Local musicians are touring overseas -- for the same reasons most U.S. travelers are staying away.
Traveling to Europe this summer is a pipe dream for most Minnesotans, but apparently a lot of Twin Cities musicians have been smoking from that pipe.
A caravan of local bands is crossing the Atlantic to tour, in spite of -- or in some cases because of -- the slumping dollar and rising price of gas.
"It seems like more and more American acts are performing over there right now, so we figured we'd join the crowd," said Mint Condition singer Stokley Williams. The R&B band just released a top 10 album in the States, but it leaves this week for its first European gigs.
The soaring costs of travel to Europe can be offset for bands once they get paid in European currency. Also, there are more big cities to play with fewer miles between them, and with a stronger economy, fans there have more money to blow on rock 'n' roll.
Other Minnesota acts hoping to make some euros this summer range from hip-hop stalwarts Atmosphere and Brother Ali to indie-rock stars Tapes 'N Tapes and Kid Dakota to former Jayhawks singer Gary Louris.
All of them are either in Europe now or headed there within the next two weeks.
Even rock veterans the Magnolias, who in 24 years have never played Europe, have a dozen gigs there next month.
"There's no time like the present," said frontman John Freeman. "I don't know if we're going to make much money over there, but it'll be more than we could make [in the United States]."
Getting there is more than half the battle. Minneapolis blues hero Willie Murphy has toured Europe nearly every summer for two decades, but held off this year because of soaring airfares. Tickets to Paris or London are hard to find for less than $1,200.
"I might try to go in the fall if the prices go down, because there is nil money to be made in Minneapolis," Murphy said.
Once bands get to Europe, however, the dollars-to-euro exchange rate can be beneficial if they play their cards right, said Matthew Covey, a Minnesota native who helps bands deal with international issues at the New York-based nonprofit Tamizdat.
"I know an artist who put everything he made in Europe into a bank in Berlin so he didn't have to exchange it to dollars, and he's sitting very pretty right now," Covey said. "No matter how you do it, though, making money in euros is a good thing right now."
Retribution Gospel Choir, a new band featuring one of Minnesota's best-known musicians, Low frontman Alan Sparhawk, recently returned from a European jaunt. Its booking agent, Carter Adams, said he learned from a previous tour with Rickie Lee Jones that thinking in dollars doesn't make sense in Europe.
"Payment had been planned in advance and deals were made in dollars instead of euros, pounds or Swiss francs, which meant that the flux in currency really hurt our budget," he said. "[But] you can go and do large festivals and be paid in European currencies, which translates to great earnings over here in the States."
Acoustic bluesman Charlie Parr has been on six tours through England and Ireland and plans another early next year. He said the exchange rate "was pretty good to me" on past tours, but he could not afford to go again if the people there also weren't kind to him.
"I've normally went in a very cost-effective manner -- doing a show a day, eating free when the pub offers, staying with anyone who'll let me, drinking every single free drink that comes my way, and riding in a very tiny car that my friend Pete owns," Parr said.
Festivals add allure
Eric Roberts of the St. Paul-based agency Hello Booking, which works with Martin Zellar, Trampled by Turtles and many other acts, sang the praises of European festivals, which are generally more popular and widespread than those in the States -- and thus more profitable to play. The Turtles have some Irish festival gigs in September.
"A band shouldn't go over to Europe just to play clubs; they should have a fest or two to anchor a tour to," Roberts said.
He pointed to another advantage over U.S. tours: "Geographically, Europe has a denser population and the cities are closer to each other, so a band might be less affected by fuel prices."
European gas prices have risen sharply, too, but the idea of a little gas conservation sounded alluring to Tapes 'N Tapes frontman Josh Grier. His band will play a dozen gigs between Dublin and Cologne, Germany, in the next three weeks after having spent two months criss-crossing the United States.
"The gas prices killed us this last time out," said Grier, whose band has done well touring Australia and Japan. Still, he thought the cost of airfare and hotels ("it's just so expensive right now") will offset any savings on gas or profits from gigs paid in euros or pounds.
"We're going to try to sell as much 'merch' as possible and hopefully make a little money that way," Grier said, using the rocker slang for T-shirts and CDs.
That's the advice from Tamizdat, too: "Merchandise is definitely an area where the euro-to-dollar exchange rate can be beneficial," Covey said.
Whatever the prospective profits, all of the musicians headed to Europe agree that it isn't just about making money.
"It's safe to say that American bands get treated much better in Europe than they do in the States," Kid Dakota frontman/namesake Darren Jackson said via e-mail after his first European gig Thursday in Wiesbaden, Germany. "Catered meals and hotels are standard amenities with most performances."
Grier also raved about the cheese and meat plates they got backstage in Germany. Parr loves the chips coated in gravy served in the Irish pubs he plays. All of them appreciate Europeans' appetite for American music.
"We'll see fans we've never seen before, in cities we've never played -- there are many benefits in that, too," said Mint Condition's Williams.
And as the Magnolias' Freeman put it, "How else would any of us get to see Europe this summer?"
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658