Cafe Deux Soleils, Vancouver, BC

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.