The Commodore might be relatively new, but their soundman is a lifer. Wayne Slagle has been doing this in some capacity for 25 of his 49 years, and his main philosophy on making a band sound great is simple: preparation. Listening to him explain how he works, you know you're hearing someone with a bit of a perfectionist streak.
"The first thing is having the proper contact information to advance the show with the artist," Slagle says. "If I've got a show coming up two months down the road, I'll call the artist and get their input list and stage plot to prep for the show before they ever walk through the door. And that builds confidence in the artist. They feel comfortable when I know what their needs are."
"I like to keep a nice, tight, clean stage," he continues. "If you've got a stage laid out where you know where everything is, if something goes wrong during the show, you can troubleshoot without the show coming to a screeching halt. You know how to fix a problem."
And on top of all of those things, Slagle makes sure to continue his work after the band rolls in. "Soundcheck is the most important part of the gig," he says. "It's where everyone gets what they need. After that, I can walk in the room, hit the lights, and boom; we can go from there, because I already know what they're going to sound like. That way the artist isn't worrying about the production. They can worry about being artists."
Slagle speaks about the process with an empathy for the musicians that veteran sound guys sometimes don't have. That might be because for him, it all started with a specific band whose music he loved. "In high school, I started helping a band called Aftermath, which won one of the very first 96 Wave Battle of the Bands contests back in '88," he says. "I helped them load in and out, and I took an interest in the audio production. And it took off from there."
When Aftermath broke up, Slagle followed one of its members into another group, running sound for them and gaining experience. "The next thing you know I was the house sound guy at Cumberland's in the '90s," he says. "I worked at Music Farm, the Windjammer, and Charleston Music Hall, and I went out with the Blue Dogs for 20-plus years."
After a while, though, the road life got a bit old for Slagle, especially after he decided to get sober. "I toured for a long time and didn't have a house job for four or five years," he says. "But I quit drinking eight years ago, and I was trying to distance myself a bit from that atmosphere. That's when Tim Nielsen from Drivin' N' Cryin' called me up and asked me to go to the Commodore with him and check it out. He was going to be one of the owners and they wanted to make me the house guy and put a PA in there."
As soon as Slagle got to the venue, he knew he was home. "When we opened the doors to that place, it was like walking into 1980," he says. "There was a very old-school feel to the room. We took everything out of that room but tried to keep that feel. It's an awesome room."
And Slagle, who splits his time between manning the board at the Commodore and freelancing with a company called PROgressive PROductions, recently got some heavy-duty praise from one musician with a similar old-school feel. "We did the James Brown Band post-show," he says, "and Ivan Neville walked up to me after he played and said, 'Man this room sounds great.' That made me feel real good."