Uncommon Ground, Chicago IL

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.