I always shoot video of my shows, mainly for my own review, and toward the end of last year I started to notice how lots of my tunes, even ones I think of as being easy to play, had parts that never sounded very good, night after night. Though I do practice guitar every day, I often devote that practice time towards working out new or rarely-played stuff for the next gig. But clearly, simply playing these familiar tunes onstage regularly was not leading to improvement.
Hence, I’ve decided to take February off and focus on practicing. I went through my catalog of original tunes in current circulation (about 40 at this point, with another 50 or so in mothballs for the moment), and made a list of the parts that seemed most problematic.
Having made this list, I’ve resolved to go through this whole list each day, spending five minutes on each part. I’ve never done anything like this, and it’s been an interesting process so far, now on my third day. Sometimes five minutes feels like a long time to spend on one part, but more often, with devoting that time exclusively to one thing, I soon find many ways to improve how I approach it.Then, I start having fun with it, and hate to have to move on to the next bit! But I know I’ll get back to it the next day.
While it feels a little funny to have a month without a show, I’m already enjoying this very inward-focused time.
I had an unusually reasonable bus departure time, and was able to sleep in and enjoy a relaxed morning before my hosts dropped me at the Greyhound station in Cleveland. Boarding the bus with a small handful of co-passengers (sometimes I wonder how all of their daily runs make money..), I was disappointed to see that this was one of the older buses, which has yet to add electrical outlets and Wifi. But I did some offline writing and stared out the window, which never ever gets old, and arrived in Pittsburgh before I knew it.
It was an overcast day that was quickly becoming nasty as I walked the ten blocks to the Backstage Bar, and when rain started to drizzle down I took shelter in an accommodating lunch joint for an honest-to-goodness salad. No matter where they go, tours tend to be heavy on the alcohol and heavy on the food, and sometimes my body cries out for something fresh and simple. I devoured the pile of greens, admired the beer list without giving in to temptation (I always wait til after the show, thank you very much), and waited in vain for the skies to clear. But the rain got worse, and finally when it was only ten minutes before showtime I knew I had to bolt for it. I arrived at Backstage Bar soaking wet, and with nobody in the place (not even a bartender).
I was glad to have a moment to myself to change shirts and ensure that my new guitar bag was truly waterproof (it was, thank goodness), but shortly the staff straggled in, followed by my co-performer, Eve Goodman. The show was originally to feature my old friends and beautiful songwriters Heather Kropf and Keith Hershberger, but they had to cancel at the last minute due to (very painful) circumstances beyond their control, and Eve was extremely gracious to step in.
This is a nice place to play and I really wanted the bar to do well this night, but the rain was making a crowd unlikely. Thankfully, by the time Eve and I had gotten acquainted and set up the PA, a few handfuls of friends showed up, so at least there were a few people besides bartenders to play for. Eve started up, and I sat down with a Shirley Temple to enjoy her excellent fingerstyle work, sprinkled with spicy jazz chords. As in Chicago, it makes me extra-excited to play when co-performers really know their way around a guitar.
We were trading short sets back and forth, and by the time I went onstage for my first tunes, the place was starting to feel lively, with a few damp regulars and some classy-looking theatre-goers filling the seats at the bar and most of the tables. Though the buzz of conversation was constant. as I made my way through the first set I was able to pick out at least a few listening faces, and every tune brought a nice wave of applause, so I felt like I was part and parcel of everyone’s good time, if not entirely the focus.
By the time Eve finished her second set, the joint was jammed. It was absolutely not the deep listening atmosphere that I’m always trying to find, but there were enough people paying attention and showing appreciation that I didn’t feel offended at being largely relegated to the background. I brought my set to a close, sat down with a beer and some new friends, and within a few minutes the place was empty again as the handful of adjacent theatres opened their doors. It’s a place that serves a certain crowd and a certain function, and it was a pleasure to be part of it all tonight.
I managed to sleep most of the night on the train, though the night ended abruptly at 5:30 when we pulled into Cleveland. It was too early for the local buses to start running, so I killed time in the deserted waiting area (I’ve gotten really good at killing time…) until 6:15, then hopped on the bus and arrived at the house where I’d be staying just as the first streaks of light started hitting the sky.
My friends had both left for work already, so I let myself into their quiet house and dumped my stuff on the floor with vast relief. There is nothing as luxurious on tour as a stay in a comfy house, especially after a few days of long rides and weird sleep. I pasted myself onto their guest room bed and napped most of the morning, snoozing the alarm again and again.
I finally roused myself, ran a load of laundry (I usually pack only three or four days’ worth of clothing, and wash often), ate a buffet lunch of extremely tasty selections from their well-stocked fridge, and caught up on computer stuff before another nap. Loooovely.
My friends and their kids got home in the late afternoon, and I played a bit of guitar for the offspring before it was soon time to head out for my happy-hour set at the Barking Spider. I’d played here twice before, and have always had fun. It’s a unique place, an ancient carriage house which was apparently a locus for hippies in the 60’s, and still has a very earthy, old-school vibe (their website may clue you in), while being located in a prime spot in University Circle near the Museum of Modern Art. I greeted the very pleasant bartender and booker, and she got me set up and ready to go.
The Spider is OK with having kids present for the early music sets, another clue to their uber-welcoming attitude. My hosts brought their two little ones, and other friends showed up with theirs, which made for a pretty lively atmosphere as I started my set. It’s a nice-sounding place, and has started to feel very comfortable to me, and I was having fun right away. The kids responded much more to the upbeat stuff, so I stuck with my more rocking tunes and had a fine old time. A few more people showed up just as I was finishing, and one of them came up afterward, saying all they’d heard was my last song, but they wanted to get a CD based on what they’d seen. Nice to hear.
I’m not sure if it’s a secret that Cleveland is a foodie town, but I’ve never had a bad meal here and have had several amazing ones. They tend towards the fresh and seasonal, and while high-minded it’s rarely fussy. I said my goodbyes at the Spider, then we dropped the kids with a sitter and headed to the Greenhouse Tavern, a meaty place (pig’s head, or actually pig’s *face*, is a standby on the menu), but I had a good selection of non-flesh options. After a substantial gin cocktail, I dug into a shaved pickled kobocha squash salad and roasted matsutake mushrooms in a rich sauce with a ribbon of pasta. Top-notch.
We returned back home and, as is typical, ended up with big glasses of wine on their front porch, catching up until midnight. A great day, this.
The vagaries of public transportation schedules mean that I often have to rise at ridiculous hours, and don’t always get to pick how, exactly, I’m going to ride. My destination of Goshen, IN is not a highly-visited burg, so I had only one choice of getting there, which was a Greyhound departing Chicago at 6:20 am. An Amtrak leaving at, say, noon would have been my preference, but that was not in the cards for getting to the second show of this tour.
I roused myself before sunrise and hopped in a cab. I’ve become accustomed to the subway in New York, which can pretty much get you anywhere at any time, but the bus and the El demanded a circuitous route at this hour, so I instead ponied up five bucks to arrive in style at the Greyhound. It felt utterly wrong since my bus ticket only cost *six* dollars…
Greyhound has stepped up their game a bit since the arrival of Megabus and Boltbus, with electrical outlets and even wifi on some of their coaches. I was lucky enough to get a seat to myself, and a plug that worked, so I took care of some computer tasks and stared at the flat, flat scenery of northern Indiana, so unlike the East Coast.
My schedule had me arriving at 10 a.m. in Elkhart, then playing in Goshen that night, about 15 miles away, then catching a midnight Amtrak. There were no public transportation options that late at night between the two places, so my choice was a pricey cab or a cheap rental car which I’d be able to use all day, and I chose the latter. As we neared Elkhart on the bus, I called the Enterprise office to arrange for them to pick me up, a nice feature of that company.
When I got off the phone, a man with a small child several seats ahead of me turned around, and asked with a smile if I knew the exact location of the Greyhound dropoff in Elkhart. I walked up the aisle and showed it to him on my phone, and he thanked me gratefully. I dropped back into my seat, feeling like I’d done a minor good deed for the day, when I noticed the tattoos on his neck. Letters an inch high spelled out “1488”, which I remembered from a random Google search years ago. The first two digits of 1488 represent the 14 words of the White Power creed, and the two eights stand for the eighth letter of the alphabet, code for “Heil Hitler”. As a final touch, at the side of his neck were the lightning bolts of the Stormtroopers, with “for life” inked atop. He was a genuine Indiana Nazi, and I felt sick to my stomach.
As we got off the bus, he was met by a woman who greeted him and the little boy with hugs and kisses, and they walked to their car, chattering warmly. They were a picture of a happy family, but those marks of hatred on his neck were the only thing I could really see.
A dark feeling stuck with me as I checked into a coffee shop and computered away most of the day, and didn’t fade until I climbed back into my little Nissan in the late afternoon and took a sentimental tour of the college campus where I’d spent a year and a half playing in bands, testing the typical boundaries of the frosh and never declaring a major. The day was grey, which is the only weather I ever remember, but I had to smile as I passed icons of memory; party houses and riverside paths and dorms of midnight bull sessions over microwave popcorn. There were a lot of new buildings, and the kids seemed far younger than they did in my day, but it still seemed like the same old place, and I cruised around to everything I remembered.
I met up with some friends for a great dinner of conversation and Costa Rican gallo pinto, complete with prized Salsa Lizano, then headed back to campus to set up for my show. The cafe where I was playing didn’t exist when I was attending classes, and I was a little glad to be able to leave the reverie behind and focus on the business of playing a show in a new venue. It’d have felt awfully funny to play a stage that I’d played as an undergrad.
I’d arranged the evening with a student, who was very helpful and enthusiastic on the phone, but I was disappointed to see that the posters I’d sent him were absent on the main bulletin boards. Worse, the “full PA” I’d been promised turned out to be one of those plug-the-mic-into-the-wall-for-announcements setups. I seethed with regret at the fact that I’d left my heavy direct box at home, figuring I’d enjoy the lighter bag, but now it meant I wouldn’t able to plug in my guitar and I’d have to perform standing still in front of a microphone, which I hate. I need to be able to *move* when I play.
There was a soccer game going on that night, as well as a Garrison Keillor performance, so we’d agreed to have me start at 9:30 when both of those events would be wrapping up. When the time came to begin, though, the only people present were my few friends and two or three others. It was not a promising situation, all around, but I bit my tongue and smiled and launched into my set. From my spot in the concrete corner, all I could hear were muffled echoes, but I tried to trust that my friends told me the sound was fine and I mimed the songs as best I could, hoping at least things were in tune and in time.
After five or six songs I was beginning to consider bolting the scene after one short set, but just then more students started drifting in, and a good number of them seemed quite interested in what I was doing. I started feeling better, and forgot about the annoyance of standing still in front of the guitar mic and the bizarre sound waves bouncing around the corner, and began to actually enjoy myself. By the end of my second set, the place was pretty packed (the soccer game had gone into double overtime) and the energy was so upbeat that I played even longer than I’d planned. The manager of the shop presented me with a gift basket of coffee and iced tea from the shop, with a very complimentary handwritten note inside, and after talking to a number of really nice folk I dashed off to the car, returning it just in time to make my train. I was blessed with a seat to myself and I settled in, enjoy the sight of the sleeping little towns in moonlight before I joined them in dreamland.
I had the luxury of a few days’ actual vacation before the gig, so I got to enjoy the this truly windy city more than I have ever before. The lakeside thing is pretty great, I gotta say, though the wind comes with it, and it is no joke in mid-October. A bike ride down along the water from Lincoln Park to Hyde Park is…dreamy.
I’d played at Uncommon Ground’s original location last year, and found it to be one of the nicest performance experiences anywhere, so I was excited to play at this newer, larger branch. They really treated me well at that first gig, very professional and accommodating, and one could hardly ask for a nicer room to play acoustic music in.
I took a 50-minute El ride from downtown (which doesn’t seem unusual; this city sprawls) into Lakeview, and after ten more minutes walking finally found the ‘Ground. As with the other location, this was an awfully nice-looking but unpretentious building, mindful of its place in the greater environment (a banner announced that it had been deemed “Greenest Restaurant in America”) but not shy about its upscale menu. I was ushered into the music room, and found a great space to match the one I knew, decorated in tasteful natural wood (bamboo, I betcha) with a raised stage that looked as if it were scrubbed daily.
I dumped my stuff in the green room – a rare luxury – and soon met my fellow performers, Jarryd Scott Steimer and Ethan Butler. I’d put together the bill for the evening, and had taken great care to find people whose music I liked. They proved to be genuinely friendly as well as great musicians, so I was feeling great about the music to come.
The one disappointment was that I didn’t see any of my posters up. I’d labored over a cool design, gotten it okayed by my co-players, and had copies Fedexed to the club, but none were in evidence. I’m hardly in the position to be able to complain to my hosts, but it was a bummer to have wasted the time and money, and of course the opportunity to tempt a few additional listeners.
Even so, the vibe was great and the setup eminently comfortable, so my good mood didn’t tarnish very much. I sat down at a table with some friends and enjoyed Jarryd’s opening set. His voice and precise, often hushed arrangements were beautiful in the space, and I found myself a bit nervous that the relatively hard-rockin’ set I’d planned might be a bit much. I added a few mellower tunes in the margins of the setlist I’d hammered out that afternoon, then went into the green room to warm up.
(There’s no glamour in a green room, really, but a place to warm up voice and guitar for a few minutes before going on is pure gold. I’m pretty frequently stuck using a bathroom for this purpose, I hate to admit.)
I congratulated Jarryd on a great performance, plugged in, and started my set. As always happens in the first tune of the first set of a tour, I was so struck by the exhilaration of hearing my guitar echo around a room with people in it that I barely thought about what I was playing. This is why I always open with something very familiar, my fingers are kinda on their own in playing the tune while I come to grips with the excitement of being onstage. This time, the feeling lasted for a number of songs, so I had the odd sensation of watching my fingers and hearing the sound without being conscious of playing, exactly.
Uncommon Ground falls into the “listening room” category of performance spaces, which again makes it one of my favorites. Even though people are eating and drinking, there’s no chatter at all, generally, and the stage is the focus of the whole shebang. My enjoyment of the situation made the set fly by, and before I knew it the time came for me to wrap up.
People were very complimentary afterward, and I felt pretty good about how I’d played – that oddly unconscious type of performance always makes me unsure how I actually came across, so the nice words were especially welcome. I settled down with the reward of a ginger martini and watched Ethan Butler do his thing. He’s a great guitar player, and I especially enjoyed the fact that he uses many of the less-common chord shapes that I favor. His mix of r n’ b and folk fit the space perfectly, and I hated for the evening to come to an end. Good hanging afterward with some good friends, then a quick cab ride down the quiet lakeside back to the hotel. A great way to start tour.