The morning after my gig at SquareRut, I had an early morning call to play at the lovely Gateway Guesthouse. I played half an hour or so for the guests, then was treated to brunch (flappers, their specialty – yeast-based pancakes topped with brie and a honey/brown sugar syrup…insanely good) and some lovely chat. Then, off to spend another day in Austin, scoring great Bloody Mary’s, tacos (natch), and a pair of honest-to-goodness, long-lusted-for cowboy boots. Put ’em on right away, too.

Monday morning, had a decent brunch of migas, kind of an Austin specialty (though they fall short of chilequiles, I have to admit), then caught my Megabus to Houston. I nearly missed it, as these curbside stops are often entirely unmarked, and there was no info on their site except the cross streets. But I finally saw the familiar towering blue double-decker pulled into a parking lot off the street, and ran on, sweating.

Houston is an impossibly sprawling place, with the metropolitan area stretching 50 miles wide. It was sheer luck that the venue was walking distance (about a mile, that is) from the bus stop. I hoofed it over through streets devoid of other pedestrians, and found a banh mi shop in the same strip as the bar. The venerable banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich of French bread with meat, tofu or fish stuffed inside along with chiles, cilantro and pickled vegetables. This version was decent, especially for $2.71, and I hung out for an hour munching the food log and catching up on some diaries.


Bow to the banh mi.

I had struggled mightily to come up with a gig in Houston. Monday nights are tough anywhere – a lot of likely places are simply closed until the next weekend is in sight – and I don’t really have connections in the town. But somehow I stumbled on Khon’s, and it sounded promising, an offbeat bar/gallery with a very local clientele, if Yelp is to be believed.

I was greeted warmly by the proprietor, Khon himself, and he helped me get set up in the front corner of the comfortable room, with local artwork on the walls and a big game table in the back. This table was filled with people playing something card-based and intense (bridge? pinochle? Magic?), and though there was not a single other customer in the place, their presence was lively and boded well.

By 9 pm showtime, however, not another soul had arrived, and I was feeling a bit embarrassed. I had tried as hard as I could to promote the date, hitting up all the newspapers and weeklies and public radio calendars, and even had gotten an Arts Pick selection for the night. But though the table in the back was still full of players, nobody was in the front except me and the bartender.

I killed time until 9:15, then figured I might as well play, for my own practice if nothing else. I plugged in and tested out a few tunes I don’t play very often, running them all together without breaks to avoid that shaming silence when applause should happen, but doesn’t (this is a frequent tactic). I continued in this vein for a little while, then took a break, stepping outside for a breath of Texas air before resuming.

A few tunes later, just when I was considering whether I should give it up for the night, a genuine customer arrived and plunked themselves down at the bar, expectantly looking my way. I started pulling out some of the tunes from my regular set, and after a bit a couple walked in, then another. The place was starting to feel a bit lively, and I even got a few rounds of applause.

Then, the group who had been playing cards broke up, and they started filing out. One gave me a thumbs-up and left a buck or two on my merch table, and then another chucked down a tenner, grabbed a CD and shouted “Thanks!”. They’d heard me after all, who knew?

A few more people filtered in, and though conversation started to drown me out, at least a few of the customers were still giving a good listen, and I was happy. Not bad for a Monday night.





Austin: where the weird have already turned pro.

It’s not easy for an outsider to book a gig in Austin. I’ve never had a great show in the self-proclaimed (and frequently – the slogan appeared even on the plane’s exit ramp when I touched down) Live Music Capital Of The World. I think there are just so many professional musicians here, who make their living filling regular slots in the million clubs, bars and pizza joints around town, that there is simply no need for a touring musician in the economy unless they can draw hundreds of people. (Which I’m not. You know…yet).

This time, I tried the shotgun approach, sending out messages to about a dozen venues that seemed like they might stoop down as to make room for a low-profile troubadour, including one place primarily known as a hot dog take-out counter. (Which has three-band bills every night, but still, I’m a little ashamed). None of the dozen even had the decency to respond, even with respond with a No, except SquareRut Kava Bar, which kindly offered me a gig, on a Saturday night no less. Score!

Now, you may think that I’ve spelled “kava” wrong, and that it should be a cava bar. You may be right.

Kava is a Polynesian drink which, according to Wikipedia, causes “slight tongue and lip numbing, mildly talkative and sociable behavior, clear thinking, calmness, relaxed muscles, and a sense of well-being”. Also, it tastes terrible. (Here, Wikipedia is charitable: “slightly pungent”). SquareRut serves kava, and only kava (OK, and some tea). No alcohol, because it’s a really bad idea to mix kava and hooch, apparently.

A Saturday night show in Austin with no beer may sound like a contradiction in terms. I felt a little bad inviting people to the joint, in fact, knowing that they’d be trapped in my sound-world for two hours with no alcohol to assist with the enjoyment. But I went ahead and put out the word, and people responded positively, though none had heard of kava, and some were a bit leery of passing on the invite, knowing about the limited availability of adult beverage refreshment. But signs pointed toward a decently-attended show, at least.

I arrived on Thursday, and greatly enjoyed the foods, drinks and weather of Austin leading up to Saturday. It was a little hard getting used to the fact that it isn’t really a walking town, even though it appears that way on a map. For instance, walking from 6th St. to the strip on South Congress looks like a modest eight-block walk, which should take, I dunno, ten minutes at a good pace. But in actuality it will take you at least half an hour, and in the searing Texas sun you’ll probably expire before you make it. Buses generally arrive every 20 minutes at best, and the new metro rail system only has a single line which runs once an hour, and shuts down completely from 4 pm Saturday until Monday morning. So…when visiting, pack a car.

Saturday evening, I and a group of friends worked hard to find a dinner place that had an open table for seven people, but even at the ungodly early hour of 6 pm, everywhere was booked solid. I have to assume that everyone just makes plans to hit up one of the food trucks parked in every vacant space in the city (there are easily more food trucks than actual restaurants) after taking in their live music for the night. But we finally found a Thai place that had room on their patio, and under the glow of heat lamps (hot as the days were, the nights get chilly in the desert) ate an excellent meal.

Then we got in our cars and headed south. SquareRut is located on South Congress, but south of the strip. Four miles south, to be exact. We left behind the bright lights and passed through open fields in total darkness before arriving at a small strip mall, with almost nothing around it. This was the real Austin city limits.

The space inside was bright and friendly, at least, with a good stage and decent sound system. I got myself set up, and other friends soon started to arrive. Most tried the kava, with some bravely choosing the recommended dosage of three full servings, which arrived in charming coconut half-shells. There were various flavorings available, which made the stuff much more palatable, until they ran out of everything but the straight stuff partway through my set, I learned later. The general consensus on the taste: “bitter dirt”. Or, “the water left over from washing potatoes”. Slobber!

I didn’t find this out until later, of course. I’d been warned not to try it before playing, as the potion numbs one’s mouth and I didn’t want to be drooling onstage. So I plugged in and kicked off my two sets, happy to have a nice crowd of friends as well as a fair number of kava-sipping diehards scattered around the cafe. It felt great to be onstage again, and I felt like I was connecting pretty well, though some of those diehards sat with their backs to me the entire night, try as I might to get their attention.

People had nice things to say afterward – my newest tune “Conversation With the Spirits” got some high marks – and a group of us headed for the Hotel San Jose courtyard for a beer. None of my friends reported much of a relaxing effect from the kava, even after three half-shells. Before I left, I did in fact have a sip – my lips numbed, and my tongue recoiled at the distinctly bitter taste. But given the number of other people in the cafe who were drinking it all night, with gusto, it clearly does have an audience, mysterious as that is.



This show took a lot of time and effort to come together. When I booked it back in November, the booker asked if I’d like the opportunity to curate the night. Knowing that Tea Lounge is a generally well-regarded venue, and having so much time to work with, I thought this would be a good chance to put together a really interesting night of music that would encourage people to stick around from set to set. New York seems worse than many other places in that bands show up at their slot time, play, then pack up and leave, and their entire crowd goes with them. I wanted to create a bill worth sticking around for, at least once.

I knew that a night full of solo acoustic strummers is one way to guarantee the yawn factor, no matter how good the musicians might be, so I first resolved to avoid guitarists if at all possible. I started seeking out Brooklyn songwriters who used something else to accompany themselves. Before long, I found someone who seemed perfect – a violinist and singer with great tunes and a lot of experience playing locally. I dropped her a note and she wrote back the next day accepting the slot, and suggesting a friend of hers to play as the third act on the bill. I was already familiar with this friend, a very accomplished cellist with big ties in the new music world, and in fact am a fan of her stuff. This was gonna be great!

Unfortunately, the cellist soon wrote to say she couldn’t do it due to another booking. RATS. Still, the gig was months away, so I kept looking to find a third act to complete our bill. I found some interesting people – accordionists, more cellists, even a trombonist – who are doing cool stuff that relates somewhat to my song-oriented sphere (as opposed to, say, chamber music). I sent out five or six emails and Facebook messages, and people responded with interest, but everyone had a conflict that particular night. 

I searched again, found more folks (New York has no shortage of musicians, BTW), and shot out another round of messages. Again, the responses started coming back – interested, but not available. 

By now it was January, and it was high time I nailed things down. Just as I gathered another batch of names to approach, I heard from the violinist I had onboard; she had messed up her schedule, and had to back out of our performance. Oh…rats. Now I had nobody for the night and the Lounge was starting to ask for the final bill.

I started crawling through the calendars of other Brooklyn venues, looking for anyone – anyone – to join me. I still wanted to avoid other acoustic solo guitar players, but I was running completely out of ideas. I found a few more acts that seemed to fit the basic idea, and sent them a desperate message.

Miracuously, I heard back from one of the most promising people that had popped onto my radar, a solo acapella vocalist. And she was available, AND she said that she could find friends to complete the bill. Eureka! She was responsive to my followup emails, and we soon worked out a bill with not one, but two other acts – a freak-pop band, and a “cello-jazz guitar-drums” trio. A little different than what I’d originally imagined, but a complete bill of people who were happy to play.

I immediately wrote the Lounge, and at their request put together a blurb for each of the acts, digging through various Facebook, ReverbNation, and even Myspace (!) pages to gather info. They got it up on their site, and with barely two weeks to  spare, we had a night of music. Whew. 

I turned my attention back to booking my February tour, which badly needed some time investment, and moved February 8 to the back of my mind. But then, not three days after the confirmation, I got the bad news – the freakpopsters were backing out. I didn’t even try to suppress a hearty scream of frustration (good thing I was at home…), but almost instantly remembered a fantastic band I’d seen a few days before at Rockwood Music Hall, and whom I’d discussed a possible future joint gig. I dropped them a note, and they wrote back within an hour to confirm their involvement. Saved! The Lounge updated their site, and once again, I let the night go out of my mind. 

A few days into the first week of February, I began to hear conversations about an upcoming giant snowstorm. A hundred-year-storm, one for the history books. And it was due to whack New York City on the evening of…Friday, February 8.  Though I knew that snow could cut down attendance, I wasn’t too concerned – the fact that I had my bill solid for the night was all I really cared about. And one of my first shows in NYC was at Caffe Vivaldi during a blizzard, and it turned out to be a really fun show for me and the people who came out.

When Friday came, the city was beginning to batten down the hatches for the storm, which still promised legendary proportions. A couple of the other acts called me to be sure the show was still on, and I reassured them that it would be going on as scheduled (the Lounge had already told me they’d be open all night, come what may from the skies). The weather experts predicted that the peak of the snowfall would arrive around 10 or 11, but I figured by that point. everyone would already be inside, and we’d have a nice cozy little jamboree.

By mid-afternoon the snow had started to fall, very gently. It continued on as I prepared to leave home close to 8, with the wind picking up a bit and perhaps a inch or two settled on the ground. I stopped by my friend Pauline’s place near the Lounge, to rehearse a tune we’d planned to play together (she’s a great violinist). We blew through the tune a few times, then just as I was putting my boots on to go, I got an email from the headlining band. They were worried about getting home after the storm, and were bowing out.

I hadn’t considered this possibility, that a band would choose not to appear, at the last minute. I personally can’t imagine canceling a show for any reason other than emergency personal hospitalization. And if you’re actually promoting a show, you have to consider that you’re disappointing the people you invited to come. Worse, they had promised to bring half the drumkit for the night, which was going to affect the first band. But the show must go on, so I trudged over to the Lounge, thinking that, at least, I might be able to extend my set a bit.

The wind was now blowing pretty hard, and plenty of snow was falling, though there still wasn’t more then a few inches on the ground. I ducked into the Lounge to find people at most of the tables, sipping tea, plugged into laptops, or just chatting. A very welcoming sight. I began to set up, and soon members of the first band started to arrive, another happy event.

This first band, who were scheduled to do a short 20-minute set before the rest of us, was the only one I hadn’t heard personally, and which had been described to me as “jazz guitar, cello, and drums”. The first thing I noticed was that these were clearly a bunch of rock n’ roll dudes, and when the frontman plugged in his guitar, there was nothing jazz about it. He was rocking out. I didn’t see a cello in sight, either, and when I casually asked about it they had no idea what I was talking about, though the bass player admitted that he played an upright sometimes, maybe that’s what our friend in common had noticed. Oh well. The show, you know!

Just at that point, I got another email, from the solo vocalist (the one who’d set up the first band). My heart in my throat, I opened it up, and saw what I dreaded to find – she, too, would not be appearing this evening. She claimed she’d had the flu all week, and while that’s an excuse I could consider valid, hearing about it a few minutes before showtime is not, like, very cool. And right then, after all that had happened this gig, especially so.

So there we were, after all that, my grand night had boiled down to a power trio that knew four songs, and me. But, if I need to say it again, the damned show must go the hell on.

A nice little crowd of my friends had arrived by this point, as had some pals of the band. After scrambling a bit to put together a full drumset, the fellas plugged in and launched into a loud, grunge-oriented set, ending with a bruising cover of NiN’s “Hurt”. In truth, they were pretty good at what they did, but I was finding it hard to appreciate them. This band just were’t at all what I had imagined as part of the bill (I was picturing Clogs, and was getting Soundgarden…), and my resentment over the way things had turned out lingered on. But the last thing I was going to do was to put on a lame set, so I steeled myself, plugged in my guitar and put on a smile.

After a song or two, everything else melted away, and I started to thoroughly enjoy myself. I was playing pretty well and people were listening, what else could I ever want? Pauline joined me with her violin to cover “Gold” from the Once musical/movie, dedicated to a friend, and my enjoyment went even higher up the scale. I did another solo tune to finish up (a new arrangement of “House”, an old favorite), and my contribution was done. A good feeling, after all of that.

A friend of the first band had volunteered to play a bit of solo guitar afterward, since there was nothing else going on, so I had a welcome beer and enjoyed some of his drone-based music while catching up with friends. Then a few of us lit out to find food in the neighborhood. Pushing open the front door, we saw a winter wonderland, one of those amazing times when the city emits no noise and everything is white. The wind was nasty, and the snow had accumulated to at least six inches, but it was great fun stumbling through the piles, and when we found an Italian place open with good pizza and great wine, we had ourselves a perfect end to a pretty good night, after all.





Tuesday evening, I got an email from a promoter asking if I was interested in filling in for an open slot on Wednesday night at Wicked Willy’s, a club on the (in)famous Bleecker Street. Though I’ve never played there, just last week I went to the Red Lion, a club down the block from Willy’s, to see a friend play. It was the kind of scene I expected from the strip, a mix of tourists and NYU students, both enjoying cheap margaritas, pitchers of Bud and loud cover bands. So when this email came, after a quick glance at their site (“time flies when you’re drinking rum!”) I knew what I would be getting myself into.

Still, I was up for the challenge of trying to get across to a crowd in party mode, and thought it might allow me to play before a crowd I wouldn’t normally encounter otherwise. Moreover, I had no plans for the night, and there was no pressure to try to promote the gig in the 24 hours before set time. I wrote back and accepted the slot, albeit not without a few misgivings.

I arrived in the place to find abundant pirate-related decorations, unbelievably cheap drink specials, and an acoustic duo doing a decent version of “Bye Bye Love”. The last was promising enough, though after a few more songs I realized they were playing nothing but cover tunes, each in precisely the same style. They sound was decent enough, and there were a handful of people listening to them play, though as soon they finished both band and listeners repaired together to the back room, which is dedicated to beer pong (I wish I were kidding).

The soundperson got me going quickly, and I got going with my set, as upbeat as possible. There were people scattered around the place, and occasionally I earned a glance, but by and large they had their eyes trained on a conversation partner or a football game on one of the TV’s. 

No matter what I played, there was no applause. Whenever this happens, I try to just keep the music going as it’s just too embarrassing otherwise. I blew through my dozen songs, said a “thank you for listening, everyone!” from which I drained as much irony as possible, and was rewarded with a few listless claps.

I retired to the bar, and in keeping with the spirit of the place, ordered a Rum & Coke. The modest glass arrived, carried by a bartender who requested $3 of me. Now, $3 was the advertised price for this bottom-of-the-well-liquor special…really, I wasn’t even gonna get a free drink?!? I asked her, “Wait, I don’t even get a discount?” She replied, a bit embarrassed, “Sorry, not on Wednesdays.”

I threw back the drink and slunk out of there. I’d just been told that my 45 minutes of live music wasn’t worth even the few quarter’s worth of cheap booze that goes into this crappy drink. It was a bit shaming, sure, but more than that I was just amazed that they could keep a regular schedule of musicians willing to play for nothing at all. Moreover, though the musicians are all locals, and potential customers, you can be damned sure that I, for one, will never spend a dime in that place. Seems like bad business to me – then again, it was hardly a shrewd decision to take this gig. Now I know.



(This is a little Cliff’s Notes version of the gig – 9 songs in three minutes!)

This was my first time playing at Path Cafe (named in honor, I presume, of the PATH station nearby), a little spot in the far West Village. It helped to launch the Big City Folk series, as I understand it, and I thought I’d give it a shot as I’m still in search of the ideal Manhattan venue.

It was an inauspiciously rainy and cold night, but I was greeted warmly, by name, by the cafe staff and introduced to the soundperson, a rarity in these little venues. The stage is tiny – soloists or personable duos only – but nicely elevated with a good view down the extended length of the shotgun floor plan. The funny thing is the large booth and table tucked into the corner back and to the right of the stage, which holds probably ten people. You kinda need to divide your attention between the main table area, which is long and narrow and feels somewhat distant, and the large crowd seated to your right, so close that you might kick someone in the head with an errant foot-tap.

A good crowd of my peeps had braved the miserable weather, and I started off in high spirits, with Montage. This is a pretty old tune of mine that has mutated over the years, becoming faster and more rockin’, and now depends on a heavy four-on-the-floor backbeat played with the heel of my hand. I don’t think I’ve ever opened a show with it before tonight, but it proved to be a great one to start off with, it’s energetic and fun and easy to play. I moved on to If You Won’t I Will, which has become my standard second tune in a set. I keep expanding the end, trying out different things, and tonight I think I overreached a bit, it felt sloppy, though people always seem to like it and it’s fun to bring out.

I then hauled out a very, very old song – from my Maxwell Horse days – called Passover. It’s completely different now, based on a fast fingerpicking figure, and I’ve only played it a handful of times, but it felt good tonight. I’ve found When Pennies Go To Heaven (another tune birthed in that band) to be a reliable standby that people seem to enjoy, and it’s tempting to throw it into every set, but I like mixing things up as much as possible so thought I’d sub with this tonight.

(If you’d like to hear my old band treatment, here you go. It’s a whole different me!)

As soon as I started, I realized that the vocal mic was really cranked up, and in contrast my fingerpicking part was very quiet. I could barely hear the guitar, but my voice was very loud in my ears. It made for a very different experience, as I was focused on the vocal and played around with the melody, while letting the six-string very much take the backup role.

Next was my tribute to Tucson, AZ, Drink the Desert. I tend to start this one incredibly fast, then find it hard to untangle the tougher sections in the middle. I counted it off to myself this time, and took an actual breath before starting, and it turned out a lot better. Very fun tune, power chords and all.

The Barefoot Doctor is a pretty specialized kind of tune that I’ve only played live in a recital-type setting before, perhaps just once in an informal venue like this one. It’s rather long and involved, built entirely of nonstop tapped 16ths, and though I like playing it I feel like it’s a bit demanding on a crowd. There was a nice reception tonight, but it felt reallllly long, and maybe even that dreaded word…indulgent! I may put it back to bed for awhile.

After that, a big contrast with maybe the most straight-ahead song in my catalog, Steal Your Thunder. Felt like a relief after the esoteric Doctor. Again, the vocal got all of my attention, but not in a bad way. I don’t sing well when I can’t hear myself, and tonight I was actually enjoying the sound of my own voice (not always the case…).

Then another pair of instrumentals, Craquelure, now very different from how it was recorded on Body of a Poet, with a swinging feel and a backbeat, and then So Absolutely So, which is yet unrecorded but which has become a standby in the shows. Always feels great to play, and tonight I sailed through this little fingerpicking triplet section at the end of the bridge that’s been a bit of a bear. Whew.

The last vocal tune of the night, Stainless Steel, is also the newest tune that I’ve completed. I’m quite in love with it at the moment, as usually happens with the freshest ditty, and I added some goofy “doot-doots” which were fun to do, though not sure if they’re stick around.

By this point in the set, I think people are usually ready for something familiar, so I pulled out Across the Universe, one of my favorite Beatles funes. I sometimes rock out the solo section, but tonight the guitar was so quiet that I kept it pretty whispery. Despertada por la Madrugada to finish out the night, and I was done.

Afterward, celebrated my belated birthday with a pile of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and veggie sausage, a nice group of pals and liters of Köstritzer at Loreley. Great finish to a fun evening.

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.



Kansan corn.

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.