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Diary entries are posted in reverse chronological order.
Oct. 12, 2009 -- Elbo Room, Chicago, IL
Sunday was our one day off of the whole tour and it was delightful. We all slept in late and then Jon and Teresa went to the store and made a humungous breakfast, which we all ate at about 4 in the afternoon. Charlie and I did the dishes later. The day was so indolent compared to the prior rush of activity that it felt to all of us like New Years or Thanksgiving. We watched more Old Grey Whistle Test, and started on A Hard Day's Night when Steve and Jamie came home and we started heading for bed.
The drive to Chicago was uneventful, though we had a certain amount of fuss getting Teresa's bass cabinet, my 12-string and Stagepas PA speaker FedEx'd back to L.A. When we got to Chicago we all dined at an Italian place Charlie had heard of that served pizza pot pies. They were awesome. The place totally lived up to the hype.
The Elbo Room was where I was when I found out my brother died last year. Tonight was a happier event with a better crowd, though not without its bittersweet moments. There was a lot to like about this show; a good bill with friendly bands, the kind you're always happy to get to know. Rabbit Children even let us play on their gear. As for the show, it may have been the best of the tour. It was certainly the most focused and I felt sharp and energized after the day off. My voice was a little hoarse, but it was only problematic on the solo version of "Portland" which I did on a whim but worked well except for the spots my voice gave outx. "December 24" was also plagued by some sound problems that sounded like Trent Reznor was running the board, but those were quickly resolved. The remainder of the show was fast paced and focused solely on originals. My stage patter was probably more bitter and cynical-sounding than I'm known for or that the audience was used to hearing, but it was what I was feeling and I don't think it hurt the show at all. It just seemed appropriate, somehow.
And here's the thing: as pleasant as the show was (and I enjoyed what I was able to see of Help Desk's closing set), it was case in point in why I'm pretty much over playing major markets or doing things the way I'm expected to do them as an indie artist. The whole touring musician thing is predicated on the assumption that everyone involved is either a short-timer, doing things off label money or, most likely, subsidized by a day job. Only in the DIY punk communities and to a lesser extent the singer-songwriter community is there an understanding that to keep your craft going over a period of years, you have to make ends meet. If you're within striking distance of a major market like Chicago you're supposed to play it, and ten or even five years ago I could muster a decent draw here, but that has steadily dwindled and my own turnout to this show was pathetic, despite what's supposedly a pretty healthy fan base in Chicago on paper.
I'm going into this because people don't understand why my reaction to "hey, you're doing what you love," or "God, it's great, you get to see the country" gets greeted with a cynical grunt from me....because buried in that statement is the assumption that that should be enough, and being a musician is just a fun undertaking and as long as I'm having fun, that's what matters, and we musicians can just go on this way indefinitely and that's the only thing we need to worry about...actually, that it's somehow gauche and inartistic to even think about whether we're getting a decent return on what is an immense amount of work and sacrifice if you do it well.
Now, in my world, I quit a lucrative job a year and a half ago because I had some artistic business to take care of and also some taking care of myself to do. No regrets about any of that. But, focusing on this tour, I had a great time, and a lot of the innovations we tried to make it pay, to save money, and to have a good time with it worked. I loved touring with Jon and Charlie. But I still lost about $400 a week doing it, even with all that, and at this point in time, I have no steady source of income. To give you an idea of how that breaks down, let's look at the Chicago show, the show I "had" to do to make it a credible tour. I could have easily ended the tour in Indianapolis and sent the band home the next day. Keeping it going the extra two days cost about $140 for the van rental, $40 in extra gas, and $100 in miscellaneous expenses including keeping the band on an extra two days. So close to $300 to go to Chicago and play our hearts out for 45 minutes at the Elbo. We didn't draw enough at the door to get paid, so we got zip from the club. We sold one CD at $15. So that's the return on that effort, for going out of our way to play in the market for people that, by and large, did not show up.
Now that's cool if you're 19 and you're in your first garage band, or if you're just a weekend warrior taking a run around the bases for fun...and that's the assumption a lot of people operate under. But if you're one of those people that's decided that this your life's work, and you have an obligation to keep it going as best you can, and you've put your livelihood at risk to make it happen, this kind of math is just silly...which is why it may be quite a while before I play Chicago or New York again. I want people to understand that this is nothing personal. I'm not bitter or angry; this is just the way things go. But it's not just everybody else that has to do what they have to do... I can't come huge distances and put a band on the road and play at a loss if I don't get that much out of a show other than warm fuzzies, nice as those are. I have to go do what's going to pay the bills and keep my heart and soul and music going. I have to take care of myself. No one should feel bad because they had other things going on in their lives and couldn't make a show or buy a CD; but at the same time, people need to understand why I can't keep doing these kinds of tours and stay afloat. We made some good strides toward making touring a band profitable this time out. A lot of that is by thinking out of the box and going for different kinds of gigs and not hitting the obvious places. I have to keep things moving that way, and that might mean disappointing some people who might like me to play where they are. I want everyone to know that it's nothing personal, it's just basic economics and not wanting to feel like a chump.
Ironically, I'm really excited about returning to and focusing on playing live as much as possible. But I'm going to have to make some very hard-headed business decisions from here on in. I feel like I've done my artistic due diligence, and I've done the best I can to get the stuff out there. Now, I just want to keep playing. But to do that, I have to get back to making it pay.
After the show it was a mad dash to O'Hare to put Charlie's name on the rental agreement, and then a marathon drive back to Allentown for him and Jon, with Teresa and I dropped off at a delightful hotel room that seemed like a minor vacation. We ordered pizza and took stock of a tour that was satisfying in a lot of ways, and offered a lot of guideposts for the future.
Oct. 10, 2009 -- Locals Only, Indianapolis, IN
We all awoke considerably refreshed and hit the road for Indianapolis in the early afternoon. The first part of the drive was consumed by a search for a Skyline or Gold Star Chili to get a 5-way, a search helped by the Blackberry, but not as much as you'd expect, since it kept leading us to places that had closed. We finally found what we were looking for in Louisville. From then on it was a straight shot up I-65 to Indy.
The last few trips to Indy we'd generally played a larger venue, Birdy's, but we decided we want to try something new this time and hooked up with a local band, Odyssey Favor, who was suggested to us by an old L.A. friend who had moved back to Indy, Katie Robbins. We'd never played Locals Only before, but it was only a few blocks away from where we were going to crash, with our friends Steven Hayes from the Common and his wife Jamie. We blew into town about an hour early, got changed, and headed to the club. There was a nice vibe and a good crowd from the start, though things started fairly late. Odyssey Favor opened up and did about an hour of hard-to-classify indie pop. Super nice people and I really enjoyed getting to know the various members of the band during the course of the night. For that matter, the whole crowd was friendly and we did the most socializing we'd done the whole tour.
Our set came next and though it was well-received I found it a little frustrating because we came out pretty high energy and didn't get much of a response until the end, when I really went for it in the old Cockeyed Ghost style, jumping off the stage and pounding the guitar on "Then I'll Be Happy" and even going off on a few Jim Morrison-y rants in a few songs. I used to do this stuff in the old Cockeyed Ghost days and it works, but at this point I'd like to just stay out of the way of the songs and let them speak for themselves, but in some venues I don't know if that's possible...ironically the acoustic shows went far better in terms of engaging the crowds strictly with the songs. I'm starting to wonder if the Blackberry might finally kill off rock 'n' roll, because I've noticed this tour a proliferation of people just sitting there reading while the band is playing. I'm as guilty of this as anybody -- I was excited when the Trio came out because I was having to spend so much time in clubs as part of my job but a lot of the times I was just sitting there doing nothing as a lame band played on -- but it doesn't seem to matter if the band is good or bad or whatever, it's just becoming more and more background music. Anyway, I'm getting a little irritable from having done so many shows in a row without a break, don't mind me. I'll get over that -- it's just a function of putting out so much energy to get such a small return sometimes --but I do feel like there's an assumption more and more that a band is JUST entertainment, it's all a taking situation, and the audience has no role to play other than receive. I've been taken aback the last few months at how many shows I've been at where I know full well the band is playing good and the audience is enjoying it, but when you finish a really rocking song, few of them even bother to clap. That's just shocking to me.
Anyhow, having said that, Locals Only was a good show and certainly the most successful one we've had in Indy for a while. The final band, Weeds of Eden, were shy a drummer, so Jon sat in with them and did a phenomenal job. Weeds of Eden won me over as they looked like a quite frumpy, middleaged white married couple and they got up and just played a lot of post-grunge punk rock with a great deal of love and authority. Having a great drummer didn't hurt, either! Super nice people, too.
We finally had one day off the next day, and I was tired of Jon and Charlie getting all the good drinking in, so I proceeded to get really smashed. We headed back to the crash pad (the Hayes' being out for the night) where Teresa made food, Jon and Charlie tried unsuccessfully for what seemed hours to make the big screen TV work, and I crawled around on the ground and wondered about bed spins: I'm looking straight at the bookcase, and it's moving, yet it's not going anywhere, and it never resets itself back to zero. How can it be moving and staying in the same place at the same time? After things mellowed out a bit we all stayed up 'til nearly dawn watching DVDs of a classic British music TV show, The Old Grey Whistle Test. It was inspiring yet, at the same time, sad, because it represented a time when a lot of people really cared about music, and supported it, and as a result even the minor bands were full of very good and inventive players. It was a central part of peoples' lives in the '60s and '70s, was revitalized by the new wave, and then a steady decline from the introduction of the CD (one of the biggest music industry screwings of the consumer in history) and fall from the deregulation of radio. People like to blame downloading, but I think it's only to blame in that the labels were so heavyhanded and ridiculous they alienated a whole generation of potential consumers. And now, here we are. What a bummer. I do believe, like any unsustainable situation, that it will change for the better some day. I view our current situation as very much like 1960, before the Beatles, when everything was about teen idols and the single ruled supreme. But when and how will it change? I hope I'm around to see it and be a part of it. Things seem a little grim to me right now...not for me specifically, but for music in general. Good bands are out there -- they just starve now before they can ever grow and develop into something great. I've wound up attracting acclaim just for being able to stick it out and grow and get better over all these years doing my own thing -- I attract attention just because that's so unusual now. If you want good music, that state of affairs has to change.
Oct. 9, 2009 -- Lynagh's Pub, Lexington, KY
After resting up from the previous day’s grueling schedule the four of us met in Bloomington to regroup and deal with a problem we had discovered the previous day. The club we were playing in Lexington that night had a PA with mains but no monitors and no mics and we only had 2 mics with us. We need four. We had made some calls that morning and the day before to people we knew in or near Lexington who might have mics we could borrow, but had yet to hear back from anyone so we decided the best course of action would be to rent two mics (with stands and cables) before leaving Bloomington since we were back in Indiana the next night anyway. We found a music store in town who kindly agreed to rent us the mics for a fair price and of course as soon as we get almost out of town to head to Lexington, one of the folks we’d called earlier came through with what we needed so we turned around and went right back to the music store to return the mics so save our selves a 50 mile out of the way jaunt on Saturday to return them.
The drive to Lexington was scenic, in spite of the rain. We took a two lane road for part of the way and went through a lot of cool old towns. The only disconcerting part was how close to being flooded the road was in many spots. Once we hit Kentucky, I took over driving from Jon (I stand a good chance of getting arrested in Indiana if I am pulled over…long story) and we got to Lexington fairly quickly. We arrived at Lynagh’s (a strip mall Irish Pub that has been around for nearly 40 years) early enough to take advantage of their half off food for dinner and then once the diners had been cleared off the stage, we began to set up our gear. Jon Grossman, a local musician Adam knows from the Counting Crows tour days, who was also putting us up for the night, dropped off two mics, stands, cables, and a monitor on his way to his own gig at a different club. Unfortunately the monitor Jon brought had no amp to power it, and neither did the club so Adam had to get creative with the Yamaha Stagepas that had been functioning as Charlie’s keyboard amp for most of the tour. After a quick call to Steve Refling to make sure what he was about to do wasn’t going to blow anything up, Adam wired the monitor through the Stagepas and it worked great. One of the louder monitors we’ve had this tour.
The crowd at Lynagh’s was fairly light to start, though peppered with some of our own folks, including Rand and Phillip, who had driven out from Cincy. We started the set with originals and while we played well, it was fairly low energy and the crowd (with the exception of the folks there to see us) was polite but fairly apathetic. They perked up a bit for The Beach Boys covers, particularly a cook at the club who was a huge Beach Boys fan. Another highlight was when we performed "Float On" by the Floaters. One of the bouncers told me after the first set that first of all, he couldn’t believe we had the balls to do that song and second of all that we actually did it well. When we took our break after the first set, more people started filing into the club and it was getting fairly crowded. I talked to Adam during break and told him that he seemed a little low energy and listless for the first set. We’re nearing the end of the tour, and while not as grueling in a lot of ways as some past tours have been, we haven’t really had any kind of break at all and it’s started to wear on us, particularly after the long early drive from New Brighton to Bloomington the previous day.
We started the 2nd set by playing "Long Promised Road", for the cook who had requested "Surf’s Up" (which we do not know). Then from there we busted into the rock. After running in place throughout "Like Other Men", Adam seemed to wake up. From then until quarter after 2, he was completely on, totally rocking the house, reading what the audience wanted and then basically throwing it in their faces. We did a few more upbeat originals, which went over fairly well, such as "Lied" and "Then I’ll Be Happy", then from there on out it was pretty much all covers. Where the tide fully turned and we got the crowd completely on our side was when Adam decided to have us bust into "Rapper’s Delight". I had hastily learned the bass line during our three days of rehearsal in Bethlehem a few weeks ago, but we had yet to play it on this tour. If ever there was a time for that song, it was then. As soon as we started playing it, people came in from the other room and formed an impromptu dance floor in front of the stage. Adam rapped through all the lyrics he could remember and then, when the crowd showed no sign of wantintg to stop dancing, he put down the guitar, picked up his blackberry, looked up the lyrics and proceeded to recite them all. At one point someone started break dancing in the middle of the floor, then went into the other room. Adam called him back out and challenged him to a dance off and then proceeded to do a Yoga sun salutation. It was hilarious. After he was out of words he made up his own little rap about the tip jar, which was about when people started to finally drift off the “dance floor”. “Ha, I outlasted you!” was what they got for that.
We played through lots more covers, including a hybrid of “Rock and Roll All Night” into “Shout”. In the middle of that a woman yelled out, “Play some Ramones!” and we seamlessly busted into “Rockaway Beach” then back to the Kiss/Shout medley. Adam was totally working it, dancing with the crowd. During the surf instrumental, he started to drink a beer through a straw on the ledge of the stage while playing the solo. Inexplicably the glass fell and broke in the middle of the song, splattering beer all over Adam and his guitar causing me to call for a clean up on aisle 7. We did lots more covers, some we’d done before some we hadn’t, and some that turned into other songs mid way through. We also played "Jolly Joe" again, which was getting better and better live.
Up to this point a few people (mainly the ones we already knew) had dropped a few bucks into the tip jar, but not very many. A cute blonde college girl came up and put a dollar in during the long, slightly sarcastic ending anthem of "Hey Jude" so I called her back and asked her to take the tip jar around the bar, which she did very thoroughly. She returned, not only with a full tip jar, but with full tip jar with a $50 bill on the top. She told us who it was from, two guys at a table near the back, and Adam later found them and gave them some CDs. We wrapped up the night well past 2 am. I think we ended up back on "Hey Jude", (Adam: I think we wound up playing "Raspberry Beret" for some reason) but I don’t really remember now. The bar showed no sign of slowing down as we began packing up, but soon last call was announced. Jon came back from his gig and led us to his parent’s house, one of our nicest crash pads from last year, where we all got our own rooms which we soon passed out in.
Oct. 8, 2009 -- The Blue Bird, Indianapolis, IN
This doesn't count as one of my worst-ever days on the road, because nothing really bad happened, but it wasn't fun. We had a 6 p.m. soundcheck in Bloomington, 430 miles away, and we had to get up at 8:30 a.m. to make that. I lengthened the drive a bit more by making a bad routing decision, but it did have a silver lining because it took us back past that amazing bakery that we'd found the previous week, so we pulled off the interestate to go back, which was about the only plus for this drive, which was nearly non-stop and through some crummy rainy weather. I played with my Blackberry and the others napped.
We did make it to Bloom in time to nab a quick dinner, having eaten basicallly nothing but pastries all day, and then hit the Blue Bird, a great club and the biggest venue on the tour. It was an early show set up by uberfriend and fan Jeff Green, at whose house GO WEST was conceived three years ago, and he was disappointed that a lot of the promotion that he'd attempted for the show didn't pan out, but I was glad to be playing in front of a small crowd of music-receptive people and also that it was going to be an early night. My energy was low and my voice, while not as bad as it was in Harrisburg, was sketchy enough after the short night of sleep that I had to really concentrate on hitting the notes on some of the songs, particularly "My Pain." Charlie was also in hell because his keyboard monitor kept winking out, and the sound guy never did get it straightened out. Other than that, I would say we did pretty well, even if we didn't put out a ton of energy. We did bust out "Jolly Joe" once again, this time almost getting it right (I forgot one line).
The band rocks out in Bloomington (Photos by Chad Martin)
Afterwards for some odd reason given the long day, everyone wanted to split up and party. A friend of Teresa's had hooked Charlie and Jon up with a downtown hotel room, and both Teresa and I had friends in town we wanted to see, so we all took off in separate directions. I was the only one who hadn't had a nap and so I was only able to hang out for an hour before I crapped out and caught a ride back to Jeff Green's, picking up Teresa on the way. Jon and Charlie stayed up drinking most of the night, and had various adventures, including deliberately invading a college sports bar to watch the local students in nighttime action. I don't know how they did it. I could barely stand by the end of the night.
Oct. 7, 2009 -- Wooley Bully's, New Brighton, PA
After the marathon recording session on Tuesday, we tried to take it as easy as possible for the first part of Wednesday, because we knew we were going to have a fairly grueling schedule the next few days. We slept late, and took a leisurely path towards Pittsburgh, stopping off for a meal, some paperwork at Akron airport to put Jon on the van lease as a driver, and a late afternoon hike in a beautiful park near New Brighton, our destination of the night. We were all weirdly fascinated by a completely manic, insane song on my Ipod, "Can't Stop Dancing," by Captain & Tennille, and A/B'd it to some live Zappa music from 1980 that Jon had on his, and decided that there were definitely some similarities though the Captain & Tennille song was more disturbing.
We'd had an amazing show last year at Wooley Bully's last year, our first show with Jon, and since this year was owner Jay Wooley's birthday, we anticipated more of the same but nothing ever quite works out that way. We were somewhat tired but played well (Charlie had some trouble being heard), but I could not get the audience to engage. It was kind of weird since it was so different from the last time we played there. The folks there treated us super nice, but it was just one of those nights where the audience is into its own head and doesn't give back much, though we had a few people that were paying close attention, and a few fans, and we appreciated that. I don't know what else to say about it other than we ran through our bag of tricks and it all was about the same. The one noteworthy set change: the first-ever performance of a HELLO CLEVELAND song, "Jolly Joe (The Polka Man)," which was well-received for all of its two minute span. Special thanks to Greg Matecko for providing a working PA for the gig and Jim Schepis for lugging it up there.
After the show, we all went up to the small musician's quarters/office space that adjoins the club to get some sleep. We had an early day and a long drive the next day and we were all really tired, but Jon and Charlie happened upon a DVD of The Last Waltz in their room. The Band has been a running theme on this tour as Jon has been reading Levon Helm's autobiography in the van and he and Charlie have been discussing them at length, so this seemed karmic, and so they stayed up until 5 a.m. watching it.
Oct. 6, 2009 -- "Hello Cleveland" Recording Session
or, How to Record an Album In Nine Hours
OK, so here's how a whole album appeared out of nowhere in the span of less than one week.
Teresa, Jon and I were driving back from the Binghamton gig and I was grumpy for reasons that wouldn't make sense to you if you didn't grow up where I did and have the life I've had. We stopped off at a rest stop just as Jon had cued up one of his friends on his Ipod, recording under the name Rumplestiltskin. "He stayed up all night with a bottle of gin and recorded all this stuff," he said.
"Wow, that's great," I said as we headed for the urinal. "You know, I always wanted to get my band together, rent a studio for a day, and get them all drunk and roll tape."
On the drive back to Bethlehem, with Jon providing an inspiring diet of Fugazi and the Descendents to stir my thoughts, for some reason the drunk session idea wouldn't leave my head. It was looking like our gig in Detroit was going to fall through, which was going to leave us with two unwelcome days off in Ohio. I was enjoying the band I was with and I liked the idea of renting some little studio and spending a day getting drunk and jamming instead of sitting around somewhere doing nothing.
After the New York show, which got me irritated for a different set of reasons (which probably wouldn't make sense to you if you weren't a musician who had been through the whole album-tour-go-home-broke cycle a few times), my thoughts shifted away from a drunken jaunt in the studio to wanting to do something with this band and on this tour other than go around and kill ourselves doing nightly shows for a minimal number of people, many of whom don't care all that much about what we're doing. I had grasped that the one bit of power I've wrested for myself from doing things the way I have, is the ability to do whatever I want whenever I want to do it. I may not have the success some other musicians have, but I have a lot more freedom. What's more, with GO WEST done, I had in a lot of ways made the album I always wanted to make. There was no point in doing it again, and I didn't propose to break my heart over it. It might take years for people to catch on to it, if they ever did. I'd done all I could to get it out there, the rest was in the laps of the gods. If people weren't into it or didn't wind up hearing it, well, not my fault. I had done my job.
So on the way to the gig in Pittsburgh, driving all day in the rain on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I started scribbling furiously away in a little notebook. Usually my lyric writing tries to be thoughtful, balanced, and to avoid taking an obvious, easy position, but now I just tossed all that out the window and let rip with everything that has been increasingly annoying me lately, fairly or not: peoples' wilful stupidity, the way we treat entertainers like ragdolls for our amusement and/or ridicule rather than as real people, the venal idiocy that passes for political discourse and news reporting in this country, and most of all the complete devaluation of music as something that's important or central to peoples' lives. Except, I didn't put it as highfalutin' as that. I just pissed all over everybody and everything that caught my attention. For instance, a kid that was too slow making coffee at a horrible donut shop by the Turnpike got in my crosshairs. By the end of the afternoon I had a book of funny but vicious lyrics. I read some of them aloud in the van to the band and they were all busting a gut over it. At that point I thought I had something. Just making people laugh wasn't enough, though, I was also shooting for an underlying point to it all (or else it's just a bunch of cheap shots) and I think I got at that, too. On the same drive, I had a conversation with a producer/engineer Bill Stone of Paranoid Lovesick (a Cleveland band we had been friends with back in the old days) had worked with over the years and we came to an agreement for a day rate for his studio and engineering. Bill Korecky had a long list of credits and was best known in death metal circles. Perfect. While we were in Columbus we had dinner at a sports bar (which drew fire with the song "Sports Bar") and the four of us sat around a table and "wrote" a song by each taking a bar and deciding what chord(s) and time signatures to play in, a musical version of the telephone game.
Basically, this was going to be my what the fuck! album. I wasn't going to worry about who I would piss off, who would be offended, or if anyone would like it. The worst that could happen would be the usual it being ignored by most of the critical establishment (probably just as well in this case) and alienating a lot of my small fan base who hopefully would get the joke and forgive me (or that it would be terrible in which case I could just not put it out). I wasn't going to overthink anything, and I wasn't going to allow myself the time to question it or improve it or arrange it. It was just going to be a pure vent, straight out of my id. Given the subject matter, recording venue and my general mood, the title was obvious: HELLO CLEVELAND
The session was set for Tuesday. It was Sunday. So far, except for a few vague ideas, I had no music at all, just a book full of lyrics. When we got to the Barking Spider (after taking time out in a run down district of Cleveland to take photos for the album artwork) I sat down at the grand piano and banged out some of the ideas I already had and wrote down some chords. As soon as I got to the crash pad I ran downstairs with the 12-string and the notebook to continue. Good ideas just came out of the air, so fast that I was coming up with things almost as soon as I sat down and picked up the guitar. I recorded everything on my Blackberry, and by morning, I had 12 songs pretty much together. Musically, I didn't know how to describe them. I'd originally had in mind something like Black Flag or the Descendents, just punk rock alternately silly and angry, but it wound up being a little more complicated than that, particularly when writing music around the scansion in the lyrics for one song required a verse in 11/8 and a chorus in 7/8. Jon said later the songs collectively reminded him a bit of Frank Zappa or Ween. There was a bit of late '60s garage soul in there too.
As soon as we got up, we all convened in the living room. I dashed out chord sheets for all the songs and Charlie and Teresa transcribed them. Then we started running the songs based on the chord sheets, Jon notating tempo as he went along. We spent all afternoon at that, then Bill Stone picked me and Jon up to take us to the studio to get a look at the layout and also for me to lay background vocals down on the Paranoid Lovesick archival album project they're working on there.
It took about an hour and a half to get up to the studio which was near Kent. Bill Korecky was an interesting fellow, I had a sense the session might start out a little weird as he got used to what we were doing but it would all work out OK. Ironically, the studio was easily the biggest and most sophisticated I'd ever recorded my own material at -- far above the studios I work at in L.A. This crazy project was going to get the major label studio treatment, at least for one day.
I was able to lay down a pretty cool vocal harmony for the Paranoid Lovesick record, which was good considering I'd now been singing for 13 days straight, and it established myself a little with Bill Korecky. He and Jon also put together their heads about the drum sounds and it was clear they were on the same page. Then it was time to head home and get some rest.
We all got up at 11 and frantically ran the songs one more time, then headed up to the studio to set up camp. We had 14 songs on the agenda to record, which should give you a sense that if GO WEST is my PET SOUNDS, HELLO CLEVELAND would be my SMILEY SMILE.
The Worst Thing (That I Ever Did)
The Night I Bought Micky Dolenz A Beer
40 Year-Old College Student
Dave Matthews Again
Jolly Joe (The Polka Man)
A Town Called Asshole
My Name Is Jonas Brothers
Batesville Casket Company
Flight Of The Stinkbug
As soon as I plugged into the massive guitar amp and then heard the tracks played back in the control room, I realized the project had taken on a life of its own, because the sounds were rock writ large, a much more bombastic sound than I'm known for (at least lately). Bill K. (who was shortly joined in the studio by Bill S.) had done his job getting great sounds together quickly, although as soon as we started playing it was clear the two of them were baffled by what we were trying to do. Bill S., who's known me for years, had probably oversold us a bit to Bill K., session guy that plays with the Wrecking Crew guys and all that, and seemed worried that I had completely gone off the deep end. With the exception of the few songs we did while we ran levels, the first time Bill hit "record" was the first time we'd played through the songs as a band. Jon Braun is a hell of a drummer, very intuitive and intelligent, which is one of the reasons I wanted to try this, since without that it would totally fall apart. It had some rocky moments at the start, but we got it together after a few tries.
We blew through the songs quickly, though not without accumulating a number of takes for each one, but once we had something that basically worked, we moved on and didn't worry about the small stuff. We'd ask Bill K., a perfectionist, what he thought of a take and he'd generally shrug his shoulders in bewilderment. Bill S. had brought in an old amp of his with an interesting vibrato sound and I switched to that for a few of the quieter songs. It worked particularly well on the random writing song, "Flight of the Stinkbug," for which Charlie came up with an interesting mellotron patch and the vibrato complimented that. I actually had a lot of fun on that one, stringing together all these weird chords. It reminded me of some of the art rock bands that play at Taix and the Echo and hail from Silver Lake.
After four hours we wrapped all 14 tracks and turned our attention to the vocals. I talked Bill K. into setting up for doing the backing vocals and lead vocals at the same time. He was understandably dubious about that, but I pointed out that we'd never played the songs before, and we'd be working them out as we went along, and if we went back to overdub them we might take too much time even finding the spot in the songs to punch them in. He saw the logic in that and set up a backing vocal station and headphone amp facing my lead vocal one. He got it set up amazingly fast though we still lost about an hour on that and some other technical but necessary stuff.
Now came the challenge of, after 13 days shredding my voice on the road, getting a good lead vocal in two or three takes on songs I had never sung before and in some cases had a ton of words close together and a loosely defined melody. Oh, and arrange backing vocals on the fly. The first song, "The Night I Bought Micky Dolenz A Beer," looked to be a disaster as the attempt to do harmonies off the cuff collapsed in a heap. Teresa and I are used to this, but Charlie and Jon aren't, and the first few tries were pure cacophony. I could imagine Bill K.'s eyes rolling in the studio, but luckily Bill S. (who sang lead in Paranoid Lovesick) was there and I dragged him in to be the third harmony, benching Charlie and Jon until it came time to do gang vocals. On a few songs we did more of a gang vocal thing where everybody sang, and on a few others I literally ran over from the lead vocal mic to the backing vocal mic to add a harmony to the choir, and then ran back to the lead vocal mic to pick up the lead vocal. It didn't look like my voice was going to make it after I struggled through a so-so "Hello Cleveland" (amazingly, the only track of the 14 that when I laid down the lead vocal sounded like it would need a lot of postproduction work to get it up to snuff), but I picked up from there and was in really good rock vocal form, shredding my voice on the punk rockers, having the right amount of hoarse cluelessness on goofy songs like "Jolly Joe," and managing a Carl Wilson-y turn on "AM Gold," the one truly pop song on the whole album. Having said that, a lot of the songs had big pop choruses and, as Charlie Zayleskie pointed out, a certain stupid anthemic quality that might inadvertently make them successful. The gang vocals on "40 Year Old College Student" were truly stirring, and I managed to sing the tricky lyrics over the 11/8 verses without consuming too much time on them. More importantly though, as I sailed into the vocals for "A Town Called Asshole" and "Jolly Joe" the control room erupted in laughter (Teresa said the band was on the floor for a lot of it, and I was too a few times) and the light went on for the two Bills, as they started to understand just what the hell we were doing. Or if they didn't, that at least I knew what I was doing and hadn't completely lost my mind.
We went forward at a breakneck pace but laying down lead and backing vocals for unfamiliar songs took some time and things looked bad around 9:15 (the session was scheduled to end at 10, and though overtime was possible Bill K. was clearly burnt out from recording for 8 hours with almost no break, so we didn't want to push it too far), when I was about halfway through the vocals and I got hung up singing the tricky verses to "Sports Bar," and then into the complicated jam band spoof (with a hysterically genius Jon Braun drum track that he hated because he was basically flailing trying to think of a complex enough part to drive the song) "Dave Matthews Again," which came uncomfortably close to winging it, but after that, things went quickly and smoothly and we wrapped the vocals before 11. I would have liked to try a few overdubs, particularly tambourine, but I knew we still had to make copies of everything, and Bill was fried. This was a totally different kind of session for him, but once it was done, he seemed to have enjoyed it, and most importantly, he did incredible work keeping things going and got us amazing sounds, much more than we bargained for. He cut us a great deal, too. My only regret is not getting a tambourine on a few of the tracks. I could overdub it, I suppose, but I like the idea of just keeping everything to what we cut on the one day.
It was past midnight when we stumbled out of there. I had been on my feet, playing or singing, for eight of the last ten hours, and was pretty woozy. The rest of the band were in similar condition, but we felt pretty goddamn badass. We had just recorded an entire album in 9 hours, songs we'd never performed before, songs I had written in the space of three days, and it wasn't a bunch of shit we farted out on the spur of the moment, either. They were tricky, new songs we'd had to bat out with no margin for error. We felt really badass for doing it and the music itself was pretty badass. It wasn't in-jokey or half-baked enough to be a novelty record, but it also didn't fit neatly into my own work though a few of the songs sounded a little like early Cockeyed Ghost. It kind of had that Zappa thing going on but it wasn't as snide as Zappa or as kitschy as Ween, just mostly angry or disgusted or both, and in that the nods to the past (garage rock, '70s pop, punk) were more respect and affinity than pastiche or parody (the nods to the present were more sarcastic, though). We were all a little bummed we wouldn't get a chance to hear it for a while, since we hadn't had the time to do any rough mixes, but that also seemed right, somehow.
As we drove through the Ohio darkness on our way to a midnight meal (since none of us had had time to eat, either), I felt like the experience had changed me somehow. GO WEST was the album I had been trying to make for 20 years, and now I felt like I had done what I had set out to do when I was a kid. Now here was something new, something that came out of nowhere, and I didn't feel like I had to explain it to anybody, or that I owed anybody anything. I spent most of my life trying to acclimate to the rest of the world, and now at the other side of the process, I felt like I was standing apart from everybody else once again, but this time, it was from a position of strength and independence, not from weakness. That's kind of what the recording represented to me.
Now watch this goddamn album be a hit and I'll be playing "A Town Called Asshole" the rest of my life. It's all too easy to imagine a room full of frat boys singing along to it or dancing to "Jolly Joe" or the chorus of "My Name Is Jonas Brothers"...but you know what, if it comes attached to a check, I'll take it, I guess. Because as I said, I've done my job, I've been true to my art, I've done all I can do with the resources I have. Once I get home I have to focus on being able to feed myself. So from now on, what happens, happens.
Oct. 4, 2009 -- Barking Spider, Cleveland, OH
Who Knew IPAs Were That Strong
After chatting with Chuck Oney (our crash pad for the night), listening to some tracks off The Vague's years in the making forthcoming album, and claiming our complimentary Oney t-shirts, we made our way to God's own Whole Foods in Columbus off Sawmill Road. We'd all agreed the previous night that we would seek one out and stock up on Kombucha and other healthy snacks while we were within striking distance of a Whole Foods. None of us had ever seen such a vast and well stocked Whole Foods (or probably any other kind of store for that matter) in our lives. Row after row of amazing looking food, every kind of freshly prepared for you food you could think of (including a sushi bar) and not one but TWO coffee bars. We were all so overwhelmed that it took us quite some time to find the few items we each needed to purchase and we all got a bit lost in the rows and rows of organic goodness. We wondered out loud why hell LA didn't have a Whole Foods anywhere near this amazing and yet Columbus, Ohio did and decided it must have something to do with real estate values. We finally all made our way out with our purchases and began the drive towards Cleveland.
After staking out The Barking Spider and figuring out how the heck to get into the strangely laid out parking lot, we decided to drive towards downtown to try to get some photos for Adam's crazy idea, which is consuming more and more of our lives the last few days. We found some interesting spots and snapped away with a new camera I had purchased from Best Buy along the way. At least one of these will turn up later I'm sure.
When we returned to The Barking Spider to set up for our early (7:30 set) there were only a couple of people in the room, but we were pleased to find a fairly nice PA and ample mics. While setting up, Adam was working on his new idea. The room was a small, wide, but shallow bar that had half coffee house/half college old timey bar feel to it, and happily, wi-fi.
As 7:30 approached a few more people, including Columbus music goddess Anastasia Pantsios, our old friend Bill Stone, Beach Boys fan, Drew, and three of my cousins began rolling in. It looked like it would be a small but enthusiastic crowd. Still hyped up on the new songs forming for The Idea, Adam was all ready to try one of them out right then and there, but as soon as we started to get going, the owner of the bar came up and reminded us that it was a small room and we didn't need to be loud. A bit crestfallen, Adam copped a bit of a 'tude (vowing not to rock tonight) and we launched into a quietish, but very well performed set mostly consisting of songs from the new album. We also took a few requests, including Kickass Life and Ludlow 6:18, and our set went by very quickly. About half way through, a good number of people wandered into the bar, which was happy timing for us because it was right before the bartendress started passing the tip jar. The set was well played and well received and we were all pretty pleased with our performances and how well we could hear in that environment. As we started breaking down so that Rio Neon, a very interesting mix of something between The Folksmen (A Mighty Wind) and The California Navels, could get their set going, I went out to the van with my cousin Mark, who was very kindly to be putting us up for the next 3 days to go over the directions to his house, and in the meantime I apparently missed the spectacular destruction of our merch light as Adam knocked a music stand onto it. The word I kept hearing was explosion. By the time I made it back in there was only the red remnants that the poor bartendress was sweeping up left. We then proceeded to pack the van with our gear in the rain and head back to the bar to check out Rio Neon.
Besides the explosion, what I also missed was the information that the bar was providing us with free beer. My three male bandmates, however, had not missed this tidbit and were all already well into their second or third beer by the time I figured it out. Being the only driver on the van at present, I knew I could only have one, so I got it and then camped out in the "game room" in back with my computer (we were told not to have them in the main room while the band was playing). About 1/4 of the way into my beer, I noticed I was already starting to feel a bit tipsy. That's IPA for you. When I went back into the main room to check on the guys, I found Adam at the bar working on his flirting skills and Jon and Charlie sitting at a table with several beers in front of them and very happy looks on their faces. They were already drunk! I returned to my nook in back and was later joined by Adam who wanted to use my computer. I turned it over to him and we were soon joined by a patron of the bar who got into a political discussion with Adam regarding the listenership of Rush Limbaugh vs. Mother Jones. In the meantime, I had pulled out some pitas and humus purchased from Whole Foods earlier as a snack because having had no dinner the IPA was really starting to get to me...and I'd only had half - if that! After helping me eat the pita while continuing his discussion with the bar patron, Adam somehow managed to drop his beer right on my computer keyboard. He blames the pita dust on his fingers. He managed to tip the computer up and drain the beer out quickly and it didn't seem to be damaged. Luckily I was mostly amused.
While all the computer/pita fingers/beer drama was occurring, Charlie and Jon were continuing to consume free beer and looking happier and happier. Finally, having told my cousin we probably wouldn't be more than an hour or so behind him (this was before I knew about the free beer) I prodded the guys into heading to Wooster. Once in the van, we had a heck of a time getting out of Cleveland. We seemed to hit every light and some of the signage getting to the Interstate was a bit unclear, but with Adam's help (who is a surprisingly good drunken navigator) we did finally get on...the whole while I'm getting half more annoyed and half more amused by my drunken bandmates who are getting progressively louder and funnier. About 10 miles down the road, which is non-stop construction and has very few exits, Charlie announces that he has to pee immediately and anywhere. There was nowhere to pull off for several miles and then when I finally did it was a totally residential area with no gas stations and no discreet places to pee. After driving around a bit with Charlie and Adam arguing about where was and was not an appropriate place to urinate publicly, we finally found a compromise spot between two housing areas and all three got out to relieve themselves of beer. I used this moment of quiet to call my cousin and let him know how far out we were and to see if there was a place where we could pick up a pizza on the way to their house since we hadn't had dinner and beer definitely needed to be soaked up a bit. Before I could finish the conversation the three loudly returned and my cousin generously volunteered to pick us up a pizza since everything would be closed by the time we got there.
After quite a bit more driving and ipod surfing, we finally arrived at my cousin's house. He and his wife, Stacey, were still up and greeted us and got us settled in. The guys were disappointed to find that they had no beer in the house, but I have to admit I was ok with that. Adam immediately headed down to the basement to start working on the music for the songs he'd written over the past day or so. It was amazing how quickly he whipped out a whole bunch of music and hooks. He came up and sang one to my cousins before they went to bed, called "Jolly Joe." By the time we went to bed he had music for 13 songs done. None of us could believe it. We then all retired to our respective sleeping quarters knowing that we needed to get up and start learning the songs so we could hit the studio on Tuesday for Adam's crazy idea...an entire new album, to be recorded in one day.
Oct. 3, 2009 -- The Tree House, Columbus, OH
We got up well rested at the home of our fan Jim Schepis', who provided us wonderful hospitality, then we had a long leisurely drive to Columbus. We stopped at a local franchise called King's, where we were all fascinated by their signature dish, a "Frownie," a brownie with a mean-looking frosting grimace iced on its face. For some reason this restored my faith in humanity. We also had a great hike at a state park -- I hadn't realized how beautiful that part of the state was -- and also some mind-blowing pastries at a mom and pop donut shop we discovered in the middle of nowhere. Charlie was bummed because the old lady running the place refused to make him coffee, but other that than it was an incredible find. A great day. Then we had dinner with some friends of ours (including megafan and supporter Rand Richard) that had come up from Cincinnati to see the show.
The Tree House (formerly Andyman's Tree House) is an old stomping grounds from my touring days, and the Vague, who set up the show, are old friends, so it was something of a homecoming. We had the big draw of the night, with a decent turnout of our friends and fans, and there were some people I hadn't seen in awhile. Contending with the Tree House's primitive PA and non-existent monitors meant this wasn't one of our better shows -- "The Big Bear" was particularly ghastly, with a strange midrange overload occurring in the middle section so that our offkey vocals along with the muddy sound created a auditory balloon so oppressive it seemed to have a physical presence, something none of us ever seemed to remember experiencing before -- but that was hardly the point, as the crowd greeted us warmly and were glad to have us there.
The band rocks out at the Tree House. Adam and Teresa have "mic condoms" (socks) to keep from getting shocked. (Rand Richards photo)
The crazy idea that had popped into my head three days before at a rest area was now asssured to become a reality in just a few short days, and I announced it from the stage to the assembled crowd. No one believed me, and even after the show people came up to me and said, "you're not really planning to do that, are you?" When I assured them that I was totally serious, they still couldn't decide if I was kidding.
Chuck Oney from the Vague had put together the bill, calling it "International Pop Undertow," and that suited the loose vibe of the night. The Vague did their Cheap Trick-induced power pop thing, abetted by a drummer who did a Blink-182 kind of thing that gave things a little extra propulsion. It was the best I'd seen them in recent years. The closing band was a very polished (particularly in comparison to our sets!), classic power pop kind of band (think the Rembrandts or Gin Blossoms) called the Smith Brothers. I particularly enjoyed the guitarist's high harmony singing. At the end they did a cover of Rapsberries' "Tonight" and Chuck and I both enjoyed chiming in to make a ragged four part harmony.
Oct. 2, 2009 -- D'vine Bar & Lounge, Pittsburgh, PA
A pivotal day in the tour as we rented a minivan to take the best westward to Chicago. This went without incident, though Jon got an inspection ticket on his way home after driving us to the airport to pick up the van. With the amount the gear had been downsized, with fit everything including our luggage and extra bedding into the van with no problem, though it took us a while to get underway as we had to wait for the replacement bass head to arrive. Then it was a quick stop at a health food store and then underway for the 300 mile drive to Pittsburgh. Since she was the only name on the rental for financial and lease reasons, Teresa was stuck with the tedious and nearly non-stop drive, which went through mountainous terrain and miserable weather on the narrow Pennsylvania Turnpike. During the drive I dug in with mad enthusiasm working on the new project that had popped into my head two days before, making final arrangements over the phone to make it happen and furiously scribbling in my notebook, periodically coming up for air to update the band on my progress and get their approval.
Everybody is starting to get excited about the crazy idea.
We had had a few frustrating openings in the schedule that came to conclusion today. Our proposed Detroit date, which had been on and off for over a month, finally and irrevocably fell through, but we also finally were able to fill the one open weekend date. Teresa had been up late after the Binghamton gig spamming every club in Pittsburgh -- where we were planning to spend the night regardless -- to see if she could find a show that would pay our gas, and found a taker, an upscale wine bar with its own PA in a suburb north of Pittsburgh. It was going to be a long night (three hour show) working against a big hockey game with a local team, but with a small guarantee and nothing to lose but our voices we decided to give it a shot.
We made it to D'vine Bar & Lounge with about an hour to spare before our scheduled set time. There was a decent little crowd there but as dinner crowds are wont to do, they mostly cleared out once the band started. We spent a little time figuring out the PA and finally got a good monitor mix going, and I'll tell you what, the room can be virtually empty (as this one was) but as long as I've got good monitors, I'm happy as a clam. My voice is continuing to hold up and the band continues to tighten, though one song briefly fell apart as a stink bug dive bombed first Teresa and then Jon. We kept things quiet for the first set, no real surprises though "Don't Worry Baby," the Beach Boys cover we basically threw together, continues to sound more and more amazing, and "December 24" gets better every time we play it.
The second set we had a small influx of local fans yelling out requests, so we took a few more chances here. We did a surprisingly decent verison of "Long Promised Road," and then arranged the band's vocals on the fly for "Portland" and they did a pretty great job pulling together the harmonies on the spot. I also did "Go West" solo at the piano, and in response to a Beatles request we busted out something we had half-jokingly rehearsed, a spot-on cover of "Hey Jude." Charlie had actually worked out all the correct inversions on the piano and with the harmonies and 12-string it sounded much closer to the record than I had expected (or intended, frankly). When we got to the big ending, I stepped on the distortion pedal and the sound the 12-string made through that and my little amp was AWESOME. Couldn't believe how great it sounded, it was like something Brian May would come up with. Speaking of the mighty Lunchbox, at one point I asked a member of the audience to find my guitar amp onstage. He couldn't do it.
In the end, it was a fun gig. It was a nice stage, the people treated us good, the monitors were adequate, and we made our gas money. And see, that's all it takes to make me happy, really. It's not so much to ask!
Oct. 1, 2009 -- Fat Baby, New York, NY
After consulting with the owner of Teresa's bass head (which we had rented for the tour), we decided to try it at one more show (tonight's) and make a decision whether to switch it out for another one before heading out of Bethlehem for the second leg of the tour, from which Teresa and I would fly home, so it would be our last chance to make the gear switch. The owner of the amp thought it was probably bad power at the gig, but I was dubious...it had sounded more like a short to me. But I figured we'd roll the dice on tonight's gig since it was working fine now.
We got into New York well in advance of the gig, stopping off at Jon's favorite falafel place and then looking around for parking. Teresa bought a winter coat; I bought a belt. Then the club opened up and we loaded in without too much trouble.
Tonight's gig kind of sums up the state of my career. It was a really tight, emotional show focused on the GO WEST material that hummed right along (we had started late and I didn't want to push into the next band's time). The feeling in the room was great and the booker and the band that played after us (Doug Ratner and his band, who did an awesome set), were super nice. Michael Mazzarella (ex-Rooks), who was in the audience, kindly said that "it was the best show I've seen in the city in five years," and we went over great with the assembled, decent-sized crowd.
And yet, we barely made enough to cover our trip into the city, and our own individual draw was the smallest I can ever remember it being in New York. (Teresa's bass amp did indeed conk out near the end of the show, but we just ran her through the DI for the 12-string and finished up without missing a beat) I stated aloud a thought that to most serious indie musicians trying to hawk their new album must sound like blasphemy -- but why do I need to come to New York or Chicago to play if I can't muster enough interest to pay the bills? (A shout out to Rachel at Fat Baby...it counts for so much if the person running the club just appreciates that you made the effort to come out and play).
That sounds bitter, but bitter's the wrong word. Resignation is a better one. The fact is, I am having a great time on this tour, because I didn't focus on the things I'm "supposed" to do to promote an album (like sticking to major markets and trying to get into trendy clubs that pay little or no money), but the things I enjoy doing, the places I enjoy playing, and the people I enjoy playing with. I knew I had to tour behind GO WEST, but I didn't propose to kill myself physically or break my heart over it. I knew GO WEST was a great album, but also a risky one in that with its length, diversity and complexity, just not enough people would catch on that it would attain a critical mass, or if it did, it might take years. Sometimes you do something you think will be the right move in the long term, even if it seems unwise in the short term. This was one of those times.
I can tell by the way the band sounds and how the songs are going over that I have the goods with this album and I'm putting it over live. But you need more than just being good. You need people to relate to you, and once you're at that point, enough people actually have to hear you. That's where things like blogs and magazines and radio stations come in, and although that situation has improved for me over the last several years (GO WEST has gotten added at 100 college radio stations so far, which is the best performance I've had in years, but it's still a ways short of making an impact), I think around ten years ago I got evaluated by the music powers that be as someone who was on the wrong side of the line between people that matter and people that don't. If you make a fantastic album and you're a new artist, you might get written about, but if the fix was in about you years ago, and you improve steadily over the years, it doesn't matter. Unless some big outside thing happens, no one's going to pay attention. Because you're irrelevant.
I really believe that if the quality of my work is high enough, that perception will change with time, but even if it doesn't, I'm doing something I enjoy and I'm good, and the point of this tour has been to accept the things I can't change -- I've done everything I can reasonably do to get GO WEST out there, and if it doesn't get beyond my little cult, I can't do much about that except keep plugging away -- blow off the things I don't like, and focus on the things I do. And so I'm having the best time on this tour that I've had in years. Go me! I don't mind playing little taverns and smoky bars and proving it every night. That's what rock 'n' roll is all about...bringing it authentically and doing things on your own terms. That's a covenant I intend to keep.
And meanwhile, the crazy idea that came to me in the rest stop the night before kept growing and nagging at me...and I made a few calls to some people I know, and a crazy idea came one step closer to becoming a foolhardy reality.
Sept. 30, 2009 -- Cyber Cafe West, Binghamton, NY
Jon, Teresa and I made it up to Binghamton in time for me to grab coffee and a chat with my mom, and then we headed over to the Cyber Cafe in the city of my birth, Binghamton, New York. I've done many shows at this coffee house over the years and it's always gone well and tonight was no exception, though we had a scare as Teresa's amp malfunctioned before the show, which irritated her to know end since she had blown not one but two amps before leaving L.A., necessitating expensive repair. We were able to borrow a (massive) bass amp from a band that was playing there the next night, and the show went on as scheduled and to a nearly full room.
Soundchecking and the bass amp situation pushed us late and we got on about 8:30, so we just pushed through in one big long set, nearly all originals. I would characterize tonight's show as professional. It didn't have the passion of some of the other shows (the exceptions being "My Pain" and, by request, a solo version of "Portland"), but it was tight. My voice maintained its upward trend and I was singing really well most of the night, and the band is continuing to lock in. We tried "Don't Worry Baby" again and nailed it to the wall this time, and "December 24" went beautifully too. I'm still not satisfied with "Despair" and we left it off the set list again tonight, but everything else got played on our originals list. The sound and mix were also excellent. In terms of stage banter, there was another re-enactment of the "Run Joey Run" crime scene, and some other off-the-cuff stuff I don't remember, except for a long riff about shoveling snow in upstate New York when I used to live there. The crowd were generous with the tips and it was a decent night all 'round.
On the way back to Bethlehem Jon treated us too his IPod, a steady diet of Fugazi, the Descendents and the occasional Barry Manilow. I was digging it and gathering inspiration. While we were pulling into a Pennsylvania rest stop he played a particularly demented recording of a friend of his' that gave me what may be a genius idea that I excitedly began to convey to the other two. I don't want to give it away since if I don't do it, I'll get you all worked up over nothing and if I do do it, you'll find out soon enough anyway and I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise...but stay tuned.
Sept. 29, 2009 -- Funhouse, Bethlehem, PA
By far my favorite gig of the tour so far, even though it took place in a tiny bar with less than a dozen souls and an oppressively smoky environment. We did two sets covering three hours and the show rivaled some of the Chaos Band's best "50 songs" shows in the similarly earthy (though less smoky) Buccaneer back in L.A., for both its tightness and its looseness. The band nailed just about every song it attempted, with Jon surprising us by adding key harmonies at various junctures. We started out with a low key mini-set of originals (I was delighted to have a decent monitors and my voice even further improved from the previous night) that went over well, and then we launched into another mini-set of '70s covers that got irreverent real fast as I staged a reenactment of the murder scene in the song "Run Joey Run" with a member of the audience. If I had been a prosecutor, Joey would have fried as I showed conclusively the version of events in the song could not have happened. Anyway, that was the kind of spirit we proceeded in, alternating between earnest and rocking originals and tongue-in-cheek covers. We attempted "Despair" and "December 24" for the first time this tour with mixed results ("December 24" was the better of the two), managed to not destroy "Big Bear" (except for the final harmony, which was flawless in that were all precisely a semitone flat), and slayed on "Good Vibrations" closing the first set. The second set was a little harder because the smoke content in the air seemed to have doubled, but after wheezing through the opening salvo of "This Is Hard," "Like Other Men" and "Big Big Yeah," things settled into a great groove and by the time we got to the garage rock closing section, it was like flying a great plane on cruise control. We didn't even notice the time go by and it was nearly 2 a.m. by the time we finished.
One cool thing about this tour is that I have, with only a few exceptions, completely confined myself to guitar. This has been really good for my playing, I've been steadily filling in the holes in my technique and this time through I'm determined to finally master improvisation on the guitar (a weak point for me...I usually write my solos the same way I write songs). I've been refreshing my memory of the scales on the guitar and during set up they had the satellite radio tuned to the jam band station which was fun because I got to noodle around along with the record endlessly. The light started to dawn and I really enjoyed the few songs where I got to make up solos on the spot, usually a pro forma exercise for me involving a lot of flailing around and first position pentatonic bullshit (which works 99% of the time, mind you, I'm just bored with it). When we got the ending of "Then I'll Be Happy," where I usually do this rapid fire thing that passes for shredding at the end, I actually started to authentically shred...kind of surprised myself there. Anyway, point being, I can tell this tour is going to really help me grow as a guitar player. I love that!
After the gig it was a short drive home...three blocks to be exact...to unload the gear at Jon's house. Then Charlie headed back up to Binghamton to take care of some business, with the three of us to join him the next day.
Sept. 28, 2009 -- The Galaxy Hut, Arlington, VA
The small Galaxy Hut venue in Arlington, Virginia has been around for years doing music on Sunday and Monday nights only. I have some sentimental attachment to the club because this was where Cockeyed Ghost wrapped its SCAPEGOAT FACTORY tour back in 1999...the tour that went on despite our record company collapsing and was the transformational moment for me in terms of seizing my own future as a musician independent of label support. That had been a great gig and I've had a soft spot for this club ever since and I'm glad I finally got to return, 10 years later.
The Galaxy Hut is tiny and things were a bit chaotic as Memphis 59 (whose awesome drummer, Chris Czogby, had met me on that long-ago tour, stayed in music and recently got back in touch, and was instrumental in getting this gig together) set up our backline and we put up our stuff around it in the small space. Things got worse as a couple walked in with the man wearing a Dennis Wilson T-shirt (we hadn't had time to work up any LONG PROMISED ROAD material for this tour) and we discovered we were one mic shy (Jon and I had agreed to bring one along but each one thought the other was handling it). Turns out though that Jon had brushed up on "Long Promised Road" for the tour even though we hadn't practiced it, so we made a hasty readjustment to the set list to accommodate it and did a rushed vocal rehearsal in our by-now-familiar rehearsal space of the sidewalk in front of the club.
Between my own peeps and Memphis 59's, we had a pretty full room for our show. I had practiced some vocal warmups during the day and was relieved to find my voice was basically back to normal other than being a little raspy. It didn't hurt that the Galaxy Hut's primitive PA system was bright and blasting, so I had no trouble hearing myself...funny how it's often the smallest clubs with the sketchiest PAs you can hear yourself the best at. Tonight's show was the reverse of the prior night's because I thought it was really good but my impression of the crowd was they thought it was a decent, but not spectacular, gig. If I'm right on that it may have just been that we didn't close as strongly as we could have...we're having trouble finishing "Lied" and "Cut and Run" with the right kind of flourish, but I thought the first half of the show was really strong, and we did manage a decent version of "Long Promised Road," with the harmonies more or less in place thanks to some mic switching at the last minute. Once again the strongest tunes were "At the Bookstore," "1 in 4" and "My Pain." "At The Bookstore" in particular sounds better with this band than I think it has ever been played.
After our set Memphis 59 came on, and they did a tight set of country-flavored rock and roll. I was very impressed by those guys, and of course grateful that they got us the gig, particularly Chris. On the business side, the show wasn't quite as successful as the last few but it was still better than I had expected and I'm optimistic that we'll be able to at least clear enough money to pay for the van rental by the time we have to get it. This is great. Making a profit on this tour will require something akin to an inside straight, since I want to make sure that Jon and Charlie are amply rewarded for the extraodinary time and effort they've put into making this happen, but we may just pull it off if things keep going well. Knock on wood, linoleum, and any other available surface.
After the gig we elected to make the 200 mile drive back to Bethlehem. The reasoning was that, since the next night was a long gig in Bethlehem, Jon's hometown, it would be easier on all of us to bite the bullet, get home and rest, and then have all the next day to relax and regroup. We put this plan into action and I DJ'd the IPod all the way home, trying very hard to pick songs annoying enough to keep everyone awake. I forced them all to listen to the entire David Geddes ouvre (did you know there was a video for "Run Joey Run?" There is) and Jon was particularly disturbed by the song "Judy Mae" (a tale of stepmotherly lust) by Boomer Castleman, and by "I Wanna Pick You Up" by the Beach Boys. Charlie and I also have been high on the Elton John BLUE MOVES album and we've been turning on Jon to that. God help me when Jon gets his turn at the IPod...
Sept. 27, 2009 -- Stage On Herr, Harrisburg, PA
As a way to further economize, we'd arranged to backline the bass and drums for the next two shows so all of us could make the trip in Charlie's car. We've managed to streamline our gear to the extent that even with all four of us and Charlie's large keyboard there was ample room for everything, and we made the short trek down to Harrisburg for tonight's show without any real problems.
Stage On Herr is a new venue that had been recommended to us by our friends in the Jellybricks, but I didn't know much about it nor what to expect, other than that I'd been told it was really cool. When we got there, we discovered it was a side door in a big old building in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood with nothing but a big chalk board out front to show that there was anything going on within. It did not look promising. So it was with some shock that we walked through the door, went through the hallway and opened into a spacious, well-appointed room with a large stage, upscale decor, fine art on the walls and a fully stocked, elegant bar. There was also a healthy crowd of people mostly in early middle age and once again I was very happy that we seemed to have lucked into an interesting place to play full of people that were receptive to the kind of thing I do.
The show was largely brought about because of the enthusiasm of Bill Nork (and booker Thom Bissey, who was sick and could not make it tonight), who I met on my first trip to Harrisburg with Cockeyed Ghost in 1999 and whose recently reformed band the Gliders was opening the show and backlining our band. The Gliders played a tuneful set of low key power pop in which the various members rotated the lead vocals and it was clear that their fans were happy to see them back. Then it was our turn.
We did an 11-song set, shortened from 13, because my voice was shredded for this show and I really sang like ass for the first half of the set, and I didn't want to push my luck at the end of it. My pet peeve lately has been monitors and how impossible it is to sing every night with the way most clubs have their monitors set up...I never really gave this a lot of thought in the old days but now that I've gotten more hands on with engineering I have identified a key problem with the way most clubs do live sound, particularly the nicer ones. The house guy will typically want to have the smoothest sound possible and take feedback completely out of the equation, which generally means a midrangey mix and quiet monitors with the top EQ'd down. This may be fine for those in the audience but if you're onstage singing every night, it's the quickest way to kill your voice because you get your pitch from the top of the frequency range. If you can't hear that, you're just going to wind up bellowing and oversinging to hear yourself. This isn't directed at Stage On Herr specifically, it's just a general gripe of mine, because I've discovered if you have bright monitors, you don't necessarily have to have them very loud (so they won't feed back) and you can basically sing all night without any problem, and I enjoy the night so much more. But convincing sound guys to take the bottom out and jack up the upper midrange in the monitors runs contrary to all their instincts and is not an easy task, and the more you try, the more you look like a prima donna for fussing about the monitors so much. But it is SOOO much easier to sing onstage with bright monitors and you don't need them very loud when you get them. But anyway the bottom line is, my voice was fried, which had a destabilizing effect on the whole band sound, and this was the loosest show of the tour so far.
It didn't seem to matter though because we got high praise for the set (which probably was due to a good front of house mix), and we did very well at the merch table, so this was another gig where we took a shot on something interesting and it worked out really well. After the set John, the owner of the building, took us on a tour of the entire place (a former Jewish Community Center) and outlined his plans for the future, which include a restaurant and a larger concert venue for national acts. The man has vision in spades and I found his enthusiasm and can-do attitude inspiring.
After the set we had a little adventure. Jon had arranged to have us stay at student housing at one of Penn State's campuses through a friend of his who is a teacher there. I had carefully mapped out the directions and knew we had to get off at Exit 20 on the way to D.C. It wasn't until we discovered that there was no Exit 20 that we were supposed to be on I-81, not I-83! This then necessitated a long and slow nighttime journey across back roads and the old Lincoln Highway to get to where we were supposed to be and when we finally got to this very remote location after an hour and a half, the door was not open and we had no way to get inside! This motivated me to peals of hysterical laughter (this was one of the great road moments to me, though the rest of the band weren't as amused!) as Jon made some chagrined calls to his buddy to try and figure out what to do. It actually worked out to our advantage as Jon was directed to a key in a mailbox that opened the door to a fully furnished student demo apartment (instead of the unfurnished one we were going to crash in). It was basically like having your own condo, and once we settled in, they were nice digs indeed, and I got to sleep in my first real bed in more than a week.
Sept. 26, 2009 -- homegrownradionj.org concert, Blairstown, NJ
As I've said before, one of the goals of this tour was to get away from the usual run around the bases playing unsatisfying cattle call showcase shows in the big cities and looking for places that are more interesting to play, more lucrative, more appreciative or hopefully all of the above. When my old friend Kara Drake, who I had first met in the Cockeyed Ghost days when she worked at the large radio station WNTI, e-mailed to offer the band a gig playing a concert for the new internet radio station she was DJ'ing for, I had initially not given it a lot of thought. Later on in the tour booking, when I went back over my old e-mails, I reread hers, realized she was offering us something for a day we had free and only 50 miles from where we were staying, and I was intrigued. My only concern was that there'd be a way to pay our gas, but Todd, the station manager, told me that the concert would be open to the public and that there'd be a pass-the-hat situation and on that basis, I figured what the hell, let's try it!
Well, it turned out to be one of the most interesting and successful gigs so far. Far from being a little studio crammed away in someone's basement, homegrownradionj.org is situation in a rustic storefront building deep in rural New Jersey, with an extensive and professional studio and windows that contain a view of the rolling hills surrounding the station. We were all charmed immediately and set to work getting set up for the show (with Jon setting up his drums in the large bay window!).
The band arrives at the homegrownradionj studios in rural New Jersey.
I was a little nervous about doing a radio concert this early in the tour -- mistakes can really get magnified close mic'd and going out over the air, but what followed was a rollicking two-set, 90 minute show that had the band gelling as a unit for the first time. I had headphones on for most of the first set and was pleasantly surprised at how good it sounded. We added a few more songs from DAYLIGHT KISSING NIGHT like "My Kickass Life" and "The Big Bear: (which, to be honest, we kind of wrecked), and we also performed, to tease Evie (who we correctly guessed might be listening back in Los Angeles), "Wooly Bully," which we learned for the New Brighton gig coming up later (the club is called Wooley Bully's), and (despite Evie hating the song) actually was probably the best song of the night, along with "At the Bookstore" and "My Pain." Also in the second set we tried out "Go West" with me solo on the piano (which didn't work so well owing to the patch that was up on Charlie's keyboard) and a tongue-in-cheek "Float On" (which didn't work so well owing to Charlie refusing to participate vocally!...Jon having to step in and ad-lib a verse about Charlie wanting a woman who was silent...), which disrupted the flow of an otherwise very solid show, although I was getting pretty tired by that time and my focus had started to wander. I also did a good sized interview between the sets, while the band and guests munched on cookies and chips that had been thoughtfully provided...we had a small but enthusiastic crowd in studio for the show and (we found out later) quite a number of listeners on the web, too, some of whom IM'd Todd to say how much they were digging the band. It wound up being a good night financially, too, with the small crowd there being very generous in CD sales and donations. All in all, a fantastic night and exactly the kind of gig I want to be playing.
On the way back we got a call from Todd that we had left a manilla envelope with some itinerary and set list information, so Charlie and I (in Charlie's car) went back for it while Teresa and Jon (in Jon's car) went to get a pizza. We missed a turn coming back and took a long, interesting detour through many small towns before getting back to Bethlehem. This band enjoys each other's company so much that we stayed up late into the night, hanging out, eating pizza and talking about music.
Sept. 25, 2009 -- Pearly Baker's, Easton, PA
Jon drove Teresa and I back to Bethlehem the next morning, with several stops at various music stores to try (unsucessfully) to find a case for Charlie's keyboards. After a few hours' rest we headed to nearby Easton for an all-nighter at a club Jon is familiar with, Pearly Baker's Ale House, a pub situation in the picturesque Center Square area of town. We got there and there was a soul band playing in the village square -- remember what I was saying about live music here?
We had an amazing meal prior to setting up, and when we did set up, we discovered unfortunately that our monitors weren't working. Since this was a three hour gig and we're playing every night for the next week or two, thbis was not good news from a voice conservation standpoint, but we did the best we could. We did two sets -- the first mostly aoustic and the second mostly rocking, split about 40% originals and 60% covers. I hadn't really planned for a semi-unplugged set when I'd made the tour set list, so on the way down in the car Teresa, Jon and I worked out a set list that would fly for a dinner crowd, and rouged out harmonies for "Don't Worry Baby" and the old hit "Hitchin' A Ride" that we'd tried at the Bucc. Those two songs, which we hadn't really rehearsed properly, wound up being highlights of the set. Other songs that we tried that we'd never (intentionally) done before with the Chaos Band included Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him" and the Sam the Sham classic "Wooly Bully," both of which went well.
During the break we rejiggered the speakers a bit so that the sound got clearer, and it was a lot easier to play from that point on, though most of the crowd had dissipated at that point, not to recover until towards the end of our second set, the best part of the night. My main miscalculation about this show -- though given the limited rehearsal time we'd had there's not much I could have done about it -- is that the audience responded to and were much more interested in the originals than the cover songs. This is really gratifying to me, of course -- it almost never happens that your own material competes and wins against songs the audience has long familiarity with -- and it's been something I've been noticing more and more lately. "When I Lied To Everyone" and "Cut and Run," coming at the end of the set, were particular standouts. It's been interesting to hear the differences between this band and the Chaos band as we've shaped the songs in rehearsal. The rock material has tended to work a little better for this band, given the cleaner guitar sound and straighter drum patterns, where the more complicated and broader material is more up the Chaos' band's alley.
Anyway, the crowd picked up again at the end of the night and things caught fire for a few minutes, with the band closing on an improbable medley of KISS' "Rock 'n' Roll All Nite," and the Isley Brother's "Shout," and then we packed up and headed back to Jon's. The bills were paid and with the compact gear, we made short work of the load out.
Sept. 24, 2009 -- Lucky's, Cortland, NY
A Little Time In Bethlehem
Stranded In Chicago
Teresa and I had booked our flight back to Pennsylvania to meet up with our east coast peeps (Jon Braun on drums and Charlie Zayleskie on keyboards) several months back. The cheapest flight was an early afternoon departure from Orange County, a long drive but manageable, until United canceled our flight and put us on another one leaving at 8:40 a.m. This created a logistical problem trying to get down to OC that early in the morning and also a 5-hour layover in Chicago at O'Hare which we were not at all happy about. Kurt took the bullet and drove us down to John Wayne Airport in the wee hours of the morning. The flight went fine but the layover sucked, and it stretched to six hours when our flight was delayed. O'Hare is the most ass-tastic major airport I have ever been in and we didn't find out until late in the game that our terminal was the most ass-tastic of all of them. We were so wiped out when we got there that we just lugged our carry-ons (because they charge for baggage now, too) as far as we could, found a relatively empty gate, and then Teresa and I both plopped on the floor and fell asleep. I won't bore you with the rest of our stay at O'Hare -- we were bored enough for all of you -- suffice it to say that we were extremely glad to be out of there when our plane finally got there and took us the rest of the way to Allentown, PA. Jon Braun picked us up at the airport, took us back to his house, and we pretty much passed out.
Charlie came down the next day and we immediately set to rehearsing in Jon's basement. It was a fun and grueling schedule to get the set together -- six rehearsals total in the space of 2 1/2 days, playing with a working set list of 43 songs -- 20 original songs and a bunch of covers to get us through the longer pub gigs. One of the points of this tour was to execute some lessons learned from last tour -- not worry so much about playing the major markets but just find the gigs that will either showcase my music the best I can, or failing in that, make some money and have a good time. So this time out we kept our eyes out for places to play in smaller towns, pub gigs and things like that. More on that later.
Rehearsing was a blast. We didn't have time to dot every i, but we had a good strong workable set for the first few shows. It's actually the first time I've ever been in a band house situation where we're all living together and rehearsing all the time, which has been fun. I'm also, for reasons I won't bother to get into, in the best health I can remember being in a long time, except for being a little heavy because of all the pre-tour work disrupting my exercise regimen. It's been really cool digging in and doing these long rehearsals and having the stamina to power through it and not having to slog through everything.
Wednesday Charlie, Teresa and I headed up to New York State so I could spend a day with my mom, who is doing great and full of spunk. We had an amazing Italian dinner...the best spaghetti I have ever tasted.
Adam explains craig's list to his mom. Mom responds by telling him to shave before the show. (photo by Teresa Cowles)
We all headed up to Cortland the next day, and even though I grew up less than 40 miles from this small college town, I wasn't that familiar with it. It turned out to be exactly the kind of place we were envisioning...just big enough to be hopping and have a great downtown, small enough to have a sense of community and possibility. Moreover, on the drive up through rural upstate New York (as well as hanging out in Bethlehem for three days), we were astounded by the number of places that had live music, even in the smallest towns. We even passed a band loading in to a bar in the middle of nowhere (it's Thursday). Out on the west coast, the word is that live music is dead, but here, it seems to be everywhere. I started thinking that the whole play the smaller markets strategy might turn out to be a stroke of genius. The downtown in Cortland was awesome...there was a great music store and around the corner, another music store still operating and whose exterior decor was unchanged from the 1940s. We also had a great meal at a local pub.
Lucky's had been recommended to us by our friends in Syracuse at the local radio station, Carl Cafarelli and Dana Bonn, who showed up along with a small cadre of folks for our first show. We had a local opener from the college, Ron Pleban, who was accompanied by a friend whose name I am totally blanking on right now, and they did a fine job. We did a 13 song set totally composed of originals (excepting "Stranger On The Town") and it went quite well except for a bunch of transition changes that we screwed up, a function of getting the band used to playing with one another and understanding cues. But from a playing standpoint, it was quite good for the first time out. "My Pain" and "1 in 4" were particular standouts. Everyone has been amazed by my tiny ZT Lunchbox amp, which continues to project unmic'ed in a big room over the entire band. In fact, except for Charlie's keyboard, we have such small gear we could almost fit it all in the trunk of a large car.
Sept. 12, 2009 -- The Buccaneer, Sierra Madre, CA
Sept. 13, 2009 -- Spaceland, Los Angeles, CA
After the successful NoCal tour, we had two more shows scheduled in L.A. before heading out to the east coast. The all-nighter at our favorite local dive, the Buccaneer, had been booked several months ago, and the three way "CD release party" with local musicians Anny Celsi and Jeff Merchant had been in the works for some time but only confirmed about a month or so back. It made for a long weekend for sure, particularly since Teresa and I had agreed to back Jeff up for his portion of the show, and his complex material required a lot of prep time and four hours of rehearsal on Saturday afternoon before the Buccaneer show.
Considering the amount of rehearsal that had to be covered and the number of musicians playing in Jeff's band, things went fairly smoothly, but it was a long hot afternoon nonetheless (leavened by the good natured banter in the room and playing with so many good people, including Probyn Gregory who we don't get to see as much as we'd like) and after rehearsal Teresa and I didn't even have time to shower before heading up to Sierra Madre to start setting up for the night's show. Given all of the other things going on, we hadn't had a lot of time to prepare for our traditional "50 songs in one night" deal at the Bucc. We'd ran through a bunch of songs we already knew at rehearsal on Tuesday, literally tossing in "Raspberry Beret" by Prince and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce as last-minute new cover ideas at the end of rehearsal. Teresa had then taken the time to dig out mp3s and learn the bass lines to the tracks, and we spent a little time with my Blackberry before the show memorizing lyrics and double checking chords, but nothing was more off-the-cuff than when, during dinner, the old Vanity Fare song "Hitchin' A Ride" had randomly popped into my head and I suddenly said to Evie, who was walking up, "Evie! We have to do 'Hitchin' A Ride' tonight!" We literally worked it out on the street from memory with the Blackberry providing chords and lyrics. We went into the Bucc, did a brief soundcheck to run the harmonies, and that was that. We played it during the first set, and it went great.
I always love doing the 50 song set at the Bucc, where we can just dig in for the night and play and sing and try different things, especially harmonizing, and one of my goals for next year is to branch out and make some money doing cover-oriented shows at those kind of venues, but try to take things up a notch in the spirit of the Bucc shows so that it's not just another cover band but something a little more interesting with a wider song selection. Thanks to new monitor speakers this was the best sound we'd ever had at the Bucc and we played great. There was a good crowd -- packed at a few points -- and they were dancing and rowdy though they were a little stingy with the applause at times. My voice was in great shape and Evie was on fire, which was good since she hadn't been feeling well during the week because of a shoulder ailment. It was also one of the easiest 50 song shows I remember doing. I did my traditional get plastered on magaritas thing for the last set, but it wasn't nearly as extreme as last time, when I blacked out on stage and woke up playing the bass and singing "Rapper's Delight." Other highlights of the show included the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive," a rocking "Go Your Own Way," and an off the cuff version of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." We played plenty of GO WEST material, and it that all went over surprisingly well and we even risked doing a 4 piece version of "Two Children Of a Bed," something we'd rehearsed but never dared do live, and it was one of the best things we did all night.
The very next night was the Spaceland gig, a return to the roots for us to a club we'd spent a lot of time at in years past but rarely set foot in these days. We all tried to take it as easy as possible during the day to recover from the Bucc show, and we were reasonably fresh when we got there, though my voice was froggy from all the singing (and margaritas). Teresa and I arrived early at 7:30 because even though AMCB had relinquished its sound check for the other two bands' convenience, we were still providing the bass amp for the night. The soundguy was there but none of the other band members showed up 'til 8ish, and the extensive set up and straggling musicians throughout the hour meant that Anny's band had to break down without soundchecking so that Jeff's band could have enough time to set up. Even so, Jeff wasn't able to get underway until about 9:45, which was bad for us because we were the last band and the evening was going to run pretty late. This wasn't a total shock, but I was bummed for our own crowd because we had a number of people who wanted to see the 10 piece lineup of the band but that we knew would have to bail early.
There was a healthy crowd for Jeff's set, which I enjoyed playing. It was the first time I'd used my new three keyboard set up, which includes the hammond clone Korg organ I just recently purchased and which got a full workout tonight. Considering the complexity of material, the size of the band (9 pieces) and the limited rehearsal time, I think Jeff had a right to be pleased with how it worked out. Teresa, btw, did a ton of vocal work on Jeff's record, The City Makes No Sound, and should be very proud of her contribution to it.
Anny's segment was next. She and Nelson Bragg had set up the night and Nelson was clearly proud of the work he had done producing her new album, Tangle Free World, giving the set and several of the songs glowing introductions, both from behind the drum kit and at the front of the stage. Throughout their 12 song set she brought up a number of guests, including myself, Evie and Teresa to back her on a soul-flavored number called "Now You Can Hurt Me." Evie and Teresa reprised their vocals from the album and I played an organ solo, which was a thrill to me because I got to play double keyboards with Carl Byron, one of the most in-demand keyboardists in town and someone whose playing I have a load of respect for. Other highlights of Anny's set were "The Night She Learned To Drive" and "Own Sweet Time," two of the strongest tracks on her album which were distinguished by solid lead vocals and playing.
By the time Anny's set drew to a close it was after midnight and past the bedtime of a lot of our peeps in the crowd, which was a shame, since the 10 piece band worked as a great team and we got the complicated stage set up with very little trouble. One of the coolest things about this show was seeing how the extended Chaos band, which is comprised mostly of people who had never met one another, has started to gell. It's just a great group of people and it's nice seeing everybody get to know and like each other and I have to admit that, much as I love the girls, it's great to look around the stage and see my male musician friends up there with me.
At any rate, the Chaos Band totally brought it for the gig. It was tight as hell and well paced, kicking off with the first four songs from GO WEST in quick succession. A few people who have known me for a long time said it was among their favorite shows they'd ever seen me do, and I'm not surprised, because the band played great and the set, again drawn solely from GO WEST, had a lot of power. My voice was a little dicey but it just meant I had to bring more focus to my singing, which benefited the intense songs like "My Pain." We also did "Two Children In A Bed" again which was great although it probably was even better the previous night, surprisingly. Another highlight was a full, rich "December 24," which is rapidly becoming one of the sleeper tracks of the album...it's coming off live better than I ever imagined such a midtempo, unassuming song would, due in no small part to Teresa's sultry singing and the overall harmony blend.
It was well past 1 a.m. when we finished up and broke down, and said goodbye to the people who'd hung there with us for the whole night. What a bunch of troopers! But I was pleased with how well the band had played and about how much these musicians seem to enjoy playing the music and with each other. I'm excited about the prospect of reuniting this band yet again in a situation that really features them to full advantage. In the meantime, Anny and Jeff can feel good about having put together a night that got them in front of an appreciative crowd and showcased the new albums they are justly proud of, and we were all happy to help support our friends in that.
Sept. 6, 2009 -- The Union Room, San Francisco, CA
Breakdown on I-5!
We all agreed upon parting for our two separate crash pads Saturday night that due to the Bay Bridge closure we were going to convene at 11:30 am allow ourselves lots of time to take the long, bridgeless detour to San Francisco on Sunday. Evie and Kurt (who had possession of the van) showed up right on time to pick Adam and I up from Larry's. After poring over a map for a few minutes Adam calculated the least likely to be jammed up way from Sacramento to San Francisco, which involved driving quite a long way away from San Fran and then back up the peninsula towards it. All packed up and ready for a long but fairly scenic drive, we said goodbye to Larry and Bob and headed away from San Francisco.
The drive was quite lovely and fairly uneventful. We made great time and hit absolutely no traffic. In fact we made such good time that it looked like we were going to be about 5 hours early for our gig. With this in mind, we stopped for a hike at a paved trail along a river not far outside San Francisco. It was a nice spot, but we were a little concerned with leaving the van unattended as there were signs plastered everywhere warning of theft. Not something you want to take lightly when you have a van full of gear. Unfortunately, this meant we had to turn around right at the point where the walk started getting really cool since the cool part put us way too far out of eyeshot from our gear. It was still very nice to get out and walk a bit.
After our little excursion we agreed that we would go ahead and suss out The Union Room in hopes that getting there that early would allow us to luck into a good parking spot out front. We also wanted to see if the club would let us unload our gear and set up early. Although it took quite a bit of driving down very hectic one way streets to ascertain that there was no magical parking spot to be had, we were happy to see that there was a $10 garage (cheap for San Fran!) right next to the club. There was a loading zone right in front of the club so we parked there temporarily while we began hauling our gear up to the 2nd floor. Unfortunately, it took two trips up (including Adam carrying up one of the heaviest pieces - my bass cabinet) before we realized there was an elevator. The bass cabinet was a double ooops because it turned out they had a very nice house rig I could use so it hadn't needed to come up at all. Good thing it made a nice monitor stand.
When we booked the show at The Union Room, we really knew nothing at all about the club (it's only been around for about 6 months) and we were happy to find that it was a very pleasant upscalish bar/restaurant with a fairly roomy stage, very nice people working there, and a sound system we could run ourselves (usually our preference) that seemed that it was going to be a cut above many sound systems we're used to dealing with on the road. Since it was just to be us and our friend and very talented singer/songwriter, Adrian Bourgeois, opening acoustic, we had the luxury of setting up and soundchecking everything til we had it where we wanted it. During soundcheck, William, a long time fan of Evie's, and his friend Karen showed up and were treated to a very rusty (we haven't done anything but GO WEST material for months) soundcheck performance of the Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her." After chatting with them for a bit, we headed off to find some dinner. Not wanting to stray too far from the club, we managed to find a nearby Thai restaurant that looked pretty good. It proved to be quite good - especially the soup and the chrysanthemum tea, which Evie and I chain reaction ordered after Kurt did, and Adam ordered after trying it. Our throats were all a little toasty after the previous night's show. We were not sorry. Amazingly good stuff.
Full of Thai food, but not overly stuffed, we headed back to The Union Room to change and do our show. Lots of people we knew had already filed into the club and were having dinner, including Adam's long time friend, Kris Clarke, and her friend Mike Talty, who had brought a whole table full of people with her and who was also providing our crash pad for the night in San Jose. Adrian and his mom were there as well and he and Adam sat round Beach Boys geek talking for a bit while we were waiting for it to be time for him to start his opening set. We also discovered during this time that it was Adrian's 22nd birthday. Adrian's set went off beautifully with the help of his friend and fellow songwriter, Chris on harmonies and percussion. Another friend who's name I can not longer recall but was a lovely young blond woman dressed in yellow, also sat in on flute for one song. The highlight was when Adrian and Chris launched into In My Room and Adam came up on the spur of the moment to join them on the third harmony. It was beautiful and it also pleased Evie and I to no end because it meant we weren't going to have to sing it!
Adam steps in on Adrian Bourgeois' "In My Room."
Adrian's set complete, we took the stage to launch into the first of our 2 sets for the night. After a brilliant Happy Birthday Adrian song Evie made up on the spot for soundcheck that Adam and I threw harmonies on, we started with probably the only questionable song choice of the whole night - "Half Life" on acoustic. We managed to make it through, but not particularly well, thanks in part to me screwing up the bass line several times. From there on though the set was pretty awesome. We played mostly originals and not only sounded great, but we also really seemed to have the crowd (which was quite sizable for a Sunday night with a shut down bridge making it difficult to get into the city) hanging on our every note. The set was very well played, but also had a lose, almost nightcluby at times feel to it with playful stage interactions. One of the highlights of the set was having Adrian come up and sing lead on "Long Promised Road" with us. He did a beautiful job and it's probably the best we've ever played that song.
Satisfied and high on a great performance, we ended the first set, promising to take requests for the second. Upon leaving the stage, Adam was pulled aside by the club's manager, who told him we were going to have to cut our 2nd set short because of noise issues with the hotel next door in this busy tourist district. Apparently the club, being new, hasn't quite gotten its soundproofing situation quite where they want it and volume can be an issue. Now pressed for time, we hurried around the room taking requests. This included my interpreting the request of a fan for a song he couldn't remember the name of so he sung it to me. From my past life as a record store clerk, I am actually pretty good at this game and figured out it was "Kickass Life." Unfortunately, Adam did not have a capo so we couldn't fulfill this request, but we did comply with many others such as Big Big Yeah, and Million Miles Away, which had been requested by our friend Steve Hayes of Indiana's The Common. Steve and his wife Jamie just happened to be in town that weekend and we were thrilled to have them at the show.
After finishing off our abbreviated 2nd set, we spent some time talking to the folks who had come out, as well as some new fans we'd made that night. The people at the club were very appreciative and expressed how happy they were with our show. Load out went fairly smoothly, particularly since we knew about the elevator this time, and we were soon off to Kris' in San Jose for the night.
We found Kris' place without too much trouble, though there was a brief moment where we thought we'd passed the exit. Thank goodness for the Blackberry, who told us we had not. We arrived and quickly split off into our different sleeping quarters (Kris' kids' rooms and a guest room) for the night, knowing we were going to want to get a fairly early start in the morning to get Kurt home to his family at a decent hour. After a great night's sleep I awoke to go try to grab a shower before I had to compete with my bandmates for it, to find Kurt had already beat me to it. While I waited, I sat in the hallway with Kris' 7 year old daughter, Alina, and their two dogs - one of which had only 3 legs after being caught in a coyote trap. Alina was quite the amazing little girl. She had been gravely ill not long ago and spent many long months in the hospital. She was now home and and very lively, energetic and bright. During our chat in the hallway, which her mom joined in as well, I found out that their 3 legged dog was about to start training to become a therapy dog, like the ones who had visited Alina when she was in the hospital and had made her feel so much better. Alina and her mom wanted her dog to be able to do that for other people as well. I thought that was pretty awesome.
After the whole band was up and moving and fed, we departed San Jose to begin the trek back to Los Angeles. Things started off pretty great, with not much traffic and more TV trivia games. I started to doze off during one of the games, as we were nearing Bakersfield, when I heard Kurt say "this isn't good guys." I woke up more to find the van making a strange whirring sound and obviously struggling to continue its forward motion. We managed to make it off the next freeway exit on the 5 which was, of course, in the middle of nowhere (Adam note: the Copus Road offramp about 25 miles north of Grapevine, where there was nothing but an orchard and an abandoned fruit stand. I was just about to start bitching at Kurt that we'd missed the Starbucks at Buttonwillow when we all heard it). Kurt suspected the transmission and after doing a cursory look under the hood, joined by a fellow traveler who stopped to help, we called AAA. We were 89 miles from Reseda (per Adam's Blackberry) so my AAA Plus with the 100 mile tow would get us home. We waited for about 45 minutes under the shade of whatever grove of trees was there and were then rescued by Evan, the tow truck driver. We rewarded Evan for his efforts by singing to him all the way home in 3 part harmony. I THINK he liked it, but I'm not really sure. He sure got us home fast.
Evie working the phones in the dead van.
So excluding the fact that Kurt's transmission has to be rebuilt, it was a great little tour. We played great and were well received. It was also a fun road trip. It's been a while since the whole band has done one. This makes me really look forward to the full band Southwest tour in November...though we may have to rent a van this time.
Don't have much to add to Teresa's narrative except that after my unhappiness with the venue situation on the northwest tour, this was a great example of how I'd like road trips to be. The clubs were great and so were the crowds. The Union Room is a great room. We loved playing there.
Sept. 5, 2009 -- Old Ironsides, Sacramento, CA
The logic behind doing a lot of mini-tours instead of one big long tour was that by coming home in between jogs I could maintain a social life and not lose out on potential music gigs here at home (unlike last year, where it was like I dropped off the earth for months, only turning up to officiate at funerals, it seems), and this proved out in the four days where I was home. I hung out with several old friends, made one or two new ones, and got a call for some session work, along with continuing to nail down gigs in October, November and December (and the end of this month). Regardless of my financial dissatisfaction it was amazing that we'd managed to pull together all these disparate elements -- album release, tour, press, video, etc. -- at once without totally losing our minds, and I was starting to see how this kind of on-off momentum was going to be the way to go if I was going to transition back to being a live musician most of the time...you need time to play the gigs, and you need time to set them up and recharge. Getting a busy but manageable schedule was going to be key. In past years I'd go full throttle and not have any time or mental space to plan ahead, so you'd get home and it would be full stop, like someone just dumped you off on the street and drove away with no clue where to go next. This time, things seemed to be more or less under control and we hadn't lost the ability to think a few months down the line while meeting our obligations.
The next round of touring was Northern California, and this was to be the first time the four core members of the Chaos Band had all taken a road trip together in quite awhile, probably since the '06 Wilson tour or shortly afterward. I don't have a massive following in the area, but there had been a steady growth of interest in the band and it looked like we might have a pretty good little mini-tour.
And for once, I was right. I was in an unusually good mood starting out on this trip, having had the good week of R & R. The band was in a similarly cheery place. The trip up to Sacramento was uneventful...we got an early start to allow us to make some rest stops so we wouldn't get too stiff and cranky...and we made the 400 mile drive with time to spare. I'm still getting to know the amazing device that is the Blackberry and on the way I used it to pose TV trivia questions to the rest of the band. We also took turns listening to Anny Celsi's and Jeff Merchant's albums for our guest spots at the three-way CD release party at Spaceland next weekend (see what I mean about planning ahead)?
When we got to Sacramento we had about three hours to spare. I knew a nice place to walk around, a wetland near the I-80 bridge west of town. We piloted the van down to the long, flat area near the river and piled out of the car to walk around. Both Teresa and I had to pee really bad but there wasn't any cover. I noticed a three-sided, head high billboard/sign on which was posted various notices and maps and rules and things like that. I simply crawled under the sign and voila...instant triangular outhouse with as much privacy as anyone could want. I congratulated myself on the superiority of the creative mind, etc., etc., finding out-of-the-box solutions for pressing problems. It wasn't until I was zipping up that I turned around and noticed a nest of wasps on the wall, less than two feet from my back (and other more exposed bodily parts). I scrambed back out from under in a hell of a hurry, shuddering at the truly ghastly near-disaster I'd just avoided. So much for the superior creative mind.
Our friend (and ex-Sacto resident) Annalisa had recommended a restaurant with good fries, and after more map consultation the band made its way there and had a great dinner, then headed to the club (Old Ironsides, where I'd first played with Cockeyed Ghost back in '97) where our friends The Onlymen had just finished soundchecking with, I am told, a cover of "My Kickass Life," which I have yet to hear. This cheerful Sacramento band gets better every time we see them. We had a ton of gear and quickly brought it in and, mindful of our middle spot on the bill, set as much of it up on the side as we could and stashed the rest to get it out of the way. While setting up various friends started coming up to us with greetings, including someone from the Carl Wilson Foundation who had pictures of our show there for us (thanks Karla for getting the word out!). It was good to have fans in the audience!
AMCB Rocks the Old I! (photo by Paul Bertolino)
By the time the Onlymen started their set they had quite a crowd there. Their harmonies have really tightened up, particularly at the beginning, though my favorite part of the set was the catastrophic ending to one of the songs, which had a sort of John Cage-like quality to it with everyone wandering off in different directions. I live for things like that. Then it was our turn, and all the preparation came in handy since all our gear was up in just over 15 minutes. The crowd had gone off to smoke or something like that, but by midway through what turned out to be a blazing "Burn Down The World" the place had filled up again, and we never lost 'em. Except for a somewhat shaky "Despair" we nailed just about every song, including the best performances of "Learning The Ropes" and "1 in 4" to date. The most gratifying thing was the cheering that went up after a lot of the songs, the kind of response you get when you didn't just play well, but you really brought it for a song. Besides Evie's closing "I Can't Let Go," we had solely relied on songs from GO WEST for the set, and it had worked fantastic, even with the smaller band. We were all extremely pleased with how the show went.
Tonight also marked the debut of my tiny ZT Lunchbox guitar amplifier -- so called because it has literally the dimensions of a lunchbox, but puts out over 200 watts and for its size has astoundingly good sound. I'm hoping to use it is as part of a secret weapon on longer tours (where space is at a premium in the van). When I set the tiny amp on a milk crate I was greeted with a few shouts of disbelief but no one questioned it after the show...our guitar sound was actually much improved without the extra low midrange, adding clarity to the rock songs that wasn't there before. I myself had wondered whether the tiny amp would really hold its own in the live setting, but it passed the test with flying colors. This will help a lot on the east coast.
The last band was The Kimberly Trip, two guys, two girls and a laptop playing ebullient new wave-influenced pop. They even undertook "Take On Me" and the band, noticing me drunkenly bellowing along in the audience becknoed me onstage to hit the high note. I did hit it...eventually, after finding several other notes in between that didn't work. Oh well.
After the show the band, in high spirits, split up to stay with different members of the Onlymen. Teresa and I wound up at bassist Larry's and in one of my odd states of intense focus that I get when I'm drunk, I manically whipped up an a la mode cookie desert for us and Larry's partner Bob at 2 a.m.
Aug. 30, 2009 -- House Party, Portland OR
Aug. 30, 2009 -- The Mix Lounge, Seattle, WA
Scotland Barr R.I.P.
The short and swift northwestern section of the GO WEST touring cycle came to a close with a double header of gigs 180 miles and 6 hours apart; a house party at the home of my old friend Shellene Iverson in Portland and an evening gig at the Mix Lounge in the funky-cool Georgetown district of Seattle.
I got to Shellene's shortly after 11 and started setting up the minimalist PA I had cobbled together the previous night, and the great sound in Corvallis turned out to be no fluke; the combination of my PA speaker and Joanne's tiny Peavey keyboard amp somehow made a beautiful sound. By 12:30 there was a small crowd of partiers, very much a family kind of crowd. I immediately crossed "1 in 4" off the list (as I had the previous night in Corvallis) and I wondered how my originals would go over in this environment, particulary the new stuff. I needn't have worried. I did an hour long set with no covers at all (unless you count the encore, which was the by-now ritualistic destruction of "Free Bird," at Shellene's request), and I didn't need to go there, in fact, once again, I relied almost mostly on songs from GO WEST, only playing "Portland," "Big Big Yeah," "At the Bookstore," and "Ludlow 6:18" from the earlier albums in the bulk of the set. Despite the earliness of the hour I was still singing in peak form, and putting my songs over to this kind of crowd was a real thrill. I tried the karaoke thing again -- this time singing along to the track for "Learning The Ropes" -- and having learned from last night how to EQ the track better it really sounded fantastic, and sang great, not having to worry about covering the musical parts accurately (and I didn't).
It was starting to hit me that, relative to previous tours, I didn't need to oversell the material. Sometimes, when I was doing my own songs, I'd put in pauses and things for dramatic effect to get the audience's attention, but I decided now that that approach was distracting and a bit too much. Just playing and singing well and highlighting the lyric and melodies to the songs was going to be enough. As if to prove that point, stung for a closing song, someone in the audience suggested, "play a happy song." And so I launched into "Then I'll Be Happy," which has never really worked very well solo, but now, just underscoring the message in the music, not trying to make a big flashy deal out of it, made it feel transcendent. Once again, I was extremely happy with my performance and thrilled that just playing my new songs was enough for a crowd like this.
I would have liked to hang around but given my experience driving to Portland on Friday I figured I better get an early start and sure enough, on the drive up to Seattle, there was a bad accident near Chehalis which fortunately I was able to get around by going through the city. Even so, traffic was so crummy that I got off the freeway near Tacoma and wound up over near the waterfront. It was a pretty detour though not a very time-effective one, but when I found my way to old highway 99 I was able to make good time and got to the club with about an hour to spare.
Adam at the Mix in Seattle (photo by Laurie Biagini)
The Mix was a small, dark venue in an interesting part of town -- basically a run down district that's midway into gentrification, but covering a very small concentrated area -- and the audience and other bands were young and indie. I liked the environment right away, though I didn't really bond with the crowd until I actually got onstage after an interesting opening set by a newlywed singer/songwriter named Gibson Cima, accompanied by a young and comely violinist named Anna. By that time I'd brought in enough extra people to make up a small but healthy crowd, spearheaded by my old friend from the Sunset Strip days, ex-New Tribe drummer Steve Dorst, and a crowd of Canooks that Laurie Biagini had brought down from Vancouver.
For this kind of audience and on this kind of stage, there was no need to hold anything back, and this was the most intense show of the tour, though once again I didn't oversell it, I just focused hard and it worked. I had given Joanne back her piano at Shellene's party, so this was entirely on the guitar and entirely songs from GO WEST, and it worked great. I got a big time response for "Cut and Run" and the closer, an intense "1 in 4." "My Pain" was another highlight. It was just a really great show all 'round.
The only drag -- and this is a big, big drag -- was taking stock of the financial situation at the end of this first round of touring. The idea -- flying up, borrowing gear, and renting a car -- had worked out great. It wasn't that expensive, and I was fresh for every show despite the large number of shows in a short time. The problem was I'd made very little money, with only the house party paying the bills, so even though it didn't cost that much more to do it this way than to drive up, I'd come nowhere near clearing expenses. This is fine if you have a day job subsidizing you but I currently don't, and I put myself at a lot of financial risk to do the GO WEST album. With two more months of touring to go, I fervently hoped the bottom line would raise significantly or I was going to be in big trouble by the end of the year if not well before.
And yet -- something is happening. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I've never felt this way before touring an album. It's weird, because to a certain degree I've let go of worrying about the process (except the money part of it), and I've kept my expectations -- both good and bad -- to a minimum. I've made the best album I can, I'm doing the best shows I can, I'm working as hard as I can without burning myself out (which is a key distinction, mind you). People are responding in ways that they never have before, and my songs are working live in a way they never have before. It's a slow, dawning process (it takes awhile to absorb a 23 track album of songs that have several levels to them) but I can feel it. The album is great and I can represent it live, either solo or with the band. And if people get a chance to hear it, they'll respond. But will enough people hear it?
The problem is finding better shows...in many ways I'm still playing the kinds of venues and with the kinds of bands I was playing with 10 years ago, and it just doesn't seem like a good fit anymore, and I'm not getting in front of enough people to pay the bills. But I'm not sure what to do about it...if I had the kind of pull or connections to get the better shows, I would. It seems like, given everything I've done and how good the live show is now, it wouldn't be a problem. When things calm down and I can focus on live shows to the exclusion of other things, finding better (and/or better-paying) gigs is at the top of my list of to-dos, but as with everything else, there's only so much one guy can do at one time.
After the show (and seeing half a set by Baker London, a very good band that reminded me strongly of Anton Barbeau), Laurie and her peeps took me out to dinner and I had a delightful time with all of them. Then back to Steve's for a night of talking about life and reminiscing about the old times. The weather was beautiful, damp and cool with clear, fresh air, and I dreaded going back to fire-ravaged L.A.
The trip back was uneventful. I had enough time for a brief walk in a beautiful state park by the beach, then returned the rental car. SeaTac was not at all busy and I got through with no problem. I watched CNN with dismay on the monitors at the gate waiting for boarding. I'd had no idea just how bad the fires had gotten in my absence. It had been beautiful in the northwest. Why was I going home again?
I picked up "The Time Traveler's Wife" at the airport bookstore and was engrossed in it most of the way back. By the time I got to L.A. it was dark and we flew past the fires, an awe-inspiring sight, though nothing compared to the shock of seeing it even closer driving the 101 near my house when Teresa and I returned to open up the house and unpack everything. My roommate had been away and I'd left the A/C off. It was 99 degrees inside the house according to our thermostat. Or at least that's what it read. It only has two digits, so 99 is the highest it can go. It felt about 200 degrees.
The next day I was awakened by a phone call from my publicist Alex Steiniger, who was in tears. He broke the bad news that Scotland Barr had passed away. If you click the link above for "2008 Tour Diaries" you'll read about this Portland-based singer/songwriter, how he was involved with booking many of the shows on that tour, how he put me up at his house when I was sick, and finally, how at the end of the tour, when he played with us in L.A., he had played a fine show and then collapsed onstage. When he returned home, he got the prognosis: pancreatic cancer. He'd had a vision just like mine, to make a grand album before he went, a double record that would encapsulate everything he'd done and be his best work. I'd talked to his bandmates about it just four days ago at the Music Millennium instore. They said they were well into recording but Scot had developed lesions in his throat and couldn't sing. And now, sadly, he never would.
Scot's band was called the Slow Drags, and this was a slow-dawning drag indeed, a mega bummer to greet my return to L.A., just having been in the very town where Scot and I hung out and where he'd been such a big part of everyone's lives.
I've wondered many times in the last five years how long I was going to be around. Now I'm starting to think maybe my job is going to be to survive. But if for some reason, I don't, I got to make the album I've been trying to make for 20 years. Scot wasn't so lucky. That just blows.
People need to stop dying, already.
Aug. 29, 2009 -- 2nd Street Beanery, Corvallis, OR
Joanne gave me a nice surprise; two high-quality studio headphones she said she could no longer use and were exactly the type that I would have wished for when I was mixing GO WEST (I had searched high and low and eventually found a lower fi version of one of the ones she gave me). I gladly accepted them and stopped off in Salem to mail them home in a box with my dirty underwear and socks. When I got to Corvallis, I had enough time to take a short walk in a local park. The weather is gorgeous...did I say that already? I've really liked traveling light and fast for this trip, but it would have been nice to have had an extra day just to devote to some hiking.
Tonight's show gave me a lot to think about. I had blown off a Portland gig that had had some scheduling uncertainty to come down and play this coffee house in central Oregon where I'd had several very successful shows in my solo touring days. The logic was a bird in hand was worth two in the bush and also that I had peeps in the area that were likely to show up. This proved to be a miscalculation; the Portland show wound up attracting a good headliner, whereas things were totally dead in Corvallis. To add insult to injury Terry Currier e-mailed to tell me the Oregonian had me as one of their top five shows of the week in Portland...but had erroneously listed my Friday instore as happening on Sunday. Classic.
And yet, I really enjoyed the gig tonight, and I came away from it feeling, if not inspired, a little introspective and perhaps grasping a ray of light about a direction forward, though I wasn't sure what it meant yet. Among the sparse crowd tonight there were one or two people who weren't just really into it, but that I talked to after the show and who I really connected with and enjoyed interacting with. For various reasons, I haven't had as much exposure to that experience lately. When I was touring solo, meeting and interacting with interesting people was something that happened almost daily. I missed that. That made tonight's gig worthwhile.
The other thing was I was extremely happy with my own performance and I was digging it while I was doing it. Between the one speaker I had flown up from L.A. and a few things I had borrowed from Joanne I had the world's smallest functional PA -- I've really dug how light I've been able to travel on this trip -- but between that and the natural reverb in the room it sounded really, really good...especially when I went for the high notes. I did a two hour show and only did two covers -- poorly -- and there was only one or two of those original songs I was dissatisfied with the performance. I was actually surprised, given how little I've played it lately, how fluid I felt on the 12-string guitar even compared to last year's tour, and likewise my pitch and control as a singer was the best I ever remember it being for a solo gig. I knew that, whether there was anyone to hear it or not, I was playing and singing extremely well and what's more, so much of GO WEST translated to being played solo that I didn't have to rely on most of my old shtick at all. In fact, I played very few old songs; "Portland" (on a borrowed digital piano, thanks again Joanne), "Disappear," "Bookstore," and maybe one or two others, but mostly I just kept digging deeper into the new album. Surprisingly, "Half Life" works really well solo and gave that a shot tonight for the first time, along with "Trains" (which I botched), "Fade Away," and "Tread."
For the first time at a solo gig I tried singing live to a track (the instrumental mix of "No Return') and to my surprise, people really responded to it. When I first started playing music, there wsa a fairly big stigma against playing to tracks, and in fact I refused to do it until "I Don't Wanna Dance With You," but the interesting thing was people are so acclimated to karaoke now that it seems normal now, I think. It's not something I would do that often, but it's cool to know that I could do something solo that would truly represent the record and it would go over.
My traffic woes continued on the way back as two lanes of the Boone Bridge were closed for construction and I-5 was backed up for miles. I tried to get off and go around but soon discovered that there simply was no way around and meandered around the Oregon hinterlands for quite awhile trying to find my way back. I did manage to get back onto the freeway further north than I'd gotten off, so it wasn't a total loss, but it did cost me about an hour.
Aug. 28, 2009 -- Music Millennium, Portland, OR
The three days between the Molly Malone's show and the start of the tour found me in a mild malaise, as I described to someone, "like I got dumped off on the curb and the bus drove away." Some of it was kind of a weird post-partum depression thing. The album was out, and I'd had a great week doing shows, being out in the world, hanging out with interesting people, and now I was suddenly back in my house in the hinterlands of the San Fernando Valley, spending most of my day alone and doing a lot of the things I had to do and not so many that I wanted to do. I was ambivalent about going back on the road...I wasn't dreading it and I wasn't excited about it. In past years it was one or the other (or both at the same time).
Part of the reason I felt casual about it was I'd scheduled this round of touring a lot differently from previous years. Instead of one big long tour, there were a bunch of shorter ones. I wanted to keep my life going in L.A. and not kill myself doing an endless string of shows, and this enabled me to not feel a lot of pressure about going on the road, though it took me all of the three days to get ready to go. And so instead of the usual long drive up to the northwest, it was a simple matter of a plane ride and renting a car (although schlepping the checked baggage -- my 12 string and a PA speaker -- to the shuttle proved to be a chore).
Landing in Seattle in mid-afternoon, I immediately drove out to the edge of the mountains on the east side of town, got the 12-string out and walked around and practiced for a bit. As usual, I was woefully underprepared for the beginning of tour and I was doing all new songs to boot. I played for about an hour, long enough to get cramps in my hands and shoulder, and then I put the guitar away and just took a walk in the woods, enjoying a gorgeous day in the pacific northwest. It felt, quite simply, great. The last time I was here I was both sad because of old memories coming up, and sick as a dog, so I couldn't really appreciate being here. This time, it felt so right and so much of what I needed that after about a half an hour I found myself wondering, only half whimisically, how I could make a living and move up here. I realized right then a lot of my malaise was just having been stuck in one place doing the same thing too long. I didn't have the same excitement for being on the road that I used to have -- part of that probably was not having the catharsis of driving out of town -- but I did feel like this was going to be a good thing for me to shake me up and get my head in the right place.
After I had my fill of nature I headed to Tom Skelly's house. Tom was the regular guy who put me up when I got violently ill last year. He was just as hospitable this time through, plying me with wine and hamburgers (I'd missed lunch because they hadn't let us off the plane when we connected in Oakland). I hung out with him and his family, played pool and guitar with his young son, and wound up getting drunk enough that I took a long walk to clear my head and settle my stomach, calling friends back in L.A., until I got sleepy.
The next day I headed down to Portland. I didn't get underway until 1:30, and I encountered the worst traffic I have ever experienced on the road. It took me 2 1/2 hours to get from Bothell to Olympia, which is only about 50 miles. I wound up getting to Music Millennium, where I was slated to kick off the tour with an instore, at 6 p.m., which was my scheduled set time. I had called ahead to let them know I'd be late, so it was all good, but it had taken me all afternoon to cover 160 miles.
The last time I was in Portland I'd allowed myself to get carried away with my past romanticized history with the city, losing track of the fact that that was another time and place. I'd recalibrated my expectations since then and this was a pleasant gig. Besides the customers I had an attentive crowd of perhaps a dozen people, including some I hadn't seen for five years and who I was glad to reconnect with. I got a lot of good feedback from Alex, my publicist, and the people from my distribution company (both of whom are Portland-based), about things that are happening for the album, and even the store clerk took the time to tell me how much he admired it. All that made me feel good in a quiet way, as had some amazing fan mail I had received during the day. I found myself in a funny mindset -- having confidence that what I was doing was reaching people and was worthwhile, and at the same time having a realistic sense of what was and wasn't likely to happen. Or maybe it's just that I've been down this road so many times that I'm reluctant to get too excited. I know I made a great album, and I'm happy it's starting to reach people. I just don't want to wind up at the end of the road with my heart broken and my wallet emptied. I'm keeping a little piece of myself in reserve, I think, happy but cautious and trying to consider where I want to go from here with my life. I know I'm at a crossroads. Perhaps the album will take off in some way and show me where to go from here. But if it doesn't, I'm really not sure of the way myself. I just know I want to keep playing music, and I need to figure out a way to make a living.
As for the show...I didn't have a keyboard, so I had to do the whole thing on the guitar, but given the limited rehearsal it was easier than I thought. I stuck close to the GO WEST album and everything translated extremely well solo, in fact much easier than most of my old stuff. "1 in 4" and "My Pain" were particularly effective, "1 in 4" losing none of its intensity by being played solo. "Grateful For the Rain" was a little comical because, without the girls to back me up, I had to sing the melody line which is really, really high. At one point I stopped the song to try to force the crowd to sing it, with predictably hysterical results (at least to me). I wound up closing with "Tread This World So Lightly," an emotional reading I was happy with. In fact, it struck me that the new material is pretty draining to sing, although in a good way. The only non-GO WEST song attempted was "Portland," which I'd never played on guitar before. I just about got through it, but it was pretty rocky. The crowd clapped politely.
After the show I hung out at old friend Joanne Hodges' place with Terry Currier, Music Millennium and Burnside Distribution owner, and we had a great conversation about music and the artistic life. It was a nice low key way to the end the evening. The last time I was in Portland I was pretty depressed. This time, I was...OK. It's a funny place. I'm a little downbeat, but I'm not sad. I'm comfortable that I'm doing everything I can to represent the album and to try to find my way. The rest I just have to let go and see what happens. This is a new place for me, but it's not bad. Better than banging your head against the wall wanting something to happen NOW that you just have to wait for if you want it to be right if it comes.
July 31, 2009 -- Go West Debut, Brennan's, Marina Del Rey, CA
Aug. 21, 2009 -- Go West CD Release Party, Brennan's, Marina Del Rey, CA
Aug. 23, 2009 -- Go West CD Release Party, Molly Malone's, Los Angeles, CA
The long and elaborate roll-out of the release of GO WEST ended -- and the touring cycle began -- with the three shows tied in to the CD release in Los Angeles in July and August. Even though it wasn't the actual CD release show, the July 31st gig wherein we would play the entire double album in sequence with an expanded 10-piece band was the main event. Of the 23 songs on GO WEST, we'd only played two with any regularity prior to the release and the rest of them we'd either played infrequently or never at all. It was a mammoth learning process and in our un-airconditioned 100 degree rehearsal space the pressure pushed us all well out of our comfort zones. As we added more and more instruments it looked to be a grand clusterf**k until the last week, when it semi-miraculously all came together. The last rehearsal was so good that we scarcely dared hope the show would come off that well. Eric in particular deserves a medal because he got tossed in to covering all manner of things -- organ (with drawbars!), guitar, vocals -- that were unfamiliar roles for him and he rose to the challenge splendidly. We never could have covered the parts without him.
To ensure everything went smoothly, I showed up on my own at Brennan's at 2 a.m. the morning of the show and, once the prior band had broken down, set up the whole PA. I returned at 4 p.m., with the rest of the band following soon after one by one, to sound out the PA, wire everything up, and try to balance all the instruments so it wouldn't be a wall of mud. The resulting wall of sound was stunningly good...more than one person said they couldn't believe that we'd pulled off that kind of balance, particularly at a venue as notorious for sketchy sound as Brennan's. The vocals were still a little muddy, but I did the best I could with the equipment at hand.
After a brief, excellent set by Chissum Worthington, a.k.a. Mike Schnee, the director of the great video for "When I Lied To Everyone," we took the stage. By that time a pretty substantial crowd had gathered, ready to hear the album. It was the best possible situation and with a brief prayer, we launched into the opening intro of "Standing In Chicago/Who," which went off nearly flawlessly, Will Canzoneri bringing in the organ at just the right spot to give the sensation of the sun rising on the whole album. Then we launched into "Burn Down The World," 10 pieces strong (with Rich covering the Stonesy rhythm guitar and the horns and vocals locking in for therising choruses), and from where I sat, it was simply breathtaking. It all gelled perfectly, and I felt the hair standing on back of my head, totally lost in the moment. It was literally one of my favorite moments I have had onstage, ever.
The 10-piece Chaos Band rocks out on "Burn Down The World." (photo by Ken Valderrama)
From then on things simply flowed beautifully. There were mistakes -- most notably me setting up the wrong patch for Evie (for the first time in the Chaos Band playing an extensive role on keyboards, and knocking it out of the park) on "I Don't Wanna Dance With You," but of the 23 songs, there were perhaps only 3 where I was disappointed in how they came off, and many exceeded my wildest expectations, particularly the quiet ones..."December 24" was lush and beautiful and "Tread This World So Lightly," with Rich nailing the reverbed slide guitar, moved the crowd when I expected they'd be heading for the bar. Jorge came into his own with a stunning drum duet with Kurt at the end of "Cut and Run."
After the brief intermission, we went back and did the second disc. "Lied" derived considerable power from four guitars (two electrics, an acoustic and 12-string) strumming in unison. After a so-so "Half Life" which benefited greatly from the horn section, we launched into "Two Children In A Bed," Evie's showcase on the album and the most problematic song in rehearsal, only coming together at the last minute with Will's clavinet, Eric's additional background vocals and the horn section. When you do one of these big showcase shows you always have this dream it's going to be like an '80s movie where you're up onstage and all the parts are covered flawlessly except there's a crowd roaring and dancing along with you. In reality, you usually wind up with a wall of midrangey mush and everything fighting for sonic space. Again miraculously, this was exactly like the '80s movie. The vocals, the horns, the keyboards, even my own guitar playing (and Evie's vocal, natch) -- everything was just right, the crowd was bopping around, and for the second time that night I had one of my favorite ever musical moments onstage. The only mistake was when I got so into the moment I forgot to sing a line of the lead vocal.
From then on, things stayed in an outstanding groove. "Grateful For the Rain" had a wonderfully cheesy vocal breakdown (think Starland Vocal Band) that went off without a hitch; "This Is Hard" benefited from Rich's rollicking shouting and loose presence. We had tried "No Return," the only song that was mostly done to a backing track, in soundcheck and it was a disaster, and I was expecting to lose the crowd, but instead it becamse a chilling, transcendent moment, with Evie's sparse Suicide-like organ and Teresa's minimalist piano giving the song added layers of intensity, and one of the very rare times I've fronted the band without playing an instrument. "My Pain" crackled with intensity (and gorgeous sound, thanks to the multiple percussion from Kurt and Jorge, the dual acoustic guitars, and tasteful keyboards from Evie and Eric) even though I croaked on a few of the lead vocal bits, and the closer "Trains," with additional vocals by Teresa and Evie, hammered everything to an epic close. The show had gone far beyond my wildest expectations. All the hard work and patience of the band and logistical planning paid off. It went as well as it possibly could have.
A rare duo photo of Adam and Kurt, with Adam fronting the band on vocals for an intense "No Return." (photo by Ken Valderrama)
Personnel for the July 31 show were:
Adam Marsland - vocals, guitar, keyboards
The actual "CD release shows" took place a few days after the album finally came out and made #22 on amazon's chart, so the atmosphere was festive and perhaps a little anti-climactic. Kurt had been away for a lot of the month so we rehearsed sparingly, mostly moving parts around and adjusting to the smaller band (besides the horns and Will, Jorge also was not available to these shows) and making a couple of tweaks to make the show easier to stage. We also didn't have the burden of trying to pull off the entire album in one go, so we could move the order around so that the instrument charges and flow were easier to manage. Even so, between the two shows we would up playing all but five of the songs on the album.
The Brennan's release party attracted an excellent crowd, no small feat considering we had just packed it three weeks earlier. The excellent bill helped a lot with the draw; it was our first show ever with Quazar & The Bamboozled, and two of our favorite bands, Moving Picture Show and E-Z Tiger, were also on hand. They all did great and Quazar knocked it out of the park. As for ours, we had some rough edges on the transitions but the songs themselves were excellent. We now had the confidence of having performed the songs live and it worked to our advantage. The highlight of the show was the closer, which was "I Don't Wanna Dance With You," easily the most controversial musical choice on the album -- some people just cannot deal with disco, I am finding -- but live, it's turning into quite a crowd-pleaser (despite the comic two minute long wait for Kurt's IPod, which has the sequencer track recorded on it, to reboot). We got an encore and took a chance on "No Return," which again worked out despite me getting away from the backing track a bit (Eric, a classically trained musician, stood in the audience and conducted time for me to get me back on track!).
The Molly's show had a smaller turnout, though still respectable, and it was highlighted by an opening set by James Hazley's band The Late '70s, which also featured Tony Perkins (aka Martin Luther Lennon) on bass. It was the first time James and I had been together onstage in any capacity since he left Cockeyed Ghost in 1998, even though we didn't actually play together (though we haven't ruled that out for the future). There was a good feeling in the air and I enjoyed his set a lot. I had forgotten what a hysterically funny guy he is when he's in riff mode. Strangefinger (Side B Music's newest signee) followed and did a very competent, professional set of Jellyfish-influenced rock (their lead singer Fred is a righteous dude), and Daisy from the Spanks did a short acoustic set of garage rock which was really very good.
Our set was really excellent, I have to say, though the opener "This Is Hard" was comically marred by my 12-string guitar tipping over and everyone trying to rescue it without the song falling apart. We benefited from the better sound system at Molly's and turned our attention to some of the quieter and harder to perform songs on the album. "My Pain" was a big time standout, as was "December 24" and "Despair." After our set, Trainwrecks came on (with a substitute drummer who did an awesome job) and rocked the house, completing the Poptopia reunion feel of the evening (Garner from Piper Downs fronts the Trainwrecks).
In performing the new songs from GO WEST onstage for the first time, I find myself thinking, these tunes are really damn good. I mean, I knew the album was good, but I hadn't assumed the individual songs would translate so well onstage, but just about everything works in a live envrionment and it isn't as hard to put over the meaning as some of my past songs have been. There just seems to be a layer separating the artist from the audience that's been removed from this album. I am getting the impression that the album is going to take a while to sink in with people, and it's going to be a few weeks before I can assess it's impact (or lack thereof!), but I feel really good about having just increased my discography by 23 songs and that just about all of them are a blast to play. This makes four shows in a row we've done nothing but songs from GO WEST, and that hasn't bothered me a bit.
Now, with the album release done and the rollout shows out of the way, it's right into the touring cycle, which may last as late as December this year, though having learned a lot of lessons from last year's grueling and painful tour, it's a much less punishing schedule (the touring is broken into small chunks and I'm not going to be away from L.A. more than three weeks at one go) and I've also stuck to my guns about turning down shows I don't think are worth playing and attaching strict criteria to the kinds of shows I'm going to do on tour. I may not be a household name but I have earned that, and it's not like I have a zillion people clamoring to come see me, anyway, so why worry if I don't make this or that market? I've made a lot of sacrifices to make this album, including a year out of my life where I'm basically making no money at all, and I want to at least enjoy the process beyond the level of satisfaction of knowing I've done good work. Know what I mean?