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.

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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.

 

 

BarkingSpiderSign-399x307

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.

goshen

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.

 

chicagoI 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.

 

 

 

 

 

plane
(My guitar got the first window seat of its life – thanks, American Air!)

The gig at the Casbah near the end of my springtime tour was my favorite night of the whole dozen stops on that particular trip. I had loads of difficulty setting everything up, but once I did it turned out to be one of those great shows where everything works. First starters, I was able to play unplugged in a room with fantastic acoustics, and not by design – it just so happens that the Casbah’s bar room sounds amazing. I really enjoyed the music made by the rest of people on the bill, and the people who came to watch were so warm and friendly to us all.

After an experience like that, of course I wanted to do it again, so as soon as I got back home I contacted the booker and set up another date, also unplugged, and with the same bill. With that nailed down, I set about trying to book another show or two to make a short tour.

Unfortunately, nothing else worked out for the strict date needs that I had. But I found a cheap flight down, and decided that it was worth it for this one show, since it was such a good possibility. Plus, I have a number of friends in the area, and seeing them would have been worth the trouble on its own. So I went ahead and booked the flight, and found a $3 Megabus ticket for the return trip (yeah!). All was looking good.

The flight down was easy as pie (I guess that’s the point, eh?). I got stopped briefly in security as they’d found something suspicious in my shoulder bag. When I got pulled over to the side of the line, the uniformed gentleman pulled out the offending item, a thinline condenser mic. He examined it for a second, then leaned over to me and asked, in an polite whisper, “This is a nose-hair trimmer, right?” I explained its actual function and was let go, dubious metal object in tow.

I caught an easy local bus into town, and was happy to find that the Casbah is located just two blocks from the main transit hub. I found a lovely coffeeshop in between called Otis & Parker, and settled in to guzzle some tea and catch up on computering for a few hours before walking over to the club in the shockingly humid late afternoon.

The bartender had just arrived, and she let me into the Casbah’s front room where we had played last time. The first thing I noticed was that weird overexposed glow that every club has in the daylight – these places are made for the dark. The second thing that struck me was the enormous pool table planted in the dead middle of the room. I went over and experimentally gave it a little shove, to see if it could be moved out of the way. It didn’t budge an inch. I slipped both my hands under the chunky rim and tried to lift one end. No movement whatsoever…the table was staying.

Trying to repress my disappointment, I asked the bartender how bands have been setting up for the other unplugged shows. She said everyone sorta does it differently, some even in the corner of the main stage room. That didn’t seem promising – that room is very industrial and grey, while the front room feels like a cozy neighborhood pub to me – so I scoped out the whole thing and finally decided to set up in a corner directly behind the pool table. It felt slightly ridiculous, but I would be able to seen from most of the room, and it would give the crowd unblocked access to the most important things – the bar and the bathroom. I helped her to set up some chairs, then laid out my merch and ducked out to grab a veggie kabob from the place next door.

When I returned, my co-performers had arrived. We caught up a bit, then I sat down in the back room and warmed up, enjoying the sound in the cavernous space. I don’t often get the chance to warm up properly on the road – the green room is a rare luxury – but when I do, my first tune of the night always comes out better.

Our crowd started to arrive, though as it got closer to 8 it became clear that it would be a slow night, another disappointment for me as I’d really tried to garner some press attention. Still, when Jeff and Adam started to play, on the far side of that enormous billiard table, I immediately started to enjoy myself. I felt enveloped in the warm sound and the inviting space, and by the time I was due onstage I was in a fine mood. Even the low attendance wasn’t bothering me, the room felt full of life.

My hands felt in good shape from the warm-up, and I think it helped me feel more relaxed starting out. I managed to play my opening tune at a much more reasonable tempo than the breakneck speed I often dive into, a good thing. Next was “If You Won’t I Will”, and the body thumps at the ended sounded so big bouncing off the walls. A blast.

The rest of the set flew by (with a nice reaction to the brand-new, as-yet-unnamed koto-bridge song) and I decided to end up with “Shenandoah” followed by the new “Dog & Kid”. It’s been quite a while since I’ve played that old folk tune, but it feels so comfortable, always. I used to play it nearly every show, and this reminded me why.

“Dog & Kid” was another fun one to blast out, and my set was over. I grabbed a local porter (impressive, the range of local beers that exist in this town) and settled in to enjoy the closing set by Anthony Neff. A great night, in the end, and totally worth the trip.

I’ve been checking out a lot of my peers recently. After playing the Singer Songwriter Cape May festival last weekend, I checked out every single one of the 150 artists who played it, with the intention of making connections with anyone whose music I liked. I soon realized that I had some pretty tough criteria when checking out someone online.

If I dig your music, I might subscribe to your newsletter, Like you, Friend you, follow your Twitter feed, subscribe to your Youtube account, add you to my Google+ circles, or send a friendly email. If you keep in touch, I’ll come see you play a show. If you’re really charming, I may buy an album, or help you set up a show in New York. I may, eventually, become a true fan.

None of this will happen, and I may bear a grudge against you forever, if:

– you require a Like to hear your music.
– your only website is a Facebook page and there is no easy link to hear music on it.
– your only website is a Myspace page.
– your only website is a Bandcamp page.
– the only way to hear music on your site is to follow a link to “Buy” it.
– you only have one song on your site.
– your bio includes hyperbole like: “amazing”, “stunning”, “peerless”, “awesome”, “hot”, etc.
– you feature more than one cover song on your site.
– your website is set to autoplay music as soon as the page is opened.
– you have multiple misspellings on the front page of your site. I’m sorry. It’s like a bad tattoo.
– the first 10 seconds of your first tune/video bore me. I’m REALLY sorry. That’s all you get in this day and age.

What’d I miss?

roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I roll, winter 2013. Green bag contains my Austin-bought boots and a bit of lunch, when times are good.

My suitcase on tour contains a ZT Acoustic amp (5″ speaker, 200 watts…awesome for a traveler, though heavy), a music stand I’ve converted into a mic stand, a merch table made of cardboard which attaches to the top of the suitcase, one box of CDs (I get more shipped to me halfway through tour), some extra batteries and cords, one pair of jeans, four t-shirts, five changes of underthangs and socks, a long-sleeve shirt, a razor and a toothbrush. Carrying along a full PA setup (mics and adapters are in my guitar case) means that I don’t have space for two weeks’ worth of clean clothing, so I count on doing laundry at least a couple of times per tour.

I had a five-hour ride from Jackson to Birmingham, but it started early in the day, and I was looking forward to arriving at 12:30. It’s very rare that I get many quiet hours in one place while on tour, and I was looking forward to an afternoon of relaxing while doing laundry. Some practice, a nap, a long shower…a dream.

I couldn’t find any hotel bargains in downtown¬†Birmingham, so I’d chosen one south of the city, but seemingly accessible by a local bus line. Piecing together a plan from the typically inscrutable local bus map (is it too much to ask that actual street names are used, rather than just the shape of the route?), I found that I could walk just two blocks from the Greyhound stop and grab the bus down to the hotel.

birmingham

(My hotel was located somewhere on the grey line just to the left of the red line on this map. Street names? We don’t need no stinking street names!)

The journey was painless, my Greyhound pulled into Birmingham ahead of schedule (!), and in just a few minutes I was waiting at the bus stop. Things were looking great for my afternoon. The local bus showed up about 10 minutes late, but that didn’t ruffle my feathers a bit. I got settled and pulled up the GPS on my phone so I could follow where we were going.

The bus seemed to be stopping awfully frequently, and when I looked at the distance between where we were and where we were going, I realized that this was going to be a long trip if this kept up. We soon left behind the downtown buildings and entered into the outskirts with their lawns and fences, but we continued to stop at what seemed to be every other intersection to pick someone up or drop someone off. I watched the minutes tick away on this bus, and before long we had been in transit for an hour.

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The golden lady of Birmingham.

The vagueness of the transit map meant that I wasn’t entirely sure where I should be dropped off in order to have the shortest walk possible to the hotel, though there was a loop that seemed to circle my destination so it seemed certainly I could get pretty close to it. I spoke with the reticent driver when we seemed to be getting close to the beginning of the loop, and she indicated that I should stay on the bus to go around the loop, because there would be a stop closer to the hotel on the return trip. Fifteen more minutes of driving, and she left me off by a Waffle House (a staple of the South), with a vague wave pointing in the direction of my hotel.

I descended with my gear, then had a good look at my phone, as I couldn’t actually see the hotel from where I was and there were several streets to choose from, all heading off in different angles. I probably spent five minutes with the map and a compass app, trying to figure out how best to walk there. I finally set off on the quietest of the streets, and soon spotted a tall sign advertising the Super 8. Cool.

Unfortunately, the small street I was on terminated in a whizzing four-lane highway, crossed by another four-lane. Not only were there no crosswalks, there were no more sidewalks. I headed towards a stoplight, and ran across after a few minutes when a break appeared between cars turning left. I cut through a parking lot, keeping the hotel sign in sight, and came upon a smaller two-lane road, which didn’t have a sidewalk either. I couldn’t roll my heavy suitcase over the grass, so I picked it up, sweating with the effort so far, and trudged up the road. It soon turned into an upward slope, the hotel itself appeared in the distance, taunting me from the top of a hill.

At points along the road, even the grass petered out, with nothing but road to walk on. I had to jog in between driveways and gravel lots to avoid the many trucks coming up and down this busy stretch. The hotel seemed to be receding from sight, but finally I found myself in its parking lot, panting. The office was far on the other side, of course, so another few minutes of walking and I fairly collapsed into the lobby.

It was nearly three o’clock by now. So much for a restful afternoon. I checked in, threw my clothes into a washer and sat down with the transit map to figure out how much time I’d have before I needed to leave again to get to the gig. Though I looked at every possible combination of routes, the only way I could get to the 7 pm gig on time, allowing 20 minutes to walk to the bus stop, was to leave again at 4:30.

Of all nights, tonight I had to bring my own PA, so I needed to bring all my gear with me in the suitcase besides my gig bag with guitar and cords.I pulled everything extraneous out to lighten the load (which wasn’t much), pulled my clothes out of the dryer, then headed back out again, cursing my decision to stay so far South and wishing I’d spent the extra fifty bucks it would have cost me to stay in town.

I realize I’m just begging for pity at this point, but this trip was even worse. I dragged everything down to the bus stop, and shortly after arriving it started to rain. I took shelter under the overhang of an office building nearby, then waited for an hour for the bus to arrive. When we finally arrived in the city itself, I got off at a transfer point, then called a cab to pick me up, rather than risking another late bus. But when the taxi didn’t arrive in 15 minutes (they’d told me “10 to 30 minutes wait”), I took the bus that came first, and arrived at the gig five minutes after my start time.

Rojo’s was a nice-looking Mexican restaurant, with a lot of people inside. My spirits rose at the thought of playing to a good crowd, but I was immediately shown to the bar area, a room separated from the dining area by a soundproof door, and deserted inside but for the bartender and one table of three gentlemen engaged in loud conversation.

Tamping down my array of frustrations, I set up my PA as fast as I could, ordered some veggie tacos, and started to play, hoping to draw some people in. Gradually a few folks wandered in, and by the set break I was actually drawing a bit of attention. I tucked into the tacos – which were excellent, packed with top-notch soyrizo – and had a bit of conversation with someone who had seen my bio and decided to stop by and check me out. I played another set, and though the place never really got hopping, I did OK by the end, with several people stopping to pay compliments or buy a CD. I finished up, enjoyed a great local lager, and called a taxi to take me home through the pouring rain. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in the hotel, dry and happy but swearing never to put myself through this kind of local transit hell again.

 

nola6

It was a gorgeous morning in New Orleans, sunny and clear. I saw my friends off (a million thanks, S & J!), then decided to walk to the Amtrak station, about two miles away. Though I was lugging all of my crap with me, when do I ever get the chance to walk through the French Quarter? I hated to leave the city, and this seemed like the best possible way to say farewell.

I absolutely love the architecture here, and found myself stopping several times each block to shoot photos. I took so much time enjoying my walk that by the time I hit the business district, I only had a few minutes left to make my train. I hustled into the station, printed out my ticket, and ran aboard to take my seat.

When my pulse slowed and my breathing quieted, I came to the realization that I had an enormous amount of legroom, a table, and electrical jacks next to my seat. Oh right – the train. It was the first Amtrak of tour, and my coach seat felt like the height of luxury travel after all the buses.

swamp

(Southern swamp, from the train)

An afternoon of sheer bliss, and I arrived in Jackson, my first time there. The station was new and beautiful, and as I emerged on the far side, I could see my hotel just a block away. Wow. It, too, was new and beautiful (and a bargain), and I checked in, took a shower, then practiced a bit while looking out the windows at the plains.

Too soon, it was time to leave for the gig. I pulled up a map and realized that Hal & Mal’s was less than a mile away. What a confluence of convenience! I decided to walk (as I usually do, unless it’s more than 2 miles) and hoofed it over, encountering no other pedestrians in this typically Southern car-based city.

Hal & Mal’s has a big performance area, but as this was a mid-week show, I was going to play in the restaurant itself. It was a nice arrangement, with a PA and lights, and the staff treated me very well as I got established. I also talked with several locals who greeted me warmly and asked how my tour was going, they’d checked out my site and my music beforehand. Always nice to welcomed in this way.

I ordered a bowl of the bouillabaisse, which was incredible (why have I never tried this in New Orleans?!), and their “tamale pie”, which turned out to be nothing more than a pile of molten cheese over a flattened tamal. Oh well. I devoured the soup and dug out the masa and beans from under the cheddar, then it was time to go on.

Most of the seats in the place were occupied by this point, with a tableful of well-suited gentlemen directly in front of me. I couldn’t tell if they were executives, developers or politicians, but they had very important things to discuss very loudly, and they didn’t let up a second when I kicked off my set. I got some scattered applause (though certainly none from that particular party), and continued on, ignoring the suits as they ignored me. Finally, they packed up and left without a glance in my direction. Good riddance!

By the set break, a lot of the other people had started to pack up and head home for the night as well. I had been warned that Wednesdays are slow here, and I could see that the tables weren’t being filled by newcomers. Partway through of the set, though, a nicely-dressed couple came in, and immediately showed interest in what I was doing. A few tunes later, I mentioned that I was from New York, and the male half of the couple shouted out, “What part?”. After I finished out my set, for their and just a few others’ benefit, we chatted and it turns out they live in the East Village, and were on a road trip through the heartland. They wished me well on journey, as I did theirs, and I promised to keep in touch about my shows when I got back home. Funny how things like this happen on tour.

I have only been to New Orleans once before, on tour in 2010,but I immediately fell in love with it then. I felt like there was something undefinable, that goes beyond the gingerbread on the shotgun shacks and the brass bands and the po’boys, which gave it a feel like no other American city.

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That feeling greeted me again when I disembarked from the Megabus, after a 5-hour trip from Houston. I decided to walk the mile and a half to my hotel, through the French Quarter and into the Marigny, just to enjoy it. I wasn’t even bothered by all the tourists (a group to which I belong, of course, more or less), with their plastic margarita glasses and bags of Cafe du Monde memorabilia. The city just exudes a welcoming, mysterious charm.

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I met up with some friends from Arkansas who were spending a few days in the city, and had a beer at Lafitte’s, the oldest bar in the USA. It certainly looks it, from the age of the building and the bar itself, though the whirling frozen daquiri machines behind the bartenders showed how it had been upgraded to meet contemporary demands on Bourbon St.

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I had an interview to do, so I returned to the hotel and connected with the journalist. It was a very in-depth conversation, with lots of questions about my various musical experiences before arriving on my current M.O., and was a lot of fun, though it went on for over 30 minutes and I began to wonder what kind of article she’d be turning out. (I hate to report that, as of this writing, I still haven’t seen any sign of the interview, which was to help promote the next night’s gig).

Then it was time to pull on my new boots, grab the guitar and head to the gig. I’d never been to Checkpoint Charlie’s before, and upon entering its prime corner location on Esplanade, found a yawning space with several levels and a good-size stage far in the corner. I plugged into their PA, noting the various signs declaring “$5 charge to use the PA – no charge if you don’t make $5”, which seemed pretty kind-hearted of them.

I was expected to provide 3 1/2 hours of music this evening, and I had resolved to not repeat anything, and to depend on originals as much as I possibly could. This meant bringing out a lot of tunes I wouldn’t normally play in a bar, like mellow fingerpicking pieces I’d written for weddings, but it seemed like a good challenge to mix them in.

When I hit the stage at 7 p.m., there were just a few people sitting at the bar, and a few in a raised area with billiard tables, none of them paying any attention. This is a tough situation; I didn’t want to waste my best songs on them, but I also wanted to try to grab their attention if I could. And at the same time, I wanted to make it seem like I was in control of the situation, so if someone walked in the door they’d be drawn in, not put off by the whiff of desperation. (Of course, I should be thinking about the music and the music alone, but these are some of the things that go through the head of a performer).

I decided to start out quiet, but confident, with some of the fingerpicking tunes, then tried out one of the few covers I’d planned to include, Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”. That, finally, elicited some glances and a burst of applause at the end. I ramped up the energy a bit and continued on, happy to see that some of the glances turned into actual listening, and before long a few other people came through the door to join them.

I finished up the first set, took a short break, then went back on. More people showed up, replacing others who’d left, and I pushed on through my back catalog. I got some nice compliments on the next break, and some CD sales, and during the third set there were folks sitting in front of me for the sole purpose of listening and watching. I played four Beatles songs, and “Shenandoah”, but otherwise stuck to my own tunes, and by the time I was done my fingers were aching but I was happy with the way things had turned out. I rewarded myself with straight bourbon and some brass band action up the street at DBA, then an oyster po’boy after midnight with my friends. A great night.