imagine what they could do with support from a label and a booking agent… Check out Shelter Belt at their website:

Column 50 — Shelter on the Road
Shelter Belt epitomizes the term DIY
I never again want to hear woe-is-me laments from local rock bands complaining about how they’d just love to go on the road but they can’t figure out how to book a tour.

Not after talking to Jesse Otto and Anthony Knuppel, two of the 7-member indie folk-rock orchestra called Shelter Belt.

Whilst clicking through the daily gig calendar on this summer I kept coming across listings for Shelter Belt shows at such obscure and faraway venues as Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse in Duluth, The Brown Bean in Fredonia, NY; Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, N.C., and Reptile Palace in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Hardly the towns and venues I’m used to seeing on a touring band’s typical itinerary.

As of last Saturday night’s gig at Shea Riley’s, Shelter Belt has logged 58 shows this year throughout the North Central, Midwestern and Eastern United States. That follows a 70-gig year in 2004, all without the help of a record label or booking agent.

Booking is hard, frustrating work, Otto and Knuppel said over espressos in a packed Blue Line coffee shop Saturday. “You have to be persistent, and it can’t bother you to be ignored,” Otto said. “When a venue says they’ve never heard of you and they don’t have time to listen to your record, you just have to move on to the next one on the list.”

There’s a method to the band’s touring madness. Knuppel said it involves identifying colleges and universities within driving distance, then researching nearby venues. They bypass large cities and big clubs. “Unless you’re a really huge band, forget about it,” Knuppel said. “We’ve had our best luck at smaller cities with bigger schools. We try to avoid 21-and-over clubs for venues that are 18-and-over or all-ages. Coffee houses are the best. We’ll sell 15 to 20 CDs at those shows.”

But it’s not only juggling venues’ schedules, Otto and Knuppel also have to juggle the band members’ seven day-jobs. Otto, for example, works at UNO and is a history grad student, while Knuppel does accounting for a downtown parking company. “We’re lucky everyone has flexible jobs,” Knuppel said, adding that the band takes vacations days at the same time to facilitate longer tours. “We’ve only had to turn down four or five shows because of job schedules.”

With the gigs booked, the band piles into both a van and a car and hits the road to venues like The Boheme Bistro in Ames, Iowa — a favorite because of its generous owner, its roomy stage, and of course, its loving crowd. “The Iowa State Daily and the radio station have been good to us,” Otto said. “We’ve had large crowds there from day one.”

Otto and company received the ultimate compliment the first time they played The Main Street Pub in Brookings, South Dakota. They began playing “Sad Thing” from their last album, Rain Home, and members of the crowd already knew the words. “That’s the ultimate compliment,” Otto said.

He says touring is like being on vacation, but not a paid one, as the band usually struggles to break even or get a few dollars ahead. Still, without a record label, touring is the only effective way that Shelter Belt is going to get their music heard outside of the Omaha area. So far they’ve sold more than 1,100 copies of Rain Home — almost all of them sold at gigs.

The band is winding down its tour schedule for the year as they reenter their homemade Belt Cave Studios located in the basement of a Dundee home, to record the follow-up to Rain Home. Fans can expect the finished full-length sometime next spring. And then it’s back to the road.

“We want to do more shows than last year,” Otto said. “Every year it gets a little easier now that we’ve done the initial leg work. More people know who we are.”
But wouldn’t it be a dream come true if the new CD caught the attention of a record label and Shelter Belt got a booking agent? Otto and Knuppel aren’t holding their breaths. The band didn’t even bother shopping Rain Home to labels. They might send the new one out to a few this time, but if no one bites, that’s okay.

“We’ve always done things DIY and it’s worked for us,” Otto said. “We would love to make a living traveling and recording and not have to work day jobs. We’re told that it’s possible.

“We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t possible,” Knuppel said.

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