TOUR­ING PRO

Vir­ginia Beach mom jumps back into work­force tour­ing with rock band and sell­ing mer­chan­dise

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Dan Duke Staff writer

A Vir­ginia Beach mom makes a life­style 180 with a new ca­reer sell­ing merch for a rock band.

A year ago, Jamille Decker Ali­mard spent a day in bed cry­ing.

Af­ter a rough hol­i­day sea­son, she had re­solved to find a new di­rec­tion. At age 52 and with her two chil­dren nearly grown, the Vir­ginia Beach woman wanted to find a new ca­reer. Then the enor­mity of the task hit her.

The storm passed quickly, though, and the new Jamille came out de­ter­mined to change her life. She wouldn’t have guessed it would in­volve tour­ing with a rock band, Toad the Wet Sprocket, help­ing it to make gobs of cash and con­nect with fans. She wasn’t plan­ning to work with the jam band Phish, field of­fers from other bands and make new friends across the coun­try. But that’s what she did with her year.

All it took was say­ing no, wel­com­ing fear and get­ting a nudge from a Cal­i­for­nia roller-blader called Slomo.

Toad the Wet Sprocket is about to play at the Vir­ginia Beach Ocean­front, and Decker stands be­hind a

him time to think while greet­ing the next per­son in line. In a minute, each fan has hap­pily parted with

$20 or more to fly the col­ors of Toad the Wet Sprocket.

There’s no hint of hur­ry­ing or pres­sure on this Septem­ber night. And the folks in line are cool, too, know­ing they’ll get the same at­ten­tion.

“They love it!” Decker says later. “Most of the con­cert-go­ers had been fol­low­ing the band for over 20 years, and a phrase I heard nightly was: ‘These songs are the sound­track to my youth.’ Or, ‘Their lyrics got me through my mother’s cancer ... my di­vorce ... my abuse.’ I swear, you have never seen a more ap­pre­cia­tive and happy crowd at the end of each night.”

It’s not all good vibes and sun­shine. (Al­though, Sun­shine is the nick­name the band gave Decker.)

When she started sell­ing merch in April, Decker as­sessed the stakes: how vi­tal that rev­enue stream is to bands and how emo­tion­driven cus­tomers are. She got her in­ven­tory and pric­ing down cold. She set up her booth care­fully. No need for a chair; she doesn’t sit on the job.

Her sales dur­ing the tour were al­most dou­ble the nor­mal amount.

When she de­cided last

Jan­uary to make a new start, Decker hadn’t had a “real” job for 18 years.

She lived in Vir­ginia Beach with her hus­band, a car­di­ol­o­gist, and their two teenagers.

Her fa­ther, Ster­ling, had been a doc­tor. Be­fore start­ing her fam­ily, she had worked as di­rec­tor of physi­cian ser­vices at what was then Hen­rico Doc­tors’ Hos­pi­tals in Rich­mond.

She’s had am­ple op­por­tu­nity to study the nuts and bolts of suc­cess, and points to an­other gift that’s helped: “an in­nate abil­ity to care for and reach peo­ple.”

Decker has a brother and a sis­ter, and says her fa­ther “would in­tro­duce us as: ‘This is my son, the fu­ture doc­tor.’ And he be­came a doc­tor. And, ‘This is my youngest daugh­ter, the first fe­male pres­i­dent of Amer­ica.’ And she’s, you know, a huge jour­nal­ist in D.C. And then he would say, ‘And this is Jamille, the pretty one.’”

He wasn’t talk­ing about looks. In fact, the com­ment was an in­side joke with them. He knew how ca­pa­ble she was, Decker says; he trusted her to run his of­fices, and they be­came con­fi­dantes and friends.

“He was ex­tremely pro­gres­sive. It was just me. It was that I al­ways took care. I al­ways made peo­ple laugh. I al­ways just care. And he thought that was just my gift. And I needed to take that ball and run with it.”

A year ago, she called a fam­ily meet­ing to talk

“Most of the con­cert-go­ers had been fol­low­ing the band for over 20 years.” — Jamille Decker

about her de­sire to work out­side the home. She knew there was a prac­ti­cal value in her abil­ity to con­nect with peo­ple, and she wanted to work with some­thing she felt pas­sion­ate about — mu­sic.

“I did a lot of soulsearch­ing and re­al­ized that to be happy, I needed to take care of my­self for a change, fol­low my own pas­sions, and live the rest of my life the way I wanted to.”

She agreed that she wouldn’t start work­ing un­til her daugh­ter learned to drive, and says she’s al­ways been able to take breaks from work to spend time with the kids.

“The most I was ever gone was for two weeks at a time. ... Some­body else would fill in and then I’d fly home and take care of busi­ness,” she says, laugh­ing as she adds: “Yell, scream, clean up, and just touch base and then go back out.”

That day of sad­ness last year came when she was ap­ply­ing on­line for a re­cep­tion­ist job at the San­dler Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. Af­ter typ­ing in all sorts of in­for­ma­tion, she was re­quired to at­tach a re­sume, and didn’t have one.

She bounced back and started re­search­ing “re­sumes for moms” and job-hunt­ing tips.

Decker says she kept two by­words in mind as she searched: pas­sion and bound­aries.

Con­trary to the stereo­type of find­ing suc­cess by say­ing “yes” to ev­ery­thing, she rec­og­nized the need to set bound­aries and say “no” to things that weren’t on point. One ex­am­ple: She had helped friends or­ga­nize their homes, and as glow­ing re­ports of her work spread she would hear from strangers ask­ing for her help. At first, she had obliged them, but no more.

“I thought that it was a way of be­ing happy or feel­ing loved or wor­thy, and it just turned out to be more drain­ing.”

Decker re­ally got some wind in her sails when she watched a video on­line about Slomo, a re­tired neu­ro­sur­geon who quit the rat race to spend his days roller-blad­ing. The video, posted on ny­times.com, pro­filed Dr. John Kitchin, who skates ev­ery day — re­ally, re­ally slowly and of­ten on one leg — along a board­walk on San Diego’s Pa­cific Coast.

He seemed to be speak­ing di­rectly to her, Decker says, with his mes­sage: “Life is too short ... do want you want to!”

She found what she was look­ing for on Face­book when a singer/song­writer she liked called for vol­un­teers to sell mer­chan­dise dur­ing his shows. It was Glen Phillips, lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket, do­ing solo work.

Decker got the green light for a gig.

“So the first night he said, ‘These sales are un­like any­thing I’ve ever had. ... How long have you been in sales?’ I looked at my watch and said four-and-a-half hours.” They got to talk­ing, and he learned of her ca­reer quest.

He gave her more gigs, and said his band would start tour­ing in the sum­mer and he’d give her a call.

“I’m think­ing, ‘Sure,’” Decker says. “And sure enough, in June I got the call — and it was what started ev­ery­thing.”

Sell­ing merch for an

alt-rock band won’t make you a stack of money, but Decker says it’s richly re­ward­ing.

When the day’s sales were tal­lied, the band would sing her praises. “Some­one say­ing you’re great ev­ery night? OK!”

She was named mer­chan­dise man­ager and VIP man­ager. Philips even­tu­ally got her a side job with an­other band, Decker says, and at the end of the night the tour man­ager asked, “What’s it go­ing to take to get you to leave with us right now?”

That’s mu­sic sweet enough to ri­val even the sound of “her” band. And it never gets old.

“Some­body said, ‘Don’t you get sick of lis­ten­ing to the same mu­sic night af­ter night?’ And I said, ‘Would you get sick of feel­ing 25 again?’”

Decker loved get­ting be­hind the mu­sic world scene, though in her ex­pe­ri­ence it wasn’t ex­actly glam­orous.

“What ev­ery­one thinks about tour­ing — sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll — is ac­tu­ally ‘sleep, fam­ily and the mo­ment.’”

Band mem­bers make sure she’s eat­ing prop­erly; she makes sure they have a place to do their laun­dry. They carry boxes of merch to and fro; she runs er­rands for them and keeps fans happy at meet-and-greets.

Phillips says she brought a new en­ergy to the tour, “es­pe­cially when you’re out there year af­ter year with the same bunch of dudes.”

“The new and the dif­fer­ent made her ex­cited and lean for­ward. Ev­ery day she was on fire and bring­ing that en­ergy,” he said.

Toad the Wet Sprocket formed in 1986, and had its break­through mo­ment 27 years ago with its al­bum “fear” and two sin­gles that reached the top 20 of the Bill­board Hot 100 charts: “All I Want” and “Walk on the Ocean.” Its alt-rock songs are life-af­firm­ing, not head-bang­ing.

In con­cert, they per­form with pas­sion, but don’t use the­atri­cal flour­ishes or rock cliches. They fo­cus on de­liv­er­ing songs.

“They lit­er­ally put it all out there,” Decker says.

And when the show’s over, it’s “show­ers and sleep.” And long bus rides to the next show.

But fans who want more wait around the bus af­ter the show, she said.

“There are al­ways peo­ple out there who would wait and wait and wait and wait and wait. And it sort of broke my heart.”

The mu­si­cians will chat a bit, sign this or that, but then it’s on to the bus. Bound­aries.

“I said to Glen, ‘If peo­ple had talked to me the way that they talk to you ev­ery — sin­gle — night — my whole life would be dif­fer­ent. And it’s not just be­cause they like you be­cause of some­thing su­per­fi­cial, like your looks. It’s be­cause of who you are, and what you’re putting out there. The lyrics that touch them come from in­side you, come from your ex­pe­ri­ences, come from the per­son that you are.’ And these peo­ple love them be­cause of that.”

Some­times that love, and aura it gives the band, drives peo­ple to get de­mand­ing. Decker says that’s when her ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with doc­tors helps. Fans, road­ies, man­agers, mu­si­cians? She’s dealt with many a physi­cian with a bad case of God-com­plex and many more peo­ple who tried to lever­age con- nec­tions to doc­tors to get their way.

Treat ev­ery­one the same, she says, not high and not low.

“That’s the way that my fam­ily taught me. Hey: What you do for the least of mine,” she said, re­fer­ring to the Bi­ble verse at Matthew 24:40 in which Je­sus says, “What­ever you did for the least of these broth­ers and sis­ters of mine, you did for me.

Mostly, she uses that guid­ance to lift peo­ple — like the woman at a VIP meet-and-greet stand­ing alone and jit­tery.

It’s com­mon for fans to stiffen up when it’s time to ac­tu­ally meet band mem­bers and pose for a pic­ture, so Decker works to loosen them up as they wait. Decker could tell this woman was feel­ing par­tic­u­larly awk­ward, so she ap­proached her to break the ice, give her a sun­shine smile and help her re­lax and ap­proach the band.

“I spent a lot of time with her,” Decker says. When it was time to pose, “Glen said, ‘Hey, prom dates.’” So he held the girl like they were danc­ing. In the back­ground, bass player Dean Din­ning glow­ered like a fa­ther and an­other band mem­ber made a face like a jilted lover.

“And it was the cutest, most pre­cious pic­ture. And ev­ery­one saw that and started laugh­ing. So then ev­ery­body else would come up there and be ready to have fun.”

Run­ning the VIP events at first scared Decker, be­cause she didn’t like speak­ing in front of a big group.

“You fake it till you make it. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other. ...

What time do I show? You show up. OK. How do I do that? OK, so then you do what they tell you. I mean, be­fore you re­al­ize that you’re just do­ing it.”

Phillips says he admires her for shak­ing things up with­out wait­ing, as many peo­ple do, un­til a cri­sis forces their hand.

“She’s tak­ing it un­der her own steam and de­cid­ing to make some changes in­stead of wait­ing to get pushed out of the plane, so to speak.”

Since the Toad tour ended in the fall, she’s done oc­ca­sional jobs — like driv­ing the jam band Phish around town dur­ing its three-day stay at the Hamp­ton Coli­seum and help­ing con­tem­po­rary jazz singer Will Down­ing when he ap­peared in Nor­folk in De­cem­ber. Decker stays in touch with con­tacts she made dur­ing her first tour.

A year has passed since she was driven to tears while ap­ply­ing on­line for a re­cep­tion­ist job. She still doesn’t have a re­sume, but she has new busi­ness cards. On thick white stock, the cards bear three el­e­ments: her name and con­tact in­for­ma­tion, the job ti­tle of “Tour Sup­port” and a col­or­ful phoenix tak­ing wing.

Jamille Decker of Vir­ginia Beach poses with a fan of Toad the WetSprocket while sell­ing mer­chan­dise for the band dur­ing its 2018 tour.

COUR­TESY OF JAMILLE DECKER

Jamille Decker takes a photo as she leads a VIP event dur­ing the 2018 tour of Toad the WetSprocket.

COUR­TESY OF JAMILLE DECKER

Jamille Decker takes a mo­ment while set­ting up shop to sell mer­chan­dise at a Toad the Wet Sprocket ap­pear­ance.

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