We packed our bus last Friday and sent it West, then spent the last past few days with our families preparing to leave them as they recover from surgery, cram for finals and struggle to finish up end of year projects. We will be absent for that transition in to Summer vacation, that beautiful rush of freedom and energy. Yesterday we all flew in to Penticton from various points, catching snatches of the Euro Cup in various airport bars: Portugal coming alive, the Dutch sputtering. We arrived in Penticton at dinner time and ate at a water side restaurant with very average, very over-priced food but with an amazing view of Lake Okanagan and the mountains that ring it. It was worth the larceny. This is the start of a very long cross Canada tour as an opening act for John Mellencamp. Despite being Canadian we have done very few cross Canada tours and we have never played in about 80% of the towns and cities that we’ll be visiting. We are approaching it as a great adventure.
Today was a long day, especially for the crew, Jared and Chris had to load in and set up at 8am. The rest of us stumbled in to the venue at 10, occupied the stage for a couple of hours to get our monitors set and generally get comfortable and then we broke it all down. We appreciate the generosity of the Mellencamp-camp, letting us use some of their production time….it’s a true luxury. I took the opportunity of some free time between production rehearsal and soundcheck and grabbed my fishing rod, rented a kayak and tried to find a ledge in the lake that some local had told me about. I wasn’t out there for very long before a thunderstorm came racing down the valley and chased me back to shore. I plan to fish wherever I can this tour, especially in BC, where highways trace the paths of wild rivers.
Soundcheck today (as it will be everyday) was at 5pm, dinner at 6:30, showtime at 7:30, off by 8:15. I love a well run ship and this one looks to be in fine trim. A little know fact is that John Mellencamp’s music was a pretty big influence on the band and an influence that we probably haven’t acknowledged enough. When we were putting together the songs for Trinity Session, Mellencamp’s albums Scarecrow and The Lonesome Jubillee were enormous hits. We listened to them a lot and his arrangements and use of fiddle and accordion was very inspiring, especially the way he used accordion. So we owe it to John for setting us off down a path that lead to Jaro and Jeff (who we initially contacted as a fiddle player). We are very happy to be along for this ride, it feels like another completed circle.
Considering that we hadn’t played together in several weeks, and we were on a strange stage, in a strange room, in a strange situation…I think our opening night rocked. My favourite part of Mellencamp’s set tonight was the audience sing-a-long, five thousand strong, during an acoustic performance of Jack and Dianne….”oh yaaaa, life goes aaaawwwaawwn, long after the thrill of livin’ is gawwwaawwn”….how great is that…..
We spent the day in a parking lot in the rain. It was a nice parking lot, and at least there was a cafe that we could run to throughout the day, but we saw nothing of Omaha. The complex where the club is located, is part of a relatively new development on the outskirts of Omaha that has at its centerpiece a beautiful Triple A baseball stadium that is the annual home to the NCAA World Series. It wasn’t a bad place to spend a day. The club (The Slowdown) was clean and well run and comfortable. They even had a washer/dryer that they let us use and the staff was helpful and friendly. It doesn’t take much to keep a band on the road happy, just a smidge of TLC….It was another very light audience, but once again they were mighty in their appreciation and enthusiasm and did their best to keep us propped up and rocking forward.
It’s one of those gigs that you look at on the tour itinerary and say to yourself, “…Salina, Kansas..??…”. You have no idea what you’ll find when you show up. What we found was another classic mid-western town with wide -streets, three story buildings with those 100 year old brick facades and not a whole lot happening on the downtown strip. While walking the wide empty sidewalks one keeps checking to see if ones six-shooter is easily accessible….no telling when Black Bart will emerge from the saloon looking for a fight. But what we also found was a beautiful venue (the Steifel Theater) and an enthusiastic, decent sized audience. We were again treated royally by the promoter and the theater staff. We had a really good show.
I’ve always liked St Louis, there is something epic about this city. A lot of its architecture reflects the cities place in the history, as the gateway to The West. It must have been quite a high rolling town in the 19th century when the expansion into the west was in full swing and St Louis was the last stop before jumping of the edge of the civilized world. Today it’s a lot quieter and like most cities and towns in the Midwest it has its ongoing problems, but there is still something vibrating here…..and they like their hockey.
One of the most amazing buildings is the New Masonic Temple which is right around the corner from tonights venue. The building is as massive as it is imposing…Sauron would feel right at home. Just around the corner is the Third Baptist church which is equally as massive and imposing….Gandalf might feel at home in the Baptists lair. In between it all is our venue, The SheldonTheater, which is inside the old Ethical Culture Society building, designed by the same guy who designed the Ethical Culture building in NYC which is a regular haunt of ours. This is a beautiful little theater. Unfortunately we had a very small turnout for the show, fortunately those that did show up were in fine form and provided all the energy that we needed to put across a really excellent show.
We didn’t come across any tornados on our drive last night, but the rain was of biblical proportions. It was an odd day today. The sky above the city swirled with clouds heading in all directions at once and the temperature plummeted. Jeff had to leave the tour for the day to attend to some matters at home and Margo’s illness got worse. The Penguins and Flyers series devolved into a WWE meets AHL event, sort of like a No-Holds-Barred cage-match on ice. There was weird juju in the air.
We had two shows tonight and the first one was as peculiar as the day. We struggled a little bit with the hole left in our sound by Jeff’s absence. Margo’s illness reared up and she had to leave the stage in the middle of Miles From Our Home, so Pete, Al and I played on (Jeff’s words of advice spurring us on, “never stop!”). A verse or two in to our instrumental version of Walking After Midnight and Margo returned and soldiered on. For the second show we reassessed and refocused and played with and around the empty space created by Jeff’s absence rather than trying to fill it and the result was a very different and magical show. We need a day off.
Day Two. NHL playoffs are in full swing with three or four games a day and our satellite gets them all. We even have a PVR to capture what we miss while we are on stage. Heaven. Jared convinced me and Al to experience our first Five Guys Burger. Very tasty. Another excellent show in front of an excellent audience…funny how those two things often go together. The Space in Evanston isn’t the best sounding room, but they have made a lot of upgrades since the last time we played here in 2010. It’s another very intimate performance space, great for the audience and fun for the band. The backstage area is about as comfortable as they come and the staff, owners and promoters treat us royally. We couldn’t ask for much more. A very, very fun night. Meanwhile, the Senators and Rangers are settling into what could be a really nasty series; Vancouver is heading towards a catastrophic collapse; the Penguins defence and goaltending seem to have vanished; and the other series are just warming up…..and, according to the weather channel, we are heading into a whole mess of tornados and severe thunder storms…woo-hoo, game-on!
This was a great way to start a tour: welcomed and stuffed by Skippy’s Sausage Stand Deluxe. It’s always a pleasure coming to Ann Arbor. This was one of the first towns in the US that showed a real interest in our music. We have many fond memories of playing sold out shows at The Blind Pig in the very early days when the only album that we had on our merch table was Whites Off Earth Now!! (we sold both the vinyl and cassette version!!). The Ark is our home in town these days, it’s a great room to see a band, very fun to play and they have Bells Two Hearted Ale on tap. We probably should have done two shows, but we’ll settle for a jammed packed, enthusiastic first night house. We had a great night, despite the fact that Margo isn’t feeling great…the energy and enthusiasm of the audience lifted her up….but….. back to that sausage stand….
Margo, Jeff and I did an early afternoon recording for the radio show Acoustic Cafe, which is always an enjoyable experience and by the time that we arrived at the venue, Skippy and his crew of Chef Rob and sous-chef Major Mike were already cooking up a storm. We were treated to a lunch of that Sausage Stand classic; sausage sautéed in peppers and onions (with a splash of bourbon) and a bowl of tasty, spicy gumbo. When we returned, after soundcheck, for dinner, Skippy and his crew had raised the bar to new heights. In honour of the completion of our ambitious Nomad Series, Skippy had designed a menu inspired by the four albums: glazed scallop over miso noodles; grilled salmon; strips of beef; peach cobbler; and several other tasty sides and sauces. It was pretty spectacular and darn tasty too. Skippy is pulling up stakes in these parts and heading west to settle in Des Moines to be near his daughters and grandkids. So it looks like we’ll have to start planning more regular trips through the heartland. A great beginning to the tour…let’s just hope that Margo recovers quickly.
It was a very fun night tonight. Thank god, because last night was torture. We drove through the night, up and down and across and over and around the Allegheny Mountains . I lay in my bunk for hours trying to counteract the G’s. I even tried some kind of homeopathic sleeping pill but that only made things a little foggy. I should have taken a real one. No sleep…it’s such a leveler. So I stayed as stationary as possible today, outside of visiting Jared’s groovy new studio/clubhouse. Fortunately, Skippy was in town on a business trip and he set-up a makeshift sausage stand out back of the venue, so I didn’t have to go far for dinner. Besides being close, the food was no doubt better than anything any of the restaurants on the square could have offered. Man, that dude cooks an awesome sausage. He was also cooking salmon and a couple of other things on what looked like a Hibatchi…he is unbelievable…I couldn’t hang very much because I was so exhausted and needed to preserve the little energy that I had. Showtime was easy….the audience was fantastic and immediately infused us with their enthusiasm. We had lots of little technical glitches on stage but the energy from the audience was enough to keep us on track. Another night of fun. Thank you Boston (or Somerville or wherever the hell we were).
I slept till 1pm. There is definitely something stalking me….I only need to keep it at bay for a few more days. Kind of a nothing day. The Keswick Theater is a nice old venue but it’s in a very non-descript suburb of Philly and there isn’t a whole lot to do or look at or walk to while one waits for the work day to begin. I commandeered one of the theater staff and made a run up to an outlet beer store and bought a case of Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA and a case of Red Hook Long Hammer to bring back home. Due to the draconian liquor laws that we live under in Ontario, we can’t get any of the beer brewed by all of these great independent breweries down here. Occasionally they will allow one or two brands to be sold in our government controlled liquor outlets but usually at about a 50% mark-up. So I stock up whenever I can. At showtime my insides were under siege, the battle had begun. It made for a very difficult show on my end. I think we played ok…it was a little laid-back, but that’s not always a bad thing. The audience seemed to be having a good time and that is the ultimate goal. This was our last of three shows with Joe Purdy opening up. It was a pleasure listening to him and hanging out with him each night. I’m sure we will cross paths again somewhere down the road. Back up 95 for one more show.
Charleston is home to the NPR show Mountain Stage. It has been a staple in our touring lives for the past couple of decades. This was our ninth appearance on the show. It’s gratifying to know that a show that caters strictly to live music can be as successful and survive for as long as Mountain Stage. It means that there are still people out there that have a thirst for music in its most basic and raw form. We thank the listeners and the dedication of all the people who make this show work. It’s never an easy gig. There is a live audience of about 400 people and usually four or five acts on the show. Each act has anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes to get on, do their thing and leave. So you never really get comfortable on stage, the sound and positioning of each player is not in your control, like it is for a regular gig. So things are usually a little stiff, sometimes a little forced. We felt we had a decent showing tonight…not great, not very deep in-the-pocket, but an adequate impression of ourselves. We hope to be back in a couple of years to collect our 10th show-appearance jackets.
We have a quirk in our schedule that has left us two days off in a row in Harrisburg PA. This city wouldn’t have been my first choice for two days off, probably not even my second. The city has all the bones and tools for making it a great place to visit; the Susquehanna River at its doorstep (the city has done a great job at developing the riverside with pedestrian walkways and parks); some beautiful 19th century buildings (including a half a dozen spectacular churches); an incredibly beautiful and opulent Capitol building; it’s well located in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch Territory and within relatively easy reach of Philadelphia, Washington and NYC…and yet, there is something missing. The downtown is clean and efficient but there is very little to do at street level. There is hardly any interesting retail to speak of, very few restaurants, coffee shops or places to just mill about in. There is no energy or vibe downtown….like a lot of government towns, it seems that the bureaucrats come in for the day and empty out by 4pm. But we made the best of it. Most of us slept away the first day, allowing our bodies to recover from six shows in a row. In the evening a few of us ventured off to a highly recommended BBQ joint around the corner from the hotel. The food was overcooked and dry (and all of us ended up waking up at 4am with heartburn), but the restaurant had one of the best beer selections that we have come across in a long time: Dogfish Head and Stone IPA on tap, and dozens of obscure, excellent independent brews in the bottle including some of our favourites like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and Southern Tier IPA, so all was not lost. I also stumbled across Scott Pilgrim Vs The World on HBO and watched it for about the 5th time… one of the great unheralded movies of the past few years…it’s a film full of energy, intelligence and fun….. true entertainment. My daughter has gone out on Halloween as one of its characters (Knives Chau) for the past two years and my son took up bass playing because of the movie. A lot of it is also filmed in our neighborhood, so I have a soft spot for it. If you are in need of letting things go for a couple of hours, or if you just want to remember what it was like to be young and full of angst, check it out.
On day two of our marathon we secured tickets to see the Flyers vs Red Wings (a big thank you to Liz Campanile, our PR rep for going on fifteen years, who worked the phones until she got through to the right person). Our driver, Sid, was as keen to do something as we were, so we bought him a ticket and we took the bus on in to Philly. Many thanks to the good folks at the Wells Fargo Arena that were able to squeeze a 65 foot bus and trailer in to their parking lot and found 9 tickets in a row. It was a decent game (although the Wings were without their top forward, defenceman and number one goalie and the Flyers were without their captain). The home team hung on to win 3-2 so it ended as it should. There was a retirement ceremony for Mark Howe’s number at the beginning of the game and Mark’s father Gordie was there for the ceremony. Seeing Gordie Howe made the whole trip worthwhile. On the way home we finished off the first season of Justified, which is a fun way to waste some time if you spent your youth watching shows like The Rockford Files, Magnum PI and Columbo. And that’s how we killed two days in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Tonight’s gig was our first with Joe Purdy opening the show (he will be doing so for the next two shows as well). The Whitaker Center is a beautiful theater/complex in downtown Harrisburg (a relatively recent attempt to bring some life back in to the downtown). It is a beautiful sounding room and stage. Unfortunately we had a very light turnout tonight. I think people living in this area probably have more pressing things to spend their dwindling dollars on. But those that did show up were very vocal and enthusiastic. We had a decent night on stage. We may have lost a bit of focus near the end of the night but overall I think the energy was good.
We’ve been coming to Norfolk for years now and we have watched this city grow from being an ugly little wart on the face of the enormous naval base that houses the Atlantic Fleet, to being a very sharp little burgh with lots to recommend it as a tourist destination. A lot of US Naval history emanates from this port, it is also a very short ride to the Jamestown Settlement, the Yorktown battle site, numerous civil war sites and only a few miles from some very nice beaches and a beautifully maintained wetland preserve. They have also poured tons of money into developing the downtown and waterfront area. It’s not a bad place to base yourself if you want to explore this part of the country. When we first started coming here we used to play a club called The Boathouse. It was a rotting old club set on the derelict waterfront….a real dive. I think locals have fond memories of the place because it played host to a lot of acts as they were coming up the ranks, but it was not a pleasant stop on our itinerary. In the early nineties we did a very fun and successful tour with John Prine. We played at the small arena downtown and one of the crew got held up at gunpoint just outside the stage door. Our next stop in this town was a downtown club (I think it was called The NorVa). It was a huge step up from The Boathouse but it was a cold, box-like building and not a lot of fun to play. Our new home in Norfolk is Attucks Theater, a very nice old theater on the edge of downtown, with lots of history and character. We’re slowly moving up the ladder. It was a really nice size audience tonight and very enthusiastic. We weren’t all that pleased with our show. The eighth show in nine nights kind of caught up to us and were a little unfocused and sloppy. Bring on the Red Bull…time to dig in.
It was a spectacularly beautiful day: a little chilly, but full of sunshine. There was a very nice energy on The Mall in Charlottesville. Many cities have tried the downtown pedestrian Mall as an attempt at bringing up a neglected part of the city, but few have succeeded. The downtown Mall in Charlottesville seems to have worked. There’s a nice combination of retail, restaurants, at least three music venues and an old independent movie theater. It’s an inviting and friendly place with lots of reasons to visit. We hung out all day and spent a bit of money on breakfast crepes and crappy birthday toys for Margo’s son Ed who has been out with us for the past few days…. today was his birthday. I gave him a supreme wedgie for his birthday. He didn’t appreciate it, but I think it’s the only present that he got today that he will remember ten years from now. I figure that since he doesn’t have any brothers he needs his uncles to supply the necessary childhood rites-of-passage, like wedgies. We had another sold out show tonight. This was our first time at The Jefferson Theater and it was a very good experience: very friendly and helpful stage hands and backstage help. I don’t know how we played tonight, but we had fun and it sounded like the audience had fun…and that’s about as good as it gets. We love this town.
It’s always hard getting started again and it isn’t getting any easier as the years pile on. One has to put all of those niggling details on hold; tie up any loose ends that won’t keep for a few weeks; help to co-ordinate ones family-life to ease the guilt of leaving. Yes, guilt. It’s not just because you are abandoning your family for 2 ½ weeks, it’s mainly because it’s so darn fun. Bye honey, bye kids…Dad’s going off to Camp. And once you get rolling it’s like you never left.
We start in Ithaca. It’s one of those classic up-state New York cities, but with a twist. From my point of view, upstate New York is one of the most depressing places in the country. Maybe it’s because I live just over the lake and I spend a lot of time travelling through this area, but I am always shocked at how depressed these cities and towns are. Home to the kings and queens of industry 100 years ago and now left behind to rot in all their elegant splendour. The twist with Ithaca is that there is a thriving economy on the hill above it (in the form of Cornell University) and down here in the valley there is a thriving hippie community trying to turn this town around. Let’s hope that the community above supports the community below.
As I have written many times in these diaries: the first night of any tour is always stressful. It all comes down to trying to remember how to do this: how to sleep on a bus, how to spend the day preparing, resting, sightseeing, rehearsing. And that usually takes one or two gigs….so these first night gigs can be a little rough…..very occasionally, transcendent. Tonight we were just ok. We kept it together, we did our gig, we definitely worked hard and I think most of the audience had a good time. But we were just ok.
West Long Branch
Sometimes all it takes is one gig to shake off the rust. Tonight we were way better than ok. We were in Bruce’s hood and were well aware of it. The house where he wrote Born to Run, Thunder Road and Backstreets was just around the corner (http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2009/12/long_branch_cottage_where_bruc.html).
It rained and snowed and sleeted and haled all day. Horrible. Margo and I did a really good interview at Brookdale College’s public radio station, 90.5. It so refreshing to do an interview where the one asking the questions actually gives a shit about your answer, is actually interested in your music and is curious about it. Thank you Rich Robinson.
We had a rockin’ good gig tonight. A small but mighty crowd. Camp is fun.