Dawn, from the train.
The midnight train from Sacramento, CA to Oregon has become a staple of my tours. I can play a gig in Sacto, hop on the train and fall asleep, then enjoy some smashing scenery before arriving midday in the state of Dreamers.
Ross dropped me off close to midnight, and after a delay of an hour (not unheard of) the Coast Starlight arrived and I hopped on. I slept pretty well, wrapped up tight in my jacket against the typical overenthusiastic Amtrak A/C, and woke with the sun to see some stunning vistas. The Northwest can be so gorgeous, with grand ice-caps rising above pine forests and lush fields, and I never tire of it.
The thirteen-hour ride to Albany went quickly, then I had a nice half an hour to warm up in the sun before the Linn-Benton Loop bus came to take me to Corvallis. Local transportation connections like this are especially important, as Corvallis is over ten miles away and the cost of a taxi ride that distance would probably make this particular tour stop impractical. But the Loop bus, which shuttles students out to the big school in Corvallis, costs just $1.50 and comes every hour or so, which works just fine for me.
I usually stay with friends as I bop around North America, and I have a good pal in Corvallis, but his wife has been ill and it seemed better for me to get a hotel room this time. I never mind a hotel stay or two in a tour, it’s nice to have a bit of private space all to oneself, even if temporarily, and I can catch up on laundry. (I travel with only four or five day’s worth of clothing, so it’s essential to make time to wash as often as I can).
I checked in to the Super 8, had a long shower and ran a load of wash, then practiced for a while. While my standard set is 45 minutes or so, I had to provide two hours of music this night and needed to refresh some things. I don’t mind doing these long sets now and then, as I have plenty of material and it’s fun to air some of my rarely-played favorites.
After a lazy rest of the afternoon, I strolled along the charming (if a bit intentionally so) riverside walk to Cloud & Kelly’s, beautifully located only two blocks from the hotel. I’d played several times at the previous incarnation of the establishment, which proved a bit too upscale for the current economy. So now it’s an Irish bar, albeit with some fancy touches on the menu, like seared Ahi tacos alongside the fish n’chips. I devoured an order of said tacos, caught up with the owner, then made conversation with a couple of fiftyish dudes talking music: DMB, Neil Young, Allman Brothers. I suggested they stick around a few more minutes to hear me play, guessing they might dig my stuff.
I’ve been called worse.
Business has been good, the owner had told me, and on my previous visits the venue was bustling at almost any hour. But less than half the tables were full tonight, disappointingly. I figured I should start playing while there were still some people in the room, so the soundperson got me set up on the sizable stage, with a massive monitor and a chair. I like standing up to perform, but in a dinnertime situation like this it can feel kind of funny to be on my feet, so I settled myself in and started off.
The first tune is usually a good barometer of how things I going to go, both in terms of how well I’m playing and what the audience response is going to be like. Tonight the playing aspect felt great, everything felt very smooth and it was a treat to have a really good-sounding monitor blasting in my face. But hardly a soul glanced my way, and when I finished the song, there was only the smallest smattering of applause, and that led by the soundperson. Not promising.
I plowed on through the next five or six tunes, singing some and playing some, with the reaction pretty much unchanged. The football game on the TV screens above the bar was getting undivided attention, and I was getting fully ignored. I whipped out a few cover tunes, which elicted a few looks in my direction from the musically-inclined gentlemen I’d been chatting with earlier. I earned a few more lonesome claps at the end, but overall, I was…bombing.
I took a break after a desultory hour of this, took a quick walk by the river, and gathered my spirits for a second attempt. By now, only a couple of tables at the far end of the room were occupied, besides a clutch of young men glued to the scenes from the gridiron. I launched into Montage, often a crowd-pleaser, and stretched out the end into a long jam. It felt pretty great to me, and I looked out at the end with high hopes for a bit of reaction, but got nothing more than a sympathetic smile from the soundperson, not even one hand clapping. I kept on trying, bringing out folk standards, Hank Williams, even Beatles (the surest-fire weapon in any player’s arsenal) with no additional effect.
I figured I’d try one more thing, perhaps just to get a rise from the waitstaff who had seemed pretty enthusiastic when I started, and now were lounging around in the corner for want of a table to attend. I got on the mic and declared, “OK, free CD for anyone who wants one, on the table over there. Just sign my mailing list, if you want, but grab one CD if you want it”.
And with that, I Knew my goose was cooked, and cooked well, favas, Chianti, the works. It became a practice session, and I kinda turned off my awareness of the room and just played for my own benefit before whimpering to a relieved halt at 9 and making for the bar.
The barkeep didn’t have much to say about my playing, but he poured me a nice glass of Powers and talked up the local liquor- and beer-making industries. At one point he left me alone to tend to some other patrons, and when he came back he smacked a sweating can of Pabst on the bar in front of me. I stared at the tall canister of cheap brew, unsure whether he was making a joke or trying to scare me off (we’d just been having a very fancy conversation about the merits of various small-batch gin makers, and moreoever, Yuengling is as low-brow as I get), when he shot his thumb to the left and said, “He bought this for you”. I turned to see one of the young fellows who’d been rapt in front of the football game all night giving me a mute thumbs-up, as he rose from his chair to leave. I managed to stammer out, “er…thanks!” before he coasted out the door, leaving me with an imposing 16 ounces of watery beer that I was bound to drink.
To be fair, it was a genuine gesture of respect, and I should probably just take it at face value. But arriving as it did, it just kinda made things worse. It felt impersonal, even pitying. A actual word or two of appreciation, even just a name on my email list (there were none all night), would have gone so far, just then. instead, I had my silent ennui and this tallboy that I in no way wished to imbibe.
I finally managed to suck the thing down, and while close to finishing, was engaged in conversation by another fellow who did have some really nice words to say. I hadn’t really noticed him in the room, but he clearly had been listening and was actually appreciative. We talked for a long while, he being a musician and songwriter as well, and when we were the only ones left in the place I gave him a CD and told him to keep in touch.
That bright spot didn’t entirely erase the rather dark feeling that arrived with playing to non-listeners for two hours, but it did keep me from the depths. The smallest things can make such a difference on these modest tours of mine.