Dawn, from the train.

The midnight train from Sacramento, CA to Oregon has become a staple of my tours. I can play a gig in Sacto, hop on the train and fall asleep, then enjoy some smashing scenery before arriving midday in the state of Dreamers. 

Ross dropped me off close to midnight, and after a delay of an hour (not unheard of) the Coast  Starlight arrived and I hopped on. I slept pretty well, wrapped up tight in my jacket against the typical overenthusiastic Amtrak A/C, and woke with the sun to see some stunning vistas. The Northwest can be so gorgeous, with grand ice-caps rising above pine forests and lush fields, and I never tire of it.

The thirteen-hour ride to Albany went quickly, then I had a nice half an hour to warm up in the sun before the Linn-Benton Loop bus came to take me to Corvallis. Local transportation connections like this are especially important, as Corvallis is over ten miles away and the cost of a taxi ride that distance would probably make this particular tour stop impractical. But the Loop bus, which shuttles students out to the big school in Corvallis, costs just $1.50 and comes every hour or so, which works just fine for me.

I usually stay with friends as I bop around North America, and I have a good pal in Corvallis, but his wife has been ill and it seemed better for me to get a hotel room this time. I never mind a hotel stay or two in a tour, it’s nice to have a bit of private space all to oneself, even if temporarily, and I can catch up on laundry. (I travel with only four or five day’s worth of clothing, so it’s essential to make time to wash as often as I can). 

I checked in to the Super 8, had a long shower and ran a load of wash, then practiced for a while. While my standard set is 45 minutes or so, I had to provide two hours of music this night and needed to refresh some things. I don’t mind doing these long sets now and then, as I have plenty of material and it’s fun to air some of my rarely-played favorites.

After a lazy rest of the afternoon, I strolled along the charming (if a bit intentionally so) riverside walk to Cloud & Kelly’s, beautifully located only two blocks from the hotel. I’d played several times at the previous incarnation of the establishment, which proved a bit too upscale for the current economy. So now it’s an Irish bar, albeit with some fancy touches on the menu, like seared Ahi tacos alongside the fish n’chips. I devoured an order of said tacos, caught up with the owner, then made conversation with a couple of fiftyish dudes talking music: DMB, Neil Young, Allman Brothers. I suggested they stick around a few more minutes to hear me play, guessing they might dig my stuff.

I’ve been called worse.

Business has been good, the owner had told me, and on my previous visits the venue was bustling at almost any hour. But less than half the tables were full tonight, disappointingly. I figured I should start playing while there were still some people in the room, so the soundperson got me set up on the sizable stage, with a massive monitor and a chair. I like standing up to perform, but in a dinnertime situation like this it can feel kind of funny to be on my feet, so I settled myself in and started off.

The first tune is usually a good barometer of how things I going to go, both in terms of how well I’m playing and what the audience response is going to be like. Tonight the playing aspect felt great, everything felt very smooth and it was a treat to have a really good-sounding monitor blasting in my face. But hardly a soul glanced my way, and when I finished the song, there was only the smallest smattering of applause, and that led by the soundperson. Not promising.

I plowed on through the next five or six tunes, singing some and playing some, with the reaction pretty much unchanged. The football game on the TV screens above the bar was getting undivided attention, and I was getting fully ignored. I whipped out a few cover tunes, which elicted a few looks in my direction from the musically-inclined gentlemen I’d been chatting with earlier. I earned a few more lonesome claps at the end, but overall, I was…bombing.

I took a break after a desultory hour of this, took a quick walk by the river, and gathered my spirits for a second attempt. By now, only a couple of tables at the far end of the room were occupied, besides a clutch of young men glued to the scenes from the gridiron. I launched into Montage, often a crowd-pleaser, and stretched out the end into a long jam. It felt pretty great to me, and I looked out at the end with high hopes for a bit of reaction, but got nothing more than a sympathetic smile from the soundperson, not even one hand clapping. I kept on trying, bringing out folk standards, Hank Williams, even Beatles (the surest-fire weapon in any player’s arsenal) with no additional effect. 

I figured I’d try one more thing, perhaps just to get a rise from the waitstaff who had seemed pretty enthusiastic when I started, and now were lounging around in the corner for want of a table to attend. I got on the mic and declared, “OK, free CD for anyone who wants one, on the table over there. Just sign my mailing list, if you want, but grab one CD if you want it”.

Nothing.

And with that, I Knew my goose was cooked, and cooked well, favas, Chianti, the works. It became a practice session, and I kinda turned off my awareness of the room and just played for my own benefit before whimpering to a relieved halt at 9 and making for the bar.

The barkeep didn’t have much to say about my playing, but he poured me a nice glass of Powers and talked up the local liquor- and beer-making industries. At one point he left me alone to tend to some other patrons, and when he came back he smacked a sweating can of Pabst on the bar in front of me. I stared at the tall canister of cheap brew, unsure whether he was making a joke or trying to scare me off (we’d just been having a very fancy conversation about the merits of various small-batch gin makers, and moreoever, Yuengling is as low-brow as I get), when he shot his thumb to the left and said, “He bought this for you”. I turned to see one of the young fellows who’d been rapt in front of the football game all night giving me a mute thumbs-up, as he rose from his chair to leave. I managed to stammer out, “er…thanks!” before he coasted out the door, leaving me with an imposing 16 ounces of watery beer that I was bound to drink.

To be fair, it was a genuine gesture of respect, and I should probably just take it at face value. But arriving as it did, it just kinda made things worse. It felt impersonal, even pitying. A actual word or two of appreciation, even just a name on my email list (there were none all night), would have gone so far, just then. instead, I had my silent ennui and this tallboy that I in no way wished to imbibe.

I finally managed to suck the thing down, and while close to finishing, was engaged in conversation by another fellow who did have some really nice words to say. I hadn’t really noticed him in the room, but he clearly had been listening and was actually appreciative. We talked for a long while, he being a musician and songwriter as well, and when we were the only ones left in the place I gave him a CD and told him to keep in touch. 

That bright spot didn’t entirely erase the rather dark feeling that arrived with playing to non-listeners for two hours, but it did keep me from the depths. The smallest things can make such a difference on these modest tours of mine.

 

 

Sacramento Amtrak station

This day started off not so well, waking up before my alarm but not well-rested (still adjusting to the time change), and suddenly realizing that I’d left my laptop power cord at the gig. Frantic emails commenced to everyone at the space, but I soon found out that nobody was going to be there until long after I had to skip town. By a stroke of luck, my host also uses Thinkpads, and let me borrow a spare charger to be mailed back after tour. It’s not the first time this has happened – I’ve “donated” dozens of things over my various tours, from books to mic stands to pairs of pants – but this is a mission-critical piece of gear and I’m lucky things were resolved so easily.

After that dramatic start, the morning continued busily, firing off dozens of texts to people I hadn’t yet been able to see, while catching up on various bits of business. I nailed down an early lunch date with a friend, and soon it was time to go. A bit regretfully, I packed up my things and left the comfortable house.

It was a beautiful day, and we were able to dine in the open air. My friend has been experiencing a uniquely devastating series of events, and though resolution is near, it was some heavy stuff to be apprised of. I was glad for the opportunity to hear about it in person and offer what support I could, but it was a little sad to know that I wouldn’t be able to do so again anytime soon. 

Because my visiting time is so short, sometimes there’s not the chance to really process this kind of thing (or share some good stuff, for balance) before my next stop, and it becomes like another bag over my shoulder. Not necessarily a heavy burden, but something that I carry with me and which I’m quite aware of, long after I’ve moved on to the next town. There have some tours where I’ve gotten a dose of tough news from several people in a row, and the bag becomes heavier. It’s a wonderful thing that my travels can be so social – this Northwest/Midwest circuit began as a series of stops where I knew folks – but it adds a dimension beyond the music that’s not always just fun and games.

After some errands in Oakland, I caught my first Amtrak train of the tour, off to Sacramento. I had a group of four seats to myself, it was a sunny day, and as I plugged in my various gadgets and stretched out I was again reminded of why I love traveling this way. It’s just so easy, even luxurious, compared to a car (or a plane). So much legroom, the ability to get up and walk, decent bathrooms…definitely the best way to get around the country, if you ask me. 

One of the challenges of touring by train is that the gig is guaranteed not to be very rarely close to the station, so I’m dependent on local public transport. I’ve found that there almost always is a way to get from any given point A to a given point B by local transport, but it takes research and sometimes it takes a whole lot of time. Sacramento is not a great town for transportation, though there are streetcars as well as buses neither comes very often and they’re often heavily crowded. When my train arrived this day, I made a quick phone call then popped over to the closest intersection, only to find that I’d just missed my best opportunity for a bus to Old Soul, with the next not due to arrive for 25 minutes. Sigh. I walked along the desolate streets of afterhours downtown Sacramento to amuse myself until the bus caught up to me, and I arrived at the gig with 10 minutes to set up.

Things are tough all over, but even the Super Friends are outta cash?

No PA at the place, so I plugged into my little ZT acoustic amp. It’s small, powerful, and packed with nice features, but I’ve already discovered it’s not built for the road. Between last tour and the first few days of this one, the front grille popped off (the plastic pegs holding it on snapped in two), one of the feet was ripped away, then tonight one of the screws that attach the handle pulled straight out of the body, completely stripped. (Makers of gear, send me anything for two weeks; I’ll road-test the hell out of it).

Old Soul is a sprawling coffeeshop, and most of the many seats were filled tonight, albeit many of them occupied by students glued to their laptops. I took a minute to stretch my hands, and launched out with The First Hurrah, which has become my standard starter. It’s upbeat, not especially difficult to play, and seems to get people’s attention, so it works. It felt good, and I was pleased that a number of the clientele seemed to be watching, even though it’s an instrumental tune. The biggest problem with playing instrumental music, I’ve found, is that most people automatically relegate it to the background. I suppose it makes sense, as they probably hear instrumental stuff primarily in movie soundtracks, where a visual takes the focus, or as audio wallpaper in a restaurant or bar. People who listen primarily to pop music are trained to listen for the vocal when it’s time to focus on music. 

I’ve struggled with that over the years. Even though I write many vocal tunes, and enjoy playing and singing them, I prefer having my instrumental work be paramount in a set. I’ve tried having a vocal set in the middle of a lot of instrumentals, I’ve tried open instrumental and finishing vocal, I’ve tried sprinkling just a few instrumentals in the context of a mainly vocal set, but I think I’m now hitting on a good formula, where I sing four or maybe five tunes in a set, throwing them in for variety. It really seems to be working so far, this tour, I really like the flow and I feel like people have been listening more than in earlier attempts.

The whole set went well, the best one so far in terms of feeling confident and playing decently too. Nice words from a lot of folks afterward, then Ross Hammond finished out the evening with a set from his trio, with Shawn Hale on bass and Vanessa Cruz on drums. I grabbed a very nice local amber ale and a veggie panini, sat right in front and loved every minute of their sometimes-tender, sometimes-fiery approach on Ross’s original tunes.

Afterward, Ross and I caught up over tea, both wishing clear heads the next day, then he dropped me at the Amtrak station for the midnight train to Corvallis. 

 

 

Iconic San Francisco. A hill, some bay windows, the bus wires, and the fog half-obscuring Sutro Tower.

I spent the morning, and a good part of the afternoon, paying penance for having stayed up til 2:30 after flying directly from the East Coast (and having a Scotch nightcap, to boot). Lunch was at Atlas Cafe in the Mission, a big green salad and about 3 pints of tea, which helped in making me feel human again.

The Mission is gentrifying ever more rapidly. A big contributor is the private buses that shuttle employees of massive tech firms like Google and Facebook from the City to their South Bay campuses, and back again at night. Whereas before, tech workers would live in the vicinity of Silicon Valley for convenience, they are now free to spend their substantial salaries on rent in the hip neighborhood of their choice. So restaurants, bars and artisanal froyo stands pop up to meet their hipster-with-a-wallet tastes, apartment rents increase, and longtime residents gradually are forced out in spite of rent control (there are many ways around it, particularly the ever-popular condo conversion method). My friend’s cushy place is way at the edge of the Mission proper, around 30th, and up until now it hasn’t seen much evidence of the change, relatively speaking. But it was very obvious this time. I’m sad to see it, I’m afraid that in 10 years there will be little evidence of the area’s rich Latino history.

“Bad Neighbors”. The accused is an upscale, brand-new restaurant that doesn’t entirely seem to fit in on this block.

I hopped on the BART at 16th Street, still musing on the shifts I’d seen, and headed over to Oakland to meet with another friend, in Rockridge (a long-gentrified neighborhood). I arrived early and decided to take advantage of the Trader Joe’s to stock up on train food – nuts, raisins, protein bars, water. The meals on Amtrak are actually quite good, and not expensive (considering the extremely captive clientele, you’d think they’d gouge away), but I’m often boarding at strange late-night times when the cafe is already closed so it’s good to be prepared.

I had a nice, though short, visit catching up with my old friend, then she had to get back to work. One of the real downsides of touring the way that I do is that I never have long in one place. Having realized that two weeks is the maximum tour length that really works for me traveling on my own, I need to cover a lot of ground and take few days off (the current tour is 10 dates in 13 days, though I’d have preferred 11 or 12). And since I obviously hit most towns on weekdays, and usually have a gig each night, it’s not easy to find time for people to hang out with me. It’s a heartbreaker, but I try to make do and appreciate the little bit of time that often is all I have to share with my good people.

Then it was on to the Monkey House Theater. It’s a brand-new place, just open a few months now, but is pretty amazing. An unassuming storefront on University Avenue opens up into a wonderfully appointed little performance area. There’s a nice little stage, a good PA, a spacious and convenient place for merch, and overall a really clean and comfortable feel. Owner Ira Marlowe is a performer himself, really quite an excellent songwriter, and he told me later in the evening that he decided to open the kind of place that he himself would like to play in, a dream space . He nailed it, as I can’t think of much that could be improved.

This shot by Ziva Hadar. The Monkey House stage.

Ziva and I had a nice little crowd there, and Ira started off the night with one of his tunes before I went onstage. Everything really felt right, that first set (and I remembered to slip my wedding ring off and clip it onto the antique watch fob I brought with me just for this purpose). After five tunes or so, Ziva relieved me and put on a nice set of her guitar tunes, then Ira did another song and I went back up again. Things again started well, but halfway through I started having problems with tuning. In fact, all three of us were having tuning issues all night. Some kind of weird humidity? At any rate, I spent what felt like a small eternity trying to get the six strings sounding right, but never quite got there. I played “Shenandoah” to close, very conservatively, sticking with things that sounded good, and kinda crawled offstage. 

I spent most of Ziva’s second set struggling to convince myself that I had done a good job, at least up til that last tune, but everyone was so nice afterward that I soon felt much better. Some late-night Thai back in the Inner Richmond completed the job, and I finished the day feeling pretty good about the tour thus far.

 

 

The release party on Sunday was great. I arrived early to do a soundcheck, pulled out my guitar and played a single chord unplugged, and it sounded so good on its own I decided to play the whole set without the PA. It’s definitely my favorite way to play live, but it’s rare I get the opportunity. It’s just great to be completely in charge of the dynamics, and to know that what you’re hearing is the same as what the audience is hearing.

A nice crowd of friends were there, I played pretty well, and we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out, eating and drinking. A memorable way to launch the new record.

Then yesterday, it was an early wake-up and the LIRR to JFK. From boarding the train, it was a model trip. No lines at security or check-in, and Delta treated my guitar right (as they always do – between their wireless connection and their care of my instrument, I pick them every time I can), even though the plane was packed and the overhead bins were completely full, they found room in a first-class closet for my precious cargo.

We touched down early, and I hopped the waiting BART to 24th Street in the Mission, my old (and still favorite) neighborhood. I’m lucky enough to have a good friend with a spacious apartment there, and a few years ago he gave me my own set of keys as I so frequently come here on tour. I walked down the familiar streets past the taquerias and offbeat bars, let myself in and had a long, long shower. It’s great to start off a long trip like this in a place that feels like a second home.

Then it was time to connect with people, and a frenzy of texting and emailing commenced. I made a plan with a good friend for dinner at one of my favorite old sushi haunts, Kitaro on Geary Street. It’s not the most refined Japanese experience – all of their signature rolls are deep-fried – but it’s cheap, and cheerful, and fun. I endured the bus ride from the sunny Mission to the freezing-cold Richmond (ah, those familiar San Francisco micro-climates!) and warmed up with a spicy tuna roll and a big bowl of curry udon. Great gig fuel.

We walked over to the Bazaar Cafe, and while warming up, I had a bit of a chat with the booker. There were only a couple of people there to listen at that point, and he expressed, in as many words, that more crowd had better show up soon. Though I shared his concern – of course, I always want to have more people to play to – it’s a terrible thing to hear just before going onstage. At that point, the only thing I want to have on my mind is the music I’m about to make, and there was obviously nothing more I could do at that point. (I’d chosen a night where all my friends, it seemed, were having rehearsals). It unsettled me, and my set didn’t start out so well. I neglected to remove my wedding ring and put it on this special chain I have (it’s only my second gig as a married man!), so I had to actually stop my first tune dead in its tracks, then start over. And things just seemed to be coming out sloppily…I was glad that Ziva and I were trading short sets, as I was able to take a break after five tunes and compose myself.

Things went better in the second set. Bazaar Cafe is an all-acoustic room – no PA whatsoever – which meant that for the second night in a row, I was able to fill the room just with my own sound. More people had arrived, and I was feeling more relaxed and comfortable. I pulled out a new vocal tune which I just finished a few days ago, called Stainless Steel, and it got a good reaction which was nice to hear, I’ll definitely be including that in the set for the rest of tour. Then I did Shenandoah, as I almost always do, and after Ziva’s second set I came back and played Over and Over Again, which is something I’d never usually put at the end of a show, but tonight it felt right, like a homecoming.

Afterward I chatted guitar stuff for a while with a new pal who’d come out, dissected the evening with the booker (who said he’d be happy to have me back, but would work more with me to try to pull folks out), then went for a nice beer with an old friend. Said goodnight to him, went to the extremely comfortable Dovre Club with a couple of other friends where we pumped up the Clash and Bad Brains and the Jam on the jukebox, then home for more catching up before a very late bedtime, practically sunup NYC time. Not a bad way to start this tour, at all.

 

The Hall.

I know some musicians who were so naturally gifted at their instrument that they reached a high level of skill without ever needing to practice very much, and of course there are the child prodigies who may have barely lived 10,000 hours before making their big splash, but that’s not my story. Someone asked me once, “Why would you ever write music that’s hard to play?” The answer, of course, is that composition is its own entity that follows not the rules of weak flesh. Sometimes the player has to take some time to catch up to its whims, and that’s the way it is. There’s a tune on my new CD that I wrote over two years ago, and it’s still a bit of a beast to play smoothly. But it’s hardly the fault of the song.

For most of my musical life I’ve been known as the guy with funny chord shapes and no technique. When I arrived at Berklee (I spent a year there studying jazz composition), I could barely play my way through a major scale. It soon became apparent that I needed to spend some really concentrated time on my instrument. And though the normally-nice-as-pie Nels Cline laughed with derision when I once told him I learned to practice at music school (he was polite enough to sit down with me during a set break before his big Wilco breakthrough and subsequent rock-star status, but had a very dismissive attitude towards Berklee and GIT and its ilk), it was very true in my case. Sitting down with a metronome and working really hard to improve physical skills was something I’d never done, and I learned on my first day that I needed to do it just so I could get through my class material. And though I soon saw results which, in that magic way, rewarded me with confidence and excitement in the new skills to keep on going, improving my abilities has never gotten easier. It’s still a matter of working and working for a long time with a heap of patience (especially for anyone else within earshot).

 

(Andres Segovia’s main guitar for the last half of his life, courtesy the Met’s instrument collection, which is UNMISSABLE).

 

Since I have a CD release party this weekend, immediately followed by ten dates on the road, I’ve got no shortage of music that I need to practice. I have a pretty big catalog of original guitar tunes at this point, probably 60 or 70 instrumentals plus about 30 vocal tunes, and a few dozen cover tunes besides, so the first thing I need to do is to pick a bunch that I’m going to have ready for action. I’ve been moving away from the long evening-length gigs I used to do frequently, the classic restaurant situation where one needs to provide background noise for three-plus hours, so I don’t need to have quite as many on hand. But it’s still good to have 20 or 30 in good order so I can pad time if the second band doesn’t show up, or if the mic breaks and I need to fill in with instrumentals…these things happen on the road.

Once I’ve picked my pile of tunes to focus on, I seek out any trouble spots and try to address those first. I’ve found that simple mindless repetition doesn’t do me that much good, as much as I’ve heard those stories where Eddie Van Halen would watch TV, drink beer and just whizz away until those wheedly-wheedly riffs became easy. What I’ve found over the years is that if something’s genuinely difficult for me to play, simply repeating the exercise doesn’t help, even if I do it for hours (which I’ve certainly tried). I need to break it down slowly and find little ways to make it easier, tiny toeholds if you will. It can be as obvious as changing the fingers I’m using on a particular string, or as subtle as mentally prioritizing some part of the chord: aim to land the ring finger first. There’s always something I can find to make it work better. And once I find that little advantage, I’ll practice it with extreme mindfulness, at a slow tempo. Then slowly, I’ll work it up to speed, then work it into the whole rest of the tune.

At this point, I’ve worked out the weak areas in this season’s passel of tunes, and should be in good shape by Sunday and beyond. But I always wish I had a bit more time, a few more days with the metronome before playing in public. It’s a good thing I enjoy it.

 

It’s been nigh-on two years since I’ve properly blogged (see some old posts here), and that’s a shame. I like blogging; it’s a natural progression for all high-school journalkeepers, I say, and a great way to share a bit of my own little life.

I’m a solo musician, operating the guitar and sometimes singing as well, based in Brooklyn, NY, and one of the things I love to do is to tour. My tours are pretty much always solo endeavors, and pretty much always by Amtrak, with the occasional leg by plan or Greyhound. My next solo tour begins in two weeks, in San Francisco. I began these solo tours in 2007, and this will be my thirteenth around North America. My longest tour involved forty-two dates over two and a half months, though over the past two years I’ve found that a couple of weeks is kinda the best. I can cover a nice swath of the continent, but not regress completely to hobo existence. By that I mean, where travel consumes everything, taking over relationships, self-maintenance and, especially, music. I was starting to find on the long tours that I wasn’t writing music and wasn’t keeping in very good touch with friends, as keeping track of simple travel logistics took over everything. There’s a romance in constant travel, but for me, at least, I need some home life too.

The other exciting news is my new instrumental album, “In Place”. It’s to be released on September 23, the day before the tour starts. I recorded this material in gorgeous Woodstock, New York, in a marathon recording session over two days that yielded 29 tracks (some of which will be coming out in another, very different album in six months or so). “In Place” has 10 tracks, with common themes of travel, change and resolution.

(If you’re curious, have a listen to the first track from the new album here).

These are big events in my musical and personal life, and I plan to keep this space updated with the things that are going to arise from these events. Some posts may be short, but I hope to keep them very frequent.

I hope you’ll check in now and then.