Perhaps not the first, the theft of Portugal. The Man's musical gear following its Aug. 7 performance at Lollapalooza was at least one of the most high-profile criminal cases solved with the assistance of social media.
Within hours of receiving the news that the Alaska-via-Oregon band's van and trailer -- containing 97 pieces of equipment, including an organ, piano, amps, microphones and several collectible, vintage guitars -- had been stolen from a Chicago parking lot, members of the band did the only thing they could think of that might help: They cried for help on Twitter and Facebook.
The impassioned pleas for tips, police say, raised the profile of the case and made the stolen gear difficult to move. The Sun-Times and other media outlets picked up the story.
The van and trailer were recovered, empty. But days later, Chicago police charged a South Side mechanic with knowingly buying most of the stolen stuff (valued in total at $80,000) for $1,000 at the Swap-O-Rama flea market at 40th and Ashland. The man admitted to authorities he'd been "scared" to sell the equipment because of the attention.
"They were just things, but they were the things that made the sound we've been making and developing and earning our living as for six years," said the band's singer, John Gourley, during a recent interview. "The police helped us get that back. They were so great."
The instruments they wanted back. The van -- well, funny about the van.
PORTUGAL. THE MAN
with Alberta Cross
◆ 9 p.m. Oct. 15
◆ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
◆ Sold out
"This whole thing happened at the weirdest time," Gourley said. "That trip was the last time we were taking that van on tour. We're getting a bus for the tour this fall, because we didn't have room anymore for the new gear and the new lights we're going to be using. It was finally time for us to step up to a tour bus. Of all the things to go, the van was just funny. ... But it was good timing, too, in a way. We still had a month before we started this new tour, so we tried to look at the bright side and see that it really helped us assess the situation and see what we had, what we valued, 'Do you really need those pedals?' and so on. We were in the process with insurance of replacing what we could, because we didn't know we'd get anything back. So we really re-evaluated how to present our show, in a way that was oddly beneficial and will be apparent when we come back through."
(That insurance mention is important, too, and also the result of the band's recent good fortunes. Their new album, "In the Mountain in the Cloud," is their debut on a major label. Had this crime occurred when they played Lollapalooza 2009 still as an indie band, the financial safety net underneath them, Gourley conceded, wouldn't have been as strong.)
Here's hoping that wherever they park the bus this week, they're protected byGerman. The Shepherd.
still in possession of the later stolen van and trailer behind them.
Gourley said the band was ready for a change of thinking when this deed forced them into that conversation. For two years, Portugal. The Man had been touring on the strength of its previous two orchestral, psychedelic-rock albums, last year's "American Ghetto" and 2009's "The Satanic Satanist," with a rigorous schedule. The band was tired. The performances were lacking. The band is partly known for its wild light displays and stage backdrops (created by Gourley with artistic collaborator Austin Sellers), and even those were wearing thin.
So -- new tour, new album, new songs, new lights, new action. Some new gear, too, because Gourley said a few things still have not been found, including a rare 1981 Fender Precision bass that PTM player Zach Carothers "has played since we moved to Oregon, the only one he bought because it was really nice and what he wanted, and it was made the year he was born." Local gear-heads: Keep an eye out, would you?
Keeping an eye out -- the online version of that kind of assistance really helped lead this common situation to a rare happy ending. The band's manager, Rich Holtzman, wrote an interesting piece recently claiming that social media cracked the case. But the seeds for that success were sown five years ago when the band opted to lean heavily on maintaining a heavy social media presence. Had they not been working for five years to build Facebook fans and Twitter followers, Holtzman says, the pleas for help and information wouldn't have had the impact.
"I never really think much of it because it's just something we naturally do," Gourley said of his social media maintenance. "Coming from Alaska and never really being able to approach musicians or see shows, it's always been something I thought about. 'Man, it would be cool if that band communicated more.' Because I wished for that, it's something we do. You sit in a van all day long, especially today, and everyone has an iPhone or a BlackBerry. You can do those little things. But it's not little, it's huge. It's seeeeeerious stuff. I try to respond to everybody who makes the effort to respond to me. It means something to your fans, but also means something to the artist. ... It's been obvious how much it's helped us. And I don't like saying that, and I worry about talking about it. It's not a marketing plan. It has those benefits, but it's not why you do it."
Gourley thanked the Chicago Police Department profusely online, but he wanted to really say thanks, send something, make the gesture. Damn the cliche: He sent doughnuts.
"The doughnuts, man, that was all respect," he said. "Our manager called and said, 'We got the gear back!' That was my first reaction: We've got to send them some doughnuts. He said, 'You can't send cops doughnuts.' I thought, why not? I assume they like doughnuts. I like doughnuts. I love doughnuts. I don't know what else to send. I'm not sending them flowers. Deep-dish pizza? Whatever. Doughnuts are universal."