Morning in Chicago.
I’d scheduled a gig several months ago at the iBar in Lawrence Ks for Saturday, but then the name changed to Five Bar & Tables at the beginning of September and suddenly I couldn’t get any response from the place. I called the booker, called the restaurant, emailed, left Facebook messages on the booker’s page and the restaurant page, and I couldn’t get an answer from anyone telling me whether the gig was on or off. I hated to take it off my itinerary, as it seemed like a cool place and I haven’t played Lawrence before, but I finally gave up. No class. My fellow musicians, be warned!
So instead of taking off for Lawrence, I spent Saturday going to garage sales with my sister and her husband. It’s a really fun pursuit, especially in these smaller towns where the prices are low even for good stuff. I kept myself in check, but was pretty tempted by some original JFK-era newspapers and a few Japanese-style cooking knives. I nearly bought the latter, two of them for $20, then looked up a few reviews on my phone and decided to hold out for better ones. Awfully handy, these semi-smart phones, though it’s the maps that really make them priceless on tour.
I practiced a bit, napped a bit, then put together a Mexican meal, using some great stuff found at one of the Latino-specialty markets in town. Tomatillos, good tortillas, chipotles, even quesillo, the Oaxacan cheese that resembles a stringy fresh mozzarella. I made salsa verde, red rice, beans and fajitas, enjoying myself thoroughly. Cooking is my true hobby and I don’t get many chances to do it on tour, so I take full advantage when I have access to a kitchen.
The only eastbound train out of Newton, KS leaves at 3 a.m., and the westbound leaves just 20 minutes before, so I’ve had a lot of late-night journeys out of here. My sister & brother-in-law are always game for taking me to the station in the middle of the night, so it was a familiar thing for us all to nap after dinner, then rise at 2 to make the short drive from Hesston into sleepy Newton. I bid them farewell and took my place among a surprising number of other travelers heading into the night from this tiny burg in the center of the country.
I had a lower-level ticket this time (bought it too late for a regular fare) so when the train came I arranged myself among a chorus of snoring elder ladies and tried to sleep. My biggest complaint with Amtrak, other than the fact that there simply aren’t enough routes and trains, is that the cars are invariably freezing on overnight trips. I’ve frequently complained, and there’s always a different answer, usually blaming some kind of mechanical problem. But I’ve had so much experience with this that I’m convinced it’s gotta be some kind of cost-cutting measure.
Tonight, the heat was actually turned on for an hour or so, and I was close to dozing off, then it went out again and the terrible chill started. My car-mates started complaining, and I felt worse for them than myself so I sought out an Amtrak employee to inquire. The person I found had clearly been fielding this question all night, and told me impatiently that they were having a problem, would be trying to get it back on, etc. I didn’t believe a word of it, but went back to my seat and curled up in my jacket.
I dozed a bit, then, before dawn, was assigned a seat partner which constricted my space, and I never really made it back to sleep, finally giving up to sit in the observation car (best place on any train). I saw a beautiful sunrise over the plains, and picturesque fields in Illinois, and crossed the wide Mississippi over a wooden strut bridge, and generally enjoyed the train as much as I ever do, in spite of my drowsiness.
The wide Mississip’.
I returned to my seat and finally got in another solid hour of sleep just before we arrived in Chicago. I found my way out of Union Station and stepped into a brisk and windy afternoon (no surprise), making my way toward my bus stop. I’d have saved some time using the El and doing a few transfers, but I wanted to feel the neighborhoods a bit more fully so I chose the 22 bus, which would take me directly to Uncommon Ground in one lengthy 45-minute trip.
Chicago isn’t somewhere that I’ve spent a lot of time, maybe four tour visits and a day or two otherwise, but I’ve always found it awfully appealing. There’s a lack of a pretense and a certain sturdiness of character in the people (and even the buildings) that makes me feel instantly comfortable. The bus ride wove between quiet residential blocks and shopping strips both working-class and uppity, but I’ve have enjoyed checking any of them out. Finally, we passed by Wrigley Field and its attendant row of beer houses and t-shirt shops, the another block or two and I was at my destination.
Uncommon Ground is a swank-looking joint, with fancy suspended lamps and rows of glass windows taking advantage of its corner placement. I went inside and made my way to the performance area, a beautiful room adjoining the main dining area. Without a doubt, the nicest-looking place I’d be playing in this tour. I dropped my suitcase and guitar in the corner, checked out the green room (a rare luxury), then sat down with some tea and the laptop to while away the rest of the afternoon. Everyone was extremely nice to me when I told them I’d be performing…every musician should have at least one stop like this on tour.
A whole passel of my wife’s relatives were coming, including many I hadn’t met before, and when they arrived we all sat down at a table for twelve in the music room. I was having a great time getting acquainted and catching up, not to mention devouring some of the Ground’s top-notch food (I was starting to wonder if this place was just a figment of my imagination…) and I hated to leave the table when showtime began approaching. It really helps me play better if I can warm up for a while before I go onstage, so I headed to the green room to limber up and work through some things. Most of the places I visited this tour had no such private area, so I was always hitting the stage cold, and often didn’t really feel comfortable until two or three tunes into the set.
I played for 20 minutes or so, then headed back upstairs to plug in. The soundperson was both friendly and expert, and she dialed me in quickly (a relief, as the attention of the room quickly swung to watch me checking, unfortunate but unavoidable). I took five minutes to chill, then started up.
The reality of live performance is that, even in a room weighted heavily with people who already like you, and will like you as a person regardless of what I do onstage, you still need to win the crowd over, night after night, song by song. Tonight, the atmosphere was incredibly friendly as I started, and the creature comforts had been wonderful in the club, but I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable until a couple of tunes into the set. Perhaps it was because it was very important to me that my new family like what I was doing, or perhaps because I was very aware that it was the last gig of my tour and I really wanted it to go well. Whatever it was, I just wasn’t sure I was getting across, at first.
But after that unsure start, it wasn’t long before I was having a grand old time. The sound was good, people were clearly listening and enjoying, and I was playing well. As I had two sets to fill, I was dipping into the catalog a bit, and also played a few Beatles standbys, though with very loose arrangements that were fun to explore.
It was getting late on this Sunday night by the time my first set came to an end, and a number of people had to split. I said my goodbyes and started up again, doing a shorter second set that was no less fun, even with just a handful of audience members to watch. I finished up the set with Craqueluere, thinking the whole time about what a success the evening and the tour had been, notwithstanding a very few tough times along the way. I said goodbye to those remaining and got some very nice compliments, even from those I didn’t know personally, then went to the bar to reward myself with a nice glass of Balvenie. As I sipped, Talk Talk’s After the Flood, one of my favorite tunes from that amazing band, came on the bar PA. Such a great way to end my thirteenth solo tour.
I popped out of bed early, downed a complimentary bowl of cereal at the Aurora Motel 6, then walked ten minutes to the bus station. Though I chafed again at the 11$ charge, the bus was on time and spacious, and for an hour’s journey to the airport I suppose it’s really not bad.
I try to minimize air travel on tour, as it’s pretty un-green compared to the train and I enjoy the process of seeing the landscape change between stops. But in the middle of the country, I’ve found that it’s often cheaper than Amtrak, or even Greyhound, and when I have a large distance to travel between gigs I’ll sometimes take the flight.
It was a quick hop to Wichita, then I parked myself on a bench near baggage claim to do some work. I’m getting to know a number of the airports in this country pretty well, and can often remember the hidden places to plug in near a comfy seat, always the highest priority. I spent most of the afternoon in that spot, watching crowds descend upon their baggage, the air suddenly tense with movement, then a few minutes later completely still once more.
My sister arrived after her work day ended to take me to her & her husband’s home in Hesston, 45 minutes north. I always enjoy drives through Kansas, the incredible flatness resembling nothing so much as the ocean, and the local roads arranged in perfect parallels one mile apart. Upon arriving, I headed to the kitchen, my favorite room in any house, and whipped up some lasagna, roasted potatoes and a nice sort of apple tart with my sister. We cooked and ate in leisurely fashion; a very relaxing night off.
I slept in til nearly 10, sheer luxury, then practiced for a while, a rarity on tour. While I certainly get in some concentrated playing onstage, it always feels good to touch on difficult spots or to work my way through alternate arrangements without the eyes of a crowd on me. Plus, I love it, and miss my normal home practice time.
I spent the afternoon on the computer, then put together an easy coconut milk curry with potatoes, squash and chickpeas over wild rice before heading off to the Bethel College campus, a quick interstate drive away. Seven miles in seven minutes – thanks, 75 mph speed limit!
When I got to the campus and brought my stuff into Mojo’s, I was a bit frustrated to learn that the person with the keys to the soundroom wasn’t present. I’d remembered from last time that the system was a bit problematic, so I’d arrived especially early, but couldn’t really do much other than set up my merch until she arrived. When she showed up 20 minutes before showtime, I went with the easiest possible setup, at her encouragement, which was to use a small powered JBL monitor for the guitar main, and the house speaker system (i.e., ceiling speakers) for the vocals. Hardly ideal, but the guitar sounded decent and the vocal was well distributed, if not especially clear, and I was able to start on time.
Mojo’s is a very large space, with the elevated stage located far against the wall opposite the coffee bar, in a sunken area with six or seven tables and a few couches. For some reason, perhaps to be close to the coffee, everyone seems to congregate in the bar area on the upper level maybe fifty feet away from the stage. It’s a weird situation to be in, something like playing on the rim of a canyon to watchers on the other side, with a yawning gulf between.
I started off in the usual manner, but a bit slower and quieter than usual since it seemed weird to really rock out to a crowd seated at such a distance. There weren’t many people present outside of some loyal family members, discouraging for a Friday night on a campus – I guess everyone had parties to go to. But I did my best, mixing in a few covers to try to draw people in, including some Beatles. I know every solo guitarist plays the Four now and then, but the songs are just so good that I can’t help myself, and it seemed to draw people in a bit more tonight.
I took a short break after one set, and had a nice chat with a gentleman who had seated himself off to the side of the stage, and though he seemed to be ignoring me, he was actually listening closely and enjoying the music, he said. He turned out to be a resident of France, though with some family roots here. As we finished talking and I went to greet my family members and friends, I was happy to see more people coming in, as if on cue.
Buoyed by the larger crowd and nice visits, I was genuinely having fun in the second set. It passed by quickly, and I got a very nice response, lots of nice words and CD’s sold afterward. An Italian soda from the bar – no beer in this place, and probably good for me to have at least an occasional break from the easy temptation to have a drink every night on tour – then back to my sister’s for more curry and chatting.
Nice to see oneself on Google Maps occasionally.
I woke before my hosts, tiptoed out the door and walked ten minutes to the MAX station. The MAX is Portland’s rail system, and I’ve always found it to be timely, clean and easy to understand. It wasn’t a long journey, and soon I arrived at the airport for the second flight of the tour. Check-in and security were easy, and as I put on my shoes I could hear a pianist blowing nicely through “Body and Soul”. It was tempting to stay and listen in the sunny atrium where their baby grand was set up, but I needed to head off toward my gate. Soon, though, I saw another musician, a guitarist set up with a table of merch, tuning up between songs. I stopped to ask her about the music, and she said the airport books local artists for weekly paying gigs in all the terminals. I LOVE this town.
(I know I keep saying that. I don’t think I’ll ever live in Portland – I’ve come to enjoy living in the East where I grew up, and the long damp winter here wouldn’t be my bag – but the quality of life is consistently impressive).
The flight was painless, and soon I arrived in Denver. The airport here looks brand-new, and is massive. It was an awfully long walk between anything, and when I looked up transport into town I learned that it was a similarly expansive distance to the city itself, probably 90 minutes to the state capital area where the club was located. I decided to get lunch in the airport, generally a depressing proposition, but after dragging all my stuff past legions of bad fast-food choices I found a small counter that offered a decent Mediterranean salad. I tucked in, got online and caught up on online tasks for an hour.
Though I’d known that the presidential debate would be happening today, I’d learned just yesterday that it was actually taking place here in Denver. This did not come as good news, as the main highway south of town was going to be completely closed, and at least one friend would be unable to come to my gig. I was also worried about traffic from all directions being backed up as the debate time grew closer, so I figured I should get into the city center as soon as I could. I pulled my stuff outside and by a stroke of luck immediately caught one of the hourly buses. While hardly a bargain at $11, it was a comfortable ride and I got some more stuff done online, before arriving at the outdoor promenade/mall area downtown, another 14 blocks or so from my destination.
I decided to get some tea, and wandered for several blocks looking for a nice indie coffeeshop before finding that this part of town offered nothing but chains, typical for a business & politics center. I finally settled on one that at least appeared to be local, ordered a lemon-ginger blend and set up outside on the patio. I caught up on tour diaries and watched the interactions of the local homeless population, who leaned pretty young and gathered in great number on the prefab concrete square nearby to argue, commisserate and share smokes.
The sky started to darken after an hour of this, and I decided to head off in the direction of the Cheeky Monk, a Belgian restaurant where I was meeting a couple of friends. The wind picked up as I continued my stroll, eschewing the free buses that travel down the mall in favor of the exercise. By the time I turned away from the mall, though, I was wishing I had hopped aboard, as the wind was now blowing at a terrific strength, forcing me to clamp my hat on my head with one hand and lean forward into the gale at a sharp angle to avoid being blown over.
As I turned with great effort and freezing ears onto East Colfax, the brassy chain stores suddenly gave way to small bookstores and quirky bars, mixed in with check-cashing places that showed that gentrification is not yet complete. A few blocks down I spied the Monk, and though I was half an hour early to meet my friends, I was eager to take shelter. I gratefully ducked inside, plopped into a vintage chair and ordered some fried pickles, a rare treat. While I make it a practice to never touch a drop of alcohol before I perform (not that I haven’t played with a beer or two in me – it may be more superstition than anything at this point, as I’d hate to play sloppily and regret the drink), the gig was two hours off and the impressive list of abbey brews was just too tempting, so I ordered a relatively dainty twelve ounces of 5% DeKoninck to wash down the crisp, hot breaded pickles.
Just the additional draught selection at the Cheeky Monk.
My friends arrived before long, and we caught up over mussels, fries and burgers. It had been over two years since I’d seen them, and there was lots of news to share, including a son who had been born since my last visit. We also talked about the process of leaving Mexico (my home for five years) in 2009, something I haven’t discussed in depth in quite some time but which figures heavily into the story of In Place.
The time passed quickly and soon I had to get to the club to set up. They dropped me off and parked their typically Coloradan ski- and bike rack-festooned vehicle, and I entered the rather uninviting front door of Bender’s Tavern to find a ratty, cavernous room with a stage at one end. I was greeted offhandedly by the bartender, who also turned out to be the soundman and booker, with whom I’d conversed much by email but who didn’t seem to remember me.
I arranged my merch on a table, then hopped onstage and plugged my guitar in at his behest. A blast of feedback filled the room, and I yanked the cord right back out again, staring at him. Rule number one of a public addess system is to turn the channels down before you plug anything in, then raise the volume, and he wasn’t anywhere near the board. I suggested, a bit testily, that he turn things down, then I plugged in again and was again treated to a thunderous howl. I unplugged once more, and this time, asked him if it was turned all the way off before plugging in, and finally was rewarded by a clean sound coming from the monitors, my ringing ears informed me.
Though it was almost showtime, there was nobody else in the room but my friends and one of the other performers, and I tried to suppress my frustration at the unpromising start, all the more frustrating because I only had a 30-minute slot to play. In so many ways, live performance is a mental game, and overcoming this kind of situation is just one of the challenges in the game. I ducked into the bathroom for a few minutes of privacy to try to settle my mind, and when I came back out a handful of more people had arrived, which brightened my mood. I lit things off in the usual manner, and was happy to see a few more people showing up, and a nice reaction after the first couple of songs. I had a lot of music I wanted to get through in 30 minutes, and the urgency led me to minimize chatter and to play the tunes at a pretty fast clip. The monitors were blasting and I was feeling good, enjoying the experience of feeling more like a loud rock band than a singer-songwriter. The turnaround in my mood had happened without my even noticing.
It was over too soon, and I hopped offstage, sweating, to let the next player go on. I accepted some very nice words about my performance, then settled at a high table with a couple of friends who’d arrived just before my set to catch up and enjoy the rest of the music. An easy late-night bus to my hotel (I was flying out early the next morning, and Denver is so sprawling that it wasn’t practical to stay with any of my friends on the East or South sides), and I crawled into the Motel 6 bed, satisfied.
A not untypical Portland neighborhood street.
We all slept in for most of the morning, then had a most delicious breakfast of homemade bagels with lox. Though I’d had a substantial amount of my hosts’ brew the night before, I didn’t feel hung over at all. They theorized that perhaps, since their beer is all unfiltered, and that the residual yeast has vitamin B12, that helps with recovery. Could that be true? At any rate, it was a nice surprise.
It was an incredibly beautiful day, warm, clear, and sunny, and we took a long walk to enjoy it,hiking from where Hawthorne Street is just a quiet residental road to where it turns into the very popular strip of stores and restaurants it’s known for. One of the things I like about Portland, and there are many, is that even the commercial strips look like a small town’s Main Street. Big billboards and garish signs are kept to a minimum, the streets are generously wide in a way that suggest Midwest space more than L.A. boulevards, and the shops inhabit charming old buildings that proudly show their wear and tear.
We stopped into a branch of the massive Powell’s bookstore, itself bigger than most indie bookstores I’ve seen in New York, had some top-notch tea and wandered around for a good hour. Then we hopped a bus back to the house and I settled into an Adirondack in their impressive garden to take care of some laptop business. A quick dinner of pasta with vegetables all raised in that very garden, then it was time to catch the bus back into town and to the East End.
This is a club known for loud rock shows, and the decor showed it; pinball machines, black walls, screen-printed horror-movie posters. But the bathrooms boasted a full complement of paper towels, toilet paper and clean seats, inexcusable in a true dive. Portland’s just like that; a high priority seems to be placed on making all things pleasing to the typical human being, even in places where the opposite is commonplace.
I’d arranged the bill for the evening, and had hand-picked two other solo artists to join me, The Weather Machine and Brave Julius. I met these two gentlement last year on tour and was knocked out by both, so I’d been looking forward to the chance to see them again and was pleased that they were up for playing on a Tuesday night at a rock joint.
Our soundperson was of the classic stripe, clad in black leather and impossibly scrawny, but he expertly set up our acoustic guitars through the powerful system. People were starting to arrive, so The Weather Machine took the stage and kicked things off. The PA was cranked up twice as loud as it normally is for this kind of music, but it lent an extra intensity to Slater’s nimble fingerwork and twisting turns of phrase. It was a smashing set, and I knew I had big shoes to fill when I took the stage.
Since much of my music is instrumental, I feel like I have to work extra hard to keep a crowd’s attention. Slater had really connected with the folks listening, and I felt a twinge of self-doubt as I started off, unsure if I could pick up the connection where he left it. Even though my hands felt limber, the sound was good and a number of friends were in the audience, it took a good half the set for my confidence to rise. But then I started really enjoying myself, and by the time I finished up I was feeling swell.
Brave Julius then took over, and showed how well music can get across to people even without words. Glenn has an enviable touch on the steel-string guitar, and his fleet alternate-tuned melodies seemed to lock in instantly with the room. I settled into a booth with a few friends and let his music have its way with me.
Afterward, I congratulated both Slater and Glenn on their top-notch performances, then headed to Biwa for a late-night bite. Again, being Portland, instead of the more typical burrito or fish & chips available at midnight on a Tuesday, I had pickled mackerel and grilled trout while I caught up with two old friends. An excellent day this was.
One of the reasons I take the train. Somewhere between Seattle & Portland.
Another gorgeous Vancouver day had begun when I woke up to catch my bus out of town. A nice smoothie and many hugs sent me on my way, and I enjoyed a sunny 15-minute walk to the station. I’d managed to snare an Amtrak ticket for my trip to Portland, but the first leg to Seattle was to be by bus. The Amtrak buses are a notch up from Greyhound, with better seats and legroom, and I again had the luck to find two seats by myself. Customs was a breeze, and we soon got to Seattle.
While I’ve never had a really great gig in Seattle (and was skipping it completely this time), I always find fantastic Asian cuisine there, and was looking forward to lunch on my layover. The Amtrak station is in the “international” district, and there are many choices around. I often go for a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, but last time had great Thai at the Ferry Noodle House some eight blocks away, and I calculated that I’d just have time to walk over, have lunch and return in time for the train. The sun was shining brightly (in Seattle, honest) and I had a lovely walk over to the Noodle House, and I was just about to enter when a small Korean place next door caught my eye. I have a soft spot for bibimbap, a sort of rice bowl with pickled vegetables and hot sauce and sprouts, and they were advertising a version with fish eggs. I could not resist, sat down at one of the three tables, and soon had an overstuffed, spicy bowl in front of me with plenty of green tea on the side. I devoured it all, the gregarious owners wished me well on my trip, and I walked back to the station feeling quite pleased with the day.
Bibimbap, king of rice bowls. This version was missing the typical raw egg, but fantastic anyway, with the fancy oblong bowl and brown rice a great touch.
It felt great to be back on a train, and the ride to Portland passed almost too quickly, with more of that wonderful Oregon scenery to enjoy. I’d made plans to stay with my friend who’d booked me the show that night, and he met me at the station and drove me to his house in the Northeast. His wife had put together a smashing Indian meal, with dhal, naan, raita and incredible pakoras, all fresh and homemade. We just had time to enjoy the food and catch up a bit before it was time to leave for the show.
Both of them are deeply invested in the local metal scene, and are frequent patrons of the Red Room which isn’t far from their house. When they learned I had a free night on my schedule, they talked the club into having me open the show this night. The other three bands were all metal (of the death, goth and thrash flavors), but they felt confident that my acoustic stuff would be welcomed. As a metal fan myself, I’ve always found other fans to be very open-minded and accepting, so I said I was willing to give it a go.
The heavily tattooed soundperson plugged me in on the low stage and ran a quick soundcheck before giving me the signal to start. I’ve never been cranked up so loud onstage, but it felt great, and I launched into Body of a Poet. I haven’t been playing it this tour, but I was guessing that it would work well for this particular night, and it was awfully fun to hear it so loudly, feeling the thumb thumps resonate off the walls. When it came to an end, there was a very encouraging show of appreciation from the small but attentive crowd, and I moved on to the next song. I’d picked my loudest and/or most epic pieces for this night, knowing that this audience would be up for anything I’d throw their way, and as I worked my way through the set I started stretching out some sections to take advantage of the situation, especially on If I Pass This Way Again, which I probably extended to double its normal length. I was having a blast, and the set passed by all too quickly.
Lots of people had nice things to say afterward, with several commenting how nice it was to have a different sort of sound to mix things up at the club. The members of the next band, a local outfit called Echoic, were especially complimentary, and the singer asked if I’d ever heard Dominic Frasca. I was pretty stunned by that – Frasca is a solo guitarist on the contemporary classical Cantaloupe lable, not exactly a household name and not someone you’d necessarily pick as being on the listening list of a death-metal vocalist. I told him that Frasca’s easily one of my favorite players, and we started discussing other musicians, with more surprising names coming up, like Antoine Dufour.
I popped in my earplugs and went up front for their set, which was fantastic. Their guitarist Alex plays a seven-string and holds down the fort on his own without a bassist, which he did admirably. It’s very rare that I hear really rockin’ music while on the road, so it was a real treat. Then came Arsenic Addiction from Salt Lake City, a goth-oriented group with a very different sound than Echoic (or me, goodness knows), but they were also enthusiastically accepted. Portland locals Unruly Impulse finished up the evening with a fun set of classic thrash, then everyone, bands and crowd alike, repaired to the picnic tables outside the club to drink cheap beer and get acquainted.
It was all supremely enjoyable, but soon a set of comedy started up inside (brave souls, 11 p.m. on a Monday night) and people started to drift away. We all traded good wishes, then I and my two friends went back to their place to sample a range of their excellent homebrew (a smoked Scottish ale was my favorite, though another bottle with a mix of mead and champagne grapes added to the recipe was truly like nothing I’ve ever had) and chat about heady things until 3 a.m. Definitely one of the most fun nights so far.
I’d just done five gigs in five nights, counting my release party in Brooklyn the night before I flew to San Francisco, so I was ready for some time off, a whole two nights in Vancouver. On my very first tour stop in this town, probably five years ago, I’d met a couple of people in the improvised music world and we became instant friends. Since then, I always make sure to include a stop here on my tours of the West.
My trip from Corvallis was long, starting with a Greyhound journey of about seven hours, as I’d foolishly waited until the last minute to buy Amtrak tickets and they were sold out. Greyhound is a substantial step down in comfort from the train, but I’ve gotten used to the cramped aisle and lack of legroom, and the only thing I really miss is the electrical outlets. I carry a spare laptop battery with me on tour and make sure to always have it charged, as I really value the travel time to catch up on emails and blogs and other bits of business, but an all-day bus trip can drain even that reserve.
The bus made many, many stops along the way (hence, seven hours from Corvallis to Seattle), and I was amazed to see how even the tiniest towns are now sporting microbreweries. They all looked very shiny and new, clearly trying to capitalize on the popularity of the nationally successful Northwest microbrews, and I hope all of this investment and high hopes pans out in some way, for local crowds if not in selling bottles across the US.
I made the best of the trip, luckily with an empty seat next to me, then we arrived in Seattle. I just had time to grab some Vietnamese noodles in the restaurant attached to the decrepit Greyhound station before getting in line for the next bus to Vancouver. The station was a shocking contrast to the Portland stop where I’d had a brief layover on the morning, which sported skylights, a decent food arcade, and planters brimming with indoor trees and bushes. (Then again, I’d expect nothing less from Portland).
I hate going through customs of any kind – the accusatory demeanor of the agents really gets to me – but dealing with it on tour is especially tricky. I’m not legally allowed to play a gig in Canada, and ostensibly make money, unless I have an artist visa. It seems like a waste of time for one gig, so I take my chances, hoping that the propensity of travelers with guitars makes me seem as innocent as the next campfire strummer. Usually I make up some complicated story of visiting multiple friends, to explain why I’m on the West Coast for two weeks, and hitting different cities including Canadian ones. This time I decided to try the excuse of business travel, but with a short weekend jaunt to Vancouver for a break. That got me past the agent in a flat minute, so lesson learned there.
The Great Canadian dusk.
An hour more on the bus, and I arrived in Vancouver at 8 pm. My friends were waiting for me at Axum, our favorite Ethiopian restaurant, and I was in a hurry to tuck into some injera and lentils. But the Vancouver buses were especially lazy, and after waiting on the notorious corner of Hastings and Main for close to half an hour, I gave up and took a cab. A joyous reunion ensued, then we hoofed it to another friends’ place and caught up some more before crashing out, the three of us on mattresses in the living room.
A rose on the East side.
Saturday, we walked about the city for most of the day, then bought a few things to cook up a big Mexican meal. Our hosts made fresh tortillas and shared an 18-inch zucchini from their garden (diameter had to be five inches, too), and I toasted and soaked some ancho chiles to make a base for fajitas. Wild rice, a mango salsa, a hot chipotle salsa, and guacamole rounded it out, and the five of us crowded around the tiny kitchen table to feast.
A garden on the sidewalk, beautiful and utterly undisturbed. Oh Canada!
I spent most of Sunday wandering around on my own, mostly along the seawall. While I’ve always enjoyed Vancouver, and find much of it to be quite beautiful, this time the rampant development really started to bug me. There are dozens of tall glass-and-steel buildings clumped together in Yaletown, obscuring the amazing mountains and, to me, creating the most unpleasant skyline imaginable. I had to look at this as I walked along the water to Granville Island, which also seems to have lost its charm, now seeming nothing more than another tourist trap with inflated prices, albeit one with good cheese and a lot of theater space.
Back at our temporary home, We grilled salmon, fresh corn and more of that massive zucchini for an early dinner, then I split for Deux Soleils. I walked down the seemingly endless parade of shops on Commercial Drive, past the people crowded at each bus stop (I didn’t see a single bus the whole 12-block walk), and arrived at the cavernous club/restaurant.
“I saw a Deadhead sticker…”..on a private yacht.
I checked in with the very friendly staff, and all seemed good. I sat down to work on my setlist, but after a minute I was interrupted by a call from the booker. She apologized profusely, then explained that she had messed up and she had neglected to book the soundperson for the night, could I set up the PA and run it myself? And work the door, too?
Now, this same thing happened the last time I played here, in March. I didn’t bother pointing this out to her at this juncture, knowing that I couldn’t waste any time. Last time, I was lucky enough to have a professional soundperson show up as a friend of one of the other bands, and it took him a while to figure it out, so I knew I had my work cut out for me.
I got down to business, setting up mics and plugging in speaker cables. Everything looked good, but when I brought up the volume and tapped on a mic, there was no sound. With no time to lose – it was just about showtime – I called the booker and had her connect me to the soundperson, who explained a few weird things, and after replugging a few wires I finally heard something through the speakers.
I’d handpicked Jason Lowe and Daniel Moir to join me this evening, and I gave Jason the go-ahead to get ready to play. He had his own preamp/direct box he wanted to use, so I plugged that in and brought up his channels. His voice and guitar were there, and despite being unable to get him a good monitor mix, he put on an excellent set. The funny thing is that on Granville Island earlier that day, I noticed a fellow playing lap steel and singing in a lovely, plaintive voice. Though I was on my way out, I tipped him and gave him a few compliments. Thought neither of us realized it until late in the night, it was Jason himself, doing some busking before the evening show.
As Jason ended, I passed off door responsibilities to one of my friends, brought down his channels on the board, and grabbed my guitar to start my set. I’d had no time to soundcheck my own gear, so I was trusting it to work. I plugged into one of the club’s direct boxes, brought up my channel, and…nothing. I switched to their other direct box, and still, no sound. Crud.
The only possibility I could think of was that the electronics in my guitar had died, so I grabbed a second mic and a chair, and set up myself up sitting down in front of the mics. This is the worst playing situation for me, as I’m stuck in one fixed position, and I have to keep constant watch on my overactive right hand so it doesn’t whack the mic.
As soon as I brought up the channels, the guitar started feeding back, so I killed the monitor completely, took a breath, and started my set, running on empty and flying on auto-pilot, too stressed to really think about the music. People were listening and responding well, and I just had to trust that reaction, as I couldn’t hear myself playing or singing without the monitor. I think I was playing OK, but I wasn’t having as much fun as I normally do, and I cut my set short by a couple of songs.
I cleared the stage and began setting up for Daniel. He plugged his guitar into one of the direct boxes, and to my surprise, he wasn’t getting any sound either. I tried the other one, with the same result. It seemed extremely unlikely that both our guitars would have died, so I asked Jason if we could borrow his pre-amp, and he generously agreed. I plugged it in, and lo n’ behold, Daniel’s guitar came up loud and clear. Happy as I was to have that sound problem solved, I was deeply bummed I hadn’t thought to try that before my own set. Worse, I carry my own direct box, but had left it at my friend’s house that day.
Daniel acquitted himself quite nicely onstage, while I sipped a stout and tried to hide the frustration that lingered over my own set. But after repairing back to my hosts’ place, some good Montepulcano d’Abbruzi and wild candied salmon over conversation ended the day on a nice note.
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”.
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.