Band looks to used grease to cut travel costs

Joe Crawford

 They don't cook with diesel, but the Herbert Wiser Band will soon fuel its van with vegetable oil.

The unusual move isn't a matter of choice - or, um, taste - it's necessity.

The soaring cost of filling up their diesel-fueled van has been cutting their tours short recently, said Jason Hughes, 27, the band's guitarist and singer. It's getting harder to justify driving long distances for shows.

The $1,300 renovation that will allow the 1987 vehicle to run mostly off veggie oil seems economical, he said, especially since the grease should be basically free.

"A lot the bars we play have fryers," he said.

The Chicago-based group, which makes frequent stops in the Peoria area, isn't alone in lamenting the high fuel prices.

Bands across the U.S. and Canada, particularly indie groups that have traditionally scraped by as they sought to spread their name, have canceled shows or tours this summer because they couldn't afford the drive.

A recently-posted message on the Herbert Wiser Band's Web site apologized for one such cancellation at a show in Lacota, Mich. The trip couldn't be justified "due to rising gas prices," the message read.

This is why Hughes says they need the veggie van.

"Our radius for touring just keeps getting smaller," he said.

Peoria-based Highway J doesn't typically venture too far from the area, but guitarist Ryan Bradle said their occasional jaunts to Rock Island or Chicago have taken more planning recently.

"For a while there we were all just taking turns driving and gas wasn't a real big deal," he said.

But now they are more careful to divvy up the increased cost, paying for gas out of a band fund.

Highway J usually travels in two vehicles: a car and a truck hauling a trailer with all its gear. Bradle estimated the truck gets 10-15 miles per gallon while pulling the equipment.

It's been a couple of months since the group journeyed out of town, but Bradle said they may need to ask the establishment for more cash the next time they plan a trip. The four-member group usually pulls in about $500 for playing all night, he said.

"We'd probably have to raise our rates," he said. "Up until this point we've just taken what they've given us."

Matt Crusen, manager at Bar Louie, said he has seen an increased tendency in bands to stay closer to home. Some of the out-of-town acts that play the bar are coming less frequently, he said.

"They're only booking once every three or four months instead of once a month," Crusen said.

And while the higher prices may be hurting many groups, especially smaller bands that play their own songs, the higher pay rate for musicians playing cover songs can be enough to make the higher fuel costs less noticeable.

Joe Valentino, a guitarist and singer in Indianapolis-based Mike and Joe, said fuel prices play no role in the group's decisions to book shows that require them to travel. Mike and Joe sometimes travel six or seven hours between shows, he said.

Bands who play songs already made popular by other groups usually make more money, Valentino said, but they have to play towns repeatedly to keep a following.

"High prices or low prices of gas, we have to go where we have to go," he said.

Joe Crawford can be reached at (309) 686-3251 or